Does everyone ‘have’ a gender?
“My gender is like an empty lot.” This was the answer Ollia gave when I asked them to explain how they experienced gender. “There may have been a building there at some point, but it’s long since fallen away, and there’s no need to rebuild it. The space is better for being left empty.”
Like many of the people on the asexuality spectrum I’ve interviewed, Ollia simply didn’t feel like gender was a useful way to understand them. They felt like gender was irrelevant, harmful even. In a word, they felt detached from gender altogether.
When I started my research, I planned to compare the gendered experiences of asexual men, women, and “beyond the binary” asexuals. I quickly found that these categories weren’t exhaustive. One major reason: about 1/3 of the people I spoke with felt detached from gender altogether.
Feminist scholars have written for decades about the radical potential of “ungendering” for resisting gender inequality. Most of this work has been theoretical, with some questioning whether ungendering is even possible. My findings offer an empirical window into ungendering.
Based on my findings, I introduce the concept of “gender detachment,” or individually-held feelings that gender presentation/identity is irrelevant, pointless, or even oppressive.
This poses several implications for research on gender. 1) Maybe ungendering is moving from the realm of the theoretical to the realm of the empirical. 2) My findings complicate the (often unstated) assumption that everyone “has” a gender identity.
Questions like “what is your gender?” are thus more complicated than they appear. Indeed, when I asked this question, nearly all respondents gave a gender identity. But with probing, many said that they basically give a gender identity because they don’t feel they have a choice.
This suggests that gender detachment is almost undoubtedly more common than we realize — and that the questions researchers ask can submerge detached experiences of gender.
Indeed, since tweeting and writing about my research, I’ve heard from dozens of people saying that “gender detachment” perfectly described their experience of gender, but that they had never had a word for it.
“What’s your gender?” has long been a deceptively complex question. My research suggests that it’s even more complex — and perhaps even misleading — than most of us think.
Canton Winer is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the relationship between gender, race, and sexuality, with particular focus on the experiences and perspectives of asexual people. You can find him on Twitter at @CantonWiner or sign up for his free Substack here.