The Anti-label label of Agender
An individual measure of society
a·gen·der /āˈjendər/ adjective: agender; adjective: a-gender
Denoting or relating to a person who does not identify themselves as having a particular gender.
“What fools they make us– what fools we are!’
The comforts of ignorance were denied to her. She was a feather blown on the gale. Thus it is no great wonder, as she pitted one sex against the other, and found each alternately full of the most deplorable infirmities, and was not sure to which she belonged…”
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
There are four identities– though not only four– that have defined me as modern individual: class, nationality, religion, and gender. These categories affect my social and internal life and have determined the way I see myself and the way I understand my relationships with other people. Perhaps you may have read an earlier essay of mine, like For King and Country? or Holy Wars, and already know my thoughts on national identity and the ever so complicated idea of group labels. However, I can only explore the nuance of my grudge with identity by examining each category independently.
All the -isms that I have been brave enough to hold for myself seem to make negative categorical statements. A-theism– a lack of belief in a God; Cosmo-politanism– within implicit the belief that the social utility of an identity defined by a polis is insufficient or outright harmful; and now, A-gender– the absence of gender in my own identity and behaviour, and the adjacent -ism, though not by default, of A-genderism– the belief that the social utility of gender is insufficient or outright harmful. I seem to know, more often than not, who I am not, rather than who I am.
I make the distinction between being agender and Agenderism carefully. Though, for myself, they are different sides of the same coin. In that sense, my relationship with the holistic agenderism is two fold. First, an intimate personal perception of how gender standards affect me, and secondly, my embrace of the anti-label label as a point of principle.
When I first started thinking about gender, I examined it the same way I examine anything else. And, for that, I must defer to Socrates: the establishment of first principles comes first.
There seems to be a difference between sex and gender. That much is clear enough for me. I found the nuance of gender, however, unexpectedly rich in variety and understanding. If sex is biological, then it seems to be that gender is sociological. What it means to be a man, or a woman, or nonbinary, is deeply entrenched in our distinct societies. And, their particular traditions shape our understanding of ourselves and our relation to each other.
It seems the grounds on which gender stands seem to be lacking precisely what I want from an identity– foundation. Gender is not universal, and it is constantly evolving and expanding. If sex is mathematical (and I don’t mean to say, by any means, binary), then gender is poetic. Everybody can tell what it is, but nobody can agree on its rules. Being a woman means a different thing now to what it meant thirty years ago, and it means something different in America than it does in Indonesia. The difficulty with gender is that its binary and culturally policed boundaries can’t help but to impose standards. Such an imposition is inherently oppressive and it no doubt stifles that which is most precious, the individual. I don’t appreciate my role in society being predetermined without my consent.
This leads me to my relationship with Agender-ism. I have always been told what I am, and yet, funny enough, I had never really given thought to how I felt about it. If my assigned gender at birth ever made me uncomfortable I would have thought something was wrong with me, not with the system that established the imposition in the first place. It does seems sensible, after all, to assume the majority is right– I submit to you, dear reader, to ask yourself the question: what if they are wrong?
My journey navigating gender and sexuality has been long, confusing, and, at times, painful. And, it has been integral and runs parallel to my journey as an individual. Some years ago I went through a major transformation- a metamorphosis. It was painful, but creatively and philosophically stimulating; and drastic, but subtle. My adoption of three cardinal -isms– Cosmopolitanism, Atheism, and Agenderism– is a direct result from this ongoing evolution. I suspect the themes and motifs that these -isms deal with will continue to haunt me as long as there is such thing as change within myself– and that, I suspect, will never cease. In in case, the change I underwent was deliberate, and it was beneficial. I can, with relative confidence, say that I am a better person now than I was before I went into that dreaded cocoon of strenuous adjustment. Now, lets not be too self-congratulatory. I had a great deal of help along the way. In any case, the process of deconstruction and reconstruction is not over. I keep revisiting it, and I keep reinventing myself all the time. The label of agender is what I need to grapple with in this latest stage of the never ending process.
I am not sure how to explain the experience of the absence of gender. I do know that there are agender people who feel a sort of vacuum or missing piece in the space that gender traditionally occupies. I don’t often feel that way. I mostly don’t have an attachment to gender at all. I understand it, and I have definitely felt its effects, but I don’t think I have it. After Christopher Hitchens left his Trotskyite socialist group he used to say that he missed his old allegiances like a “missing limb”. I don’t suffer in such a way. I don’t feel anything at all for gender– except, perhaps, a slight resentment. If anything, the realization I may be agender was anticlimactic, and it didn’t change much of how I express my identity. I have, however, changed in the way I view myself. I am more acutely aware of how I want to be perceived, and that is simply just as me. I know next to nothing about Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, except that in his gravestone he wanted the words “that individual” to be engraved. I think that is how I am ever going to perceive myself and how I want to ever be perceived. Not a woman, or a man, or an equally gendered non-binary person, but an individual. All other labels are circumstantial.
Let’s return to -isms, though. I do hope, and I know in fact there is, a trend towards Agenderism as a political principle. If it is true that, at a societal level, gender no longer has a relevant utility, then we better start questioning why it is that we keep it around. We can’t, of course, police gender. I wouldn’t want to, in any case. Policing is exactly what I am fighting here– an imposed standard. Then perhaps we can, as we did with secularism, uphold it as a principle for community building. You don’t have to be a non-believer, after all, to desire the separation of church and state. Similarly, you don’t have to be agender or non-binary to realize the self evident truth that clothing doesn’t have an inherent immutable gender standard, music doesn’t have an inherent immutable gender standard, colors don’t have an immutable gender standard, dignity doesn’t have an immutable gender standard, rights don’t have immutable gender standards– and they don’t ought to.
Gender exists– I don’t deny that. And, gender is important for a lot of people’s identity; I don’t want to take that away from anyone. However, our understanding of gender is not as a private or individual matter. It is imposed, even if only through expectation. A lot of people are, protected under the law, allowed to be called, to dress, and to express themselves the way we want to. Why not go a step further and acknowledge the gender rights that these protections afford us, and to be conscious of ways that government can not be expected, nor (by the way) should be expected, to protect neutrality? To be gendered as a man or a woman carries expectations that, though probably had some sort of social utility before, are obsolete now. To be a man or a woman may mean something to you, but it doesn’t mean anyone who you care to categorize as such is obliged to meet your normative standards. To be oneself is a difficult task as it is– we, after all, value those most elusive virtues: genuineness and originality. I can’t be certain if I am agender or not, but I do know that being oneself is all that one can be expected to be, and is, indeed, all one can ever hope to be– of all things, wouldn’t you say that ought to be sufficient?