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The Shadow Sex
Rachele Kanigel | Photo: Chloe Aftel | January 24, 2014
Spurred by a violent attack, a new, gender-fluid generation comes into the light.
On a bright winter morning, Sasha Fleischman dresses for school. White button-down shirt. Vintage silk bow tie. Gray pinstriped vest. Tweed newsboy cap. Black ruffled skirt. The 18-year-old carefully wraps white Ace bandages around both legs, covering another set of bandages that in turn protect a layer of antibacterial gauze dressings. It’s a long, arduous process, but the Maybeck High School senior has gotten used to the routine. And it’s sure better than lying in a hospital bed watching endless television news reports about the attack that transformed the bashful teen into a reluctant civil rights martyr.
On November 4 of last year, Fleischman, who identifies as agender—neither male nor female—was set on fire while sleeping on an AC Transit bus on the way home from school. A surveillance camera captured video of another teen igniting Fleischman’s skirt with a lighter, and the following day police arrested Richard Thomas, a 16-year-old Oakland High School junior, in connection with the crime. Thomas, allegedly provoked by the sight of someone who looked like a boy wearing a flouncy white skirt, has been charged as an adult with two felony counts and a hate crime enhancement; the case is expected to wend its way through the Alameda County criminal justice system over the next few months.
The incident shocked a Bay Area community that prides itself on tolerance, but even more, it focused a spotlight on an incipient movement. Using umbrella terms like “genderqueer” and “nonbinary,” and composed largely of teenagers and young adults, this growing community encompasses people who see themselves as agender (neither male nor female), bi-gender (both genders), and gender-fluid (shifting from male to female). Of course, there have always been people who feel ambivalent about their gender. But it’s only recently that they’ve coalesced into something more formal and more visible. Advances in women’s, gay, and transgender rights have paved the way for gender variance, and now technology is fueling the revolution: Type “genderqueer” into Tumblr or YouTube, and you’ll be deluged with confessional blog posts and videos from people straining to be free of societal constraints on and expectations about gender. In a recent study of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth, the Human Rights Campaign found that more than 6 percent identified as something other than male or female.
Leslie Ewing, executive director of the Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley, says that she’s seen a marked rise in the visibility and acceptance of gender- nonconforming people in recent years. The most popular support group hosted by the center is the Tuesday night gathering for genderqueer/gender-variant people, fancifully named “Wicked Transcendent Folk” by participants. At age 64, Ewing well remembers a time when bisexuals and transgender people had to fight their way onto the gay rights agenda, the days before B and T slid easily off the tongue as part of the common parlance. Now many gay rights groups are adding Q (queer or questioning), I (intersex), and A (asexual) to more inclusively describe the communities they serve. Agender acceptance, Ewing says, is the next frontier. “Just like in the 1980s when the bisexual folk said, ‘Hey, we’re not just people who can’t make up our minds,’ which was sort of the prevailing view, these people are saying, ‘This is who we are.’ I think this is a natural progression of the sexual minority civil rights movement.”
Which isn’t to say that this newest movement doesn’t have a long way to go, or that there aren’t skeptics—people who think that the agender movement is merely a teenage phase, or the product of raising hyper-self-aware Berkeley kids who come from intellectual families and read gender theory in their spare time, or an academic exercise in identity politics being played out on the body. If the transgender movement has had only limited success in persuading society to accept people who were born female in a male body (and vice versa), the agender community is asking for something more radical, in a way: for society to accept people who are a walking rejection of the male-female framework itself. And as much as people like Fleischman hope to be understood, they’re still growing up in a world with gendered bathrooms and specific pronouns and societal pressure to pick a gender and stick with it.
Some see the attack on Fleischman as a “Matthew Shepard moment” for the genderqueer movement, an incident that, like the 1998 killing of the gay college student in Wyoming, has galvanized and empowered the community. The Fleischman story was quickly picked up by local and then national and international media outlets, and the news coverage led to fundraising drives, a community march, a proclamation by the Oakland City Council declaring Transgender Awareness Day, and “Skirts for Sasha” days at schools around the Bay Area, during which boys and girls, teachers and students all donned skirts in solidarity with the burned teen. It has also brought sometimes unwelcome attention to the family, who were followed by television cameras for weeks. “I’m not used to being in the public eye,” says Fleischman. “It’s a big responsibility to be representing the whole nonbinary, agender community.”
Fleischman started out life as a boy named Luke and had mostly stereotypically male interests as a child—Legos, trains, astronomy. As a young teen, Fleischman played Dungeons & Dragons and invented fantasy worlds—not unusual for a brainy kid who tested off the charts. But while other kids were exploring their sexuality with lewd jokes and awkward gropings, Fleischman began to probe the concept of gender. A close friend who had been a girl came out as transgender, identifying and dressing as a boy. “He was a good person to talk it through with,” says the teen, model thin, with long eyelashes and delicate features. “We had a lot of conversations about it.”
During sophomore year, at the annual cross-dressing day at school, Fleischman wore a skirt for the first time, a ruffled black broomstick skirt borrowed from a friend. “I thought, ‘Man, skirts are really comfortable,’” Fleischman says, recalling the delicious feeling of the soft fabric.
Fleischman began reading up on gender and sexuality on the Internet and found a world populated by people who don’t identify as male or female. A linguistics buff, the high schooler luxuriated in a new lexicon, one made up of words like “androgyne” and “pangender.” Fleischman began asking friends and family members about their own gender identities and what made them feel like a woman or a man. The typical responses—“I don’t know, I just feel like a woman” or “I like being masculine”—didn’t resonate. “I don’t really get that,” Fleischman says. “I don’t feel that way.”
Gradually, Fleischman came out as genderqueer, switching names from the too-male Luke to the more ambiguous Sasha and asking to be referred to by the pronouns “they” and “them” rather than “he” and “him.” Parents, friends, and teachers slowly got the hang of it, and when they slipped, Fleischman would remind them—sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully—to use gender-neutral language.
One day a friend cleaning out her closet gave Fleischman a bunch of old skirts that didn’t fit her anymore. The next morning, Fleischman wore one of them to school, and a distinctive style, mixing male and female clothing, was born. There has scarcely been a pants day since. “I guess I’m trying to confuse people,” says Fleischman, whose wardrobe now includes a purple plaid miniskirt, a form-fitting red silk dress bought on a school trip to China, and a blue-gray lace-up skirt that a friend made when Fleischman was in the hospital. “When I wear a skirt, it makes them think about gender and not jumping to conclusions.” Other students at Maybeck, a small, private high school that tends to attract quirky, unconventional kids, have been supportive of their classmate’s fashion choices. At least one other student at the school identifies as agender, and two more are transgender.
“I think the world is becoming more accepting, and people feel less like they need to hide who they are,” says Sarah Levine, a 16-year-old friend of Fleischman’s who came out as genderqueer about a year ago. “I identify as gender-fluid. Most of the time I’m agender, but it changes every now and then. Sometimes I feel male, and sometimes I feel female.” Levine, a junior at Maybeck, was born a girl and plans to keep the feminine name at least until next year. “If I change my name, it will be after I get my college stuff worked out. I don’t want my applications getting confused.”
Like Fleischman, Levine grew up with supportive parents and peers. “For me, it wasn’t that big a thing to come out,” Levine says. “We didn’t have a big sit-down—‘Mom, Dad, I’m not a girl.’ It just came up in conversation. They were cool about it.” But not all kids come from families like Levine’s, and not all high schools have cross-dressing days. Even though the agender movement shows signs of taking hold beyond places like Berkeley and schools like Maybeck—earlier this year, students at the University of Northern Iowa voted to crown a genderqueer homecoming queen, and genderqueer meet-up groups have sprouted in Boston, Denver, Chicago, and Washington—it’s still a very new and, in some ways, difficult concept.
Indeed, researchers have found that those who identify as neither male nor female suffer discrimination and violence at even higher rates than transgender people. One of the first major studies of gender-variant people, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, revealed that those who identified as “other”—using terms like “genderqueer,” “third gender,” and “hybrid”—were more likely than transgender people to suffer physical assaults, survive sexual assault in school, face police harassment, or be unemployed.
Mark Snyder, who identifies as genderqueer, says that people like him are targeted not necessarily because of their sexual orientation, but because they challenge conventions about what it means to be a man or a woman. “When I talk to my gay guy friends about this, I’ll ask why they were called a faggot. Was it because the person knew their sexual orientation or because they were breaking society’s gender norms? Whether you’re gay or transgender or genderqueer, people lash out when you break gender norms.”
Snyder first came out as gay at age 15, but after going to college and joining the Boston Alliance of LGBT Youth, he found a term that suited him better. “That’s when I learned the word ‘genderqueer.’ As soon as I heard it, it was an instant click. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s me!’” Unlike some genderqueer people who feel that they have no gender, Snyder embraces both the masculine and the feminine. He enjoys wearing women’s jewelry and clothing, but when he does, he says, “I don’t feel like I’m doing drag. I’m not dressing up as a woman—I’m being myself. Some days I come to work looking like a stereotypical gay man in a white button-down shirt. Other times I wear long, dangly earrings and a woman’s sweater.” Capping off every outfit is a tattoo in bold black type that Snyder proudly displays on his left arm: Sissy. “I own the term ‘sissy.’ Having it tattooed on my arm reclaims a word that was used against me as something I can own and be proud of.”
Snyder has a long-term male partner, though many genderqueer people date and sleep with people of various genders. As Jennie Steinberg, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist who works with gender-nonconforming people, says, “When you don’t identify as male or female, terms like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are complicated.” And while Snyder loves what he calls the “rainbow of gender,” for Micah, being genderqueer means having no gender. Micah, who declined to give a last name, identifies as neutrois—an identity marked by the absence of gender. In a blog called Neutrois Nonsense, “adventures of a nonbinary trans*person in a binary world,” Micah, 27, writes with eloquence and excruciating detail about having a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy. Despite those surgeries, Micah doesn’t identify as male. “I’m not a femme boy or a butch girl,” a 2011 post explains. “It’s not embracing both sides, or one side; it’s embracing neither. It’s not an absence of gender, and it’s not not caring about my gender. Quite the contrary—I care very strongly about my gender, my gender expression, and my gender perception. I have a gender, and it’s a neutral gender.”
Micah’s post gets at a crucial point about the agender movement as its members see it: It’s not merely a stop on the way between one gender and another—it’s the embrace of both/and, neither/nor. No one feels entirely comfortable in his or her—or their—own skin all the time, especially young people, but for Sasha and Micah and Mark and Sarah, the rejection of the gender binary is something more serious and, presumably, more permanent: a personal and political identity.
Whether or not an A for agender ever makes it into the LGBTQ umbrella, for the time being, the community has, ironically, been defined by its unwillingness to be defined. For Fleischman especially, that weighs heavily, as the 18-year-old wrestles with whether to step into a new role as the public face of the genderqueer campaign or to embrace the obscurity that could gradually return as the story fades from newscasts. Even before that fateful flick of a lighter, Fleischman had taken tentative steps toward activism, petitioning President Barack Obama to institute a third gender option on government forms. The online petition gathered 27,000 signatures—not enough to get the president’s attention, but an impressive number for a single teen championing a cause that most people can’t quite get their heads around.
But for now, Fleischman is focused on something a little more immediate and a little more prosaic: college applications. Most of them have boxes for “male” and “female,” but the high school senior dreams of the day when people will have another option. “None” or “other” would be sufficient, but most of all, Fleischman would like a blank field into which people could write whatever term they chose.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of San Francisco