Language and gender variance: constructing gender beyond the male/female binary.

Author:Corwin, Anna I.


While the majority of individuals identify as male or female, there have been people across the globe and throughout time that have stepped outside this binary to claim alternative genders (Nanda, 2000, p. 1). To see gender as a two-part system is a feat of culture not nature: gender is culturally constructed through various socializing interactions (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003). Cross-cultural examples show the diversity of gender systems across the globe. There have been multiple-gender systems documented a number of American Indian societies and across the world (Nanda, 2000, p. 13). In India, for example, hijras are accepted as a "third" gender (Nanda, 2003). Gender variance has also been documented in the Philippines, Thailand, Polynesia, and Brazil among other countries (Nanda, 2000).

In the U.S., there is a growing number of people who do not identify along the male-female gender binary. This paper deals with individuals in the U.S. who identify as "genderqueer". Genderqueer individuals define themselves as neither male nor female. While some genderqueer people conceptualize gender as a continuum between masculinity and femininity, and define themselves as somewhere between these two poles, while others describe their gender as existing completely outside of a male/female dichotomy.

Since American English third person pronouns have only two options (he and she), genderqueer individuals face the challenge of explaining their gender in a social landscape where the term for their gender ("genderqueer") is not yet widely culturally recognizable. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the terms "genderqueer" and "gender variant." With the exception of one edited volume "GENDERqUEER: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary" (Nestle et. al, 2002) there has been little else published on the subject. The present article draws on ethnographic research conducted in 2006 with a community of individuals in Northern California who identify as genderqueer. Since genderqueer individuals identify as neither male nor female, but instead claim a unique and non-normative gender, the present article examines how this unique gender is performed and expressed through language, style, and narrative.


The genderqueer community in Northern California addressed in this research held the belief that gender is fluid, creative, and diverse. Gender fluidity includes the possibility for one's gender to emerge and change over time. Many people within the community described gender as a universe where male and female are but two planets in a multidimensional universe of gendered possibilities. This model allows for many iterations of gender outside of the male/female dichotomy.

The term genderqueer is associated with some significant paradoxes at this point in history. Since the category "genderqueer" has not yet entered popular discourse, and has therefore not yet attained a strict definition, its definition is still in flux.

There are very few definitions of the term genderqueer in print. In the book GENDERqUEER, the only printed work on the subject as of this date, Wilchins does not define the term "genderqueer". Wilchins (2002) discusses gender variance and implies that anyone whose gender does not fit perfectly into the ideal female or ideal male types may be genderqueer. Wilchins (2002) notes a huge number of people do not fit into traditional gender categories, including, for example, anyone who has undergone a number of surgeries, including a mastectomy (p. 49), but nowhere in the book do the authors present a definition of the term "genderqueer".

The only definition in print that the author could find at the time this article was written is Wikipedia's Dec. 11, 2008 entry under the heading "genderqueer."

Genderqueer and intergender are catchall terms for gender identities other than man and woman. People who identify as genderqueer may think of themselves as being both male and female, as being neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside the gender binary. Some wish to have certain features of the opposite sex and not all characteristics; others want it all. The term may apply to appearance, social behavior or a combination of the two; however, sexual orientation that is not limited to either loving men or loving women is described as bisexual.

Some genderqueer people see their identity as one of many possible genders other than male or female, while others see "genderqueer" as an umbrella term that encompasses all of those possible genders. Still others see "genderqueer" as a third gender to complement the traditional two, while others identify as genderless or agender. Genderqueer people are united by their rejection of the notion that there are only two genders. The term "genderqueer" can also be used as an adjective to refer to any people who transgress gender, regardless of their self-defined gender identity. (Wikipedia, n.d.)

Since the Wikipedia definition matches the definitions provided by individuals involved in the research, this is the definition that will be used in the paper.

Literature Review

It is important both to define the community and to situate the genderqueer community's link to the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community. Genderqueer is a term referring to gender, not to sexuality. Thus the distinction between gender, sex, and sexuality must be made clear.

Gender is a category distinct from sex; sex is usually defined by physiological and biological categorization (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 7). While sex may be defined by biology, this does not mean that it is restricted to male or female categories. Many people are born intersex, with ambiguous sex chromosomes or genitalia, or with secondary sex characteristics that are not strictly male or female. The Intersex Society of North American reports that one in one hundred children is born with "bodies that differ from standard male or female bodies" (Intersex Society of North America, 2007). Despite the fact that sex can be ambiguous, most children born with ambiguous genitalia in the United States are subjected to surgical "correction," where a child's genitalia are surgically altered at birth to resemble those of a child with unambiguous gender. One in one thousand children in the U.S. receives this type of surgery (Intersex Society of North America, 2007).

The terms transgender, genderqueer and gender variant do not refer sex, which is biologically determined. They also do not refer to sexuality. As Knight (1992), whose research covers language among transgender individuals, wrote: a transgender person "may function as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual within the assumed gender role" (p. 317). Gender and sexuality, as Knight explains are independent, and one's gender (whether they are female, transgender, genderqueer or any other gender) does not determine their sexual orientation.

Gender is socially, not biologically, determined. Gender is performed through a dynamic process that arises through social interaction. As Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (2003) wrote, gender is "something we do" or perform (p. 10). Eckert and McConnell-Ginet argue that if gender naturally arose from sex, society could simply allow a child to become a man or woman; however, this is not the case. They argue that it is through a life-long process of socialization that people learn to become "gendered" (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 15). Kulick and Schieffelin (2006) similarly argue that children are not "empty vessels" into which something like gender or culture is deposited (p. 352). Instead, one's gender emerges over a lifetime through interactive process in which individuals accept, reject, or modify the cultural and gender norms in which they are socialized (Kulick and Schieffelin, 2006, p. 352).

One of the primary means in the expression gender is speech. As Kira Hall (2003) argues, linguistic performance both "fits" the world as well as constitutes it (p. 372). For example, Livia and Hall (1997) argue that beginning with the announcement "it's a girl," statements of gender do not merely describe the world, but are prescriptive of it (p.12). They go on to explain that the world is shaped based on language since the little girl will be socialized to behave like a "girl" and expected to act in specific ways based on the statement "it's a girl" (Livia and Hall, 1997, p. 12). We create gender through discursive interaction.

Austin (1962), the first to write about the performative nature of language, argued that statements do not just describe the world (p. 1). Utterances, he argued, do things, affect the world. He showed that "performative sentences" such as "'I do take this woman to be my lawful wedded...

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