Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Gender fluidity motivation

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Gender fluidity and motivation:
What motivates gender fluidity?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Individuals may conceptualise and experience their gender outside binary male/female options.

Gender identity is one of, if not the first, identity we assume as human beings. Gender identity is a complex psychological construct, referring to an individual's internal perception or sense of their gendered self. Gender identity is a multidimensional construct, deemed to encompass an individual's genitally defined sex, gender roles and expectations, gender expression and gender evaluations (Galupo, Pulice-Farrow & Ramirez, 2017). Traditionally, gender identity has been very much confined to the male-female binary.

However, in recent years, non-binary and non-conforming gender identities have emerged to form part of our gender identity landscape (Losty & O’Connor, 2017). Non-binary and non-conforming gender identities refer to the experience of gender identity that is neither exclusively male or female, is a combination of genders, or is between or beyond genders (Losty & O'Connor, 2017). Thus, it seems that the male-female gender binary may be insufficient as it fails to embody the experiences of non-binary and non-conforming people, limits public perceptions of gender identity as varied, fluid and in a state of change, and facilitates the misunderstanding and marginalisation of non-binary and non-conforming individuals (Losty & O'Connor, 2017).

This book chapter focuses on gender fluid identities, and aims to explore the psychological theories which provide motivational explanations for non-binary gender identities.

Focus questions

  • What is gender fluidity?
  • What motivates gender fluidity?

Terminology[edit | edit source]

Gender-related terms such as non-binary, non-conforming, genderqueer and gender fluid are typically subsumed under the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender umbrella (LGBTQ), with little attention placed on the nuances, characteristics and qualities unique to each gender identity (McGuire, Beek, Catalpa & Steensma, 2018).

However, a rich vocabulary of gender-related terms has evolved to better encompass the true experiences of non-binary and non-conforming individuals. Table 1 identifies the key terminology and associated definitions used within this chapter. It is important to note however, that gender identities are complex and dynamic constructs; which are difficult to define and have been conceptualised differently over time (Fiani & Han, 2018).

Table 1. Table of terminology

Gender identity An individual's internal sense of themselves or one's subjective conceptualisation of gender (Skinner, 2017).
Gender expression The expression of one's gender identity to the external environment. One might express their gender identity through clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms and personal interests (Skinner, 2017).
Cisgender The alignment of an individual's assigned sex and gender identity (Galupo et al., 2017).
Non-binary/ genderqueer Such individuals may experience a gender identity that is; neither male nor female, is a combination of male and female or is between or beyond the genders (McGuire et al., 2018).
Transgender non-conforming Refers to an individual whose sense of identity and gender, does not align with their biological sex. Transgender is often used as an umbrella term to describe a plethora of non-conforming gender, including non-binary, gender fluid, genderqueer, gender-variant, transmale and transfemale (Rodger & O'Connor, 2017).
Non-conforming or gender variance Refers to behaviours or gender expressions which do not correspond with masculine and feminine gender norms.
Gender fluid The fluid movement or transition between and beyond gender identities (Richards et al., 2016).
Androgynous The incorporation of both male and female aspects into one's gender identity.
Agender/ gender neutral/ non-gendered/ genderless Individuals who identify as having no gender (Richards et al., 2016).

What is gender fluidity?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Gender fluid identities are not restrained by binary terminology.

Gender fluid identities are not restricted by biology or the pre-determined boundaries of society and culture (Gosling, 2018). The central characteristic of gender fluidity is a flexible identity, unrestrained by binary terminology. Individuals who identify as gender fluid reference changes in their identity and expression across time and context (Galupo et al., 2017). For this reason, gender fluid identities are highly dynamic and multidimensional (Fontanella, Maretti & Sarra, 2013); described as “shifting”, “beyond” and “between” the norms of male and female gender expression (Galupo et al., 2017) (see example description).

Example description
"I have a gender that is "fluid", that shifts and changes like a constantly flowing river. I am never "just one" gender as my identity is constantly changing" (Galupo et al., 2017, pp. 11)

What motivates gender fluidity?[edit | edit source]

Motivation refers to the processes involved in initiating, maintaining, directing and ceasing goal-oriented behaviour. Performing the behaviour in turn satisfies basic human physiological, psychological and social needs.

In the context of gender fluidity, motivation is defined as the driving factor behind gender identity and gender expression. On the one hand, we can explore gender fluidity as the outcome of gender identity processes. This means that an individual's physiological and psychological processes drive them to develop an internal concept of self – their identity – which is termed fluid and nonbinary. These processes which motivate gender fluid identity are explained by psychoanalytic theory and predominantly biological, psychosexual and psychosocial factors. On the other hand, contemporary psychoanalytic, humanistic, developmental and queer theories, explain the motivating factors behind gender fluid expression – the external behaviours which reflect a fluid self. These theories assume that a gender fluid identity is predetermined (at birth), and so it is one's gender fluid behaviour which is energised and directed.  

It is important to note that current psychological theories have not directly explored gender fluidity. Consequently, research and theory on transgender, non-conforming and non-binary gender identities, have been used to infer the motivational forces influencing gender fluid identity and expression.

Psychoanalytic theories[edit | edit source]

Fixed psychoanalytic concepts of gender dominates gender studies and governs much of society’s understanding of gender. Early psychoanalytic theorists argued that identity itself is motivated; non-conforming gender identities were the result of poor parenting practices, childhood trauma, attachment disturbances, and biological conditions (Losty & O’Connor, 2017; Rodgers & O’Connor, 2017). Psychoanalytic narratives may have perpetuated a “disorder-oriented conceptualisation of gender” (Losty & O’Connor, 2017, pp. 41), such that individuals who do not identify as male or female are viewed as sexual deviants and mentally unwell (Galupo et al., 2017).

Freud’s psychosexual stages of development[edit | edit source]

Gender identity formation, as proposed by Freud, is inextricably associated with the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex (female counterpart known as the Electra complex), signifies a child’s unconscious sexual desires toward the parent of the opposite sex, while simultaneously wishing to eliminate the same sex parent. The child eventually represses sexual and aggressive desires, identifies with the same sex parent, and internalises societal gendered norms, values, attitudes and behaviours. Freud argued that successful identification with the same-sex parent, and the internalisation of cultural and societal norms, enabled the child to develop a gender identity which aligned with one’s biological sex. Thus according to Freud, an inability to successfully resolve the Oedipus (Electra) complex and identify and internalise gender norms, motivated the formation of a non-conforming gender identity (Rodgers & O'Connor, 2017; Hansell, 2011).

Erikson's stages of psychosocial development[edit | edit source]

In Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, the formation of a coherent sense of self (knowing who one is) motivates identity formation and is arguably the most critical element in a person’s development (Levesque, 2011).

Erikson's "identity formation versus identity confusion" stage, indicates that the adolescent experiences an "identity crisis". The adolescent is concerned with two existential questions; "Who am I?" and "What is my role in society?" The adolescent, driven by feelings of confusion, anxiety and social pressures (to assume a social role), is motivated to explore who they are. Successful development of one’s identity is ultimately driven by a need to form a coherent sense of self, that is stable across time and context; a form of inner coherence and sameness (Levesque, 2011). Erikson might then argue, gender fluidity is motivated by the individual’s inability to successfully achieve inner coherence and sameness. The gender fluid individual; may be experiencing a "split" or fractured self-image; is in a state of exploration; and is experiencing confusion, ego defences, impulsivity and acting-out (Kidwell & Dunham, 1995).

Marcia's identity statuses[edit | edit source]

James Marcia (1966) proposed that an individual's identity is motivated by an "Identity Status"; diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium and achievement. As humans we are motivated to develop a coherent identity, and according to Marcia, an individual with a fluid gender identity may be in a state of moratorium. That is, the individual is in a state of exploration and indecisiveness, drawing upon the female and male qualities of those around them, yet unable to commit to a single gender identity (Kroger & Marcia, 2011; Cramer, 2017).

Robert Stoller's gender identity[edit | edit source]

Robert Stoller (1968) introduced the term gender identity to conceptualise the human experience of gender. Stoller argued that one's gender identity derived from three sources; genital anatomy and physiology; attitudes of others toward the individual's gender role; and biological forces (chromosomal, hormonal) (Green, 2010). Stoller's research investigating transvestites, transsexuals and intersex individuals, may offer insight into the development of gender fluid identities. Interpreting Stoller's findings, gender fluid identities arise from: early childhood trauma and humiliation; defense mechanisms; poor parenting; dysfunction between the mother and child; and biological anomalies such as hormonal imbalances (Green, 2010).

Contemporary psychoanalysis[edit | edit source]

Due to observed inconsistencies between one's identity and one's identity expression (behaviour), contemporary psychoanalytic theorists tend to focus on the motivations driving gender identity behaviours.

Losty and O'Connor (2017) argues that non-binary children, who are deprived of "gender diverse" language, knowledge and role models, are unable to express themselves in ways which align with their fluid self. Ehrensaft (2012) argues that depending on the supportive nature of one's environment, the non-conforming individual will choose to either express True Self or their False Self. According to Ehrensaft (2012), an unsupportive familial and social environment will lead the gender fluid individual to project a False Self. Out of fear of rejection and a sense of invalidation, the individual is motivated to conceal their gender fluid expressions and behave in ways which align with gendered norms. These individuals who express their False Self are more likely to report poor mental health due to feelings of invalidation, rejection and discrimination (Tebbe & Moradi, 2016; Budge et al., 2013). Conversely, the individual who receives social support and who feels a sense of validation, is motivated to express their True Self. That is, the individual behaves in ways which aligns with their fluid identity. Ehrensaft (2012) also indicates that tension between one's False and True Self, make it difficult for the individual to develop a cohesive sense of self and behave in consistent ways (Losty & O'Connor, 2017).

Humanistic approach[edit | edit source]

Central to humanistic models is a distinction between intrinsic, congruent or authentic motivations, and extrinsic, incongruent and unauthentic motivations (Cooper, 2012). Using humanistic models, gender fluid individuals are intrinsically motivated to behave in authentic ways (Sengupta, 2011). Changes in one's gender identity - the movement between or beyond genders - motivate the individual to behave congruently.

Figure 3. Individuals who identify as gender fluid describe and express themselves in ways which feel authentic and reflect their true self.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs and growth needs[edit | edit source]

Maslow's hierarchy of needs may offer an insight into the behavioural expressions of gender fluid individuals.

By satisfying physiological needs, as well as safety, love and esteem needs, the gender fluid individual experiences feelings of self-confidence, adequacy and strength; the individual is able to freely express their identity to the external world. Failure however, to satisfy physiological, safety, love and esteem needs, results in a sense of insecurity, inferiority and weakness, which in turn inhibits the expression of one's authentic self.

Maslow's description of growth needs and discussions of honesty and openness, may also provide insight into the underlying motivational forces of fluid gender expression. Growth needs provide the energy and direction to fulfill one's potential; allowing the gender fluid individual to progressively express their authentic self (Winston, 2016). An individual who openly identifies as gender fluid, is oriented toward personal growth. A need for personal growth, ultimately directs the individuals attention toward self-enhancing experiences, and motivates the individual to act in accordance with their sense of self. A need for honesty and authenticity motivates people who identify as gender fluid. A need to be honest with oneself, directs the individual's attention toward self-discovery, self-awareness and self-acceptance. Upon such, the individual is motivated to act in ways which feel authentic and do so despite potential stigmatisation and discrimination (Winston, 2016). In support of this view, Galupo and colleagues (2017), found that individuals with gender fluid identities behave, describe and express themselves in ways which feel authentic and which capture their unique experiences (see example description).

Example description of the authentic self
"I am somewhere beyond… I define myself…in a way that feels authentic” (Galupo et al., 2017, pp.14)

A freedom of inquiry and expression (Maslow, 1943), allow the individual to question who they are (outside of the gender binary), and to express themselves in ways congruent with their sense of self. In the absence of free expression, Veale, Lomax and Clarke (2010) believe that individuals will employ defence mechanisms, such as rationalisation, as a means of suppressing their non-conforming gender identities. Specifically, Veale and colleagues (2010) noted that individuals may justify their engagement in unconventional acts, such as cross-dressing or drag shows, for the purpose of entertaining an audience. Similarly, Winston (2016) proposed that an individual might "trade" their true identity, for a more socially accepted identity.  

Developmental theories[edit | edit source]

Developmental theories often utilise stage or narrative based approaches, to describe the development of gender-related identities and expression (Kuper, Wright & Mustanski, 2018). In coming to recognise, accept and express oneself as gender fluid, the individual progresses through a number of stages (Devor, 2004).

Devor's 14-stage model of transsexual and transgender identity formation[edit | edit source]

Devor (2004) conceptualises gender identity and gender expression as a developmental process (Fiani & Han, 2018). Ten stages of Devor's 14 stage model (see table 2), may offer insight into the development of one's fluid gender identity and corresponding behaviour. Although biological factors must be considered, Devor argued that the social environment helps to foster the formation and physical manifestation of one's identity. Devor proposes that all human beings are motivated by two needs; a need to be seen by others for whom we are, and a need to see ourselves mirrored in the eyes of another.  When these needs are satisfied; we feel a sense of validation; our sense of self is reinforced; and we are able to express ourselves in meaningful ways (Devor, 2004).

Table 2. Proposed 10-stages of gender fluidity.

Abiding anxiety The gender fluid individual feels a sense of anxiety and discomfort about one's sex and gender identity. Insight allows the individual to realise that their anxiety stems from a discrepancy between one's perceived sense of self and one's biological sex. In a world where gender is highly dichotomised, the individual finds it difficult to function within society. Consequently poor mental health arises and the individual engages in maladaptive behaviours (Devor, 2004).
Identity confusion about originally assigned gender and sex In response to their anxiety, the individual may question whether they actually identify with their assigned gender/ sex. Social and psychological pressure however, forces the individual to conform to the male-female dichotomy and hide their true self.
Identity comparisons The individual tries to navigate social and cultural expectations whilst also meeting their own needs of self-expression. Consequently the individual engages in "unconventional" or alternative gender behaviours, roles and activities. A female might explore the tomboy role or may delve into masculine or gender neutral activities, styles and expressions.  
Discovery of gender fluidity The individual discovers that gender fluidity exists and that other people identify as gender fluid and are able to express themselves freely as such.   
Identity confusion about gender fluidity In relating to the experiences of gender fluid others, the individual again enters of state of confusion, and engages in a deep level of external and internal inquiry (Devor, 2004).   
Identity comparisons The individual compares their own subjective sense of identity, with the identity of conforming individuals as well as the identities of non-conforming individuals. The aim is to determine to which group does the individual feel they best identity with.
Identity tolerance The individual enters into a stage of tolerance, and begins to communicate their thoughts and feelings to their network of friends and family.
Delay before acceptance There is a delay prior to the acceptance of one's gender fluid identity.  
Acceptance The individual is fully accepting of their identity.  
Integration Self-acceptance, affiliation and community support allows the individual to express themselves in meaningful ways, and integrate back into society as their fluid self.

Queer theories[edit | edit source]

Queer theorists propose that social discourse, shapes and reshapes concepts of sex, gender and identity (Diamond, Pardo, & Butterworth, 2011). That is, sex, gender and identity are merely the product of society. In this sense, queer theory aims to deconstruct or destabilise society's understanding of sex, gender and identity as binary (Goodrich, Luke & Smith, 2016).

Interestingly, non-conforming gender identities have been well-documented across the world and throughout history (Skinner, 2017). Ancient; Native American, Indian, Asian, Indonesian and Pacific Islander cultures, document the existence of more complex gender identities (Skinner, 2017; Fontanella, Maretti & Sarra, 2013). Thus, it appears that societies (Western societies in particular) and enforced social conventions, hinder one's ability to fluidly express themselves. 

Social norms, symbolism, language, stereotyping, politics and group interactions, presuppose that a correct gender identity exists (Morris, 1998). These societal restrictions hinder the development of fluid gender identities and associated behaviours (Hines, 2010). Foucault (1978) and Fontenella and colleagues (2013) propose that the gender binary, is one of the most effective "tools" in controlling human affairs and the reproduction of social norms. Due to entrenched social conventions; an overall lack of communal support; and fear of rejection and discrimination, the gender fluid individual is likely to adopt normative gender roles and behaviours (Giffney, 2017). Where diversity is encouraged; where fluid gender identities are embraced; where social norms, symbolism and language are inclusive of fluid genders, individuals are able to live to their fullest potential.  

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In the context of gender fluidity, motivation is defined as the driving factor behind gender identity and gender expression. Psychoanalytic theories propose one's gender identity is driven by psychosexual, psychosocial and biological drives. Overall, psychoanalytic theories suggest that individuals are motivated to achieve a coherent identity. Contemporary psychoanalytic, humanistic, developmental and queer theories, focus on the motivational forces driving gender expression such as growth needs, developmental processes and social factors. Given the widely accepted view that one's fluid gender identity is present at birth, it is highly recommended that research focuses on the psychosocial and developmental factors motivating gender expression.

Although the female-male gender construct has dominated gender studies, identity must be deconstructed to reflect the fluid and evolving experiences of other genders. Where diversity is encouraged, individuals are able to live to their fullest potential and express themselves in meaningful ways.

Notably, no single theory (and a limited amount of academic literature) focuses on gender fluid identities and associated behavioural manifestations. For this reason much more is to be understood about fluid identities and the motivational forces driving fluid expression.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Budge, S., Katz-Wise, S., Tebbe, E., Howard, K., Schneider, C., & Rodriguez, A. (2013). Transgender Emotional and Coping Processes: Facilitative and Avoidant Coping Throughout Gender Transitioning. The Counseling Psychologist, 41, 601–647.

Cooper, M. (2012). The Intrinsic Foundations of Extrinsic Motivations and Goals: Toward a Unified Humanistic Theory of Well-Being and Change. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 53, 153–171.

Cramer, P. (2017). Identity change between late adolescence and adulthood. Personality and Individual Differences, 104, 538–543.

Devor, A. H. (2004). Witnessing and mirroring: A fourteen stage model of transsexual identity formation. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy, 8, 41-67.

Diamond, L., Pardo, S, & Butterworth. (2011). Transgender Experience and Identity. In s. Schwartz, K. Luyckx & V. Vignoles (Eds), Handbook of Identity Theory and Research (pp. 629–647). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Ehrensaft, D. (2012). From gender identity disorder to gender identity creativity: True gender self child therapy. Journal of homosexuality, 59, 337-356.

Fiani, C. N., & Han, H. J. (2018). Navigating identity: Experiences of binary and non-binary transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) adults. International Journal of Transgenderism, 8, 1-14.

Fontanella, L., Maretti, M., & Sarra, A. (2013). Gender fluidity across the world: a Multilevel Item Response Theory approach. Quality & Quantity, 48, 2553–2568.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, Volume 1: An introduction (R. H. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books

Galupo, M. P., Pulice-Farrow, L., & Ramirez, J. L. (2017). "Like a Constantly Flowing River”: Gender Identity Flexibility Among Nonbinary Transgender Individuals. Identity flexibility during adulthood, 163- 177.

Giffney, N. (2017). Introduction. In N. Giffney, & E. Watson (Eds), Clinical Encounters in Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory (pp. 19-51). Punctum books.

Goodrich, K. M., Luke, M., & Smith, A. J. (2016). Queer humanism: Toward an epistemology of socially just, culturally responsive change. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 56, 612-623.

Gosling, J. (2018). Gender fluidity reflected in contemporary society. Jung Journal, 12, 75-79.

Green, R. (2010). Robert Stoller’s Sex and Gender : 40 Years On. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 1457–1465.

Hines, S. (2010). Introduction. In S. Hines & T. Sanger (Eds), Transgender identities towards a social analysis of gender diversity (pp. 2-19). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Hansell, J. (2011). Where sex was, there shall gender be? The dialectics of psychoanalytic gender theory. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 80, 55-72.

Kroger, J., & Marcia, J. E. (2011). The identity statuses: Origins, meanings, and interpretations. In Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 31-53). Springer, New York, NY.

Kuper, L., Wright, L., & Mustanski, B. (2018). Gender identity development among transgender and gender nonconforming emerging adults: An intersectional approach. International Journal of Transgenderism, 8, 1–20.

Levesque R.J.R. (2011) Ego Identity. In: Levesque R.J.R. (Eds), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (pp. 1478-1479). Springer, New York, NY.

Losty, M., & O’Connor, J. (2018). Falling outside of the ‘nice little binary box’: a psychoanalytic exploration of the non-binary gender identity. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 32, 40-60.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Mcguire, J., Beek, T., Catalpa, J., & Steensma, T. (2018). The Genderqueer Identity (GQI) Scale: Measurement and validation of four distinct subscales with trans and LGBQ clinical and community samples in two countries. International Journal of Transgenderism, 8, 1–16.

Richards, C., Bouman, W. P., Seal, L., Barker, M. J., Nieder, T. O., & T’Sjoen, G. (2016). Non-binary or genderqueer genders. International Review of Psychiatry, 28, 95-102.

Rodgers, R., & O’Connor, J. (2017). What’s in a name? A psychoanalytic exploration of self and identity in transgender individuals who were assigned female at birth. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 31, 140-159.

Sengupta, S. (2011). Growth in Human Motivation: Beyond Maslow. Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, 47, 102–116. Retrieved from

Skinner, A. (2017). Transgender Experiences Beyond the Binary: A Phenomenological Study of Arizonans with Non-Binary Gender Identities (Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University). Retrieved from

Tebbe, E., & Moradi, B. (2016). Suicide risk in trans populations: an application of minority stress theory. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 520–533.

Veale, J. F., Lomax, T., & Clarke, D. (2010). Identity-defense model of gender-variant development. International Journal of Transgenderism, 12, 125-138.

Winston, C. N. (2016). An existential-humanistic-positive theory of human motivation. The Humanistic Psychologist, 44, 142.

External links[edit | edit source]