Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gender - Why Only 2?

First off, I wanted to mention that DuWayne over at Traumatized By Truth is asking for your own personal definitions of addiction - so head on over there and help him out. 

A little earlier tonight I received an email from an individual who wrote the following:
"I'd love to discuss gender theory with you more in depth. Do you focus at all on queer culture or more on the binary?"
I spent a large chunk of time responding to this message, and in doing so two things happened. First, I got really, really into the subject matter (as I often do) which made me want to blog some more about it. And second, I depleted all of my cognitive resources in responding to this message, and so I had nothing left with which to sit down and write a whole new blog post. 

So what follows is the response I sent. 

As far as the issues I have gotten into with gender studies, I look at the similarities and differences between men and women, especially how children are raised and communication styles both verbal and non-verbal. Of interest to me is finding ways to raise boys and girls so that they can just be who they are, regardless of biological sex or sexual orientation. So for example, finding ways to create a culture where a little boy can play with dolls and assumptions about his sexual orientation are not made, where a teenage girl or young woman can be androgynous without being labeled. But it goes much further than that.

This is where transgender issues come in. If a man grows up feeling like he has always been in the wrong body - that his parts don't match his brain, so to speak - is it to some degree due to the fact that society subscribes to this binary gender where biological sex MUST match personality and outward appearance? I don't know how clearly I'm going to be able to express myself here with this because it's difficult to describe what I mean. I guess what I wonder is why some trans individuals feel so strongly that their biological sex must match their inner selves. And I don't say that in the "I just don't get it" kind of way, but in the "is there something about our society that makes it necessary" kind of way. Because the basic issue in societal acceptance is that people have a problem with other people dressing and acting as a different sex from what they were born as, even though it has no affect on them whatsoever. But when the parts match the appearance, it becomes acceptable. Why, in our society, does masculine have to mean male and feminine mean female? There is so much in between. I really hope this is making sense.

As far as gay and lesbian culture is concerned, I haven't really looked at it in terms of gender because I consider sex, gender, and sexual orientation to be 3 separate and distinct things. Homophobia, however, has everything to do with gender and socialization. It is much more common in men, but it tends to be selective homophobia - many of these guys are just fine with girl-on-girl porn and the like, but the idea of two men together is a real problem for them, because it challenges their masculinity. Women are much less likely to be homophobic (religion and upbringing aside). In my ideal world, if you change the gender rules, you eliminate homophobia. 

Sexual orientation and gender are probably related to some degree, but to what extent we probably will never know. There are hypermasculine gay men and feminine gay men. There are "femme" lesbians and "butch" lesbians. But the same spectrum exists among hetero and bisexuals. It's an amazingly complicated puzzle that I'm not sure my brain could even handle trying to put together. So I try to focus on just one set of pieces.

A whole new set of issues arise when you consider intersex individuals, especially those who were "corrected" as infants by doctors and parents who, quite frankly, have no fucking clue what they're doing or about the huge implications of a choice they're making for a child who cannot yet speak for him or herself.

It's dangerous stuff that people out there are fucking with. I've heard of doctors that try to force patients who are struggling with their gender identity to just get the surgery. "Gender Identity Disorder" is listed in the DSM-IV as a mental disorder, possibly in the same spot on the page where PMS used to be. It's fucked up that we try to shove people into one mold or the other, without questioning whether there might be something wrong with the molds and not the people who don't fit them.

That's where I hope my research will come in - examining these molds and determining if maybe we need more than just 2.


DuWayne Brayton said...

I really don't think that gender and sexual orientation are any more related than sex and sexual orientation. At least none that I've really seen before. Although I do note that a few of my transgendered friends have a large degree of uncertainty - but I think that is more due to a certain confusion about their gender identity, than a solid connection between their gender and sexuality.

I definitely relate to complexity of femme-butch spectrum. I highly doubt that it's possible to put it all together, because it's further complicated by people who move around on the spectrum, depending on the context.

I tend to do that a lot myself, going from pretty solidly masculine on the job, or when certain types of conflict arise, to being fairly queer-femme when I'm around certain of my gay friends, to being nurturing momma with my kids in some situations, while being moderately masculine with them in others. Depending on the context I manage rather distinct expressions of who I am. The thing is, I'm all of what I express.

Ultimately, this is why I am a very strong advocate for moving away from using gender based identifiers to describe this spectrum. I just don't think it's that simple. And I strongly suspect that using gender identifiers in this context is the root cause of a lot of repression in both men and women, but mostly men. I mean there are a lot of men who will absolutely suppress anything that could be described as femme.

And ultimately, I think it's a lot easier to change language, than it is to change the core personality and conditioning.

JLK said...

DuWayne, you absolutely got to the heart of my point with your comment about changing the language. That definitely has to change first. But we also have to make it socially acceptable for people to just be who they are, and I think that's going to be a little trickier and take a lot longer.

Samia said...

This post caught my eye because my sister is a current psychology undergrad and we're both very much into gender/queer studies. I have extremely sweet and patient transgender friends and am doing my very best not to expose too much of my cis ignorance by expecting them to answer all of my questions, but there are still some things that disturb me. From some cis female feminists' points of view, transgender individuals who choose to undergo surgery are practicing the ultimate confirmation of gender role stereotypes by changing their bodies to "fit" a perceived "feminine" or "masculine" personality type. The clash between some cisgender feminist women and transgender individuals has been nasty in the past for this reason.

My question is, what makes a transgender person decide their mind is not compatible with the body they've been born into? What does it mean to say "I feel like a man" or "I want to be treated like a woman?" It's certainly not as simple as preferring a chiffon scarf to a tie. To what degree is the problem social? A male-to-female individual desires the simple freedom to dress as a conventional female or take on conventionally "female" interests. A female-to-male individual desires to be treated and heard as a man-- for me it's impossible to ignore that our society recognizes and appreciates the average male's point of view in a different way than it acknowledges the female perspective. So is this a matter of being born in the wrong body, or into the wrong society? I'm not so sure anymore. I wonder why so few people notice how fervently gender roles are constantly defended and entrenched. "Women are like this. Men are like that." It's an extremely confining dichotomy.

One of the issues I'm trying to tackle at school is the way we talk about intersex in our biochemistry classes. I really dislike the "intersex-as-disorder" dogma, and the flippant manner in which instructors will discuss medical "correction" of ambiguous or chromosomally incongruous infant genitalia. For that matter, I think we need to change the language we use to discuss the reproductive system...really, everything needs an overhaul.

Thanks for the post.

JLK said...

@Samia - that's exactly what I'm hoping to get at in my eventual research: to what extent are social issues at play in the decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery. Unlike the feminists that have an issue with female-to-male transitions, I don't think that male privilege and power has anything to do with it. If that were the case, what would the argument be for male-to-female transitions? What exactly is it about the physical change that validates the person who makes that choice? It's not that I think there's anything wrong with it, but that I wonder if people are putting themselves through unnecessary treatments and surgeries in order to fulfill a societal expectation that the parts match the persona.

The intersex as disorder issue is trickier to deal with, because the dominant evolution-based mindset of science dictates that it MUST be a disorder because most often intersex individuals are unable to reproduce. Evolution of course has great value to life and science, but allowing it to color the lens of humanity brings us dangerously close to social darwinism, which is never a good thing.

Thanks for stopping by!

Gina said...

Intersex people reject the notion that they are disordered . The ability does not determin sex nor do any of the other markers that most assume do.

Intersex are a way of being on a continuium of features that are assumed to indicate maleness and femaleness.

Because Intersex existance physicaly disputes the notion of a sex Binary we are pathologised by those that seek to reinforce it.

Intersex is not a gender issue though some Intersex take issue with gender.

Intersex is about sex.

The sex that is Performed on us
and the sex we are expected to perform.

It is rarely about the sex we are.

Organisation Intersex International

Gina said...

For some reason part of my post did not appear.

Line two should read.

The ability to reproduce does not determin sex....

DuWayne Brayton said...

Sima -

Ok, so I've been spending way too much of the time I don't fucking have, trying to figure out what the hell cis feminist means. I think I've got some idea, but now I'm fucking pissed. I've just subjected myself to some of the most misogynistic fucking bullshit I've ever come across and it came from persons claiming to be fucking feminists. Never. Never ever again will I do that fucking google search.

(I fucking love Pandora - it played "My Skin" by Natalie Merchant, just when I needed it)

My question is, what makes a transgender person decide their mind is not compatible with the body they've been born into?

Honestly, I don't believe there exists a singular answer to that. If you meander over to my blog, I describe why I'm a man (male born) somewhere down the line of posts. Ultimately, I just am. I know that I am. Most of the transgendered people I know say exactly the same thing. They just know.

How they came to the realization almost always differs though. There is no singular answer. Nor does there really need to be - it really doesn't matter. What matters is who and what they know themselves to be, or are trying to figure out.

I have a very dear friend who has been exploring his gender identity as long as I've been alive. Over the years he became solidly convinced he was a women, so much so that he had the surgery, now has a vagina. It wasn't until then that he discovered his true gender. The truly remarkable thing about it - for years he's been pretty depressed. Always assumed it was because he was a she in a he body. Then, after the post-op clinical depression eased, he figured it out - it all came together, he found his manhood, embraced it. And now, now he's actually happy. I mean really and truly happy, not just pretending.

Now me, like I said I'm a man. And though I absolutely abhor the label of "straight," I have a definite and pronounced preference for sex with women. Yet I wore a skirt to school again today. And last week a male friend of mine helped me with the problem of a girl who's attracted to me, by giving me a big old kiss where she was sure to notice. And I am perfectly capable of being the nurturing momma figure for my young boys.

The following is said with the utmost respect intended. I am not attempting to be patronizing or snide. I really think you want to understand this and I think what I am going to ask you to consider is a very good exercise for that purpose.

I think the best way for you to understand what makes your transgendered friends decide their trans, is to really and truly consider your own gender.

Why are you a women? What makes you a women? How do you know you're a women?

Write about the answers to these questions. I don't know about you, but I tend to put shit together more coherently when I write. I'm not suggesting that you write it to post (though I would love to read what you come up with), I realize that most people aren't the narcissistic exhibitionists that I am. Write it for you, because I suspect that with your depth, at the least you'll come a little closer to understanding the gender of your friends.

JLK said...

@Gina - thanks for stopping by. I understand that intersex is about sex. But where I consider it to intersect with gender is when parents decide to impose a gender on an intersex child, without yet knowing the inner gender of that child.

@DuWayne - your statement about your friend "over the years he became solidly convinced that he was a woman" - is the part I am interested in. There is definitely a disconnect between my keyboard and the computer screens of my readers, because I'm not asking the question with the expectation of answers. I'm asking it in the more abstract, let's discuss some thoughts here kinda way.

Have you ever heard Stephen Colbert's bit about "I don't see race. I know I'm white because people tell me I'm white"? I mean, it's obviously a joke, but I know I'm a woman for two reasons - #1: the parts, and #2: society tells me that I'm a woman. There is nothing about my interests, personality, or anything else that determines (for me) that I am a woman, nor should there be.

DuWayne Brayton said...


I was actually responding to Samia, though I misspelled her name (sorry).

...because I'm not asking the question with the expectation of answers.

I'll try to be a little more abstract with my responses:)

over the years he became solidly convinced that he was a woman

Back in 1976, when he was twenty-four and I was just being born, he really started to question. As time went by, he became she, more and more often. He had a wife, a child and a life until she freaked and went to Minnesota. He became she for days and days at a time - thought she was comfortable.

(Bad Pandora, no more alanis morissete)

I met her in 1997, drunken poet, singing - high - fucking - homeless but free. She saw me sing and I made her cry, I loved getting that reaction - making people feel what I was trying desperately not to. She took me in, part of her collection of artists, vagabonds, rogues and very dear friends.

She loved my insatiable curiosity - my words - my drunken stupors, no matter how drunk, how high - I would always sing - always make people feel. In and out, I was around here and there and never once ever fucking cared that he was a women - it was all the same to me. I didn't judge my friends and they rarely judged me for which I was constantly thanking my god.

Fast forward to 2000, I was twenty four when she had her sexual reassignment surgery. We both laughed at the synchronicity. She soaked a few of my shirts in her post operative frenzy of emotions and pain. She wasn't the first, nor the last - she was one of three who've shared that precious pain with me.

When she went away, I came to her home to stay and make sure her home was there when she came back again - safe and warm and waiting. She took her time in the hospital and then took some time in a monastery and when she came back she was a he again. He came home the laughing eunuch.

He laughed and smiled and said, "I've gotten used to having the wrong sex for my gender identity, but it's ok though, because I'm finally me."

He was my mother goddess, gently caring, giving respite from the road. I was warm, surrounded by art, artists and the smell of oil paints. He loved me because I drew the sadness out, made the sadness safe, the tears free - he never wept alone when I sang.

But I was drunk and high, all I did was sing and fuck. Sensory overload every moment every day. I loved my friends and listened and turned them into songs, but ultimately I didn't give a fuck why they were who they were, I just loved them for being and protecting me.

When she became he again, it never seemed to me there was a need to ask. I was just happy he was happy and glowed with joy when he held my son - a mother goddess which he will always be to me.

JLK said...

What a beautiful story, DuWayne. In your previous comment I got so into what you were saying that I completely forgot that you addressed it to Samia....lol. So I got a little defensive. Sorry!

Samia said...

Hi DuWayne:

Thanks so much for your comment! Actually, that's exactly what I've been wrestling with for the past few months-- what makes me a woman? Why do I feel like a woman? I have to say I do perceive a lot of it to be socialization, which is why I can understand why some cisgendered feminists perceive a male privilege aspect to FTM trans folks' decision.

Incidentally, JLK, this particular "feminist theory" only seeks to explain FTM trans individuals and doesn't have anything to do with MTF people.

Anyway, I think because my perception of my own gender identity is largely based in how I've been socialized, I've been considering trans issues in the same light. I know too many trans folks to think this is a simple matter of choice, but when I hear friends say "I want to be treated like a man," my experience as a female gently reminds me that men and their opinions are treated with more respect, and that this might be part of what causes a female-bodied person to "feel" male or desire such treatment. I hope that makes some sense.

What a great idea for a blog post...whee! Thanks again for the suggestion!

JLK said...

It absolutely makes sense, Samia. You and I are asking the exact same questions using different words.

I'll look forward to your post on the subject!

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