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Genderqueer: Existing outside the binary

When Dylan Bush was a little girl, she knew she wasn’t. And they weren’t a boy either.


When I was five years old, I hid in our spare bathroom and tried to wee standing up. After all, that’s how all my friends did it. Except me; I had to sit down. This upset me. I just wanted to be like my friends.

I imagined wowing them all the next day when I, too, could stand with the best of them.

I knew what I was doing was somehow “wrong” – though I wasn’t sure exactly why – so I hid in the spare bathroom, the one no one really used. But my mother did catch me, and when she saw me her face contorted into a look of absolute fury and disgust. I scrambled to pull my pants up as quickly as possible.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, ordering me to stop immediately and threatening to tell my father. I was so ashamed.

I didn’t know what the punishment would be from my father for this clearly heinous crime, but the mark of shame was enough, and all I remember. I never tried to urinate standing up again.

In retrospect, I wonder where my instinct to hide came from? How did I know my parents would be angry? Was it already so entrenched in me from such a young age that girls should be girls and behave like girls and boys should be boys and behave like boys?

But I was a tomboy. I despised Barbie. I liked guns and playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was always Leonardo, the blue turtle. I took karate lessons and climbed trees and I never ever wanted to play with girls. I found their games of dolls and dress-up so boring.

A quick look at our family photo albums shows countless images of me dressed as Zorro, a sheriff, the Karate Kid, and sometimes all three at once.

Interspersed with those are pictures of me in frilly, aproned dresses, the ones my mother sometimes used to make me wear. But one look at these photos reveals how uncomfortable I was masquerading as the archetypal fairy-tale daughter – the grimace on my face, wide-legged stance, hands shoved deep into nonexistent pockets.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I figured out why the notion of being a girl/woman freaked me out so much and made me so terribly uncomfortable. I’m not a woman. But I’m not a man either.

For years I have been telling people that I am not a woman. Women friends at work would chat about make-up and dresses and I would shrug and say: “I don’t really understand this stuff. I’m not really a girl.”

“Demelza, of course you’re a woman,” they would exclaim, adding salt to the wound. “Why don’t you ever wear dresses? You’d look so pretty in a dress.”

I don’t want to be “pretty”. But I never really fought back because, well, if I’m not a woman and I’m not a man, then what (note the “what” here, not “who” because obviously if I’m not a man or a woman then I must be an “it”) am I? And why would I get so angry with people for pointing something out that appeared indisputable?

We have all been taught that sex equals gender. And I most certainly was part of the sex born with breasts and a vagina. So why was I so angry with people for pointing something out that was obviously true?

Now I understand that gender has absolutely nothing to do with what bits you were born with. Gender is a social construct. It is a performance. We are taught to exist within the binary: if you are not one, then you are the other. When I realised that I don’t identify with either/or, but rather with both, I started to question society and the social constructs we are force-fed.

I know now that what had made me so angry then with the women at work was their arrogance. Who are you to tell me who I am? Surely when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them? Surely I know who I am better than you? I am the one who has lived in this body and I get to decide who I am.
But I was so conditioned by the social construct and the parts I was born with, that my confusion surely shone through.

Branching out: Dylan Bush loved to play as Zorro, sherrifs and the Karate Kid when she was young. Her mother stopped trying to make her wear dresses after she turned 10.

People make assumptions about others all the time based entirely on how they look. Gender is how you assert yourself in the world; it is how people perceive and read you, and presume to know facts about you.

If you are a man that means certain things must be true about you. Men are competitive, strong, self-confident, aggressive. If you are a woman, another set of things must be true. Women are soft, nurturing, sensitive, emotional. But how much of this is really true for each of us, and how much of it have we just been conditioned to believe?

As I have grown older, I have become less confused. When I was a child, I was a tomboy. When I was 14, I realised I was a lesbian. By my mid-20s, I knew I didn’t like the term lesbian, so I began using the all encompassing term “queer”.

It has taken me 28 years to get to “what” I am now: I am genderqueer.
I am queer. Genderqueer. Gender nonconformist. I don’t identify as male or female. Just me.

Genderqueer is a label for people who don’t fit into boxes.

One definition of genderqueer is: “Denoting or relating to a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions, but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.”

What if you don’t identify as a man or a woman?

Bathrooms, pronouns and growing up in a binary world. Mia Malan speaks to Dylan Bush about being genderqueer.

Society’s preoccupation with binary categories means that genderqueerness unsettles people. They get uncomfortable when they can’t figure you out. They don’t know how to read you. They don’t know how to treat you. And it leaves them with a sense of discomfort. And fear.

Even though I am completely comfortable with who I am, the rest of the world isn’t. Often when I shop in the men’s section or walk into the women’s bathroom, I am looked at as if I am a freak.

Recently, I went into the women’s bathroom at a mall in Johannesburg and a security guard came in after me to tell me I was in the wrong place. I was shocked and I didn’t quite know what to say or do.

As much as I ask to be seen as a genderqueer person – and bathrooms labelled “men” and “women” are both the wrong place for me – I have no choice but to use the women’s bathroom; I don’t want to use the men’s bathrooms for obvious safety concerns.

I try my best not to look like a woman. I have short hair and I wear mostly men’s clothes. Sometimes, I bind my breasts. This is all obviously working if I am being told I am in the wrong bathroom, but what if there is no right bathroom? Where does that leave me?

I have bought countless items of clothing for “my friend; he’s about my size” in the men’s section. I can see fellow shoppers and salespeople instantly check my chest for breasts, as do most people trying to “figure me out”. They look relieved when they clock them.

While I have always hated my breasts and thought of them as annoying lumps of fat that only get in my way, they seem to provide a sense of relief and comfort to those desperately seeking to classify me. In this way, they are a calming balm for a heteronormative society and at times they allow me to hide in a binary category. But continuing to live with them is not an option.

It was after six months of wishing for breast cancer – so that I could “legitimately” have my breasts removed – that I finally realised just how bad a state I was in. I was prepared to endanger my life, as well as somehow see breast cancer as a lifeline rather than a potential death sentence.

I am disgusted and embarrassed by the thoughts that plagued me – and in no way do I say this to make light of the pain breast cancer has caused countless families – but I know that these thoughts came from a place of complete desperation.

In the five years my partner and I have been together, I have occasionally, playfully, asked her what would happen if I transitioned from female to male. I was always defensive about her answer.

If she was honest and said it would be an adjustment, I would get angry and upset. I couldn’t figure out why, as it was a hypothetical discussion and shouldn’t really matter. Besides, I knew I wasn’t a transman. The truth is, I was probably subconsciously trying to gauge her reaction and test the waters.

I want to transition. Removing my breasts is a transition. But I am not moving from one side of the binary to the other. I hate my breasts, but I love my vagina.

Earlier this year I “came out” to my mother for the second time in my life when I told her I was genderqueer and intended to have top surgery.

Her response was quite different to that screaming mother in the bathroom doorway: “Demelza, I just want you to be happy,” she said. “This is you, this is who you have been your whole life. What would you like me to call you now? What are you comfortable with?”

My mother, perhaps more than anyone else, has always known who I really am.

Despite her initial horror at finding her little girl trying to urinate like a boy, she is the one who shopped with me in the boy’s section throughout my childhood. She is the one who witnessed my shame when facing the perplexed salespeople. She knew I would prefer it if she implied that we were shopping for “my brother” (I am an only child) rather than the awkward, boyish daughter at her side. She is the one who bought her blue-eyed blonde-haired daughter toy guns and Zorro outfits and carted her to karate lessons when I’m sure she would have much rather taken me to ballet and bought Barbies.

After I turned 10, my mother never forced me to wear a dress again.
She has been supportive and kind and she loves me unconditionally. There aren’t enough mothers like her out there.

A lot of people in my life do not yet know I’m genderqueer.

It’s scary coming out through this intimate and public account, but I know how important visibility is. Perhaps if there were more genderqueer role models then others wouldn’t spend so much of their lives feeling like freaks.

I have known who I am since I was little Leonardo with the blue eye band trying to be like my friends and wee standing up. I spent years of my life trying to deny it, trying to fit in. I had to be a girl, or even a boy, anything but me.

Perhaps if we all stopped listening to what society is telling us we should be, we might just realise who we really are far sooner.
As for me, I am done hiding in the bathroom.

On the agenda: It is becoming increasingly accepted that may people do not fit into the socially accepted binary.
(Susana Vera, Reuters)

Gender does not always fit neatly into prescribed categories

A 2012 study on changing gender identities by the University of Chieti-Pescara in Italy explained that “many” people assume that gender “flows naturally from biological sex”.

But gender, defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women”, does not necessarily align with the biological sex an individual is born with.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) groups, such as the one based at the University of Michigan in the United States, have offered different identities for people who do not classify themselves within a binary gender role, either masculine or feminine, and may have “specific needs and concerns related to each individual identity”.

The US gender writer Marilyn Roxie described one such identity, genderqueer, as referring to individuals or groups whose identities fall outside of the socially accepted sexual binary.

Described as “non-normative gender”, genderqueer comprises different categories for those who “want to be both man and woman (androgyny), neither man nor woman (agender)”, a person “moving between two or more genders” and people who overlap their gender identity and sexual orientation, according to advocacy organisation Genderqueerid’s website.

The Chieti-Pescara study, through a web-based survey of 1 600 people around the world, found a significant number of people with “emerging multiple gender profiles” not aligned with the “stereotypical male and female roles”. Although 46.8% of respondents said they were born male, only 28.5% identified with the male gender. When asked how they “recognise themselves”, 28.8% of the participants said they identified themselves as both male and female, 8.2% said they were neither male nor female, and 8.3% said they flowed between genders.

In a 2012 report, published in the Journal of LGBT Issues in Counselling, Hugh Crethar, from the Oklahoma State University in the US, defined genderqueer as “individuals who occupy the middle space between ‘man’ and ‘woman’; they do not ascribe to the gender binary”. Genderqueer persons usually “seek gender neutrality” and identify themselves as “neither a man nor a woman” or alternate between two or more genders.

The WHO defines sex as the “biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women”.

One classification under sex is hermaphroditism, or what is commonly known as intersex, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This is when a baby is born with both male and female reproductive organs, for instance, with ovaries and testes.

Intersex is a biological trait but genderqueer is how a person socially constructs himself or herself despite the genitalia they are born with.

According to Roxie, intersex people are likely to undergo surgery to choose one sex (man or woman), although genderqueer people, who may often feel uncomfortable with breasts or testicles, may not surgically alter their bodies as they may see it as “a hassle or an unnecessary health risk”.

The authors of the Chieti-Pescara study said the “man-woman binary concept” was limited in that it “defines stereotypical social roles” and is not “adequate to define the complexities of personal identities”. – Persomé Oliphant

Persomé Oliphant is a Bhekisisa fellow and is sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund

Dylan Bush was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from February 2016 to September 2023.