Knowing what you are and knowing what you are not

  • Posted on May 9, 2012 at 2:28 pm

There is no straight test that determines where a person lies on the gender spectrum. The only person who might give you a genuine idea of their gender position is they themselves. You really cannot examine anyone and make that conclusion without asking them. And they may not tell you the truth, they may be afraid of the truth, they may not even know what gender truth means. Or they may tell you their truth and you don’t believe them.

Despite what we were all taught in school, gender is not a simple binary thing, and that has been said so many times, and is known by clinical gender specialists and psychologists, that you would think we would have given up on it long ago. But no, it is a huge prop for a society built on gender antagonism and power. While it suits, polarisation enables predictable roles, a sense of social security and normality, but it simply is not a valid descriptor of how we are as human beings. It has become taxonomy for taxonomy’s sake, and it simply will not do.

This morning I was reading yet more on the disquiet around DSM V (the American Psychiatric Association’s definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders pathologising everything that is not ‘normal’). Specifically, I was reading how everything gender was being sexualised into a male-dominated heteronormative concept. From the origins of DSM (read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test if you want some idea of the twisted picture of humanity it gives and why), too few individuals have imposed their idea of ‘normal’ and made quite ordinary features of life into mental disorder. I raise this, because theoretical, often entirely hypothetical, observations of others with regard to gender are used with no evidential basis, and assume the observer always to be better qualified than the individual.

Yellow and blue are easy

‘I’m yellow’, says this bit of the rainbow. ‘Leastways, if you look at my middle!’

‘I’m blue’, says another.

Green stays silent, the edge of yellow blending on one side, the edge of blue blending on the other. Then:

‘I’m not red!’ In triumphant realisation, green knows what it is not.

I am no expert, but I have become quite saturated with the discussions and theories and expressions of what gender is, what it means to be a woman or a man, how it is between the ears not the thighs, how it is at least in large part innate, not socialised, and how dysphoria describes a problem with the body not with the mind. Gender identity is not personal identity, it is simply where you feel you are on the spectrum with regards to femaleness and maleness. It does not define you, it simply compares you with others in a relation of proximities.

And it is OK to be turquoise – or lime.

In all the gender conversations I’ve had, I have met more people who know what they are not, than what they are. Green knows it is not red, but cannot so easily say it isn’t a yellowy green or a bluey green, and give either a name.

This, I think in large part, is where a sense of dysphoria lies, and where discomfort can persist, whatever steps are made to put gendered physical characteristics right. I know fully transitioned (male to female) people who insist that they are not, and can never be, women in the way they would have been if born and grown up in a different hormone environment. I do not have a female pelvis, and dig me up in 100 years, and an archeologist will tell you that. But they will not know how I identified. (There was the case of the Prague trans internment, about which I wrote this poem – you might reflect or enjoy it.) But what does this mean? That I am never good enough at being what feels most right to me? Who says so? Actually, me. My mind slips back into the binary view, and suddenly I am not good enough.

Every spectrum has two ends, and people live there. I know people who were certain, early enough on to make a real difference to their outcomes, that they live right at one end of the spectrum and quite opposite to their natal physiology. And they have every right to not even identify any longer as transgender (or spectrally misplaced).

But for everyone else who occupies anywhere else that appears at odds with their body’s reproductive bits, it is perfectly OK to be there, and even not to have to talk about it. And it is most OK when we don’t feel we have to justify it to ourselves, understand it, or even describe our gender ‘colour’. In a way it is simply not relevant, providing we are authentic.

Now consider, physiology apart: what are you? Describe how you know you are a man or a woman, or queer, or androgyne. Now do it without referring to what you are not, and without reference to sexual orientation. In other words, without sexualising yourself in terms of preferred activity. Now, without speaking of their body and what they do with it, how might you set a definition of someone else’s gender? Only they can tell you, and they have every right to describe and to present as they feel most authentic. Why does that have to be confusing?

Letting go of paradigms

I try to imagine a world sometimes, where people express themselves, modify or shape or clothe their bodies, simply according to what feels most fitting to them, and where this has nothing to do with any declaration of sexual preference or contribution to the mating game. (After all that’s the easy bit.) Maybe it would be easier for some (no, not all) to live with non-congruence between body and mind. Maybe decisions to adjust physical attributes or not, would be more openly accepted and phobias would evaporate into irrelevance. Maybe we wouldn’t even need to understand how gender dysphoria arises any more than hair colour, because there is no fixing at source. Maybe we could all love trans people for the extra they bring to the party rather than confusion. But that world cannot exist while we maintain any idea of men or women being somehow better than each other, or one defining the rules for the other.

Here’s an exam question for you:

Shania Twain sang Man, I feel like a woman (link with lyrics). Discuss.


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