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Video Post: Assumptions

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New People and Invisibility

August 13, 2011 3 comments

When was the last time I posted here? Well…I’m back from my unintentional hiatus and I have things to say (hopefully interesting things).

So, I’ve basically been a hermit lately, but the other day I attempted to socialize and had an experience that reminded me why I find meeting new people so uncomfortable. There was this social gathering thing at my mother’s apartment building that I went to (free food was involved) and I got to talking to some of the other tenants. None of these were people I expected to see again frequently or soon, since I’m going back to school in a couple weeks, so the whole thing was pretty low pressure.

The problem event was brief, so much so that by the time I realized I was uncomfortable the speaker was already several sentences ahead and it was too late to say anything. The people in the group I was with were discussing some movie* specifically the actors involved*. Several women in the group mentioned the attractiveness of one of the male characters; then one of them motioned to me and one other member of the group who was apparently male and stated that we might have found the female lead more interesting.

*Cowboys and Aliens, not important which is why I’ve clarified down here. Also, I’m crap with names so I don’t remember who was discussed.

This is a pretty small thing, but it was kind of alienating at the same time. This is the sort of action that is insignificant to most people, but stands out wildly to me. I feel like there’s very little I can do in these sorts of situations. I think I’ve mentioned it before, it’s very hard to correct someone without interrupting or derailing the thread of the conversation (and it never got back around to a subject where I could correct her assumption easily). This is not helped by the fact that I am pretty socially awkward, and that these situations always throw me for a loop even though they’re not really surprising. These were nice, mostly liberally minded people, they were not cracking gay jokes or being homo- or transphobic, but they still managed to make me feel like I was excluded from the conversation, albeit in a small way.

Theoretically I’m “out”, at least about my sexuality. But this really drives home how much of an active process that is. What was a casual conversation suddenly, and for a brief moment, became very high stakes for me. Even if I had been prepared to say something, I had an infinitesimal amount of time to decide how these people, whom I had just met, would react to my being queer and how to present that information. And there’s really no cure for this as far as I can see, all of the steps involved in heterosexual assumption are involuntary and people don’t like to analyze these sorts of processes. I don’t even really feel justified making a big deal about it, all of the arguments people make about assumptions being “normal” start bouncing around my head.

But the truth is it is a big deal, even tiny moments like this one. One instant of assumption moved me from cheerfully (if awkwardly) interacting with a group of people to being uncomfortable with the whole group. Do people get used to this? Because I can’t, it feels too much like being back in the closet.

Webcomickery

June 17, 2011 1 comment

So, in a continuing theme of “it’s summer and I’m still unemployed and have nothing to do”, I’ve been reading a lot of webcomics lately. I’m not enjoying it as much as you’d think.

Trying to find legitimately trans-related comics on the web is a chore. We’re talking about a genre that thinks that the “trans” in transgender stands for “transformation.” Even in print comics it’s all body swapping and “huh I seem to have woken up with tits let me grope myself”. Sludging through all that to get to the ones that actually feature transgendered characters doesn’t produce many gems. This is kind of a personal preference thing, but it really seems to me that every single LGBT related comic follows the same pattern, and it’s not one that’s very good. Slice-of-life genre stuff about queer kids in high school (or more rarely, college/university) who do and talk about queer things all the time. I guess this is OK if you like that genre, and it can be done well, but as far as I can tell it is literally everything. Actually, LGB protagonists are featured in a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror comics where the tropes of those particular genres drive the plot, but inevitably any comic in those genres claiming to be trans-related is just another transformation comic. Usually, and especially with transgendered characters, if a protagonist is queer, queerness eats the plot. What I would really like to see are comics with trans protagonists that are about something other than transition, ones that flesh out the characters and show that trans people care about more than just hormones. I could totally take the utter proliferation of slice-of-life high school transitions if I could actually find something else once in a while.

Speaking of hormones and transitions: pretty much every trans character in any LGBT comic is a transsexual who is transitioning or trying to transition. No non-ops, few post-ops, and few nonbinary identified people. When nonbinaries do show up, they aren’t recurring characters and are there to be mocked (or at the very least this was a poorly thought-out joke). Even comics that acknowledge that nonbinary-identified people exist fail to have anything that remotely resembles my experiences. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the transness of it all didn’t eat the plot of every one of these comics. When you’re only talking about trans people, it helps to develop them as actual people.

I know what the obvious response to this is; I would totally be making my own webcomics if I thought I could draw worth a damn (my writing isn’t much better then mediocre either). Check back in a few years to see if I’ve learned to draw faces, and then we’ll talk.

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.

Pronouns again: Neutral vs. Indefinite

April 23, 2011 3 comments

So, I’m seeing a lot of people around the blagosphere using “ze” as a neutral, indeterminate pronoun for when the gender of some distant or hypothetical person is unknown, unspecified, or unimportant. Can’t say I’m a huge fan. Let me explain what I mean:

“Ze” (declension ze-zem-zeir-zemself) is my preferred pronoun. For those I am actually out to, this is the pronoun I ask them to use with me. This is my “he” or “she” equivalent, one that refers to me as a person. The difference between this and the usage described above is exactly the title of this entry, a difference between gender-neutral and indefinite pronouns.

A gender-neutral pronoun is just what it says, any pronoun that does not specifically refer to the gender of the referent. More specifically, in my case, they can be pronouns that specify that the referent does not identify within the gender identities assumed for “he” and “she”. On the other hand, and indefinite pronoun is one that does not refer to anyone in particular. A good example in English is “one”, when we use “one” as a pronoun we mean anyone, but no one in particular. “You” is used in similar circumstances. Indefinite pronouns are also used when there is a specific person involved (although the person might be hypothetical), but whomever you’re talking to or the situation does not require any specific information about this person; “The doctor called” “what did they say?” In this handy example, the second speaker may not know the doctor in question and there really is no important information to be communicated about this person except that they are a doctor.

But where I see “ze” being used is with hypothetical people. Talking about an unspecified person from a certain group or performing a certain activity, an example from one of the articles I was reading this evening that sparked this post: “…you’ve got someone who won’t safeword when ze probably should.” The author here isn’t referring to a gender-neutral or non-binary identified person engaged in kink activities, this is just some hypothetical, unspecified individual being brought up for illustration purposes. This is where an indefinite pronoun would work great, a nice singular “they” or something, but instead a gender-neutral one is utilized.

I understand where this comes from, people are trying to avoid the generic “he” that assumes that any unspecified person is automatically male. But using “ze” actually produces the opposite effect for me that generic “he” does with men: when I see my preferred pronoun being used in a sense of “hypothetical, unspecified person”, the fact that it is so rare to see this pronoun used produces a sensation that “ze” is a nonperson pronoun like “one” because this is the only place I see it outside my own little self-created world of usage (I honestly only know of a small handful of people who use my pronoun actively, even among the people I informed about it). I view “ze” as being on par with “he” and “she”, and I dislike that it gets used in situations where people are actively avoiding using the gendered terms, I actually see “ze” as being just as gendered as the binary words.

I’ve mentioned singular “they” up above, and I know some people get squicky about using it and prefer to use singular ungendered terms, but singular “they” is an actual indefinite pronoun used for just the purpose that “ze” is being used for. It’s been in use for centuries, and it was made for this purpose, use it. It’s OK, I’m a linguist, I know what I’m doing here. If a grammarian gets on your case about “they” being plural, just tell them a linguist told you it was OK. It really is the proper word to be using here, instead of appropriating my identity into a generic. Please?

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.

Don’t “sir” me.

December 18, 2010 1 comment

I hate it when people are polite. “Here you go sir, thank you sir, excuse me sir”. You’re just handing me the tea I ordered, that doesn’t mean you get to assume stuff about me based on my appearance. But it’s expected. We’re supposed to be polite to strangers, and there’s just no way, apparently, to be polite in a gender-neutral way.

Except that there is. I manage it. Other people’s gender makes little enough sense to me that I just don’t affix “sir” or “ma’am” to the ends of my polite sentences. It’s not that hard.

It bothers me because it reminds me of how much people project onto me that’s not mine. I can’t leave my house without assumptions being made. I am invisible, you can’t see me under all the assumptions you’re making. I’m not saying that every stranger I pass in the hallway and barista who hands me a tea is going to ask me questions about who I am, that would be it’s own kind of hell. But none of these people are in the least bit shy about the answers they think they already have. It’s built into their way of interacting socially. And it’s smothering me.

I want to be incensed over suicide rates, blatant harassment and prejudice, and the apathy of self-proclaimed “allies”. But what really gets me down, what wears at me and slowly makes life unbearable, is the little things. It can’t be stopped. The best I can hope for is generating confusion rather that certainty. I know some people delight in getting opposite responses from people, different individuals making different assumptions based on the same stimuli. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ve done it. But it takes so much work. I shouldn’t have to try so hard. I shouldn’t have to try at all just to feel comfortable walking down the street. And then there’s the worry that if I’m too ambiguous, too confusing, people will react. I’ve attracted stares, those aren’t fun, and I have no wish to endure the intimate questions and harassment from a stranger that others have described and I have thankfully so far avoided. And I shouldn’t have to be afraid of that either. I should be able to just go to the store and not have to think about how the other store patrons might view me, and whether I’m OK to interact with a clerk who may be polite to me and how to handle that.

I’m going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next couple weeks. ‘Tis the season after all. Train stations, airports, strange cities and partially-estranged family. I’m not looking forward to it. Travel can be stressful at the best of times, and it is never the best of times for me when I travel. I fully expect to get “sir”ed by every single ticket agent, ticket taker, TSA agent, flight attended, whatever-you-name-it. And I will not enjoy it. And I will have to take it, because asking every single person I come across in this situation not to do so would be exhausting beyond my ability to take it: people whom I will likely never see again, who’s day and practices will not be affected in the slightest by my passing, and who may challenge my request no matter how polite I am.

I’m not sure how coherent this post is. I’m tired.