Here's What It's Like to Be Gender Queer

May 23rd 2015

"When somebody forced me to pick a gender, I didn't know what to say. And that caused a great deal of tension in everyone else,” said Aidan Key in the documentary “Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders.” 

What is Gender Queer?

The paucity of public awareness about the community of people who don't view themselves within the binary categorizations of male and female (hereafter primarily referred to as gender queer in this article) motivated journalist and filmmaker Lonny Shavelson to produce and direct “Three to Infinity." The film won the award for Best Feature Documentary at the 2015 Art of Brooklyn Film Festival and will air at San Francisco’s DocFest in June and Vancouver’s Queer Film Festival in August.

Shavelson chose to focus completely on the stories of the 11 individuals profiled in "Three to Infinity" rather than relying on the input of gender studies experts and psychologists. According to Shavelson, the entirety of the 84-minute film’s expenses ran under $1,500.

In addition to living with a lack of public understanding, members of the gender queer community are often threatened by violence. “Violence is a part of my life, my lovers' lives. We have the scars and the missing teeth to prove it,” said Char Crawford, one of the film’s subjects. Another, Sasha Fleischman, was set on fire on an Oakland bus. 

I spoke with Lonny Shavelson about the lack of awareness surrounding the gender spectrum (covered by ATTN: earlier this month) and the challenge of combating ingrained gender stereotypes. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How would you present the idea of gender as spectrum to those who aren't familiar with the concept?

Number one it's in the title, which helps. As long as there was written and oral history, we have been divided into two groups, male and female—the idea is that once you open that concept up so that there are more genders than male and female, let's just say there might be three—you have to acknowledge that there must be infinite genders after that. There are so many possible varieties in the spectrum. That's where I came up with the title "Three to Infinity." Once you start with three, you go to infinity.

Another way to express it is that every individual, once you move away from that binary male and female concept, has the potential to have their own individual gender. It could be a little bit more male or a little bit more female. It could be "I have nothing to do with gender at all." And it could be "I incorporate various elements" or "I incorporate no elements, and I'm inventing something new." There's an entirely wide spectrum of gender, and then if you add in the concept of how gender relates to sexuality, you have an even wider spectrum. It's really infinite.

How did you decide to focus on this issue?

I decided to focus on this particular issue because there just wasn't enough information out there. What I found was that I kept meeting people who were saying they were gender queer or gender neutral, lots of different names, but all kind of implying the same general thing and I found that I just didn't know much about it. More surprisingly, all the editors I was working with at different places also hadn't heard much about it. I kept hearing more from the community of gender queer people that they're there, and they're growing, and that this [issue] is crucial to know about, but I found that the community of cis people [people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth], or even trans people in general, really didn't know what exactly gender queer meant.

So it seemed like there was a big gap in knowledge, and I was thinking about if I wanted to do a radio story, or write an article, or do a short film. It struck me as I looked into this issue that it got more and more intriguing and complex and rich, and that it really deserved its own film.

What would you say are the most common challenges faced by individuals who identify as neither female nor male? 

I think right now the biggest challenge is knowledge. Many people who are gender queer say, "I'm really tired of having to teach people what gender queer means." The biggest gap at the moment is that a lot of people who are more open-minded are kind of stunned the first time they hear about it. A lot of people who are gender queer find they are constantly explaining what it means. I think that's a very significant challenge. Also, there are so many names for gender queer: agender, gender neutral, I could go on for about 50 or 60 names, which Facebook has done.

Language is in an obstacle in a couple of ways. One, there's no common name that says "this is what I am," so it's very confusing for people to keep hearing about all these different interpretations, and to understand what the difference between agender and gender neutral is. It's pretty subtle, but it's there. Pronouns are also an extremely difficult problem. It's hard for people to keep calling somebody "they" if they are an individual. It takes awhile to get used to saying they as a [singular] pronoun, or any other choice of pronoun. These are all technicalities—there are issues about pronouns, there are issues about names, there are issues about bathrooms, but in the end the major issue is lack of knowledge about a growing part of our population. 

ATTN: has covered the fight for gender-neutral bathrooms–what other policy changes do you think are most imminent or necessary in relation to this community? 

The fundamental policy change that's needed is to stop using gender where gender doesn't have to be known. I would venture that if you go to most websites and sign on, they invariably will ask what your gender is when it's A) none of their business and B) it should change nothing about what they know about you. We continue to focus on gender as such an important way of understanding somebody when it really offers very little information about the person. People can be one gender or the other, or an infinite number of genders, and it doesn't tell you a whole lot about what they're like as an individual.

We pay way too much attention to gender in this country, and it creates divisions, problems with prejudice and a lot of difficulty. If we would just let people be the gender that they want to be and not have it required on driver's licenses, every time you get onto an airplane, every time you apply for credit—everything you do, people are making you check a box about your gender, and there's really not much reason for that.

Would you say that transgender concerns and issues are different in any way than the concerns and issues of the gender queer population?

Technically, you have to say that somebody's who gender queer falls under the trans umbrella because the definition of trans is not that you have switched to another gender, from male to female or female to male. The definition of trans is that you are not feeling that the gender you were assigned at birth is your gender. That doesn't mean that you have to switch to the other gender, it means that you could switch to infinite numbers of other genders. I think in some ways there's a bit of a disservice in that definition because the great majority of people think of trans as the switch of genders from one to the other, and technically trans just means that you're not the gender you were told you were in the first place. I think gender queer and the rest should be separated from that [trans] umbrella, mainly for the reasons of public understanding.

You mentioned the importance of focusing less on gender. What other steps do you think our society needs to take to combat ingrained gender stereotypes?

I think this particular movement will move forward as the gay and lesbian movement moved forward: as more people came out, it became more public and more known. You begin to see that there's nothing special about your gay neighbor that deserves any prejudice or fear. As trans people are coming out, you're getting an understanding, and as you read about, hear about, and see and know more trans people, prejudice decreases. I think the same will be true of gender queer people as they really make their voices heard and are known more. There's no need for a massive policy shift; it's more of an awareness.

Do you view combating gender stereotypes even within the cis community, i.e. men are X and women are Y—do you think that's integral to this progress as well?

Sure. As I said earlier, what we need to do is pay much less attention to gender in general. When you apply for a bank loan, should the bank know if it's a male or female on the loan application? Right now it's there. Why do people want to know if you're male or female? Because there are stereotypes associated with it, and that's just got to go. The more that gender queer people teach us, the more we'll be aware of gender stereotypes for cis people, for gender queer people, for trans people, for anyone.

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