The title of this post may make me seem ignorant, and imply that when Dylan came out as gender neutral I had no idea what that meant. That’s not quite true however, as I actually had a fairly decent understanding of various gender and transgender identities. However, I felt this title was appropriate because it reflects the amount of explanations that had to take place for everyone around us. We were very lucky in that everyone that we loved embraced Dylan’s identity and responded with understanding and acceptance. Despite this however, it still required a bit of explaining as gender neutrality is not something commonly discussed or understood- however it is getting better.
In this post I will unpack a general understanding of gender neutrality and also distill a few myths.
Firstly let’s start with the difference between sex and gender, as this is something that many people often forget. In very simple terms ‘sex’ is the organs that you are born with, whilst ‘gender’ is about self expression. For many people sex and gender align. For example, you are born with female genitalia and the way you feel you want to express your identity aligns, at least somewhat (if not entirely), to the societal expectations of this sex, and thus your gender is read as female.
For some people however, sex and gender do not align- cue ‘transgender’. There are many varying forms of transgender, and similarly, varying degrees to which people feel their sex/body does not align with their gender.
For people that are gender neutral (or gender non-binary, or genderqueer as it is also known) the transgender person feels neither male nor female. The way that I understood this in the beginning was as ‘androgyny of the mind’- like the dress style of androgynous, but related to a stronger sense of identity and body image than just clothing. This simplifies the identity more than it can be however, as it implies that all gender neutral people will look androgynous, which isn’t necessarily true.
As a society we are very good at classifications. We want people to fit neatly into classifications that we understand so that we can feel a sense of safety, comfort and ‘normality’. In this way it is easy for people to adapt gender neutral, a gender in its own right, to be half girl/half boy. They assume that the identity must include elements of each of these genders and that a gender neutral person can identify these varying male/female parts of themselves. For some people this may be true, as gender neutral people can vary greatly (just like 2 males or females can!), but for many this is not the case. Obviously there will be elements of the identity/body/image/personality that conform to societies expectations of male and female genders, however for many gender neutral people they do not see these as gendered elements. They are just parts of them. Unlabelled. Unchallenged. Just who they are.
For many people coming out as gender neutral there will be a ‘transition’ of sorts to reflect their identity. This may include name changes, pronoun changes, changes to their body (via surgery for example), and/or the taking of hormones. The particular changes that a person makes will be very individual and will depend on their own body image and sense of self. They most likely will not relate to wanting to be ‘more male’ or ‘more female’, despite what the changes may seem to represent in terms of societal norms. Again, remember that gender neutrality is not about femaleness/maleness, it is a gender in its own right.
Another label that many people start to think about when considering gender neutrality is sexuality. If someone is gender neutral who will they date? Men? Women? Gender neutral people? It could be any of the above! Sexuality is not related to gender or to sex. The labelling part (since we really do love to do this as a society!) is a little more complex though as we do not have any commonly known terms for relationships between gender neutral people and any other gender, except perhaps queer. ‘Queer’ can have many different meanings to different people, as well as political connotations, but generally speaking can refer to any relationship that is different to a strictly heterosexual relationship. Due to the lack of clear labels it is up to individual couples to choose how they identify, and even within the couple they may refer to their sexuality differently. For example I identify as lesbian whilst dylan identifies as queer. This does provide a sense of conflict in terms of my identity (but I’m a lesbian- I should date a woman??!!) but at the end of the day it is just a word. (See my post My Identity is Just Words for more on this).
In short, to truly understand gender neutrality you need to forget gender norms and simply embrace your gender neutral partner/friend/family member/colleague as a human, whatever their dress sense, quirks, personality or sex.