What is Agender? Nessie Avery shares her experiences of a childhood feeling ‘different’, and how she eventually came to the realisation that she is agender, a term that falls under the non-binary umbrella and describes an internal sense of being neither male nor female nor some combination of male and female.
I’m Nessie, I’m 23 years old, and I’m agender.
You wouldn’t know that just by looking at me. I have long waist-length hair, I have feminine features, and my voice is softer and higher pitched. To the outside world, I am a woman. But what is Agender?
I was raised in an authoritarian religious household with traditional views. We were taught that God made humans exclusively male and female. I was taught that anyone who was transgender, non-binary or otherwise gender-nonconforming was confused and psychologically traumatised, and needed therapy. Along with these assumptions came expectations of strict gender roles; the man was the head of the household, and the women were to submit to him. Women were to be the caretakers and the mothers, whilst the father was supposed to be the breadwinner. My brothers were encouraged to go to judo classes every Wednesday, but despite my interest and enthusiasm for martial arts, I wasn’t allowed. I was instead taught how to iron clothes. An important life skill – but oddly enough I don’t recall my brothers ever being taught this.
Unfortunately for young Nessie, I never fitted the mould of a “girl”, much less “woman”. I hated wearing skirts and dresses because they would get in the way if I wanted to climb a tree or ride a bike; I was never interested in boys or getting married and taking the role of a “mother” in play-acting as a child made me so uncomfortable that I wanted to crawl out of my skin. By primary school, I had decided that I wasn’t a girl, I was a tomboy. Somewhere between primary and secondary school, I had decided that “tomboy” wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be an actual boy.
The annoying thing was, not a lot changed for me to “be a boy”. I still wore my frayed jeans and t-shirts with hoodies. I still did all of the “boy things” I’ve always been doing: running around at the speed of sound, getting into fights occasionally, and doing stunt jumps on my bike. However, there were some changes that I could make. I started wearing my long hair beneath a red baseball hat; I gave myself a new name – Matthew; I tried to make my voice deeper, and was incredibly annoyed when my face still looked feminine in the mirror and frustrated when my voice never sounded male. After a while, I thought “to hell with it”, ditched the hat and the name and the voice. It was too much effort to keep up the charade, and even though I wasn’t happy as a girl, it still felt too much like I was putting it on as a boy. And I knew that if my parents caught me “being a boy”, they wouldn’t like it.
I went to an all-girls high school, which on reflection was possibly the worst school I could have attended. I had absolutely no comprehension of this strange new environment of makeup, crushes on boys, jewellery or perfume. I was socially inept enough to escape the realisation that I was being bullied, and none of my interests lined up with the rest of my classmates. I insisted on wearing trousers to school, which immediately marked me out to everyone as different. Despite my protestations, my mother bought me “nice blouses” that didn’t button all the way to the top like the more unisex ones I was used to. She even resorted to hiding my school trousers in order to force me to go to school in a skirt. More often than not, I spent the whole day feeling so uncomfortable and self-conscious that I wished that the ground would open and swallow me whole. But I was a girl. I had to get used to it.
More than once I told my father “I don’t want to grow up”. That wasn’t entirely true; what I meant was “I don’t want to grow up to be a woman”. It was jarring when the woman at the playpark chided her young son saying “let the lady go past first”. It made me feel sick whenever my mother and I would go shopping for “girls’ stuff” (and not just because I hated shopping). If I had to wear a dress for a wedding or formal event, the initial thrill of positive attention would soon be replaced with a deep regret that I’d not just worn my dark jeans, a shirt, and a blazer. My face didn’t feel like mine; I didn’t feel like I had any connection to my body. I wasn’t attracted to anyone romantically or sexually so there was no marker for me there either. I wasn’t a girl or a boy. I was just me. Agender, but I didn’t know it yet.
One of these friends was the first non-binary person I’d ever met, and we really hit it off. Over many videogames, we talked about gender, politics, and movies, and we got to know each other. I messed up their pronouns more times than I care to admit, but they were my friend and I was determined to get the “they/them” business down. Over time, another non-binary friend joined our group. I felt an immediate connection with them too: we liked the same music, we both were wondering if we had ADHD, and we were both asexual. I remarked on how similar we were and made a prophetic joke: “it’d be funny if I was actually non-binary just to complete the picture”. But, I was agender.
And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether this could actually explain everything.
I did some research into the term “agender” that falls under the non-binary umbrella. The definition of agender is “a person who has an internal sense of being neither male nor female nor some combination of male and female”. It gave me the words I’d been looking for all my life. I’m not a woman, I’m not a man. I’m not somewhere between the two. I’m just me, and I don’t fit in any of the boxes. I am well aware of the fact that most people perceive me as a woman, so I still use “she” and “her” pronouns. But my close friends often use they/them pronouns for me, and that simple recognition makes me feel incredibly happy.
Unfortunately, the struggle with gender doesn’t end when you’ve found the right label that describes you. We live in a world that at best, misunderstands us and at worst, despises us. One of the devastating effects is that we subconsciously try to squash ourselves back into the binary boxes we’ve broken free from. Almost every non-cis person I know struggles with imposter syndrome. We doubt ourselves, and we compare ourselves to others. Even when our gender describes us better than we could imagine, we don’t feel like we have the right to claim it. This is the most insidious form of dysphoria, feeling like you don’t belong in your gender. Even writing this article is difficult; with every word I type, I can hear my father in the back of my head insisting that I am a mentally ill, traumatised and confused child. It’s something people like me have heard all our lives, and that is the true horror of transphobia. It doesn’t just mean that others reject us, it means that we reject ourselves.
More than tolerance, trans and gender-nonconforming people and agender people need acceptance and love. More than recognition, we need representation. It is absolutely vital for those who are struggling to find their place in the world. To date, there are almost no openly non-binary characters in media. Transgender people also suffer this lack of representation, with trans narratives few and far between. Discrimination against trans and non-binary people is lawful in many states. Terms like “agender” are only just starting to be recognised by the general public. Without the representation and acceptance, people like me will struggle unnecessarily with feeling broken, defective and isolated, because we don’t fit into the moulds expected of us.
I am also on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NessieAvery. If you have any questions about being agender, please feel free to DM me there.