Gender fluidity: Break free from being identified as male or female

Gender fluidity is one of a wide range of labels non-binary people now use to describe themselves, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

GENDER fluid – two words drift out of the radio, spoken by Ray D’Arcy on a Monday afternoon. It must be a new way to describe transgender, I think.

Ten minutes later, checking my inbox, I find an email asking me to write about gender fluidity. 

Coming across the term twice in a matter of minutes, it dawns on me: this is something new.

But not so new, in fact — the term ‘gender fluid’ has been around since at least the 1990s and is one of the more than 70 gender identity options available on Facebook.

What was new was the revelation that RTÉ reporter Jonathan Clynch (pictured below) had come out as gender fluid and had asked his employers to now refer to him as Jonathan Rachel Clynch.

According to www.GenderDiversity.org , being gender fluid means a person “may feel they’re more female on some days and more male on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately”.

Clinical psychologist Dr James Kelly acknowledges it’s challenging to get one’s head around gender fluidity. 

“I’ve been advocating for alternative populations for almost 30 years and it’s hard for me to grasp. 

"Clients started presenting to me, looking for ways of expressing themselves that aren’t necessarily bound to male and female identification.”

Kelly believes gender fluidity has “been around forever” but high-profile gender transition stories like that of Caitlyn Jenner have pushed the gender discussion to the forefront. 

“Now is the time — everybody has a new permission to describe themselves.”

Gender fluid is not a clinical or medical term. It’s not a diagnosis. It’s not a condition. 

It’s a concept. So says Dr Lisa Brinkmann, a West Cork-based clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, who specialises in sex and gender-related concerns. 

She says the binary world of male and female, at opposite ends of the pole, doesn’t fit for all.

“On one extreme, we have people with gender identity disorder, who feel trapped in the wrong body and want to transition from one binary to another. 

"Gender fluid means the in-betweens, those on the continuum between male and female – the biological girl who feels feminine but also quite masculine, the effeminate man, the genderless who don’t identify with either male or female and people who like to dip in and out of gender roles, presenting as masculine one day and female the next.”

Fluidity, she says, is a beautiful term. “It’s like water, something that doesn’t have one form or shape. It’s a way of identifying that allows many different ways of being.”

Gordon Grehan, office manager at the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, says TENI is certainly seeing an increase in numbers of people identifying as gender non-binary — the person’s gender isn’t simply male or female. 

“At a trans youth forum in July, the majority of people who gave an identity identified as non-binary — it was the most prevalent gender identity.”

So why this increased awareness and openness now? Among many social and cultural factors, Brinkmann cites the influence of mangas — comics created in Japan and now very popular with young people and teens in the West.

“What’s significant is the gender roles [portrayed] are often quite fluid. The male figures often have very effeminate features — the females can be strong, powerful and do martial arts. 

"It’s one influence that has liberated young people towards more openness about gender.”

It’s true too that we live in an age of heightened access to information and much reduced taboo and censorship. 

“With the internet, it’s easier today to express a way of being that’s not mainstream,” says Brinkmann. 

“We can anonymously connect with other like-minded people. Anonymity allows you to present in a way that mightn’t yet reflect the reality of how you present in your everyday life.”

And then there’s the celebrity influence. Miley Cyrus talked openly about her gender fluidity earlier this year, saying she doesn’t “relate to what people would say defines a boy or a girl”. 

Similarly, Orange is the New Black star Ruby Rose (pictured left below) told Elle magazine: “For the most part, I definitely don’t identify as any gender. I’m not a guy; I don’t really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. 

"So, I’m somewhere in the middle, which— in my perfect imagination — is like having the best of both sexes.”

Brinkmann cites the influence of music videos, where celebrity girls kiss other females – think Madonna, Rihanna and Britney Spears. 

“We live in a time when teen sexual culture is to experiment. They don’t want to be nailed down — just because a girl kisses a girl at a party doesn’t mean she’s lesbian. Or because she slept with a boy that she’s straight.”

And while sexual orientation is independent of gender identity, the increased openness towards making different sexual connections helps create a culture where people feel more free to express the gender they feel they are. 

“It’s a reflection of a generation that’s just not as anchored into binary concepts of gender and sexuality,” comments Brinkmann.

Rachel Moore, a speech and language therapist working with the trans community and founder of Express YOUR Gender, believes it’s time for a new trans narrative. 

“There have been some very strong, dominant narratives in the media,” she says, citing Caitlyn Jenner. 

Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox and former boxing manager Kellie Maloney as other examples. 

“These tend to be a particular trans story — a man trapped in a woman’s body [or vice versa] all their life. 

"It can be a trapped/victim narrative. For many, it’s not their story — the trans community is very broad, very diverse.”

Interpreting gender fluidity as a reaction to being pinned down or categorised diminishes the reality. 

Social justice comedian Sam Killermann, who founded website ‘It’s Pronounced Metrosexual’, says biology is a component of gender but not its determinant. 

“Your gender identity, how you make sense of it in your head, can sometimes align with your biological sex — and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said in his Ted Talk, Understanding the Complexities of Gender.

Grey areas exist in nature, Dr James Kelly points out.

“We have no right to say to someone: ‘you were born male, you must always express maleness’. [Similarly], we have no right to say ‘you must choose one or the other [male or female]’.”

For many — who have never felt at variance from their biological sex or from how they are perceived by those around them — it can be difficult to understand how someone without that strong binary identification feels. 

“I doubt someone would take it on themselves [to say they’re gender fluid] unless they felt very sure that’s what they felt themselves to be,” comments Grehan.

Rachel Moore agrees. “Gender fluid is often put in quotation marks in the media, as if people haven’t bought into the idea. Gender fluid is very real, a very legitimate identity and expression. 

"It’s not just a rebellious act against categorising. It’s not ‘I’m not conforming’. It’s ‘this is how I feel’ or ‘this is the natural way for me to express myself’.”

Nor does she believe gender fluidity is about experimentation. 

“Experimentation sounds like a phase, a juvenile thing. It’s not necessarily an experiment when someone does something outside of the expected norm.”

She sees the recent Irish Gender Recognition Act as a huge success but options for self-identification of gender are limited to male and female. 

She says this is a symptom of the lack of understanding of diverse gender identities, experiences and expressions.

Among Facebook’s 70-plus gender identity options are agender, bigender, gender nonconforming, gender variance, gender queer and pan gender. 

In the effort to communicate accurately one’s gender identity — both to oneself and to the wider public — is there a danger of getting lost in the labels?

Moore acknowledges that being bombarded with lots of new terminology can feel clumsy but says we need a broad lexicon of gender vocabulary. 

“It’s important we develop as a more gender-literate society, with much more language at our disposal so we can discuss gender in a more nuanced way.”

The aim is noble — to facilitate the current momentum to be authentic about who we truly are.

Demi-guy is my authentic self

Kay Cairns, a 23-year-old Dublin-based freelance journalist, identifies as gender non-binary, though prefers the simpler term, non-binary.

“I identify as in between on the spectrum but closer to male. I identify as demi-guy. I dress more masculine. 

"Nearly all of my clothes are from men’s departments. I wear a chest compression shirt called a binder and that kind of flattens me.

“I probably will always identify as demi-guy. It has been there in my history and it hasn’t changed. 

"Whereas gender fluid means you could change within a few hours, days or months, the clothes they’d wear would change, as would the pronouns they’d use.

“I don’t express femininity but I’m a lot more comfortable in my body than a lot of trans men. I like people to see me in a more masculine sense. If I get gendered as female, it’s quite upsetting. It happens all the time.

“It would be an oddity for me to get gendered correctly. If I go into a coffee shop and someone says ‘hello madam, what would you like to order’, those incidents are like somebody throwing stones at me.

“I have to continually come out when I start a new job or when we get new staff. I have to explain — and to new friends too — about using gender-neutral pronouns, like ‘they’. 

"Discovering [the term] demi-guy in the last month was very empowering — to realise who I am and that there are other people like me.

“I felt quite lost growing up. I never liked to wear dresses. I hated having to wear a skirt at school. I always tied my hair back and, as a teenager, cut it really short. The only role continually expected of me was female and I wasn’t doing that very well.

“I can do non-binary, demi-guy pretty well. That’s my authentic self, so I can now focus on other things rather than that I don’t fit in as female.”


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