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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.”