I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of LGBTQIA+ identities and classification systems recently because of my library science program. When people (myself included) talk about LGBTQIA+ representation, specific terminology comes up quite often. This is particularly true for identities that often get erased (like bisexuality, iconically). It’s also important for people to be able to find these LGBTQIA+ pieces, and to do so practically requires some kind of set terminology be used aside from the breadth of “LGBTQIA+,” “queer,” “gay,” etc. On the other hand, however, queer theorists would argue that rigid identities shouldn’t be the cornerstone of good representation. What is there to do with a complicated situation like this?
First, let’s lay some groundwork, because not everyone knows a bunch of stuff about queer theory. Queer theory is founded on the idea of breaking away from rigid constructs; it can be referred to as “post-structuralist” or as “deconstructionist”. The general idea is that life is not meant to be categorized into black-and-white boxes. It is inspired by LGBTQIA+ fluidity, but it can also be used to analyze all sorts of systems and ideas from politics to library cataloging. This may be confusing because of how important identities are to the LGBTQIA+ community, but they do work together! Queer theory argues that rigid categories should not exist, not that they do not exist. It’s an important distinction, because queer theory is simply working toward an ideal future in which people do not have to use identity-based terms to explain or defend themselves. In the very real present day, however, queer theory recognizes that identities are important tools for contextualization, affirmation, and protection.
Now, let’s chat about what pros and cons there are when it comes to the categorization of identities in the real world.
Having a set identity can be an incredibly positive experience. I, myself, have a set identity: I am a transgender man. As a trans man, I have a term that I can use as a guide for my gender expression. There are already social norms in place for how men dress, act, and speak, so if I check off those boxes, people will be more likely to accept my identity. And when I was first sorting through my gender identity, having that set term was incredibly helpful for figuring out what felt right to me about my gender and how I expressed it. As well, on a social level, having a specific identity-term has connected me to a community of trans masc individuals who use similar words to describe their own identities.
However, there are a lot of negative things that come along with having a set identity. I mentioned the social norms of how men dress, act, and speak–these are gender roles. While gender roles do help me pass, they’re also very limiting. In order to pass, sometimes I have to perform my gender in a way that doesn’t feel authentic. I have to act more stoic/emotionless, I have to wear darker colors, I have to smile less. If I don’t, there are people who would decide that my gender is invalid for those silly reasons. As well, with a set term, it can feel very difficult to change the words we used to refer to our identities. A person who uses the term “trans masc” for a period of time, but realized that “nonbinary” was more fitting might come to find that people still only refer to them as he/him, even though their pronouns are they/them.
Likewise, undefined identities and/or the lack of an identity has its own set of good aspects and bad aspects.
Using no set terminology for your own identity can be difficult. A person with no set identity–someone who may broadly use the words “queer” or “fluid”–would not have the same passing tools that a binary trans person has. In fact, it would be impossible to consider passing at all when it comes to any identity outside of the binary except for maybe when they’re among trans people. This means that a person without a set term for their identity is more likely to be misgendered, which is a big barrier to affirmation. Even in some transgender spaces, a person without a set identity might be seen as an outsider or be misidentified as a binary gender. It can also be difficult because there is no singular model, necessarily, to hold onto while sorting out gender identity and expression. Not having terminology can also cause problems for finding adequately similar communities, though this is aided by the usage of “transgender,” “nonbinary,” and other similar umbrella terms.
On the other hand, there are a lot of great things about not using a set identity. The foremost would be the freedom it allows for. Not having a set term lets a person play with gender in a way that many binary trans people would not feel comfortable doing. It also means that, although they may not have easy access to one ideal model of what gender looks like, they do have access to many possible models that they can pick and choose bits of to make up their own guide. The lack of a set identity can also be helpful in relating to and connecting with more people: it’s easier to empathize with someone if you have something in common, and if your gender overlaps some with multiple different gender identities, it would be easier to find points of understanding.
Now that we’ve gone through all of that, how can you implement the idea of fluidity within your own characters? One way would be to directly talk about how they prefer using broad categories, but not every writer will be able to state it outright like that in their story. Other things you can do is show how they may shift their gender expression from one aesthetic to another, or maybe they intentionally try to confuse people about their gender. A lot of this is going to overlap with my earlier post on How to Signal That Your Character is Transgender. You can also go the full queer theory route and develop a world that doesn’t have gender roles or that has different gender roles from what we know today.
Let me be clear, though: while the entire point of this post is to argue for the representation of LGBTQIA+ folks who don’t use set terminology, this does not mean that you should just avoid using terms to describe all of your characters’ identities. Using those terms for some of your characters is an important flag to demarcate representation. Make sure that you’re intentionally choosing to give a character no identifying terms and not just avoiding the use of LGBTQIA+ terminology. A character who uses no identifying LGBTQIA+ terms is very much so not the same as a character with a set identity whose terms are not written out.
Ultimately, transgender representation right now needs a balance of set identities and fluid ones. To ensure that everyone feels like they can empathize with characters in literature, we need to do a better job of showing trans narratives outside of the rigid binary. This is just step one.
What happened to that “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing? I was just getting used to it!
Sorry about that! During the months of November and December, the Blog Hop is on break for NaNoWriMo and various holidays. Don’t worry, it’ll be back up in January!