Portraits of Genderqueer Nation

May 20, 2014 at 1:22 PM ET

Sasha Fleischman fell asleep on a school bus this November and woke up in flames. The 18-year-old San Francisco native, who identifies as agender, meaning neither male nor female, was wearing a man’s shirt and a skirt when another high school student took a lighter to the highly flammable fabric. The cruel prank left Fleischman with third-degree burns, which required multiple surgeries, and catapulted agenders to the center of a national civil rights debate.

Chloe Aftel shot Fleischman for San Francisco Magazine just weeks after the high school senior was released from the hospital, an experience the photographer found so gratifying that she began an entire series on agenders.

“I found it fascinating that there is this whole group of people galvanizing the debate about what gender is, and to a certain extent, what love is and what self-expression is,” she tells Vocativ. “It’s about what works for you.”

The series, called Agender, is a collection of intimate portraits of so-called genderqueer youth and adults. The aim, Aftel explains, is a visual attempt to answer questions like, “What does it mean to have a body that is in between?” and “What does that look like and feel like day-to-day?”

What she found is a diverse, fearless community of people who exist on the frontier of social norms. “They have a real strength of character and complete clarity about who they are,” Aftel says, dismissing the oft-used term “gender confusion,” which is the prevailing characterization of genderqueers.

Fleischman was still nursing wounds when Aftel arrived for the shoot. Despite the bandages and gauze on Fleischman’s shins, they (the preferred pronoun for agenders) were also wearing a skirt, as they had been every day since the incident happened. “There was no chip on their shoulder,” Aftel remembers. “They were like, ‘This happened, and now I’m going to do my college applications and move on.'”

Both Fleischman and Aftel remain hopeful that agenders will eventually find acceptance. As we spoke, Aftel grew excited as a man with blue hair and a beard wearing a dress passed by, something that was highly unusual just a few decades ago. “The idea of fluidity with regards to gender just seems so exciting to me,” she says, “and honestly, much more based in reality.”