What It’s Like to
Realize You’re Genderqueer


In Short: Confusing.

Read on Medium
Read Time: 3 minutes

Gender is a thing that everyone thinks they understand until they try to get a grip on it, especially these days. Then it’s like trying to get a grip on a particularly slippery fish. Being openly trans is much more accepted, and it’s becoming better understood by the world at large. But there are other categories of gender that are still pretty misunderstood — demigirl, demiboy, agender, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and what I am — genderqueer.

Growing up, I knew I was a girl because that’s what my family and society told me I was. I was born with a certain configuration of parts, so I must be a woman. But I’ve never been particularly attached to that identification, and those things that I did to look or behave more “feminine” always felt more performative than anything else.

Then I came across the term “genderqueer” when reading about queer theory and had an “aha” moment. Genderqueer means I don’t necessarily identify as any particular gender at any given time. I’m not really a woman (though I look like one) and I have no desire to be a man. I’m just… me.

An interpretation of the Genderqueer flag by Greyloch. The original flag was designed by and CC-3.0 by Marilyn Roxie

If you want a mental image of a celebrity who’s genderqueer, look at Sam Smith, the singer. They describe themself as spending “a lifetime at war with [their] gender.”

My first active clue that I wasn’t happy being considered a woman was when I cut off all my hair — going from waist length to about two inches in a few strategic cuts from a pair of scissors. My husband was convinced that that was a passing phase, and that I’d grow it back, but I loved the freedom that the short hair gave me.

Then there was a lot of talking to my therapist about why I loved something so simple. There was also a lot of talking to my husband about what I consider “being a woman” to be (or not) and how I don’t fit most of them.

A lot of this was pretty stressful to realize when I was already in my forties, and you’d think that it was pretty set. But being true to yourself can happen at any time, and I’m now happier when I think about myself than I’ve been in a long time.

It’s a bit puzzling to people who’ve known me for a long time — how could they not have known something like this when they’ve known me five, ten, twenty years? The answer is that I didn’t know. I just knew that the way I fit in my skin felt… wrong, no matter what I did. And trust me, I tried just as hard as I could to be a woman — makeup, long hair, heels, dresses. I was just as much at war with my gender as Sam Smith.

These days, I live in leggings and T-shirts. My hair is practically a crew cut. I’ve gotten rid of all my heels and makeup. I’m still married, going on 23 years, to a kind man who says he knew when he met me that I was a bit odd, and this is just an extension of that. And while I’ll respond to “she” and “her,” I’d rather you’d use “they” or “them.” I’d rather not be considered “one of the girls.” I’m just me, and that’s good enough.

Karen Hennigan spends their days battling paperwork in a federal agency. At night, they spend time with their husband, dog, and five cats. They’re also an amateur writer, knitter, crocheter, and cross stitcher, out of fear that they might get bored if they sit still for too long with nothing in their hands.

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19 thoughts on “Realize You’re Genderqueer”

  1. With all that’s going on around gender issues in politics right now, I appreciate you sharing your story. I wish more folks would see this story and be open to the lives of those who do not conform to society’s gender binary.

    A big part of the site’s idea is to give readers a glimpse into others’ lives so they can understand the world a bit better. This story definitely fits that goal as well as the other stories do, including “controversial” topics like carrying a gun. -rc

    • I take inspiration from the kids growing up now, who aren’t afraid to mess around with the binary without preconceived notions. The end result might be that they straddle binary, or might be that that the gender assigned at birth is correct, but either way they’re much more open to the experience.

  2. Thank you for sharing. Being true to yourself is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It is not always easy or “accepted”, but very much worth it.

  3. Thanks for an interesting and well written story. Having been schooled and experienced in gender nomenclature for nearly seven decades it feels a bit odd to refer to an individual as “they” or “them”, but we are nothing if not adaptable. I actually like the fact that these days people are taking the time and feeling the freedom to examine how they fit into the mosaic of humanity.

    • The singular “they” has a long history (back to the 14th century I believe) but we got trained out of it in the last century. It’s something I’m happy to see the return of.

  4. The entire concept behind the WiLt site of hearing stories from the source in first person voice is wonderful. This mirrors the evolution of (primarily) Western society as it transitions from a model which I believe shows more respect for the individual. If you’ll allow me the luxury of a slightly twisted analogy, society formerly operated on the principle of “when describing someone, apply any label you think fits”, and it is slowly becoming “if you want to *correctly* describe someone, ask them”.

    Karen: Your story was especially helpful to me, as your explanations validated much of my own thinking about why someone would choose one of these finer-grained descriptions (genderqueer, nonbinary, agender, etc.). I had done some reading, but without knowing anyone who uses those terms, I had never heard it told this way. It also seems you are saying something about yourself that we have all heard before, but in a different context, where you don’t really think of yourself in any terms other the words you chose to end your story with: “I’m just me…”. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Thank you for a great article! My youngest child has taught us a great deal about gender. We continue to learn how to support them. I’m so glad there is greater acceptance in the country at large but it always amazes me how many people have an opinion about what gender you are and what pronouns you use.

  6. Karen, thank you so much for this really clear explanation and insight. And for having the courage to do so in this sometimes unaccepting world.

  7. Wow. Such a wonderful story! My youngest child (now 32 years old) is also genderqueer. They finally came to grips with themselves at around 20, though they knew they were different earlier.

    It has been wonderful to see them mature into a confidant and caring person, helping others on their journeys. They began a Christian ministry to all people, with an emphasis on “inclusive,” while at Princeton Theological Seminary some years ago, and they have a book out called “Queering Lent,” from a genderqueer perspective.

    Thank you for this public testimony to your own fulfillment!

  8. I’m loving this!

    Once I begin my medical transition I may have to report back.

    Or if my karyotyping comes back how I expect it may…

    Sheesh: “So, in normal diploid organisms, autosomal chromosomes are present in two copies. There may, or may not, be sex chromosomes. Polyploid cells have multiple copies of chromosomes and haploid cells have single copies.” — and that’s in the introduction! (Wikipedia) Oh for a science writer who can explain in plain English. (I mean, I get it myself, but the average person would give up seeing such sentences.) -rc

    • I usually assume when I’m talking to you that I can go ahead and use the technical language. You done larned to talk good.

      wo short years ago I coun’t spell riter, and now I are one! -rc

    • A short history of Sex Chromosomes

      In 1890, the X and Y chromosomes were discovered. It was found that the men who were tested had 48 chromosomes, including an X and a Y, while women who were tested also had 48 chromosomes, including 2 X chromosomes.

      So obviously the conclusion was that the Y chromosome defined masculinity. A reasonable conclusion.

      Fast forward 50 years… and it was found that some men had 47 chromosomes, including 2 X’s and a Y, while some women had 45, including only one X. And most had 46, not 48 after all. Still no problem with the “Y chromosome defines masculinity” idea.

      Then… it was found that fully 1 in 300 men weren’t 46,XY. Some women were. Oops.

      After DNA was discovered in the 50s, it was found that the SrY gene, usually found on the Y chromosome, sometimes was missing. And sometimes had been translocated to another chromosome, hence 46,XX men and 46,XY women. So SrY defined masculinity. Whew!

      Then.. it was found out that some men didn’t have an SrY chromosome, not anywhere. Some women did. Other genes were involved sometimes. Oops again.

      Worse, other factors, such as Androgen Insensitivity made 46,XY people female, and Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia masculinised 46,XX people.

      Then in the 70s, other syndromes, such as 5alpha-reductase-2 deficiency, were identified, which caused babies to look like one sex at birth, then the other at puberty. Even worse, in some places 1 in 50 infants had this natural sex change, it was not rare there.
      (Science 1974 Dec 27; 186 (4170): 1213-5)

      In an isolated village of the southwestern Dominican Republic, 2% of the live births were in the 1970’s, guevedoces….These children appeared to be girls at birth, but at puberty these ‘girls’ sprout muscles, testes, and a penis. For the rest of their lives they are men in nearly all respects.

      In the 90s, it was found that hormonal hiccups in the womb caused some parts of the body to develop as one sex, others as the other, regardless of genetics.

      Male–to–female transsexuals have female neuron numbers in a limbic nucleus. (Kruiver et al J Clin Endocrinol Metab (2000) 85:2034–2041)

      The present findings of somatostatin neuronal sex differences in the BSTc and its sex reversal in the transsexual brain clearly support the paradigm that in transsexuals sexual differentiation of the brain and genitals may go into opposite directions. It’s a matter of timing during foetal development.

      Sometimes a boy is born looking like a girl, sometimes a girl is born looking like a boy, regardless of chromosomes.

      This is complex stuff. We don’t teach the Theory of General Relativity in grade school, Newtonian physics, or at most Special Relativity (far simpler than General) is enough. Similarly, “XX is female, XY is male” is good enough unless you do medicine or biology in college.
      It’s only really relevant when talking about Trans or Intersex people, just as Relativistic effects only become relevant in the domain of the very big, very small, or very very fast, close to 186,000 miles a second.

      People do *not* need psychiatric help when they think that things get heavier, more massive, as they go faster… while lengths contract. People do *not* need help when they think their sex is something different from their genetics.

      Intersex people exist. Trans people exist. They are unusual, so trying to apply the usual approximations is as silly as trying to apply Newtonian physics to things moving close to or at light speed. Legislating such things is as insane as legally ruling that Pi=3… as has been done in the past.

      It’s quite obvious you have taught at the university level: you explained it clearly enough for lay people to understand it. Thanks. -rc

  9. This is a great video that says a whole lot of similar things — things I’ve felt about gender myself. It really put things in perspective for me, as someone who has always felt like being masculine or feminine is something other folks do, and who definitely at one point felt like the whole thing was an elaborate prank. Hopefully it’s as useful to someone else!

    The creator is Vihart, an absolutely fantastic, whip smart YouTube person who puts out a lot of thoughtful, fun, goofy scientific/nerdy content.

  10. It took me a long time to realize that gender is a path and not a place. Strength to you and thanks for sharing!

  11. I don’t get it! I probably can’t get it. I can strive to understand though. I can have empathy and sympathy for people who are different than me. Maybe we all can.

    A little understanding and empathy goes a LONG way. -rc

  12. Being a 75-year-old CIS male, it’s difficult for me to comprehend how someone can feel “uncomfortable in their own skin.” But while I may never understand that feeling, I can certainly co-exist with those who vary from binary sexual identification. I will certainly flub the personal pronouns, but personality, character, and compassion in others are what is most important to me. I can only hope others judge me by the same criteria.

  13. There are so many genders and such now, I learn new stuff everyday. Some stuff I just don’t get but I’ve decided I don’t need to get it. To me, if you do no harm, ur cool by me.

    I don’t think it’s “now,” I think they’ve always been there, but “we” have silenced them for a long time. I think it’s a good thing that we have become more aware of different ways of thinking and being, and stop hating on people that are different. It’s the sign of a (slowly) maturing society. -rc


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