Every year, I fill out the Asexual Community Survey, and every year there’s the same pesky gender question. It asks me for my gender identity, and then gives me three options: man, woman, and none-of-the-above. I never know how to answer that question. As I explained in “On (Not) Being a Woman”, I think of myself as a “woman” for several reasons, but none of those reasons has anything to do with gender. So should I choose “woman”, because that’s how I think of myself? Or should I choose “none”, because I don’t have a gender?
I always skip that question.
The survey does offer more options in the next question, including “no gender”, but that doesn’t really help me answer the first question. The first question is worded to imply that everyone does have a gender, or, at least, a gender identity. I don’t, not even “agender” or “non-binary”. To quote the post I linked above:
“It’s not like I have a sense of myself as having no gender, or as having a gender that’s different from male and female. I don’t have any sense of gender, not even a gap where my gender would be.”
It feels like any answer I gave to the gender question would be taken as a claim to some kind of gender identity. And that frustrates me. You’d think asexuals, of all people, would be wary of assuming that everyone has a gender. Asking, “Is your gender male, female, or something else?” is problematic in the same way as asking, “Are you sexually attracted to men, women, or both?”, or, “Are you alloromantic or aromantic?” We all know what a mistake it would be to assume everyone experiences sexual attraction. And many of us know the frustrations of trying to fit ourselves into an alloromantic-aromantic dichotomy. So why do it with gender?
What I think the survey should offer is the ability to opt out of gender entirely. Yes, everyone is free to skip the question, but I think a formal abstain option would have several practical advantages. For one thing, we live in a very gender normative society where people are encouraged to believe they all have gender identities. Many people with no genders, particularly cis-genderless people like me, are likely to go along with this and let other people tell them their gender identities, never realising that they don’t have any. An opt-out would give these people a chance to recognise and name their own lack of gender.
It would also give us a chance to recognise other people’s lack of gender. Right now, gender is treated as universal. Everyone is assumed to have a gender; the language to talk about not having a gender barely exists. As a result, we have no idea how many people actually have genders and how many don’t. It could be that the number of genderless people is much greater than we imagine, but we have no way of finding out without asking.
Finally, this blog post by Ozymandias suggests that at least some transphobia may be due to cis-by-default people (i.e. genderless people who think of themselves as “men” and “women” because that’s what they’ve been told they are) not understanding the concept of gender and therefore not believing trans people when they talk about their gender identities. Normalising the idea that gender is something some people have but others don’t would be a first step towards correcting this misconception.
Look, I’m not saying you have to take the gender question out of the survey, or that you need to add a whole bunch of options to it. I’m just saying that, before this question, there’s another question you should be asking:
“Do you have a gender identity?”