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There are loads of labels for gender identity, and more keep emerging. Each label provides a way of grouping people by some sort of shared attribute.

Some people are really into labels, and how they provide conceptual “bins” to sort ideas into. Others aren’t fans of them because they find labels to be constrictive or misleading.

Generally, I tend to find myself in the latter category. I’m not a big label person, though I do like understanding how they work and what they’re for.

Despite that, I use the labels agender, nonbinary, and transgender to describe myself.

I’ve been criticized by several people for using these labels. They’ve told me I’m buying into a trendy and unnecessary system.

I understand their objections, but they’re missing a huge part of what’s going on. It’s easy to think gender labels are irrelevant when the label you’ve been given is correct, so it doesn’t cause you problems. That’s what makes you cisgender. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a gender label, or that your gender label doesn’t matter to you. It just means it’s working so well that you don’t even need to be aware of it.

But unlike my cisgender friends, I had the wrong label imposed on me starting before I was even born, starting with a gendered ultrasound.

Doctors, my family, the government, and everyone I knew used the wrong label for me. I was trained to use the wrong language to describe myself when I learned how to talk. I was given a name associated with the wrong gender, and learned to think of that name to mean “me.”

That experience doesn’t just go away. It follows you around, even if you try to stop it.

Among many other problems, I’m still in the process of convincing many people that the label originally attached to me was wrong, and in some cases I don’t expect to ever succeed.

The takeaway here is that being able to express myself hasn’t come without a fight. And using the labels I use is part of that fight.

Each of those three labels that I use now is counteracting that initial incorrect label that keeps following me around. I wouldn’t need them at all if I didn’t start out with incorrect label confining me by default. That thing is hard to get off, and these three words are tools that are helping me do it.

Let’s take a look at each one.

What does “transgender” counteract?

The word “transgender” simply means that the gender label someone was assigned when they were born was wrong. Whether or not a person transitions or comes out is irrelevant—if the gender on their birth certificate doesn’t match who they are, they’re transgender. A transgender person could be labeled female and later on in life, realize they are male and transition. Or, they could be labeled male but actually be nonbinary. Etc. Whether or not their gender appears to change to an outsider doesn’t matter; they’re still trans.

That means the word “transgender” is a label that exists to counteract the wrong label that was imposed at birth.

When I say I’m transgender, I’m saying the doctors got me wrong when they put “F” on my birth certificate. I reject the designation I’ve been given.

I was labeled in a way that erases who I am as a person. That’s why I use the word “transgender” to describe myself. It’s to remove a false gender label.

What does “nonbinary” counteract?

This one’s pretty straightforward. The word nonbinary means “not binary.” In the binary gender system, all people are either male or female. I reject the idea that every person is either male or female for a simple reason: I’m neither.

I’ve dealt with gender dysphoria my whole life since I was a teenager. In my 20s I tried to talk with a therapist about it, and instead of listening to me, she attempted to pressure me into the idea that I was a transgender man. She held the view that maybe the label that was put on me was wrong, but that gender was a binary thing. She was a therapist who specialized in gender, but in regards to my gender, she had no idea what she was talking about.

The gender binary excludes who I am as a person. That’s why I use the label “nonbinary.” It’s to remove the false binary.

What does “agender” counteract?

The word agender literally means “without gender.”

People often assume I’m some sort of gender blend. That I’m a mix of male and female.

While I can see why people think this, it’s not accurate. The truth is that gender is a thing that most people have, but I don’t have it. That doesn’t mean I’m between male and female.

If you’re not used to conceptualizing gender, this might seem like splitting hairs. So let’s use a color metaphor.

You wouldn’t say the color white is a blend of blue and pink. White is an absence of either color. White in this metaphor would be agender.

You would say the color purple is a blend of blue and pink. That would represent the gender identity known as androgyne—a mix of male and female.

Being male is one thing, being female is another thing, and being a mix is also its own thing. I’m not any of those. I’m none.

I don’t have a sense of gender. That’s why I use the label “agender.” It’s to remove the imposition of gender.

If you think they’re unnecessary, maybe it’s because yours already fits

We are a very label-centric society. We like to define each other and put each other in boxes.

If people are going to put me in a box no matter what I do (which, I’ve learned, they are), then it seems like the most logical thing to do is distract them away from the wrong box by teaching them about ones that actually work.

The sneaky thing about these boxes is that they’re not even really boxes.

Each one of them just means “the box you already put me in is wrong.”