Reader Question: What Is Gender Fluidity? (Part 2)

My question has to do with gender fluidity. I understand that we all have male and female within. But somehow I’m finding this concept, when taken to dressing, acting out the parts, and expecting others to respond accordingly, as ridiculous. I feel as if I’m being really old fashioned and very judgmental.

(This is part 2 of a series–check out part 1 of What Is Gender Fluidity? here.)

Imagine being born intersex, with some combination of male and female body parts and/or chromosomes. This describes between .05 and 1.7 in 100 people, depending on how you assess. Your parents would probably have chosen your gender for you, arbitrarily, at birth, obviously without consulting you. You might have been subjected to surgery so your pelvic organs and genitalia more closely “matched” a  binary mold. Your hormones might have been adjusted in puberty to maintain the gendered outward presentation your parents chose.

When you imagine being in that situation, does it seem possible that your parents might have guessed wrong about how you would perceive your own gender? What if you aren’t born intersex, yet still the gender you were assigned at birth doesn’t match your own internal sense of knowing? Would you be likely to assimilate, or differentiate? And might you want a therapist who could help you work through the complexity of thoughts/feelings/beliefs with as little bias as possible?

Now imagine being a person who doesn’t have an internal sense of being male, or female. Or who identifies as all genders simultaneously. Or on some days one, and other days another. Or on some or all days somewhere in between. It might be difficult to find people who could relate, or be of support. You might get tired of explaining this potentially complicated and private aspect of yourself to people who don’t get it. You might get annoyed when people address you with binary pronouns like he and she, because it reminds you of just how invisible and culturally unacceptable your identity is. Gender neutral pronouns do a better job of honoring the authenticity of diverse identities, even though all pronouns will always fall short of the mark–there is a LOT of gender diversity.  

As a therapist, my work is helping my clients identify their internal sense of knowing, and then take steps to align their internal sense of themselves with their external actions and choices. There is a certain kind of authenticity that comes from congruency. From this standpoint, it is natural that I would work with gender diverse clients; to me it makes perfect sense that a person would strive for congruence between body, mind, internal sense of knowing, and external expression of gender. This is easy for some, but it’s not so easy for those who don’t congruently fit with the assigned mold, and are subject to marginalization for being different.

I was born in 1961. I didn’t know there were same sex couples, had no idea there was such a thing as dissonance between sex characteristics and internal understanding of gender, and certainly had no idea there was such a thing as non-binary gender identity or fluidity. I learned about same-sex attraction relatively early on. I learned there were trans people and identity perhaps two decades after that. I don’t know exactly when I became aware that not everyone felt congruent with a binary gender identity; it was relatively recent. Our culture, or at least my little sliver of it, has been blind to this aspect of diversity for a long time. So as I see it, we’re playing catch-up and things are moving fast. It isn’t comfortable, but I think I owe clients, friends, and family support for the development of their congruent selves, no matter what their path looks like.

Here are some suggestions for clinicians who work with a gender diverse population:

  • Don’t have checkboxes for male/female gender on your intake forms. Instead ask for gender and provide a write-in line. How a person self-identifies when given unlimited options is very important. Also, gender non-conforming people will feel seen.
  • Consider including a question about preferred pronouns on your intake form. Again with a write-in line. There are a lot of gender-neutral pronouns and a lot of ways to present gender so don’t guess. I have some clients who don’t have any idea what this question is about or how to answer it, but my gender non-conforming clients appreciate feeling seen. Knowing that, I think it’s important that I refer to them with the pronouns that are most comfortable for them. A person sometimes refers to themselves with different pronouns on different days, or changes pronouns during therapy. The client will let you know, or you can ask.
  • Get good at making a repair. When you work with marginalized populations, you are working with people who have been hurt many times. You obviously are trying hard not to add more hurt, yet nobody is perfect and I predict the occasional error. (Ask me how I know.) If you take a misstep, and you will, thank them for being brave enough to tell you, take the feedback gracefully, and make a sincere apology. Then go read a book or consult with someone who can help you understand anything you’re not clear on about that interaction.
  • Gracefully adopt and understand your clients’ evolving language. Language expressing gender diversity is evolving quickly; there is variation between communities, regions, and individuals. If I don’t understand a term, or think we might be thinking of two different things, I ask the client for their definition/meaning.

Reader Question: What Is Gender Fluidity? (Part 1)

My question has to do with gender fluidity. I understand that we all have male and female within. But somehow I’m finding this concept, when taken to dressing, acting out the parts, and expecting others to respond accordingly, as ridiculous. I feel as if I’m being really old fashioned and very judgmental.

First, I want to thank you for asking! This question is about very sensitive material, and you fear you are being judgmental.That takes a lot of courage. Also, it’s an excellent question, and I know there are plenty of people out there too afraid to ask. You are opening the door for others, and that makes you awesome.

This is a big topic, so I’m splitting my answer up over two blog posts. For the first one, I’ll lay the groundwork for our conversation by talking about how rigid gender roles in society affect emotional development for everyone. In the next post, I’ll dive more deeply into what it means to genderfluid or not have a binary gender identity, in relation to what we’ve discussed in this first post. I’ll finish it up with some suggestions for clinicians about what you can do to make your genderfluid and nonbinary clients more comfortable.

Most us have been raised with very binary ideas about gender. We’re taught that there are men and women, and, correspondingly, there are male and female ways of dressing, talking, working, and relating to people; in a word, gender roles. We even assign gender to everyday objects: women’s clothes and men’s clothes. ‘Girly’ drinks and ‘manly’ drinks. Chick flicks and action movies. We assume non-conforming people are gay, and even that same-sex couples have “male” and “female” counterparts thereby perpetuating the binary construct.

Of course, as I list these examples, you can probably think of a hundred ways that you and the people you know don’t fit into these categories. That’s exactly my point–these categories are arbitrary. Almost nobody on the planet fits completely or comfortably into our culturally-sanctioned ideals of masculinity and femininity, and that’s completely okay and to be expected. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s wonderful, because it’s an expression of the beautiful diversity of individuals and the infinite forms of self-expression.

It’s also important to note that ideas of what it means to be feminine and masculine vary vastly from culture to culture. Here’s a great example: today, wearing high heels is considered unquestionably feminine. But just a few hundred years ago, in 17th century France, that look was considered the height of manliness. High heels made the switch to being considered feminine as part of a fad in which women started to adopt masculine clothing.

At birth, we all come into the world wrapped up in expectations about what our body parts imply about how we will conduct ourselves in life. As we get older, our understanding of ourselves is shaped by not only expectations of what it means to be a boy or a girl, but also our internal experiences of emerging individuality. As we discover our individual selves, many of us feel stifled by or rebel against rigid gender categories in one way or another. Many more are afraid to do so for very good reasons. Life is much simpler when our internal sense of gender matches the body we were born with, and simpler yet if body and assigned sex parts also match our fashion sense. Even simpler if you we are attracted to members of the opposite sex. (Did you notice how biased that common phrase is? As if anyone you might be attracted to will be either male or female, not to mention the assumption that we are all attracted to someone, or at least should be.)

But what happens when expressing oneself congruently means dressing or behaving in ways our culture doesn’t condone, for instance, male-bodied people wearing dresses? Consider the female-bodied people in the 1950s who wanted to wear trousers. Looking back now that seems like a simple matter. But at that time, it was not at all simple. It took years for even that shift in gender expression to be accepted, and we wouldn’t be wearing blue jeans without those who pushed the issue despite real consequences. There is still plenty of work to do in our society to make sure everyone feels comfortable expressing their gender however they wish, and we can all play a part in making that possible.

This is part 1 of a series–check out part 2 of What is Gender Fluidity? here.)