Breaking the Box: Wooing (or understanding) the gender-fluid


It was about 2 AM on the night before Memorial day, and the crowd at the pub I work at had thinned considerably when the beautiful woman sidled up to the bar again to strike up a conversation. I could tell that she had been impressed when she claimed she was a veteran and asked for a partial refill on her drink, and I said I couldn't do that but bought her another one, thanking her for her service.

“So you're a stud, right?” she asked me. Internally, I cringed at the question. Outwardly, I smiled and shrugged.

“I don't know. I don't identify that way. I'm not one way all the time, and I have varied interests. I like to cook, and I also like riding motorcycles and lifting weights.” She offered me her number, and I took it, politely, while knowing I wouldn't pursue a date.

When Ruby Rose and then Miley Cyrus recently came out as gender-fluid, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had always annoyed me that people seemed to perceive gender as something that was fixed, but until then, I hadn't realized there was a term for what I was.

As a child, I demonstrated characteristics that could be considered both traditionally feminine and masculine. Although I eschewed dolls in favor of anthropomorphic animal figurines, I had what could be called a “feminine” fascination with relationships, and used those figurines to tell stories about (often polyamorous) ones. On the other hand, I also tended toward “male” chivalry; even while playing as a child, I was always the rescuer of the princess, never the rescuee. My early crushes were on other girls, and it wasn't until middle school, when I heard other tweens lamenting their unrequited love for boys, that I realized I was different. But when a boy in the schoolyard angrily called me a “bull-dyke hermaphrodite” because I wouldn't give him my kickball, I didn't know what either of those words meant.

Fortunately, my parents were pretty hands-off and didn't try to mold my gender expression in any particular way, allowing me to develop unhindered into who I am today—someone who identifies with no particular gender, and several. As I navigate through queer communities, I've found we're very fond of labels—top, bottom, switch; bear, otter, twink; butch, femme, queer, gay, bi, pansexual—and I've occasionally met others like me. Here are a few things that gender-fluid people would like you to know. 

 

Gender non-binary folks don't necessarily see their behavior, interests, or dress as gendered.
 

As a child, I skateboarded and played sports, and had short hair and wore only boyish clothes, which—until I started developing—often caused random strangers to stop me or my mother on the street to ask if I was a boy or a girl. (“Yes,” I might answer now.) Although I couldn't really comprehend what gender was yet, I understood (and internalized) that I was doing it all wrong in a way that was confusing to adults, that I was somehow all wrong as a person. In this instance, I was merely a victim of circumstance in the way people perceived my gender; my white family didn't understand black hair, thus it was kept short, and the activities I enjoyed necessitated baggy shorts and t-shirts rather than cute little dresses. I wasn't trying to be a boy or a girl, I was just doing me.

That child grew up into a rather practical and low-maintenance gal overall. Dresses are fun on occasion, but I hate carrying shit and they don't have pockets for my Swiss army knife, phone, wallet and keys. I don't shave my legs regularly not as some political statement but because there's hardly any hair on them and it's a pain in the ass. And let's be honest: while high heels are fly in theory, in practice they're a sinister device much better suited for a torture chamber than supporting the hundred-plus-lb weight of an adult human; plus, I like to know that I can fight off a mugger or run from an erupting volcano at any moment. In this way, my appearance is less an expression of gender than of pragmatism, and as far as aesthetics go, I choose clothes that look good on me in whatever phase I'm in of the plus-or-minus thirty lbs I've been repeatedly losing and gaining for the last six years.

Likewise, I have a gender non-binary friend who is fond of wearing baggy jeans and flannels, and old band t-shirts.

“I don't dress this way because I'm butch, I dress this way because the 90's should never die!” she says.

Furthermore, non-binary folks may not see their behaviors as gendered. The beautiful woman who labeled me a stud after I bought her a drink made that call partially because she viewed that behavior as masculine. But from my perspective, this was just an expression of class and manners, which are important to me. I also subscribe to more traditionally “feminine” manners, such as sending handwritten thank you notes to people, or bringing a gift (wine, flowers, etc) to a dinner party. I open and hold doors for anyone near me, man or woman, butch or femme, because I'm polite, not because I'm macho.

I have a lot of straight male friends, because I have a lot of “straight male interests.” I often marvel at the fact that, only a few generations ago, most people knew how to milk a cow, sow a field, repair a simple machine or tool or piece of furniture, etc., and these are skills we've lost over the decades; as an adult I've tried to make myself a more functional and useful person overall, which has led me to pursue both traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” interests. I spend my time on the things that I think have value. For me, personally, I find little value in meticulously long makeup-applying sessions or pedicures, nor watching football, and lots of value in cooking and learning how to fix cars and build things. It's society that genders those activities, not me. I strive to incorporate the best traits and skills of each gender; the ideal person, in my opinion, is one who can change both a tire AND a diaper.
 

It is unlikely that someone who rejects boxing themselves into one gender expression is going to want you to box them into any particular role, either.
 

I think that as humans, our natural inclination is to try to categorize others as a way of making sense of them or figuring out how they relate to us, but it's something non-binary people balk at. One reason I knew I wouldn't be interested in the woman at the bar was because she was dressed high femme and had already labeled me as her stud. (Incidentally, she lost interest in me the next time she saw me at a bar and I was wearing makeup, a tight shirt, and skirt.) I always feel weird and vaguely uncomfortable whenever someone insists on interacting with me in a heavily gendered way (pulling out my chair for example, or calling me “handsome” or even more laughably, “little lady”). Following a script is for actors on stage; non-binary people want to improvise.

One femme lesbian I know only dates femmes, because she doesn't want to be thrust into a patriarchal position of being dominated in any way. I think it can be equally difficult for lesbians that get thrust into the “butch” position to constantly uphold the tenets of the masculine role. If I recognize that someone has labeled me butch, it will deter me from pursuing them, as I have my own financial goals and don't want to be expected to pay for every date. And yes, I like to be very “giving” in the bedroom, but I also like to “receive” too, if you know what I mean, which leads us to. . .

 

Gender expression does not necessarily equal sexual expression.
 

Probably most LGBTQ people at this point have realized that sex does not necessarily equal gender. Probably fewer realize that gender does not necessarily equal sexuality. For me, I often feel like a “boy” or playfully sexually dominant in a sexual situation, but my most fulfilling sexual relationships have been with people who can make me feel receptive and vulnerable, or “feminine.” Just because someone is dressed in a masculine fashion doesn't necessarily mean they always want to top, or be the more aggressive, dominant partner. And just because someone might be femininely expressed doesn't necessarily mean they'll be your pillow princess.

Unfortunately, queer people are often attracted to certain gender expressions, based on these assumptions.

 

People are often attracted to a certain gender expression, and that doesn't always work out so well for non-gender binary people.
 

I present in a spectrum that ranges from sporty/soft butch to tomboy/hard femme, and am attracted to people within the same spectrum. But depending on how I'm presenting at the time, those people aren't always attracted to me. Often, people are attracted to those who complement their gender expression; for example, a slightly built, dapper queer friend of mine is exclusively attracted to slightly built femmes. Thus, dating someone whose gender expression changes day to day, or week to week can be a challenge for people of a fixed gender expression. Maybe you liked your gender-fluid date in a dress; will you still like her in a tie? Additionally, if you're interested in this person based on how you think they'll be in bed, are you prepared to be flexible so everyone can get their needs met?

 

We may or may not take ourselves very seriously.
 

For the sake of convenience, I identify as a woman, and am quite happy with my body overall. But when left alone to my own devices, I don't “feel” like a woman on most days, nor do I “feel” like a man (and I wonder, does anyone really “feel” like their gender? What exactly does that feel like?). My gender “feels” are often in response to the people around me; when I'm gossiping with my gay male friends, I feel like a catty woman; when I'm dishing about weightlifting or sex with my straight dude friends, I feel like a bro. In this sense, I'm a type of Schrodinger's cat of gender, only manifesting as one or the other when observed. This is fun for me in that I get to embrace the many facets of myself and wear many hats. In regards to clothing, no matter what I wear; nothing ever feels quite right; in a tight dress and heels I feel like a drag queen; my breasts are too big for suspenders and ties to lie flat. So I always feel like I'm wearing a costume. It's just a matter of deciding what costume I want to wear that day.

Being gender flexible allows me to change my style of dress—temporarily—to suit what I know my date or love interest is attracted too. I've worn vests and suspenders for a girl I knew was attracted to soft butches, and slinky, low-cut numbers for a bisexual friend I wanted to seduce. (“You're gorgeous in that shirt! I'd totally sleep with you,” she said, staring at my cleavage. Um, yeah, that was kinda the idea.) I also like to play with gendered dress; once a lover and I had a “drag date” where she covered her short hair with a long blond wig and donned a revealing red dress, and I put on facial hair, bound my breasts, and wore nice men's clothing. We went out, came home, and switched roles.

On the other hand, there are gender non-binary people who change their pronouns, or feel uncomfortable with their bodies to the extent that they need to surgically alter them or take hormones to express who they are, and that's fine too. And still others can't decide on a path of gender transition, because who they are and how they feel about that changes day to day.

Regardless of how any LGBTQ person identifies in regards to gender, it can be problematic to maintain queer solidarity in dismantling the patriarchy if we expect some of our population to rigidly adhere to traditional roles of masculinity or femininity. Particularly for people who identify as masculine-of-center, in general or that day, it can be hard to pull apart which “masculine” traits perpetuate queer misogynistic issues vs. the desired masculine traits. Furthermore, putting expectations on a person not only feels stifling to them, but it's limiting to you. Let a person be who they are; they might delightfully surprise you.

Not labeling others, allowing them to express in a myriad of ways, is the easiest and most fulfilling way of getting to know them. Without the boundaries of the boxes we try to stuff each other into, we can drop our defenses and be more openly and authentically who we are. Then we all win.
 

Laura is a west coast native who nonetheless has embraced her recent relocation to the south. She worked in social services for a decade and graduated from a liberal arts college with a degree in writing. She is currently pursuing a master's in social work and is generally a boss bitch, enjoying the activities and past-times one would generally expect of boss bitches.  


Editor’s Note: An unfinished version of this article ran previously without the author’s consent, and for that,
Wussy apologizes.