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Video Post: Assumptions

None of the Above

November 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been having difficulty with labels recently (well, always but specifically over the past month). I have had a lot of trouble with labels over the years, and thought that I had finally found something that worked for me, but now I am no longer sure…

I’m good with pronouns, I love the pronouns I have chosen for myself and they really work when people bother to actually use them. There is a blip when it comes to the general usage of them, as a generic “any person” pronoun rather than “specific person who is non-binary”, but I’ve written about this before so I’ll let it lie for now.

No, the issue is the overall gender label. There are many ways to announce non-binary-ness: androgyne, neutrois, gender fluid, bigender, and the one I’ve taken to using, genderqueer (among many, many others). It works best for me out of the available vocabulary for a number of reasons, but I don’t think any gender-word neologism will be truly adequate to express my identity.

The whole thing with gendered labels is, I’m not really sure what they’re for. We call someone a man or a woman and that’s supposed to be representative of their identity somehow but I don’t really know what that label is supposed to be actually communicating. But the point is that it is communicating something, people are getting information from this and presumably those who identify as male or female find this communication adequate. I suppose it denotes a general group that an individual feels they belong to, like any label, and defines spaces that they can move through (bathrooms, etc.).

So, with that, what does a word like “genderqueer” communicate? I don’t mean within the trans-whatever community and in lgbTQ spaces, I mean to people that I interact with on a regular basis that might not have encountered the word before. What do I do if I have to define it? I say, “it means I don’t identify as male or female”. Great, that’s accurate, but how useful is it to me or the other person? First of all, if someone is unfamiliar with the concept, this doesn’t mark me as part of any community or define my spaces, it marks me immediately as an outsider with no community or spaces at all. I’ve even encountered extreme absurdities like “well then how do you pee” (because gender = your junk and if you’re not a man or a woman you have nowhere to put your urethra apparently).

What does it say about my ability to operate within society if the only way I can talk about myself is “I’m not that, or the other thing, but something else that I can’t specify”? The answer can’t be “make a social space for people of your gender” because I can’t communicate what my gender IS, I can only say what it is not. And it’s like that for all the non-binary terminology I’ve encountered. I’m very dissatisfied with the whole thing. “Man” and “woman” might be vague approximations but at least they’re accurate, the terms I use don’t even point people in the right direction. I’m not even sure where the right direction is, because I can’t talk about this with MYSELF, I only have vague pre-verbal sensations that I can’t articulate.

What I’m saying is I need a new word, something that joins me to a community but doesn’t just mean “that grab-bag of other things”. I don’t think one exists yet.

This confusing mish-mash brought to you by the confusion pudding in my brainpan.

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).

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.

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?

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