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More on gender, Part 1: Words

July 14, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot more about gender lately. It’s been a lot more relevant in my life these past few years, and I’m developing a better understanding of some of the problems I’ve been running into.

Last year, I did a post on Gender, sexuality, identity, and binaries, and most of those observations still stand. I have been reading more, and though it doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as identity variations which make more sense to people more firmly rooted in the commonly understood binary, there seem to be rather a lot of us agender/nongendered people around.

The terminology distinction I’m using here, for clarity (which may or may not agree with other people’s usage):

Basically, agender and neutrois both mean being neither male nor female in identity*. The difference is that someone who is neutrois wants to change their body to match. Therefore, someone who is neutrois would also be agender, but someone who is agender isn’t necessarily neutrois. For someone belonging to both male and female (at the same time), that is most often referred to as androgyne.

As someone who is neutrois, internally, male and female don’t belong to me- I don’t associate myself as having masculine or feminine qualities, that isn’t the way my mind works. However, I do have a gender that tells me that this body does not compute with it- that tells me that my body should of been sexless (without any sexual characteristics), thus I do have an amount of physical gender dysphoria, which leads to a desire to change my body.

*they are both indeed possessing of gender, so while genderless may be a decent way of describing it, it isn’t an accurate way of doing so.

I’m on the “mind doesn’t really do gender” end of things, and the last part of a helpful analogy, on the same thread, iprovides a reasonable description:

Imagine the world is full of two types of people — those born with blue skin, and those born with pink skin. There are intermediates, but they’re rare enough for society to mostly ignore them. Blue-skinned and pink-skinned people often have slightly different characteristics and relate to each other slightly differently. Most people are reasonably comfortable in the skin they’re born in (they may or may not agree with how people of their skin colour is treated; that’s a separate issue).

Some people, though, are born with blue skin and feel like they should have pink skin. If this feeling is problematic enough, they may try to change their skin colour, or wear body paint, or just act like they feel they should act, which may be more associated with a pink-skinned person. Some won’t go so far as to actually change their skin colour, but will prefer to be treated as a pink-skinned person. Some won’t give any indication at all and just put up with feeling uncomfortable and incomplete. Some people born with pink skin also feel the same about them supposed to be having blue skin.

Some people, though, born with either pink skin or blue skin, don’t feel like they should have either colour. They feel like they’re supposed to have black skin (or purple skin or whatever other non-binary substitute you want to use for the analogy). In this analogy, these people are “neutrois”, and their birth skin colour and colour identity do not match, even though said identity is not on the binary accepted by tradition.

Then there are other people, who don’t “feel” like they should have any coloured skin. The one they have is just whatever they were born with and it doesn’t bother them all that much — their current shade is not more or less valid than another one would be (although they are more used to having the colour they have, obviously). These people are “agendered” or “nongendered”.

One view that made an awful lot of sense to me, from Androgyne Online:

There are actually four components of gender: identity, presentation, performance, and role. Gender identity concerns how you think about yourself, gender presentation describes how you look physically and sartorially, gender performance pertains to how you act or comport yourself, and gender role refers to what you do for a living and what you contribute to the domestic sphere. Taken together, the last three components comprise gender expression. Gender identity is internal, whereas gender expression is external, and that is why not all androgynous-looking people are androgynes.

And vice versa. The external bits are the ones which have caused me problems. It feels like a lot of performance work to put forth an image I don’t identify with internally in the first place. Another case of “What? I can’t do what I want just because of who I am?”#, which really stands out under the circumstances.

The big reason I’ve been having to think all of this stuff more, when I didn’t start out having much perceived gender friction going on in my life? Running into more rigid gender presentation/performance expectations than I mostly grew up with, day to day. (I say “mostly” because I caught a lot of crap in certain settings, dealing with people from the dominant culture, and did not even understand why at the time.) It’s hard not to notice this–and some of the really weird looks, comments, and reactions I get, even when I’m (increasingly resentfully) purposely doing some femininity drag to try to avoid friction–whenever I go out. It reminds me uncomfortably of elementary school, though now I understand what’s motivating it–and the expectations I’m seeming to ignore–better. Same with the rest of my neurological setup, really, and the two are interdependent for me.

The increasing dysphoria related to gender? Coming totally from the way other people respond and treat me. Very much like the social model of disability, and the two things go hand in hand. No wonder a thread on the BBC Ouch! forum made me start crying last summer: Wax, Shave, Cream or Hairy Beast?!.* (Another: Hairy Legs: A Symptom of Cerebral Palsy.)

One quote from Richard Morgan’s Black Man keeps popping into mind: “Ain’t no diversity of product in the Republic, they just got this one box for us, and sooner or later they gonna squeeze you in that box right along with the rest of us.”

BTW, I am uncomfortable with maybe sounding like I notice cultural differences living here in the UK, and automatically become intolerant and hostile. Most of the same observations apply to dominant US culture–and other Western societies, AFAICT–for some pretty obvious reasons. (More on that, and some of its effects, later.) Ones that involve xenophobia and placing more value judgments on human differences? Damn right I get hostile–and I am not the one who started it. When I keep trying to live and let live myself, and other people keep responding with xenophobia, I get more than a little tetchy.

Getting back to terminology, this ties in with some of the reasons I’m not entirely comfortable with the genderqueer label. I have used it here, and I do like the term’s inclusiveness on its face; no matter the specifics, we “nonstandard” gender people have a lot in common, and face a lot of similar challenges in life. But I don’t like some of the rather divisive ways in which this label has been used. Michelle O’Brien points out some of the problems I have seen in Gender Skirmishes on the Edges: Notes on gender identity, self-determination and anticolonial struggle. I don’t know enough about the history of divide and conquer stuff with trans*people, but (emphasis mine):

As I traced briefly above, however, both concepts are embedded in specific racialized and classed histories… The racial and class politics of genderqueer are easily as charged. Genderqueer gained parlance within particular subcultural communities of young, urban, politicized dykes and queer punks. It gained meaning with specific urban scenes. While there are certainly people of color and working-class people in these scenes, there is no question the overall circulation of fashion, language and politics is heavily dominated by white, middle-class people. Even more than transsexual, genderqueer has mostly been limited in use to similarly white, middle-class dominated spaces…

The debate between transsexual and genderqueers is dominated by a contradiction between notions of gender legitimacy vs. gender transgression. This opposition is not meaningful in looking at Two Spirit people and Femme Queens. Neither are identities organized primarily around transgression, or embedded in institutional systems of authenticated legitimacy… These two communities, I argue, reveal the whole frame of the discussion between white transsexuals and white genderqueers as missing some basic points. White gender-variant folks develop ideas of gender identity within particular spaces and discourses that are historically and culturally located; taking these codes of too seriously as ways of understanding the world blinds us to the myriad of other ways someone could organize their complex relationships to gender.

That helped me articulate some of my own objections to some of the ways I’ve seen the “genderqueer” label used. The usually-connected politics are not necessarily my politics–nor are a lot of the assumptions upon which they’re based. I am far more interested in duyukta–and in finding/fulfilling my own unique role in this world–than in ideas of transgression. Then there’s genderfuck–what’s the point? (Strictly rhetorical question, that. It has never made much sense to me, though I understand why some other people do it.)

This is another area in which I have done rather a lot of thinking, but have not always had the “right” words. And, IME, the “white, middle-class” contingent is really prone to putting a great deal of store in having the “right” words at hand, if one wants to be taken seriously. Especially given some of my disabilities**, this has left me more disaffected with certain movements than I might have been otherwise; some people (by no means all!) really do put a lot more emphasis on form than substance, especially if you are not part of their in-group. Whatever that might be. And it turns into a handy excuse for dismissing what people have to say. This is one of the reasons I keep clarifying exactly how I’m using terms.

Increasingly, I’m finding myself identifying under the “Two-Spirit” umbrella. In spite of that Pan-Indian English label, which I discussed some before; it doesn’t necessarily make much sense to me, conceptually. More on why I find that description/movement appealing in a second post, though that was what I set out to write about this afternoon. 😉


* On the anecdotal side: I stopped trying to remove leg hair a couple of years ago, because (a) bending to do it it hurt like hell, especially in our phone-boothlike shower, (b) I really started resenting the shaming, (c) staring closely at other people’s legs in public to police them is abominably rude, and (d) the expectations there are just plain ridiculous, even before you throw in real impairments. I was almost miffed that nobody has even noticed. (Besides Nigel, who has some legitimate reason to, and who also finds the expectations ridiculous.) I was prepared to get the “hairy beast” treatment, and had a lot of that internalized. Guess what? Sometimes stereotypes (as came up in “Ethnic hair”?) are based in reality; I actually have very little body hair. My Biodad had/probably still has six chest hairs–my mom counted them. 🙂 And what little there is on my arms and legs sunbleaches to near-invisibility. Talk about totally manufactured concerns, even if I still considered them legitimate.

That said, I still haven’t wanted to deal with the crap from (far more) visible underarm hair. Battles picked, though it chafes.

** Wrapping language around concepts and thoughts? Not always easy, and approximate at best. Language feels like a clumsy emulation mode for me, anyway.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Shirley Rowland permalink
    January 24, 2014 9:10 pm

    We have started a Two Spirited Talking Circle in my community. We understand where the word came from, but not sure how it fits. Where are you located and do you do speaking and trainings. I like the fact that you are Cherokee as so am I. I live in California and belong to The Cherokee’s of Northern Central Valley and satellite community of the Cherokee Nation.

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