Content warning: mention of sexual violence and transphobia
Disclaimer: This article focuses on non-binary trans individuals and mainly speaks of their experiences, told from one person’s point of view. Every person is different and so are their needs and experiences! Not everyone necessarily identifies with these particular labels of ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’ either, and binary trans folx might need you to do gender completely differently!
Maybe someone you know asked you to change the pronouns you refer to them with, maybe someone new you’re seeing just told you they are non-binary, or maybe you are sitting in a classroom with a genderqueer person and you don’t know! Whatever the situation, it is important that you take into consideration that not everyone around you is cisgender, ie. someone who identifies with the gender that is typically associated with their sex assigned at birth, for example, a cis woman could be someone who identifies as a woman and is assigned female at birth (afab). It is important to note that both the ideas of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are socially contructed and in reality, neither of them exist in binaries (look up: Intersex people and Indigenous genders like Two-Spirit). There may be many genderqueer people around you who, for whatever reasons, are not open about their identity. Queer people in general are under no obligation to let you know how they identify and there may be many reasons why someone would not be comfortable sharing personal information. Regardless, it is on all of us to work through our misconceptions of gender and make sure that the genderqueer people in our life feel understood and valid!
This writing is meant to serve as general guidelines on how to interact with the genderqueer and non-binary people in your life, especially friends and people who you are in romantic and/or sexual relationships with. There are some aspects of verbal, romantic and sexual intimacy that may be different when you take gender out of the equation, or at least radically recalibrate conventional gender norms. While a lot of this information applies to when you are interacting with a genderqueer person in any setting, some of this is only okay when are you in some form of intimate relationship with someone, whether platonic or otherwise, so please bear with caution and treat each individual situation as unique and specific!
Please keep in mind that asking for someone’s pronouns, while standard in a lot of places and rather necessary, can be triggering for someone, especially if they are questioning and are actively in the process of figuring out how they want to be addressed.
How someone presents in terms of their gender expression does not necessarily have to align with their gender identity either, so just because someone looks like a traditional ‘femme’ does not mean that they necessarily identify as one. To a lot of people, clothes and social roles are not gendered as per conventional norms, and not only do these norms differ across sociocultural contexts, but also one’s personal relationship with gender really varies as well.
In general, when it comes to being a good ally to queer folx, especially genderqueer people, language is vital. Depending on the language that one is communicating in, it can be possible to refer to people without directly gendering them. If not, then using the person’s name where gendered pronouns would take place is a good way to start. And while we’re at it, when someone tells you a story about someone, maybe someone they are seeing, do not assume that person’s gender either. Even if you know the labels of the person speaking, terms like ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ can mean a multitude of experiences, and unless you have had a conversation with the person in question, it is impossible to know what those identities mean for them.
This language is important as many genderqueer people are excluded when we talk about sexuality and romantic or sexual relationships. For example, one of the main myths about bisexuality is that it exists inherently within the conventional binary ie. bisexual people are only into men and women and that’s all. However, bisexuality is defined as an attraction to two or more genders, and since gender does not equal sex, it can mean any two or more genders. That means someone can be into women and non-binary people and identify as bisexual (and maybe a lesbian, even if they identify as non-binary as well). In queer spaces, bisexual identities also include non-binary people as there are many people who use bisexual and pansexual (attraction to people regardless of gender) interchangeably (and they may be non-binary themselves) and do not see gender in strict binaries.
Language can be tricky as well; while words like ‘friend’ and ‘crush’ work for most situations, terms like ‘partner’ and ‘lover’ still come with many connotations, like in terms of how long-term or serious the relationship is. Don’t be afraid to expand your vocabulary by learning and trying out new words and phrases (simply ‘person I am seeing/dating’ works for many!), but make sure to always check before using something gendered or particular for someone, even if you mean it as a compliment (eg. king/queen, pretty/handsome). Some questions that may be helpful to keep in mind about larger social situations are: How do I introduce you to people who may not know you personally? What do I do in scenarios when you do not want to be out as genderqueer? And finally, how can I help you or how can we work together in making sure that your gender identity is recognized and respected (by me and others around us)? To clarify, do not ask these questions verbatim but try to think about these situations.
It does not matter what genderqueer people present as, in terms of their gender expression, including clothing, makeup, hair, etc. Respect how they want to be seen, even if it initially does not make sense to you. Try to undo your learned preconceptions about gender instead of trying to fit them into certain boxes or roles. Don’t resent them for having to work around assumptions you have been taught your entire life but rather, resent the system that imposes these strict rules and roles onto you! Keep your curiosities to yourself, especially near the beginning of any relationship, wait for the person to ‘come out’ at their own pace and do your own research. If you need more clarification or need to ask the person more specific questions, make sure to pick a time when they are emotionally open and always ask before jumping into potentially triggering conversations. Certain topics like bodies can be triggering for genderqueer people, as they may experience gender dysphoria and historically, (in my case, due to colonization) their bodies are a site for violence and many queer people also happen to be survivors of sexual violence. If you are in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a genderqueer person, make sure to have conversations about how they want to be seen while you play, how their body should be addressed verbally (and through what terms, as like I said, language is very gendered) and what kind of touch they are okay with. This should be carried out regardless of whether the people in the situation are queer and/or survivors, it merely becomes more important to do so in this case! Further conversation should ensue based on what your romantic/sexual partner(s) know and can communicate about their own needs and wants. Reevaluating and expanding our language around bodily touch and consent is critical as we not only risk making someone you appreciate feel othered, but also much greater risk of inflicting harm or violence onto the person you are intimate with.
In practice, gender is a socially constructed way of placing people into boxes but personally, I would argue that gender is rather so individual that no two people experience their own gender identity in the same exact way. You might have to ask some basic questions more than once, like pronouns, but do not assume that the process of ‘coming out’ or ‘transitioning’ will lead to a lot of change at once or that anything will necessarily change at all. Since traditional forms of binary gender, ie.women and men, are reinforced through gendering clothing, placing social roles and responsibilities on people and expecting them to act a certain way, unlearning these connotations is a large part of queer life. So, I urge you to take a step back to see how gender is imposed on people, in your particular social and cultural contexts, and how you can start to try and look at everything from an ungendered, unconventional and fluid perspective. A dress or the act of cooking and caring for others is not a feminine marker but a piece of clothing and activities anyone might enjoy or be good at. And as a habit, when it comes to language, when someone has not explicitly told you how to address them, make sure to use neutral language until you know for sure, in order to avoid misgendering someone, which can be very triggering for some!
All trans and non-binary experiences are different and no two individuals experience genderqueer identities in the same way! Someone’s relationship to their identity can and will probably change over time. This means your support is crucial to their wellbeing as they navigate the cisnormative world in various forms. Use whatever name they go by, and never bring up their deadname (the name they no longer use). And be ready to continue to change how you are expected to support them within their journey of coming into their selves.
I think if there is one thing I would like this article to teach you, that would be: Dismantle gender norms and unlearn gendered connotations! Hold space for your genderqueer loved ones not by merely respecting their name and pronouns but by trying to understand that the world is a heavily gendered place which puts them in many positions where violence is inflicted. This can be rather hard as a genderfluid bean (speaking for myself here!) who wants all activities and clothing to be ungendered and to abolish gender as a societal tool altogether. However, it might be better to get used to gendering according to the person experiencing it, as there are also transgender binary folx who would not appreciate complete dismantling of gender as a construct, but perhaps would agree that gender should not merely be about holding people to strict conformist ideals!
Author info: Orchi is a queer worker from Dhaka, Bangladesh who is passionate about all things queer, gender and sexuality related. They identify as trans, non-binary and genderqueer, among other things. Feel free to email them about your thoughts, questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org!