A friend sent me that photo of an intake form for a youth program. The list of check-box options in the gender section is highlighted, and the form also provides space for chosen name and preferred pronouns. Compared to so many of the forms and surveys that I fill out on a regular basis, the form in that photo shows an impressive list of gender options – far more inclusive than the standard “M” or “F”, and much more specific in the options offered than even the more ambitious forms that provide “other” in addition to the lonely M and and rigid F.
Some online arenas offer even more inclusive gender options, Facebook for example. Users were originally offered four gender options: male, female, private, or < no answer >. In February 2014, Facebook added a “custom” gender option for users in the United States, which included at least 58 different pre-populated gender options. This update also allowed users to choose their preferred pronouns. Facebook’s decision to expand their list of gender options was highly praised by the trans and genderqueer communities as a milestone of recognition and a beacon of hope. When this change was implemented for users in the United Kingdom in June 2014, the list of gender options had grown to more than 70. In August 2014, Facebook added gender-neutral options to describe family members. In February 2015, Facebook broadened their gender horizons once more, allowing an essentially infinite number of gender identity descriptors by providing a free-form field for users to fill in the blank.
Well done, Facebook. Here’s a round of virtual applause. Compared to paper forms, online forms have more versatility because they are not restricted by physical space. Given the physical restrictions that apply to paper documents, I very much respect the inclusive efforts made by the authors of the form pictured above. They also deserve a round of virtual applause.
Gender: check all that apply. Okay. Reading all the options listed on the intake form, I tried to imagine which ones I would check if I were filling out the form myself. I quickly became confused and frustrated. Every single one of those check-boxes could, perhaps – if stretched a little here and shrunk a little there – apply to me. And yet every single box feels as awkward and ill-fitting as an outgrown T-shirt. Nor was there any combination of boxes that could approximate a more accurate answer. After much fuming and deliberation, I eventually decided that I would check only one box: “other”. And then, on that inviting blank line, I would write “not applicable”.
Not applicable. These words are a defiant slogan for so much of the uncertainty in my life. Not applicable. These words are my defensive withdrawal from the identities it seems that other people understand and claim so easily. Not applicable. These words are a burden of crushing doubt and a window to a world of limitless possibility.
Gender: check all that apply. Gender: fill in the blank. Gender: why is it even included on so many forms? Asking for a person’s gender on a form, seems, in many ways, as irrelevant as asking for their favorite color. Color and gender are both vast supersets that include an infinite number of items, making it impossible – even ridiculous! – to attempt to define the answer within a finite series of boxes or on a single blank line. Like favorite color, gender is constant and permanent in some people and fluid and changeable in others. Like favorite color, gender means quite a lot to some people and very little to others. And, like knowing someone’s favorite color, knowing someone’s gender tells you nothing about who they really are and merely conjures up in your own mind your perception of the label they chose. Some might argue that gender is directly relevant on forms related to medical or reproductive issues. I argue that even in a medical context, gender isn’t relevant – what IS relevant is the presence or absence of certain organs and the concentration of certain hormones in the bloodstream – haven’t feminists and LGBT advocates been fighting so hard for so long to challenge rigid binary assumptions that tie gender to biology? I would like to see Facebook’s increasingly inclusive effort taken one step further to remove gender entirely from the available fields on a user profile.
It has taken me a long time to develop this provisional (dis?)comfort with the words “not applicable”. And here’s a difficult confession: I don’t understand what gender identity is, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, and I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t even have a gender identity. The chronic physical distress associated with the female features of my body remains the only indicator of gender dysphoria. When I first started exploring gender and considering transition to a more masculine body, I felt so confused and alienated by statements that surfaced so incessantly from famous trans people:
“My brain is much more female than I am male. That’s what my soul is.” – Caitlyn Jenner
“I didn’t have to learn how to act like a man because in my head I’d always been one.” – Chaz Bono
“I knew in my heart and my soul and my spirit that I was a girl.” – Laverne Cox
“When I was four and began asserting myself as the girl I knew myself to be…” – Janet Mock
Similar sentiments echoed from many FTM and MTF blogs. So often it seemed that even in trans discourse, the definitions of “man” and “woman” and “male” and “female” hinged on outdated stereotypes regarding socialized preferences and behaviors. I was left more bewildered than ever, wondering if I even deserved shelter under the trans umbrella given my lack of gender identity. This statement finally resonated with my own aching and unlabeled nonidentity:
“That really begs the question: what is a man? And what is a woman? And how much of that is societal bullshit anyway? None of the labels fit me. None.” – iO Tillet Wright
Then I thought that reading about the experiences of people who identify as agender, bigender, genderfluid, genderqueer, and various other non-binary terms might feel more comfortable. But still I felt so estranged from those perspectives. I could not understand what often seemed like such an aggressive gender neutrality:
“I tend to paint my nails if I feel like I am going to be particularly expected to behave like a man. It creates a dissonance with expectations that I enjoy… I shop in the men’s and women’s sections, cobbling together a look that could confound the most attuned gender-assignment identifier from a few feet away.” – Rae Spoon
It has never been my intent or my desire to deceive anyone with my androgyny. I also could not relate to the conviction that seemed to characterize many non-binary genders:
“My gender is not all that unique or special. My gender is not all that queer or all that different. My gender is not rebellious. My gender is not something you should be jealous of… My gender is not about hating binaries. Really, the binaries are hating my gender. My gender is not about how limiting the binary is, and it’s not about liberating myself or anyone else from any binary… My identity is not about men or women. It’s about me, about how I understand myself, how I live my life, how others understand me, and what makes sense.” – Kae
That statement sounds so enviously confident. But I don’t know what any of it means. It became more and more apparent for me that existing labels were, as ever, not applicable.
The comments about gender that have most accurately captured my own confusing experience come not from the trans or genderqueer community, but from insightful people on the autism spectrum. (Jack 2012)
“I was sailing blind through a world full of gender signals.” – Jane Meyerding
“I’ve never seen any purpose for genders. They don’t reflect anything real, since they take “this sex is likely to do this” and turn it into a set of rules, making “likely” into “has to”… and I don’t identify as either because of that. It’s arbitrary and doesn’t fit anything about me.” – BlackjackGabbiani
“i don’t consider myself to have any sort of “internal” gender identity whatsoever – it always feels like “gender” is simply not a valid category in which to place myself. When i see “gender” as a tick-box category on a form, i feel similarly to if, on a form asking for details of a vehicle, it asked for “miles per gallon” when my vehicle was powered by something completely different (and that can’t be measured in gallons), like say solar electricity – i just don’t really consider myself to belong to the category of beings that have gender.” – Shiva
The absence of gender identity, the utter inapplicability of gender as a concept for me, is so eloquently described in those comments. The article also describes how disorienting and painful this experience can be.
“For some autistic people, gender does not easily serve as an available resource for identity… for some individuals, gender disorientation can be emotionally painful and having a term to describe oneself can be tremendously important… the malign persuasion in question here might be the fact that lacking a term or word with which to identify might persuade people that they do not fit, that they are anomalous.” (Jack 2012)
“I’m upset because I feel like there’s no word to describe my gender expression. It’s probably silly to be upset about not having a word for something, but because I don’t feel represented in either straight or queer communities, I do have a desire to articulate what it is that I am.” – Amanda Forrest Vivian
However, even those statements do not incorporate the intense and distressing incongruence between my female body and my brain’s resistance to that body. This physical discomfort combined with the absence of any cognitive gender identity feels impossibly bewildering.
For me, “not applicable” extends even beyond gender to other areas that serve as important aspects of identity for most people. Most standard forms don’t ask respondents to classify their sexual orientation, but those that do almost universally fail to include “asexual” as an option. For example, one study described the survey used to gather data on a large population: “Sexual orientation was assessed with the question: “Which of the following best describes your feelings? (1) completely heterosexual (attracted to persons of the opposite sex), (2) mostly heterosexual, (3) bisexual (equally attracted to men and women), (4) mostly homosexual, (5) completely homosexual (gay/lesbian, attracted to persons of the same sex), or (6) unsure. Respondents were categorized according to their orientation identity as reported in that question.” (Roberts 2012) Had I filled out that questionnaire, I suppose I could have chosen “unsure”, but, in this context, unsure implies not an absence of sexual attraction but simply indecision regarding the other available options. In fact, only 3 out of 8968 respondents chose “unsure”, a mere 0.03%.
A different study specifically investigating the prevalence of various sexual orientations in the British population did include a category to represent asexuality. “The measure of sexual attraction was introduced as follows: “I have felt sexually attracted to…” Six options followed: (a) only females, never to males; (b) more often to females, and at least once to a male; (c) about equally often to males and females; (d) more often to males, and at least once to a female; (e) only males, never to females; and (f) I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” (Bogaert 2004) The results of the study showed that 1.05% of 18 876 respondents reported being asexual (“I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all”). The authors explain, “This rate [of asexuality] is very similar to the rate of same-sex attraction (both exclusive same-sex and bisexuality combined: 1.11%). However, binomial tests indicated that there were more gay and bisexual men than asexual men, and more asexual women than lesbian and bisexual women.” (Bogaert 2004)
Despite this data suggesting that asexuality is not only relatively common (1%) but actually more common than homosexuality and bisexuality among women, asexuality remains largely ignored as a legitimate sexual orientation. I am still hesitant and uncertain about claiming an asexual and aromantic identity, but these words seem like the best available descriptors for my experience. A big part of my difficulty in accepting an asexual or aromantic orientation with any confidence is that there is so much lingering uncertainty: how do you definitively confirm the absence of sexual and romantic attraction without really knowing what those things feel like? An asexual blogger eloquently described this distressing uncertainty:
“Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that, to some degree, asexuality is a provisional identity. Unlike other sexual orientations, which at least have a frame of reference for what sexual attraction feels like, asexual people must rely on guesswork. When other people figure out their orientations, they can look at specific incidents of attraction and behavior. But asexual people have to look for a void – how do you find a void? How can you know sexual attraction isn’t present, if you have no frame of reference for distinguishing it? You have to compare yourself to other people and make your best guess.” – Anagnori
The authors of the first study that did not include asexuality in the survey (Roberts 2012) note that in their study, “People “unsure” of their feelings were excluded.” Somehow I feel like that exclusion of people who are uncertain about their sexual identity extends beyond the parameters of that particular study and applies broadly to the world at large. Sexual orientation: check all that apply. Sexual orientation: fill in the blank. Sexual orientation: not applicable.
Our culture emphasizes romantic love as a central pillar of happiness and the foundation of family structure. Our culture considers sexual attraction one of the most fundamental traits of being human – indeed, of being animal. Our culture pathologizes the absence of sexual attraction as a medical or psychological disorder. Our culture, while it has become somewhat more inclusive and more accepting of gender diversity, remains doggedly adherent to indefinable and irrelevant distinctions between “men” and “women”. Our culture insists that, while gender can sometimes bend the rules, it can never disappear. When these core beliefs and assumptions comprise the infrastructure of our society, being agender, asexual, and aromantic – imperfect descriptors for me but no better words exist – is an experience of profound invisibility. In most of the categories that my world deems important, I remain: not applicable.
“It’s exactly like a riddle with no answer!”
– Alice (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)
Bogaert AF. Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. 2004. The Journal of Sex Research 41(3):279-287.
Jack J. Gender copia: feminist rhetorical perspectives on an autistic concept of sex/gender. 2012. Women’s Studies in Communication 35:1-17.
Roberts AL, Rosario M, Corliss HL, et al. Childhood gender nonconformity: a risk indicator for childhood abuse and posttraumatic stress in youth. 2012. Paediatrics 129(3):410-41
This post was awarded Tiffany’s Gender-Bender Award for May 2016.