Call Me By Your Gender: Xenogender, Neurodivergence, and Neoliberal Trans Politics

As a millennial queer and trans person, I grew up with a measurably different vocabulary for gender non-normativity than that of young people today. I had hardly even met an openly queer or trans person until I left home for college. For this reason, finding language — the words queer and trans, especially — to describe my felt-sense of difference resonated intensely. These words tethered me to shared histories and communities of gender/sexuality non-normativity, generating new, life-affirming relations between myself and others across time and space. Rather than satiating my drive to struggle for queer and trans liberation, however, these words marked an energizing beginning.

In the decade since I found queer and trans, gender/sexuality vernacular has exploded, exploding, too, my personal relationship to gendered language and its politics. In today’s neoliberal context of identity “proliferation and hypervisibility” (Gray, 2013, p. 462), novel gender categories and pronouns are generated too quickly to track, especially among youth online. The young people coining and laying claim to these neo-genders and -pronouns may very well be expanding opportunities to be seen and recognized, particularly in digital spaces. At the same time, however, this play on words risks positioning affirmative recognition as a political end rather than a beginning, and thus demobilizing collective struggles to contest domination and expand life chances for queer and trans people.

Jack Halberstam (2018) describes this vernacular shift from medico-psychiatric trans discourse to grassroots self-naming as “one of the biggest innovations of the past two decades in relation to gendered expression” (p. 10). In 2014 — the infamous year of the “Transgender Tipping Point” — Facebook introduced 58 gender identity options, and the list has only since expanded. Digital spaces have provided convenient platforms for diversifying and proliferating sexual and gender identities that complicate and sometimes disavow the normative hetero/homo and masculine/feminine binaries.
Yet despite proliferated identity options, anti-queer and -trans violence remains a structuring element of contemporary US society (Stanley, 2021). How, then, might we understand the motivations and effects of this vernacular proliferation?

To make some sense of this political situation, I suggest we take a closer look at a characteristic, if wacky, example of said proliferation: the newly popularizing term xenogender, a Tumblr-originated category of genders that do not reference femininity, masculinity, androgyny, or even human understandings of gender. Xenogenders can reference sensations or emotions (i.e. genderopaque, ragegender), nouns or aesthetics (i.e. seagender, funfetticakegender), or even neurotypes (i.e. autigender, anxiegender). On platforms like Tumblr, Reddit, Discord, and TikTok, member communities of several thousand and counting enthusiastically coin and share new xenogenders with personalized flags and neo-pronouns to boot. For example, a Reddit user posted in November 2022 coining the xenogender “marshmellowgender,” meaning “a gender that feels fluffy and soft like a marshmellow.” The post includes a digitally designed “marshmellowgender” flag as well as associated pronouns of “marsh/marshs/marshself.”

At this point, you may feel, like me, that you have more questions than answers. If xenogenders name highly specific affinities unrelated to masculinity, femininity, or androgyny, then why are they understood through/as gender? What are people getting out of identifying these affinities as gender? What kinds of subjectivities and collectivities is xenogender forging? What is xenogender proliferation doing to the meaning of gender and its regulatory function? To our political horizons around gender and beyond?

Craving intimate perspectives, I decided to pose a question in an online xenogender community soliciting “earnest” responses to what draws people to xenogender, and what it offers them. Members answered more simply than I anticipated: xenogenders make them feel “valid” and “happy,” and they offer a “fun,” “easy,” and “free” way to “explore gender” and “express” oneself. In short, identifying as xenogender just feels good.

Many responses to my question, though, point to a more curious appeal of xenogender that merits some dwelling: the overlap between xenogender and neurodivergence. “I make abstract comparisons for nearly everything in life. It might be related to me being autistic and ADHD,” one response explains. In these online communities, members regularly employ neurodivergence to justify xenogender as an alternate sense-making system for gender. Many definitions of xenogender, in fact, explicitly describe the term as “expressing neurodivergent (or specifically autistic) people’s ‘unique relationship to gender.’”

Understanding the link between xenogender and neurodivergence, I contend, requires situating the good feelings xenogender identification elicits in relation to the broader context of neoliberal identity politics. Neoliberalism, in sweeping terms, privatizes the whole of society, including cultural differences, which encourages people to “interpret societal problems as individual psycho-emotional deficiencies” (Brunila & Rossi, 2017, p. 293). Societal problems become understood as individual failures to overcome. In this neoliberal ethos, a xenogender person can interpret their alienation from gender normativity as a product of their neurodivergence disabling their ability to understand and/or fulfill what gender norms entail and require, rather than turning a critical gaze toward gender norms as violent and exclusionary in the first place. Through this frame, the regime of gender normativity is understood not as a governing societal structure but as a matter of individual brain patterns. In this way, what has been described as a vernacular shift away from medico-psychiatric trans discourse is, here, just a reshuffling of the same cards; gender non-normativity as tethered to neurodivergence remains interpreted as individual psycho-pathology, but now with the neoliberal subject’s self-diagnosis.

This understanding of gender non-normativity as neurodivergence bears the telltale signs of neoliberal wounded attachments: investments in one’s own political injury and the righteousness of political victimhood as a means of overcoming the hurt of feeling othered (Brown, 1995). Leaning into the innocence of victimhood when one feels alienated or wronged can be deliciously palliative. Solidifying an object of blame can certainly assuage the hurt, too. That said, such wounded attachments not only tend to produce reductive us vs. them analyses of oppression, but they also generally fail to inspire the solidarities necessary for transformative politics. Xenogender preoccupation with the tethered political injuries of transphobia and ableism seems to generate a rather sheepish, demobilized collective of xenogenders seeking affirmative recognition as the ultimate form of gender justice.

Although xenogender’s wounded attachments may not inspire transformative politics, I wonder still what might be opened up by this gender vernacular proliferation. After all, the infinite malleability of virtual bodies in online spaces apparently inspires new, imaginative modes of being that defy and resist coherent categorization (Morín, 2017). Understanding these imaginative, virtual modes of being as gender suggests an exciting potential to derail the regulatory mechanisms of normative gender categorization.

While I would love to wholesale embrace this potential, a nuanced, critical trans politics must be able to hold both the always-alreadiness of how our physical bodies signify gender, as well as the transformative possibilities for signifying otherwise. Such a politics needs to be able to appreciate how a body’s virtuality or physicality meaningfully informs the mechanisms and stakes of anti-trans violence. Absent the physical body, online transphobia is mostly limited to language-based crimes of mis/non-recognition. As social life is increasingly lived online, this limited understanding of transphobia has come to dominate a certain paradigm of cultural politics, narrowing political horizons such that justice too often gets conflated with “recognition and visibility as the end itself” (Gray, 2013, p. 426).

How can we find and recognize each other without positioning recognition as the ultimate form of justice? How can we transform gendered language to allow for expansive, re-signifiable categories that resist surveillance, regulation, commodification, and containment? How can we leverage our cacophonous multiplicities as a force for dissolving the regulatory power of binary gender norms? The possibilities are, as yet, proliferating.


Works Cited

Brown, W. (1995). States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton University Press.

Brunila, K., & Rossi, L.-M. (2017). Identity Politics: The Ethos of Vulnerability and Education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50(3), 287–298.

Gray, H. (2013). Subject(ed) to Recognition. American Quarterly, 65(4).
Halberstam, J. (2018). Trans*: A quick and quirky account of gender variability. University of California Press.

Morin, F. (2017). Ego Hippo: The Subject as Metaphor. Angelaki, 22(2), 87-96.

Stanley, E. (2021). Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable. Duke University Press.


Koda Sokol is a Sociology PhD Candidate with a Feminist Studies Minor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where they research gender politics through an affective lens. Koda’s dissertation considers the motivations and effects of contemporary attachments to transness in the context of US neoliberalism. Their writing has appeared in smoke and mold journaleggplant tears journal, and the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute. When not writing, Koda enjoys swimming with his dog, dancing the night away, and stretching before bed.

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