Alternatives to ‘AFAB’ and ‘AMAB’

Alternatives to ‘AFAB’ and ‘AMAB’

?Progressive? binaries still fail us. Why? What?s the solution?

Image for postA quickly drawn/designed image by me. An angled tanish rectangle with the words ?Biological Sex? in quotation marks on it and an asymmetrical outline has the start of a blue flame on the top left corner. the outline of a lighter has a reddish-pink flame starting to burn the paper. title of the piece in the upper left corner of the whole image.

[While I encourage you to read the entire essay I understand you may just be looking for my suggested alternative. The sections you?re looking for are the last two, at the end of this piece]

Binarism and Spectrum-Binarism

A lot of people, regardless of who they are, still believe there is an inherent distinction between people?s lives, bodies, and experiences that can be summarized in language with words such as ?male? or ?female?. Even when people denounce or reject the gender they were assigned at birth, they often continue to lean hard into ?binarism? in different forms to replace that dichotomy. Binarism is a mode of thought which approaches structures in an over-simplified world of opposites. Within binarism, the world is whittled down to endless binaries where something is either x or it is y. It may have some purpose in childhood education, to explain the concept of opposites, but it doesn?t really map well to all human experiences. Especially once an individual has matured beyond childhood, and is at a point where they are learning about social experiences, instilling binarism becomes detrimental but is often kept within education to keep citizens unquestioning and compliant. In America, much of the structure of general education was constructed around the time period where a child was expected to go from sixth grade into physical factory labor. Much of that educational system remains today, so of course, it?s designed to make good simple workers with an elementary understanding of the world.

You would think that within trans and non-cis circles, the thought might move beyond binarism once those who firmly believe that the world consists of only women and men are left behind. Unfortunately due to the popularity of liberalism co-opting all exploration of LGBTQ+ experiences, trans-liberalism (as put by Nat Raha) is a dominant force within most mainstream discussions and within most propped up ?communities?. Even in circles and scenes where people are against transmedicalism a new form of binarism has slowly crept in and replaced the previous reliance upon the ?male? and ?female? only system. I call this ?spectrum-binarism?.

?Spectrum-binarism? sounds a little contradictory and I know that. Most people consider a spectrum to be the opposite of a binary (which is amusingly a somewhat binarist thought). What spectrum-binarism means is that a spectrum, even one with more than two points, is built up around a binary, or based on a binary, or aims for a more inclusive binary, trinary, quaternary, etc. When I say I?m nonbinary I mean I am strictly neither male nor female. I am nonbinary AND transsexual in REJECTION of a belief that biological sex exists. People who view gender as a spectrum try to pin me exactly halfway between those two things. Maybe they try to say I am ?purple? instead of pink or blue. I am not half and half of those two things (though a bigender nonbinary person could be those things). I am my own separate thing. I am aware my understanding of nonbinary exists in a present time and place where its definition depends on a clear line between cis and trans/non-cis. It exists in a society of the present day where it depends on the existence of ?male? and ?female? and the current structure of ?gender? to make sense as a term. Gender, as we understand it right now at this moment, is strictly a product of colonialism, imperialism, western ?medicine?, and Christianity. I am not a Native or Indigenous person, but it would be wrong and amiss to not acknowledge the immense task undertaken by trans (or those of non-western genders) people of color to start to undo the damage the systemic genocide against their existence the world has sought for centuries. [Writers such as M. Paramo, Jamie Berrout (Trans Women Writers Collective), and B. Binaohan have been doing this work for some time.] Denying that reality in any discussion would only continue to uphold the present-day structure of ?gender? as the same system and tool transness should oppose. Being anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist is a bare minimum. It?s my intention to do the best I can to try to not continue upholding this structure in my work, and I would encourage the same of anyone ever attempting to speak about transness at all.

?Trans doesn?t exist in a vacuum. Trans exists in patriarchy and in capitalism.? ? Juno Roche, 2019

What are the new spectrum-binaries that have arisen out of non-cis thought influenced by trans-liberalism? The obvious first answer would be those who view a fluid spectrum between ?male? and ?female? to be an adequate spectrum. Spectrum wheels broken into quadrants or proposed to have any number of points that blend all the way around still involve a belief that gender can be charted and is quantifiable in western terms. That?s just the surface of the culture creating an endless stream of gender charts. I?ve said this before, but there is no gender chart that exists which I have ever seen myself on, and I consider myself ?gender-boring?. Juno Roche goes into this a lot in her book ?Trans Power? which I recommend for anyone aching to move beyond gender liberalism. In her book, she expresses frustration with the new dysphoria she developed over trying to force herself to be a trans woman and still feeling like a failure but knowing ?nonbinary? wasn?t right for her either. People continue to try to categorize her as ?transfeminine? and as she said when I saw her live; ?Leave the ?fem? out of it! I?m just trans.?.

Transfeminine and Transmasculine; the New Binary

I am very supportive of umbrella terms and expanding language to understand that the world is not black and white. Anyone can be anything and this includes being strictly a man or strictly a woman. It is a good thing to understand you do not have to be androgynous to be nonbinary. When you understand oppression and marginalization is systemic because we live in a society constructed by capitalism, patriarchy, and misogyny ? you understand that critiquing the system and structure of ?gender? is different from saying ?Having a gender is inherently bad and wrong.?. It?s good that nonbinary is an umbrella term with so much potential and possibility. Once, my dearest friend, Jess, shared a quote from a Jewish text that resonated with me a lot then and still does now. The translation can be read as; ?You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.? (Pirkei Avot 2:21). She was speaking about leftism in this context, but in a certain way, it really comes to mind with gender too. You are not bad or wrong for being trans in whatever way that you are. However, that does not mean you are free to ignore gender as a system and gender as a structure for oppression. It is much harder to live in a world where you admit to yourself we are living in a pretend reality that is unsustainable if we keep insisting centrism and a status quo is a livable ?compromise?. I?m not saying to abandon that lie overnight, because growth takes time and can?t be forced. I just do not want to encourage or enable that lie any longer.

Transfeminine and transmasculine ? often shortened as ?transfem? or ?transmasc? ? are good, important, and useful words. They have become extremely pivotal to many people who are not strictly men or strictly women all the time. They?re useful because they also can apply to people who are those things all the time. Whether the nuance is inclusivity, functional gender, being a nonbinary trans woman or nonbinary trans man, or many other potential reasons what remains is that umbrella terms are successful implementations of evolving language. They?re good terms to organize around as well. Whether the discussion is about transmisogyny, which the writer May Peterson speaks about often, or about the silent epidemic of violence against transmasculine people. The issue only arises when they are held up as the ultimate solution. I am neither transfeminine nor transmasculine. I consider myself strictly transandrogynous, and even then I?m aware that won?t work for everyone because a trinary isn?t the solution. I have been and likely will continue to be a survivor of sexual violence and sexual harassment. When I went to try and report these issues to my workplace I was told that I would not receive help unless I ?admitted? I was ?really a woman? because ?only women face these issues?. If I wanted to seek resources to help me process these situations I then had to go through alone I was not able to access them or a shelter because I have been openly living as not female for over four years. I am denied assistance and resources and services I need because I am openly trans and openly not a woman. Yet, I am also not transmasculine. Setting up alternative services for transmasculine people would still leave me adrift and alone and unsupported. What needs to change is a dismantling of that entire system, not choices of several systems. I tell people ?I am not a woman? and they assume I must be transmasculine. This is the way in which a new and harmful binary has then been implemented.

?People tend to harbor essentialist beliefs about sex ? that is, they presume that each sex category has an underlying ?essence? that makes them what they are. This is what leads people to assume that trans women remain ?biologically male? despite the fact that many of our sex characteristics are now female. However, there is no ?essence? underlying sex; it is simply a collection of sexually dimorphic traits.? ? Julia Serano, ?Transgender People and ?Biological Sex? Myths?

Being autistic, I understand the desire to compartmentalize. It can be frustrating in a way we don?t always have the words for, to be told that the way we attempted to consume very complex issues is inadequate. The point is when you have an expansive understanding that no the world is not just ?male? or ?female?, but that understanding has still resulted in primarily two options and assumptions that you must be one or the other, it is still a new binary. It will still fail many people in ways that can?t just be ignored. Many trans people exclaim their belief that the gender binary should be destroyed while simultaneously continuing to divide the world into two primary experiences. All of this comes down to one major societal belief even many trans/non-cis people refuse to challenge within themselves. The belief that one?s assigned gender results in coherent common experiences. A casual reinforcement of bioessentialism by speaking about oneself in a way that encourages upholding a belief that ?biological sex? is real. Biological sex is not real. It was created during a time in history to medically justify subjugation of others. It was created by taking a societal understanding of men versus women, and applying those genders to the insides of people?s bodies. Those parts and insides exist, but ?female? and ?male? have nothing inherent to do with them.

The Failure Within ?AFAB? and ?AMAB?

We should not be assigning sex or gender at birth. Cis people see these as interchangeable, and trans(gender) people particularly have tried to justify their existence by separating them. This still serves western imperialism. Not even mentioning the horrid systemic violence and mistreatment of intersex individuals within this paradigm. Creating a set of eight or more ?biological sexes? would still not be enough. You can?t divorce the construction of biological sex from what created it. It was created as we understand it today by white straight cis men who were either doctors, theorists, or psychologists for very simple reasons. To justify the inherent supremacy of being a white cis straight man with ?science? in order to keep a powerful grasp on the world and profit off the exploitation of anyone outside those specifications. It has been used to justify misogyny, eugenics, racism, and nearly all subjugation of others. Some people claim that a ?biologically female? experience is inherent and permanent due to a belief that misogyny is persecution of ?biological femaleness?. What this kind of argument misses is that ?biological femaleness? was constructed and created by society to inform and create misogyny and to then justify it with its own creation. There is no way to claim ?afab solidarity? or a ?biologically female experience? even if you?re trans, that does not participate in upholding biological sex and that does not participate in transmisogyny.

?There is no ?male socialization? and no ?female socialization?. We are all just socialized in a culture that devalues and oppresses women.? ? B. Binaohan, ?Decolonizing Trans/Gender 101?

I wasn?t ?socialized female?. I was raised in a misogynistic world. Misogyny is a violence and a hatred for anyone who is not a cis man. It is a system and a structure ? just as gender is ? but my lived experience is enough proof for me that it isn?t something which only happens to women or non-existent ?biological females?. Misogyny does come from a hatred of women and femininity absolutely, but it is not limited to that alone. It hates anything which challenges the supremacy of cis men. Just like patriarchy does, and just like capitalism hates anything which challenges the market of succeeding off of labor exploitation.

I?m a classic trans case of ?Everyone knew before I did.?. I do not think there is a single memory of my life where I was granted access to womanhood, where I was granted access to ?femaleness?. I wasn?t ?socialized female? I was raised to be a good Catholic housewife. When other trans people try to tell me we share a non-existent ?afab experience? it makes me angry. Unless you specifically were raised in the American south, in private Catholic schools, violently pressured and coerced into femininity to a rigid degree, where part of your school curriculum was education about how your role in the world was to exist to serve a Catholic heterosexual marriage our experiences are not the same. If at any point ?female? felt like something you actually were our experiences are not the same. We grew up undervalued, hated, condescended towards sure. That?s misogyny. Trans women growing up at the same were experiencing misogyny too, it just exhibited itself in different ways. They were also mistreated and seen as ?wrong? because they challenge the supremacy of cis men. I can?t stop anyone from talking about their personal experiences the way they are going to. I understand a lot of this is opt-in material and some people will feel differently about their personal experiences and talk about it. But if you truly believe there is inherent solidarity or a biological sex experience that comes with being assigned female at birth I want to be clear that I am begging you to leave me out of it. It wasn?t mine and never will be. I do not see a path forward while we hold up ?afab experiences? and ?amab experiences? as being coherent, inherent, or real. There is no dismantling of bioessentialism and cissexism while we entertain these terms as significant.

Alternatives to ?AFAB? and ?AMAB?

I believe that we should do our best when we criticize or critique something to offer something constructive or an alternative to the subject of our critique. Nothing is more annoying than when someone tells me that when I am discussing something ? for example, my experience as a nonbinary lesbian ? that my use of a phrase like ?non-men? ?sucks? or ?is shitty? and when I ask for an alternative they just won?t give me one. I would be happy to discuss nonbinary lesbianism without the use of a term like ?non-men? if one was provided to me, but everyone?s ?alternatives? in this example have been either bioessentialist, transmisogynistic, or reduced people down to genitalia in ways I find regressive. I?m certain many people would prefer I just made a simple list of alternatives and put this segment at the beginning of this piece. I just know though, that people need you to answer five hundred different questions before the point you?re trying to make, or alternative you?re trying to offer, can begin to sink in. ?But what about-? I?m sure I?ve probably heard it, and I get it, unlearning the only understanding of gender you?ve ever been taught takes time and effort. Being trans and transitioning doesn?t mean you unlearn it overnight.

My alternatives to leaning on language like ?afab? or ?amab? are actually more simple than I expected them to be. I?ve been thinking about this for a long time because even when I began transitioning in 2015 I knew they didn?t sit right with me. It requires believing that transition is not just medical or surgical and that transition includes an infinite amount of possibilities and paths. I intend to put out a simple explanation of the ?Schools of Transition? soon, and when I do I will link it here. It also requires encouraging us to use accurate language and to stop constructing ?diverse binaries? or partaking in ?spectrum-binarism?. Ask yourself when you are speaking ?Is this the most accurate description of the issue??. You?re talking about an experience people have when cis men are condescending to them. Instead of trying to frame that as an ?afab experience? just call it misogyny. When a trans woman, transfem, or trans person is being targeted for being ?biologically male? instead of calling that ?transphobia? just call it transmisogyny. This is not to say that this is always the case every time, and if someone does not feel those terms apply to their experiences, it is always okay to opt out of that. What matters is that many people are trying to remove misogyny and transmisogyny from the conversation, or even pretend they do not exist. Sometimes this is by trying to coin new words because people believe misogyny only affects women or ?feminine people? (it is bigger than that) or because they lack an awareness of when transphobic violence, actions, or statements is stemming from a transmisogynistic origin. This is not so much of a ?always say this and not that? request as it is a ?consider what you are saying before you say it? suggestion. The issue is not solved by discussing it in bioessentialist ways or erasing and degendering ways. The tools are there and we can and should use them.

I have been trying to describe myself in less bioessentialist ways. I think the best solution I have worked out so far is to describe what I have moved away from, what I am moving towards, and how I present. For example, I would say ?I have transitioned away from femininity, I have transitioned towards androgyny, and I present as an androgynous butch.?. Instead of saying ?I?m afab? or ?I guess? I?m transmasculine?? I have expressed what I have moved away from (coerced femininity) and expressed who I am now without at any point reverting back to a belief in ?biologically female?. I would not describe my biology as female either. Not just because I?m on T, but because I reject ?female? as existing. I have hormones, and body parts, and needs absolutely. I?m not saying those don?t exist. What I am saying is that there?s nothing ?female? about them. They exist on their own, and their biology is my biology; that of a nonbinary person.

I know the next questions will be along the line of ?Well this doesn?t work for me because I?m [gender] and I wouldn?t say I?ve transitioned or that I?ve moved away from [descriptor].? and that?s cool, which is why the formula is so interchangeable. If you personally feel you haven?t transitioned for whatever reason you can say ?moved? or ?will move? or ?am moving? away from instead. I consider acknowledging that you are not your assigned gender to qualify as ?moving away from? said assigned gender. Just because you have moved away from that assigned gender doesn?t mean you don?t or can?t still present that way. You can move away from masculinity and still present as masculine and still be whatever gender you are. If you don?t feel like you?ve moved away from anything at all, rather than basic descriptors you can simply express you have moved away from cisness instead. We should try to remove the belief that assigned gender is important or relevant to every discussion but I understand that in this society sometimes it is still important for some people. This formula is an alternative to express that, without upholding a system we should not uphold. You can put anything within these formulas that you want to, after all they?re just suggestions, and I want them to be played with or improved or replaced with whatever is best. The point is to fight and avoid bioessentialism, cissexism, transmedicalism, and upholding biological sex. If you feel framing it even in terms like ?transition? or ?moving away from? doesn?t work for you, even though transition does not equal medical transition, then you can use instead whatever works best. If it still doesn?t work for you? That?s okay. It may not, but I am happy to encourage people to explore, consider, and create alternatives to the new binary of afab vs amab, which do not serve us at all.

The Formula and Examples

?I am [gender]. I [will/am/have] {[transition/transitioning/transitioned] or [move/moving/moved]} away from [femininity/masculinity/androgyny etc]. I present as [a/an] [any descriptors you feel apply to you best].?

Ex. 1 ? ?I am a man. I will transition away from femininity. I present as feminine but would like to present as masculine.?

Ex 2 ? ?I am transfeminine. I am transitioning away from androgyny. I have presented as androgynous for a long time, but I?ve started to present in a more feminine way.?

Ex 3 ? ?I am agender. I have transitioned away from [descriptor] but initially sought a [descriptor] transition. I?ve considered transitioning towards androgyny, but I am genderless, so I?ve transitioned neutrally. My presentation fluctuates.?

See? Endless possibilities. The structure is very basic and customizable and does not rely upon ?afab? or ?amab? at all, nor does it imply universal experiences. I hope of course, that better shorthand than this formula will arise, but really what would be better than anything is a world where we stop insisting that biological sex is real. I wish you the best, and I hope at least something here has offered some kind of solution, and pathway for you to challenge yourself to unlearn the bioessentialism, trans-liberalism, and cissexism we have all been taught.

Vin Tanner is a nonbinary trans person running the TransStyleGuide project solo. They write and tweet about trans issues very regularly, especially about trans language. You can donate money to them here or here if you?re not in the US. Please email them at


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