Thursday, August 30, 2012

Not Male? Not Female? Must Be Agender - The Emerging Gender Neutrality

I suspect there have always been people who do not comfortably identify as either male or female, a self-perception that seems to be more common in the asexual community (according to the article, a 2011 study found that 23% of this community feels gender neutral). So now there is a name for this gender identity, or perhaps it's a lack of gender identity (?) - agender, or gender neutrois.

Isn't this simply a rejection of the gender binary? It seems that it may be a little deeper than that. All five of the people the author spoke to had no need for masculinity or femininity, so it's beyond gender fluidity. This is all very interesting to me . . . .

The article is from Rachel White (she of the wonderful Rachel Rabbit White blog) in the NY Magazine's The Cut blog.

Neither Man Nor Woman: Meet the Agender

"I didn’t really want nipples," Cory said, running a hand through a mop of bleached blond hair. Born female, 23-year-old Cory uses the pronoun co—and asked that we refer to co that way, too—and got elective surgery to remove co's breasts last year. But co is not transgender in the traditional sense, transitioning between female and male. Co wants neither gender. So co joined the ranks of the agender—or, in a more florid recent coinage, the gender neutrois.

"You read stuff on Tumblr about how us nonbinary people just want to be special snowflakes," explained Cory, who is special but made of sturdier stuff than a snowflake. Was Cory's desire to remove co's secondary sexual traits a ploy for attention? A reaction to internalized sexism? The result of sexual repression? "I tackled all that stuff with my therapist. We came to the conclusion that I was not okay with this part of my body. Regardless of where that came from, it was there." Co has neither breasts nor nipples now.

"It is so perfect," Cory said. “For me this is what neutral looks like and feels like.”

I found Cory through the #nonbinary #agender #neutrois tags on Tumblr. The social network has become an unofficial home for the gender neutral. Though most group themselves with the transgender community, they reject the narrative of a person born into the wrong, oppositely-gendered body. All five neutrois individuals I spoke to have no need for masculinity or femininity at all.

L to R: Cory, Micah, Ashton

"You read all these trans youth narratives, the kid insisting he was a boy and going to grow a penis. That was me when I was 3," explained 26-year-old Micah. "I was like the poster trans kid. But then somewhere in there, it shifted."

Skyping from an airy San Francisco apartment shared with a fiancĂ©e, Micah has chestnut hair styled like a surfer's, sea-glass eyes, and rose-flecked skin. For Micah, gender neutrality has involved laser hair removal, a double mastectomy, a low dose of hormones, and the pronoun they. Asked about their ideal gender-neutral body (though our subjects' chosen pronouns drive Microsoft Word's Spelling and Grammar Check nuts, I see no reason not to oblige) Micah replied, “This is it.”

Micah came out of the closet twice, first when they entered a relationship with a woman, and again when they transitioned to neutrality last year. Though Micah identifies as both agender and asexual—which they define as "a lack of sexual attraction"—girlfriend Tammy identifies as a sexual female.

"When we started dating I got really confused," Tammy reflected. "Was I now dating a girl? I knew I wanted to be with Micah, but did that mean that I was now a lesbian?" After "six months of confusion," Tammy settled on "queer," and has stuck with her queer relationship with Micah for five and a half years.

When they first started dating, Tammy thought she could "make" Micah desire sex. "Now we've just found so many different ways of expressing love, other than what the usual sexual relationship looks like. Sometimes we feel like being more intimate, and sometimes we don't."

When I spoke to the pair together Tammy mostly deferred to Micah, who was uncomfortable discussing the mechanics of their physical relationship. "Too much focus on genitals," they said, then compared sex to asparagus: "OK when cooked properly, but I never really have a craving for it." A blog post Micah wrote about the relationship emphasizes "cuddling" and "communication."

"There are more ways to express intimacy than just sex," Micah concluded, referencing Asexual Visibility and Education Network founder David Jay. Reached by phone, Jay emphasized that most asexual people have a gender. There is, however, significant overlap between those who lack sexuality and those who lack gender: A 2011 survey of the asexual community found that 23 percent of those surveyed identified as neither male nor female—although most do not go so far as to have their nipples removed.

Why did this iteration of gender and pronouns emerge? There are virtually no studies on people who identify as agender. In 2010 the National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on Health and Health Care found that 12 percent of self-identifying transgender people surveyed identified as gender nonconforming. And there may be a connection to asexuality: Jay says the asexual community has become a safe space for those questioning gender. Tumblr has become the unofficial support space for agender exploration and, sometimes, fierce debate. (On recent post read, “So there is this guy on Facebook. He’s agender. He’s about fifteen other labels as well.... the thing about this guy though is that he isn’t really agender for any reason other than a political statement.”)

For Micah, “not growing up was always a huge factor, and still is. I idolized Peter Pan,” they told me, noting that they are sometimes mistaken for a young boy. “In San Francisco I am seen as a lesbian," Micah continued. "I hate being called a lesbian, because it means I am a girl. But queer people are visible here and I am visibly queer. But at home in Mexico, queer doesn't exist."

After coming out, Micah lost contact with their Mexican family. They launched an agender blog, Neutrois Nonsense, and built a small online community there. Micah says their website receives over 12,000 pageviews a month, and a related Tumblr account has 2,200 followers.

Ashton, a 21-year-old Kansan, also passed as a lesbian until coming out as agender. Large and square shaped with a pinkish complexion, silvery-blond short hair and wire-frame glasses on a slight nose, Ashton (who also uses the pronoun ‘they’) used to work 50 hours per week in a factory and spends downtime in a transgender support group. (Ashton thinks the internet makes it easier to find one's way to an agender description. "You have Google in a tab next door, to explain things.")

Ashton’s supervisor and two other women at the factory formed a small queer community, which Ashton joined. “Most people who work there are male, so the women there really bond over female-ness. One day I counted 32 times that I was called by a female name--lady, miss, girl.” Ashton recounts a lot of joking around and sometimes going out together after work.

But Ashton was met with silence when they revealed their agender identity at the factory.
Persevering, Ashton wore a Pride shirt to work another day, which showed three boxes: ‘Female’: blank, ‘Male’: blank and ‘Blank’: checked. “I was asked to switch it inside out because it was distracting and offensive,” Ashton told me during a Skype chat in July, noting a fear of getting fired. Two weeks later, it happened. Ashton wrote on Tumblr: “I just lost my job for being a lesbian presenting assumed transguy atheist liberal who knows what else.”

Losing the job was something Ashton couldn't afford, since they are saving up for a double mastectomy. “I bind my chest for 11 or 12 hours a day when I am at work," they said before getting fired. "The recommended limit is 8 to 12 hours with as little strenuous activity as possible. I am doing lots of lifting and am on my feet all day. It is hot, sometimes my back spasms.”

Micah has faced loss in the name of gender neutrality, too. Upon finding out that her one-time daughter would be getting a double mastectomy, Micah's mother disowned her child. To this day she lights candles and talks to angels on Micah's behalf.

"My wife views Micah's actions as an act of terrorism, the fact that we have to have things on Micah’s terms," Micah's father explains. Their family is Mexican and Jewish. "She is worried about social and cultural things: how will Micah connect with Mexico?"

Micah's father supports his child's transition, as well as Micah's relationship with Tammy. The pair would like to marry and have children; Micah's father thinks they shouldn't wait for his wife's approval, because they may never get it.

Micah is actually the third name that they have tried out during transition—first it was Mich then Maddox as an online moniker, but it didn’t feel right ‘in real life.’ But Micah says they're sure that this is it. Micah is working on the legal paperwork to cement this chosen name. I ask, is there anything more to the transformation?

 “I don't remember aspiring to grow up to be a man, but was disgusted by the idea of growing up to be a woman. Physically I don't think I want anything different than what I have today, my own skin.”

All that's left now is aging. Micah imagines growing into a wrinkly, graying little kid, sort of like Benjamin Button, the F. Scott Fitzgerald creation who ages backwards: starting old and becoming younger.

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