Genderless and asexual: two interconnected identities

This post is for the January 2015 Carnival of Aces, which is on Nonbinary People and Asexuality. Yesterday I wrote a sort of disclaimer about whether or not I actually “count” as non-binary, which can be read here if you’re interested. It explains why I call myself a genderless woman, a term I use below.

If I wasn’t asexual, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t currently be identifying as genderless. For one thing, I would never have come across the word if it wasn’t for my involvement in online ace communities. After growing up in a conservative Christian environment, reading ace blogs has exposed me to so many new concepts and ways of looking at the world and made me realize just how limiting and inaccurate the pre-fabricated boxes that society attempts to place everyone into are. While I realized on my own that I didn’t strongly connect to the feminine gender, I had never heard of people being neutrois/genderless/genderqueer until I started hanging around ace communities. So I would never have found a word to describe the way I feel about my gender—maybe even never have thought about it much more—if it hadn’t been for reading about the experiences of other, ace community-connected people.

But I also wonder if I would still feel like I was genderless if I experienced sexual attraction. Of course it’s pointless to speculate about what might have been, but I do think it’s interesting and useful to investigate the connection between my asexuality and my non-binary gender, or lack of gender (if you’re interested, here’s a post that discusses more generally the possible relation between being ace and being transgender).

I’ve written before about not wanting to be viewed as feminine, because being feminine can mean being seen as an object of sexual attraction/desire. Allosexual* women (and men) often do want to be seen that way, as least by certain people and under certain circumstances. But, being a sex-repulsed ace, I never do. Were I a feminine-identifying (sex-repulsed) ace, I would struggle with how to express my femininity without feeling like I was being sexualized by other people and society.

Being genderless, then, is a way for me to opt out of sexuality, and the expectations that come with it. Feminine women are often assumed to be heterosexual, and masculine women are often assumed to be lesbians (assumptions that erase femme lesbians and bi/pan women as well as aces). But as a genderless woman, I’m free, at least to some extent, of those assumptions. I express my genderlessness by dressing in as gender-neutral a way as possible. While people will look at me and most likely still see a woman, it’ll be a woman who doesn’t quite fit into society’s molds for female people. A woman who, hopefully, is human first, female second, and whose sexual orientation can’t be inferred from her appearance (although, if anyone did look at me and assume I was ace, I definitely wouldn’t mind as long as the person was ace-friendly).

So for me, being ace and genderless go hand in hand; I can’t really separate the two. I can’t imagine myself as a feminine or masculine ace, because in our sex-normative culture both of the binary genders have become so entwined with sexuality—society tells us that to be a woman is to be sexy, and that to be a man is to have a voracious sexual appetite. As an ace, I don’t fit into either of those paradigms.** On the other hand, I think that if I did experience sexual attraction I would be fine with other people seeing me as either masculine or feminine, because I would want other people thinking I was sexually attractive—and, at least in mainstream culture, sexual attraction is often connected to (stereo)typical aspects of the two binary genders (e.g. muscles on men, smooth legs on women).

Basically, I look at the gender binary and all the cultural assumptions and associations that have become wrapped up in it, and say, “That’s not me.” And a big part of that is because I’m ace.


*I’ve been following the latest Tumblr debate about this word to some extent, and my usage of it here doesn’t mean I support either side; I’m just going to continue to use it as long as it’s still the generally accepted term.

**Not that all (or even most) men and women do fit them or want to, and I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a masculine or feminine ace—I’m just saying that identifying as either of the binary genders wouldn’t work for me. I know that masculine and feminine people of every sexual orientation struggle with sex-normative stereotypes of their gender, and then certain groups face the opposite problem of having the dominant narrative say they aren’t or shouldn’t be sexual. So to some extent everyone has to deal with being a certain way but not matching up to the stereotypes of that identity, and that definitely doesn’t mean their identity is wrong. For me, opting out of the gender binary altogether was the best way to deal with that, but I recognize that that wouldn’t work or be a good choice for everyone.

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Am I non-binary? A disclaimer of sorts before my January 2015 Carnival of Aces post

This post is somewhat of a repeat of parts of this post; I kept the repetition because I like having a more succinct summary of my experience of gender (this post is 1,000 words shorter than that one!). This post is also somewhat of a follow-up/addition to that one.

When I saw the topic for the Carnival of Aces this month, which is Nonbinary People and Asexuality, my first thought was, “Do I count as non-binary?” I only recently came to the conclusion that I’m genderless—you can read all about my process of coming to identify with that term in the post linked above if you’re interested—and being so new at this, as well as being an atypical genderless person as far as I can tell (more on that below), I’m a little nervous about assuming that I qualify as non-binary. Of course there’s the idea of one’s self-identification being the most important and that other people don’t have the right to label-police you, but if a member of a privileged group started going around saying they identify as a member of a marginalized group, that would obviously be problematic and could be hurtful to actual members of the marginalized group, and I definitely don’t want to do that by claiming “I’m non-binary too!” when maybe I really shouldn’t.*

My reservation comes from the fact that, while I do identify as genderless, I still see myself as a woman, and at the moment don’t desire to change that. The reason is that who I am and my life up to this point has been significantly impacted by always having viewed myself, and always being viewed by other people, as female. I want to acknowledge that; I don’t want it to disappear. I don’t want to get rid of that part of my identity. Also, being a woman makes feminism personal to me in a way it can’t be to cis men. And so I’m currently identifying as a genderless woman.

It follows that, unlike most of the neutrois or other genderless people whose accounts I’ve read, I don’t desire to alter my body to make it gender (or sex) -neutral. Rather, my body and my internal sense of my gender are somewhat disconnected. While if I could magically have a sexless body I might consider it (and I know I would choose to do so if I lived in a different world, a world without compulsory sexuality and a patriarchy to fight against), for now it is important to me to continue to be seen as a woman. If I’m a woman, I can show the world that you can be female and have hairy legs. I can show society that being a woman doesn’t have to mean being girly, or going all the way to the other side and being masculine. I can feel solidarity with other women worldwide who face the oppression of the patriarchy, because I’ve felt it myself. Losing my femaleness would mean losing all of that.**

So while I’m maybe not non-binary in a typical way (although maybe there isn’t a typical way to be non-binary!), I think the descriptor does fit. For one thing, I’ve realized that calling myself non-binary is important to me (just as being a woman is), because the more self-identified non-binary people there are, the more the gender binary—which I believe is a false construct—will be called into question. And, when it comes down to my internal sense of my gender, I’m definitely not masculine or feminine. And that’s the definition of non-binary.


*Pegasus’s discussion of the term “cis” is relevant here—some people would say I’m cis, while others might say I fall under the trans* umbrella.

**For a similar-but-different perspective, read Rotten Zucchinis’s musings about specifically not wanting to change hir body to match hir gender and being torn between feminism and a non-binary identity in “Body Politics: With(out) Gender”, found on page 7 of the zine that can be downloaded here (it’s formatted for printing so you have to jump around to read it in order, but it’s worth it). In another piece in that zine (“Invisible Monster Hiding in Plain Sight”), ze writes, “Gender—the way people usually think about it—is just another dimension of the human experience that doesn’t apply to me. And that isn’t because of my body. I don’t have a problem with my body—I have a problem with what my body means to other people,” which is quite similar to how I feel (see this post and this one where I talk about my discomfort with being read as feminine).

Appearance, part 4b: appearance and gender (society)

Finally returning to my appearance series. This is part two of the last post.

Society encourages, and perhaps even created, the connection between appearance and gender. Whether you’re male or female, your hair is going to grow long if you don’t cut it, and at one time it was common for men to have long hair—but at some point in history long hair became a woman thing, and short hair the appropriate look for men. Men and women used to wear similar clothing, but then it was decided that dresses and skirts were the only acceptable clothing for women, while men wore pants, and it was a big deal in society when women finally gained that freedom.

In western society now, people have much more liberty when it comes to personal expression than they were allowed in the past—but society does still place limitations on people’s appearances according to their sex and gender. Walk into any clothing store and you have to choose a side—the women’s section or the men’s. I’ve admired clothing in the men’s section before, and thought about shopping there, and when I was a teenager I bought a few pairs of guys’ shorts, because they were comfy and long. But I only had the courage to do that after seeing my camp counselor wearing boys’ shorts and hearing her say she’d gotten them from the boys’ section at Walmart (which is a store I no longer frequent), and I still felt self-conscious venturing into that territory where I didn’t belong, looking at and trying on clothes that the store and society said weren’t for me.

Another obstacle to crossing clothing sections is the size issue—I can wear shorts meant for 12-year-old boys, but I’m not going to fit into much of anything made for adult males, and conversely, a lot of men are going to have a hard time fitting into most women’s clothes. So even if I were to be bold enough to seek out more gender-neutral clothing options in the men’s section, I probably wouldn’t have much luck finding items that fit. So besides the issue of cross-dressing not being socially acceptable, it’s also just hard to do from a practical standpoint.

However, I mostly dress in fairly casual clothing (since my office had a very relaxed dress policy and I now work from home), and so I can easily find fairly gender-neutral options while staying inside the women’s section. Sweatpants and t-shirts are basically gender neutral, with only colors or relative tightness marking them as for women versus men. But clothing gets more gendered the more formal you get (ignoring summer clothes, that is, which for women at least can be quite gendered no matter how casual). The next step up, jeans, comes in masculine and feminine styles but does still retain some overlap (e.g., both men and women wear skinny jeans). Business casual  creates more of a distinction; while women can wear pantsuits, they don’t wear ties, and they could also wear skirts and dressy tops (if they wanted to, or if it was expected/required), and men and women wear different styles of shoes at this point. Then you get into cocktail/formal wear, and it’s dresses for women and suits/tuxes for men. At this level you’ve lost the gender-neutral options, and people are forced to take on either a masculine or feminine look. There’s no middle ground.

The most formal events that I’ve been to are weddings. In the one I’ve been in so far, dresses were mandatory for the bridesmaids (not that the bride specifically said, “You must wear a dress”; it was just assumed that we all would)—and, speaking of weddings, of course in traditional ones the bride is always in a dress, and the groom and groomsmen in suits. As a  wedding guest in the future I plan to try get away with wearing pants as much as possible, but if I’m ever in another wedding I’ll almost definitely be asked/told to wear a dress—and I will likely do so, even though it would go against my preferred mode of expression. I just wouldn’t want to create an issue or upset the bride (or call attention to myself), and what would my other options be, anyway? Women have worn suits in weddings, but a suit is still coded as masculine in our society. I wouldn’t have a gender-neutral option to turn to; I would have to either blend in by dressing in a traditionally feminine way, or stand out by dressing in traditionally masculine clothes.

It is at least conceivable, though, that I could request, and be granted the request, to wear a suit in a wedding. But imagine if a groomsman wanted to wear a dress, or even if a male guest were to show up wearing one (in certain communities of course this would be fine, but in most it would not). Most men probably wouldn’t step outside the gender boundaries in this way, even if they wanted to, because of the negative attention it would earn them. Society says dresses are for women only, and it would be really hard to defy that rule at a big social event.

I think the reason it’s more acceptable for women’s dress to cross into men’s territory than the opposite is the patriarchy. Thinking beyond appearance, it’s more acceptable for women to do things that are typically coded as masculine than for men to do anything deemed feminine—because femininity is considered inferior. So a man wearing women’s clothing or doing something “womanly” is going to get mocked for being girly and weak, while women are able to get away with doing/wearing masculine things, because masculinity is seen as the norm, something that people, including women, should aspire to. While sometimes women are still mocked or derided for straying into masculine territory, to get that response their behavior often has to be more extreme than it is for men. For example, women can wear men’s shorts (like my camp counselor and I did), and most people probably won’t take much notice or think it’s that weird, and other women specifically won’t care or make a big deal about it. But if a man wore a skirt…

Another idea related to appearance, gender, and sexism is that it’s easy to look at someone and peg them as looking “girly” based on specific elements of their appearance, but harder to define someone as looking “manly”. I can think of a variety of different looks that could be coded as feminine, but not nearly as many that are definitely masculine-looking. The main image that comes to mind is a guy with a beard and big muscles, which are things associated with male bodies, rather than superficial elements that anyone could put on if they chose, like a dress or makeup.

So a skirt and nice top could be seen as a typical feminine outfit, but what would a typically masculine outfit be? At most, a male-coded look (one possible for anyone, regardless of physical sex or body type) might consist of the few items of clothing men typically wear that women don’t, like baggy jeans or cargo shorts. Otherwise, most clothes in the men’s section could be worn by a woman, and that woman wouldn’t be seen as presenting a masculine gender identity, because most men’s clothes are actually pretty gender-neutral. So masculinity equals the norm, the standard, and deviating from that is being feminine—which, as I said above, is seen as a bad thing. (I’ll address these ideas further in the next post in the series, which will be on appearance and sexism.)

One example of this idea is this article, which describes an incident where a DMV forced a boy to remove his makeup before they would take his driver’s license photo, because he “didn’t look like a boy should”. What could a woman do that would get her the same reaction? I can’t think of anything. With my super short hair, I’ve been told I look like a boy, but haven’t received any comments specifically policing me for not looking feminine enough.

Another example is this article, in which a genderqueer man talks about the difficulties he faces expressing himself in the professional world:

I thought back to all of the times that people had told me to “tone it down for work.” I thought back to conversations with my father, where he told me to put away the “flamboyant shit” if I wanted to be respected. I thought back to former internship supervisors who told me that I would not be respected around the office if I chose to express my gender identity. I thought back to the countless memories from childhood of being mocked for being a “sissy.”

So while women have made many gains when it comes to crossing gender boundaries, our society still has a ways to go before it’s socially acceptable for men to do the same.

Sadly, it’s not just mainstream society that polices the appearance and gender expression of men and women. As Alice writes in this post, the trans* community does the same. For trans women specifically, “If you don’t dress and present in an expressly feminine way – party dresses, false lashes, nails that could hold up the Forth Bridge, enough makeup to keep the Kardashians in business for five years – then you’re ‘not properly transgender’ and just putting it on, seeking attention.”

Being a woman or a man doesn’t mean you have to look a certain way. I wish people would stop insisting that it does.

Figuring out my gender, and trying to figure out gender in general

While writing the last post, I jotted down some other thoughts on gender in general and my gender specifically. One sentence I wrote was, “I don’t know if that makes me agender or gender-neutral or neutrois, but right now I’m not worried about figuring out which label makes the most sense for me.” But, perhaps inevitably, I then got curious about which one would be the most accurate, and after rereading this post and this post (I’ve somehow ended up considering these two to be THE posts on alternative genders, but I’d love to read others if anyone has recommendations!), both of which I’d related to somewhat when I first read them, I concluded that “genderless” is probably the best term for me. Continue reading

Appearance, part 4a: appearance and gender (me)

When thinking about this post I started wondering: Is appearance the only way that gender is expressed? I think most people would agree these days that behaviors, actions, and interests aren’t gendered—while in some circles playing football may still be seen as typically masculine and staying home with the kids as typically feminine, I don’t think most people would say a man is enacting a feminine gender by taking care of his kids, or a woman enacting a masculine gender by playing football. However, if a man wears makeup, or a woman wears a tux, that is viewed as a deviation into a gender that doesn’t match their sex. So is appearance then the only marker of a masculine or feminine identity?

Switching gears a little, the main thing I want to discuss in this post is the overlap of appearance and gender for me. In February of this year, I started thinking about my gender identity, for probably the first time ever. I’d always known I wasn’t typically girly—I stopped liking skirts and dresses before I was 10, I never liked pink, never wore makeup. But I’d never wondered, “Do I actually identify with the feminine gender?”, because I’d been accepting that if I was female-bodied, I was also feminine-gendered. In February, though, after reading an article on Facebook’s new gender options, I finally considered how I see my own gender, and realized that I don’t strongly identify as feminine. Continue reading