Ben Schwarts is neither male nor female. The 23-year-old identifies as agender and uses the pronoun “they” instead of he or she.
But what is agender?
It doesn’t appear in dictionaries. You can’t find agender bathrooms, or aisles in stores. Hidden nooks in the online world exist for those who identify as agender, but for much of the world, the word and the people remain a mystery.
Schwarts plans on going to the store, and on the way sees billboards plastered with women in bikinis advertising perfume, or with male models in suits selling men’s watches.
For the agender person, who doesn’t identify as either male or female, everyday life poses a problem. Even seeing gender divides in advertisements can be isolating.
“So much of the modern world and society is built around structures of gender,” said Schwarts, a graduate student at Simmons College in Massachusetts. “So many things are targeted based on gender. It’s more than looking at another culture, but another species.”
When Schwarts gets to the store, another problem arises; there are only two choices for clothing: male and female.
“I do occasionally feel frustrated by how gendered clothing marketing and branding is, especially the connotations that go with clothing that they default to being read as male or female,” Shwarts said. “Clothing like dresses and skirts are coded female even when worn by non-female people, whereas jeans default to masculine. The sure pile of headaches and conversations just strikes me as absurd.”
Even attendants in the store label Ben as “him” not considering the possibility of another gender, or no gender at all.
“I don’t feel connected to any attempts to gender me,” Schwarts said. “All that just feels wrong. Gender is an alien concept, one that has never made sense except in a purely academic way.”
And there are other people in the world face the same problems as Schwarts, but the biggest dilemma is that most people don’t know what agenderism is or that people are capable of being genderless.
“It’s hard to find information,” said Micah, a 28-year-old agender person who started a blog to document the transition to agender and bring awareness to the subject. “The information isn’t available if your gender is non-binary. Everything is gender identifying trans people. Until a little while ago our identities weren’t acknowledged in any ways. We’re still fighting that.”
Jack Qu’emi, a 23-year-old University of Central Florida student, understands firsthand the difficulties of explaining a genderless identity.
“’That’s made up.’ ‘That’s not a real thing.’ ‘Special snowflake syndrome.’ ‘You’re just looking for attention.’ What does that even mean?” Qu’emi said. “People’s reactions are usually negative, or they just don’t have any. I’ve never had any explicitly positive reaction.”
Qu’emi, like other agender people, has trouble living in a world that is so strongly divided by gender.
“Everything is so split to the point that there are some classes I can’t take. There’s a self-defense class for men and women so where would I go? They’re just going to put me in a corner for how I present that way,” Qu’emi said. “We’re all socialized to understand men and women so if you’re transitioning from one binary to another, even if that’s not how you see yourself living your life, there’s still an outline for this is what a man is and a women is.”
Starting from a young age, agender people face problems understanding gender roles.
“In first grade it was always well understood that boys went on one side of the room, and girls went on the other, and Ben was just on his own, Ben was just there,” Schwarts said. “I definitely wasn’t male, but I certainly wasn’t female either.”
Qu’emi’s differences became evident in middle school.
“I still went by gender pronouns people gave me, but I was very nonconforming in the way I presented, acted and spoke to people. Like, if you had a choice to be a different gender when you were born, what would you choose? Born or assigned, I would pick the opposite binary or the other part of the binary.”
For agender people, the lack of verification can be harmful and difficult to deal with.
“It’s a very hard feeling to describe, but you really don’t see yourself, or you see how other people see you, and you just get this nagging feeling that it’s not who you’re meant to be and there’s a lot of emotional issues that go into that,” Micah said.
The concept of being genderless is so unheard of that many agender people might live their entire lives without realizing they are agender.
“I think if I had grown up in a different place and lived with different people, I might not have made these realizations about myself,” Schwarts said. “People told me I was male so why would I question otherwise. What few agender people exist in fiction tend to be robots or aliens or both. There are few examples in media and few public agender figures.”
Many agender people are reaching out to create awareness; whether its creating a blog or becoming a fiction writer to spread the word, they hope that someday the concept of being agender will be as well known as that of being transgender.
To learn more about the agender community, visit neutrois.com.
Compiled by Nicole Wiesenthal
Agender- “not identifying with any gender, the feeling of having no gender.” (MTQWI) “a term used to describe a person without gender. This person can be any physical sex, but their body does not necessarily correspond with their lack of gender identity”
Androgyne- “1. A person whose biological sex is not readily apparent. 2. A person who is intermediate between the two traditional genders. 3. A person who rejects gender roles entirely.” (MTQWI)
Bigender- “To identify as both genders and/or to have a tendency to move between masculine and feminine gender-typed behavior depending on context, expressing a distinctly male persona and a distinctly female persona, two separate genders in one body.” (MTQWI)
Crossdresser- “A person who, regardless of motivation, wears clothes, makeup, etc. that are considered by the culture to be appropriate for another gender but no one’s own (preferred term to “transvestite”). This gender non-conforming behavior should not be conflated with queer sexualities. Many cross-dressers are heterosexual and conduct their cross-dressing on a part-time basis. Cross-dressing might also be termed gender non-conforming behavior.” (MTQWI)
Demigirl- “Can be used to describe either someone assigned female at birth who feels but the barest association with that identification, though not a significant enough dissociation to create real physical discomfort or dysphoria, or someone assigned male at birth who is transfeminine but not wholly binary-identified, so that they feel more strongly associated with “female” than “male,” socially or physically, but not strongly enough to justify an absolute self-identification as “woman.
Demiguy- “Can be used to describe either someone assigned male at birth who feels but the barest association with that identification or as someone assigned female at birth who is transmasculine but not wholly binary-identified, so that they feel a vague association with social or physical “masculinity” but not one strong enough to justify an absolute self-identification as a “man.”
Epicene- “The term epicene literally means “common to both sexes.” It sometimes refers to individuals who have characteristics of both genders or someone who cannot be classified as one sex or the other. Most often, it refers to effeminate males.”
Gender fluid- “Referring to a gender identity that changes with time and/or situation as opposed to a fix sex-role or gender queer expression”
Intergender- “A person whose gender identity is between genders or a combination of genders.” (MTQWI)
Neutrois- “An identity used by individuals who feel they fall outside the gender binary. Many feel Neutrois is a gender, like a third gender while others feel agendered.”
Pangender- “A person whose gender identity is comprised of many gender expressions.” (MTQWI)
Pomosexual- “the queer erotic reality beyond the boundaries of gender, separatism, and essentialist notions of sexual orientation”. Generally used conceptually rather than a stand-alone identity term.
Third gender- Term often used in anthropological studies to set apart identities other than man or woman that appear across different cultures. Can have colonial connotations, use with caution.
Trigender- “People who feel they are neither male nor female, but not androgynous either and construct their own gender.” (MTQWI) Trigender may also be used to refer to one who moves between three genders, as bigender is used to refer to those who move between two genders.