Reflections on a year without gender.
For five brief months, in a hushed, edenic darkness, when I was still a small thing, no bigger than a hand, before the doctor’s ultrasound could make out the shape of my genitals, I lived without a gender. After that moment, for the following thirty-one years, I lived as I had been taught to live: as a man. Last year, I did away not only with the gender I’d been assigned at birth, but with any gender at all. In September of 2018, I told my family and friends that I was agender. What I discovered then was a deep connection to my pre-natal, pre-gender self that never got a chance to live. Living without a gender gave that embryonic self an opportunity to determine, on their own terms, who they wanted to be, free from the expectations, assumptions, and restrictions of binary gender. It was, in its way, a kind of rebirth.
Gender, even when it was queered, or fucked, or neutral, didn’t make sense for me. When I spoke with family and friends about my transition, or described to them what being ‘agender’ actually meant to me, I found myself likening gender to religion. Both gender and religion are, in their own distinct ways, social constructs created to help us make sense of our selves, of each other, and of the world. Many people, as they grow, find that the religion in which they were raised continues to suit them, and they keep it. Many others, however, begin to feel a disparity between themselves and the religion in which they were raised, and find another practice that suits them better. Some people, if they begin to feel most themselves without an affiliation to any spiritual practice, leave religion altogether. I am in this latter group. A kind of gender atheist.
I came to my agenderism with a feeling of relief that I could finally begin to distance myself altogether from gender, a concept that I had always struggled to incorporate into my sense of self. But in my first year beyond the binary, I was surprised and discouraged to find not only that gender would work its way to the forefront of my selfhood, but that I would be made to feel more masculine than I ever had as a ‘man’.
As any out queer will likely tell you, ‘coming out’, for me, was not a moment or a milestone so much as the beginning of a process that will likely repeat, over and over again, often daily, for the rest of my life. Our society teaches us, with an almost reflexive instinct, to place every individual, by a moment’s sight, into one of two categories, based on a set of established social markers. This is a hard habit to shake, and it makes being an ‘out’ non-binary person almost impossible.
I’m tall. I’ve got a spattering of facial hair. My voice is low. I am met, every day, with some variation of ‘sir’, ‘man’, or the soul-shuddering ‘bro’. I am referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him’ to my face, daily, by friends and family to whom I am now one year out. These words ring like a bell and reverberate through me each time they toll, often drowning out the next few words that follow. Words I heard so often for thirty-one years now ring so false and foreign that, even after a year, I have not yet gotten used to the sound.
When I thought I was a man, I was often mocked for thinking myself a part of the club. These discouragements started early. In the second grade, I recall my fascination with a girl named Jennifer, whose shoulder would slip out from the collar of her wide-necked sweater. I shifted my weight and tugged discreetly at my shirt, quietly shuffling my right shoulder out through my collar, only to be discovered, chided, and laughed at by my classmates. I remember being warned, in the fourth grade, to uncross my legs when sitting, because folding one leg over the other made me look ‘gay’ — a dreaded thing to be, apparently. Even in my town, which was famous for its queer community, the high school jocks threw ‘fag’ around at anyone they wanted to demean. I got hit with it and I threw it, too.
Looking back, I can hardly believe how long these moments resonated. ‘Fag’ dropped from my vocabulary by sophomore year, but I didn’t cross my legs again until college. I didn’t buy a sweater like Jennifer’s until I was thirty years old.
As I got older, I felt more and more comfortable pushing up against the boundaries of my masculinity. In my twenties, a friend referred to me as ‘slightly femme of center’ and I took on that description. It accounted for my identity as a cisgender man, but also for the trouble that identity brought me. It accounted for all of the attention paid to my deviance from the norm, while still making room for me in the club. For a while, it suited me. When it stopped suiting me, I told my partner, I told a close friend, and then I came out.
When I identified as a man, the bells tolled for my ‘feminine’ tendencies. The earrings, the nail polish, the vaguely soft and lilting quality that affects my gestures and my gait were noted, tallied, and thrown back at me. Now that I am agender, however, those bells toll for the vestigial masculinity that rears itself in spite of me to every passing stranger, every well-mannered store clerk, and even some friends and family who can’t quite kick the habit. I am reminded, every day, of how I am read in this world. ‘Fag’, ‘queer’, ‘femme’ though I may be, to whomever I may be it, I am still, irrefutably, incontrovertibly, a ‘man’. It is a reading that offers me undeniable social privileges, to be certain, but it is also a reading that refutes my true humanity.
In trans circles, the concept of ‘passing’ is a mixed bag. The idea of trying to cram oneself into a cis-hetero ideal of binary gender can be a source of pain, trauma, and dysphoria. For others, having their gender assumed, and assumed correctly, can, in many cases, be a source of affirmation and safety. ‘Passing’, for all of its detriments and benefits, is simply not an option for non-binary people. Society has no markers, no common cues or signifiers, for anything or anyone ‘in between’. At best, a non-binary friend told me that they strive for ‘confusion’. Confusion is the closest they can get to being properly gendered. At times, I relish in that confusion, too, do myself up in makeup and heels, and scratch each stolen glance into my mind like a notch in a bedpost. Even on those nights (and it’s usually nights), it’s likely that the ‘confusion’ only lasts for a moment before my stubble gets clocked and I’m reflexively placed back into the ‘man’ column under the familiar subheading, ‘femme of center’. Often, however, when I’m in flats and jeans, even if my sweaters open a bit wide around the collar, all that’s left to do is summon up some self-reliance and reconcile myself to being routinely misgendered.
In this way, being ‘out’ is not a static state so much as an acknowledgment, to myself and to others, that each new interaction will be tempered by an oscillation between shared discomfort in the form of an awkward correction, or internal discomfort in the form of a quiet conciliation. I know many non-binary people with the fortitude to try the former. More often than not, I opt for the latter.
A few months ago, I travelled to meet a member of my extended family. He’s a military man and you’d know it. He’s not tall, but he’s well built, and carries himself with the kind of physical confidence a consistent gym routine will give you. He’s always got a handgun peaking out of waistline. He shares my name.
I had decided in advance that I wouldn’t bother to correct him if he misgendered me, thinking it best to take my introduction to the family one step at a time. Discovering that I was a foppish socialist would be enough for our first meeting; I’d save the Brief History of Gender Theory for a later date.
Throughout the day, he was quick — almost determined — to gender me. He used the words ‘man’ and ‘bro’ liberally and invoked me whenever he told a story about what he perceived to be a gendered disagreement with his wife or daughter. Most of the afternoon conversation took place over a pool table, where he had challenged me to a best-of-five and kept score. When we weren’t playing pool, he was putting a sniper rifle in my hand and teaching me to hold it, elbow down, finger off the trigger.
I began to wonder what was in it for him. He not only seemed to think that I was a man, he seemed to want me to be a man, as well. It was almost as if he needed another masculine presence to justify his own. (I’m afraid I was poor company, in that regard.) But while, in this case, this desire was decorated ostentatiously with fraternity and competition and lethal weapons, it was not unlike the desire I encounter every day from every person I meet who seems quietly desperate to file me into the familiar places in their mind, in part, I believe, so that their binary existence will feel just one person more justified. Aren’t we all doing this? they seem to ask, not daring to dwell on the dangerous possibility that someone out there might just say no.
As I steel myself to my discomfort (which I know I must), what has begun to rise by its side is a disenchanted fascination with the pervading — and pitiable — reliance of our society on the gender binary we’ve created, suffer under, and continue, at the detriment of our mutual flourishing, to perpetuate. In the moments when I am (mis)gendered, what I see now instead of my own reflection is the reflection of a culture indulging a bizarre and primal need to categorize and reduce each other merely to get by. I see people so frightened by their own complexity that they project simplicity onto others. It comforts them to know what they can make of me, even at the cost of truth, and the cost of my discomfort, if it helps them to know what they can make of themselves.
But these costs are not paid by me alone. Each small debt accrues, and, in aggregate, we have amassed such an enormous deficit to the true complexity of our own humanity that I fear we might never be able to repay it. I fear we might not even survive to foot the first bill.
Binary gender has a deadly weapon: cisgender men. Cis men are catastrophic in their violence. The numbers bear this out. Intimate partner violence is the number one cause of injury among American women. The leading cause of death among pregnant women is their spouses. According to the New York Times, ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of [cis] male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.’
Ninety-eight percent of mass shooters are cis men. Ninety-six percent of rapists are cis men. Eighty percent of people arrested for violent crimes in the United States are cis men. In fact, cis men are so often perpetrators of violence that ‘being [cis] male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behavior in several studies.’ Cis masculinity has even been linked to climate change denial. As Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.’
It is easy to blame cis men for this violence. And we should. After all, cis men perpetrate it. But we, together, bear some responsibility, as well. How could we not? In the face of these harrowing statistics, and with the survival of humanity at stake, we continue, every day, in every moment, to create cis men.
When the patterns of cis male violence are addressed, if they are addressed at all, they are inevitably addressed under the umbrella of ‘toxic’ masculinity. The trouble with ‘toxic masculinity’, I feel, is that it posits a kind of aberrant, rogue masculinity as the culprit of this violence, excusing cis masculinity as a whole. If only we could remove the poison, we could save the well, or so it goes.
I understand the appeal. Identifying the toxicity of cis masculinity as a kind of invasive virus means not only that we could, theoretically, cure cis men, but it also, conveniently, lets all of us off the hook. It is much harder to reconcile the fact that cis masculinity is toxic at its core. As Laurie Penny writes, ‘Masculinity, of course, is not in crisis — to a large degree, masculinity is crisis’.
Whether or not an oppressive system of social control is malfunctioning depends entirely on whether you expect it to be concerned with making a large number of people happy and fulfilled, which the postures of masculinity have never been designed to do. If modern masculinity is keeping men, particularly young men, in a state of anxious desperation, lonely and isolated, unable to express their true feelings or live the lives they really want, taking out their social and sexual frustration on women rather than understanding it as a systemic effect of elitism inequality, then masculinity is functioning perfectly well. It is, in fact, in tip-top shape.
As Penny indicates, cis masculinity is not just a danger to cis women and trans people, it is also a danger to cis men. In the United Kingdom, a man dies by suicide every two hours. In the United States, the gender discrepancy in suicide deaths is shocking:
The call is not for sympathy, necessarily, but for understanding. Masculinity would harm no one if it did not harm men first. Perhaps the biggest danger of the cis binary is not that it tells us who we should be, so much as it tells us who we should not be. That person we should not be, more often than not, is us. As bell hooks has written, ‘Patriarchal masculinity estranges men from their selfhood’. And who are we capable of becoming when we are incapable of becoming ourselves? We read the answer in the news every day.
Why do we continue to make people who are such a calamitous danger to themselves and others? Is our allegiance to the gender binary so strong that we are willing to sacrifice the victims of cis men? That we are willing to sacrifice ourselves?
The trouble with imposing binary gender on people (especially on infants and children), is that we are telling vulnerable young people which of their possible selves are off limits. We, too, were shown in infancy the bodies we may not have, the feelings we may not feel, the lives we may not live. ‘We’ are both the tellers and the told, the violence and the victims. It is up to us, individually and collectively, to break this cycle.
I teach kindergarten. Between the ages of three and six, children are beginning to cultivate and grow their sense of self. At this time, I often see them exploring the boundaries of gender by experimenting with their expression, asking questions, or policing others. I see negotiations of the gender binary every day, whether it is a child loudly describing which body parts are meant to belong to whom, someone wondering aloud why I like to wear earrings, or a boy arriving to class with nail polish and a dress. It is clear, at this delicate age, that they are beginning to form the solid foundations of gender on which they will build the rest of their lives.
One of the first questions we ask of expectant parents is whether they’re having a boy or a girl. At its heart, this question is extremely bizarre. In these moments, we are not asking the parents how they have decided, amidst infinite possibilities, to gender their ungendered child. Instead, what we are really asking about is the composition of the child’s genitals. Why on earth do we need to know this? The answer, of course, is so that we can begin to determine how we should treat that child, what our expectations of them should be, and which half of the store we should go to for their birthday gifts.
Transgender children are then, somehow, treated as a deviance from the norm, when ‘the norm’ itself is hardly normal at all. What could be stranger than determining the course of each person’s life based on the results of an ultrasound? If we would raise children without an imposed gender, they would be free to discover themselves on their own terms, rather than in opposition to social and cultural pressures. I see children every day who are exploring the limitations of their gender marker and are often left frustrated, confused, and mocked. If we left children, the most open, creative, and uninhibited people on our planet, to determine for themselves who they wanted to be, imagine the expanse of genders and expressions we would have and the world of openness and truth that we could build.
This past year, without gender, I have discovered a chance at a new self — one that I will create, on my own, absent the lie that my tools are limited and my materials fixed. This freedom brings its own anxieties, of course. The self that I create will not be recognized at a glance. It will not be seen from behind a register, or on a sidewalk. But, for the first time, and, perhaps, most importantly, it will, at least, be seen in a mirror.
In All About Love, bell hooks borrows a definition from M. Scott Peck: ‘[H]e defines love as, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”’ The operative word, hooks writes, is ‘will’. ‘Love is an act of will,’ Peck continues. ‘Namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.’
We, as a society, must choose to love trans people, and that love must take the form not of feeling, but of will and intention and action. On this point, hooks is clear: ‘There can be no love without justice.’ The converse, she writes, is also true: ‘Without justice there can be no love.’ If society truly loves trans people, that love must look like justice, or it looks like nothing at all.
Trans people, too, are a casualty of society’s fanatical religious faith in the patriarchal cisgender binary. In the United States, trans people are being murdered at such a high rate that the Human Rights Campaign has called anti-trans killings an ‘epidemic’. For trans people, however, the threat of lethal violence does not only come from others. Nearly 30 percent of surviving trans teen girls have attempted suicide. More than 50 percent of surviving trans teen boys have attempted suicide. If I had found my way to agenderism in my teens, there is a 41.8 percent chance that I, too, would have attempted suicide. I know I’ve certainly come close.
For thirty-two years, I have struggled to love myself. When I believed that love was a feeling, I searched myself for some scrap of self-affection, latent, waiting to be discovered. I imagined that somewhere inside me would be the rush of passion for myself like that I have felt for others. But love, I have come to see, is not a feeling at all, but a commitment, a willful act of dedication. All along, I had been searching for something that didn’t exist.
I recall a poem of Emily Dickinson’s, which begins,
A loss of something ever felt I —
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was — of what I knew not
I, too, have ever felt a loss, of what I knew not. An estrangement from some intangible something. In the first chapter of Moby Dick, Herman Melville offers a kind of answer to Dickinson’s search in his retelling of the story of Narcissus, ‘who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned’. The image, Melville writes, is that of ‘the ungraspable phantom of life’, and this, he says, ‘is the key to it all’. That tormenting, mild image, with which Narcissus drowned himself to be, was his own.
I am one year out. And when I think now of that loss I’ve ever felt, I see that I was bereft of that embryonic self, ungendered, and, until now, ungraspable. Without gender, I am no longer estranged from my selfhood, and I do not have to drown to be with it. I simply have to love it. Love not as a passive feeling, but as an act of will, of intention. Love as an extension of myself, toward the purpose of nurturing my own growth. If I am to demand that others commit to the willful love of all trans people, I, too, must commit to the willful love of myself. A love built of justice. A justice built of love. And with this love, the phantom of my selfhood is within reach, and this is the key to it all.