What are the limits of moving beyond male and female? Depending how you’re counting, Navajo culture recognizes at least five genders, including androgynous, male-bodied with feminine characteristics and female-bodied with masculine characteristics, identities which may shift from childhood to adulthood.
Not to be outdone by any traditional belief system, Facebook, the megacorp that’s put itself in charge of tidying up our identities, histories and relationships, now offers users more than 50 gender choices—more flavours than even Baskin-Robbins dares. Ranging from more familiar terms like Two-Spirited and Transsexual to offbeat ones like Transfeminine, Pangender and Neutrois (genderless, just in case you were wondering), Facebook’s new Custom Gender option seems aimed at mainstreaming the idea that gender is not simply a matter of male/female. In fact, using the new option, a male-identified person who was born with a male body—someone we might readily call male—can choose Cis Man, Cis Male, Cisgender Man or Cisgender Male… and I might be missing a few possibilities.
Gay men are often as seriously invested in policing male/female identities as straight people. “Be masculine” and “no femmes” are sad clichés of gay personal profiles, as is the disparaging of drag by so-called masculine gay guys. Butch-femme and bottom/top dynamics can play into traditional gender stereotypes, making it an easy guess which half of a same-sex couple is most likely to bake cookies and who’s most likely to build a shed. Many transsexual people see their maleness or femaleness as being as unqualified as anyone’s, embracing traditional roles and appearances associated with their gender. So the idea of gender as anything other than a switch that points one way or the other can be unsettling, even for hardcore homos. Our mannerisms, our fashion sense or our hobbies may lean one way, okay, we can admit that. But we feel our feet are firmly planted. We tick boxes on census forms and surveys without hesitation.
But a growing number of people are leaving a footprint on both sides of the gender divide. Or kicking down the male/female barriers altogether. In certain milieus, in certain situations, it has become easier to shrug off binary labels and be neither, both or something in between.
The fact that we live more and more of our lives online—where physical limitations evaporate in a flow of words, pictures and video—may be a factor. The internet world permits people to move beyond who their bodies or histories suggest they are, to become who they themselves say they are. Before its Custom Gender option, Facebook allowed people to choose “he,” “she” or “they” as their preferred pronoun, a subtle gesture allowing people to easily blur the lines. Online experimentation can build real-world confidence. More and more trans people wonder if they need sex reassignment surgery to be who they are. Not that genitals make a man or woman. But if a person’s genitals—or mannerisms or taste in clothes or approach to life—don’t exactly match male or female, it makes sense to reach for new identities.
“What did I write about myself today? It changes all the time. Trans-identified gender-fluid human. I often say that if there was a pronoun for human, then that would be me,” says Lamia Gibson, who at 35 has been questioning their gender for 15 years. “I’m very connected to the both of me. I was born into a female body but that just really feels like a casing for my spirit and my spirit feels very fluid. If there was a pill or something I could take that would morph my body to my gender as it shifts throughout the day or throughout the week, I would take it.”
As a child, Gibson didn’t want to shave their legs but then, when older, embraced a “super high femme queer punk rock” look. For a while, they considered transitioning to male, but when they became pregnant with their first child, now three, the “womanizing” experience made them reconsider. Though Gibson’s clothes often read as male—vests, handsome shoes—their round, curvy figure usually does not. Based on appearances, some people might be tempted to call Gibson a butch woman, but Gibson considers their journey paramount to their identity. The coming-out process seems unending.
“In the street, I get bad looks, I get curious looks, I get happy looks,” says Gibson, who co-owns Degrees Community Acupuncture on Spadina, where they do shiatsu massage. “I’m not specifically out to my clients because I can’t do Tranny 101 with everybody, and I don’t feel like I should have to. Explaining this constantly can get so boring. But I’m out to my coworkers and have asked them to use the pronoun ‘they.’ I don’t walk around correcting people all the time.”
Nat Tremblay accepts “he” or “she” as people see fit, though Tremblay prefers “they.” “If you read me as female, awesome, because there are aspects of femininity in my person. If you read me as male, that’s awesome, too.” When I meet them at Zocalo on Bloor West, they are wearing a bow tie, glittery top and a jaunty hat like my grandfather used to wear. A total charmer, Tremblay can name off their many identities without hesitation: identical twin, farmer, artist, educator, gender plural, gender queer, trickster, Two-Spirited, Metis, French-speaking and cyborg.
Growing up on a farm, Tremblay was more likely to role-play masculine characters and imagine women as the subject of their romantic affections. “I saw myself as a girl-boy, not a tomboy, but a girl-boy.” It wasn’t until Tremblay moved to Toronto 14 years ago that they developed a language, through academic study and art, for this very different sense of self. “It’s not to say that by getting a word, to name a feeling, that all of a sudden you have access to it. But it does give you a kind of power over what you feel.”
For Tremblay, the “gender plural” label (not one of Facebook’s options, by the way) followed the identities of woman, feminist, lesbian, dyke, baby butch, Two-Spirited person and trans. “I still identify with all of those things. I continue to seek out identities and theories and concepts that offer more possibility—more liberation, if you will. When I identified as a trans person, I always saw trans as in a transgression of gender norms, a transformation and a transition from one static gender to something much more open-ended.”
Some people with non-conventional identities are in the earlier stages of figuring out who they are. Michael Strange, a 23-year-old from Kitchener, chose Trans* Man as his Facebook gender, though he’s not sure whether that label will hold in a few years.
“After high school, I was constantly falling in love with gay men. I absolutely did not like heterosexual guys. I was confused by this and I questioned myself,” says Strange. “But as soon as I made the decision that I was going to be transgender queer, I had a new vision of being this confident guy. I even had an idea of what my wedding would look like. I was going to have a vogue wedding with drag queens and gay people in this wonderful catwalk thing. I’d be bare-chested with feathers down one arm and fur around my neck. My partner could dress up in whatever way he or she wanted and we’d put on a show to celebrate our love for each other.”
At one point, Strange considered transitioning into a completely male life, sometimes described as “stealth,” where his trans-ness would not be part of how he presented himself to the world. But having won acceptance from his friends and family in his current stage of transition, he realized he didn’t want to leave his female past behind or eliminate all of his feminine qualities. Although Strange plans to take hormones and get chest surgery, he also wants to maintain a level of feminine and queer identity, thus the Trans* prefix to “Man.”
“If I’m going to make an impact on the world, I have to be honest about who I am. I was a girl and that’s part of my identity and will always be a part of me, even when I go through the transition,” says Strange, who chose the name Michael after consulting with his mother about what she would have called him if he had been born male. “Sometimes I feel I’m making the wrong choice because there is so much femininity in me. Why would I want to be a boy when I can be a boyish girl? But that doesn’t quite fit right. I realize I’m on the right track. I have to be me.”
Kira Andry, a 21-year-old student, identifies as neither male or female, settling on the label agender after a period identifying as gender fluid. “I was raised in a Catholic household so I was not aware that non-binary genders existed until a couple of years ago,” Andry tells me in a Facebook chat. “I recall having feelings that I wasn’t a girl back in grade two. I had considered all the possibilities I knew of and wondered if maybe I was male. However I came to realize that like its binary counterpart, the label of ‘male’ didn’t fit me.”
Andry took a “take me as I am or not at all” approach to coming out, which has not always had the most positive results. “I’ve had people disown me. I’ve had many people try to force me to conform to the female gender,” they say. “I have had people come shopping with me and constantly point out dresses and try to get me to try them on. I’ve had people try to emotionally manipulate me to feel guilty about my gender identity, saying that I was ‘an embarrassment.’ I’ve had people give me the ultimatum, ‘Stop calling yourself agender and being a freak or I won’t be your friend anymore.’”
Despite some loosening of attitudes, we still live in a world where even public washrooms remind us of which camp we’re in. Even Facebook’s 50-plus gender options fall short, failing to include well-known gender identities from other cultures: India’s hijras, Thailand’s kathoeys or even the Navajo’s Nadleeh.
And then, as Andry points out, there’s sexual attraction to consider. Facebook’s “Interested in” still lists only male and female as options. We have not gone so far as to consider that these emerging identities would be inherently attractive, that someone who has adopted the identity of genderqueer has not withdrawn from the domain of love and sex.
Or perhaps we worry about what it all means for the future of romance. It’s hard enough being a man looking for another man, or a woman looking for another woman. A Gender Nonconforming Androgyne looking for a suitable Pangender might face an impossibly small dating pool.