Rat & Schlag

Loving your genderqueer friends and lovers

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! 

Orchi Lohani

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 orchi.ahana@gmail.com!

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