What It Means If Someone Is Gender-Fluid

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Millennials may be called "the gender-fluid generation" — 12% of this demographic identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, according to GLAAD. But even though celebrities like Ruby Rose have made the term more popular, there's still a lot of confusion about what "gender-fluid" actually means.
"People who are gender-fluid don't identify with a fixed gender," says Liz Powell, PsyD, an LGBTQ-friendly sex educator, coach, and psychologist. "They may move back and forth between gender presentations and identifications, or participate in queering of gender by mixing masculine and feminine presentations." In short: Defining "gender-fluid" is very unique to each individual who identifies with the term. The same goes for which pronouns they prefer to use and how they might choose to present their gender on any given day.
For Leah Juliett, a 20-year-old New York-based activist and the founder of the March Against Revenge Porn, she identifies as both non-binary (not identifying with the gender binary system) and gender-fluid, and she uses the pronouns she/her and they/them. "I see gender as a solar system; it’s so vast and wide with so many options that you can’t really contain it to a small binary scale," she says. "Some days, I may feel more male; some days, more female; and some days, I may feel completely neutral and existing in that grey area." She also says that it's important to understand that her definition of gender fluidity does not speak for everyone.
"To me, being gender-fluid means that you have one gender identity that is not exclusively male or female; you are both combined, or a mix of these two binary genders," says Julien*, a 20-year-old who lives in Paris and uses the pronouns he/him, she/her, and they/them.
Of course, while words like "gender-fluid" may be new to the public vocabulary (The Oxford Dictionary didn't add "gender-fluid" until 2016), that doesn't mean existing outside of the gender binary is new. We just finally have a way to talk about it, which gives people language to discuss and explore their identity.
According to sexuality and gender psychotherapist Dee Dee Goldpaugh, LCSW, the increasing amount of resources explaining gender on the internet has been a key part in raising awareness that there are more ways to identify than just male or female. "This is how I found out that I was gender-fluid, and — oh my lord — it feels so good knowing that you can finally put a word on what describes yourself," Julien says. "I used to think that I was only a crossdresser until I discovered the word 'gender-fluid' and its meaning." That said, both Julien and Juliett say that you shouldn't feel rushed to place a label on yourself.
But the reality is that there are still a lot of people out there who don't understand what it means to be gender-fluid. And for a person who identifies as such, communicating with people who don't get it can be one of the most difficult aspects of being gender-fluid, says sex therapist Kelly Wise, PhD, who is transgender. Dealing with gender dysphoria (anxiety or pain over "a marked incongruence between one's experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender," according to the DSM-V) is one of the main issues Dr. Wise helps his patients manage. "If it’s unmanageable to walk in the world, where people see you one way, and you don’t see it [that] way, to the point that you don’t want to go and interact with the world, it’s important that we talk about it with the people who matter to you," Dr. Wise says.
And an important tool during these discussions is the language to talk about identities that exist outside of the gender binary. That, coupled with more media visibility (beyond Ruby Rose), will help make the world a more welcoming place for the so-called "gender-fluid generation."
*Last name has been withheld to protect identity.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series