Agender people often do not feel a desire to perform within gender roles, as they often feel they exist outside of them.
“A person who is agender sees themselves as neither man nor woman, has no gender identity, or no gender to express,” Dr. Meredith Chapman, a psychiatrist at the Children’s Health Genecis Program told Teen Vogue.
In order to continue the ongoing conversation and growing knowledge of the various ways in which gender exists, it’s important that we shed more light on agender people’s experiences — so that the cisgender and the LGBTQ community alike can better understand how this community exists. It’s especially important for others who may be questioning if they are agender to find any resources that can to help them navigate their identities.
INTO interviewed eight agender people about the myths they would like to debunk about their identities, and what society should know about what it means to be agender.
Tab, 29, They/Them
When I was in sixth grade, my head was shaved for medical reasons — and I had a lot of identity crisis issues. I hadn’t hit puberty or anything like that and a lot of kids called me a boy, as if it was sort of an insult. They knew I was one thing and they called me another and it was just sort of a teasing torment. And I remember not wanting to have to dress overtly feminine just avoid getting labeled as a little boy by all of my classmates, like I shouldn’t have to wear pink to not get called a boy. I don’t want to get called a girl, but I don’t want to be called a boy.
In high school, my mother gave me a science fiction book called Commitment Hour. It’s Sci-Fi but [in a] more fantasy setting. It follows the characters in a village where they can basically change their sex every year until their 18th birthday and then they get to choose what they want to be. And if they choose, they’re called “neuts” and so I was like That is me! I don’t want to be one or the other, I don’t want to be anything. From that point — it was around 2004— I was calling myself “neut” and then as I got older I sort of went into hiding.
I guess I’m considered closeted by most standards of identity stuff because it’s kind of hard. My mother’s the only person who’s really supportive of this—the rest of my family is religious. I’m married. My spouse is supportive, but my spouse’s family probably wouldn’t be. So it’s just a weird struggle to self-identify and be proud of who I am, and at the same time, I don’t want to have to get into arguments.
And now there’s words for it — non-binary, gender nonconforming, agender. There are so many names and I’ve been calling it neut for the last 20 years.
Being agender is really hard because even in circles and communities that you think will be supportive, especially LGBT circles or supposedly sex-positive and open communities, you still receive a lot of questioning. I can’t wear anything that shows off my female sex characteristics or whatever because people are like “Oh, how very agender of you” and it’s like what do they expect me to be? Some sort of lifeless blob you can’t identify? Am I supposed to look like an alien with no human features whatsoever?
Even places where you think there’s spaces for you to identify this way, it’s still kind of difficult.
The biggest misconception of being agender is that you have to be completely androgynous. A lot of people go for androgyny because it’s the closest they can get to sort of registering on both scales, it’s kind of like a compliment for somebody to go “Are you a boy or a girl?” because that legitimately means they cannot identify your sex based off of your looks, which a lot of genderless people try to seek. But by no means do you have be completely androgynous to be agender.
Gender expression is a personal thing — it’s our personal identity. And, yes, we want to be validated and have people accept us when we say “Yeah, I don’t have a gender” — but you can have a full beard and be agender. You can have massive breasts and be agender. Some people feel more comfortable to remove their breasts or shave their beards or grow their hair out long to achieve a balance of whatever their sex traits are, but we shouldn’t have to.
Older people have felt this way for years. The concept of being genderless has existed but we are just now only getting terminology for it. So just understand we do exist, we’re not a bunch of crazy people, we’re not a bunch of young kids just wanting to stand out — most of us are just trying to fit in and be accepted without leaving our comfort zones or going beyond ourselves. You want to be yourself — you don’t want to be somebody else just to be valid.
Dee (Daniel), 33, Any Pronouns
I have been in feminist and in LGBT circles for a long time, and my roommate came out as non-binary years ago. My husband started using they/them and identifying as non-binary about a year ago.
Talking about gender and such with them, I debated a long time whether I counted as cis anymore, because I have never really had a problem with people IDing me as a woman (usually online because I have a beard IRL). I still usually say cis-adjacent for the simple fact that because of my beard, I’ll get IDd as a cis man regardless of if I wear makeup or not. This means I benefit from cis male privilege, even if I don’t think any gender expression feels particularly right to me.
There is a lot to think about and discuss around agender, non-binary, and presentation versus identification. I paint my nails and wear some light makeup, but I still present mostly masculine.
I think one of the misconceptions is that agender folks are trying to force everyone else to be agender — that it’s somehow invalidating trans folks’ or non-binary folks’ lived experience — which couldn’t be farther from the truth. We are all trying to figure out what we are doing with these meat sacks we call a body and live our best lives, as short as they are.
My biggest personal struggle is finding ways to express my lack-of-gender since I don’t like how I look without a beard, but it’s seen as a huge masc identifier. Most of the androgynous tips online are for thin white folks like David Bowie. I’ve started wearing my hair asymmetrical and more gender-neutral in an attempt to get some semblance of androgyny.
Society should stop focusing on others’ gender expressions, and if someone asks you to use certain pronouns/name, use them! Everyone’s gender/expression will be different. Even among cis folks, there are huge variants on how people present their gender.
Talk, think, and try things out. Try on different gender expression, try out different pronouns. You’ll probably know when something suddenly feels right, though not always! I’ve been trying out going by Dee instead of Daniel (it was a childhood nickname and more androgynous) and I’m not sure if I like it better or not. And that is OK!
Nicky, 20, He/They
I discovered I was agender when I was in tenth grade. I never felt correct identifying as a woman, nor did I feel like I was a binary trans man. I made a failed attempt to force myself into the binary when I was first exploring what it meant to be trans, and proceeded to bring more misery upon myself. I couldn’t figure it out. If I wasn’t a woman, and I wasn’t a man, what was I?
When I discovered the agender identity, it felt like a breath of fresh air. There were people with similar stories to mine, and what they saw themselves as aligned with what I could see in myself. I first came out as agender when I was 15, and I will be 21 this June.
There’s no correct way to be agender. Being agender doesn’t require androgyny, and androgyny isn’t inherently masculine, as mass media tends to show us. There’s truly no concept of passing when it comes to identifying with no gender at all. You can be agender and present how you want, no matter the gender you were assigned at birth, as agender people’s identities are all incredibly unique.
My experiences as an agender person have been met with confusion. There’s still a long way to go in education about gender identity, as many people I’ve come out to along the way have questioned me endlessly about my gender, often assuming I’m a confused woman, or equating gender exploration with puberty. Sometimes, this is the case, and I’m all about allowing gender to be explored, and no limits or boxes for what it means to identify. But, this is who I am, and who I am proud to be. I’m not a man, I’m not a woman, I’m extraordinarily Nicky James Ballard.
It’s not always difficult, though, and I’m thankful for the people who take the time to understand where I’m coming from, the ones who have met me with open arms and continue to support me.
I can only hope that as we continue to spread the word of gender identity, the concept of identifying with genders other than male or female becomes more normal. I wish that being taught about gender identity, expression, and gender dysphoria was more accepted in the sexual education curriculum in high schools. I want people to know that there is nothing wrong with questioning gender, learning about gender, and exploring their own, and what gender, or lack thereof, means to them.
On, 31, They/Them
There was never one pivotal moment for me in knowing myself as agender. It started four or five years ago when I revisited some of the feelings in my youth, because back then there wasn’t really any equivalent terminology around gender. In hindsight, I would say I was experimenting with gender expression by putting on makeup or more traditional feminine clothing.
I guess it came from a different place but gender definitely played a central part in it. After a while, the pendulum swung in the other direction. I was performing masculinity, and then over time I grew more uneasy with fitting either masculine or feminine identities.
It wasn’t really this one moment where I really realized I was agender. I knew I didn’t know how to really navigate any of those binary genders, and I realized nothing really fits and that it may just be neither. It’s not that I’m in between or somewhere outside, but none of those identities are applicable for me. I wouldn’t know how to position myself in either way.
I definitely pass as a cis male and most of the time I’m just read as a cis male, but it depends on the space and how comfortable I feel in expressing more of my ambiguity. It’s been a difficult experience, but my partner is really supportive and she’s helped me a lot to be more affirmed in who I am, and feel more at ease, and that kind of led to me opening up to my friends a bit more.
It’s still difficult because it’s already hard to even explain what binary trans means to people, and so to explain what an absence of gender means is challenging. It’s been the same with my family as well, they are always assuming that I’m in between two genders.
The most important thing is not to pressure yourself; a lot of the narratives that are circulating about agender people are focusing on this journey that ends at some point and the person feels at home with themselves or they feel more complete and affirmed. And that could put a lot of pressure on people because from my experience that journey slows down and you have a little pause here and there when you think of your gender identity — I believe if you identify as agender today and you realize “Oh, I actually might be cis” the next day, or whatever, that’s completely fine. These different labels can put on a pressure to choose and settle on one identity.
But it’s okay for your identity to be temporal as you begin to know yourself and allow yourself the agency to move around within your own fluidity.
Winter (or Winston), 20, They/Them
It’s funny: I discovered my agender identity in a similar way to how I realized I was asexual about two years prior. I was having trouble understanding who I was and how I wanted to express myself, and how the two connected. I felt like I was missing something that other people seemed to be in touch with. I knew of the term agender for some time in high school but never thought much of it until my senior year, when I suddenly realized that it was actually the perfect word to describe myself.
There are so many misconceptions about agender people, and many of them probably apply to other non-binary genders as well, but here are some that I’ve come across in my day to day life:
People (mostly bigots) tend to have this idea in their minds that agender people just don’t understand nature, biology, psychology, or science in general. I actually excel in biology and psychology. I’m currently working towards a bachelor of science in psychology and started doing undergraduate research in my college’s neurochem lab at the start of my sophomore year. And I identify as agender. So I’m basically living proof that this myth isn’t founded in fact, but prejudice.
People seem to believe that because we are genderless, agender people’s experiences of our genders, how our internal experiences affect how we interact with the world, and how the world treats us, are basically the same as men and women, because how can a gender that’s not there affect a person’s experiences? Our perspectives tend to be ignored in favor of a more gendered, binary world view. However, I think agender people can have very special perspectives that should be taken into consideration when discussing gender-related topics, especially topics like gender discrimination and the patriarchy. I think there is something unique about seeing a world so heavily influenced by gender through a genderless eye. People living in a society that uses gender so heavily to control people, and being still strongly affected by this system even while being genderless, are worth listening to.
When people imagine agender people, they usually picture someone who is AFAB and dresses sort of masculinely. I think this is usually somewhat rooted in two types of sexist thinking. The first being the idea that all AFAB people are weak-minded and easily-influenced girls who can’t be trusted to understand their own experience of gender and must be protected, lest they are tricked into no longer wanting to be girls. The second is that masculinity is seen as a sort of default, while femininity is seen as other, so something that is genderless must be masculine, because if it were feminine then it would be “girly.” However, AMAB agender people exist and feminine agender people exist, and quite frankly I believe they’re too important to be forgotten about.
Agender people are often seen as touchy, angry, confused people who are obsessed with gender. People believe that because we identify in a way they are not familiar with, agender people must spend too much time thinking about gender and must be confused or distressed by it. In reality, I’m very comfortable with my identity and I don’t spend much time at all thinking about anyone’s gender. I feel much more comfortable with myself since coming to realize my agender identity than I did before I knew I wasn’t cis. Really the only time I am reminded of my gender is when I am misgendered, either by a person who uses the wrong pronoun or something, or by a place, like a bathroom or clothing section that is labeled either for men or for women.
As an agender person, all I ask is for people to show me basic human respect. Using the pronouns a person asks you to use for them is basic respect. Calling a person their name is basic respect. Not saying things that would be inappropriate to say to anyone (like questions about a person’s genitals) is basic respect. That is all I want. I don’t ask people to be experts. Allowing yourself to respect people, even if you don’t understand them, is probably the best way to come to understand them in the long run.
Khalypso, 19, They/Them
I knew I didn’t identify with womanhood though it was assigned to me and I certainly don’t feel connected to masculinity. I did some googling and discovered an article about being agender and the descriptions and definition are almost exactly how I feel.
I think with identifying as anything non-binary, especially agender — people see it as some sort of political stance and not an identity. We’re treated like we’re rebelling against the whole world just for existing, and things simply do not work that way. My identity does inform my politics but I shouldn’t be made to feel like a walking protest just for existing as I am.
I’ve experienced a lot of misgendering and harassment since coming out, especially because I made the choice not to seek any hormonal or surgical gender-affirming treatment. It sucks to say that most people are not only ignorant, but hateful towards me for simply wanting to exist and be validated. People take it as a personal affront that you don’t subscribe to a binary so it’s kind of rough just expressing myself.
Society must understand we’re regular people and we do everything people with binary genders do. Stop being afraid of us and stop endangering us. Stop misgendering us and take the time to learn more about the history of gender especially as it pertains to violent Western colonial politics — we’re human beings and we really do just wanna live like everyone else.
James, 28, They/Them
I transitioned to male when I was 19, mostly because I knew I wasn’t female and male seemed like the only other option. I have never been especially uncomfortable with my body or being perceived as either binary gender, but somehow, even at the age of 19, I knew that I would be more comfortable in a body that is as nonbinary as my gender. I discovered nonbinary genders when I was 23, and it was that classic ‘aha’ moment. I have used a lot of different labels to try and define my agender identity, and these days I tend to use gender-null, which is the closest I have gotten to describing how, where most people feel male or female — I just have a void. For me, being agender is not a gender identity defined by the lack of gender, but the lack of any gender identity at all. It’s also possible that I won’t always identify this way! But I am not a time traveler, so I can’t be sure.
Being agender doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to do with gender or gendered constructs. There are a lot of different ways to feel and be agender. Like any identity category, people who identify as agender have different ideas of what that means (even if the term seems straightforward). They may prefer gendered pronouns, or not. An agender person may present solely femininity or masculinity, or may move between the two, or may blend them to create a sort of nonbinary style. They may pursue transition (and that will look different for everyone) as I have, or they may love their body as it is. Their gender identity may be a significant part of an agender person’s life, or the lack of gender may mean that they don’t think about it at all. Everyone is different, obviously.
Even though it makes me uncomfortable, I know that providing a space for everyone to name their preferred pronouns is actually really affirming for most people, and I think it is an important practice. Otherwise, what can society do? I honestly think that is just a matter of understanding that there are gender identities and experiences that go beyond male/female. There seems to be some movement toward making nonbinary identities visible, but even then I think there needs to be more emphasis on the fact that there are so many different ways to be nonbinary that the experiences we see in the media don’t even scratch the surface.
There are about various ways to experience gender (or not). They are all valid. Not identifying with any gender at all is valid. Experimenting with gender is the best part about gender, and if you end up at “My gender is agender,” that is cool and you are cool.
Ruth, 39, Any Pronouns (as long as you’re respectful)
I’ve known I was different than my peers since I was four years old. I didn’t know that not being male or female was an option, so at first — I thought I was just “weird” or different. I felt like I never quite fit in with my peers. The other girls in school often seemed like a different species from me, but I didn’t feel like I was a boy either.
Then I learned that I’m queer, and I thought that was the answer to how I felt differently than my peers. (I’m open to a romantic relationship with any gender.) I’ve always been interested in “gender-bending” at times, like wearing masculine clothes and having a gender-neutral hairstyle.
It was when I learned about younger people identifying as non-binary that I felt like I found a term that matched how I felt.
A big misconception with being agender is that we’re asking for anything special by trying to get non-binary birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. We just want to be legally acknowledged as who we are, the same as anyone else. (I got my California birth certificate corrected last year and now I’m trying to get my current state – Arizona – to change its laws and issue non-binary driver’s licenses so this topic is on my brain.)
Being non-binary or agender is not a fad and it’s not new. Non-binary people have always existed, but it’s been more recent that we’re being acknowledged.
It’s challenging and draining to be non-binary in a binary-centric society. There are everyday occurrences that people who are cisgender probably don’t even think about but that tell me that I’m excluded as non-binary:
- Locker rooms (only male and female options).
- Public bathrooms that have more than one stall (labeled male or female general).
- Referring to someone as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” There is no gender-neutral option.
- Ditto for other situations like what am I to my sibling’s baby. I’m not their aunt or uncle. I adopted my own term: “Oggy” (rhymes with “doggy”).
- When I sign up to run a race, I have to specify if I’m male or female. In my head, I’ve renamed them the testosterone and estrogen divisions.
- When you buy a plane ticket, you have to specify if you’re male or female. There are no other options and you must pick one.
- Buying clothes, especially a business suit, can be a nightmare because nothing seems to fit right. I want a masculine style suit, but items in the men’s section aren’t made for someone with my proportions and the women’s section doesn’t have masculine style suits. And my feet are too small to get men’s dress socks in most stores and that’s where the patterns I want are.
- The TSA – I seem to always set off the spinny-go-round scanner. They’re supposed to give a patdown by someone of the same gender. Every time I’ve asked, they haven’t had a non-binary person there to touch me.
Here’s what happened when I tried to get my travel ID, which everyone in AZ is required to get by January 2020. I brought the required documents, including my non-binary birth certificate, and they couldn’t process the application because the computer can only process a person as male or female.
The risk of being physically attacked or killed is much higher for transgender people, including non-binary people. I’m definitely more aware of my surroundings now.
I find this video by BBC Three titled Things Not To Say To A Non-Binary Person validating when I need it.
There is no one way to be non-binary, so what works for one person may not work for you, and you both may be non-binary people. It’s OK to be confused and questioning. There are websites, online forums, and books you can read as well as LGBTQ groups where you can meet people who are similar to you.