Genderqueerness and the inadequacy of language

One of the major stumbling blocks for me in conceptualizing and discussing my gender identity is the way that terms like “women” and “men”, while they are assumed to represent very straightforward and solid groups, get used in a variety of different contexts with different boundaries – sometimes we intend to include (or should be intending to include, if we thought about it) different subsets of humanity with the same word.

I’ve touched on this concept a few times in the past, but I want to take a moment here to consider the different ways we use words like women/men, male/female, and feminine/masculine, and how it can really complicate the discourse. I’m going to approach this discussion through the lens of my own self-concept as a genderqueer person, but please don’t assume that you can generalize from any of the personal experiences I talk about here to any other genderqueer people, who may experience their gender identities very differently than I do.

Yes, these symbols are inherently connected to the biological definitions of men and women.

Biology: men are people with penises, and women are people with vaginas

Honestly, if it was as simple as this, I would be perfectly comfortable identifying as a woman. I have the good fortune of never having had any major body image issues, and I have no dysphoria around my body at all, so if this were a valid way of defining “woman”, I’d be on board with the category. But I hope it’s obvious that these definitions of “women” and “men” are cissexist and inherently disrespectful to the lived experiences of a great many trans and intersex people. And I’m not going to really bother refuting them; I think that most people these days understand that even if it makes them uncomfortable to think about, these definitions don’t hold true for all people. They are an approximation of the groups women and men, and as far as accuracy goes, they aren’t terrible (most men do have penises, and most people with vaginas are women, and all the vice versas there hold true as well) so I understand why most people sort of use this definition as their jumping off point. And I even understand how this results in people sometimes talking about women and men as if these definitions hold true.

Any time you hear a discussion about “men’s health” or “women’s health”, what’s really being talked about is the health of people with vaginas/penises. Issues affecting pregnant women are almost always relevant to pregnant people in general. And to make matters even more complicated, when we talk about things like breast cancer as a women’s issue, we are even erasing the experiences of some honest-to-goodness men-with-penises who have breast cancer. But we use the words anyway, even though they aren’t strictly correct, and even though they implicitly erase people who don’t fit into the strict biological definitions of the gender-sex binary.

I really think it would be useful to find a words to use for the categories of “people with penises” and “people with vaginas” instead of the approximately correct ones we are currently employing, but since even Ozy’s crowd-sourced request for this terminology (zir blog seems to be down, hopefully only temporarily, but I will add a link here when I can) turned up no viable alternatives, I’m not really sure what to suggest. For lack of a better alternative, for the remainder of this post, I will be using the terms “femaleness” and “maleness” in discussing the state of having a vagina and having a penis, respectively.

Which do you look more like?

Society: men are masculine and women are feminine

Ok, I actually don’t think anyone uses this definition explicitly, though gender policing against people whose level of masculinity or femininity doesn’t match their perceived gender is a very real thing. So, many people certainly believe that men *should* be masculine, and women *should* be feminine, even if they can’t actually ignore the reality that this isn’t so. I actually find the fact that we, as a society, are readily able to incorporate the idea that, for instance, butch women are still certainly women (even if some people will denigrate them for failing to be good at being women, it’s rare that it will be outright denied that that is what they are). I do think this points back to out general dependence on the biological imperative of sex being of the utmost importance, even to those of us who may strive to avoid biological determinism in our language.

The really interesting upswing of society’s acceptance that people needn’t necessarily have gender presentations that mesh with either their biological sex, (or the gender-sex they identify with, as the case may be) is that it can sometimes be a struggle for people with less recognized forms of gender non-conformism to get read the way they hope to be read. I get the impression that transmasculine people who opt against major medical interventions like hormones and surgery very often get read as butch women, often by extremely well-meaning people. On a recent episode of the Masocast, Brant MacDuff discusses exactly this phenomenon, where he gets misgendered by people who really think that they are doing the right thing and being affirming by recognizing that even though he’s wearing a three-piece suit, that doesn’t make him any less of a woman to them (ouch, right?).

It seems that the successful decoupling of femininity and masculinity from maleness and femaleness, though certainly as step in the right direction, has ultimately exacerbated the issues raised by the continued linking of womanhood to femaleness and manhood to maleness.

The real problem is that we use the words “men” and “women” to cover both of these (somewhat related, but very imperfectly correlated) binaries: that of biological femaleness/maleness, and that of femininity/masculinity, when we should be using them for neither. I mean, I’ve chosen the terms I’m using carefully here, and I hope it’s clear that what’s really happening here is that the two categories of “men” and “women” are being forced to fit into the spectra (or multi-dimensional spaces, depending on your perspective) of male-female and masculine-feminine in a mutually exclusive and exhaustive way. And they are utterly inadequate to the task.

Men and women are perfectly functional identity categories, but they are adequately defined neither by the characteristics of biology nor those of gender presentation. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that “men” and “women,” as categories, are not sufficient to express the diversity of people’s experiences of their gender. And honestly, I think a big part of this is that we’ve decoupled the binary of man-woman from the mappings of male-female and masculine-feminine about as much as we can without rendering “man” and “woman” devoid of meaning. Because really, what would it mean to identify as a man if it had nothing whatsoever to do with societal concepts of masculinity or maleness? At some point, the category becomes arbitrary and meaningless, if there are truly no characteristics that are associated with it.

I dunno, man. What are woman-ness and man-ness, if not socially defined categories that depend on those other factors?

And, I mean, I’m not sure if this would be a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a neutral thing. A lot of people depend on recognizing and valuing certain characteristics that are associated with maleness and/or femaleness (or with masculinity and/or femininity, or with whatever characteristics still cling to and define the categories of “men” and “women”). This is one of the tangles I was trying to unravel in my head when I asked for monosexual people (people attracted exclusively to men or to women) to try to figure out what the fundamental characteristics were that defined the boundaries of their attraction. But a lot of us are also just kind of sick of the whole system, and the ways that sex and identity and presentation get conflated in the everyday we talk about people, and for some of the people that feel that way, genderqueerness is a kind of refuge from the whole unravel-able mess.

Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote even go so far as to describe themselves as gender-retired. And I think the sentiment of gender retirement is one that I can get behind. Yesterday, I came across this remarkably concise definition of “genderqueer”. I think it might describe precisely (probably a little *too* precisely) the internal processes and unspoken desires that motivated the formation of my own genderqueer identity. I balk against it, too, because it feels a little too pat, and overly simplified. But the most concise way I’ve ever been able to come up with to explain why I reject the gender binary is simply that I am much more comfortable and happy with my own self-concept when I remove the framework of “female” from the picture. I feel more free to be just me, unencumbered, when I’m not somehow failing at the indistinct and moving target of womanhood.

So instead, I choose to make myself an indistinct and moving gender target, undefined and impossible to police. What I love about One Multiple Code’s definition is that it precisely defines genderqueerness (as I experience it) in terms of its inherent imprecision. What could be more fantastically linguistically ironic than that?


  1. It is a three pronged problem. Part one is to figure out what is authentic, which is really hard in a binary society. Part two is to try to describe it to others since most labels keep referring back to the binary ones. Part three is to hold on to your own narrative and not get caught up in some other gendered trajectory.

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