Dear Dr. Eva,

​As one long-time member and observer of the GLBT community to another, I’d like to know how you understand the terms “genderfluid” and “agender.”  The term “genderqueer” has been  around a few years now, and my understanding is that it means something like, ‘engaging in behavior typically associated with the gender opposite to the one you were assigned, but not necessarily identifying with the opposite gender.’  I’m less sure what ‘genderfluid’ means. I realize it has nothing to do with genital fluids.

And what is ‘agender’- the same as asexual, or something else?

​​Old Timer

Dear Old Timer,

I agree with you about the meaning of genderqueer, although there can be variations in the meaning depending on the person, dictionary or website you consult. ‘Genderfluid’ is a different concept. As I understand it, genderfluid refers to individuals who are comfortable expressing both their masculine and feminine sides. Both genderfluid and genderqueer refer to gender expression (behavior patterns.) Gender expression is not the same as gender identity; more on this below.

The existence of these new terms, and the continuing development of more new terms related to gender, represents a opening up of gender roles in at least some parts of our society. This is a good thing, I think, and it’s likely most readers of this column would agree. However, it is very important to understand the difference between gender expression and gender identity. Unfortunately, a lot of people who identify as genderfluid define it as “identifying as both  male and female”. That definition of genderfluid implies that gender is not a permanent characteristic of individuals. I think this represents confusion between gender identity and gender expression. 

Gender identity is a person’s inner sense of being female or male, and is present from a young age, usually by age 3. Gender identity is a deep part of a person’s sense of self. Gender identity cannot be learned or unlearned.  Gender expression, on the other hand, means behavior that is considered typically female or male in a particular culture. Gender expression includes how people dress, speak, and behave. Gender expression is learned over the course of a lifetime, and is certainly not fully known by the age of three. People who move from one society to another learn that gender expression can be different from what they are used to. For example, in some countries women wear skirts and men wear pants. In other places, it’s the opposite. In some societies, women are not allowed to sing. In other societies, women’s singing is encouraged and admired. Standards for male and female modesty are different in different cultures.  And so on.  Gender identity and gender expression are very different things, and for clarity and respect it is important not to not confuse them in the way we think or in the way we speak and write.

The terms ‘asexual’ and ‘agender’ are not nearly as complicated. ‘Asexual’ refers to a person who is not sexually attracted to either men or women. Some asexual people, have no sexual feelings of any kind. ‘Agender’ describes people who identify with no gender: that is, they do not think of themselves as female, or male, or any combination of the two.

​​​​​​​                                                            Dr. Eva            

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Dr. Eva Hersh, MD
Dr. Eva Hersh, MD
Eva Hersh is a family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at dreva@baltimoreoutloud.com

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