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As an agender person, I don’t know what having gender feels like. The only real experience I have with gender is that almost everyone I’ve met takes for granted that all people are one of two genders, including me.

This has improved a lot in the last year or so since I’ve broken through a bunch of the barriers to presenting myself in a way that feels true to who I am, and have focused on connecting with people who are more accepting.

Still. The view of gender as a binary thing is pretty prevalent. And when someone views me through the lens of gender, they don’t actually see what’s there. Instead they see what they’re conditioned to see: either a man or a woman.

Both of these are false images. And yet, many peoples’ minds seem to slip into the mode of seeing one of these two things exclusively, and not the truth of what’s right in front of them, which is a different thing entirely.

This isn’t something I blame them for or look down on them about. It’s just a way of thinking ingrained by our culture—one that effects me in challenging ways.

So I want to take a look at that with you, and poke and prod it a little to see what’s up.

When I interact with most strangers, it’s a flip of a coin whether they’ll assume I’m a man or a woman.

They typically seem instantly confident about their assumption. I even experience different strangers each assuming I’m a different gender, with one calling me “she” and the other “he,” in the same interaction. (It’s always entertaining seeing how they sort that out between them. )

So when people see me as having gender, what actually is it that they’re seeing? Are they interpreting information they perceive about me? Or are they just imposing a pre-programmed template without knowing it?

Are people tallying gender signals?

For now, let’s just talk about strangers who interact with me, not people who have known me for a long time and previously thought I was one specific binary gender. That’s a whole other can of worms that maybe I’ll open another time.

The truth of who I am is there, so what’s in the way of people see it? Why are they seeing something else?

At first you might think what people are projecting on me is related to them cataloging “male” vs. “female” body parts and attributes that they can perceive.

I used to think that too. But in my case, there aren’t exactly a lot of visible parts displaying these attributes.

For one, I don’t walk around with exposed junk. 😉 So it’s not like I can be “sexed” the way our medical system sexes babies.

But beyond that, my appearance is not sending a lot of strong gender signals.

I’m 6’ tall and gangly. My hair is short, and I have no facial hair. My voice hasn’t gone through male puberty, but it doesn’t exactly sound like a female voice. My mannerisms are probably more masculine than feminine, but not really either. I’m usually wearing high tops, jeans, and a hoodie. There’s not a lot going on to build a strong case either way.

But as soon as a stranger interacts with me, usually one of the first things out of their mouth is a gendered term.

So how are people gendering me instantaneously, with so little doubt, and so often in conflict with each others’ assessments?

They’re not pondering or evaluating what gender I am. It’s immediate.

What’s up with that?

Existing knowledge creates a limitation

For a long time, in every facet of our society, we’ve been consistently taught that only two types of humans exist: men and women—and that every person is one of those two things.

(By the way, this is what people are talking about when they use the term “nonbinary erasure.” Because nonbinary gender identities are not a new thing, but it’s only recently that we’re actually being acknowledged in this culture.)

Here’s an analogy for what this feels like to me.

I imagine living my life being taught that all plants were either banana trees or rose bushes.

One day I see a pinecone. Immediately I think it’s a rose, because it’s kind of spiky, and between a rose and a banana, only the rose has spikes. It doesn’t matter that the actual structure of the pinecone is in conflict with the structure of a rose. I see a rose.

My friend sees a banana, because the shape of the pinecone is kind of banana-ish. It doesn’t matter that a pinecone is nothing like a banana. To them, this pinecone is a banana. Roses aren’t shaped like that, so it has to be a banana.

Both me and my friend are missing out on what this pinecone actually is: part of a completely distinct plant that is unrelated to a rose or a banana. But we’ve never been taught that other plants exist. We can only think of plants in terms of roses and bananas.

Until we open our minds to the possibility of other plants, our existing knowledge is actually a problem. It’s drastically limiting our perspective. If we’re going to actually figure out what a pinecone is, we need to drop the whole rose/banana thing … and be willing to actually look at the pinecone on its own terms.

It’s a silly analogy, but you get the picture.

To see each other, we have to let go

I’m not going to lie—it’s been alienating to go for most of the first 30 years of my life with every person in my life incorrectly convinced that I was a woman. This experience of being unable to express your true self even to friends & family is a tough part of the lives of many transgender people.

It’s still alienating when people refer to me with gendered language and pronouns, even though I understand that people usually don’t intend to alienate me. It’s alienating because it’s a demonstration that they can’t see me past what they already believe about me.

But this issue isn’t specific to nonbinary folks. It’s just kind of extreme for us.

Think about it—how often do you feel isolated because someone has a false idea of who you are that they can’t seem to get past?

We all deal with people telling us who we are instead of seeing us. We’re all doing this to each other all the time: imposing false templates instead of seeing what’s really there.

So how do we stop doing this to each other?

I’m still trying to figure it out. For now, I try to continuously notice what I’m assuming about others, and let those assumptions go. Otherwise I’ll never see what’s there—I’ll only see what I already think.

And that’s a way smaller picture.