Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 12, Feb. 12, 2009


Language and gender variance:
Constructing gender beyond the male/female binary.


Anna I. Corwin, MA

Northern Arizona University

Linguistic Anthropology


Individuals who identify as “genderqueer” see themselves as neither strictly male nor female. This paper draws on ethnographic data including participant observation, open-ended interviews, and naturally occurring dialogue to examine how genderqueer individuals perform uniquely non-binary genders. The article finds that genderqueer individuals draw on existing gendered cultural forms through linguistic and embodied performances as well as narrative and combines them in new ways to construct uniquely gendered performances.


While the majority of individuals identify as male or female, there have been people across the globe and throughout time that have stepped outside this binary to claim alternative genders (Nanda, 2000, p. 1). To see gender as a two-part system is a feat of culture not nature: gender is culturally constructed through various socializing interactions (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003). Cross-cultural examples show the diversity of gender systems across the globe. There have been multiple-gender systems documented a number of American Indian societies and across the world (Nanda, 2000, p. 13). In India, for example, hijras are accepted as a “third” gender (Nanda, 2003). Gender variance has also been documented in the Philippines, Thailand, Polynesia, and Brazil among other countries (Nanda, 2000).

In the U.S., there is a growing number of people who do not identify along the male-female gender binary. This paper deals with individuals in the U.S. who identify as “genderqueer”. Genderqueer individuals define themselves as neither male nor female. While some genderqueer people conceptualize gender as a continuum between masculinity and femininity, and define themselves as somewhere between these two poles, while others describe their gender as existing completely outside of a male/female dichotomy.

Since American English third person pronouns have only two options (he and she), genderqueer individuals face the challenge of explaining their gender in a social landscape where the term for their gender (“genderqueer”) is not yet widely culturally recognizable. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the terms “genderqueer” and “gender variant.” With the exception of one edited volume “GENDERqUEER: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary” (Nestle et. al, 2002) there has been little else published on the subject. The present article draws on ethnographic research conducted in 2006 with a community of individuals in Northern California who identify as genderqueer. Since genderqueer individuals identify as neither male nor female, but instead claim a unique and non-normative gender, the present article examines how this unique gender is performed and expressed through language, style, and narrative.


The genderqueer community in Northern California addressed in this research held the belief that gender is fluid, creative, and diverse. Gender fluidity includes the possibility for one’s gender to emerge and change over time. Many people within the community described gender as a universe where male and female are but two planets in a multidimensional universe of gendered possibilities. This model allows for many iterations of gender outside of the male/female dichotomy.

The term genderqueer is associated with some significant paradoxes at this point in history. Since the category “genderqueer” has not yet entered popular discourse, and has therefore not yet attained a strict definition, its definition is still in flux.

There are very few definitions of the term genderqueer in print. In the book GENDERqUEER, the only printed work on the subject as of this date, Wilchins does not define the term “genderqueer”. Wilchins (2002) discusses gender variance and implies that anyone whose gender does not fit perfectly into the ideal female or ideal male types may be genderqueer. Wilchins (2002) notes a huge number of people do not fit into traditional gender categories, including, for example, anyone who has undergone a number of surgeries, including a mastectomy (p. 49), but nowhere in the book do the authors present a definition of the term “genderqueer”.

The only definition in print that the author could find at the time this article was written is Wikipedia’s Dec. 11, 2008 entry under the heading “genderqueer.”

Genderqueer and intergender are catchall terms for gender identities other than man and woman. People who identify as genderqueer may think of themselves as being both male and female, as being neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside the gender binary. Some wish to have certain features of the opposite sex and not all characteristics; others want it all. The term may apply to appearance, social behavior or a combination of the two; however, sexual orientation that is not limited to either loving men or loving women is described as bisexual.

Some genderqueer people see their identity as one of many possible genders other than male or female, while others see "genderqueer" as an umbrella term that encompasses all of those possible genders. Still others see "genderqueer" as a third gender to complement the traditional two, while others identify as genderless or agender. Genderqueer people are united by their rejection of the notion that there are only two genders. The term "genderqueer" can also be used as an adjective to refer to any people who transgress gender, regardless of their self-defined gender identity. (Wikipedia, n.d.)

Since the Wikipedia definition matches the definitions provided by individuals involved in the research, this is the definition that will be used in the paper.

Literature Review

It is important both to define the community and to situate the genderqueer community’s link to the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community. Genderqueer is a term referring to gender, not to sexuality. Thus the distinction between gender, sex, and sexuality must be made clear.

Gender is a category distinct from sex; sex is usually defined by physiological and biological categorization (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 7). While sex may be defined by biology, this does not mean that it is restricted to male or female categories. Many people are born intersex, with ambiguous sex chromosomes or genitalia, or with secondary sex characteristics that are not strictly male or female. The Intersex Society of North American reports that one in one hundred children is born with “bodies that differ from standard male or female bodies” (Intersex Society of North America, 2007). Despite the fact that sex can be ambiguous, most children born with ambiguous genitalia in the United States are subjected to surgical “correction,” where a child’s genitalia are surgically altered at birth to resemble those of a child with unambiguous gender. One in one thousand children in the U.S. receives this type of surgery (Intersex Society of North America, 2007).

The terms transgender, genderqueer and gender variant do not refer sex, which is biologically determined. They also do not refer to sexuality. As Knight (1992), whose research covers language among transgender individuals, wrote: a transgender person “may function as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual within the assumed gender role” (p. 317). Gender and sexuality, as Knight explains are independent, and one’s gender (whether they are female, transgender, genderqueer or any other gender) does not determine their sexual orientation.

Gender is socially, not biologically, determined. Gender is performed through a dynamic process that arises through social interaction. As Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (2003) wrote, gender is “something we do” or perform (p. 10). Eckert and McConnell-Ginet argue that if gender naturally arose from sex, society could simply allow a child to become a man or woman; however, this is not the case. They argue that it is through a life-long process of socialization that people learn to become “gendered” (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 15). Kulick and Schieffelin (2006) similarly argue that children are not “empty vessels” into which something like gender or culture is deposited (p. 352). Instead, one’s gender emerges over a lifetime through interactive process in which individuals accept, reject, or modify the cultural and gender norms in which they are socialized (Kulick and Schieffelin, 2006, p. 352).

One of the primary means in the expression gender is speech. As Kira Hall (2003) argues, linguistic performance both “fits” the world as well as constitutes it (p. 372). For example, Livia and Hall (1997) argue that beginning with the announcement “it’s a girl,” statements of gender do not merely describe the world, but are prescriptive of it (p.12). They go on to explain that the world is shaped based on language since the little girl will be socialized to behave like a “girl” and expected to act in specific ways based on the statement “it’s a girl” (Livia and Hall, 1997, p. 12). We create gender through discursive interaction.

Austin (1962), the first to write about the performative nature of language, argued that statements do not just describe the world (p. 1). Utterances, he argued, do things, affect the world. He showed that “performative sentences” such as “’I do take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife’” could change the world in the sense that before someone utters that sentence (under the proper circumstances) they are unmarried, and after that utterance, they are married (Austin, 1962 p. 5-6). Duranti (2006) outlines how language beyond the performative verbs (such as promise, pronounce, apologize) outlined by Austin can do things (p. 458). For example, Duranti argues that some linguistic features can index, or point to, a connection between a person and a place or profession. The indexing, for example, of a person’s profession by the term “doctor” spoken in front of their name can have significant social consequences (Duranti, 2006, p. 458). Another example is pronouns (he, she), which index a person’s gender and can affect the way the person is perceived.

Since genderqueer people are performing genders that have little representation in American culture, the unique linguistic tools that they use to perform gender are of particular interest.

As Butler (1990) articulates, gender is performed both through language and through embodied or non-verbal action. One famous example she provides is that of a person walking into a public restroom. As one walks into the men’s or women’s restroom, one performs that gender (Butler, 1990). Parker and Sedgwick (1995) argue that performativity enables “ a powerful appreciation of the ways that identities are constructed iteratively” (p. 2).

There are a wide range of linguistic tools and embodied performances that hold gendered meaning. Phonetic features such as pitch, intensity, and loudness are gendered (Smyth et al., 2003). Syntax and morphology hold gendered meaning – both on the pronominal level and beyond. Affect, which is embedded in all speech, is imbued with gendered meanings. Even speech style including directness or indirectness can convey gendered meaning (Keenan, 1991)

Embodied performances including the clothes we wear, whether we wear makeup, even our posture, embodied movements and gestures are variable and change over time. One’s personal style, is “manifestation of the self we present to the world” and can hold a range of gendered meanings (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 306). Through modification of personal style, language, and embodied performance, individuals can modify their gendered performances. For example, when a teenage girl first begins to wear eyeliner, this is a performance of femininity (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 307). In another example, hijra, an institutionally recognized “third gender” in India, who are born as men or intersex (Nanda, 1986, p. 35) use a number of linguistic, stylistic, and embodied signs to perform their gender. Serena Nanda writes that in performing their “third” gender, hijra adopt a number of unique behaviors including “dressing as women, wearing their hair long, plucking (rather than shaving) their facial hair, adopting feminine mannerisms, taking on women’s names, and using female kinship terms, and a special, feminized vocabulary” (Nanda, 1986, p. 38). Through this range of gendered signs, hijra perform their gender, a third gender recognized by others in the local community.

The present paper explores how genderqueer individuals in the Northern California use language, style, and narrative to perform their non-normative genders. As the literature shows, gender is something that people “do,” something that is performed through various publicly available interactive signs. This paper will outline the linguistic, stylistic, and embodied tools the American genderqueer individuals in Northern California use to perform their gender.


Since the focus of this paper is on the linguistic construction of gender by genderqueer individuals, and since linguistic practices vary in each community, the research goal was to focus on and collect data from one community of practice. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1999) define a community of practice as a group of people united by common social practices including, but not limited to ways of talking, beliefs, and activities (p. 186). By collecting data from one community of practice, I was able to focus on the linguistic practices of genderqueer individuals in one coherent social network.

Data, including participant observation notes, person-centered open-ended interviews (Levy and Hollan, 1998), and naturalistic data including video recordings of social events were collected the Northern California between May and August of 2006. Participants were all members of a network of gender variant and genderqueer friends. Participation was entirely voluntary, and identifying information remains completely confidential. Two methods to recruit participants were used. Most volunteers were recruited through word of mouth and through social networks. Each person I encountered within the community was requested to ask any of their friends who identified as genderqueer if they were interested in participating in the research project. Most of the participants contacted me through these social recommendations. I also posted a short letter describing my research, and requesting volunteers on two locally based list-serves that focused on serving the local gender variant community. All participants were connected through a continuous social network, as defined by Eckert (2000, p. 34).

Selection criteria were that volunteers were over the age of 18, and that they identified as genderqueer. There were 15 participants between ages 20 – 65. Thirteen participants were Anglo-American and two were Mexican-American. All of the participants were connected to others in the group through previous social associations. The sample reflects the community in which the research was conducted, and not necessarily the larger gender variant population in the United States. I followed IRB protocol in all data gathering processes.

Data were recorded using both video and digital audio recording devices. Video was preferred since many semiotic features, such as gesture and facial movements, cannot be captured via audio recording. When video recording was not possible or not welcomed by participants, digital audio recording devices were used to capture oral communication. Although the data may have been influenced by the presence of recording devices, I found that when the recording devise was kept out of the way (for example, set on a table) and when it was allowed to run for a little while, participants became more comfortable and less influenced by the presence of the device. Additionally, as Duranti (1997) argues, people usually do not invent patterns of behavior or language for the camera; even if influenced by the presence of a camera, participants still interact within a repertoire independently available to them (p. 118).

Data have been analyzed with attention to linguistic patterns that index cultural phenomena. All relevant sections have been transcribed.


There were a number of creative and unique linguistic and performative tools that the genderqueer individuals involved in this study used throughout the data. This section will first address the linguistic features including pronouns and phonetic features. The following section will address the stylistic and some embodied performances, and finally, the last section will examine the narrative of one genderqueer individual as an example of the ways in which narrative performance can be used to construct gender.

Linguistic features

One area genderqueer individuals have expressed gender outside of the binary structure of gender is through pronominal usage. The common third person pronouns (“he/his/himself” and “she/her/herself”) restrict speakers to two gender choices. Genderqueer speakers in the community in which I worked addressed this by creating a third, gender neutral, pronoun “zhe/their/zhemself.” These pronouns allow people to be addressed through language that situates them outside of male and female genders. Social introductions in the community included the question “which pronoun do you use?” This allows everyone, even individuals, who are not genderqueer, and who use traditionally gendered pronouns (he and she), to choose the pronouns others will use for them. This practice allowed some level of individual agency in the use of third-person pronouns others used to reference an individual.

While many people in the community prefer “zhe,” others expressed no opinion, and others created alternative choices. For example, a participant named Taylor was asked which pronoun zhe preferred, zhe responded “I prefer lots of different ones,” explaining that it made them “happiest” when people switched pronouns, using a combination of masculine, feminine, and gender neutral pronouns. Taylor’s choice shows both creativity, and a level of subversive resistance to gender norms. By asking people to change pronoun use for zhem, Taylor is refusing to be boxed in to any gender category. While some people in the community did not ask to be referred to by the prnoun “zhe”, the use of these new pronouns was found throughout the community. Every participant in the research was aware of and used the alternative the new third-person pronouns (zhe) for others in the community.

In addition to the use of alterative gender-neutral pronouns, genderqueer individuals in the community also performed uniquely non-normative genders on the phonetic level. An analysis of pitch contours of 13 1 participants speech found that 9 of the 13 of the research participants presented a unique phonetic pattern that combines stereotypically feminine and masculine phonetic patterns.

Many phonetic features hold gendered meanings. For example, most men have longer vocal tracts, and therefore have lower voice pitch (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 13). While this can be traced to a biological explanation, there are also social factors involved in the gendering of pitch. For example, beginning in childhood, girls tend to modify their vocal tracts to raise them higher, while boys lower the pitch of their voices (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003, p. 18). Pitch can be modified in other ways too, as Besnier (1990) has noted, American women tend to make use of a broader range of pitch (p. 434). In other words, women’s voices tend to rise and fall more than men’s voices during similar interactions. In addition to this rise and fall, it has been documented that women tend to use more high-rise terminals, the rising intonation often accompanied with a question (Smyth et al., 2003). In sum, these linguistic features, including pitch range and intonation, are associated with gendered meanings. This previous research shows that in the US, a wide pitch range is associated with femininity, and is most often performed by women, while a small pitch range is associated with masculinity, and is most often performed by men. In addition, high rise terminals are associated with women and feminity.

In the genderqueer community from which the data for this paper are drawn, nine out of thirteen individuals combined a small pitch range, a masculine feature, with the frequent use of high rise terminals, a feminine feature. This combination of masculine and feminine phonetic features made these individuals sound distinctly gender ambiguous. The combination of high-rise terminals and a small pitch range demonstrates a unique combination of gendered linguistic practices. The combination of these two gendered features into one coherent speech pattern demonstrates a uniquely non-binary linguistic pattern. While this pattern depends on masculine and feminine features, the linguistic tool is used to construct a gender presentation that does not fall along strictly binary gender lines.

While on a micro-level these are only small phonetic features, on a social level, the unique use of these features hold social meaning. This social meaning translates into one element in the expression of a non-binary gender identity. Here, the linguistic pattern matches the gender ideology that genderqueer people are neither male and nor female, and present unique linguistic practices that hold social meaning developed within the local community of practice. This unique combination of phonetic features is one more linguistic performance of non-normative gender performed by genderqueer individuals.

So far, we have seen that genderqueer individuals have drawn on two linguistic resources to perform and express their gender: these include the use of a unique non-gendered third person pronoun, ‘zhe,’ and the modification of phonetic features in the performance of a uniquely gender-ambiguous phonetic pattern.

Style and Embodied Performance

Genderqueer individuals in this community perform gender not only through language but also through embodied communication including individual style and dress. Individuals used clothing to highlight or hide certain aspects of their bodies. For example, some genderqueer individuals who were born female and had breasts might chose to wear a tight shirt to highlight this feminine aspect of their bodies, or might wear very baggy shirts to cover this up. Posture and embodied practices such as hunching one’s shoulders or standing tall, chest out, were also used to invoke masculine or feminine embodied features. Another example is facial hair. A genderqueer individual who was born into a male body might grow or shave a beard to index masculinity. Alternatively, some female-born individuals took testosterone to enhance hair growth on their bodies and faces. Much like the phonetic features discussed above, these embodied signs of masculinity and femininity were often combined to create a gender-ambiguous appearance. For example, one participant named Taylor grew their chin hair long enough to be a recognizable small beard, and also had breasts that zhe did not disguise. This combination of breasts and a beard created a uniquely gender-ambiguous appearance.

Genderqueer individuals’ style and dress was by no means static. Individuals often changed the gendered signs they were displaying day to day. For example, one night when preparing to go out to the clubs in the Castro with one of the participants, Julia, who identifies as genderqueer, was rummaging through their closet trying to figure out what to wear. Zhe had settled on a pair of jeans and held up one shirt after another asking my opinion on which to choose that night. Julia pulled out an old tight pink tee-shirt with a political slogan and said “should I wear this one, and be a lesbian tonight? Or this one?” Zhe then held up a loose black tee-shirt and said “I could be the tall mysterious boy.” This went on as Julia covered a number of genders and descriptions as they related to tee-shirt choices, eventually deciding that zhe felt more boyish that night. Indeed, that night, we went to primarily all-male clubs where I was the only female-identified person. Julia blended in with the crowd, and (despite being female-bodied) was primarily interpreted as ‘one of the boys.’ There were many other instances, out with groups of women where Julia was treated ‘one of the girls.’ During these events, Julia switched their use of the pronoun “we.” The night we were out with all men, Julia used the pronoun “we” to refer to the group of men. Later that night, when zhe and I were alone, Julia used the pronoun “we” to refer to women. Julia also often used “we” in reference to genderqueer people.

This example shows not only creativity in choosing a gender to perform for the night, but also Julia’s agency in choosing which gender to present, and which group zhe wanted to align with. While most people who Julia encountered would not know or necessarily understand that zhe is genderqueer, through their clothing and language use, Julia was able to choose, within the confines of the gender binary, which of the two genders zhe wanted to present. Julia, while female-bodied, identifies as a subtle combination of masculinity and femininity, or “somewhere in between” the two genders. This “somewhere,” as we can see from the example, fluctuates over time, and changes with Julia’s varying embodied performances.

Creativity here is combined with a subversion of gender norms. While Julia does play with the presentation of their gender, zhe admits that zhe does not enjoy being boxed in to binary gender categories. “There are days when it bothers me more and days when it bothers me less…” The subversive elements of Julia’s play with their gender presentation come out through a playful trickery. Julia spoke about getting in free to gay male clubs where women have to pay a cover, and flirting with gay men before revealing that, as Julia puts it “that I have boobs.” Julia said that it was at these gay male clubs that:

I realized the power I had, people thought I was cute boy, and I was like ‘oh this is fun. I’m gonna flirt, I’m gonna dance… we dance, then people find out I have boobs.

Julia is not interested in dating these men. Zhe enjoys confusing and shocking them by passing as a man before revealing that zhe is not. It’s also possible that Julia enjoys being “normal” or fitting in for a little while before revealing zhemself. The subversive act of flirting with men may come from a desire to just fit in for a while.

Another example of individuals’ use of clothing to express their gender comes from a participant named Ezra. Ezra said if zhe had to choose just one of the two genders, zhe would lean more towards masculinity, but zhe says “I really like sparkly things and feel that they should be appropriate for all occasions.” Ezra often wears make-up and feminine clothng. Ezra says that as a child, as an expression of their gender, zhe modeled their outfits after a combination of Michael Jackson and Mary Poppins. Even as a child, this was both a creative and subversive act. Ezra’s father tried to prevent Ezra from going to school in such costumes, but with Ezra’s mother’s support, zhe continued to dress in costume. Ezra reported that the embodiment of these two characters, Michael Jackson and Mary Poppins, was the first indicator zhe can remember of their “genderqueerness” and to this day, Ezra says “I really feel like a fusion with both of them.”

Both of these examples address the role that clothing and the body have in the gendered performance. Genderqueer individuals in the community drew on a number of resources including clothing, make-up, and embodied practices including posture to perform unique non-normative genders.


In this section, this paper addresses one final mode of gendered performance: narrative. This section draws on a detailed analysis of one narrative to demonstrate how individuals construct genderqueer identities through language. The following narratives were selected from an interview where this individual’s genderqueer identity emerged. In the above examples, we saw people like Ezra who took culturally recognizable symbols, like Mary Poppins, and subverted these to construct alternative genders. The following section is a detailed linguistic analysis of a similar process. This narrative exemplifies the ways in which many genderqueer people use mainstream discourses of binary gender. In the narratives, the speaker quotes other people and perform Others’ voices to introduce the mainstream discourses of binary gender. After the introduction of this mainstream discourses, they subvert and reject them. They then creatively express their own genders in their own voice. The narrator speaks both in their own voice and speaks as other characters within the same narrative. Sometimes these characters are iterations of the narrator’s self (perhaps the voice of the narrator’s childhood self), or they could be real or fictive characters that represent the dominant discourse on binary gender.

In this first example, Atlas, a genderqueer person in their early twenties describes their gender as perceived by the outside world. For transcription conventions, see the Appendix, below.

Example One

  1. It’s like I don’t have a gender,
  2. I don’t really fit into any,
  3. any form like maybe I’m trans,
  4. what because I’m not fitting in with like
  5. “You’re female and you
  6. have female parts
  7. and you like other females,
  8. so you’re a lesbian” you know,
  9. like, it’s like,
  10. I don’t like that word,
  11. why do I have to have that word,
  12. I don’t like it, you know,
  13. for some reason it does something to me
  14. chemically like
  15. when I hear it go into my ears,
  16. it’s like “no::. Don’t call me that”
  17. And so right now I, you know,
  18. it’s more comforting,
  19. it feels more comfortable to be like,
  20. “I’m not really anything that has a name”
  21. ya’ know. and uh possibly I could be both.
  22. But I’m not, you know,
  23. I feel like more like I have no gender…

In example 1, Atlas describes their gender. This process as occurs in three parts. First, Atlas invokes culturally recognizable categories, and describes what their gender is not in terms that we clearly understand. Atlas says that zhe has “no gender” (line 1), and does not fit in with the categories “female” and “lesbian” (lines 5-8). Even though Atlas dismisses these categories, their introduction provides an important function. Female and lesbian are easy categories for everyone to understand. By introducing these first, Atlas now has a starting point to begin discussing how zhe does identify. This introduction and negation of these categories both allows Atlas to distance zhemself from a female gender, and it also introduces a clear and accessible starting point to begin a discussion of Atlas’ non-normative gender.

The second part on the construction of Atlas’ gender identity occurs with the introduction of an outside voice. In line 4 of the narrative, Atlas begins a transition from their voice to another voice through a few markers. First, zhe uses the quotative “like” (line 4) to mark the following lines as being spoken by another voice. The passage is also marked by a change in intonation, facial expression, and emotional expression or affect. There is also a shift from the first person “I” to the second person “you” as Atlas says “you’re female and you have female parts and you like other females, so you’re a lesbian.”

In a metaphorical sense, it is not Atlas’ voice that invokes these categories, but an Other’s voice, perhaps the voice of society, or someone more specific who has told Atlas that zhe is female. Atlas does not think that zhe is female, but zhe is able to quote the Other’s voice to show what zhe is not. Atlas can now begin to break down the claim that zhe is female.

The introduction of the Other’s voice provides another character with whom Atlas can enter into a dialogue. Instead of having to describe their gender identity in a monologue, zhe can now enter into a dialogue with the Other’s voice that zhe quotes. This dialogue creates an interactive, back-and-forth quality between the voice of Atlas’ self and the Other. This provides much richer information than Atlas’ description of their gender would if it stood alone since it situates Atlas’ gender identity within a larger social discourse.

The Other’s voice (lines 5-8) presents the dominant social ideologies of gender, specifically how the outside world sees Atlas’ gender. Atlas’ performance of the Other’s voice is rich with meaning beyond just the content. The way Atlas performed the voice is rich with information on Atlas’ reaction to and experience of the figure’s words. When saying the words “you’re female and you have female parts…,” Atlas cocks their head to the left, clenches their fists, lowers the pitch of their voice, and purses their lips, as if imitating a bossy and rather ridiculous authority figure. Atlas also follows these words with uncomfortable laughter. This affect provides information on Atlas’ reaction to the Other’s words, showing Atlas’ embodied discomfort with being called female. This is affirmed by Atlas’ description of their discomfort with these categories (lines 10-16) where zhe says that zhe doesn’t like “that word”.

Now let’s look at how Atlas defines their gender in their own words:

Example Two

(I asked Atlas when zhe became aware of their assigned gender)

  1. Probably, you know,
  2. just the puberty age
  3. when, like, I got,
  4. you know (0.5)
  5. “bo:obs” (Atlas makes quotation marks with fingers, laughter)
  6. You know,
  7. like, when they started to grow,
  8. I mean I call ‘em puffy nipples,
  9. but whatever…


Here, Atlas creatively defines their body in their own terms. As zhe did above, zhe first describes their body as the rest of the world would, using the Other’s voice, and describing their chest using the word “boobs” (line 5). Atlas quickly replaces this female-ascriptive term with a more creative term: “puffy nipples” (line 8). Even though Atlas does not see zhemself as having “boobs,” the term holds cultural meaning. Without the contrastive phrase preceding it (“boobs”), “puffy nipples” would hold little or no meaning; therefore, the term allows Atlas talk about their body in a way that people understand. It also allows Atlas to redefine their body in their own terms. The replacement of the term provides information about Atlas’ gender, and specifically their preference for distance from traditionally female categories.

In this passage, Atlas also introduces a figure separate from their own voice to perform the rejected category. Here, the performance is short, but like example one, is marked by a change in intonation, facial expression and affect. Zhe raises their hands and uses their fingers to make exaggerated quotation marks while saying the word “boobs.” Atlas also extents their lips into an exaggerated “o” shape. The performance shows how ridiculous Atlas thinks “boobs” are, since zhe says the word in such a mocking and animated way. Atlas’ uncomfortable laughter that follows the utterance acts as further commentary on Atlas’ own stance on this term. The overall performance serves to articulate Atlas’ discomfort with ascribed female anatomy.

Altas’ creative correction— “I mean, I call ‘em puffy nipples” (line 8)— transforms the performance of discomfort and distancing into a creative performance of a chosen gendered category that falls outside of the gender binary. Atlas’ dialogue with the figure allowed zhem to dynamically and agentively construct their own non-normative gender category while engaging an audience that might have been lost without the introduction and performance of culturally recognizable categories. Who would have known what puffy nipples were if Atlas’ hadn’t first shown us that zhe rejected the term “boobs”?

In this, Atlas, used three interrelated processes to construct a non-normative gender identity. Zhe first introduced culturally recognizable categories (“female” and “boobs”) and then negated or corrected these categories to more accurately portray their gender. Atlas also introduced the Other’s voice that contrasted with their own voice. This further distanced Atlas from these culturally recognizable gender categories. Lastly, Atlas created a dialogue between their own voice and the figures voice. In this dialogic interaction, Atlas was able to creatively negotiate their own gender identity. Through the manipulation of culturally recognizable categories and the management of voices in these narratives, Atlas was able to construct a non-binary gender.


This article has shown that genderqueer individuals express a non-normative gender using a number of semiotic systems. Through the modification of tradition pronouns and phonetic features, genderqueer individuals in this community created gender ambiguous non-normative linguistic performances. Through the creative use of clothing, style, and their bodies, they were able to perform gender in variable and creative ways. The examples in this article show genderqueer people drawing from the aspects of gender that they like and either rejecting or creatively subverting those they don’t like. As one participant, Ezra, said in an interview, the creation of a genderqueer identity comes out of a love and enthusiasm for gender, not a desire for it to “go away.” This enthusiasm and creativity emerges at the phonetic level, as people combine masculine and feminine linguistic features to construct a non-normative phonetic pattern, and on the lexical or word-level, as people invent new pronouns or as Taylor, who we saw subversively and enthusiastically invited people to call them by many different pronouns. This creativity also arises through fashion choices and behavior, as people like Ezra see “sparkly things” as masculine and appropriate for all occasions, or as Julia moves fluidly from one gender to another.

The examples in this article also show that a rejection of binary gender does not mean a rejection of femininity, masculinity and gender overall. Rejection of the gender binary for genderqueer individuals means the freedom to choose which aspects of masculinity, femininity, and other gender expressions best fit an individual at that moment. It means the freedom to creatively express ones own gender, and a resistance to prescribed gender categories that don’t fit their subjective experience.

Through a process involving language, style, and narrative, genderqueer individuals create new social forms and new gender ideologies. One way social change is forged is through an integration of the old into the new. Existing cultural pieces, such as linguistic features or pieces of clothing, are plucked from their original context, and re-formed into something new. As these old pieces are integrated in new combinations and new contexts, new social forms arise. And as new social forms (such as a new gender) arise, social change occurs.



Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Besnier, N. (1990). Language and affect. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 419-451.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Duranti, A. (1997). Linguistic anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Duranti, A. (2006). Agency in language. In A. Duranti (Ed.), Companion to linguistic anthropology (pp. 451-473). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Eckert, P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003). Language and gender . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, K. (2003). Exceptional speakers: Contested and problematized gender identities. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Intersex Society of North America. (n.d.). Intersex society of north America: A world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgery. ISNA Retrieved May 10, 2007, from www.isna.org

Keenan, E. (1991 (1974)). Norm-makers and norm-breakers: Uses of speech by men and women in a Malagasy community. In R. Bauman & J. Sherzer (Eds.), Explorations in the ethnography of speaking (Second ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Knight, H. M. (1992). Gender interference in transsexuals' speech. In K. Hall, M. Bucholtz & B. Moonwoman (Eds.), Locating power: Proceedings of the second Berkeley women and language conference, April 4 and 5, 1992 (Vol. 2, pp. 312-317). Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Women and Language Group.

Kulick, D., & Schieffelin, B. (2006). Language socialization. In A. Duranti (Ed.), A companion to linguistic anthropology (pp. 349-368). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Levy, R., & Hollan, D. (1998). Person-centered interviewing and observation in anthropology. In H. R. Bernard (Ed.), Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology (pp. 333-364). Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Livia, A., & Hall, K. (1997). Queerly phrased: Language, gender, and sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nanda, S. (2000). Gender diversity: Crosscultural variations. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.

Nestle, J., Howell, C., & Wilchins, R. (Eds.). (2002). GENDERqUEER: Voices from beyond the sexual binary. Los Angeles: Alyson Books.

Parker, A., & Sedgwick, E. K. (1995). Introduction. In A. Parker & E. K. Sedgwick (Eds.), Performativity and performance (pp. 1-18). New York: Routledge.

Smyth, R., Jacobs, G., & Rogers, H. (2003). Male voices and perceived sexual orientation: An experimental and theoretical approach. Language in Society, 32, 329-350.

Wikipedia, Genderqueer. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genderqueer


Appendix: Transcription Conventions

::: colons mark lengthening of the sound preceding the colons

( ) parentheses mark the author’s description of affect/gesture

(0.5) parentheses containing a number mark a silence and the number of seconds


1 There were fifteen participants in the study, but due to background noise and other problems with the audio recordings, data from only thirteen participants could be analyzed for phonetic features.

Return to Front page