The Life & Death of Androgyny

M. M. De Voe
5 min readAug 21, 2021

It isn’t a genus of butterfly

don’t try this at home.

The two teenagers had beautiful cheekbones, angular, sharp. Laughing eyes rimmed by black lashes, thick and natural. Short, spiky hair dyed plastic blond with roots that were growing in dark. Full natural lips, a bit pouty, wind-chapped. Matching hipbones that jutted from worn, frayed blue jeans, knees torn. Round fists of bicep muscle, cultivated to pop whenever someone stared too hard. The couple held hands and threw their shoulders back, not caring who saw them together. They were loud. They were brassy. It was the last of the 1980s and the couple was listening to old New Wave Music, electronica that was pretty and shallow even while the lyrics were about screaming in rage and dying young in a lonely room. It was the age of irony, the time of embracing cognitive dissonance and of encompassing S/M and other dark fetishes while wearing Day-Glo lime skinny pants with an equally screaming formless hot pink shirt and a skinny, sparkly purple tie. And probably a hat: a fedora or a bowler.

If this couple was a boy and a girl, they were unusual. The androgynous men of the 80s tended to prefer to date masculine men, while androgynous women usually dated lipstick lesbians, christened so because they were not interested in dropping the trappings of feminism to be feminist, or of burning their very sexy Fredericks of Hollywood bras. Opposites attract, so they say, even in the land where binary options were rejected for a third, more interesting choice — the choice that landed them somewhere in the middle. The beautiful boy and the handsome girl: the genderfluid and yes, androgynous of both sexes.

Now, as a reluctant middle ager(reluctant, because in my own life, I vacillated for thirty years between tomboy and drag queen and ended up somehow being labeled a soccermom?) I miss the term androgynous.

The dictionary of the internet gives this definition: Androgyny is the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics into an ambiguous form.

And there it is, the mystery — that is what I have been missing for the past ten years as nonbinary slowly took the place of androgyny in our cultural vocabulary. Nonbinary is so precise. It is both final and a refusal. It is the person who says “I don’t like the way you phrased this question.”

I refuse to make any choice between the two options presented.

But androgyny: a form open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning. It is so liquid, so impossible to be pinned down. It is not a refusal, it is an elusive alternative. (And yes, gender-fluid is also liquid-sounding term…but TBH, it sounds a little too moist for my ear.)

I recently heard a young nonbinary announce they gave up gender because they wanted to be free to wear dresses and sequins. This saddened me, no one should have to give up their gender to be able to wear whatever they want. In the 80s, seeing a man in sequins was always a thrill — a happy thrill. A woman in a somber pinstriped double breasted business suit with large lapels and a power tie gave the same unexpected thrill: bonus points if she held a cigar. There was a sense of excitement in crossing barriers and blurring lines. A joy that has been largely replaced by literalness and rage.

Whatever fashion we chose to wear, as 80s feminists, we fought hard to be accepted as fierce women (not mannish women) as strong women (not he-males) — we did everything we could to cling to our gender as equally good, despite an establishment that wanted to equate weeping with being female and rage with being male. The golf club contingent were terrified of us — what would happen when wives stood up to them and demanded to be treated equally without declaring they were gay? How could they possibly face this? So they called us gay. (Some of us were, of course.) Gay women, they could dismiss as irrelevant to themselves. Far more terrifying, though, were their own wives who taught their golf club daughters to go ahead and feel that anger and also cry those tears and also scream that ululating sound, only don’t just rage and blame, do something about it: volunteer, march, change the world. Women were everything from skinny dumb blondes named Candi to truck driving dykes named Pat and we were all, every last one of us, as powerful as hell.

When The Crying Game came out in 1992, all the locker room talk was about “what would you do” if you discovered that someone you were attracted to was not the gender you thought they were. The movie caused fear and rage and (like its thematic successor M Butterfly,) probably stoked a lot of latent transphobia with the idea that a person could be “tricked.”

Yet the draw for most of us who were coming of age around then was not the fear of being tricked, but the drawn-out excitement of not quite being sure and then discovering the truth. Uncertainty is a gift, but few people can see it as such. Most people want to be in a place of absolutes. You can love it or hate it, as long as you know for a fact what “it” is. (Horror movies play with this instinctive fear of the unknown by suggesting, but not showing, the monster.)

I am not suggesting that being trans is monstrous, far from it. To me, androgyny is one of the most attractive of all physical attributes (I’d list some others, but then this would be clickbait and porny, ew). I do submit for discussion that instead of it being a sign of rejection of the concepts of male and female, declaring a third-option pronoun up front seems to be attempting to toy with the absolute joy of the delicious unknown. (Whether this is effective or not seems to be somewhat contingent on your generation.)

The danger exists only in taking the unknown or mutability so seriously, that it inadvertently creates a realm where ignorant fear leads to violence. The mischievous joy of intentional androgyny is replaced by yet another column of bureaucratic checkboxes — and have we learned nothing from recent race studies? No matter how many checkboxes you list, there are always more subcategories, more ways to leave people out — because human beings come in a preposterous spectrum of types, and all of us truly want and need to be both seen and accepted for the unique individuals we actually are.

True individuality defies classification. At heart, we do not belong in check boxes at all. Ever.

I agree that identity is not a game, but turning gender into a three-option check-box on a web form renders the whole concept of androgyny less a spectrum that strives to embrace us all, and more a static and immobile third option that either includes or excludes. Instead of the genderfluid being embraced for unique extra qualities, I feel that a lot of spectacular butterflies are being drowned in formaldehyde, pinned to a board, and labeled “other.”

M. M. De Voe

Fictionista, collector of obscure awards, admirer of optimists in the face of dread. Author of 2 books that are polar opposites and yet the same.