I’ve been finding that the diverse language already available to describe one’s gender identity still doesn’t quite fit with how I perceive and wish to express myself. Even the very concept of gender identity is a bit uncomfortable for me because gender is a power hierarchy. It places men above women, and people who successfully conform to the gender binary above those who cannot or will not do so. I can acknowledge where I fall in the hierarchy – I believe doing so is a first step toward changing the system to be more egalitarian – but I feel disinclined to identify with “my place” in it. How can I do that, when I believe it shouldn’t even exist? (I suppose the same differentiation can be applied to other social/power hierarchies such as class and race.)
The term “gender identity” also assumes that it is possible for one to have an innate sense of oneself that is not shaped by outside forces (i.e. culture). We identify with what we know, and what we know is our culture. Ozy Frantz argues that many people simply identify the way they are raised, allowing their self-perception to be shaped by culture and never questioning it.
I would argue that even someone who does not identify the way hir culture dictates ze should builds some part of hir identity upon not conforming. If I say I am queer or gender-fluid, I am saying that I do not fit into the gender binary – a concept of myself I would not even need to have if it were not for the influence of culture: people treating and expecting me to behave a certain way based on their perception of my biological sex. Someone who is transgendered and/or transsexual might not identify as trans (e.g. trans-woman), but hir self-perception is shaped by cultural norms for the gender/sex ze identifies as (e.g. woman).
Speaking of the term, “woman,” what does it refer to, anyway? Is a woman:
- a person who was born with ovaries, fallopian tubes, a uterus, a vagina, labia, a clitoris, and mammary glands capable of developing and lactating if/when she becomes pregnant?
- a person who menstruates?
- a person who perceives her body as female and believes it should have some or all of the above parts, whether she was born with them or not?
- a person who values and actively conforms to the norms associated with females in her culture?
- a person whom others perceive as female, treat accordingly, and expect to behave a certain way?
- a person who is or wants to become a mother?
- a person who falls lower on the gender hierarchy (than a man)?
Of course, I’ve had to rely on other culturally-laden terms in order to compose the above definitions. The term “female” is part of another cultural binary – sex – which assumes human bodies generally take one of two forms, complete with specific anatomical features, hormones, chromosomes, etc. The term “mother” is also complex and becomes even more so when one considers reproductive technologies. Is a mother:
- the person whose egg is fertilized to create a new human?
- the person who becomes pregnant with and gives birth to this new human?
- the person who provides and cares for this new human?
Of course, for both “woman” and “mother,” the answer can be any or all of the above (or something else); these definitions need not be exclusive. We don’t even need to agree on which definitions to include! That’s actually the point I’m trying to make here: these terms are so complex, they can be applied to a wide range of individuals who are more different from each other than they are similar. For many if not most cases, only some of the definitions will be accurate.
A similar analysis can be applied to the terms “man” and “father” as well. Conflicting concepts of masculinity add to the complexity of such an analysis.
Creating A New Vocabulary
I have come to the conclusion that the best way for me to be able to explain my understanding of myself (as an embodied individual whose body has cultural meaning and socioeconomic repercussions) is to make up new words and define them precisely the way I want to.
Noun or Adjective?
One thing I find interesting about the terms above – “woman,” “mother,” “man,” and “father” – is that they are all nouns. Terms used to classify people along other aspects of identity such as race, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, education level, etc. are often adjectives – or, one has the option of using either an adjective or a noun. When it comes to gender, the terms are nouns – except that “woman” is sometimes used as an adjective, e.g. “woman president;” you would never hear of someone being called a “man president.”
Using a noun to classify someone seems to imply that that dimension of hir self is more important, innate, or central than the other dimensions. Your race, age, etc. might describe you, but your gender defines you. Frankly, I see no reason why gender should be any more important than any other aspect of someone’s identity, or where ze falls in various socioeconomic/power hierarchies. For many people, it’s not.
My New Adjectives
mamuva – naturally possessing functional mammary glands, a uterus, a vagina, ovaries, etc.; may or may not menstruate (depending on age, weight, etc.)
- mamuva’id – identifies as mamuva, whether hir body conforms to the definition or not
- mamvanormal – values and actively conforms to the norms associated with being mamuva and/or mamuva’id in hir culture, including dress, mannerisms, etc.
- mamvaseen – perceived by others as mamuva; treated, addressed, described, and expected to behave according to the relevant cultural norms
pentestum – naturally possessing a penis, testes, scrotum, etc.
- pentestum’id – identifies as pentestum, whether hir body conforms to the definition or not
- pentumnormal – values and actively conforms to the norms associated with being pentestum and/or pentestum’id in hir culture, including dress, mannerisms, etc.
- pentumseen – perceived by others as pentestum; treated, addressed, described, and expected to behave according to the relevant cultural norms
Now that I have some new adjectives to use, I can better describe myself. I am a person who happens to be mamuva and is usually mamuva’id; I am happy with my body the way it is and take pleasure in it – both through currently-available experiences and when thinking about its potential to grow and nurture another human being. Sometimes I feel pentestum’id and wish I could (temporarily) morph my body to match. I do not consider myself to be particularly mamvanormal or pentumnormal. Perhaps I am somewhere in between, choosing which norms I’m comfortable with at a given moment and attempting to ignore the rest.
If I experience gender-related dysphoria, it is not because of my body. It is my response to being mamvaseen and particularly to the expectation that I am or should be mamvanormal. I actively reject many if not most of the norms associated with being mamuva in my culture because they would limit me to a decorative, nurturing, and supportive role in society – while also making it easier for me to fall victim to predators and to believe I deserved to be victimized. No thank you!
I would much rather be seen as a person, an equal, someone who can do whatever ze wishes with hir life. I refuse to be placed in a subordinate position in a hierarchy that should not even exist in the first place.
Which brings us to the term “woman” one last time. I do not identify with that term as a means of describing a person physically, psychologically, or hierarchically. But I can identify with women as a political group – a group of people who have been systematically oppressed, devalued, etc. in diverse cultures for millenia. They have not been passive victims by any means – they have always worked to live the most personally-fulfilling, meaningful, and at times world-shaping lives possible within the constraints placed on them by society. And we continue to do so, building on the progress toward equality made by our mothers (and fathers), grandmothers (and grandfathers), great-grandmothers (and great-grandfathers), etc.
The adjectives I created are intended to be mutually-inclusive; you can combine them with each other and with other adjectives (e.g. intersex, queer, etc.) however you see fit. That said, the list is nowhere near exhaustive. If you think of an adjective that should be on the list but isn’t, please let me know in comments!
How would you use these terms and others to describe yourself? I’d love to read about it in comments. Or, if you’re inspired to write your own post about it, please link back to this one. The pingback will allow me and other readers to go read and comment on your post. I hope we can spark a conversation about this topic that can go far beyond my blog.