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The first thing to do is to take a deep breath and then realise that there are many other folks out there who are also questioning their compatiblity with the two socially predefined genders (man or woman). More plainly, you are not alone.
Perhaps you feel that when you hang out with “the guys” you don’t fit in with them, but when you hang out with “the girls” you don’t fit there either. Or perhaps you feel androgynous, walking a gender-neutral path between the two social norms. Or perhaps you feel that you embody characteristics of both genders and don’t want to be forced to choose one set over the other.
All of these perceptions of gender, and more, are ways that people see the world from outside of the binary gender system. At first, this can be a scary place from which to see the world, when everyone is telling you you’re wrong: “Everyone tells me I have to be a girl/boy; there are no other choices!” Just remember: the best person to determine your real gender is you. And that determination can be fun, scary, wild and wonderful, a journey that takes your whole life.
Not fitting gender stereotypes
No one fits all gender stereotypes. A female business executive who loves football, who is perfectly happy living and being perceived as a woman, generally wouldn’t be considered to be Transgender or genderqueer. But if she felt uncomfortable being perceived as a woman – not because it limited her career or meant that certain things were expected of her, but because something just felt fundamentally wrong about being perceived as a woman – she might consider herself genderqueer and/or Transgender.
It’s important to understand the difference between resenting or resisting gender roles and stereotypes, such as not feeling allowed to be a sensitive man or a competitive woman, and feeling uncomfortable with gender itself. Feeling empowered to be any kind of man or woman you want to be is important, but it’s also important to explore whether that’s enough for you.
Are you happy being perceived as a man as long as you’re free to express your emotions fully, or does no amount of empowerment ultimately make it okay because you feel on some fundamental that you’re not, or not entirely, a man? Either way there’s nothing wrong with you, but it’s important to get to know yourself and tease apart some of these issues so you can find the space where you’re as happy and comfortable as possible.
This football-loving business executive might find that she doesn’t feel comfortable being perceived as a man either, and that she’s happiest when she’s recognised as a combination of genders or as gender-neutral or whatever she feels herself to be.
She might find that she’s happiest when gender doesn’t enter into the equation at all, when people don’t know or care what gender she is (this is much more easily experienced online than in person). She might find that being perceived as a man does feel good for her, whether or not it’s a perfect ideal. And even if she does not identify as a man, she might find that making her body look more male makes her more comfortable in her own skin.
Altering your body and/or living as another gender don’t necessarily mean you identify within the gender binary (see below); many people who feel that they don’t fit into either gender still choose to alter their bodies in ways that make them feel as comfortable as possible in their own skin, whether by hormones or surgery or both. Similarly, you can identify within the gender binary and live as another gender but never find it necessary to alter your body at all.
The binary gender system
Most of us start from a place within the binary gender system, that is, from a place where we have been told and we believe that there are only two genders. You’re either a man, or you’re a woman. In rare cases, people might “assign” you the wrong gender at birth based on biological considerations, but if you were fortunate, you got to change your gender and often your sex, often using hormone therapy and various medical procedures to assist physical changes.
Gender identity is often conflated with sexual identity, which doesn’t help matters any. If you have a penis, you must be a boy; if you have a clitoris, you must be a girl. Fortunately, some folks with penises are now acknowledged by most folks to be women, and some folks with clitorises are acknowledged to be men, if only because they adopt the gender presentation of their true gender identity and are accepted as such by folks around them who neither see nor know what genitalia they may have. (When is the last time you checked to see that everyone around you who you presume to be a guy actually has a penis? Maybe they don’t. How can you tell? Why should it matter?)
As the particular body parts a person has become less connected to the recognition of a person’s gender, this also opens up room for dialogue around and social recognition of the idea of more than two genders.
Is gender biologically or socially determined?
We don’t know, although it’s unlikely that it’s entirely one or the other. Some studies talk about biological factors, like the level of testosterone in the womb influencing the gender identity of females later in life; other folks have done hard work researching gender as a social construct. One thing we know is that we treat gender as very near the core of who we are, with a very visceral reaction when someone or something transgresses our ideas of acceptable gender norms.
Certainly, some people feel safer making the argument that gender is fixed by as yet unknown biological factors, so that people who are gender-variant aren’t seen as choosing an immoral lifestyle, similar to discussions in the queer community about choice vs. biology in determining sexual orientation. Others feel that the only way to really deconstruct the existing binary gender system and its accompanying poor power dynamics is to go after the idea of gender itself, showing that it is fluid, chameleon-like in nature, and when you examine it for too long it simply morphs to take on the nature of its surroundings.
Some people’s sense of their gender identity changes over time. Is this because they choose their identity differently as time goes by? Or is it because they become more aware of who they are, as they begin to express previously hidden parts of themselves? Or is it some combination of the above? We don’t have the answers to these questions, but fortunately, we don’t have to have them before embarking on the journey of gender discovery.
Breaking the “rules”
One thing that most everyone can agree on is that rules about how one should behave based on one’s socially recognised gender are often used to limit a group’s power or opportunities. For example, “women shouldn’t be aggressive because it’s just not feminine” translates to women being submissive at home and in the workplace.
Other rules come out of homophobia or related issues; “Men don’t wear skirts or blouses” is one of those rules, strictly enforced by physical assault in some cases. If you are troubled by a rule about gender that you aren’t sure about, well… some rules are meant to be broken! We are all pioneers in this field; pioneers make their own rules for future generations to judge.
Embracing gender diversity
Imagine if we walked in a world where there were only two kinds of flowers: roses and tulips. OK, they are nice enough, and they come in different shapes and sizes and colours, but think how much we’d be missing. Now imagine the world that could be, if we knew as many genders as there are flowers, where gender expression was all over the map, where every encounter with another person might bring a gender new and fabulous. Show your gender to the world, and let a thousand genders bloom!
For more information
For more information on this topic, please see our pages on
- Atypical gender role
- Gender neutral pronouns
- What Is Gender? Forums, support for the gender-variant