What is Agender? Five Things You Should Know

GenderBeginningTS
This will be familiar territory for many of you (and that’s great!), but for anyone who isn’t as well-versed, let the learning begin!

Gender, while often used as a synonym for biological sex, is an entirely separate component of every human’s makeup. Even the scientific and medical communities recognize the differences between “sex” and “gender.” To quote the World Health Organization:

“‘Sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. ‘Gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

GenderGraphicTS

“Agender” by definition means “someone without gender,” and falls under the big, colorful trans umbrella. Just like someone might identify themselves as a man, a woman, genderfluid, and so on, a person who identifies as agender doesn’t feel as if they belong anywhere on the gender spectrum at all. While the identity is easily summed up in a sentence or two (see above), the concept is where most people seem to get lost. So, here’s a handy guide to the most common assumptions, faux pas, and outright weird notions about people who are agender that pop up in everyday conversation.


1. Agender Does Not Mean Asexual

One of top mistakes I see on a daily basis is the presumption that an agender person must also be asexual. I mean, they sound a lot alike, right? That must mean they’re connected! Wrong. We’re people with the same complex set of desires and attractions as anyone else, not a Sesame Street letter-association game. Other than beginning with the letter “a,” those two descriptors have no more likelihood of being directly linked than any sexuality with any gender. Likewise, you can’t simply interchange the words with one another. Unless we are talking about who I may or may not want to take to bed, “asexual” can sit this conversation out.

GenderAssociationTS


2. No, I Don’t Have The Decoder Ring To Gender

So often, agender people like myself are interrogated at length to define all of the ins and outs of gender, since we obviously must know what defines gender in its entirety, since we’re not part of it. The problem is, it just doesn’t work that way. Gender, even a lack thereof, is too nebulous of a concept to pin down absolutely in a way that fits everyone. Biology, societal roles, cultures, and theories are just too varied, and how much each impacts an individual’s identity is different for everyone. Why does anyone identify as the gender they do? I’d have an easier time explaining the basics of quantum physics than telling you why you’re a man, why that person is a woman, and why I’m neither of those things. I mean, I totally sympathize with Heisenberg; he could never tell you anything for certain, either! (I’ll see myself out.)

GenderKnightTS


3. My Identity Does Not Invalidate Yours

Kind of like that last point, agender people and their identities are no more controversial or world-changing than your own. We’re not a race of super enlightened gender-Buddhas that have achieved a higher level of existence beyond mere mortals, and we don’t claim to be. Nobody’s gender has suddenly become obsolete in the presence of my awe-inspiring, counterculture war cry of, “I dunno, I just am.” Agender people are just trying to live their lives being who and what they are, just like anyone else. No one is trying to convert anyone in or out of any identity, or destroy the notion of genders for everyone, though I’m sure the theoretical pamphlets would be entertaining and bizarre as hell. It’s okay.


4. Agender People Aren’t Just Confused/Genderfluid/In Denial/Care Too Much About Gender Roles/Not Real

See how I lumped all of those together? Because they are equally stupid assumptions. Unless you are describing an agendered person who can’t figure out a Portal level, they’re not confused. Genderfluid is a totally separate identity. “In denial” accurately describes the person who would say that of agender people. To say we care too much about gender roles is what you might call an informal fallacy; by not being any gender, it’s kind of impossible to embrace or avoid any of the roles typically ascribed to one. And as for any non-binary genders being nonexistent or “not real”? Well, simply put, we are real because we, y’know, exist. That argument is automatically invalidated by our mere presence. However, if you want specific, recorded examples, maybe you should brush up on a little human history. There have been non-binary genders throughout human civilization and all around the world — from the calabai and calalai of Indonesia; the two-spirit gender of Native Americans; the fa’afafine of Samoa; the Albanian Sworn Virgins; hijras of South Asia; et cetera. All of these cultures and identities are unique, and not necessarily comparable to the Western experience or understanding of nonbinary gender, but they’re a compelling argument put down your pink and blue baby clothes and back away.

GenderExistTS


5. You Don’t Have a Word For Me, So You’re Just Going to Ignore My Identity

Oh, the pronoun debate. It’s fine to be puzzled as to how you address your agender acquaintance. The English language, like all West Germanic and Romance languages, simply doesn’t have many ungendered pronouns at its disposal. Luckily, there are plenty of other languages in the world with gender-neutral pronouns and genderless structures: Japanese, Finnish, Hungarian, Persian, Mandarin, Korean, Turkish, Malay, and many more are perfect examples of this. While a lot of English-speaking agender people prefer to use ze/zey/zir/hir/etc., or they/them/their etc., others are okay with the old standbys, especially if they get changed up here and there in conversation. It’s polite, not embarrassing, to simply ask your agender pal which camp they fall in. And please, don’t just tell them, “this is how I’m going to refer to you despite whatever you think,” because then your agender acquaintance gets to refer to you entirely in the third-person for the remainder of their conversation with or about you, too, and your new name will be “fart-face.” It’s only fair.

In conclusion, agender people simply aren’t different, wiser, pickier, newer, or more special than anyone else you might meet. We came by our gender identity the same way anyone does, unconsciously, but certainly. While I can appreciate that agender people are few and far between, and are therefore bound to field questions about their identities, please keep the above points in mind before asking any yourself. As for me, whenever someone asks why I’m agender, I’ll hold my head high, throw my shoulders back, and proudly proclaim, “I dunno, I just am.”

GenderShrugTS


You can see my comic about being agender here.

I also do other funny comics on that site.

And I’m the illustrator and collaborator of the ongoing graphic novel FindChaos (mature readers only), Lesbians 101, and several short story comics!


Header Image by Rory Midhani

A. Stiffler is a freelance graphic artist specializing in digital creations, mixed media and comic illustration. They reside in Columbus, Ohio with wife and frequent collaborator K. Copeland. Together they create the ongoing comics FindChaos & ChaosLife. Stiffler also co-wrote and illustrated Lesbians 101, an educationally inclusive web-to-print comic about lesbian (and other) sexualities. Their works have been featured on Australian Broadcasting Corporation productions, The Discovery Channel Blog, The Washington Post, MSN, Gizmodo and NerdApproved among many other online and print venues. Stiffler is a strong advocate for same-sex marriage, LGBTQI/GSM rights, environmental issues, mental illness awareness and preserving the arts. You can support Stiffler by contributing to their new Patreon campaign or by visiting their sites! And you can see their original post about their Agender Identity here!

A. has written 1 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. That was a very sweet reading! I learned stuff. I guess I am often guilty of associating the ideas of gender fluidity and being agender, to some extent. Not that I don’t perfectly understand what both words mean on their own, just that they seem to fit in the “same bag” of diversity, and obviously we really shouldn’t look at it that way. Thanks!

  2. Hey A. Stiffler! Long time fan of ChaosLife, glad to see what I know is a difficult opening up of yourself to educate others. I think emphasizing the importance of not questioning someone’s identity or pronouns can never be said too often.

    That being said, I don’t think it is appropriate for agender people to identify as trans (I don’t use the asterisk because it is reductive and erasing of trans women. We don’t say cis* or genderqueer* or ace*: why say trans*? Trans itself was invented to be more inclusive than transgender/transsexual, so the asterisk is redundant as well. There’s lots of great articles on this if you’re interested: http://queer-cheer.tumblr.com/post/75633348118/about-the-asterisk). Trans is specifically a quality of gender: trans man, trans woman, trans two spirit, etc. If you’re without gender, then it wouldn’t make sense to apply it to yourself. It would be like saying light colorless or loud silence: poetic perhaps, but not empirical reality. I all too often see other queer folks trying to nudge their way into an ever expanding trans umbrella and this worries me as the more people who are not trans women, the more our struggles get diluted. Just look at the past Philly Trans Health Conference where there were more workshops by and oriented towards genderqueer people than towards trans women. I’m not saying your struggles aren’t important, but taking our space to fight them is harmful to trans women. I think all trans people should be in solidarity with all GSM but solidarity is not the same as being of.

    I would love to know why you think it is appropriate to refer to yourself as trans. I’m totally open to having my mind changed on this if you can present a good reason for including yourself as trans.

    • “Trans two spirit” ??
      No. Two spirit is not a trans identity. Not really sure why it’s used as a reference point in these conversations. It doesn’t apply b/c it’s just a completely separate deal that only applies to an extremely small portion of the population and absolutely no one else.

    • If being trans means having a gender identity that doesn’t “match” the sex that one was assigned at birth, wouldn’t that include agender people? After all, lack of gender doesn’t “match” with either male assignment or female assignment.

      That said, I want to acknowledge your concern – it is why, as a butch genderfluid person on the female/non-binary spectrum, I’m reluctant to call myself “trans”. It bothers me somewhat that, for instance, at my university, both the leadership and membership of the trans student group are mostly white FAAB non-binary people, and makes me wonder if the needs of trans women and other transfeminine people (and trans PoC, for that matter) are being served, whether transmisogyny is being properly addressed. And I also want to make sure that medical transitioners have enough space. On the other hand, “cis” isn’t really accurate for me either, and there’s a sort of “Either you’re cis or you’re trans” assumption out there, and it’s easy enough for me to get why various sorts of nonbinary people, including agender people, would be drawn to the trans label.

      I like TGNC (trans/gender non-conforming) as an umbrella term, as I have no such concerns about GNC as a label for myself, but I’ve only seen a few groups use it.

    • Trans has included all kinds of gender identity and gender presentation minorities since the term was first used. Transfeminist trans women did this intentionally. The term was meant to include all people impacted by transphobia. The only way in which anyone could be perceived as trying to expand it is in response to truscum trying to compress it and pretend their redefinition is the historical definition.

      Also, two spirit is and umbrella term that includes all kinds of first nations identities that might be considered trans in a eurocentric context, not a gender in itself. Saying “trans two spirit” is both redundant and colonialist.

    • I agree with this! Trans people (esp. women of color) struggle to have their needs recognized as legitimate enough already, and in my opinion it doesn’t help when more gender fluid people (andro, genderqueer, genderfuck, agender, etc.) who have DIFFERENT needs try to claim that label. Just my opinion and willing to discuss.

    • Hey there! Thanks so much for being a fan, and thank you for articulating your concerns!

      As far as the asterisk goes: its usage seems to fall in and out of favor, depending on who you talk to, but I’ll leave it out for this reply, if it makes you uncomfortable.

      I know there are trans women who identify as “truscum” and echo a lot of your concerns in the form of narrowing the definition of trans. However, I believe that’s erasure of identity (a lot like folks telling bisexuals that they can’t identify as “queer” unless they’re in a same-sex relationship) and I don’t believe in the values that truscum place upon all trans people. I know your feelings may not be as extreme or anything like that group, but it’s not an uncommon criticism of my identity or this article.

      I can appreciate your frustration about the Philly Trans Health Conference, but it seems the imbalance would be the organizers’ fault, not the fault of anyone with a genderqueer identity. In my opinion, the education surrounding any trans identity is woefully lax, but “taking up your space” seems not only a logical fallacy (as it’s my space, too) but also a steep condition to set for other trans or questioning youth that might want to attend education conferences.

      Furthermore, to address your more specific concern, I use the word “trans” to apply to agender/genderqueer/etc. because the traditional usage of trans since the mid-20th century has always meant “any gender identity outside of what you’re assigned at birth (cis)” — not, as is so commonly misunderstood, a shortening of “transition.” Not only is the “transition” takeaway unfair to trans people who can’t or don’t want to undergo medical alterations (for all sorts of reasons — pregnancy, illness, money, body issues, just because) but it’s also a harmful precedent that leads to asking the exact sorts of questions that people like Katie Couric ask: “What do you have down there, did you have surgery? Will you?” It just isn’t the type of thing that should be brought into conversation when we talk about one’s gender identity.

      I also use it because I feel it would be transphobic of me not to use it — as I’ve heard other (sadly) genderqueer people say that they don’t want to identify as trans because of the unfortunate stigma that surrounds the term and because they don’t want to be lumped in with (a slur word I won’t bother typing out). It’s an ugly point of view and it doesn’t help the trans community at all. More numbers equals more strength and education which in turn equals wider understanding and acceptance.

      As I see it: the word “trans” can’t be diluted or invaded, it’s not a finite identity for only a few very specific people with very specific bodies. Do we need more education? Of course. But part of a better education is talking about the vast array of potential identities, not just the binary ones — whether cis or trans. As I said in the article, my identity doesn’t invalidate yours, nor does the presence of it take away from your experiences and struggles, just as yours doesn’t take away from mine. I hope I did change your mind, but even if I didn’t, I’m happy to refer to myself as trans and try to be a proactive part of this awesome community.

      • First off: this comment is all sorts of confusing and mostly just your feelings, so I’ll try to be as on point as possible.

        The aterisk thingy is being debated with most of the information coming from Tumblr, but I assure you that truscum didn’t start it. It was started as a way to identify that you weren’t a transvestite, just a shortening of trasgender or transsexual, with the asterik to indicate that either could be your identity. Sort of like using an asterisk to broaden a computer search. It’s a wildcard. Some people use it, some don’t. There’s a lot of conflicting info out there on it, but even the most inclusive spaces use it in regards to trans women and men.

        Secondly, truscum are indeed trans women too. I’ve known quite a few and they can be as hateful as cis women who exclude trans women from women-only spaces.

        Thirdly, that kind of sounds like what you’re trying to do. You’re putting emphasis on people’s genitals here by saying “all of these people born with vaginas, there’s too many of them” when you should be thinking “all of these people are trans, that’s awesome.” No one is taking resources from anyone: we all have enough room to get along. And saying that is really akin to saying that trans women shouldn’t be allowed in usually cis women only spaces: you’re saying people born with a certain set of genitals shouldn’t be allowed to participate in transgender events because they have a certain set of genitals or aren’t binary? That’s exclusive and erasure.

        Also, what can you possibly mean by “more advantaged trans people can ask questions of event organizers”? Do event organizers only listen to dfab people? Are dfab people more advantaged? Because I don’t think so. While a lot of trans women get to live as their gender, dfab people get misogyny by people who misgender them and they also get excluded from the trans community for not being ‘trans enough’ AND they don’t even get to put their preferred gender or pronouns on most official forms. How is that an advantage? It strikes me that it’s the bisexuality argument all over again (which finding chaos brought up): if you’re in-between something, you get hate from both sides, not just one. It’s not fair to non binary people to say they’re advantaged when a lot of them would feel that binary trans people were the ones with the advantages.

        As far you feeling unwelcome in trans spaces, believe me, nonbinary people feel unwelcome too. Especially since most of the media of transgender people is focused on binary representations of boxes of “TRANS MAN” or “TRANS WOMAN” with no talk of anything in between, it’s hard to be non-binary and out and have anyone understand what you’re talking about. Just as you felt excluded, so do non binary people: most of the trans events I’ve ever attended had an overwhelming binary presence of trans women. Part of your problem might be the demographics of where you live not the fault of any one person or subset of people. In my hometown, there are a lot of trans women so non binaries often get the short end. Should we stop allowing dmab people? No, that would be exclusionary and wrong.

        Maybe the feeling of exclusion is because there’s an US VS. THEM mentality instead of “We’re all trans.” And an extra piece of advice to everyone: get away from Tumblr now and then. It’s an educational space, sure, but it’s also the biggest source of the most nasty in-fighting in the LGBT community I’ve ever seen. It’s like they want us to all hate each other.

      • June —- Funny how the sentiment “Trans spaces should be reserved for people born without vaginas” sounds eerily similar to “(commonly cis) Women spaces should be reserved for people born WITH vaginas.” Bigotry is apparently alive and well even in the trans community.

        As far as your asterisk concern: no, that’s not where it started. It started as a way for trans people to distinguish they were transgender or transsexual in some way, like how you use an asterisk to expand your search on a computer.

        As far as your truscum argument: I disagree on that front, I know more truscum trans women than trans men and Tumblr is pretty much all truscum trans women policing gender and telling people they aren’t “trans enough.” (Again weirdly similar to how cis women tell trans women they aren’t “woman enough.”) No one is taking resources, these are resources for trans people, and non binary people are trans people too. If you believe that like you believe that trans women should be allowed in women-only spaces then you need to be ready to share those spaces with them too.

        As far as your other points; mostly those are just your feelings and they differ from person to person. A lot of non binary people feel excluded and unwelcome in trans spaces (just look at Emma’s comment!) and wouldn’t consider themselves “advantaged.” The media and people in general love categorizing people into BINARY genders so once you’re non binary you can’t be categorized easily so dfab non binary people especially experience not on misogyny but also no forms with their preferred gender on them and erasure from both the cis and trans community. A lot like bisexuals (as mentioned I think) non binary trans people get it from both sides. There are almost 0 representations of non binary people in the media yet they’re somehow advantaged? I think a lot would disagree on that front.

        Maybe you would do better to view it not as an US VS. THEM situation and more as a WE situation. “WE are trans” not a “THEY are sort of trans but I’m MORE trans.” Just as a lesbian can’t be MORE queer than a bisexual girl — **we**’re ALL queer.

      • I think anybody who is personally targeted by transphobia should feel free to identify with the label “trans” if they want to. And many genderqueer people, including many agender people, certainly get targeted by transphobia. I used to be roommates with a male-assigned-at-birth agender person. They had a beard and looked male to most people but would usually wear skirts and other very feminine clothing and had a traditionally female name. So they got targeted with a LOT of shit. Honestly, I feel that as a binary-identifed trans woman somewhat able to blend in, in some ways I have an easier go of it than they did.

        The gender-variant community has too many different people with too many divergent experiences to accurately be able to judge certain people as “trans” and certain other people as “not trans.” I know trans women who have never had surgery, never taken hormones, and never intend to do either one, and yet they are still women. And of course, they often have trouble being accepted not just by mainstream society but also within the trans women’s community because they diverge from what a trans woman is supposed to be according to people’s preconceptions. These are also women who might face a lot the same types of issues that no-hormone non-binary people face, and so the medical focus of much of the transsexual community won’t be relevant for them. And yet they are obviously still women and still trans, to say otherwise would be misgendering.

        Other the other hand, I know male-assigned-at-birth genderqueer people who HAVE taken hormones, HAVE gotten genital surgery, and go about their daily lives with pretty much everyone automatically assuming they are female. So their medical needs and many of their social experiences are pretty much exactly the same as those needs and experiences traditionally attributed to trans women. So would tell a person like this, who went through most of the same shit you’ve gone through, that they aren’t trans simply because they don’t identify as a woman or man but rather something different? That would seem very disrespectful and erasing to me, to tell that to someone who had to go through all the same experiences of coming out, gatekeeping, transitioning, and so on.

      • Thank you for this article and this comment – I’ve been struggling to articulate many of these ideas in my own life to my wife and with my therapist, so it’s gratifying to not only have language / ideas to discuss it but to also know other people are working through the same processes in their life journey as well.

    • My girlfriends just said the same exact thing in regards to “spreading ourselves thin”.

      There’s this umbrella that includes all GLBTQ folks, and then there is this trans/agender/genderneutral/genderqueer movement, where all of these folks are now creating micro-umbrellas of their own, and choosing to exclude themsevles from the bigger picture.

      Strength in numbers, people. We all want equality, we need to work together.

  3. “We came by our gender identity the same way anyone does, unconsciously, but certainly.”

    Mmmmm Hmmm. In my experience, this is something that many cis-gendered people have a tough time with. Especially in Western culture it seems, there’s this need to define everything as one or the other, black or white. There’s great freedom to be found in the act of letting go and accepting other people’s truths for what they are without needing explanation.

    Thanks for this!

  4. Question – is agender the same thing as androgyne/gender neutral/neutrois? From my understanding of these terms I can’t tell if they’re different words for the same thing or completely separate identities.

    • From what I’ve heard, androgynous and neutral would be gender presentations whereas agender and neutrois would be gender identities. For example, an agender person could dress femme and still be agender. Them dressing neutral doesn’t make them more agender.

      • Well I know that androgynous generally refers to presentation but “androgyne” is an androgynous identity. I feel drawn to “femme androgyne” for my own gender identity but I’m still exploring non-binary gender terms.

    • it’s sort of complicated because different people have their own reasons why they use one word and not others. but people sometimes also consider some or all of those terms to be consistent with or another way of describing their gender. so…yes and no.

      • For me agender means that classifying the things I express as masculine or feminine is inappropriate – I just do “me” and while I may have some knowledge about which bucket my culture would stick them into, I really disagree with putting them into buckets. If I had to do away with ALL the masculine things and ALL the feminine things there would not be enough things left for me so be since practically everything has been classified. Though there are also plenty of cases where people disagree on which bucket a thing should be classified. Which to me is just further evidence that the buckets are a bad idea.

    • Hi there, genderless/agender person here.

      Agender is a lack of gender. Androgyne comes from the term “androgynous”, which, obvs., entails masculinity and femininity both. And neutrois is described as a gender identity, though rather a neutral one rather than a feminine or masculine one. (I use neutrois to describe my “sex” identity, but it is not my gender.) These terms can be confusing at first, though hopefully this clears things up!

  5. It’s so great to see stuff like this here! I am still sort of figuring out my gender identity thing (almost certainly non-binary, less sure about labels beyond that -though the first agender-related comic on ChaosLife described my situation more accurately than anything else I’ve seen on the web) – anyway, just wanted to say that content like this is helpful and I may point people in its direction and also ChaosLife is great.

  6. so is genderqueer not the same thing as agender? I tell friends I’m genderqueer because I have never felt “girly”. I just am. I certainly don’t fit the “gender norms” or whatever. I’m me.

    • “Genderqueer” is sometimes used as an umbrella term for identities outside the male/female binary, and some people use it as a label for their specific id. Someone could be agender and also identify with the label of “genderqueer”, and someone could be agender and not identify with it!

      So it’s sort of like a “all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares” sort of thing?

  7. Eep, I’m so happy to see this Autostraddle! I’m in the process of figuring out my gender identity, and agender is definitely in the running. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s incredibly helpful to read about other people’s identities & experiences.

  8. I’m highly interested in helping develop satirical theoretical pamphlets on destroying the notion of genders for everyone. Though, I am not sure I am up for the task of explaining they’re not real. I guess they’d just have to be THAT BIZARRE. Love it.

  9. Agender people are just trying to live their lives being who and what they are, just like anyone else. No one is trying to convert anyone in or out of any identity, or destroy the notion of genders for everyone

    Gotta chime in here as someone who has identified as agender for some 19 years now… I ABSOLUTELY went through a phase, back in college, when I first discovered that agender was a thing and that it was the thing that I was, where I tried to convert everyone. I truly did not understand why everyone would not want to be this thing since it was the thing I had been searching for since puberty an it was THE ANSWER to everything that had never made sense to me. I’m older and wiser now, or maybe just more cynical, and I no longer think that I have all the answers or that I can convert anyone. But I just wanted to acknowledge that my younger self absolutely did this thing you claim none of us do. *hangs head in shame*

  10. All my life, I thought everyone else was only pretending to have a gender, like I was. The discussions about gender I’ve been seeing lately have helped me realize that “agender” describes me. It’s liberating to realize I don’t have to fake it anymore.

    I still think there are a lot of agender people out there who don’t use the label or even realize it exists, but I think us simply being visible will help.

  11. Being agender myself, I think this is a good explanation of how we work. people just think that there are 2 genders, AND that your gender is = to your sex. That is not true. Nobody fits 100% boy or 100% girl. WE are all different

  12. ..and now two cents thrown in from the back seat senior citizen. Born in 1946..growing up we all,us kids,knew what we were because we were constantly told what we were. Unfortunately, there were legalities to enforce knowing what you were supposed to be and more than enough peer pressure to ensure and endure.
    I ran across the word agender, today, and had to look it up…found this article. Enlightenment…must have been sitting under a Bao tree..Budda by my side.
    Thank you for this amazing article, Axel

  13. Hi! Thank you very much for this information. My best friend just came out as demi-girl, and I (of course) fully support them. However, they’re really worried nobody will accept them, and I don’t really know what to say about that except it will be fine. Are there any things I can talk about to help them? Thanks!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.