The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions

Language Evolves: Other Terms and Identities

As the 519's media reference guide illuminates, "Language develops at a community level, and gender-diverse people often need to find their own words to describe themselves and their experiences." As a result, there are many terms that have been used to describe gender identities, expressions, and experiences other than "genderqueer." They each have their place. Some flourish and continue to be used, while others fade.

This presents a cataloguing challenge for libraries and archives, even those that focus on queer identities. In cataloguing items, the ArQuive, like many other queer archives (including the wonderful Digital Transgender Archive), uses the Homosaurus as a resources to define the terms it uses. Unfortunately, it is bound by the limitations noted above, in that it largely captures a certain queer experience and omits others -- not by malice, but likely from lack of familiarity.

As a result, there's a lot missing. For example, the word "queer" itself does not have its own entry, and only exists in reference to queer theory. Neither "genderqueer," which only appears as a synonym "gender minority" and "gender identity," neither of which quite fit. "Nonbinary" and "asexual"  don't appear at all. There are gaps in representation. There's no entry for "third sex," but "hijras" are represented. "Bakla," "bissu," and "fa'afafine" aren't included, but "Two Spirit" is. It's a process.

In an interview with Susan Stryker, trans* theorist Sandy Stone said "Identities are in continual flux. They are created interactively in social circumstances. When identity ceases to change, it ceases to exist." A person's identity is neither static, nor is it limited to a single facet. We may settle into different identities as we move through the world: student, parent, teacher, and we may move around and between genders as we come to better understand ourselves and our relationships.

This is also reflected in the naming conventions of community newsletters, journals, and magazines, such as Affirmation, which began in Evanston, Illinois as a newsletter for the United Methodist Church in 1975. Initially, it was subtitled "Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian and Gay Concerns," and has since gone through several iterations, including "United Methodists for Gay and Lesbian Concerns" in 1980, "United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Concerns" in 1985, United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns in 1998, following a general trend towards including trans* identities in the acronym LGBT. In 2006, the newsletter was titled United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. In 2009, Tim Tennant-Jayne noted that he wanted to include the terms "intersex" and "allies" to the title, but noted that it was becoming unwieldy, and so proposed using "queer" as an umbrella term, and solicited input from readers, some of whom were in Canada.

Early terms that defined genders other than female or male were "transgenderist," "androgyne," "bigenderist," "gender-blenders," "gender outlaw," "hermaphrodite," "berdache," among others. There remain a plethora of terms that people continue to identify with, as well as labels that are attached by well meaning but ultimately misguided people outside of the groups that they are trying to categorize.

Some people have elected to opt out of gender categories altogether. Musician Rae Spoon describes themself as "gender-retired," for example. Others use the term "agender" to signify that they have no gender.

In My Gender Is… genderqueer artist Beena Mistry reimagines their gender as a series of adjectives with positive associations, rather than categorize themselves as one thing or another. In her zine, Mistry's gender is "charming like raccoons eating" or "intricate like gothic architecture."

It's important to respect people for who they are, and when someone shares the terms they use, it is important to honour that. A bit of advice: don't ask someone what they "really" are when they share their gender identity with you. They've already told you. Questions such as these are intended to police gender lines and stigmatize difference.

Each of the terms discussed below have contested histories and how they are used by people who identify with each term can be multiple. And that's ok. It is also worth noting that none of the terms identified below are mutually exclusive.

In fact, contesting these terms and attempting to find the right one to match one's identity has been a major part of the dialogue. There remains no consensus, which can make discussing these topics uncomfortable, as there are no clear delineations to where one begins and ends, but we have to make space for that to exist. Ambiguity can seem discomforting, but it seems unlikely that it will go away any time soon, and perhaps it would be best if we would simply get used to it.

A select list of definitions and contestations of terms related to "other" genders

Problematizing "nonbinary"

The term "nonbinary" is gaining in usage, with the abbreviation "NB" (pronounced and sometimes written as "enby") used to describe people who do not identify within the binary of female or male, woman or man. However, there are those, including myself, who dislike this term, as even it reinforces the idea of a binary even as it denies it.

Others prefer the terms genderqueer, genderfluid, gender neutral, Two Spirit, neutrois, third-gender, agender, among others.

Intersex people may also identify outside the assumed gender binary. In short, there is no consensus on any one term, which is why this exhibition is titled "Genderqueer and 'Other' Gender Identities in Canada."

The gender binary can feel confining, especially for those of us who can't find a place to inhabit within it, and so are outside the binary, or, nonbinary.

Parallels with "nontransgender"

Up until recently, we did not have a word to describe people whose gender identity and expression at birth matched their lived experience. The word "nontransgender" was often used to describe anyone who wasn't trans*, and even this was deemed controversial. Yet, it was a means by which trans* people mark experiences that different from theirs, experiences that were traditionally unmarked. Yet, using "nontransgender" still marked transgender people even as they excluded those who did not fit within it.

In TK, the prefix "cis" was introduced, as well as the word "cisgender" to identify people whose lived gender matched the gender they were assigned at birth. In this way, it became easier to discuss transgender and cisgender people, marking both categories, and providing language that feels more balanced.

In much the same way, using "nonbinary" to describe people who do to not fit within it privileges the binary as the default position from which we are marked. As of this writing, there remains no overwhelming consensus as to which term is preferred, and as such, many of us continue to tick boxes marked "other."

Agender, genderfluid, and gender neutral

Agender people do not identify as female or male, and tend to wholly reject the concept of gender, at least as it applies to themselves.

Genderfluid is generally taken to mean someone who is most comfortable moving between and within the poles of binary gender. They may adopt different styles of dress, habits and behaviours depending on what expression feels most correct at any given moment.

Gender neutral is an inclusive term that is often used to describe neutral spaces such as change rooms and washrooms, as well as clothing not made with any particular gender in mind. It is rare to see it employed as an identity category in and of itself.

Two Spirit

This term is variously written as "Two-Spirit," "Two Spirit," "two-spirit," and "two spirit."

In "Spirituality in the 90's and the Day a Red-Tailed Hawk Feather Fell to Earth," Albert McLeod recounts a history of queer Indigenous activism, noting that Myra Laramee devised the term during a woman-centred gathering that took place August 1990. McLeod writes, "one night the name Two-Spirit came to her and her partner Ginette. Later, on a hot afternoon at the gathering, a circle of eighty people spoke about the teaching of respect. During this time, a red-tailed hawk hovered over us as the name was introduced."

This umbrella term encompasses many different Indigenous identities and expressions; however, the Indigenous terms are also used and often preferred.

In an article on First Nations gender identities and expressions, Roberta Perkins recounts a number of Indigenous terms, citing i-coo-coo-a of the Sauk, the Sioux winkte (translated here as "man-woman"), noting that "Cheyene Indians had six gender-crossers, or he-man-eh (halfmen-halfwomen)," the Navajos nadles ("being transformed"), the Omaha min-qu-ga, the Mohaves alyhas, the  la'mana (man-woman) of the Pueblo, and Mohave hwame. These people held and often continue to hold honoured places within their respective communities. Though Perkins notes that difference was not always respected. She writes, "The Pimas cast their gender-crossers out of the tribe, and the Apaches went so far as to kill them."


This category is slightly different, as it relies more  on anatomical or chromosomal differences between what is expected (female-male binary sex and gender identities) and what presents. Chase is cited as referring to intersex people as having "unexpected genitals," those that introduce disruptions to the tidy gender binary often assumed. Intersex people may not be aware that they are intersex until later in life, though this is in the process of changing, largely thanks to activism supporting intersex people's rights.

The term "intersex" is favoured because, as D. Cameron suggests, there is more nuance to the word, and it speaks to "more choices than male or female," something more like a continuum rather than a binary.

According to Stryker, Chase

considered intersex politics to be related to queer and transgender politics not only because they challenged medical authority and called for reform of powerful social institutions, but also because the practice of normalizing surgery was such a visceral example of the idea that beliefs about about gender produced the sex of the body, rather than the other way around.

Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) in 1993 to advocate for the rights of intersex children and protest against unnecessary cosmetic surgery and genital mutilation. After determining the efforts of the Society to be largely successful, it closed in 2008.

The ISNA published a magazine and intersex people shared their stories and activist concerns. From 1994 to 1999 it was known as Hermaphrodites with Attitude, from 2001-2003 as ISNA News, and in 2005 the Intersex Society of North America Annual Appeal was its final publication.

Other identities beyond the gender binary

There are also other third-gender (and more) identities that also find expression within Canada, such as bakla, bissu, fa'afafine, hijra, neutrois, among others. These identities pop up in trans*-focused magazines from the 1970s onward, as interest in the greater diversity of human experience expanded. It has been noted that "discovering and even creating language for oneself can be an empowering experience."

For a more comprehensive list of related terms, I recommend the glossary in Charlie McNabb's Nonbinary Gender Identities: History, Culture, Resources.

Language Evolves