(Image credit: Getty)
https://www.bbc.com/-By Jessica Klein
For some people, gender identity and expression isn’t fixed – rather, it can change daily.
Carla Hernando, 26, never quite felt like they fit into a particular gender. Then, when Covid-19 took hold in March 2020, they got a lot of alone time to reflect on their identity. The journey continued during Pride Month that June, when Hernando found both an article and a documentary on non-binary gender identities, by Time Out Barcelona, further opening their mind to possibilities beyond the gender binary of ‘woman’ or ‘man’.
“[Spain] is way behind in terms of gender,” believes the Barcelona-based Hernando, who uses both they/them and she/her pronouns. “I did not know what non-binary meant. I just had felt completely different my entire life.” But the more education they got about the range of possibilities outside the gender binary of ‘woman’ or ‘man’, the more they felt they related.
That experience was the gateway to another discovery: the term ‘gender fluid’. Hernando felt it was an even more apt descriptor for their gender identity.
“One day I wake up and feel more feminine, and maybe I want to wear a crop top and put earrings on. And then there’s times in which I’m like, I need my [chest] binder [to minimise the appearance of my breasts], because I’m not feeling it,” they say. The lived experience of gender fluidity – wearing a binder one day and more feminine outfit the next – is what ultimately helped Hernando discover that the term applied to them.
The term ‘gender fluidity’ has come to best describe the way some people feel they fit outside the gender binary. The term acknowledges that gender doesn’t have to be fixed, and de-emphasises the need to align oneself with a specific gender – a concept more and more people are moving away from, as conversations about alternate ways to express and experience gender proliferate.
Gender fluidity has grown even more visible as celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose and Cara Delevingne embrace it in the public eye. The term is hard to pin down precisely, since it describes such a vast array of people and experiences, say experts. “There are as many ways to navigate gender fluidity as there are gender-fluid people,” says Philadelphia-based Liz Powell, a gender-fluid psychologist, who works with many gender-fluid clients. But at its foundation, she explains, gender fluidity enables people to take their identity and expression one day at time, instead of feeling tied to a single, overarching gender label.
For many people who are gender fluid, the discovery of the descriptor has been liberating, helping them understand themselves and the way they live.
Gender is ‘not a fixed point’
The origin of gender fluidity has roots in the notion of sexual fluidity: the idea that sexual orientations exist beyond straight, bisexual or gay, and might shift over the course of a person’s lifetime.
“In many ways, our definitions of gender fluidity that we use now are borrowed from the language that helped us understand sexual fluidity,” says Lisa Diamond, psychology and gender-studies professor at The University of Utah, US, who began studying the field in the 1990s. “We used to think people came in two flavours, heterosexuals and homosexuals… then we realised there are some folks who do not feel like they fit in either category.” That gave birth to the term bisexual, but, as Diamond explains, that didn’t work for everybody, either.
“Others said, ‘That doesn’t fit me because I don’t tend to stay in one category completely consistently over time,’” Diamond says. “Sexual fluidity was a way to try to describe and explain that phenomenon of change and development and oscillation and growth and sensitivity to environmental contexts … We quickly found out that the very same issue applies to gender.”
Everyone whom BBC Worklife spoke with for this article described gender fluidity in slightly different ways, but they all landed on roughly the same idea: it indicates that gender “is not a fixed point”, as Powell puts it, but rather flexible and able to shift depending on various factors, both within a person’s internal self as well as their external surroundings.
For instance, certain environments may dictate how a gender-fluid person expresses themselves, says Erin Davis, a sociology professor at Cornell College in Iowa, US. Perhaps a traditional work environment may move a gender-fluid person to present more feminine or masculine to fit in with colleagues, she suggests.
Like Hernando, Powell dresses differently depending on how they feel at a certain day or moment. At the same time, however, Powell says gendered societal norms also influence how they decide to dress to best present their gender identity.
“For me personally, because I have a very curvy body… if I wear clothing that is at all feminine, people just see me as a woman and will not take me out of the woman box,” says Powell. To better portray that they’re not simply a woman, Powell finds themselves tending to dress in more masculine attire, so that others will be more likely to acknowledge their gender fluidity.
There are as many ways to navigate gender fluidity as there are gender-fluid people – Liz Powell
However, it’s important to note, says Davis, that someone’s gender expression on a given day doesn’t necessarily need to mirror how they perceive their own gender identity overall. For example, on days when Hernando outwardly presents as more feminine, they don’t necessarily identify with being a woman.
Living as gender fluid
Long before learning about gender fluidity, Hernando, who was assigned female at birth, felt different from those who identified as either male or female. Even as a kid, they say, their mother recalled that Hernando “wanted to be a boy”.
As Hernando got older, however, they realised their gender wasn’t as simple as “wanting to be a boy”. But without a name to describe how they felt, they were left with the default option: female. “I was feeling like I was supposed to be a woman, but maybe that meant that I was a more masculine woman,” they say. “I didn’t feel comfortable in that either, so it was just a constant not fitting anywhere.”
Now, Hernando feels “freedom” in “not giving gender a shape”, they say. They express that freedom in both how they dress and how they relate to others. Hernando has noticed there are fewer automatic assumptions that they will act out a certain gender role among acquaintances, and they’re able to better communicate what they want or need. In the past, for example, if a cis male addressed them as a “very pretty girl”, Hernando says they might have played along, and even tried to act more feminine. Today, Hernando replies to such comments by stating their gender identity and preferred pronouns. If the person doesn’t respect that, it’s a red flag for Hernando, and they stay away.
But there are also challenges. While their parents ultimately accepted their gender identity, Hernando still struggled explaining the concept of non-gendered pronoun use to their mother. And friends sometimes ask invasive questions, like, “What kind of bathroom do you use?”
Plus, there are still places where Hernando doesn’t feel so comfortable publicly identifying as gender fluid. For example, many doctors’ offices still require patients to identify as “male or female” on intake forms. “If I’m going to the gynaecologist, and I want to talk to her about [gender identity], receiving this form starts making me feel a bit anxious,” says Hernando, “because I’m like, will she understand what I need to tell her?”
Overall, however, Hernando says that understanding themselves as a gender-fluid person has been a boon. “Because I know who I am, I can set very clear boundaries when I relate to certain people – boundaries that before I didn’t put up because I felt like I had to be pleasing everyone all the time to be accepted,” says Hernando. For instance, they’ve been able to be more explicit with others about what feels comfortable for them sexually. “I’ve made this body’s pleasure a priority, whatever that pleasure looks like,” they say – a priority that’s facilitated finding partners who show Hernando respect and make them feel safe.
Rise in young people expressing gender fluidity
Some data indicates experiences like Hernando’s may be on the rise. According to Diamond’s research from 2020, the number of children and adolescents reporting gender identities or expressions that differ from what they were assigned at birth is growing.
In a 2018 study of more than 80,000 9th and 11th graders in Minnesota, US, 3% said they saw themselves as “transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or unsure of their gender identity”. In a 2015 Splinter magazine poll cited in Diamond’s paper, in which researchers surveyed more than 1,000 young adults, more than half of millennials said they “believed that gender exists on a spectrum and should not be limited to male and female categories”.
However, Diamond believes this doesn’t indicate that gender fluidity is a new phenomenon. “The rise in expressions for gender fluidity doesn’t mean there’s a new experience happening in the world,” she says. “There’s a new vocabulary available to describe what’s been happening in the world.”
That vocabulary, she suggests, has spread widely via the internet. “[The internet] gave people in their basements who’d never even heard of transgender or queer or anything, from Mozambique to France to Nebraska, [the ability] to instantly and with no financial cost find their experiences reflected back to them in the voices of others,” she says. “That was unthinkable for those of us who came of age… in the pre-internet era.”
Since Hernando says they haven’t seen extensive conversations surrounding gender fluidity in Barcelona and Spain at large, they’ve relied plenty on the internet to get information. They’ve particularly turned to social-media accounts by gender fluid or non-binary people in the US and UK, where they see these conversations happening more widely and openly. “It feels like there’s more awareness about this than here,” they say, adding about Spain, “we’re on our way.”
Even as they feel there’s still work to be done, Hernando is finding themselves in a positive place, particularly as they no longer feel the need to please people who assign them gendered characteristics, like by calling them a “pretty girl”. As Hernando says, “Something really, really powerful happens when… you do not need that validation [from others about your identity] anymore, because you’re really happy with who you are.”