Writing a Genderqueer Character
This is a topic I can speak of from my own identity. The term is more prevalently used than when I first saw it back in the 1990s. Nonetheless, this took me a long time to write. I feel an imaginary backlash in which people tell me, no–you don’t know who you are. That has happened in real life.
Just a note–this past year was a tough one for trans persons–entertainment is one thing, but the way people are treated in real life is very different. A rise in Trans persons murdered (most of color), at least, a rise of this being reported. The city of Houston decided to go the hateful route regarding Trans persons and the all mighty bathroom exclusion and more cities are trying to do the same. Dan Savage said in his article on the Houston debacle, “As more trans people come out, as more cis people come to know trans people (as more Cis come to know the trans people they already know), that argument will fall apart too.” A reminder, by the way, that when something like this, a proposed law that you would be against, is up for a vote–go out and vote. Even if it doesn’t affect you personally, go out and vote for what’s right.
People not familiar with gender nonconformity still are confused by what it is. If you identify as Genderqueer, or Gender nonconforming, you will understand that feeling of how do I explain?
- What is gender versus sex?
To put it simply (and when it gets into theory it can become complicated), sex more or less refers to what you were assigned biologically, which falls into female, male, and intersex.
Gender is what you know you are. That may comport with your assigned sex at birth (the nomenclature used generally is assigned sex) or it may not. People who feel they are their assigned biological sex are Cisgender–a word now included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Inclusion matters, because of the symbolic power of presence. As with any new term (and the term has actually been around for several decades) there’s pushback. For any group in power, a majority, a faction of that group resents having to acknowledge in any way the existence and rights of a minority. So you have people who refuse the term cisgender. Cisgender is no more a problem in differentiating gender than straight/gay/bi is in differentiating orientation.
- What is the problem?
As much as many organizations have the intention to explain sexual and gender identity like it’s no big thing–as it should be taught–the real world makes it a big thing. When it comes to gender, more so than orientation, there is pushback because people will take gender as a political stance. If you are writing about a Genderqueer character, as well as trans, understand that gender brings out knee-jerk reaction and deep-seated anger from haters. Not just in gender identity but also in discussions of rape, sexual harassment, and equality. The vitriol of outrage in reaction to a person suggesting that what they were born with doesn’t define their gender is stronger that legions of homophobes worried over “gay” sex.
This hatred is sometimes couched in pseudo-intellectualism. So not just saying that trans/GQ doesn’t exist, but claiming claiming trans women have gender privilege (i.e., the supposed unfairness of identifying as female when one has benefitted from being male up to then). There are people out there who are against people being themselves.
- What is the importance of writing a Genderqueer character?
Visibility. Genderqueer is a relative of Trans. Despite the bad news in the first paragraph, Trans is in a place people are beginning to understand–and Trans has the inevitable backlash. People (cis/straight and other) resist having to learn something new. Some deal with Trans and GQ better as a freak show, better as a comic device. They see GQ as yet another forced political correctness, another silencing of their voices for…whatever. My existence silences voices somehow. Got it. People may also feel a privilege and resistance to others wanting a seat at the table. But we’re here. Presence is only going to move forward, not backward. Once people have a sense of freedom, a recognition of who they are, it’s not going back. The rest of the world has to deal.
Yet historically, gender nonconformity goes back as far as any other gender identity and sexual orientation–very far. But even if it was just discovered yesterday, that doesn’t mean it should not be treated disrespectfully. The point of presence is to make inroads in acceptance and respect bit by bit, person by person. A good GQ character is one who is not going to be treated as a joke for the readers, and not just slapped on without thought for a technical diversity. The importance in a Queer Cis writer in creating such a character is intraconnectivity–to show we know of and include others within our community.
Clearly, as a writer and advocate I embrace rather than dissuade distinctions, but I also embrace inclusivity. Distinctions help empower identity, and shouldn’t be used as fence-building to divide people.
- How do you define GQ, anyway?
I go for the simplest, broadest ad hoc definitions, and as always, this is not the end all or be all. For Genderqueer persons, this is a voice to counter any voices that tell you you aren’t who you say you are. I don’t care who that person is giving you the bullshit. Genderqueer is a gender identity in which a person’s gender is not in accordance with one’s biological sex, but is not definitively the opposite gender.
By comparison, a Trans person is usually one whose gender is the opposite of one’s biological sex. I use continuums to express identity and gender. Some people are straight. Some are gay. Some are bi. Some are Cis. Some are Trans. Some are GQ. The existence of one does not negate the other. Why on earth should it?
- What do you consider for your GQ character?
–How the person defines GQ
–How the person expresses in looks/dress
–What pronouns the person uses
–What the person faces or has potential to face as problems
–How other people react to the character
When you write your GQ character, consider this first point. What does it mean to them? As with any meaningful character, understanding them is important to making them real. Even if you do not discuss this outright in a story, know it for yourself because the more you know, the more the person is real to you and not just someone added on–diversity for diversity’s sake. I have two continuing GQ characters. One is Veronica, Gabriel’s best friend. One is Chris, Joel’s best friend. Veronica is biologically female and identifies as M/F. Chris is biologically male and doesn’t define as anything.
GQ is ambiguous because GQ persons have different definitions. A GQ person such as myself identifies as being both male and female. Others might identify as being a gender that is neither male or female. Native Americans understood the concept of dual genders, and had the term Two-Spirit, which has since been recovered and embraced in many Native LGBTQ+ communities.
Just keep in mind what applies to to your character is not something to extrapolate (project) to others, just as what they feel is not something to extrapolate to you. Because a cisgender person may not understand what gender nonconformity is, he or she may not believe it exists–the all too familiar “if it doesn’t happen to me, it doesn’t happen” paradigm.
I identify as, and am, a person born female but is male and female in gender. I have always been more male than female, and have always identified with men more than women. But because my mom was such a humanist and feminist, I was raised with a respect for women and a respect for my female side. I do not mind being called ‘she.’ I do like androgyny in other areas, which is why I legally changed my name.
When others try to explain what GQ is they don’t always get it right and can get in a quagmire of academic discussion of ‘binary.’ (Academic verbiage=instant buzzkill) People don’t like change, and are really bothered by ambiguity. Genderqueer is pretty much ambiguity. Academia is all about categorization. I understand scientific method. That doesn’t mean that it always serves us well. Humans do not fit in neat categorizations, and that drives people nuts. If you’re a gay man/woman who occasionally has sex with the opposite gender, you know. If you’re a person who doesn’t fit a category genderwise, you know. Humans don’t like ambiguity. When was the last time you saw a form with something other than male/female to check, other than Mr./Ms.? How many organizations and stories refer to gay/straight and skip over bi? The GQ person has to cope with their ambiguity annoying others.
I am GQ, and I identify as on a transgender spectrum. Other GQ people do not. And so I ask that people do not tell GQ people who they are and how they identify as, as a whole. Some Trans people are accepting of GQ, others don’t like the GQ identity because they feel it calls into question the gender that the Trans person is trying to establish. But I’ll argue, just as bisexuality does not negate gay or straight orientation, GQ does not negate Cis or Trans gender. This is a continuum theory. You may be one, you may be another. It is who you are. People can’t tell you who you are. You, as well, can’t tell others who they are.
A continuum is the most inclusive way of looking at gender and orientation, because it takes into account the myriad of ways humans behave, and humans are. As example:
A man can be gay and never have sex with a woman out of desire.
A man can be gay and occasionally have sex with a woman.
A man can be straight and never have sex with a man.
A man can be straight and occasionally have sex with a man.
A man can be bi/pansexual and be attracted to, have sex with, and be involved with persons of different genders, in different levels.
A gay man can’t say all men who have sex with other men are gay. Conversely, a bisexual man cannot say all men who have sex with other genders are bisexual. An individual knows what they are, whether right away or at another point in life. I do not argue everyone is bi, because I do not believe that is true. Similarly, I would not argue that everyone is a little bit of both genders, because I do not believe that is true. I would not argue that everyone must be a binary in gender. That also would not be true.
A person may be born male but be female in gender.
A person may be born female but be male in gender.
A person may be born male but be male and female in gender.
A person may be born female but be male and female in gender.
A person may be born male or female, but be neither in gender.
None of these situations negates any other situation. I don’t say the person “believes” or “thinks” or “feels” a particular gender. That’s because the person is that gender. There is no believe, or think, or feels. There just is. Words are important. If you are describing a character who is GQ, that person is. I will say identify as, because I don’t think the term “identify” has the same connotations. Identify is what one tells others. If you feel differently, by all means don’t use the word.
- How does someone know that he/she/they are genderqueer?
Through recognition and understanding I’m not like him/her. If you are the gender/orientation ‘norm,’ you’re on the societal train. A Queer person is at the station, unsure where to get on, get in, get off. I don’t fit here–or here either. So what do I do? Do I pretend? Does everybody pretend?
If you aren’t like others, what do you like? What are you drawn to? Who did you feel you were like? I use and adapt a term from Hinduism, Adhikara, meaning you are drawn to your path. You are drawn to who you are.
People have different times when they realize. Some know in childhood. Others when they are adults. As with sexual orientation, sometimes it’s hard to know, sometimes one is confused, because of the strong negative message given by society.
This is a place to distinguish cross-dressing from gender identity. A person may enjoy dressing as the opposite gender, but still identify resolutely as one’s assigned sex.
- Can someone not know?
Yes. As with any other different identity, it could be buried. It may not be expressed until circumstances permit. Sometimes a person identifies when the person sees or meets similar people. A lightbulb goes off in the head–Wait a minute, that’s me!
- Does gender identity apply at all stages of life?
As soon as one is aware of the notion of gender, which is pretty early. We’re socialized pretty early, right? Pink or blue, trousers or skirts. When you felt the rebellion, you knew. Some parents respect it, others reject strongly. This is not a critique of traditional gender dress, however. I dislike when Trans women are criticized for dressing feminine. It’s nobody’s business how a Trans/GQ person chooses to dress and embody male/female/androgynous characteristics.
- How is GQ attacked?
The most prominent way genderqueer is attacked is to deny it exists. That is the way most erasure occurs. Another way is to demean the identity by expressing annoyance with it–I don’t wanna have to deal with more identities! These persons might also suggest, as some some suggest with bi/pansexuality (I consider them the same, but recognize others may prefer one term over another), that’s it’s a fad or just a means of getting attention. Kids today, with their crazy gender and sexual fluidity.
And then there’s just demonization. The GQ person is evil for being in contradiction to one’s religious beliefs, as example.
- What makes a good GQ character?
As I will say with any and all Queer characters, write a good character first. The most important thing you can do is understand a character as a human being, with a history, with feelings. Then, treat the identity with respect. This is revisiting what I stated in my Gay post. Your character is more than the identity. Treat the character that way. Diversity is great, but the character needs to be more than just a GQ person in story, checking off a box. People have other things in their lives than going around being all GQ. For your character, what are those things?
The second part is not to romanticize. No person is 100% good. Everyone has faults, also as discussed in the Gay post. A portrayal of someone in positive light is admirable. But too positive, and it loses effect. The character moves into noble, and then magic, stage. Don’t be afraid to give the person real human depth, just be aware of the faults say about a person.
Be aware that names and pronouns mean a good deal. When I volunteered with a LGBTQ+ homeless organization, we were trained to ask a client/resident, What is your PGP (preferred gender pronoun)? It’s a matter of respect, and also a matter of not making assumptions. You cannot assume a person’s gender or orientation from looks. Some GQ persons prefer a genderless pronoun, such as Ze, Zim, their, and other terms. Of course, referring to a person by name is most respectful, and recognizes the individual as an individual. If someone has changed their name, that name is meaningful. Always be aware of the importance of a name–it is the most symbolic means of transformation. It may be the only means of transformation for a person who is poor.
Service providers, from lawyers to therapists to doctors to teachers should understand that. It’s not about your inconvenience. It’s about respect for the person you are working with.
A final element to understand is the microagressions that any character may go through. Everyone has some. One truism about any person who is not of a majority demographic–even if you don’t wish to think about it, western society makes you. A gay person carries and is reminded of being gay in a million different ways. As does a person of color. As does a person of a non-Christian religion. As does a person who is Trans/GQ. For the GQ person, that includes advertisements, forms that insist you ‘check one,’ purchasing clothing, and more. One way to understand your character better is to go out for a day or two, and in your mind, you are your character. What becomes different? What becomes more or less noticeable? What do you do, that your character would have to do differently? What would you have to explain to a doctor, an employer, a therapist, and others?
A couple of GQ characters on TV:
Roscoe in House of Lies. Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), Don Cheadle’s character’s child, is GQ and bi/pansexual. A second GQ character, Lex, was added (Bex Taylor-Klaus, who had memorably played a street kid who was lesbian, in season 3 of The Killing).
Sam Malloy (Aidan Mitchell) in The Riches, who is either Trans or GQ. An underrated show that I was originally interested in as a fan of Eddie Izzard (who is a cross-dresser).
Here are some more links to lists of GQ characters.
IMDB: A user’s Other-Gender Representation list. This includes Trans, GQ, fictional movies and documentaries, good and bad. You can join IMDB and create your own list.
Nonbinary.org Wiki. This includes TV, books, animation and video games.
The Five Best GQ Characters in Comics, Bitch Media.
More on literature from Genderfork.com
Anime from TheMarySue.com
FanFiction will have more. From Archive of Our Own.