The first time many of us heard the term ‘gender fluid’ was with the rise of Australian actor Ruby Rose and her breakthrough US performance on season three of Orange Is the New Black. With her androgynous character, Stella, people became curious about the star, and in 2015 Rose told Elle she was gender fluid, preferring feminine pronouns (she/her).
Rose has explained she doesn’t consider herself a man or a woman, but that she enjoys playing with her physical appearance on any given day. Pop star Miley Cyrus feels the same way, telling UK media personality Lorainne in 2017 that she feels like she’s not really a ‘girl.’
“I ask him [fiancé Liam Hemsworth] sometimes, ‘Do you like being a boy?’” she said in the interview. “‘And he’s like, ‘I don’t really think about it.’ And that’s crazy to me, because I think about being a girl all the time. I’m always like, ‘It’s weird that I’m a girl, because I just don’t feel like a girl, and I don’t feel like a boy. I just feel like nothing.’”
In her TEDx Talk, “Beyond the Gender Binary,” Dr. Margaret Nichols, the Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, says that in a few years, everyone will know a transgender child or person.
“What’s happening is that the culture has changed,” she says in the talk. “And the culture has changed so much that…transgender people are feeling comfortable coming out at younger and younger ages.”
But is someone who is gender fluid trans?
“To understand gender fluidity, you have to understand the concept of the “gender spectrum” or “gender continuum,” Nichols tells Brit + Co in an interview. “Although we are used to thinking of gender as a binary — males and females — the truth is more complex, even in cisgendered people. For example, a cisfemale actually has some cells in her body with XY chromosomes. A cismale has some XX cells.”
“While most people are comfortable assigning themselves to one of two boxes, gender fluid people consider themselves neither, or both,” Nichols continues. “Some gender fluid [folks] consider themselves ‘in between’ while others feel that some days they are more ‘boylike’ and other days more ‘girllike.’ The gender fluid child on the reboot of Roseanne is a good example: he does not consider himself transgender, but some days he wants to wear pants and other days skirts. Gender fluid people vary in their gender expression, not their gender identity.”
So, it’s less about what gender you may or may not feel, but more about how you express yourself within cultural gender norms rooted in specific gender binaries. And while we may expect certain behaviors from men and women, western gender ideals are changing, softening our ideas on fluidity and what it means to be a man or woman.
“In all Western countries, acceptance of varied gender expression has increased, especially in the last 20 years,” Nichols explains. “In the 1980’s, for example, a little boy wearing dresses would have been labeled mentally ill; in the 21st century, there is a book, My Princess Boy, written about a little boy who wears dresses, and the author (his mom, Cheryl Kilodavis) has a foundation to help encourage free gender expression in schools.”
While this concept may be new to many Westerners, gender fluidity has a long and meaningful history around the world. For centuries, Hijras have been a visible part of South East Asian cultures. The term is one that covers all people who may be eunuchs, intersex, trans, gender queer, gender fluid and nonbinary, mostly living in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. There is even evidence that Hijra have been active in Indian culture since the time of the Kama Sutra over two thousand years ago.
In 2014, Hijra were given official third gender status in India, removing much of the modern stigma associated with the gender non-conforming members of this group of people. The law followed Nepal and Pakistan in making the third gender option available on all government documents for the world’s second-largest population. While the term is still negative among many in India, Hijra are reclaiming their status after British colonizers passed a law in 1897 making eunuchs (and other Hijra) criminals.
Throughout history, and around the world, gender variations have been accepted (and sometimes highly regarded), and colonialism is at least partly to blame. As scholars have pointed out, gender restrictions were historically used in part as a tool by colonizers to control the populations they were taking over. Nevertheless, gender fluidity has quietly thrived for centuries.
Navajo people believe in four distinct genders (male, female and those that have transitioned from one to the other), and the Mojave people offered ceremonies into adulthood outside gender binaries for children who did not fit into cultural traditional male or female roles. Many indigenous populations continue to recognize “two-spirit,” a third gender that fits outside the male/female binary.
In 2016, The Guardian declared Millennials “the gender fluid generation,” citing their own loose study of how young people today define their gender. With nearly 1,000 respondents from 65 countries, The Guardian found that the gender binary is becoming less important to young people growing up today, and as Dr. Nichols suggests, gender fluidity, like other forms of gender expression, is something we shouldn’t even worry about.
“There is really nothing threatening here,” she explains. “Most gender fluid people simply want to express themselves freely. Gender fluid people make life more varied, interesting and colorful.” And, she says, at the end of the day, many of us express ourselves more fluidly than we might even imagine.
“I think most people, if they are honest, can see a little gender fluidity within themselves. Gender fluid people are just a little more extreme than the rest of us.”
(Photos via Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images + Allison Joyce/Getty Images)