Over the past 4-5 years, I’ve started to engage in quite a lot of conversations with binary-identified trans people regarding the language we use about our bodies, identities, and selves. Terms like “female bodied,” “genetic girl,” and “bio-female” have been adopted, and ultimately discarded because of how they erase the constructed nature of the body. Furthermore, they imply that despite identifying oneself as female and seeing one’s body as female, apparently others may still police one’s body and find it “lacking.” This kind of language only allows people to police others’ bodies, which is obviously not terrific. Terms like “MTF” and “FTM,” “transsexual,” and even “transgender” have also come under fire for implying that “going across” is relevant to trans people’s experiences and that one’s assigned gender should still have primacy despite how it was part of painful and coercive cissupremacist cultural projects. Indeed, they imply that one transitions from one gender to another and must at one point been a legitimate member of their assigned gender (which is not often the case and is a pretty cissupremacist assumption).
I’m not sure, though, that comparable conversations have been going on in genderqueer communities.
I’ve been introduced to the term “trenderqueer” really recently. The notion here is that women who identify as female and see their bodies as female may still disavow culturally feminine roles and expectations. Rather than label this as “another kind of womanhood,” some feel that their rejection of binary expectations is a brand of genderqueerness. This also means that some people who identify as genderqueer will likely not be challenged regarding some aspects of their gender identity (the part where they ID as female) and they won’t have to deal with cissupremacist conversations where people claim to know more about their identities and bodies than they do. Because of this access to privilege, “trenderqueers” have come under fire from trans communities for appropriating a “trans” identification despite having a lot of access to cis privilege.
Genderqueers who fall within this particular spectrum have also been told that they’re not legitimately genderqueer, but only identifying as such because it seems “cool”- ergo the term trenderqueer. This does little more than police identities and the term “trenderqueer” will hopefully go up in flames. Part of what is prompting this for me is what “trenderqueerness” implies. Presumably, people who disavow binarist expectations for their roles, personalities, and so forth ought to “give it up” and “realize” that they’re just binary-identified. This does not seem like a good path to liberation, and it seems like a way to reinscribe the gender binary by policing the non-binary aspects of people’s genders (telling people to their faces that they’re wrong about their own identities).
Even so, I do think it is prompting broader conversations about how genderqueers may experience their bodies and identities. Thus, there may be room to invent new language to describe the really diverse experiences that genderqueerness entails and to disrupt static language that isn’t versatile enough to hold these different identities.
Within binary trans communities, we’ve been talking for a very long time about sex and gender. I’ve written elsewhere about how this can be problematic and essentialist. But these may also be potent ways of talking about our bodies as carrying gendered meanings for us (which they don’t necessarily) and the roles and expectations that are set out for those bodies. Binary-identified trans communities have begun to reclaim “transsexual” and “transgender” as ways of talking about a history of body dysphoria (in the case of “transsexual”) or about a history of dysphoria surrounding cultural labels, roles, and expectations (in the case of “transgender”). I actually think this is pretty problematic considering the history of those terms in policing people’s identities and in creating hierarchies within binary-identified trans communities. But these are at least ways of talking about experiences of our bodies and the cultural labels and expectations that are attached to them.
However, genderqueerness seems to be more of an identity label, much like “man” or “woman” which indexes an abstract gender identity. Many of the other identity labels that index non-binary identifications are similar, such as “agender,” “bigender,” “androgyne,” and “neutrois.” These labels have been really liberating for lots of people, and they certainly have been for me in the past. However, they really only talk about the level of abstract gender identification and don’t really get into the nitty gritty of how we relate to our bodies or the roles and expectations attached to them. This has led to a sticky situation here genderqueerness implies seeing one’s body, roles, personality, and ENTIRE LIFE as non-binary. Though there have been some inroads to describing oneself (abstractly) as genderqueer while identifying with binary cultural roles, expectations, and things (being a genderqueer femme), there really isn’t a very large dialogue around which parts of us are genderqueer. Indeed, people who see their bodies and abstract identities as binary risk being labeled “trenderqueers” because of the access they have to some “cis” privilege and also because of the way genderqueerness has been included under a “trans” umbrella (though the common ground within that umbrella is murky).
Also, this does not mean that genderqueers make no essentialist assumptions about gender. If they describe themselves as “male-“ or “female-bodied,” this may not necessarily suggest that they only experience their body in those ways. Indeed, they may be hinting at some sort of “essential sex” which has been used as a tool of oppression against binary-identified trans people. Indeed, those terms are most often interpreted within that light. There can be quite a lot of unacknowledged privilege and entitlement for people who see their bodies and identities as binary, but claim genderqueerness as a way of talking about their identifications with roles and social expectations. Even so, this does not mean that identifying in those ways is problematic in and of itself, and questioning people’s motivations for doing so is really just policing people’s identities. This helps to construct genderqueer identity as a monolith, when it can really mean quite a lot of things that we don’t have more specific and vital language for, just yet. Even more, though, criticizing genderqueer identities distracts people from having conversations about the entitlement and privilege that is actually upsetting and is likely provoking binarist retaliation (btw, retaliating to oppression with oppression is not so great).
In short, let’s honor people’s self-identifications and also hold everyone accountable for the gender essentialism that is really only a tool of oppression against quite a lot of binary and non-binary identified trans people.