Genderqueer was my entry point into understanding my body, my gender and my sexuality. Becoming genderqueer felt like coming home inside my body. Years later, nonbinary would become a word placed upon me as my comics and writing became more public. I didn’t fight it, but it also never felt quite right.
Last week, I talked to four people, Aden, Sy, Naveen and Rad, about why they’re genderqueer and how being genderqueer changed how they relate to themselves and the world at large.
Aden is a genderqueer musician and songwriter living in Nashville TN, and has been exploring the genderqueer identity since they met their “masc” side during a mushroom trip in 2014. They love their pug Eloise and dancing to disco in stunning outfits whenever they get the chance. You can find their music on any streaming platform under the name Bare Bones and the Full Body.
Sy is a Black genderqueer + transmasculine virgo with a love of cooking and wandering around bookstores.
Naveen is a South Asian genderqueer trans person who currently lives in Austin TX. They’re a writer and digital creator with a passion for first-person storytelling as a means of education, and they can usually be found oversharing on the internet @naveen_thebean. They also spent too much money getting an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NYU.
Rad is a theatre artist and playwright based in Chicago.
Archie: Can you all talk about the first time you heard the term “genderqueer” or how you were introduced to genderqueer as an idea?
Sy: I came out as genderqueer in 2008, which is a really long time to think about, as far as time goes, particularly around identities. I think I had always had these feelings of, “Well, I’m not a man, and I’m definitely not a woman… So I don’t really know what it is, but I’m somewhere between two pools moment in the middle.” There was, I think, a YouTube channel or whatever, where someone was talking about being genderqueer. And I was like, “Oh, that’s the one. That’s the space.” But I think it wasn’t until I was in queer spaces on campus, to where I was like, “Yeah, genderqueer is it.” And I think once that became the words that I was using for it, people were like, “We don’t really know what genderqueer means.” And I was like, “Well… Both, and, neither, sometimes maybe.” And even now, I think that’s still where I land, as far as what genderqueer is for me.
Rad: I literally feel that. I did come out as trans in 2015, and I consistently feel this barrier between myself and my people that come out post that. And I think it’s because in 2015, Laverne Cox was on the front of Time magazine. And that, to me, was a very important marker. It was the first time talking about trans as a thing–but very much like, “Trans… What is it?” I didn’t know that being a trans person who was not of a binary was a thing at the time. So my genderqueer identity came later. I’ve come back into being genderqueer after being a binary trans person. My genderqueer identity works because these other things don’t work.
Folks who know me from online, I think will know that I’m very outspokenly, critical of the non-binary existence. Even though it’s perfectly valid, and has its beauty in its own way. But I’m just like, “What are we doing? What are we really saying with this? Where are we really going?” And [nonbinary] doesn’t encapsulate my experience. Genderqueer, it’s got a very homey sense. It’s indescribable, but it’s like a homey working class, blue jeans, butch-ass shit. In general, I feel my queerness and my genderqueerness is very effervescent. It’s very non-describable, but I do appreciate the way that genderqueer is literally about the clearing of gender. So I’ll say that.
Naveen: So much of that resonates. After I came out as queer, I came out as genderqueer. I went to a Dad-themed party and went in Dad drag. And I think that was around the same time that Snapchat beards were a thing. And I shit you not, but Snapchat made me trans. I didn’t realize I was interested in looking different, or that it was exciting in any way until augmented reality filters. I was like, “Wait, hold on. I think this just unlocked something that I didn’t know I wanted or needed.
I really liked the word genderqueer at first because I was really vibing with queerness to describe my sexuality. Also, it felt like a really good fit because I don’t have answers yet, but I don’t know that I necessarily want or need answers. And then non-binary really took off as a word in the Zeitgeist, that everyone loved and wanted. And I really, really liked it for a long time. But then I feel like the kids ruined it. Not to put it all on the kids, but I feel like society at large got a hold of it, and bastardized it, and made it a thing when it shouldn’t be a thing. I feel like people started enacting these borders around it and categorizing it, and that felt so bad and wrong, and the antithesis of everything that it should be. Then, some people also really conflated it with the idea of being genderless or agender, and I’m like, “No…” I feel a lot of gender feelings! I don’t know what they are, or what they mean, but they’re there.
Sy: It was almost like people made non-binary its own binary point. And I was like, “Fundamentally, by definition, why are we still trying to point something?” I think something about non binary became more easy to accept by (cis and straight) people who were struggling to understand the rejection of the bon in the wrong body narrative.
Naveen: Yeah, I feel that 1000%. I think the other thing that started really making me bristle a lot about having the word non-binary attached to me was that people started using the word Enby as a noun. E-N-B-Y. And it literally makes me want to vomit. There’s some people that love it, and use it, and wear it like a badge of honor, and I am so happy for them. It could not make me feel worse. It feels really reductive and really infantilizing. So I’ve come back to genderqueer, and it is so much better of a place for me. And I’m so happy because I don’t feel like I have to battle other people about, “Oh… Well, this doesn’t mean that for me.” Because this is borderless, and I love that. And it’s open to possibility.
Aden: I love that description so much, open to possibility. I was so excited to answer this question when I read the questions. Because, Archie, you’re the first person I ever met that used the word genderqueer to describe themselves. You were a starting point for me because I grew up super-conservative Christian in New Mexico. I moved to Nashville as a young adult. And the community here at the time was very binary. Bisexuality wasn’t even an okay thing. Within that lesbian community, it was very butch/femme, and there weren’t a lot of visibly trans people. And I also am in recovery from a really long-running eating disorder, so I was very disconnected from my body. Very disconnected, therefore, also from my sexuality. So I performed femininity because it’s how I was programmed.
And then I took my ex to Oregon, and we tripped mushrooms right before I dropped her off. And I had a vision of my more masculine, or androgynous, or just another aspect of myself I had felt locked from. And I met myself under the stars. It was so romantic. And then later that year I went to camp and met Archie, and met also just a ton of other amazing people doing gender in ways like I had never seen represented before. And that really started a journey. And I think I relate to genderqueer so much because it is a journey.
And I think Archie, you were talking about the reason you use genderqueer and queer is because it’s also a social and political thing as well. It really is about fucking up the system, and I love the intersections of those two things, of gender queerness and sexuality queerness. And I’ve just held onto that now. Genderfluid’s the other label that I really like besides genderqueer.
Archie: For me, genderqueer’s very active. Genderqueer is very much connected to my body. And I think that’s just from how I was introduced to the term, which was through an old 2002 anthology called Genderqueer: Voices Beyond The Binary. That book was written by working class parents, theologists, sex workers, and writers, and people who were unemployed. And I loved what, Rad, you were saying about it, being connected to history. Because to me, I think that’s why it’s something I still really hold onto. I feel like non-binary is a label that’s been put upon me as my work has become more public. It’s an easy term for, I think, folks to understand. It also doesn’t have the word queer in it, so nonbinary feels safer for consumerism and capitalism.
Sy: I think there was this really interesting moment of time of where non-binary as a term got popularized. I noticed who started using non-binary versus Enby, and how it started to get used and I started to recognize where and how folks were taking up their place in this term. I definitely felt the loss of, “Oh no, I’m genderqueer. Do not call me non-binary.” I will fight people if they call me non-binary. Which, as someone who was doing LGBT center work, it was very awkward. So I need us to think about the ways that people place terms for themself, versus if we’re thinking to strategize around larger movements. There was such a move toward folks who weren’t classifying themselves as binary trans people-or rather, folks who were wanting to access certain, what we might call, touch points of transition. Whatever that looks like. And not wanting to have to jump through the same narrative hoops. There was a need for a term to speak to this experience.
And so, it’s to your point, Archie, around historical context, I’m like, “Oh, I remember when this happened as a movement” and also the way that trans histories have shaped current language patterns. It was a big move, and it also left other folks, other experiences, outside to fit. I will also say, and I will go here, that it was a very White thing. Non-binary is a very White term for me. And I think that’s where some of my personal resistance comes from, particularly around the term Enby. I’m like, “Okay, you can keep that.”
Naveen: Yeah, keep it.
Sy: I don’t want it! When I think about trans-ness and taking up space around genderqueer, as a Black trans person… It very much has been for me, my Blackness is always seen as queer, full stop, whenever. And so, regardless of where I fell on the trans/gender spectrum, I was always going to be seen as Black first and never anything else. Which I’m like, all right. Do it, love that.
I’m intrigued by the fact that this conversation is happening on Autostraddle. Autostraddle has had such a history of being a queer women’s lady magazine. And I’m going to be honest, I had to walk away from following Autostraddle content for years. The more out as genderqueer I was…the more I negotiated desires in different ways… And then of course, we can talk about race and how overwhelmingly white the website was… I was just like, “Oh, I don’t actually think I can be here anymore because I’m moving away from you, but you’re also not even letting me into the conversation.”
Archie: Yup. I recognize that. That basically starts to touch on my next question. In what ways has genderqueerness intersected with race, and/or class, and/or your work?
Aden: Growing up extremely religious, being the right thing and enacting gender correctly, is such a big deal to religious people. For me, part of my existence now is just reclaiming myself and my body from that. Part of being genderqueer means to fuck it all up. I can do whatever I want. I can perform femininity in my body, or I can reverse it, or do some mixture of the two, and combine that with being pansexual, and being sex positive, and pro-slut. Because that was so restrictive in my growing up. I was born and raised only to be one thing, that was a good Christian wife and mother. Anything else was completely secondary to that.
Looking back on my queer child self who developed an eating disorder at 10 because of the pressures and the trauma, I used to pretend to be every kind of gender in different scenarios. I just think about the different scenarios where that child could have felt like seen and recognized if they had more options. And just the years that could be reclaimed. All this time I spent in one tiny box trying to fit so hard.
Naveen: I feel like growing up, I didn’t quite understand it, but I was never really good at being a girl or the kind of girl/young adult woman that my mom wanted me to be. I tried really, really hard, and sometimes made possible attempts at it that fooled myself, fooled everyone else. Because I think I just got really good at acting. Since coming out as genderqueer, I don’t know that my mom will ever really admit this, or even necessarily thinks of this on a conscious level, but I feel like her expectations of me are less gendered, are less rooted in femininity. I think for so long, both she and I were trying to get me to fit in this box that I was supposed to fit into. And I just awkwardly stuck out. And once I said, “Actually, no. That box is incorrect”, I feel like there is less pressure for gendered performance, or ideals, or how I just carry myself when I’m around my family and stuff.
Rad: I’m thinking a lot about class right now. I grew up middle class, and I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’m very grateful for what my parents were able to give me. I consider myself to be very lucky and very privileged. But in the past 10 years of being out, I had to gain my independence from them in a big way in order to access what I needed to transition into myself. Part of that was entering into a working class status. That’s been almost half my life now. I derive a lot of influence from my class
I’m in the service industry, and those are extremely gendered spaces. And it’s really crazy, honestly, how you have to exist in them. [In the service industry] you really have to push and pull, and mold yourself, and constantly edit, and do so many gymnastics when you’re in a working class scenario.
But because of that, this adaptability quality… Which again, is so contextualized through history…I think of how many butches before me were in labored unions, and worked in factories, and were working until 4:00 AM doing whatever fucking weird, odd-ass job. I don’t know, like dairy-ing cows. That’s not a real thing, but whatever they were doing. And I just think about how much of themselves they not only sacrificed, but also gained access to because of how they had to mold and shape-check themselves into whatever spaces they were in. And then who they became when they were at the bar, or in the park, at the club, or shooting pool with their friends. And so, I don’t know. I just think about that shit all the time in terms of my gender.
I really appreciate, Sy, what you said, about non-binary being very white. Because I’m a white person, so for me, I can only see it through a white lens. And I view it as very assimilationist. I watch all these people who are assimilating into what cis people like and expect and desire from trans people and it feels so dishonest, and it feels so selling short, in a sense.
And yeah, we have so much to expand upon that, except that I just also feel very adverse to a lot of labels in general. Because I do understand, and yet I don’t also at the same time. I wonder why we’re so obsessed with categorizing everyone else around us, when I would so much rather be able to come as I am and have everyone else do the same. And just learn everyone. Talk to people. Find out what you’re into, and what you love, and what gives you joy, and what you want to play with. And I think certain labels like Enby have encompassed so much assimilationist shit. It’s like a box, and I’m like, “I don’t care about this.”
Sy: Rad, I think there’s something to what you were saying about working a service industry job, and dealing with the repeated daily interactions with strangers. I had the best service industry job in that I worked at IKEA. And that was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life because I learned how to be genderqueer in public in a way that was like, “how can I be legible to the other queers? And yet also, not have someone call me a fag when I’m trying to sell them a light with my purple mohawk.
So I think there was this really interesting balance navigating trying to be recognized in my own community–which is it’s own hiccup as a Black person, now as a trans person, who’s on T, and had top surgery and who people sometimes read as cis (which I think is disgusting, but that happens). How am I trying to take up space and queer the lens? So this service industry balance of having the people who I want to get to know me, see me, while at the same time, be at a job where I’m literally just like, “Yeah, the bathroom’s that way. Keep moving”, all with minimal interference from violence, harm or just confrontations that I don’t particularly want to have with people.
So, there’s this moment of, “Yeah, whatever. Call me the wrong pronoun.” It’s going to bother the fuck out of me. And then I’m going to go to a bar with my friends. I want to be in spaces with other queer and trans people who see me. I’m going to get called a faggot in a good way, and then it’ll be fine. Because I know those are the people who see me, and at the end of the day that’s where my frame ends.
Aden: Hearing Rad and Sy talk about that really resonates with me, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the service industry too. Sometimes non-binary, it does feel like a thing that especially white, thin, middle class and up people have more access to. Then people in other situations feel they can’t access it. When you’re working in the service industry, you can’t usually choose how you dress. If you don’t have a super-thin body, people are going to assign gender to your body no matter what.
Rad: I just want to jump in real quick because for me personally, I think part of my issue is I don’t want to be recognized. Sy, you said the word legibility, and I do not want to be legible. And legibility is a caveat to androgyny. Androgyny has become a bastardized statement. Because when I think androgyny, I think Grace Jones. I don’t ever want someone to look at me and be like, “That’s a non-binary person.” I want someone to look at me and be like, “Ew! I don’t want to talk to you.” Good. Don’t talk to me. You shouldn’t. You should not want to talk to me. And that’s what genderqueerness means to me! Fuck you, don’t talk to me.
Naveen: I love that. I only hope to be able to capture that energy, but I am sometimes too nice. And I’m happy to answer people’s questions and let them ask questions because I have always found that my skillset is in teaching, and sharing, and getting people to understand these things. But there are so many times that I’m really just like, “I just want to be unapproachable.” I do not want to be the nice person who helps you get up to speed.
Archie: What about the queer in genderqueer? How does sexuality relates to genderqueer?
Naveen: The term queer has always been so wonderful for me, precisely because everyone always wants to ask the follow-up question, “Well, what does that mean? Give me more information.” And I’m like, “No, you don’t get more information. There is no more information to be given! It’s queer!” I get to decide what that means whenever I want, in whatever situation I want.
Genderqueer pairs really, really well with queerness because my gender and sexuality feed off of each other. I’m sometimes a dyke, but I’m sometimes a fag. And most of the time I’m somewhere, both at the same time.
Aden: I really love that you brought that up. I love that I stopped being a lesbian in 2014 and opened myself to all kinds of people, all kinds of presentations. Because it’s the most fun thing, to be able to feel and learn things about myself based on the different people that I interact with.
And it’s also a good litmus test because sometimes a person will bring a certain aspect of my gender out, and that’s cool. But some people only want one thing for me, and they only want me to be that. If you’re not going to be cool with me showing up in a different presentation because of how that makes you look–this happens with dudes, but also with even butch people or other masculine identities–they’re uncomfortable if I’m not showing up femme. So yeah, I love that my genderqueerness helps me get rid of them and focus on the people that can feel the full spectrum of my self and enjoy it.
Naveen: I ditched the term non-binary because it culminated in feeling restrictive, and that was precisely what I didn’t want out of it. And I came back to genderqueer because it felt expansive, and it didn’t have finite edges. Originally, I loved non-binary because I was like, “Oh, it says it in its name. It’s not just binary, so it must be open to everything else, right?” Eventually, it no longer felt that way. It felt really alienating. And then genderqueer, old faithful, old reliable, has welcomed me back with open arms that do not make me feel boxed in at all. And yeah, allow me that freedom and space to play.
Archie: Any advice for folks coming into this space?
Aden: You can just do what feels right to you, and you don’t even have to have a reason. You can change your name just because you want to. And you don’t have to explain to people, and you don’t have to have a reason that people can understand. For me, someone called me my name accidentally and it stuck in my brain, and I had dreams about it, and it felt good. So I kept it, and it still feels that way. And if at some point doesn’t, I’ll do something else. And that goes for anything about my gender. So that’s what I would want young people, or for people that are coming to this for the first time, to know.
Sy: The notion of play is really good. Find what feels good, and then do it. Try it once, find out if you like it. Try it twice, find out if it’s good. I think for me, leaning into whatever that voice is, and not necessarily making it fixed. Think about how we can continuously think about arriving, and departing, and arriving at gender again. And then departing and arriving again.
Rad: I don’t really like advice. But I guess if I could say anything: try to have fun. Try to take everything less seriously. Play is fucking awesome. It has to do with being a child. It has to do with just being free, and it’s so fucking hard to do that in the way that we live now. But if you can access that… Dig deep, lean in… Hell yeah! Have fun! Have fucking fun. And that’s what I try to lean into the most when it comes to queerness.
Sy: I’m constantly trying to play, and write, and figure out what legibility is. Not for anyone else other than myself. If I can’t wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, and be like, “This is who I am today,” something is wrong. And that was the promise that I made to myself when I started hormones. That was a promise that I made to myself with top surgery. All of these things were things that I knew I needed to be able to do, because at the end of the day, I have my community, but also I make up part of my community. I need to be right with myself, so I could be right with my people.