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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.

Stop being so offended

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

So, normally I don’t pay bathroom graffiti much mind. There’s a lot of weird graffiti in bathrooms, heck, I’ve written some weird graffiti in bathrooms. But I saw something today that I think is worth commenting on, because it reflects an idea I’ve seen around a lot. Here’s how it went:

Someone wrote “faggot” on the stall door. Given the amount of failed washing and general fading that occurs in conjunction with bathroom graffiti, I’m not sure if the individual was directing this at another graffiti author or just writing it in general. It spawned a minor graffiti conversation; someone else wrote next to it “stop being so ignorant”, to which someone else responded “stop being so offended” (the actual end of the conversation was “GAY!”, but I don’t think that deserves much comment). The issue here is of course with the third piece of graffiti, much more so than with the original bit of writing that eventually led to it. This is a message sent out to many who take offense at, well, anything.

What’s going on here is this: The third person here is under the assumption that if you’re offended by something, it’s your fault. You are too uptight/”PC”/whiny/whatever. The thought process is that their right to free speech trumps everything, including your right to be treated with respect as a human being. Of course, the flip side of this is not permissible, you can’t exercise your right of free speech to ask someone to be nicer, or call them an asshole. You are required to just shut up and take it. Now, I’m all for free speech, I love it. It’s what allows us to criticize our leaders and society in general, allows us to have conversations that might be controversial or go against standard ideas/doctrine/tropes. Free speech allows places like this to exist. But I am of the opinion that free speech is not absolute. There’s a very good reason you’re not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded mall. Safety is a very good reason to curb free speech (and, let’s face it, not being an asshole is a very good reason to self-censor as well).

Because slurs of every sort, when publicly displayed and unchallenged, are very dangerous. You may have heard of the recent rash of suicides by gay men that have been heavily publicized. You also may (or may not) have heard about the appalling statistics for trans suicides. And while seeing a single slur in a bathroom won’t do much damage, the fact is that they’re everywhere, and they exist as part of and overarching theme of dehumanization and oppression that expresses itself in ways large (harassment-induced suicide) and small (twits writing graffiti in mens rooms). The fact of the matter is that having a word that describes a group you are part of that also functions as a catch-all insult sucks. Being treated as a lesser human being, something that needs fixing or a good clock-cleaning*.

I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but my point is this: If you’ve said something that offends somebody, chances are that it was offensive. Someone offended by something you say is not being “whiny” or “oversensitive”, and downplaying their reaction is actually making you more of an asshole. Neither are they being “the PC police” (guess what, playing the victim when you’ve hurt someone also makes you more of an asshole). What’s actually happening here is someone is trying to take advantage of their privilege to silence someone without that privilege. What’s happening is also victim-blaming, in it’s most obtuse form: you wouldn’t be offended by things if you weren’t so easily offended. This particular instance may seem pretty minor, but when it crops up elsewhere it becomes clear that it’s not: encouraging queer people not to talk about our lives (“stop shoving it in my face”) or even keeping us from situations where they could discuss their experiences (“think of the children”) and actively blaming us for our own harassment (“if you didn’t insist on being different….”). That’s the mindset behind this graffiti. This is the mindset every time someone says “you’re just oversensitive” to someone who was just offended by something. “We don’t want to hear it, you don’t deserve a voice, the problem is with you not us.”

I don’t advocate legal restriction of using certain words. But I do advocate having serious conversations about them and their meanings and impacts. I advocate not being an asshole.

The unknown writer of this graffiti may not appreciate being called an asshole. My response would be that they should stop being so offended.

*for those who may not have encountered this term: it is slang for getting beaten up. I believe the “clock” is one’s face, and “cleaning” for some reason involves getting covered in mud, bruises and blood.