You Need Help: I Feel Disconnected From Gender As a Concept

Q:

What’s great: scores of my friends are having really great and meaningful moments of gender discovery and euphoria – finding new ways to dress that feel right, finding ways to express themselves more fully, getting gender confirmation procedures, trying out neopronouns, and generally finding gender to be an important and fulfilling area of their life.

The more I get to witness and participate in this, the happier I feel — but also the more disconnected I feel from gender as a concept. I have always hummed along assuming I’m a cis woman, but i have never felt strongly about that, and I’ve felt super uncomfortable volunteering “she/her” pronouns at work and other places — but I also don’t really want to switch to “they/them,” because the few times I’ve tried it out it doesn’t feel any more “right.” I don’t feel like a “woman” — and after talking to cis and trans women and non-binary people about what gender and “woman”ness feel like and mean, I don’t feel NOT like a woman either. I have a body that is pretty much universally gendered as “woman,” and while I hate that, I also hate the thought of making changes to my body. When I wear dresses, I don’t feel particularly at ease or uncomfortable or affirmed or dysphoric; when I lift weights and get swole, I don’t feel like I’m moving towards or away from anything.

For me, gender has always felt like something from the outside – a lens that other people use to interact with me whether I want them to or not. I keep trying to find the joy that I see other people find in gender identity – to find some wavelength that makes me feel more “me.” Identifying as a woman doesn’t feel right, but affirmatively identifying as “not a woman” also doesn’t feel right.

If this is being agender…what do I do now? I don’t know how to affirm my own opting out of something I never opted into. I don’t know how to express a lack of something. And I don’t know what pronouns I should use!!!

A:

I feel very similarly to the way you feel about my own gender — I feel unsure when asked about my pronouns because I genuinely don’t have a preference, only a default. “She/her” feels wrong, but “they/them” and “he/him” don’t feel better. I don’t feel like “a woman” (but also, referring to myself as a “girl” when I was younger felt much more comfortable than calling myself a “woman,” now), and I usually relate more to how non-binary people talk about their gender than I do to how cis or trans women talk about their gender, but that can depend on who’s talking. Growing up, everyone knew me as a tomboy and I was sometimes read as male, and that was fine. I’ve said for years that my gender identity is “lesbian,” which feels even truer to me than saying my sexual orientation is “lesbian.” Mostly, I don’t want to be perceived at all.

Which is just to say, you’re not the only person out there who feels ambivalent about their own gender or isn’t sure where they fit, or what to do about it, or who can’t connect to these ideas that are so meaningful for others in the queer community.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we might be able to let ourselves live in uncertainty. To know that just because a suite of labels exist for a certain element of our identity doesn’t mean every human soul will find one that fits them perfectly, or that we’ll find it by a certain age, or even that finding it will bring us euphoria. You say that your friends are “generally finding gender to be an important and fulfilling area of their life,” but it’s okay for you to not feel the same way about your own gender, or about gender as a concept.

That said, not being able to access the community that labels enable can suck, if that is part of what you are looking for. Feeling out of place in the category you’re assigned can be hard, too, even if you don’t know which category would suck less. I don’t know how to describe that strange, blobby, out-of-place sentiment, but I understand how deep the urge can be to reconcile it. I think, though, that there’s also peace to be found in just accepting that sometimes we will occupy spaces that aren’t perfect affirmations or reflections of who we are, because life is full of those spaces, and it’s unlikely you’re the only person in that space who feels the way you do about being there.

If you do want to explore this more, you could try simply A/B testing your gender — trying out different pronouns or different ways of describing your gender in different contexts or with different people, and see how they feel, if any of those get you to a place where you feel more yourself. You don’t owe anyone a linear narrative. It’s okay to change, rather than evolve — to try one thing and then pull back and then try that same thing again or something else altogether.

I hesitated for a long time to say “any pronouns” when asked to indicate mine for a bio, because I worried it was disrespectful or belittling to people who do use specific pronouns and are regularly misgendered. But I talked to some people about it and saw more and more people doing it themselves, and so I started doing it too, for the past year or so. Of course everybody generally defaults to “she/her” for me, but “she/her by default” is a fine place to be for me.

You know how there are people who are queer and it’s a huge part of their identity and they want to talk about it and find queer community and consume queer art and start whole entire websites about it, and then there are people who just like, date people of different genders? Maybe this is like that. Or maybe this is like sexuality itself — many allosexual people find exploring their sexual interests and having sex to be incredibly fulfilling and important and central to who they are, whereas asexual people wouldn’t necessarily find that same level of fulfillment. And then there are lots of people who are somewhere in the middle, there.

Neither of those comparisons are perfect comparisons, because gender is ultimately a thing that can’t really be compared to anything else, it is its own world of meaning, it is so elemental to how humanity has organized itself.

But maybe all any of this is, is a jumping off point.

When you say that you keep trying to find the joy that you see other people find in gender identity, maybe what I am trying to do here is ask you to give yourself permission to accept that you might not find that joy, and that’s okay. Maybe the joy you feel for your friends will be the most gender-related joy you experience, and even that, I think, is a lot of joy! But also, it’s possible that eventually you will, later in your own journey — maybe not right now, along with your friends, but eventually. I don’t know how old you are, but whether you are 25 or 75, it’s okay not to have it all figured out just yet.

Not every piece of who you are has to be part of an inevitable biological or psychological destiny that, with enough effort and introspection, you can accurately unearth and begin living within. Experiences change us, environments change us. The world changes around us and we change with it. All we can do is live with the truth as it presents itself to us, and do our best to find peace within the gray area, even if we can’t always find validation, or comfort there. Confusion is a wavelength too, after all.


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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3200 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. It’s not the same perhaps, but just offering solidarity as an asexual-spectrum person feeling very confused and unable to know what I feel about an aspect of human interaction that the rest of the world is obsessed with and seems very clear on. “I don’t know how to express a lack of something.” really resonates with me. ❤️

  2. Thank you for this. I feel like I’m ish on everything—female-ish but also enby-ish, ace-ish but occasionally not, homoromantic-ish but sometimes not. Most of the time I don’t think about it and just do what feels right to me, but it becomes a struggle in romantic/sexual spaces and in spaces keyed to identity. I would love to find a label that feels like a perfect fit, but these categories aren’t made for me, and I don’t have to make myself fit into an LGBTQIA2S box anymore than I have to make myself fit into a cishet box. But it does get lonely when I see others embracing an identity label that seems to unlock a new level of comfort for them. I also know I miss out on seeking out and exploring attraction with people because I don’t have a consistent type/level of desire that makes me feel like I can easily explain what the other person would be engaging with. The trick is to find a way to live in uncertainty that’s positive (I’m unconstrained and can do what feeds me!) instead of restrictive.

  3. I feel this all so hard. Thank you for this question, and this answer. I struggled a lot with this because “woman” feels wrong, but I also don’t think I’m non-binary, and I’m definitely not a man. I don’t mind being looped in with “let’s go girls” but I flinch at the “woman” sign on bathrooms. I think currently my gender is “unsubscribe” and that’s fine for now. I thought about it obsessively for a few months, then I changed my pronouns in my bios to she/they, and it felt right. I stopped thinking about it. It’s not quite a label but it’s close enough that it made my brain stop hyperfocusing on it. I am just a queer person who uses she/they pronouns and that’s all I need to figure out for now. I’m going to go back to not perceiving my own self for a while, please and thank you. But it’s nice to know there are more people in this sort of amorphous 404 error of a gender identity with me. I hope you all find labels or lack thereof that make your brains stop whirring about it. <3

  4. Chiming in to say I’m right there with you! I once misread the words “gender nonconforming” as “gender nonconfirming” — as in, simply not confirming the concept of gender. That is the best description of my gender I can give, and I actually find it funny and delightful for now.

  5. I wish it existed online somewhere, but there’s a really fantastic essay about all of this in the queer horror anthology It Came From The Closet. It’s called “Indescribable” and it’s written by Carrow Narby, and if anyone is interested in anything discussed in this letter and its answer, I highly recommend getting your hands on the book for this essay alone! Its final sentence always stays with me: “Language might be the best thing that we have to bridge the void between ourselves, but it will never be enough.”

  6. This is very helpful to read and think about. I mostly think of myself as a cis woman, if I have to think about it, but I also have these random “not a girl” feelings. But no label really feels right.

    One of my niblings came out as non-binary a couple years ago and it’s been interesting watching him experiment with presenting more femme and really finding joy in that and realizing that I do not particularly find joy in my gender presentation. And maybe that’s OK. I don’t know.

  7. I really like the term gender agnostic. I recognize that gender is something deeply meaningful for a lot of people (at least in theory), but I don’t really believe in it for myself.

    I tend to use agender in official stuff where it’s an option and strongly prefer genderqueer to nonbinary as an umbrella term, since technically “gender? yes/no” is a binary. (Totally fine with other people vibing with nonbinary of course.)

    But honestly if I could just turn gender off as a lens that people use when they think about me then that would be the ideal. So I think a lot of this question/response resonated.

  8. I’ve been navigating my own feelings about gender over the past few months. I’ve always understood myself to be cis because I know I’m not trans/NB. But at the same time my connection to my gender shifts a lot. Some days I’ll identify really strongly with it, other days not at all. But on the days when I feel less connected to my gender, I don’t necessarily feel masculine or gender-free. At the same time, using they/them or neopronouns doesn’t feel authentic. I came across the term “genderflux” recently and it instantly resonated with me.

  9. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend reading Canton Winer’s research on what he is calling “gender detachment”. His work is based on surveys of people who identify as asexual, among whom this feeling seems to be fairly common.

  10. I loved this and am so grateful for the comments too. I feel the same way, esp the pressure related to being asked to define pronouns, and experimenting with things like “none” or “any” etc. — it’s just nice to feel less alone in the vagueness and general lack of connection to a lot of the satisfaction and joy that many of my genderqueer and trans friends have found!

    • Pre pandemic, I had a severe pixie cut, severe and kind of boxy glasses, and was pretty jacked. Now, I haven’t had a haircut since Feb 2020, rarely wear my glasses anymore, and am a little softer all the way around… And at some point in between I started attracting commentary from men on the street again. Walking down the street and ignoring some man one day, I thought, well – my gender always rounded up to woman, I guess, but I sure used to carry a few extra digits!

      Also the number of times I’ve almost walked into the wrong bathroom bc it’s some fancy restaurant with bespoke M and W lettering and I identify more strongly with m for my name than w for my gender… is so high

  11. While introspection is never a bad thing, I think that the idea of a “felt” gender doesn’t really apply for many (even most?) people, especially (though not exclusively) cis people. Even for me, as a trans person who has had access to the social/legal/medical transition I desired, gender doesn’t actually take up that much brain space these days. Because it’s hard to quantify our feelings about gender, I think looking at the material/social/relational aspects can help us understand ourselves better. Trying out different pronouns, or thinking about words like “girlfriend” or “sister” or “aunt” and how they do or don’t apply to you can be a good start. I also think that the “cisgender” boxes are perhaps roomier than we give them credit for! I think if a person feels neutral to positive about their gender assigned at birth, feels fine about moving through the world using the bathroom people expect them to and having the gender marker on their ID that they have had all their life, that person is likely cisgender- and that’s not a bad thing!

    • I remember a time before the trans/cis terminology, and before stating your pronouns. And while there was a lot wrong with that time, and i belonged to the first people using trans/cis, there was a freedom in that earlier time that now is somewhat lost.
      Many people under the large lesbian umbrella were opting out of gender altogether. If asked they would probably have described themselves as androgynous. Gender was accepted only as a very basic category of the physical body, or of political affiliation, while identity was freedom from categories.
      What Riese called gender Lesbian is exactly this. See for example Monique Wittiqs writings.
      This is why i have always felt slightly unconfortable with the new trans/cis and pronoun world, even as a trans person. It gives too much weight to cis, and the existence of a binary.
      And the question of pronouns forces people to out themselves and somehow accept a fixed place in these categories, while in the past pronouns were a formality or a thing to play around with, or to hide inside.
      In some ways, like codyfying homosexuality as a legal, marrying, category has stabilized heterosexuality and marriage, codyfying trans has stabilized cis and the binary. While i acknowledge that we need the legal protection that comes with this, i want to opt out of the whole system, the whole idea. And these are not new political ideas, we have had them for a very long time. But sadly this is somewhat forgotten or lost in the struggle for recognition. Through fighting with our enemies, we become more like our enemies. I don’t know how to solve this.
      @riese

  12. Thank you so much for writing in; I feel I know exactly what you’re going through, you’ve perfectly summed up my own situation, that I’ve never really been able to explain to people. Thank you for making me feel less weird and alone, and I hope you know you’re not alone in what you’re going through. Sending hugs xoxoxox

  13. hi LW! this (agender) is how i identify. i’ll begrudingly tolerate ‘nonbinary’ because it’s technically under the umbrella of other-than-binary genders. but i am both itchy about the gender trinary and find it meaningful to have some sort of language around the particular quality of, including the relative directionlessness of, my transness- which i do experience as transness.

    what i can offer in case it’s useful is that for me, letting this label ride through life with me is so much about describing what is (or isn’t) already there. meaning: there’s not a specific locus, either external or internal, towards which i understand myself to be moving, no magnetized subset of idealized cultural or even personally defined traits drawing me towards them- and that in itself is confirmatory of my agenderness (as is not finding any utility or, like, reality in the concepts of masculinity or femininity in general). i shared in another thread recently and will mention again here that the universe of agender experience inside me is something i think of as ‘everything everywhere all at once and none of it is gender.’

    i’ll also say this: an identity can be a doorway. it is very common that once people allow themselves to step towards what feels right, there is a (sometimes slow-moving, sometimes faster) cascade of feelings that weren’t there before, at least in conscious awareness. i experience more dysphoria now than i did when i thought of myself as cis, or even when i first started to understand myself as not cis- the words, clothes, etc. that are wrong are felt much more acutely. (re: pronouns specifically, i initially had a trying-it-out she/they stage during which they/them pronouns felt weird and not-me and like i maybe didn’t deserve them at first for me, too! that’s no longer true. it’s often a process.) and my presentation and expression and the ways i think of myself and what i do and don’t want have expanded beyond what i ever would have imagined. things might change for you if you decide to take this step. it still might not look like the comprehensive rightness some people experience around gender–after all, how can you be affirmed in something that doesn’t exist?–but there might be more there than you think, *and* it is okay for your own experience with gender to be more subtle and internal and personally defined.

    there aren’t a ton of agender people out there, comparatively speaking, so it can be hard to even feel affirmed via shared experience. but what you’re describing is relatable to me. it sounds like you’re quietly thinking of yourself as agender. maybe the thing to do next is to do it out loud, give yourself full permission to live into it for a while, and see what happens. all the best to you.

  14. If helpful re: pronouns: I have/had similar gender feels. When I first started using they/them pronouns (several years ago now), it felt weird and I was worried that it might not feel any better than she pronouns. But it turned out that after a few months’ adjustment, they feel like they fit me much better than any other option available. It might be different & true for you that no pronouns resonate particularly with you, but for me it really was just an adjustment period!

  15. Question for both the writers and everyone who feels touched by this topic — what sort of things would it be helpful to hear if you’re just figuring this stuff out?

    I do trans 101 presentations and I always am sure to bring up that some folks in the audience probably don’t feel much by way of gender euphoria or dysphoria. I usually call this “meh about gender or low gender affinity” but I’ll probably update that with more phrases from the comments here. I know as a trans person that knowing there are other folks like me and that I’m a valuable aspect of the diversity of human experience was what I needed to hear at first — are there different or additional things that would help someone in your shoes in the context of a gender differences 101 presentation?

    • B, thank you for the education work you do! As a person for whom these feeling have come up fairly recently, one thing I’ve struggled with is the idea that it’s okay for my gender identity to shift and change over time. I’ve identified as nonbinary for the past few years, but that label hasn’t fit so well recently. I’m comfortable with my newfound gender ambivalence, but now I feel like I have much to explain to people who are thrown by it. I’ve felt pressure to not be open about my morphing gender identity because I’m afraid that people will see my NB identity as a phase or invalid in some way…which is not true at all! So the message that gender really is fluid and can thicken or thin in its importance with time is an important message to pass on.

  16. I feel this a lot. My wife once described my gender identity as female *shrug* and that was very correct. I like the solidarity of identifying as female in a patriarchal society (and especially working in a male dominated field), but I don’t have any internal attachment to it.

  17. The specific thing of “girl” felt fine/right but “woman” feels weird really resonated! Personally I’ve landed on “genderqueer woman” to describe myself, for a few reasons: I don’t feel like “woman” or “cis woman” quite fits right anymore, if it ever did, but “nonbinary” doesn’t feel right either. My gender presentation is such that I sometimes get “sir”ed in public, which feels amazing, but she/her pronouns still feel like they fit me best, and while getting “sir”ed feels good people occasionally defaulting to they/them for me feels inexplicably awful, and the idea of using he/him or neopronouns just seems like they’d belong to someone else.

    So I go with genderqueer because, while woman does fit better than man, nb, agender, etc., there’s a big undefinable soupy Something going on alongside it. And I feel “queer,” as a malleable unspecific umbrella term, frees me from having to nail down what that Something is any further!

    • Gender in some ways feels like getting a bunch of calls about my car warranty. Like. I don’t think I need that? But I keep hearing about it and I know people who have it so maybe it is important? But also…a lot of what I’m getting seem to be spam calls and and, holy shit are they Annoying. And what even is an “extended warranty” anyway? Sounds fake.

      Which isn’t to say that I haven’t had like, a lot of feelings about gender. (Okay, like 80% of those feelings were angst). I have and did and a lot of those feelings came from feeling like I did not Fit and also that I had to Understand to like, know myself. And so I put a lot of pressure to like Figure Things Out. (And sure, there did need to be a coherent narrative to access top surgery which didn’t help reduce that angst and pressure!) That pressure did me no favors and just mostly made me more stressed out and unsure than I needed to be. Uncertainty is fine! Frankly, not giving a fuck is also perfectly fine! Like, I find a lot of joy in my garden (it is a serotonin machine except it is very much not a machine). I’ve got a bunch of friends who absolutely do NOT find joy in gardens, and then trying to find joy in a bunch of dirt would be somewhere between bewildering and extremely aggravating. Gender ain’t that different than a hobby, other than gender being like, almost everyone’s hobby to some extent and so many of those people are really, really passionate about it and gatekeeper-ey and get really weird about it really fast.

      I’m certainly not any authority on being agender because like, I’ve got a gender. It’s around here somewhere…I think? Last time I looked anyway. But knowing, ime, relies partially on like, making a choice. I definitely feel like I had that bc “butch lady”, “nonbinary person”, and “trans man” were all options on the table for me and none were really incorrect ways to describe my interactions/intersections/understandings of gender. (This is where I felt a lot of pressure initially because…those are…not exactly descriptions that are generally understood to be able to be simultaneously true and certainly felt mutually exclusive.) Being able to “know” my gender really came down to me going “ah fuck it I’ve got to pick SOMETHING” despite my natural proclivity towards indecisiveness. And like, I’m happy to have picked nonbinary but I don’t think I’d have been particularly unhappy with the other options (though admittedly being able to more easily access top surgery and having an explainable reason for changing my name were big factors for me and had I gone with the butch lady option that would have made things harder, but so has being out as being trans, so y’know tradeoffs). And…hey, if you pick something and then find yourself manifestly unhappy about it, well, it’s probably not the right call and you still learned something about yourself along the way! Eliminating what something isn’t doesn’t feel as helpful as a positive ID, but it’s still more helpful than not making any sort of progress.

      And pronouns can take some getting used to. It was definitely jarring for me to switch and when I made that call I was very certain about it! If you don’t want to potentially have to do even more explaining to everyone if you switch and then decide that, no, actually you would prefer she/her (which, mood. I would prefer to never have to explain gender things ever, which feels weird to say in this rather long comment where I talk about gender things, but it’s still true), do you have a couple friends you could go like “hey I think I want to try [experimental pronoun set] pronouns but can we keep this experiment amongst us in case I wind up hating them because being wrong about myself in a more public fashion would be mortifying”? Give it like, a few weeks or so and see if it gets less jarring. Or hell, say the same thing to your friends but go “I don’t think I want pronouns used for me so can we go with no pronouns?” And see if that feels a bit better or more natural due to the kind of inherent lack of gendering a lack of pronouns has.

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