Writing Other Genders: The Fluidity of Gender Identity

There is probably no one who understands gender better than a gender fluid person. Gender fluidity is a phenomenon whereby a person may experience themselves as both male and female sometimes, neither at other times, and variations on one or the other gender at still other times. Gender fluidity challenges our conception of gender as a stable construct, one that remains firm throughout the lifetime.

Gender, it turns out, is like everything else. It moves and changes. Today, a man may work on building a porch for the front of his house. Tomorrow, he may want nothing more than to be held. Gender expression; the behavior, mannerisms, interests, and appearance of a person that are associated with gender in a particular cultural context; tends to be fluid in this way, and very few of us tends to find issue with that. A woman who wears high heels and makeup on the weekdays may find herself changing the engine oil on her pickup truck on the weekends.

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Research has demonstrated that none of us are, at least from a neurological standpoint, wholly male or wholly female. An analysis of the MRI scans of over 1,400 human brains, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on November 30, 2015, reveals that there is no dimorphism in the human brain. To put it another way, there are no distinct male/female differences in the human brain. Only about 0–8% of people had traits belonging predominantly to one sex or the other. Meanwhile 23–53% of people had brains with traits that were “mixed,” that is, having traits that were more commonly found in one sex over the other. To borrow a quote from Dr. Steven Novella, "This does not mean that males and females are the same, or that there are no differences. It does mean that individuals are individuals. People are not mentally defined by their sex."

Gender Dysphoria

Since I was old enough to see myself in the mirror, I never felt as though the reflection staring back was me. There was another face in the back [of] my mind, and I [preferred] the one in the mirror. It isn't so much an image as a [three-dimensional] map of the crossover points between my mind's expectation of how I should be shaped and the physical reality of it. I feel like I'm literally wearing a mask in places, as though someone plastered cement on the corners of my skull, on my chin, jaw, etc. I have an urge to grab the nearest hammer chisel and tap that shit off. Asha Grey

Gender dysphoria is the sense of being trapped in the wrong body. That is, it is the sense of being one gender in a body that does not correspond to that gender. Gender dysphoria is a common experience for gender nonconforming individuals, as well as any trans* person who is raised within the context of cisnormativity (the generalized assumption that all persons are only either male or female, depending on their biological sex). Gender dysphoria is not experienced by trans* individuals in cultures where their particular gender is considered part of the norm.

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For example, many Zapotece communities are comprised of muxes, a third gender that is biologically male with female characteristics. Some muxes will marry women and have families. Others will form relationships with men, although they are not then considered gay. While biologically male, muxes express their gender androgynously: neither wholly male nor wholly female, but a combination of the two. Ironically, Zapotece communities tend to be very homophobic. While they may generally disapprove of two men in a relationship, no one would bat an eye at a man and a muxe holding hands.

Distinguish that from Western cultures, wherein individuals are often assigned a gender at birth by their doctors; their decision usually corresponds to the organs that they find in between the newborn’s legs. As a result, prevalence rates for gender dysphoria in the United States is approximately 1 in 250. Said another way, at least approximately 0.4% of the U.S. population is transgender. These estimates continue to rise by year, largely because growing acceptance of trans* people among certain groups (such as younger generations) has led to more accurate self-reporting. Often, many trans* people in the United States do not even know that trans* as a concept exists, let alone that they could identify as such.

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For trans* people born in cultures hostile to their gender identity, there may grow a dissociation between their internal experience of gender and their external experience of gender. From as early as they are capable of remembering, and earlier still, they have been bombarded with messages that tell them what they are. They have been smothered with gender cues and encouraged to express their gender in specific, and often silly (sometimes dangerously sad), ways. Worse, as they learn about the “opposite” gender, they find that their behavior, mannerism, and interests align more with that gender than with the one to which they were assigned. As they enter puberty, their appearance begins to change. Their body becomes another person’s. Their internal experience of their own body chafes up against their apparent reality—that they are somehow utterly and inexorably wrong. This is the message that society sends trans* people, and too often this leads to anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Gender Fluidity

Obviously, Western society has a long way to go in accepting trans* people. It has even further to go towards understanding gender nonconforming people. These are individuals whose internal experience of gender does not correspond to a binary understanding of gender. Said more simply, they don’t fit neatly into the two boxes we, as a people, have made for ourselves. They may sometimes not even fit into an understanding of gender as a spectrum.

Gender nonconforming people experience their gender in idiosyncratic ways. Agender individuals do not experience a gender at all and tend to express their lack of gender with gender neutral attire. They may or may not wear makeup. Gender neutral individuals may be agender, or they may experience their gender as any combination of masculine and feminine. Androgynes tend to experience their gender as a balance of the masculine and the feminine, although many androgynes may also experience their gender as any combination of masculine and feminine. Gender queer individuals (and this can be said generally about all these categories) experience their gender however they like. Some gender queer individuals may express their gender primarily as male or female; some both or neither.

Note: I do not mean to exclude intersex individuals, but intersex is much more a sex than it is a gender. Many intersex people identify their gender as either male or female; many as trans*, in all its diversity.

Gender fluid individuals differ from other gender nonconforming persons in that their experience of gender changes. A scientific understanding of gender fluid individuals is still far from forthcoming, but we can make inferences about them based on their experiences, which many gender fluid persons have kindly made on the Internet.

My partner noticed that I hold myself differently, walk differently, speak differently, even interact with people differently depending on my gender identification. This isn't the same as being transgender, as I do not feel that I am always one gender. There are many times where I experience very acute gender dysphoria (female pronouns, looking very female, etc. when I am male or androgynous), but, when I am female, I don't.astrophy

If you are capable of imagining what it is like to see a woman go from wearing high heels to changing the oil in her car, then you are capable of imagining what it is like when this process of gender expression and experience goes several steps further. Gender fluid people often describe their gender changing with their moods. Sometimes they experience their gender changing independent of their moods. Perhaps when they wake up one morning. Perhaps while eating breakfast. Perhaps randomly, with no discernible stimulus.

So far, I have never met anyone else like me, seen any genderfluid narratives on TV or in movies, nor have I ever spoken with anyone (except my partner) about this. It is very difficult because I have a rather feminine appearance. I can never pass for male, which causes me a lot of anxiety and confusion when I am male. I tried, for a short while, to crossdress, but I got ridiculed and made fun of by family and friends. Besides, I never passed, people kept using female pronouns/acting as if I were female, and instead I got a lot of unwanted negative attention for being a "woman" dressed in men's clothing. Also, I grew up being treated as a woman, and with that comes a certain expectation about how you are supposed to act and dress. When I don't abide by those, I can tell how people treat me differently. When I present as appropriately female (makeup, female clothing, female behavior), I get very positive responses. Men treat me kindly, often flirt, I feel beautiful and "normal", and people are generally approving. When I present as inappropriately female (aka as male as I can), I get stares, men disregard me, people treat me strangely, and I feel ugly, weird, and wrong. As such, I always present as female, even if this causes me quite a bit of gender dysphoria, which often gives me depression/anxiety.astrophy

Gender fluidity can be a torturous experience in a cisnormative culture like our own. Since we are socialized to imagine gender as a binary, even gender fluid people often experience this sense of being wrong (i.e. gender dysphoria), which is reinforced when others ridicule and embarrass the gender fluid person for “crossdressing” when they are expressing a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. Very few people have the resilience to withstand the consistent negative attention from others, especially in the United States, without developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Across several countries, the suicide rates for transgender individuals ranges from 32% to 50%.

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Nearly half of all transgender individuals have attempted suicide at some point in their lifetimes. That is the level of cultural stress this group is under.

Many gender fluid individuals do not feel like they can improve their lot by “transitioning” via gender affirming surgery or even hormone therapy due to the fact that they are not one gender. For these individuals, transitioning to the opposite gender would create gender dysphoria for the gender that the individual had been assigned at birth. It is the gender equivalent of taking from Peter to pay Paula.

It makes me incredibly sad that I think the only way I could be truly happy is if it were possible to shapeshift. I was really touched when a particular GTer texted me, asking which pronouns I would prefer. No one has ever given me a choice before.astrophy

One day, perhaps, there will be detachable prosthetic penises and breasts that gender fluid individuals can use to effectively “change sexes” when their genders change. Unfortunately, that technology still seems to be out of our reach. It certainly would be out of their price range if it did exist, as transgender individuals are more than half as likely to be living in poverty than individuals in the general population.

Writing Gender Fluid People

As others have told you this month, people are people first. Obviously, this is just as important to remember for any gender, whether male, female, trans*, or gender nonconforming. A gender fluid person without any money is going to be more stressed about rent than they are going to be about what they’re going to wear tomorrow. A gender fluid spy assigned male at birth is not going to wear a dress to the bad guy’s fancy ball unless they want to draw attention, no matter what their gender is that day.

What may matter more to your reader is less how the character expresses their gender and more how the character experiences their gender. The gender fluid, presently female spy may wear a tux to the ball because she wants to remain undercover, but it’s going to hurt.

What starts as small stresses can quickly grow into a depressive spiral if I am not constantly on guard not to [indulge] in the myriad dysphorias I feel…and ignoring [the] feeling while I'm female is... hard. Really hard.

To begin with, that vague sensation I feel that causes me to slouch in neutral becomes a downright wrongness, and it wasn't until the first time I tried a set of fake tits that I learned it was a sort of phantom limb sensation, as though my brain has an expectation of my shape and [my] clothing keeps going through it. But if I fill that space correctly it somehow locks in and suddenly I can sit and stand up straight without pain. It's easy and natural feeling.Asha Grey

In a cisnormative culture, expressing a different gender than one’s own tends to elicit shame. For some people, that shame affects the functioning of their body. It can take the form of physical pain, cardiovascular problems, and even impact one’s immunity from disease. Our spy, however, is going to push through because the mission is what matters to them most.

Writing a gender fluid person can be a challenging experience, but there is a desperate need for gender fluid characters in fiction. You can be one of the first to take on this challenge, as long as you do it respectfully, and with an open-minded understanding of the unique ways that these individuals are able to overcome cisnormativity and thrive in a world that denies their unique identities.

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Jack Burgos

Jack’s fiction interests include science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror. He is a founding member of Nevermore Edits and the webmaster for the Oklahoma Writers' Federation. He has a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.