“Agender”: Neither Man Nor Woman, But Definitely Fabulous
Androgyny is in. From supermodel Andrej Pejic to gender-neutral parenting articles, the media can’t get enough of us non-binary (“boy” or “girl”) folks lately.
But is not identifying as male or female really about androgyny? Is being elsewhere on the gender spectrum the same as being gender neutral? I look at pictures of Pejic and I wonder if I’m missing something everyone else sees. It’s hard to recognize androgyny (showing characteristics of both sexes) in a person walking down the street in five-inch heels, short shorts, and a flowing top, blonde locks perfectly coiffed Marilyn Monroe-style. The same is true for us average non-binary folks. Many of us identify, like Pejic, as neither male nor female, yet our gender presentation is not neutral either. Trying to get us into that box takes a lot of squeezing, tugging, and tucking.
In a piece on NYMag.com earlier this week, The Frisky contributor Rachel Rabbit White writes about people who identify as agender or neutrois, meaning a neutral gender. But the problem is that the folks White interviewed, like non-binary social media superstar Micah who founded the site Neutrois Nonsense, identify and express themselves in a way that’s consistent with most people’s mental picture of the word “androgynous.” For example, Micah uses the pronoun “they,” chose to have a mastectomy, and takes hormones.
Such steps (along with an androgynous presentation through clothes and haircuts) are common among non-binary people who are assumed to be female at birth, but they aren’t consistent across the board. “There are a lot of ways of being and doing non-binary,” explains non-binary trans writer and artist Merritt Kopas. “For some people, falling outside of these categories might be experienced as an absence of gender and thus named as agender. For others, it might be experienced as an excess of gender or a feeling that one occupies every category rather than none, which might be called ‘genderqueer.'”
The term genderqueer speaks to a queerness in expression that isn’t immediately visible. For example, when I walk down the street with a shaved head, breasts, and a skirt it is not easy to guess my gender: my expression doesn’t match my identity as genderqueer in a way that most people can see. Some genderqueer people use fashion to exaggerate their androgyny, while others may not “look trans” at all, or may appear to be binary transgender people (as in, a “trans man” or a “trans woman”).
Marilyn Roxie, curator of Genderqueer Identities, described the genderqueer process as a constant journey without a comfortable conclusion. “Part of the help in the drop of these [gender dysphoric] feelings has been in realizing that looking or feeling feminine aesthetically does not have to contradict having a male identity,” Roxie explained.
Writer and activist s.e. smith brings a sense of humor to the common misunderstandings around ou genderqueer identity: “Sometimes I think about buying www.sesmithisnotalady.com, seriously. [… M]y profile photo is a person with big tits and hips in a blue dress frolicking across a field of flowers. I mean, if it got any more femmey, it would cause a glitter explosion when your browser loaded.”
This weekend at Femme Conference 2012 in Baltimore, I met activist and performer JAC Stringer of Midwest Genderqueer, who uses male pronouns, identifies as a genderqueer femme, and has the website tagline “queery musings of a genderfucking femme boy.” And you know what? I’m pretty sure JAC also causes glitter explosions, sporting a head of bright pink and blue hair and sometimes dressing in a style that I can only call Lisa Frank retro chic. Yet JAC’s gender presentation, like s.e.’s, doesn’t feel “neutral.”
It’s a common assumption that non-binary people were all assumed female at birth, i.e. born with the body parts we typically associate with girls. With the exception of Pejic, who doesn’t have a pronoun preference and has de-emphasized the importance of gender in interviews, there are few visible examples of assumed-male-at-birth non-binary people. Kopas explained how this narrow POV can harm assumed-male-at-birth people and others who fall outside the typical presentation:
It seems that we’ve started treating the most visible examples of non-binary people as if they represented the full range of ways of being. […] Who does this leave out? People of color, fat people, male-assigned people… As a male-assigned non-binary person, it’s sometimes felt like a struggle for me to have that part of my identity recognized even by other gender-variant folks. People want to place me as either as a man because of my physical features, or a woman because of how I dress or because I’m on [hormone replacement therapy]. But there’s no non-binary uniform or medical regimen — nothing says that someone can’t dress femme and still identify outside of a gender binary. So if non-binary is to mean more than a particular kind of androgynous expression, then we need to talk about the range of ways that it can look and feel.
In short? “Agender” may sound like a tidy little label — but that would be an underestimation of every agender person that you meet.
Avory is a trans queer feminist activist and writer. Zie [a gender-neutral pronoun] blogs at Radically Queer and created the website Queer Feminism to address experiences and communities that are typically left out of the feminist narrative.