Gender is not the same as sex or sexual orientation. It’s a label presumed at birth based on the sex of one’s genitalia. However, many babies grow up realizing their assigned gender feels completely wrong.
Many people grow up feeling they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is a complicated, unique part of who we are as people. All societies carry gender norms, which assign details like behavior, dress and sexual orientation to people based on their assigned gender.
Today, more and more psychologists recognize the problem with our traditional gender assignment practice at birth — the assumption made about someone else’s identity. Gender identity is held in each person’s individual psyche, meaning that it’s constructed as the person grows up; it’s not there yet at birth.
Traditional U.S. gender norms expect people to be only male or female, just as they were assigned at birth. But that’s not how it really works. Each human’s gender identity is unique. Some people don’t identify at all with male or female genders, and others identify with both.
The term “gender fluid” describes a person who moves back-and-forth between gender identities. Some gender fluid people fluctuate from male to female, meaning they sometimes identify as a male and sometimes as a female. Others might flow between multiple genders at a time. What really sets gender fluidity apart from other gender identities is the idea that it’s constantly changing.
In U.S. mainstream society, we now have a few ways of describing gender identities. These are the most basic ways gender can be defined:
Those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are cisgender.
People who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth are transgender.
When someone changes their body hormonally or through surgery (or both) to that of the opposite sex, they are transsexual.
This list is very limited in that it only contains three gender categories. It doesn’t include gender identities for those who don’t identify with the binary male-female tradition. That’s where genderqueer comes into play.
“Genderqueer” (or non-binary) is an umbrella term covering multiple gender identities, including gender fluid. When someone is genderqueer it means they don’t fit into the standard male-female gender dichotomy. They might identify as another gender entirely, multiple genders, no gender at all or somewhere along the line between male and female. Here are some examples of genderqueer identities:
Because public society’s norms are largely influenced by everyday media outlets, part of changing society’s traditional view on gender involves inserting more diversified genders in our mainstream media. More and more movies, TV shows, video games and books are now including gender-fluid and non-binary characters.
More celebrities are openly identifying as gender-fluid and genderqueer, helping to serve as role models and normalizing public acceptance of these identities. Famous faces such as Tilda Swinton, Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose have all identified as gender fluid or non-binary.
Many companies are implementing changes too. For example, U.S. Airlines will be offering new gender categories aimed to be inclusive to non-binary identifying people. By having non-binary options available to customers, large companies can help non-cisgender people feel included and welcome. This also makes society more welcoming to those who don’t fall into traditional cisgender categories.
In the past few decades, gender fluidity has finally become a part of mainstream culture. But there’s still lots of work to be done in changing society’s strictly binary views of gender so that more people can feel free to be themselves. Nobody should have to feel they are “wrong” or don’t fit in anywhere. Whether you’re a part of the LGBT+ community or not, here are some ways you can help support LGBT+ rights:
Valerie Sizelove is a full-time freelance writer specializing in the areas of career guides, working parents and mental health. When she's not writing, you can find her wrangling one of her four kids or cooking up a big dinner with veggies from the vegetable garden.