Agender: Another ?Trans? Narrative

I had no thought of writing this until my friend Thedude3445 wrote a great coming-out post and made the point that personal stories all along the gender spectrum need to be shared. But I’m not writing this post hoping to twitch the needle in any big way. I just hope it can be one interesting action, perhaps valuable in its small way, in a sea of actions, in a general movement.

I am agender and gender apathetic. Leaning quoigender, to be honest, because my own gender is more a decision than a definite sense or a need. I don’t feel any strong leanings or attachments toward the concept of gender. Now that it’s widely accepted that gender is a social construct, I feel less bound to it than ever. So if anyone asks, I have an army of answers depending on the situation (whether I’m filling out a legal form, talking to parents, or talking to friends). But I’m ambivalent. Use any pronouns for me.

Before I go on, I think I should mention that my life is steeped in privilege. When I talk about pretty much any of my demographical disadvantages, a “counteracting” force of privilege is always at the ready. I’m Black, broke, and still have acne, yet I’ve been able to have and do anything I cared to.

That extends to the way I was raised. I grew up as a girl allowed to be boyish. Tomboy-ness is a privileged space for a lot of non-normative identities, I’m sure. I hated makeup and bras and shaving my legs, had no love for my long hair, and did not care at all for puberty. I didn’t feel distinctly that I was a man, or distinctly that I was anything. I didn’t even reflect on it. I just knew the roles I had to fill—I knew that I had to shave or do my hair when, and because, my mom told me to.

I guess the reason I didn’t get my hair cut short until late in high school was because I tended to be adrift in life—very deeply unreflective. I mean, my mom had short hair this whole time, yet it had never seemed an option in my own mind for almost two decades. Yet once she’d cut it off, I remember a friend seeing me in the hall and saying, “It’s so…you!

Soon after that, a classmate strolled over to me and asked, “You prefer they/them pronouns, right?” I felt confused and caught off-guard—and then I defended the femininity that I was apparently born to safeguard. I’d never heard of that phrase “they/them pronouns” before that moment. (I guess I wasn’t that heavy a Tumblr user…?)

I dismissed the exchange with a thought of, “Huh, weird, guess I’ll never know why my classmate asked that.”

Months afterward, I was taking a Greyhound bus next to a man who gave me a lot of life advice. He told me that it was important for a young man to have strong character and moral values—many generalities—and you can debate for yourself whether or not he should have lectured me, but I took it in with quiet interest.

When we got to the station and parted ways, my last words to him were, “Thank you, but I’m a girl.”

It wasn’t just extremely awkward. I hated the moment. It made me uncomfortable in a new way. That was how I discovered that I didn’t care about defending some essential femininity within me—whatever that even means for me—at all.

So I made a conscious decision not to care about gendered words ascribed or addressed to me—never to be adamant that I was a woman, likewise never to be adamant that I wasn’t a man, and declaring none of the vice-versas—and if gender is what the individual declares within what society has constructed, I guess that’s as much as saying I have no gender at all. It’s declaring a profound ambivalence. I’ve consented to just float adrift on others’ claims about me.

Are cis people supposed to care very much about gender? I’m sure that if self-introspection about gender were more common, so would various forms and “levels” of gender ambivalence in people who are otherwise “normal.” To this day I’m an average tomboy, and again I’m steeped in the privilege of that socially acceptable identity. Is there a “point” to saying I’m trans?

I remember telling someone, “I’m not trans. I shouldn’t consider myself trans because I don’t do any advocacy for trans people.” I could have added something about dysphoria, which is something I’ve only felt extremely rarely (I did not expect to cry when my partner did my hair—the emotion sprang upon me). At the same time, I remember someone telling me that transness is not defined by suffering. And I hope that in the near future, this truth can be borne out by a world where trans people everywhere can live in safety.

I’ve been meaning to read T Cooper’s trans narrative Real Man Adventures for the longest, and in fact I have a copy on my shelf, but I’ve never opened it. I’m afraid that I’ll see myself in it and that it’ll cut too deep—and also that it will be the “proof” that I do belong to this socially unacceptable identity. My self-centered, selfish fear of becoming a new other.

What would it mean for me to be “out?” At this point in time, almost nothing. But clearly I sense that it will, in years or months from now, when I leave the ivory towers of grad school.

For now, though, accepting that I’m trans, non-binary, agender, quoigender is more than a tool for avoiding awkward moments. This is weird to say (and I’m already predicting how weird it will be to read), but…it seems to generate a different kind of awkward moment, one that I’m much more willing to examine and even play with. A waiter at a restaurant pats me on the back and talks to me in such a way that I know the waiter thinks I’m a teenage boy. I come away from the moment not annoyed or confused, but thinking about why he did it and about how I presented. My student does or doesn’t call me “Mx.” and I enjoy wondering about it.

I’m not saying this to shame or dismiss others, nor to exalt myself. I would never downplay someone else’s trans experiences by saying, “Well, I didn’t do that and I didn’t feel that way, so you shouldn’t either.”

There are as many different experiences of gender as there are things under the sun. There are many narratives. This is another one. Please don’t silence it.

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.

For more of my life and times, check out my struggles grading papers (with a dragon, for some reason), my thoughts on gender presentation in manga I liked when I was in high school, and my years of twisted adoration for The Cowboy Way.

6 thoughts on “Agender: Another ?Trans? Narrative”

  1. Thank you for this interesting perspective.

    Interesting question on if cis are supposed to care about gender. I think on the one hand, they aren’t “supposed to” in the sense that everyone expects them to just be what they look like, and that things will naturally fall back into place. Except throughout societies all through history what it meant to “be a real man” and “be the right kind of woman” was part of preparing the youth for adult life, and as media has become an absolute constant in the background noise of daily life, a constant stream of messaging all throughout our lives, to a degree beyond what our ancestors had to worry about.

    For cis people it’s about being the gender itself, but about living up to the societal standards of that gender, i.e. living up to the standards of proper adulthood, of which gender is a strong facet, but was also just not questioned. I think this is what makes the current massive upswell of people actually questioning their gender and their place in that paradigm so notable, and still so contentious to many people. This may be the first era where cis people are so challenged, en masse, to even really think about those sorts of things.

    I don’t mean to imply it’s never been something people thought about before until recently, but the sheer cultural momentum/needs of civilization until the modern/post-modern era, kept it from really being a consideration for most people until we are finally at a point of technology, economy, and cultural mutability for it to really be on the table for people to question these days.

    Even with that, I still don’t know if cis people are “supposed” to worry about it, but the question isn’t so easily ignored these days.

    Personally, I think people care way too goddamned much about their “identity”, but I also acknowledge I’m not someone who’s ever struggled with it, especially under the weight of cultural oppression that really would make a person question their lot in life, so I’m not really one to talk. But it’s good when people are able to get through the struggle and more fully realize themselves… or realize that things are just always going to be a journey. Truthfully, we never stop discovering ourselves as we grow older.

    1. I think I get what you mean when you say you think people care too much about their identity, because I’ve done lots of wondering about my own identity that felt neither productive nor fulfilling, simply because other people in my social spheres were doing it. Just because I don’t feel a need like that in myself doesn’t preclude others from feeling it. BUT that being said, ideas like gender apathy, or even a broader self-identity apathy, are so rarely broached as subjects that they begin to feel alien and even impossible. It shouldn’t be that way.

      It feels socially inevitable that things branch into a dominant narrative and its dominant counter-narrative. “I’m cis because I don’t think about identity at all” and “I’m trans because I think about it 24/7” feels to me like a modern, simplistic, experience-flattening, stereotypical idea of how the world works. It’s becoming a maxim that “gender is a spectrum,” and yet, I think spectrum-type thinking should be broader than that. I rarely hear it talked about that your sense of your identity doesn’t have to constantly with you, like a nametag tot he public, or even like words engraved on your heart, visible only to you but always always loud-and-clear there.

      I also enjoyed reading your thoughts on the upswell of gender and identity questioning, and your insights on society’s constant demands for us to be “real men/women,” how we keep changing.

      1. A fair point. As with everything in the online space, I think its just the most extreme examples get pointed out and pontificated on the most, so while I agree with you the spectrum should probably be more broadly considered, middle-of-the-road talking points don’t get the most clicks. :V

    2. Sorry, I typoed, to clarify a bit better: “For cis people it’s not so much about becoming/actualizing the gender itself because you already are that gender, but about living up to the societal standards of that gender, i.e. living up to the standards of proper adulthood, of which gender is a strong facet, but was also just not questioned.”

  2. “Are cis people supposed to care very much about gender?” Probably not, though with a big asterisk because expectations will vary so much by region and subculture. I suppose it depends on the extent to which the individual is emotionally invested in their identity as a man or woman. My identity is rooted in being an Orthodox Christian, husband and father, and writer, I would say. My career as a respiratory therapist is a secondary thing but becoming more important to me as I get more comfortable with it. There’s some gender wrapped up in husband-and-father, but I’d say it’s largely incidental to “I am the guy who helps wife and children flourish and be happy.” There are subcultures where men are very much expected to do man things and show how manly they are; if I had been raised in one of those subcultures, I would be frustrated, but mostly because those things strike me as boring and stupid. So do the specifically female things, though. Really all the things I enjoy are fairly gender-neutral.

    I would say, with regards to my gender identity, I don’t think I have one in the sense usually implied. By that I don’t mean that I’m special or unusual; quite the opposite. If I am at all typical, and I suspect I am in this one respect, cis people don’t really have an innate gender identity. I think of myself as a man, but this sense appears to be largely empirical and taught. That is, I was raised as a boy, I later learned what it means to be a boy in terms of anatomy and it checked out, other so-called boys were similar, and basically I’ve never had reason to doubt the story. I filed my identity as a boy alongside myopia, asthma, and right-handedness as “things which are true about me” and stopped thinking about it except as it happened to be relevant in a particular moment.

    If someone told me I was a woman, I might get annoyed on some level, but only because I’m culturally conditioned to view claims of male effeminacy as intentionally insulting and therefore signs of aggression/hostility. Otherwise it’d just be absurd, because to me “male” describes certain facts about certain organs of my body and the way it works. It’d be like telling me I’m red-haired, or seven feet tall. Er, I’m really not?

    And yes, this is easy for me to say because I like girls, have a beard and a deep voice, etc., but the idea that I personally have an innate gender identity wired into my brain sounds, to me, like I suspect the idea of a soul sounds to staunch atheists. It’s an unnecessary hypothesis; it complicates the model while explaining nothing new, and can’t be falsified. Your mileage may vary, and I gather it very much does.

    Hopefully none of this is offensive; I’m trying not to be. But I can’t wrap my head around what it means to feel like a man, or a woman. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like a man in my life. Evidently it’s different for other people.

    1. I think it’s clear that you’re only talking about your personal experiences and your inward experience of your own gender with this response, not some “truth for everyone,” so hopefully it shouldn’t be offensive.

      The way you had been given a narrative of being a boy and never had reason (internal or external) to question it reminds me in some ways of how I was given a narrative of being a tomboy. I wouldn’t even refute that story now, necessarily, although “tomboy” isn’t even in my Top 1,000 personal labels for myself.

      I likewise think the idea that I have my own personal hardwired gender identity, or even a gender identity inside of myself that I can mold and play with, is odd. And I think people who feel “agender” fits them the same way I feel it fits me would also identify with saying that for them to have gender is “an unnecessary hypothesis; it complicates the model while explaining nothing new, and can’t be falsified.”

      Honestly, the fact that I ultimately settled on “agender” rather than “female” for myself (or “demigirl/demiboy” — woah, I remember thinking those labels over in college) probably has more to do with me valuing an androgynous appearance than any other factor, far more than my mindscape…and, like you and the “traits of a man,” I already had androgynous traits in the first place, so that’s pretty convenient for me.

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