Beyond the Gender Box: It's a queer world, after all
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2013 - Twenty-six-year-old Lindsay Toler of Tower Grove calls herself queer.
The Mizzou alum and journalist embraces this label even though she’s in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a man, and presents as the proverbial “girl next door.”
“I was a debutante growing up, I was in a sorority in college; I’m really blonde, really white — I’ve got a lot of privilege,” Toler says. “But you don’t have to be ‘other’ to be queer — everybody gets to be queer.”
Labeling one’s gender as queer seems to be a growing trend among 20-somethings. They’re taking back a once-hateful slur because they won’t — or can’t — check a male or female box.
But for millions of others — neighbors, daughters, brothers, maybe you — the gender binary doesn’t work for myriad other reasons.
A big-tent definition of queer may seem incomprehensible in a time when some struggle to remember what LGBT stands for (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), and others flock to “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” at The Fox while upholding discrimination against the real-life Priscillas of the world.
But there’s a new world coming. In fact, it’s here. Toler and many young people see gender identity as not just as a spectrum but a circle, with no beginning and no end.
“I identify as queer just by being straight and female, and someone else may identify as queer by whatever their gender identity is, so that everybody can come to that LGBT table,” Toler says.
‘Not the 1950s anymore’
The word queer can describe gender identity (who you are) or sexual orientation (who you’re attracted to) — two very distinct categories. Or both.
Growing up, Randi Whitaker, 23, knew of only one word that seemed to fit: tomboy. Born female, the south St. Louis server and sometimes student now prefers the pronouns he, him and his. The term that feels right for his gender is queer.
Queer is also the way Whitaker describes his sexual orientation, which could be called bisexual but it’s more complicated than that.
“I’m attracted to femininity so I’m attracted to feminine males and to females,” Whitaker says.
“Fluid” is the word local college student and Iowa native Taylor Younker, also 23, prefers for gender identity as well as sexual orientation.
“Some days, I feel more like a woman, some days, I feel like a man,” Younker says. “I think this generation is a lot more in tune with finding ourselves instead of what other people want to find for us — it’s not the 1950s anymore.“
‘Just call me Leon’
Even amid the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s, no one, not even his doctor, could tell Leon Braxton of Kansas City why he didn’t develop like other boys during puberty but grew breasts instead.
LGBT Center of St. Louis executive director, Vital VOICE business manager and renowned drag entertainer Dieta Pepsi didn’t find out until a doctor’s appointment late last year — at the age of 52 — that he’s intersex. In Braxton’s case, the designation stems from being a biological male with female hormones — a pseudo-hermaphrodite, his doctor called it.
Braxton’s situation points to the folly of the male-female binary and all labels. He’s always identified as a gay male. Now what?
“Just call me Leon. I also answer to Dieta,” Braxton says. “But if you have to use a pronoun, use ‘he.’ The main thing is to put people at ease.”
Who’s gay, anyway?
Using the pronouns someone prefers shows respect, and acknowledgment of their gender, according to Mara Keisling who heads the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“If you call a straight man by the wrong pronouns, it’s interpreted as an insult,” Keisling says. “And so it’s interpreted as an insult to use the incorrect pronouns for a trans person.”
Transgender teen William Copeland of Creve Coeur, whose teachers, friends and family began using “he” and “his” when he started high school, says female pronouns feel like a verbal assault.
“Now, when somebody calls me 'she,' it’s like I’ve been slapped,” Copeland says.
Like Copeland and Braxton, “Alive” magazine co-founder and chief editor Kelly Hamilton, 35, is forgiving of honest mistakes. But correct pronouns are still important. He came out as a lesbian at the age of 18. (Yes, that sentence reads correctly.) At 31, Hamilton came to understand himself as transgender.
Hamilton’s been on male hormones for nearly two years, and had top surgery — removal of female breast tissue — one year ago. Now, passersby see him as male, which is in alignment with how he identifies.
A recent incident outside a gay bar in Nashville illustrates how confounding our perceptions of gender identity and sexual orientation can be. Hamilton was standing with his girlfriend when a gay man, who’d had too much to drink, approached him.
“He was talking me up, and then Sarah and I started holding hands,” Hamilton recalls. “And then the guy’s like, ‘Wait — you’re together?’”
After Hamilton acknowledged he and Sarah were a couple, the other man looked Hamilton up and down, and said, “No, you are gay, gay, gay!”
“Basically, he was saying, ‘You don’t know who you are,’ and ‘This poor woman doesn’t know you’re gay,’” Hamilton says, of this man’s incorrect perception that Hamilton was a non-transgender man either pretending to be straight or unaware that he was gay.
Quickly, Hamilton inserted a reality check: “I said, ‘Actually, we are gay. We were a lesbian couple before. I transitioned, female to male. We’re together — we’re queer.’”
We all want to paste on quick labels, to put people in boxes: gay, straight, whatever. But, as Hamilton’s Nashville experience made clear, first impressions can be deceiving. Hasn’t everyone had that moment where we make a snap decision about some random guy walking down the street?
“There may be something about him — maybe he’s what you’d consider effeminate, or he dresses or styles his hair some certain way you’d consider ‘gay-looking,’” he says. “But maybe he’s not gay, maybe he’s just a well-dressed dude, or he might be trans: you don’t know.”
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