Agender Me, or How I Face a Mirror Image That is Not My Own

The author, Rev. Chris Rothbauer

I’m a fan of cheesy sci-fi, and one of my favorite shows as a budding young geek was Quantum Leap. The premise is that the protagonist, Sam Beckett, built a time machine that allows him to leap into, or possess, another person’s life at some point in the past in order to right some wrong. (It is later explained the person is transported to the future to wait in a temporal waiting room for Sam to complete his task.) The catch is that, while Sam is in that person’s time and place, he is seen as that person by everyone, including his guide from the future, the holographic Al.

Because of a malfunction in the time machine, Sam is unable to return to the future and, instead, is tossed through time by unknown forces, without any control over whose life he will leap into next. Though the majority of episodes over the course of the series see Sam leap into a straight, white, able-bodied man, a number forced him to contend with people seeing him as someone he isn’t, including leaping into people of various races and ethnicities, multiple women, people of various ages, a man with Down’s Syndrome, and a double-amputee Vietnam War vet.

The catch is that, as it is explained in the series, Sam has his own body and mind in every time he visits, so what everyone around him is seeing is the image they have been programmed to see. So, though Sam knows who he is, he is constantly confronted by the “mirror image,” the knowledge that the person other people are seeing is not the person he feels like on the inside. There’s nothing wrong with Sam’s body and he had no desire to change it, but, nevertheless, he finds himself constantly at odds with how he moves through the world.

I often feel like Sam, struggling to convince the world I am who I am. People look at the outside of me, my mirror image, and they see what they want to see, never stopping to consider whether that’s what I see on the inside. I move through the world, knowing who I am, and constantly having to justify why anyone should have to put in any effort to change the way they see me. My mirror image is the result of the way western society has programmed each of us to see people since the day we were born, and, though it is not easily overcome, I get the impression most people would rather I allow them to keep seeing through the mirror rather than looking directly at me.

There aren’t a lot of articles out there on assigned male at birth (AMAB) nonbinary folks. There are more out there now than ever before, but they’re still few and far between. There are even fewer speaking out with passing privilege, those of us who are still seen by the world as men but know in our hearts that word is wrong. We move through this world, mostly invisibly, dancing through this world as if we have a mask on.

When I first started questioning whether I was nonbinary, I read a lot. I devoured authors like Kate Bornstein and Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon and Leslie Feinberg and Danez Smith and countless Tumblrs and blogs. I was assured that gender expression is not connected to gender identity, that who I am on the inside is not dependent on how people perceive me on the outside, that my inner truth was more important than their outer judgments. And I believed them and started coming out to the world.

I have low body dysphoria, though it’s set off by specific things (I really hate how ultra-masculine I feel in a necktie), so I’ve never felt the need to physically transition to feel more at home with my physical self. In addition, though I now see gender expression as a playground, discovering new things about myself like how I love nail polish and that I like how I feel navigating the world in tight jeans, I’m still misgendered on a daily basis.

The word I decided most matches my experience is agender. I don’t understand gender at all. To me, a shirt is a shirt and what matters most is how I look and feel in it.

I decided that my image of myself didn’t need to match my mirror image, that what was more important was that I was comfortable with myself.

What I find is that I am a conundrum to the world, a category smasher, because, when I come out to someone as agender, it immediately throws both their assumptions of who I am and what it means to be a man into crisis.

It usually also leads to the litany of microaggressions. Do I ever intend to get surgery or take hormones? What genitals do I have? Why do I wear nail polish? Why do I care so much about people using gender neutral pronouns for me? At times, these microaggressions become macroaggressions, with people calling me a faker, accusing me of being a special snowflake and doing it all for the attention, and getting defensive about using my pronouns, even when they are clearly present in my email signature and on my name badge and in the bio line of my articles. Worse, I’ve been told by a former parishioner that I’m not suitable for ministry because of my gender expression and had people flat out leave the congregation because they could not imagine me as their minister.

In other words, it feels like people are asking why it is so important that I not be invisible, that I be allowed to go to the dance without the mirror image on.

Many times these questions are raised in good faith, with the person genuinely not understanding why they are inappropriate, and I try to educate them. Other times, they are people who are being quite malicious, tearing me down to prove a point or to reinforce cissexism. In all cases, it makes me feel like who I am is not good enough to move through the world.

Yes, there’s a lot of hate and prejudice and misunderstanding out there, but the implicit message I’m given every day is that it is my job to either dress in a way that makes my gender easily identifiable or else to argue why others should put in the effort to deprogram their minds of the cissexist and binarist assumptions they were taught since birth.

So it gets exhausting, day after day after day justifying my existence to a world that would be happy if I’d just sit back and quit trying to make it work so hard to figure me out. There are times I think that it would have been easier to just stay in the closet and let people believe I’m just a queer man who enjoys some traditionally feminine things along the way.

But there’s something empowering the times people are able to see me for who I am. I am serving a congregation now in east Alabama who have been wonderful in seeing me for who I am. In fact, they will often come up to me and apologize for misgendering me, and I’ll realize that I’ve become so numb to hearing the wrong pronouns that I didn’t even notice. They’re not perfect; none of us are. But they are trying and doing their damndest and, when I am with them, I feel affirmed in who I am, that, yes, this agender minister can be who they are and still be damned good at what I do.

And there’s my partner, for whom there’s never even been a question that I am valid in my gender identity and expression. When he looks at me, I feel seen, and I feel free to let my guard down. I don’t need to justify myself, at least in that moment.

For me, in these moments, I’m no longer wearing my mirror image, but free to move through the world, seen for who I am. They are rare moments in our current culture. When they happen, though, they mean everything to me.

I’m still figuring out, as a AMAB agender person who is still read as a man, how to navigate the intersections of my various identities. It is not lost on me that being socialized and read as a male gives me a certain sort of passing privilege in everyday life. This passing privilege is fleeting, though, since as soon as I put on lipstick or nail polish or ask someone to call me “they,” the cissexism and binarism rears its ugly head.

Who knows: as I continue to deprogram myself from my own internalized cisexism and binarism, I may well decide to experiment even more with gender expression. But the point is that I shouldn’t need to dress in a particular way to be seen as who I am. It is the job of each of us to shed the mirror images we have accumulated in our lifetimes and learn to be with each person we encounter on their own terms.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer once said, “The human soul doesn’t want to be fixed, it simply wants to be seen and heard.” I would add, the soul wants to be seen and heard for who it is, not for the mirror image we have of it. On the tough days when I wonder why I ever bothered coming out of the closet, that is what I remember: that I decided I wanted others to be able to see me for who I know I am.

And maybe, just maybe, if enough of us decide that we’re going to live our lives as ourselves no matter how others see us, we’ll shift the world. It’s dangerous: there’s a chance we’ll face violence and harassment and an even greater possibility of being rejected at some point, but we have to decide whether we’re happy moving through this world with our cultural mirror images haunting us, or whether we’d rather smash those mirrors into a thousand pieces and never think about them again.

Unitarian Universalist minister, public theologian, radical leftist thinker, unapologetic geek, and beagle mommy. 🌹 🏳️‍🌈 they/them

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Chris Rothbauer

Chris Rothbauer

Unitarian Universalist minister, public theologian, radical leftist thinker, unapologetic geek, and beagle mommy. 🌹 🏳️‍🌈 they/them

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