GenderQueer Confessions: I can relate to so many of these!

I was looking for inspiration for a “Transgender Tuesday” post (explanation here) when I found GenderQueer Confessions on Tumblr. It’s a safe place for people anywhere on the gender spectrum to post their own thoughts, feelings, observations, or experiences related to gender, as well as to ask questions about being gender queer. I don’t necessarily relate to or agree with every post, but I feel a great deal of catharsis as I read several of them. I like to look at the Archive to see more posts at once and more easily find the ones that speak to me. It’s confirmation that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

The biggest thing I’m struggling with is determining the extent to which I want to assert my gender queer identity. I’m pretty sure I’m not cis because I felt extremely uncomfortable trying to explore that possibility in writing on this blog. It would require me to disclose my sex, something that influences how other people identify and interact with me and expect me to act in my everyday life – the very effect I want to escape here. But everyone, from strangers to my closest loved ones, seem to assume that I am cis.

To some extent I do identify with the gender I was assigned at birth because it corresponds to my biology. I love my body and don’t want to change it – most of the time. (If I could do so reversibly I totally would!) In some ways I can relate more strongly to others who share my biology than to those who do not, even if our gender identity and expression are not always the same. We have shared experiences we can’t really explain to people who don’t have our “equipment.” We also share in our inability to fully understand certain experiences of people with “equipment” we don’t have. We are treated the same way by society. We have the same political interests much of the time.

I just find that the Word we use to refer to ourselves is not adequate to express Who I Am, and sometimes it feels downright wrong. I want something broader. Something that “reaches across the aisle,” something I can define (and redefine at whim). I don’t want to be put in a box. I don’t want to imply that I hold values that seem alien to me. I don’t want to be socially and otherwise separated from people I can sometimes relate to better just because we have different biological “equipment.” I want the freedom to be myself, without others’ expectations limiting my self-expression.

So far, I am gender non-conforming in appearance through things I don’t do to express the gender I was assigned at birth. My clothes and hair do tend to conform, though not to an extreme. I’m trying to decide the extent to which I want to change my attire and/or hairstyle to be more androgynous (or, make them adaptable to the gender I want to express on a given day). Attire seems a less threatening thing to change, though I’m concerned about what people might think if they catch me buying non-gender-conforming clothes. Changing my hairstyle feels more threatening because it would be harder to reverse and I can’t really know how it will look until I’ve already invested time, energy, and money into it. I’m concerned about giving up something that has value to me if I change my hairstyle, even if my current style tends to contribute to people misgendering me.

My mannerisms, body language, social responses, etc. vary along the gender spectrum depending on my mood, the situation I’m in, and the cues I’m getting from other people. My mom and my friends seem to have picked up on and are accepting of this, even though they insist on using cisgendered pronouns and relational terms. Sometimes it bothers me more than others, but there’s almost always a feeling like there’s something a bit … off. It’s a better description or referent than the binary alternative, but it’s never right.

Should I just be happy with what I have? Or should I make them learn a whole new set of pronouns (ze, zir, hir) and adapt to using them to refer to me? How will this affect my relationships with other members of my families? (my family of origin, Banji’s family, and Fox’s family) Is it even truly what I want?

As a feminist, would it be better to identify as the gender I was assigned at birth and work within the binary to shatter stereotypes, expand the range of expression and behavior considered acceptable for both genders, and end inequality?

Or do I help that cause more by living and modeling an alternative – being a person who is not defined by social expectations based on hir genitals and secondary sex characteristics? Does it change anything if I refuse to be placed in a box, even if it is only for labeling purposes?

It’s so hard and I feel so alone. I need to find community. And as I struggle, I can hold on to the confessions that let me know that somewhere, there is someone else thinking, feeling, and experiencing the same things:

Is there anyone else who can relate to these things? How have you coped?
I could really use some advice.

Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender – Part 1

For easier reference, I’m re-posting the previous post‘s list of assumptions that are generally taken for granted in American (and other) culture(s):

  • There are two biological sexes, male (penis) and female (vagina). All humans fit into one of these two categories.
  • Social roles and behaviors, attributes and capabilities, interests, etc. are determined or at least heavily influenced by biological sex. In other words, males naturally adhere to a set of norms considered “masculine” and females to a set of norms considered “feminine.”
  • Masculinity is inherently better than femininity. It is acceptable and even necessary for a woman or girl to exhibit some masculinity, as long as she ultimately remains “in her place” as a proper female (sex object and caregiver). Men and boys are severely limited in the amount of femininity they may exhibit; an effeminate male is the greatest offense against mankind.
  • Males must be sexually attracted to females and vice-verse. It is very important for a man to be successful sexually (as well as in other areas) and for a woman to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man. Pursuit of these goals is a key factor in social interactions, especially between the sexes.

But in reality …

Biological Sex

Biologists have found that sex cannot be accurately understood exclusively in terms of someone being “male” or “female.” Sex is fluid and can even change over time based on an individual’s experiences.

There are a variety of factors that influence a person’s biological sex, including chromosomes (genetics, X & Y), hormones (testosterone vs estrogen), prenatal influences, and changes in one’s anatomy. The sex chromosomes can take on more than two possible configurations. Relative hormone levels vary among individuals. Sometimes a baby is born with genitals that cannot easily be labeled as “male” (penis & scrotum) or “female” (labia, clitoris, vagina). Combinations of these factors may influence an individual to identify as “intersex.” I have even watched a film in which an individual shared the experience of being neuter (no genitals).

Therefore, an accurate understanding of biological sex needs to go beyond putting people into one of two mutually-exclusive categories.

Gender Identity and Expression

People vary greatly in their gender identity and expression – the gender they perceive themselves to be and how they dress, act, etc. to communicate that to others. All people act in ways that can be labeled “masculine” or “feminine” to varying degrees; no one is exclusively masculine or feminine. Our systems based on assumptions about sex and gender limit the ability of gender-nonconforming and non-heterosexual people to participate fully and feel respected as equals in society.

Even people who “play by the rules” – that is, according to the assumptions listed at the beginning of this post – are limited by gender norms in their ability to: express themselves fully; develop their full range of abilities; effectively address intra- and interpersonal problems; avoid being perpetrators and/or victims of violence; have genuine relationships with other people; and contribute to positive political, legal, economic, and social change.

Therefore, I believe everyone can benefit from an expanded understanding of gender that takes into consideration and normalizes the experiences of people with diverse sexes, gender identities, and sexual orientations. (Please note that gender and sexual orientation are two different things; a person with any gender identity may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.)

Some variations are listed below:

Cisgender individuals identify as the biological sex and gender they were assigned at birth.

Transgender individuals challenge cultural assumptions about gender in a variety of ways:

  • Transsexual individuals identify as men and women, but their gender identity is the opposite of the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. They often use hormone therapy and may undergo surgery to make their physical bodies (biological sex) conform to their gender identity.
    • A trans man was born with a vagina and raised female, but identifies as male.
    • trans woman was born with a penis and raised male, but identifies as female.
  • Gender queer individuals are diverse and may or may not identify as men or women. Some prefer to be identified as a third gender, while others would rather avoid labels entirely. Some gender queer individuals prefer to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns ze, zir, and hir.
    • An androgynous person consistently exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics in approximately equal proportions.
    • A gender fluid person experiences change in hir gender identity and expression, depending on the situation ze is currently in.
    • Similarly, a bi gender person alternates between a masculine gender identity and a separate, feminine one. It is also possible to be trigender or pangender.
    • Gender queer individuals who identify as men or women do not conform completely to the expectations for their gender. They may be flexible in their gender roles and expression.

Transvestites identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and that matches their biological sex, but sometimes dress in clothes associated with the opposite gender.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Some lesbian women exhibit more masculine traits than are generally expected of women. This does not mean that all lesbian women are masculine, nor that all masculine women are lesbians.

Similarly, some gay men exhibit more feminine traits than are typically expected of men. This does not mean that all gay men are feminine, nor that all feminine men are gay.

Masculinity vs Femininity & Sexuality will be addressed in Part 2.

References

Kelly, S., Parameswaran, G., & Schniedewind, N. (2012). Women: Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology (5th ed.). New Yoark: McGraw Hill.

Sedgwick, E.K. (1991). How to bring your kids up gay: The war on effeminate boys. Social Text, 29, 18-27. [PDF]

Teich, N.M. (2012 April 18). Transgender 101: 15 things to know. The Huffington Post.

Wikipedia

Gender Bender January 2013: Challenging the Gender Binary

genbenjanDuring the Fall 2012 semester I took two very eye-opening courses: “Introduction to Women’s & Gender Studies” and “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer (LGBTQ) Studies.” Between these two courses, I became much more aware of assumptions that are generally taken for granted in American (and other) culture(s):

  • There are two biological sexes, male (penis) and female (vagina). All humans fit into one of these two categories.
  • Social roles and behaviors, attributes and capabilities, interests, etc. are determined or at least heavily influenced by biological sex. In other words, males naturally adhere to a set of norms considered “masculine” and females to a set of norms considered “feminine.”
  • Masculinity is inherently better than femininity. It is acceptable and even necessary for a woman or girl to exhibit some masculinity, as long as she ultimately remains “in her place” as a proper female (sex object and caregiver). Men and boys are severely limited in the amount of femininity they may exhibit; an effeminate male is the greatest offense against mankind.
  • Males must be sexually attracted to females and vice-verse. It is very important for a man to be successful sexually (as well as in other areas) and for a woman to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man. Pursuit of these goals is a key factor in social interactions, especially between the sexes.

These assumptions are central to how people raise their children; they influence parents’ plans and expectations before the mother even becomes pregnant! They shape our interactions in school, the workplace, at home, and in everyday life. They’re in every form of media – from movies and TV, to music, to video games, to social networking that require one to select “male” or “female” on a form in order to register, and beyond.

Advertising. Clothes and hygiene products. Housing in institutionalized settings (e.g. colleges, prisons). Public restrooms. Employment. Healthcare. Laws and social institutions. All aspects of our lives are at least partially governed by assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality.

On the surface, the gender binary seems to work for most people. They are heterosexual and/or identify as the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. They believe that the assumptions listed above are true, at least to some degree. Most probably don’t even realize they’re being influenced by those assumptions.

But it doesn’t work for everyone.

I’ve always felt like there was something not quite right about the gender binary. I’ve never understood why there is one set of expectations for boys and a different one for girls. I’ve never taken kindly to the idea that I should like certain things because of the gender I was raised, nor that I should not be interested in something because it is intended for the other gender. My interests and activities are representative of both genders. I believe people of all ages can be fully equal friends regardless of gender. I am attracted to both men and women.

For years I have felt my sense of my own gender change throughout a given day, depending on my current situation. Sometimes, such as while writing, I don’t really have a sense of myself as either gender. I tend to feel very feminine when engaged in or talking about more creative pursuits, especially coordinating visual elements. I feel more masculine when engaged in analytical tasks and problem solving, especially if I am directing other people. I think these “feelings” about my gender are a reflection of cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity that I have internalized.

Similarly, when I am alone I usually do not identify with a gender. In social situations I might adopt the gender role and expression most appropriate to fit in, though I find that difficult and uncomfortable when taken to either extreme. Alternatively, I might take on the gender role needed to balance what everyone else is doing: if the people around me are being very feminine I’ll feel and possibly act more masculine, but if they’re being masculine I might feel and act more feminine.

I am uncomfortable being referred to as the gender I was assigned at birth and that people still assign to me based on physical appearance, especially when that influences my behavior and/or how they treat me. It can have a negative effect on our ability to experience a genuine human connection as equals. I am also annoyed with having to disclose my “sex” in order to do register for services online or send emails to representatives in government. Why should I have to disclose information about my anatomy in order to express my opinions or use services on a website? (or do pretty much anything else?)

For the longest time I thought my experience was unique, until I learned the terms “gender queer” and “gender fluid.” The very existence of those terms means that I am not alone!

Writing for Change

I’m still processing what I learned about gender, society, and myself through the courses that I took this past semester. I hope that by focusing on gender during the month of January, I can solidify my understanding of the issues surrounding gender and my own gender identity. This includes how my gendered upbringing affects my ability to cope with difficult situations, express my emotions, and solve interpersonal problems. It also includes working through my emotional responses to cultural messages about the gender binary, now that I am more aware of them and even less willing to accept them.

Reader, I also hope you will contribute your knowledge, ideas, and experience to an informative discussion about gender and associated issues by commenting. All genders, etc. welcome. The more different perspectives can be included, the better understanding can be gained by all.

Come back later for my next post, Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender, in which I’ll share information that refutes some of the assumptions listed near the beginning of this post. I’ll have a few days each week of January that are dedicated to the gender bender theme: Feminine Fridays will start on January 4th, followed by Masculine Mondays on January 7th and Transgender Tuesdays on January 8th. I might post about my experiences living with depression (or whatever else meets my fancy) on other days of the week.

Happy New Year! and happy bending …