Posts Tagged ‘cultural baggage’

My thougts on gender

September 14, 2011 2 comments

The more I operate within the trans/queer/activist/stuff region of the interblags, the less I like the word “gender”. It really seems to mean everything and nothing at the same time. What definition you use is based on your political/theoretical leanings, and not so much on communicating a particular idea. I’ve seen, and participated in, conversations in which everyone had different (and occasionally mutually exclusive) definitions of gender and assuming everyone else was using the same definition as them. This is when yelling begins, generally.

The problem for me is that I have certain experiences that cannot be described unless I identify them as “gendered” experiences. I have a part of my mind, nestled somewhere behind where my identity is kept*, that reacts to certain stimuli, almost like a basic instinct. The stimuli it deals with specifically are things like pronouns, socially gender-specific words, etc. and it really doesn’t seem to have many or any other functions. It is the part that gets happy when someone uses my preferred pronoun and the part that gets angry when someone calls me “he” or “sir”. It’s only job, apparently, is to help me parse these simple and omnipresent social cues, specific to me. I have no name for this impulse, even though it seems pretty important and is difficult to ignore, so I have been calling it my “gender”. This meshes a little with what I’ve heard other people say about their genders, though this is usually vague stuff like “an internal feeling about one’s identity as male or female (or neither/both/kitty)”.

*I’m sorry if my internal mind references get/are confusing, I’m neither a psychologist nor a neurologist so I have no vocabulary for this stuff. It will all be extra subjective and metaphorical.

The main important factor of the “gender” feeling is that things that are socially coded male or female are rejected: male :( >, female :( >, ??? :D > But this doesn’t hold true for all things our society assigns to masculinity and femininity, just the formalized interactions based around that dichotomy. I wonder what this means.

Unfortunately, to make things extra-special complicated, I have another experience that matches up with other people’s definitions of “gender”. I sometimes describe myself as “gender fluid”, but the internal impulse that I described above is most definitely not fluid. What I’m talking about is more a sensation that is halfway between internal identity and external gender expression. It sometimes has the standard binary markers of “male” or “female”, but there are other less obviously “gender” modes such as “punk”, “goth”, and “drag queen” that alternate in this region of my mind-face*. This sensation seems less based on internal sources of identity and more on temporary or situational identification with some external gender exemplar or prototype. Sometimes the source of these prototypes is pretty clear (read: “punk” and “goth”) and others do not seem to align with societal definitions of the terms I feel like using at all (I am at my most “female” when lounging shirtless in torn up jeans). This is less a “parse the world around me” thing and more a “how I want to present myself to the world” thing.

*I’m sorry again. This term totally makes sense in my head but I’m not sure I explain it. It’s like, where the “gender” feeling from up top is, but way forward, in my face.

The fun part? I’m not totally sure these two things are wholly separate, even though they operate completely differently. For example, when I am feeling “female” (the domain of the expressive feeling) I am more open than normal to female-coded social interactions (the domain of the internal impulse), though still not as comfortable as I am with non-gendered codes. Maybe they interact, maybe they’re two sides of one particularly confusing coin, I don’t know. I wonder how much my upbringing and general experiences influences the content/form of these two feelings, and even if it influences their apparent separation.

I feel like these things need different names, other than just “gender”, but there’s not any really satisfying vocabulary out there that I’ve seen. The first impulse might be “brain sex” or something, but that makes a neurological statement that I as a layperson am not comfortable making, and the second might be “gender expression” but that really doesn’t fit particularly well. Either or both could be “gender identity”, but that phrase is so vague and has so many active definitions as to be essentially meaningless. I’m just pretty stuck between two seemingly contradictory sensations of being N-gendered (N standing for some gender that isn’t coded by society, but is coded by my mind for me personally) and of being fluid gendered where I bounce between obvious social constructions.

So, one or both of these definitions/sensations will clash with other definitions of gender out there. I’m honestly OK with that, because I have no evidence whatsoever that my experiences are remotely common, and my “gendered” feelings might just be mine and other people have different processes. Hopefully some of my hypothetical readers understood some of this free-associating stuff. If you did, leave me a comment because I’m totally confused.


The word of the day is sex

September 4, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m fascinated by words. Words are more than just a dictionary definition; they carry minute connections and nuances coded into the lexicon. This is sometimes helpful, carrying complex cultural information, but sometimes it hinders us. Language is influenced by usage, and things we don’t talk about get the shaft lexically.

Which brings me to sex. The word sex is very loaded in our society. It is a very simple word, in many ways, but hugely complex in others. The main interest, for me, is the range of connections this word makes. Just take a look at the varied definitions of “sex”*:

1) One of the two categories male or female (both Wordnik and the OED define it in binary terms almost exclusively in all the variations on this definition, though the OED does admit the usage of the term “third sex” dating back to 1820).

2) The act of sexual intercourse.

3) The genitals.

*Just the noun. There is a verbal form that means “to assign someone to either the male or female category”, that I think sort of folds into definition one.

Does this weird anyone else out, just a little? Not even getting into the fuzzy line between the first definition listed here and the definition of “gender” (which has way too many convolutions for me to address right here), the connections being drawn here are very clear. It should be no surprise that our society links maleness and femaleness with genitals, we deal with that all over the place (even though we don’t actually use genitals to determine what sex/gender we think people around us are [hopefully, otherwise it would be creepy]). The thing that trips me up is the connection with sex as an activity.

This is how our society views the function of our sexed bodies. Men and women equal body parts equal baby making. So we use the same word for both things. But we also build up complex social constructs surrounding masculinity and femininity. What do those gendered stereotypes, often associated with (and occasionally pseudo-scientifically justified by) physical or biological sex, have to do with the act of procreation. Or sex in general, for pleasure or emotional connection or any of the myriad reasons people have sex. Are any of these things connected with sex as an activity?

What about our bodies even? The interaction between sexuality (who one is attracted to and sexual feelings about one’s own body and identity) and sexed bodies is not necessarily straightforward. I’m just free-associating here, and I’ve wandered into strange territory already.

The use of sex to mean male/female predates the intercourse definition by quite a bit of time (OED citations give it ~1400 for the former and ~1900 for the latter). So, are we to assume that the one use developed from the other? We had some other word to describe the sexual act (or maybe we just danced around the subject, talking about “knowing” or something), and then began using a word we otherwise used to describe our bodies (and social constructs created around those bodies).

This is murky to me. Are we automatically sexualizing ourselves just by referring to ourselves as men and women (or male-bodied and female-bodied)? Or are we obfuscating an act by confusing it with the equipment we use (sometimes) to perform it? Both? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with either of these explanations.

And what about the idea of the third sex? This label has been forcibly applied to homosexuals, mainly, back before even the first attestation of “sex” being used to describe the activity. So this linking between our bodies and what we do with them goes back a ways. Different sexual activities necessitates a different designation from male or female (and while “third sex” is not applied to LGB people so much anymore in Western society, there is the common idea that gay people are not “real” men or women or that they are trying to be the “opposite” sex).

Using the same word to describe two (very different) things speaks of a powerful cultural connection between them. Do we really need to link these ideas to each other so strongly? Can we disentangle our descriptions of our bodies from our sexual activities? Does it matter? What happens if we disconnect the two? I don’t feel that my body is inherently sexual, though it can be when I want.

I’m in unfamiliar waters with this post. My experience with my body has mainly been to disconnect it from the societal projections placed on it, so my instinct is to disconnect it from the lexical projections as well. I feel like the many, many ways there are to experience one’s body and one’s sexed and sexual self are stifled by this connection. But maybe the usage of the word, in the activity sense at least, is flexible enough to accommodate all of these experiences. Not the male/female definition, that’s about as rigid as it gets, “third sex” stuff not really helping and mainly being a tool for othering.

I think I tried to take on too much with this. There is so much cultural baggage placed on our bodies and our sexual activities that it’s impossible to parse them all. I think I’ve partially unearthed some of my own baggage just trying to organize this, and not very successfully either, judging from how rambly I’ve been this whole time.

I’d love to hear other people’s take on this; I find stuff like this pretty fascinating (obviously).