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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.

Check your baggage …

  • Posted on March 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I had this vision of meeting someone the other day … They were walking along, but struggling under the weight of two holdalls, one in each hand.

They seemed happy enough: I would be, if I had two heavy bags full of something valuable! I offered to carry one, because we were going the same way. But no, they insisted they carried both (my mother used to say this when I offered with the shopping) – because they were ‘balanced’. Well, maybe that makes sense; it saves a bad back.

But the trouble was, they couldn’t get on very quickly, and opening doors was a bit difficult. I asked how long had they been carrying the bags? ‘Oh, as along as I can remember’, they said. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ I replied that they must be very inconvenient, but no: ‘they’re mine!’

‘When did you last open them, and need what’s inside them? And how do you know which is which, when you pick them up?’ I inquired.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ they replied. ‘I’m so used to carrying them, it hardly matters! It’s just what I have to carry.’

‘Maybe you don’t need them any more?’ I suggested. ‘Why don’t you put them down and look inside? Perhaps they aren’t as important or useful as you think?’

Well, it took a great deal of persuasion, but as we talked, the weight of the bags seemed to become questionable, and finally the bags were lowered and let go – not without some relief. Together we worked the zippers that hadn’t been pulled for a very long time, until they dragged their teeth apart to reveal the contents.

Each bag seemed to contain pretty much the same thing: bricks. Just bricks. A little dusty from rubbing together so long, but still – just bricks. They probably fitted together quite well, and who knows, something useful might be built with them. Maybe those from one bag and those from the other, put together, might be even better, but deciding which came from which bag, to put them back again afterwards, would be really quite difficult. Maybe it didn’t matter.

‘Oh.’ my companion said, ‘I really didn’t know what was in the bags. They’re so heavy and they seemed so important. But they’re just bricks!’

‘Then perhaps you can leave them behind now?’ I ventured, looking up at them. Then, glancing down at these impeccably balanced burdens, I noticed there were tired, old labels tied to the handles. I rubbed the dust off the fading ink, and when I’d worked out which way was up, saw that one read ‘male’ and the other ‘female’.

We took a couple of bricks out and examined them more closely. Yes, there were slight differences in shape, where they would fit together for strength, but otherwise they were all very much alike.

‘What are you going to do now?’ I asked.

‘Dunno. But I’m not carrying these bags around any more; no point. I’ll just take a couple – could be useful. Here, any two will do.’

‘Don’t you want one from each bag?’

‘No. It doesn’t matter. I only want them to keep doors open.’

Learning points

  • check your baggage: did you pack it yourself?
  • question the contents: are they important?
  • just because you have a balanced burden doesn’t mean you can’t put it down
  • whatever your burdens, keep your doors open
  • never stretch a metaphor too far; just see if it helps!
We all carry around far too much baggage about the useless gender binary of male and female, and in doing so fail to see others as they really are. Instead we constrain them and us, so we can’t even shake hands or hold doors open for each other. Put these bags down. Walk away.

Calling names and name-calling: gender terminology

  • Posted on February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm

It’s a funny thing, but I still remember from 1986, the class roll-call. Every morning and afternoon, the Register. Alty, Anderson, Bird, Burkinshaw, Catton, Cookson – then me. Names stick. And somewhere down that list, O’Donovan will remember the half dozen names before his. They weren’t our real names of course. Budgie, Bugs, Pod were who we were. It didn’t matter what teachers called us, we identified each other differently; we knew each other, and if Bugs got his name for his front teeth, nobody minded.

One year, someone decided that Cookie should become Shirley. Now that was different. Were we all going to get girls’ names, and what did it mean? I felt very uncomfortable with what name I might get. It lasted a week or too, and it was a bad idea, so by consensus we dropped it. It was a boys’ school, you knew what to do to survive with minimal hassle, so for a while he was Copperknob instead (red hair!).

Naming ambiguity has been in the media, blogs and TV a lot in recent times. They always will be I guess. I remember discovering that in Australia Durex was something different, and much later, when doing my MBA, going into the fraught world of international brands. ‘Marathon’ chocolate bars sounded pretty robust, while the renamed ‘Snickers’ still sounds more like knickers to me, or a cheap snigger. Even that last word sounds dodgy these days.

Gender terminology

Despite the global vocabulary brought by the Internet, terms for gender and sexuality remain difficult. In one country or continent, the connotations (like pants) can be quite different. What we define in the UK as cross-dressing, as transgender, as gender-queer (again, ‘queer’ used to mean something else) and as transsexual, might be clearer than ever – but not everyone agrees. And terms almost become names, especially when someone is telling you what they think you are. The grammar is as tedious as school: what is the correct pronoun, when is a term only an adjective, not an adjectival noun? When is an abbreviation reserved (only a tranny can call a tranny a tranny) such that outsiders using it becomes offensive?

Any social group with commonalities will want to define, as we did at school, what the names mean. But the teachers weren’t wrong. We went and changed names mid-term – now that could be confusing! So it is with gender labels. There is a definite role for academia here, an academia that understands from the inside, not that makes it up from observation alone (remember quantum effects: the observer alters the state of the observed? It holds true for some social research too). And I think we should allow it, and if necessary bend to it, simply to achieve a reliable vocabulary that we can share with a bemused world.

The gender vocabulary needs to broad but clear, and allow for respect of many states. This week I have read comments online by lads who think gender-diversity means ‘weirdos’ who should (not could) be made fun of. And I have read as much from ‘lads’ who think banter about rape is OK, presumably because women are not equal as people to them. Worse, I have read hateful comments by trans people about other trans people who don’t fit their idea of sufficient authenticity, where one state of trans life and identity is real and another is mere pretence and deceit. Radical feminists can be truly hateful too about trans people not being ‘real’.

Naming middle genders

We need to describe the middle – the third states of gender – better, and trans people need to find their own place of comfort and true belonging without feeling someone else’s concept of gender authenticity must be their goal. Me? I don’t need to be a woman. I never really can be, and however much I risk my well-being to gain my dream breasts, or a better jaw or remodel my genitals, my bones were sculpted by testosterone, and I lived as a man for half a century. That has left an indelible mark. But before you shout at me because you need or needed maximal reassignment: I respect your choices and needs. I know without shadow of doubt that at one end of the spectrum, physical identity is absolute, and gender positivity places you in a traditionally binary place. Maybe one day it will for me too. But meanwhile for all the two-spirits, dual-gendered, female husbands, gender-queers, androgynes or whatever – there needs to be validation.

If you find you are on an unexpected journey (and unless your ticket is a lot clearer than mine), you really cannot know your destination. Knowing it probably won’t make it any easier, other than having some kind of end in sight. Gender dysphoria has degrees, and you don’t have to place yourself on the Benjamin scale or whatever right now if you don’t want. It might be useful later; maybe it will have changed later.

For now, I call myself transgender; I am crossing boundaries and I don’t know where it will end. At one level I have no choice, and at another I do have choices I can make. Finding my place, though, does mean I need a reliable description of where I am. Apparently, according to some comments I’ve had, I am just a man in a dress, assigned to fetishistic sidelines where frankly, I have never belonged – because their definition of transgender is terribly narrow and they own it!

I agree with Grrl Alex that it is quite legitimate to redefine by asserting individuality: you don’t have to do what anyone else does. You haven’t become another stereotype just because your gender discomfort has caught up with you.

We shall all remember the roll-call of gender terms, and hopefully definitions will become authoritative, but what we call ourselves does need to match (the more informed) academic study, and have clear meanings in the media playground and the world at large. Cookson? Cookie? Copperknob? Shirley? If you read this you’ll appreciate I was a friend, whatever; and Shirley was a bad idea at the time.