Sometime in November 1999, my grandparents asked me for a Christmas list, a task I got on my father’s computer to perform later that afternoon. When my father came downstairs and discovered me doing this, he went on an hours long tirade about my “selfishness” that culminated in the question: “What the hell is wrong with you!?
Shaken by the senseless though familiar yelling and exhausted by carrying the gauzy black secret within me, I finally blurted out: “I’m gay.”
It’s 2020. I’m crouching over a painting in my basement studio when I get a call from my mother. She praises one of my paintings and in the same breath condemns my therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs.
My cheeks flash. “I’m not going to apologize for the way I conduct my life,” I find myself saying.
I couldn’t tell you why, but I spent most of the rest of the day crying. I cried and cried from the judgments of people who had never understood me – and I cried from realizing I still didn’t understand me.
Something in the universe whispered the word agender in my ear that night. And I Googled it. I read, and I watched. And I cried, and I cried. And I messaged my partner. And then my other partner. And then my best friend. And then Reddit.
I’m agender. And suddenly my whole fucking life makes sense.
When my dad asked me (the only time we played catch) “when I was gonna be a real boy?”
I was agender.
When my family shoved girly pics in my face and squealed with laughter at my reaction?
I was agender.
When I knew from the age of six that I wasn’t a boy or a girl?
I was agender.
When I get sir’ed, ma’am’ed or hey faggoted?
I am agender.
I am agender. I am agender.
Why do I keep saying it? Because I’ve been walking around for years with this secret I thought would kill or at least end me. But it turns out I was wrong.
I am agender, and it is saving me from my Hell.
I have felt like an alien, an outsider, a foreigner all my life. A visitor in all places, often unwelcome. I have the feeling of not knowing what other people are talking about a lot of the time, about awfully important things.
I managed to escape the dysphoric hell of a proscribed straight life, as I knew I needed to. But setting up shop in the life of a cis gay man didn’t relieve any of my discomfort about who I really was.
Being attracted to men seemed like the least of my worries when what I was really hiding was that I was a big freaky gender failure. Gay man was an ok metaphor for what I am for a while, but realities only diverged more with time.
It was the not-gay I figured out first, actually. After twenty years of living as a gay man, I came out last year as bi (by which I mean pan, as so many bi people do these days).
Being coded as gay by my family by and since the age of 3 no doubt seriously colored my world. And it is not that I am not attracted to men: I am. Perhaps even primarily.
But what choice did I have but to think of myself as gay when you took me to the pediatrician to find out if I was gay, and gave me constant lectures about the evils and social dangers of homosexuality, and you asked me, over and over and over, if I was gay?
The truth, reasoned away by everyone including me as compulsory heterosexualism, is that I have always been into everyone, but male bisexuality is still barely an option.
Case closed right? Repressed bisexual, let the pansexual panoply ensue, amen, see you at drag brunch.
But if anything, coming out as bi seemed to double down on putting me in the man box. (Phrasing.) I had some lovely times talking to women when I came out, but I actually experienced some intensely dysphoric feelings at this time as well. Now more than ever the man part (phrasing) seemed really performative and centered.
Small words? It made me super fucking uncomfortable to be “the” man in the situation. And I promptly fell in love with two men anyway.
And the discomfort continued. I continued to not understand my role. I continued to use manhood as a cudgel for my behavior and decisions. Clue number one that I was never a man: I had to constantly ask myself what a man might do.
I used to count the days til I would be a man. At which time I very much imagined that the antipathy between me and men would disappear. I remember literally looking up to older boys and men at church and school and thinking, “it’s coming! Someday I’ll be one of you! Someday my balls will be higher than the pew and I’ll have stubble and everyone will just stop looking at me like that!” Of course, before I knew it, I was over six feet tall, fully bearded – and still not one percent a man.
Into my 30s I kept looking for signs that it was finally happening. I went through second male puberty at this time (still kind of now honestly), which has made me more typically and masculinely “hot” – but even this third-life rush of testosterone has yet to make me a man.
Other things that have failed to make me a man: Prayer. Mine or others’. Fucking hundreds of (ok like 150) strangers. Denial. Only expressing fear, anger, hunger, and courtly love. Enough whiskey to cause internal bleeding. Beatings. Scoldings. Taunts from family members and passing cars. The pervasive cultural belief that I don’t exist.
Why is gender so important? You tell me. It’s on the top of every form. Gendered people are the ones who did this shit.
It’s important enough that being bad at it was the worst observation that could be made about me as a child. I’d argue that what seemed like homophobia – or even more plainly, my family’s presumption that I was homosexual – was in fact a recognition and revulsion of my total inability to, yes, “be a real boy.”
I failed to be interested in sport. I definitely failed to develop a “male gaze.”
Oh, that male gaze. My family absolutely tortured me for not having that. Recurring flashbacks to the game where they made me look at underwear ads nearly shook me apart a couple months ago, and were the key to realizing I needed to address my PTSD.
Family: what the fuck was I meant to do in that situation? Was I meant to just furiously start beating it to prove my heterosexualism? My boyhood? Are six year old boys meant to have an intuitively sexual response to how capitalism tells adult women to dress to keep it spicy in the bedroom?
Why was my psychosexual development a fun family game? Are you quite happy with the results?
Did you win?
The dichotomy I divided my notes on this essay into was “beauty and pain.”
What I want is for coming out as agender to be a pure good, untouched, pristine, and mine. I want to make this peace known. I want to give myself context and make space for myself in the world.
What it cannot help but also be, though, is a powerful pointer to the source of my trauma:
I was rejected by my family because I could not be invited behind “either” of the closed doors.
The locker room of the home is the gendered discussion about your future. This includes things like “the talk,” but also things like your parents’ fantasies about your future family life and the gender-based education you receive to prepare you for it.
This is an academic way of saying boys get boy talks from their dads and girls get girl talks from their moms. And agender children are driven to the middle of nowhere and told “just because you got it doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
(“Did you tell him about the vas deferens and stuff?” my mom asked. We grunted in response.)
I wasn’t on anyone’s team, and so I kind of wasn’t raised. Not in knowledge of caring for myself or wisdom in interpersonal relationships. I don’t know what binary children are taught in those closed-room discussions, and I charitably posit it’s because I didn’t have a parent who was the same gender as me.
This is of course all speaking of hypothetical positive education. The negative aspects of gendered education weighed on me every day of my life.
The meaning of manhood was a lecture I was invited to constantly as a child. The 90s were a dicey time. I could see Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang on TV, but I was pretty likely to catch a slap that day.
I remember watching almosy every adult in my family foam at the mouth when something queer would happen on TV. The phobes were right: the 90s were a bad place to be if you didn’t want to be casually exposed to some gay-ass shit. And grateful as I was for the “Yes I Am” deluge, in my little corner of rural Michigan, I definitely paid a price.
I still get a vomity feeling at the stop sign on my mom’s street. My dad walked me out there one day in 1993 after RuPaul came on TV and he told me that “gay people can be very funny, but they are all going to Hell.”
The 90s were also a time when trans feminine people became a fixture of daytime talk shows. The vile phrase “that’s a man, Maury!” has its basis in the reality that middle America met trans people through exploitative games over their morning coffee. Paranoia about being “tricked” by a trans woman fueled an industry of hate on every network’s mid-morning slot.
Which is a thing I can say now as a grown-up queer. As a baby queer living through it, I felt like I was seeing a glimmer of my world. I remember, age 6, seeing someone on TV say they felt like a half-boy, half-girl, and I told my mother, “that’s like me!” She pursed her lips and looked away. Not the worst reaction, but I sure never spoke of it again.
Which I guess would be a great transition into OH YEAH, THAT OTHER TIME I CAME OUT AS TRANS
All these memories came welling up out of me when I did training for the Speakers’ Bureau of the Office of LGBT Affairs (now known as the Spectrum Center) at UofM. I got to college, no one was looking, and suddenly trans was a thing you – or I even! – could be.
But sometimes you don’t get the compassion and support you’re looking for when you come out. Sometimes your partner says your identity just reinforces the gender binary cause they’re scared you want bottom surgery. Sometimes trans people you look up to say your identity sounds offensive to “real” trans people like them. Sometimes you realize if you can’t get first level support, there’s no way you can do this in front of the whole world. So you spend 15 more years in the closet.
At least that’s what happened to me.
On some level I did not show up for myself until I decided to sort my gender identity. I had a persistent feeling of not being entirely real. And now I know that’s because I used violence against myself every day to stay that way.
I thought my non-binary experience wasn’t real enough to “count.” That “real” trans people counted for more, and that my voice was not trans enough to contribute. I let my internalized transphobia tell me that I needed to wait, that my marginal identity was a distraction from something more important.
Not to mention the real and present fear of losing anyone, everyone, and everything at any time. I write every word of this knowing there will be unintended, chaotic fallout. I write it anyway. It is not optional. It is the truth.
There is no “trend” that could reach back into my earliest memories and make me trans. I am not trying to be cool. I am not auditioning for oppression points. I do not want to take the mic and make everything about me. I am trying to describe myself, and live my life in a way that makes sense to me.
I finally figured out I deserve that. Trendy or not, coined in the last twenty years or not, agender is what the fuck I am. There’s no way to make all binary cis or trans people “like” or “respect” that. And that’s not my concern, either.
My camp may be small, but my dysphoria is mighty.
My dad asked me last Thanksgiving to…give logical proofs of the existence of trans people? I guess his question was something was like how trans people know they’re trans. And I politely demurred, referring him to the actual experiences of trans people (since I knew he meant binary trans people) – and of course on some level feeling panicked because I did have something to say.
I have had the feeling of being given the wrong assignment at birth for pretty much as long as I can remember. My soul shakes in revulsion when someone calls me a man. I have no innate sense of what being a man would even be like.
I did not live as a man, but as an imitation of one. And it nearly killed me. I thought I had to constantly strive to be a man, or I would die. But it was rather the attempt that poisoned me every day.
I have no sense of belonging in men and women jokes. Even before I could reallly accept that I was nonbinary, in my heart, all of culture has made me scream – what about the rest of us?
That feeling you have – that you might be clutching right now – that says, “I’m a man/woman/etc.” – yeah, I don’t have that. That’s my elevator pitch for agender identity.
I tried, y’all. It’s just not there. And I don’t know or care why.
I don’t want to be special. What I want is for what I am to have already been an option so that I didn’t have to spend three decades in a tar pit of despair and dysphoria. But I didn’t get that option. And so I’m finally taking up the mantle of being one of the first agender elders.
I do not know what this means for my presentation, other than some cute new they/them earrings. If I may, my humble complaint as your agender friend is that binary people have gendered fucking EVERYTHING.
Everything from moustaches to loving friendships has a gender. Every shade of every color, every gesture, every food has been assigned a gender identity. Ships are girls and Jupiter is zaddy. Y’all are maniacs.
Point is, no matter how I present now, people will by default compare and contrast it to the gender binary and put me wherever they want. Some people seem to think I need to become a featureless space alien if I’m really going to be agender, and neither the effort nor the effect speak to how I actually experience myself.
I don’t need a new uniform – I need you to understand that more than one kind of soul can pilot this ship.
I don’t know about society. I don’t know about movements. I do know what I’m asking of the people who care about me.
My name is Schlomo. I use they/them pronouns. I am agender.
Avoid calling me things like man, boy, and he. Be open to being gently corrected. I may wince. We’re going to get through it. Laugh with me, as I even misgender myself sometimes.
Listen to more nonbinary people. Stop whispering about how dumb you think gender-neutral pronouns are. Stop thinking about who is or isn’t real.
And if you are nonbinary and you’re reading this and you don’t know if you can do it – you can. Giving up the effortful charade of living as the wrong gender has supercharged my life. The timing is yours – but the pride you’ll feel will fuel you.