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Gender, sexuality, identity, and binaries

October 16, 2009

Last night, I ran across an old post on gender identity by Shiva, over at Biodiverse Resistance. It helped me sort out some of my thoughts, and gave me a lot more to think about.

I’d mostly just been confused and surprised that gender identity is really such a big issue for so many people. Now I think I understand it much better. Maybe I should clarify that I am not trying to ruffle any feathers.

You see, like him, I never really considered gender relevant, growing up. Yeah, I knew I had a female body, but that was pretty well the extent of my thoughts on the matter. I wasn’t really concerned about it either way. I still don’t see myself so much as “masculine” or “feminine”, but as me. Gender-related issues have caught my interest mainly through other people pushing expectations at me, and at people I know.

Dw3t-Hthr does make a lot of sense to me, with her observation: “I’ve noted that the only gender I’ve ever been comfortable with is “geek”, but that’s not right, it’s merely not wrong.” If you’re going to throw a gender label on someone who’s essentially neutral, why not? 🙂

Like Shiva–and a number of other people sharing similar political philosophies, as he points out–I’ve had difficulty understanding what motivates trans people. Something was obviously making them feel out of sync–and I’ve been on the wrong end of too many people deciding I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, when they can’t immediately understand what’s bothering me–but I have never experienced anything remotely similar myself. I was sympathetic, to the extent that I could be with such poor understanding of what was going on, but did figure that a lot of the distress was being caused by a mismatch with a totally socially constructed gender binary, and social expectations based on that. I really did not mean that to be dismissive, but was the only way I could make heads or tails of the conflict.

Shiva’s piece made things click. Now it’s easier to see that an awful lot of people do have an inner sense of gender. The closest analogy I can find is an innate sense of direction, which I don’t really have either; that doesn’t mean that most other people don’t have it. Other than as it ties into gender stereotypes, a sense of direction just doesn’t have the level of social expectation built up around it to confuse things. If it did, I might have concluded that it was also completely based on social constructions.

Yeah, this apparent lack of an inherent gender identity almost feels like a kind of privilege, at least in how it has made me less able to understand other people’s problems or identify with their difficulties. Also with how crappy figuring it out has made me feel about how it’s been running my perceptions. The beginnings of a new understanding are also making me reevaluate my attitude toward different ways of doing gender–such as butch*–when I really couldn’t see why it was important to a lot of people before. OTOH, I have kept trying to reach a better understanding, with the persistent nagging feeling that we weren’t reading off the same page.

I guess I was lucky in a way, growing up in an environment in which gender wasn’t much of an issue. Part of this is down to less rigid gender roles in my culture of origin, and part of it no doubt comes from my mother’s reaction to her mother’s pushing Western gender binaries for all she’s worth, out of internalized racism.** I was also born in the mid-’70s, when it wasn’t so odd to avoid gender-sterotyped play and the like. My neurological configuration wasn’t treated as peculiar, either, and not a lot of value judgments were placed on my behavior in general, as long as I wasn’t hurting anybody.

I’m still fairly amazed to hear labels like “tomboy”–mostly by the perceived need to cram people into boxes like that. Nobody overtly suggested that I ought to be behaving in certain ways because I was a girl until I started primary school in Radford. As I’ve mentioned before, in the context of still being crappy at performing Western femininity, this was apparently seen as an important part of the much-vaunted “socialization” function of schools–and it did work well alongside the “flushing heads down toilets” aspect, to be frank. I can understand better now why it amazed me so much, and from the beginning struck me as a total crock.

Not having an innate sense of gender worked to my disadvantage in that situation, and I have felt the sharp end of socially constructed gender since then. That also made me more likely to view the whole issue in terms of social construction, I’m sure.

Having trouble understanding gender binaries, and the associated discomfort with labels such as “bisexual”, probably have a lot to do with the fact that my mind just doesn’t do oppositional binaries. That probably has a lot to do with why it doesn’t do mental widgets, either. (That explanation set off sooo many lightbulbs.) This is another area where it’s hard to sort out culture and neurology, not to mention cultural acceptance of neurodiversity and how well a person’s neurological setup meshes with their culture of origin.

This is probably also why I have never really identified with some attempts to work around binary gender and sexuality concepts, such as the Pan-Indian “Two-Spirit” thing. A lot of people find that description useful, but as used to refer to GLBT people, it doesn’t work for me.

While drawing inspiration from Native cultures, the common version of “Two-Spirit” is based on some assumptions that just don’t work for me. It assumes that the usual allotment is one spirit, in the first place. As Barbara Mann explains: (again in Iroquoian Women):

Furthermore, whereas Christian theology parcels out souls with a stingy hand, one per customer, traditional (i.e., pre-Longhouse) Spirituality invested the body with two Spirits, operating at different levels of awareness–and, sometimes, at cross purposes. One Spirit is not necessarily aware of the other.

In an excellent introduction to complementary dualism, she continues:

The base number of two has profound ramifications for the structure of woodlands societies, economics, government, and spirituality, as I discuss at length in Iroquoian Women. Here, I will simply extract a few of its spiritual implications for Chingachgook, in particular, the fact that, in the east, everyone has two spirits. Before I continue, let me nip a misunderstanding in the bud. Some of you may have heard that, among a few western nations, the term “two-spirit” indicates homosexuality. This notion is confined to those western cultures and is entirely unrelated to eastern concepts. In the east, it is just common sense that everyone has two spirits, a spirit of Sky, inherited through her father, and a spirit of Earth, inherited through her mother.2 A person born with only one spirit is deformed, demented, and, quite possibly, criminally insane***. . .

Just to keep life interesting, a person’s two spirits are not necessarily aware of one another, so that it is the job of each person to discover the agendas of her Sky and Earth spirits, so as to keep them moving in synch. Failing conscious coordination, her Sky and Earth spirits will pull in separate directions, tearing her life apart, leaving her depressed and unable to cope. Uncoordinated spirits make a person sick, even to the point of causing premature death.

In other words, duyukta is paramount, whoever you are. In the “balance” and “harmony” sense, allowing one to better comprehend and manifest the “truth” and “dignity” sense of the word. It all ties together, and the metaphors work on multiple levels.

To make things even more complicated, it’s kinda hard to stop at the idea of a basic duality. That implies a continuum right there, not to mention all the other factors that arise from that level of interconnected complexity. A person’s interaction with the rest of the world makes for emergent properties. You pick up “spiritual” influences as you go along, and may move away from some.

Which gets right back to the idea of the Great Mystery, which has nothing in common with the missionary-God-in-feathers “Great Spirit”. I cannot find the link I wanted, with an excellent explanation of the conceptual differences. For one thing, radio telescopes and chaos theory are as helpful as more obviously “spiritual” practices if you want a glimpse of how things work. You’re trying to look at all the complexity and possibilities inherent in, and driving, the world–and everyone/everything in it. Panentheism**** is one way to look at it, but that only covers some aspects, besides leaning too heavily on the idea of theism at all. Reductionism and linear thinking are only going to get you so far. (So is radial thinking, for that matter, but it allows for more possibilities and patterns.) A filter of oppositional dualism is going to sabotage any attempts you make to understand How Things Work, even before you get to the point of trying to sort out what’s real and what’s illusory.

Yeah, I’m getting a little deep into philosophy. But, based on that kind of understanding of How Things Work, “Two-Spirit” just doesn’t cut it for me. It also seems to split off gender and sexuality from other aspects of life to a point that doesn’t make sense–while, as I understand it, trying not to do so. Much like “bisexual”, it doesn’t help me figure out how the Entity That Is Urocyon fits into the patterns I perceive in how the world works. That borders dangerously on pretentious crap, but it’s still the best way I can find to express what I’m getting at.

My personal experience has borne more resemblance to what might happen should you close up a goose, a fox, a turkey, a bear, a deer, a timber rattler, a catfish, and a mountain lion together in a sack. (That had better be a big sack, but still.) They’d better reach some kind of understanding and consensus, or things are quickly going to get very ugly indeed. That’s a more useful metaphor than any modern psychology is offering, IME. It’s all about balance. Some people have more difficult spirits to get working together, for any variety of reasons.

That wasn’t intended to apply to multiples, but I bet it could.

Edit: One commenter over on LJ raised a good point, and I thought I would add some clarification here. As I replied over there: “With the balance thing, I was mostly following a train of thought–and may add a disclaimer to that effect. 🙂 How one approaches it may be a little different, but it’s definitely a common theme in an awful lot of philosophical approaches.” Not all of Western philosophy resembles some of the more destructively unbalanced themes I’ve run up against, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m dissing all of it. Every group of people has also come up with some of their own harmful ideas about how the world works and how to live in it, for that matter; non-Western ones just haven’t gotten pushed as hard where I’ve lived.


* A number of people have perceived me as butch, and it was confusing. It also irked me that they needed to cram people into pigeonholes. I must admit that I used to assume that actual, purposeful butch presentation–along with other styles–was also a reaction to social expectations. (Not making it a less valid presentation, and not looking down on people who do it; we all do what we need to do, even if other people don’t understand why or even what.) I’ve had to reconsider my ideas about this, too–better late than never. 🙂

** She actively promotes the frailty model. Much like African American women, American Indian women haven’t had the luxury of being “weak”. One of the areas in which I’ve been struggling for balance is the harmful pattern formed when “I have to be strong and hold things together” runs up against impairment and disability.

*** Yes, the combination of Christian theology and unconscionable colonial behavior was more than occasionally taken to confirm this idea that one main spirit==dangerously unbalanced.

**** Not surprisingly, the Cherokee are presented as monotheistic by misunderstanding.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2009 12:38 am

    That absolutely describes my relation to gender. I always wonder what this thing is that is so intense for some people that they’re willing to commit suicide over it (or could imagine committing suicide over it if they were forced to assume the “wrong” role), but that seems not to exist in me, at all. I’ve seen descriptions where transpeople say stuff like, “Well if you don’t notice gender in yourself then you’re cisgendered and it’s a privilege thing,” except that I honestly don’t think I would be any more bothered by being a man than I am by being a woman, and it’s my understanding that this is a very alien perspective to a cisgendered person. And like you, I understand that since it causes so much distress to people it must be important for them, but it just isn’t for me.

    (Which also means I’ve had people attempt to classify me as anything from butch to femme depending on things like my hairstyle or what I was wearing that day. (And other people have insisted I must have a penis while I was looking what most people would call feminine.) I don’t know what they’d think of me when I wear dresses or “feminine” jewelry along with facial hair and a shaved head.)

    • urocyon permalink
      October 20, 2009 1:48 pm

      I know what you mean–I’m not sure it would matter that much to me if I were in a male body instead of the one I’ve got. Quite a gulf between that and gender dysphoria.

      I’ve also run into quite a variety of other people’s perceptions of how I was presenting gender. It seems like another case of projection, more than anything else. I can’t help but think that Deborah Tannen was spot on with her observations that nothing a woman does or wears is considered neutral. No matter what you do, people are going to read something into it, whether or not you actually intend to be making any kind of statement. I think people see “butch” a lot because these days I go for comfort over other considerations, including posture and the way I move. (It’s hard to believe I caused myself so much sensory overload and actual pain for years, trying to attract less negative attention. I’m not going to blend in anyway.) Since I’ve been living in Greater London, I’ve been mistaken for a man on multiple occasions, which is still pretty confusing.

  2. October 23, 2009 12:31 pm

    Oh, wow. Thanks a lot for the linking and praise. Don’t really have time/spoons to respond properly right now, but i am planning to write something of an update to that piece, based on some stuff i’ve reinterpreted since then – it will probably be one of the first couple of posts after the much-needed makeover/restructuring of my blog (which will probably happen in the next couple of weeks). I’ll probably use some of what you wrote here in it… 🙂

    • urocyon permalink
      October 23, 2009 2:02 pm

      Glad you made some sense out of it. 😉 Feel free to use as much as you like. Your earlier piece phrased some things in a way that made other things click.

      I know a little too much about the Spoon-Time Continuum. 🙂 So many sets of things to do, so few resources. My LJ has been waiting for some changes for several years, and I haven’t even been able to keep up over there lately.

      • July 18, 2017 7:11 am

        Is it still possible to be invited to read Shiva’s blog? I’m autistic and would be very interested


  1. This is not the post I started out writing. - Ballastexistenz

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