NYU class of 2016
“Currently, I say that I am agender. I’m removing myself from the social construct of gender,” says Mars Marson, a 21-year-old NYU film major with a thatch of short black hair.
Marson is talking to me amid a roomful of Queer Union students at the school’s LGBTQ student center, where a front-desk bin offers free buttons that let visitors proclaim their preferred pronoun. Of the seven students gathered at the Queer Union, five prefer the singular they, meant to denote the kind of post-gender self-identification Marson describes.
Marson was born a girl biologically and came out as a lesbian in high school. But NYU was a revelation — a place to explore transgenderism and then reject it. “I don’t feel connected to the word transgender because it feels more resonant with binary trans people,” Marson says, referring to people who want to tread a linear path from female to male, or vice versa. You could say that Marson and the other students at the Queer Union identify instead with being somewhere in the middle of the path, but that’s not quite right either. “I think ‘in the middle’ still puts male and female as the be-all-end-all,” says Thomas Rabuano, 19, a sophomore drama major who wears makeup, a turbanlike headband, and a flowy blouse and skirt and cites Lady Gaga and the gay character Kurt on Glee as big adolescent role models. “I like to think of it as outside.” Everyone in the group mm-hmmms approval and snaps their fingers in accord. Amina Sayeed, 19, a sophomore from Des Moines, agrees. “Traditional women’s clothes are feminine and colorful and accentuated the fact that I had breasts. I hated that,” Sayeed says. “So now I say that I’m an agender demi-girl with connection to the female binary gender.”
On the far edge of campus identity politics — the places once occupied by gay and lesbian students and later by transgender ones — you now find pockets of students like these, young people for whom attempts to categorize identity feel anachronistic, oppressive, or just painfully irrelevant. For older generations of gay and queer communities, the struggle (and exhilaration) of identity exploration on campus can look somewhat familiar. But the differences today are striking. The current project is not just about questioning one’s own identity; it’s about questioning the very nature of identity. You may not be a boy, but you may not be a girl, either, and how comfortable are you with the concept of being neither? You may want to sleep with men, or women, or transmen, or transwomen, and you might want to become emotionally involved with them, too — but perhaps not in the same combination, since why should your romantic and sexual orientations necessarily have to be the same thing? Or why think about orientation at all? Your appetites might be panromantic but asexual; you might identify as a cisgender (not transgender) aromantic. The linguistic options are nearly limitless: an abundance of language meant to articulate the role of imprecision in identity. And it’s a worldview that’s very much about words and feelings: For a movement of young people pushing the boundaries of desire, it can feel remarkably unlibidinous.
Robyn Ochs, a former Harvard administrator who was at the school for 26 years (and who started the school’s group for LGBTQ faculty and staff), sees one major reason why these linguistically complicated identities have suddenly become so popular: “I ask young queer people how they learned the labels they describe themselves with,” says Ochs, “and Tumblr is the No. 1 answer.” The social-media platform has spawned a million microcommunities worldwide, including Queer Muslims, Queers With Disabilities, and Trans Jewry. Jack Halberstam, a 53-year-old self-identified “trans butch” professor of gender studies at USC, specifically cites Judith Butler’s 1990 book, Gender Trouble, the gender-theory bible for campus queers. Quotes from it, like the much reblogged “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results,” have become Tumblr bait — perhaps the world’s least likely viral content.
But many of the queer NYU students I spoke to didn’t become truly acquainted with the language they now use to describe themselves until they arrived at college. Campuses are staffed by administrators who came of age in the first wave of political correctness and at the height of semiotics-deconstruction mania. In college now, intersectionality (the idea that race, class, and gender identity are all connected) is central to their way of understanding just about everything. But rejecting categories altogether can be seductive, transgressive, a useful way to win an argument or feel unique.
Or maybe that’s too cynical. Despite how extreme this lexical contortion might seem to some, the students’ desires to define themselves outside of gender felt like an outgrowth of acute discomfort and deep scars from being raised in the to-them-unbearable role of “boy” or “girl.” Establishing an identity that is defined by what you aren’t doesn’t seem especially easy. I ask the students if their new cultural license to identify themselves outside of sexuality and gender, if the sheer plethora of self-identifying options they have — such as Facebook’s much-hyped 58 gender choices, everything from “trans person” to “genderqueer” to the vaguely French-sounding “neutrois” (which, according to neutrois.com, cannot be defined, since the very point of being neutrois is that your gender is individual to you) — sometimes leaves them feeling as if they’re floating around in space.
“I feel like I’m in a candy store and there’s all these different options,” says Darya Goharian, 22, a senior from an Iranian family in a wealthy D.C. suburb who identifies as trans nonbinary. Yet even the word options can be too close-minded for some in the group. “I take issue with that word,” says Marson. “It makes it seem like you’re choosing to be something, when it’s not a choice but an inherent part of you as a person.”
Levi Back, 20, is a premed who was almost kicked out of public high school in Oklahoma after coming out as a lesbian. But now, “I identify as panromantic, asexual, agender — and if you wanna shorten it all, we can just go as queer,” Back says. “I don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone, but I’m in a relationship with another asexual person. We don’t have sex, but we cuddle all the time, kiss, make out, hold hands. Everything you’d see in a PG rom-com.” Back had previously dated and slept with a woman, but, “as time went on, I became less interested in it, and it became more like a chore. I mean, it felt good, but it did not feel like I was forming a strong connection through that.”
Now, with Back’s current girlfriend, “a lot of what makes this relationship is our emotional connection. And how open we are with each other.”
Back has started an asexual group at NYU; anywhere between ten and 15 people typically show up to meetings. Sayeed — the agender demi-girl — is one of them, too, but identifies as aromantic rather than asexual. “I had had sex by the time I was 16 or 17. Girls before boys, but both,” Sayeed says. Sayeed still has sex occasionally. “But I don’t experience any sort of romantic attraction. I had never known the technical word for it or whatever. I’m still able to feel love: I love my friends, and I love my family.” But of falling in love, Sayeed says, without any wistfulness or doubt that this might change later in life, “I guess I just don’t see why I ever would at this point.”
So much of the personal politics of the past was about insisting on the right to sleep with anyone; now, the sex drive seems such a minimal part of today’s politics, which includes the right to say you have little to no desire to sleep with anyone at all. Which would seem to run counter to the more mainstream hookup culture. But instead, perhaps this is the next logical step. If hooking up has thoroughly decoupled sex from romance and emotions, this movement is clarifying that you could have romance without sex.
Although the rejection of sex is not by choice, necessarily. Max Taylor, a 22-year-old transman junior at NYU who also identifies as polyamorous, says that it’s been harder for him to date since he started taking hormones. “I can’t go to a bar and pick up a straight woman and have a one-night stand very easily anymore. It turns into this thing where if I want to have a one-night stand I have to explain I’m trans. My pool of people to flirt with is my community, where most people know each other,” says Taylor. “Mostly trans or genderqueer people of color in Brooklyn. It feels like I’m never gonna meet someone at a grocery store again.”
The complicated language, too, can function as a layer of protection. “You can get very comfortable here at the LGBT center and get used to people asking your pronouns and everyone knowing you’re queer,” says Xena Becker, 20, a sophomore from Evanston, Illinois, who identifies as a bisexual queer ciswoman. “But it’s still really lonely, hard, and confusing a lot of the time. Just because there are more words doesn’t mean that the feelings are easier.”
Additional reporting by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay.
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.