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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).

I am not diseased

There are many comparisons that get made in explaining trans people and transition to the questioning masses. The concept of having it be a disorder almost makes sense, if one is going for the “not under our control” thing, and with the justification for medical intervention. That particular one gets a lot more use by people who hate trans people, but hey. Either way, I’m not to pleased with it.

The use of trans as mental disorder is one that gets used as anti-trans rhetoric all the time, probably due to both the listing of transsexualism in the DSM and the lovely ableism that allows us to dismiss anything we don’t like as “crazy”. I’ve seen transgendered identities compared to everything from body dysmorphia to schizophrenia to anorexia (no, seriously).

When trans people (and pro-trans arguments) make the “disorder” argument it’s usually physical, because that’s what people are trying to change about themselves. There’s a movement for reclassifying transsexualism as, essentially, a birth defect, where the outward sex and brain sex are mismatched. There’s some science behind this, I’d like a nice longitudinal study myself but this direction of inquiry is relatively new. A lot of it also looks at explaining transgenderism itself, rather than looking at the development of gender identity in humans in general, which reeks of pathologization. But you can’t just straight up compare it to diseases like cancer and heart disease. Whatever the cause, transgenderism and transsexualism are usually if not always self-diagnosed conditions. We have to convince other people that our self-conceptions are legitimate, even the doctors, it’s not a diagnosis where some medical professional doles it out and you get recommended or assigned treatment. (The article I link even suggests that trans people aren’t in control of their own transition, that it’s all the doctors, and it’s written by a trans woman. I have no idea.)

As I see it, etiology is a question for the scientists, for activism and social interaction it does not matter. My body is healthy, my gender is not disordered. There’s a mismatch to be sure, but how I manage that mismatch is entirely in my control. I am not diseased, and I don’t need ham-handed justifications for my existence.

Women and Men

May 15, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been on the road a lot recently (moving, I fucking hate moving), and the car is pretty much the only place I listen to the radio. Advertisements are the bane of my existence right now. I think I’ve heard every variant of “men and women” over the past week or so. Every time I hear it I just think “Oh, well I’ll stay home then.” There’s a particular add for Planned Parenthood that runs pretty often on some of the channels over here that really makes me want to poke my eyes out, because that’s supposed to be a safe space, and I just get that twinge of “well, that’s not me”. Fuck, I was in a therapy group not too long ago where they did that, even after I had talked to the counselors in charge about my identity.

The problem is that they think they’re being inclusive. They’re trying, but missing the mark for a tiny percentage of us. They don’t want to specifically exclude me (often, they don’t even know that people like me exist, which is its own problem), but that’s what they end up doing. It’s always the little things. I think I could handle someone coming up and screaming in my face, just so I could have something that’s obvious to other people to deal with, but that’s not what oppression looks like most of the time anyway. People treating me like an alien is one thing, but treating me normal and still making me feel like an alien is depressing as hell. This stuff is so ingrained in our society, sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever be able to escape it.

There’s no such thing as Gender Utopia

April 3, 2011 3 comments

So, I’d like to address this whole “transcending gender” thing that crops up from time to time in discussions on gender and transgendered people. It’s very weird to me and I need to puzzle it out a bit. I’ve heard two roughly similar versions of this idea, one from feminists and queer theorists and one from within the trans community.

The first is based on the idea that gender is socially constructed (well, both of them are, but this one stresses the construction vs. being a “performance” or whatever else characterization), specifically a construction that serves to oppress women and/or queer people. Gender is equated with the trappings of social roles, and the recognition that the social roles favor heterosexual men. So in this view the only way to throw of the shackles is to remove gender (i.e. the social roles). This one is a bit tricky to parse because, on the one hand, eradication of prescriptive social roles based on sex/gender/genitals/whatever IS at least part of what will remove oppression of women and sexual minorities, but on the other hand it completely ignores people’s self perception. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that getting rid of social roles will get rid of gender. Look at groups of people who obviously don’t give a shit about socially acceptable gender roles–cross dressers, drag performers, genderfucks, anyone with a gender expression drastically different from the standard social stereotype–how many of them identify as men and women? More specifically, how many of them identify identically with how they are identified at birth (i.e. are cisgendered)? Most. Why should that be? If they’ve cast off the societal roles, why should they still have genders? Probably because there is more to gender than just the way one behaves. That’s not to say that gender=biology, that would be an oversimplification in and of itself, but it is my personal experience that gender has some intrinsic properties that cannot be escaped and I would assume that at least some other people have similar experiences. Plus, why should getting rid of something be the only way to fix problems? It is, in my mind, entirely possible to end gender/sex-based discrimination without getting rid of gender. The argument here seems to be that the only way to liberate women is to abolish them (and men as well, but still). It seems counter-intuitive to me. It really makes me wonder if the people espousing this idea have taken a close look at their own genders (maybe they have, but I honestly doubt they’d be so cavalier about getting rid of other people’s gender if they felt particularly invested in their own self-conception).

The second version, which is more insidious in my mind, is the one tossed around the genderqueer branch of the trans community. This again states that gender is oppressive, and that removing it will end all gender oppression. But more than that, it specifically declares that non-binary genders are the way of the future, that they are evolving out or that eventually everyone will have a non-binary gender and because of that we’ll live in a genderless genderfucking society. This is the idea that gave this post its name, because more extreme versions of it paint a picture of a magical world where every other person is a drag performer and everyone else is too busy being androgynous to bother with gender-specific clothing. It specifically states (as does the one above to a lesser extent) that non-binary genders are more radical and progressive, and thus better, than non-binary genders. This is one of the sources behind the ridiculous “transgender vs. transsexual” infighting that occurs in the community (the other source being “binary-only” ideas amongst some trans people, they kind of feed off each other). It bothers me immensely that a community that ostensibly takes “be yourself” as a primary maxim privileges certain self-expressions in this way: do whatever you want so long as it serves to “tear down the binary”, if who you are doesn’t look like it’s meeting that goal that you are at best trapped in the system and at worst actively keeping everyone else down. But what really frustrates me about this is that I don’t feel particularly like transcending anything, I like having a gender. Maybe this one doesn’t seek to eradicate my gender, given that I am non-binary identified, but I feel very strongly about my gender identity so even if it isn’t I shudder at asking anyone else to give up theirs either.

I think that instead of abolishing gender we should be working towards removing the value judgments placed on people’s genders, sexes, and gendered behavior*. Instead of trying to impose a gender-neutral androgynous society or “smash the binary” we should be seeking to expand the conceptions people have about gender.

And honestly, we will never have true gender liberation. With women perhaps, because there are roughly the same number of them as men we could get to a point where they are socially equal, but unless we give everyone born without a uterus a transplant then we still will have a source of extra burden placed on some people** (not that I think childbearing automatically disprivleges women, but pregnancy is something half the population will never have to think about and that isn’t insignificant). But with transgendered people and those with non-binary gender identities? Tiny minority, and all the baggage that comes with that. Even a population that is entirely accepting of non-binary genders and makes no assumption about other peoples’ identity will have issues when there is a strong majority (personally knowing people who are similar to you is one thing that I consider to be part of cis-privilege and isn’t something that’s going away unless we magically make there be more of us, for example).

I don’t believe that people espousing a “transcend gender” philosophy will meet their goals, and I don’t think that’s altogether a bad thing.

*I define this term to mean activities traditionally associated with gender, for example traits categorized as “masculine” or “feminine”, though not exclusive to those categories.
**I originally wrote women and then remembered that they aren’t the only ones who can be born with uteri, just that they make up the bulk of those people

Invisibility

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about invisibility lately, working through exactly what it is, what it means to me, and how it affects me. This post will be a bit of a consolidation of my thoughts on the matter.

Basically, something that is invisible is anything about you that can’t be known just from looking at you. Such things include sexual orientation or preference, gender identity, ethnicity (as opposed to race), and pretty much anything that doesn’t have to do entirely with physical characteristics. Sometimes these things are more or less invisible, for example, if you’re on a date some information about your preference for romantic partners is visible (though not all). But invisibility is a whole other beast. When you are invisible, not only is some major part of your identity is unknowable from just looking at you, but people specifically assume that your identity runs contrary to the way that you actually identify. For example, in every day life I appear male, so people assume that I identify as a man and am attracted to women. They take the simple not-knowing of this information and assume the most common versions.

This can be very awkward, even in casual conversations. For example, I recently had a conversation with a classmate of mine before class: she explained that she was doing so well in our Hindi class because her boyfriend was Indian and she got a lot of opportunity to practice, and then jokingly commented that I should get an Indian girlfriend. I got as far as “um, actually…” before class started, so presumably this person still doesn’t know that I generally am not attracted to women or that I currently have a boyfriend. Stuff like this comes up often, where people casually assume something that is dead wrong and yet very important to the way I live my life. It is irritating, because my choices in this situation are either stop the flow of conversation to correct someone or lose my ability to participate equally in the conversation. And if I do correct someone? Then it’s topic change time! In a similar situation, where the flow of conversation moved in the direction of dating and I came out, and we were talking about gay rights all of a sudden. (Apparently being in the presence of a queer motivates everyone to gush about how much they support that person, though that’s perhaps a topic for another time.) I really have no options, or rather my options are continued invisibility or derailment of the conversation, neither of which are particularly fun.

The source of this whole problem is assumption. Faced with something that cannot be known, people assume that they know the answer anyway. That assumption will fall in line with whatever is considered the “norm”: in most places we assume people’s gender identity runs along the lines of our determination of their sex via secondary sex characteristics, that their preferred romantic or sexual partner is whichever of the two choices they happen to not be, etc, and in queer spaces I’ve seen the opposite occur, where allies are assumed to be non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered. Assumptions are also what power “passing”, passing and invisibility are really two sides of the same coin. With passing other people’s assumptions run in the direction you want them to, whether you’re hiding or trying to be recognized as your true identity (depending on which community’s definition of the word “passing” you’re using), and with invisibility they run counter to what you want them to.

Invisibility is what fuels erasure. Any given person interacts with any number of gay, trans, or otherwise queer people very day and may not even know it. The assumptions people make naturally hide these qualities, keeping people who are ambivalent or hostile towards queer issues from knowing how those issues actually affect them or the people they know. Invisibility allows those who do not share our experiences to claim to speak for us or spread falsehoods, because few know that they have actually heard the voice of someone who does have real experiences.

I’m not sure how to solve the issue of assumption. I can’t control people’s minds, and the anti-stereotype “don’t assume I’m gay” mantra coming from the LG community seems to have increased the assumption that a given person is straight until they say otherwise, so asking people not to make assumptions may actually work against me. Recently, I’ve been trying to elicit some level of visibility through the use of stereotypes, trying to make people’s assumptions run in the direction of who I actually am. Nothing drastic, I haven’t made myself over into a sitcom stereotypical queer, but little adjustments in my appearance and mannerisms, things that I like for more than the little glimmers of visibility they give me. But these are not enough, it seems that in order to make myself completely visible I would have to become a caricature. And as for having people assume naturally that I do not identify as male or female, I don’t see that happening any time soon given that most people don’t even acknowledge the possibility. My only chance for visibility is to actually say something out loud.

Having people know something about who you are and how to react to you just by looking is a privilege.

Of course, invisibility runs the other way. Unlike racial minorities who usually are forced wear their unprivileged status openly, I gain a measure of protection from those who might wish to do me harm. I have some control over who has this sensitive knowledge of me. This, too, is a privilege, one that I shouldn’t take for granted. My invisibility is simultaneously a shield (though a weak one that can be shattered by my own actions or the actions of others should they wish to out me) and a confinement.