Being a Good Client

I’ve noticed a pattern: I spend a significant portion of my sessions with Wakana celebrating the progress I’ve made so far. On Wednesday I spent a third of our time together raving about my new, androgynous haircut; telling her I was able to separate myself from the agitation my mom was expressing; and taking about times I’ve been assertive. At one point I felt dangerously close to suggesting that maybe we’re reaching the end of our work together and should start talking about termination.

The thing is, I’ve been exhausted. Under my excitement, energy, and good news, a deep weariness was waiting; as soon as I relaxed, it would devour me. I felt it, resisted it, but couldn’t deny it.

She found a way in when I shared the insecurity that was keeping me from joining a new social group: I’m afraid I won’t be accepted as I am. I verbally connected it to childhood experiences; this was no gain in insight but a defensive, almost academic wall I constructed with each word I said. “Keep it intellectual. Don’t feel.”

Wakana is a music therapist. She’s all about the feels.

Somehow she got me to talk about what’s going on for me now: whenever I’m in a social situation, I feel like I have to adapt to the norms and expectations of whomever I’m interacting with. If I don’t know what those are going to be, I feel very anxious. If I can avoid the situation, I probably will.

The whole adapting to social norms thing is just reality to some extent, but I think I take it to a bit of an extreme. I hide who I am, presenting myself as a sweet, quiet, perhaps a bit reserved, easygoing person who is happy to listen and will comply with most requests. I let people touch my arms and shoulders even though I hate it. I smile and avoid interrupting people and don’t tell them when what they’re saying is factually inaccurate or logically flawed … or I just plain disagree with it. I feign interest in topics I couldn’t care less about and fade into the shadows when I can’t find an opening in the conversation. I’m basically the opposite of how I am on this blog. (The more comfortable I am with a group, the less likely I am to fall into this pattern.)

Getting my new haircut was an act of rebellion against most of what my mother trained me to be. And yet, the pictures she took of me the day I got it are identical to every other picture she’s ever taken of me: I look like a demure pre-teen.

Practically everyone I interact with projects their interpretation/expectation of my gender onto me and uses the wrong pronouns, even if I’ve “come out” to them. The exceptions are Fox and Banji. Fox is generally awesome at using the correct pronouns, but he goes with the gendered terms that require the least explanation when in public. Banji respects my preferences by avoiding pronouns. I appreciate their efforts. Also, the LGBTQIA+ organization on campus includes pronouns in introductions, so it provides an opportunity to be authentic without singling myself out as “different” or “other.”

I made the conscious decision not to correct people the last couple times they used the wrong pronouns because I felt too anxious about it. However, the reduction in anxiety came at a high price. Such a basic part of my identity that most people take for granted, and I feel like it’s invisible – even with the hair!!! It’s exhausting.

(My pronouns are ze and zir. As in: “Ze wrote in zir blog that people regularly misgender zir.”)

Wakana finally seems to accept it; when I realized that it was a huge relief.

She beckoned me to the piano so we could vocally venture forth into the unknown. She asked what modality I wanted; I asked for Major. I sang a pretty melody about… something related to being myself or being assertive or whatever. Wakana’s accompaniment diminished, her head dropped, and then she stopped playing all together. It looked like she’d fallen asleep.

I poked her shoulder and said, “c’mon, it’s not that boring!”

That’s when she asked if I was feeling very tired, and I admitted that yes, I was. She was picking up on that so strongly she fell into a trance – and not for the first time during our sessions. I attributed my chronic fatigue to undiagnosed sleep apnea, but she said she thinks it’s because I’m repressing my emotions.

She got me to admit I was mad at my mom for telling me how I should style my hair and which picture I should use as my profile pic on Facebook! We banged on the keyboard and yelled things like “I’m not you!” and “leave me alone!” It was very intense.

I finally broke down crying. “I don’t want to be left alone. I want to be accepted as I am.” I sang about walking my own path and wanting someone to walk with me for a time – but without pulling me onto their path or invading mine.

Wakana yelled some more but then it hit me: I was treating her the same way I treated my mother. All the stuff about how far I’ve come in therapy… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m proud of it! All the time I spent talking about it was an effort to assure her that she is a good therapist… while simultaneously keeping her at a distance. I was hiding my vulnerability. This happened as I sang, “I don’t need you to accept my emotions because I accept them.”

In a flood of tears I finally confessed: “I haven’t been doing better. I’ve been feeling sad and lonely and exhausted and I’ve been spending a lot of time playing The Sims 3. I didn’t want to tell you because you get so angry when I do; I didn’t want to hear it!”

She said I shouldn’t have waited until the end of the session to bring this up. I didn’t tell her, but I needed the work we did in the session to enable me to bring it up.

She conceded that perhaps it’s unfair of her to get so angry when I say I’ve been playing The Sims 3; she asked me to write down the themes that have emerged in my game so we can work with them.

She also said: “depression isn’t feeling sad. Depression is not feeling at all. You need to stop repressing your emotions and dissociating. It’s okay to feel sad; let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and express it.”

I said I hate the cold emptiness of depression and would rather feel sad… but I also despise being sad for no reason. And crying. Ugh. I hate crying.

… but not quite as much as I hate being chronically exhausted.

Transgender Tuesday

gender

Lately I’ve been questioning my gender identity, especially since I wrote about it the other day. The temptation to refer to myself as the gender I was assigned at birth, to allow others to use the labels and pronouns they attribute to me, and to give up on expressing my queer gender identity has been very strong. It doesn’t help that I’m invited to a gender-exclusive social gathering on Fox’s side of the family; just the fact that I’m considering attending raises the question of whether I have the right to call myself transgender.

There’s a voice in my head telling me I should “come out” already – to disclose which gender I was assigned at birth – but this blog is the one place where I’m relatively free from the social effects of gender. I feel like people relate to me as just another person, who doesn’t need to be labeled and treated a certain way based on secondary sex characteristics – which is exactly what I think everyday life should be like. If I don’t want to allow that in the one place where I have some control over such things, why should I do it anywhere?

Mostly it’s because I want to be accepted, to belong. I’m tired of feeling like an outsider. I expect that people are more likely to accept me if I conform to their gender expectations; identifying with the gender they insist on perceiving me as would make that so much easier!

genbenjan

But then I look back at some things I posted over 2 years ago, and realize that the ways I think about my gender haven’t changed:

For years I have felt my sense of my own gender change throughout a given day, depending on my current situation. … I think these “feelings” about my gender are a reflection of cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity that I have internalized. … 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: …

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?)

On being gender queer:

The biggest thing I’m struggling with is determining the extent to which I want to assert my gender queer identity. … 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. … I don’t want to be put in a box. … 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’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). … It’s so hard and I feel so alone. I need to find community.

All of the GenderQueer Confessions I linked to are still relevant.

What it all basically comes down to is: “My body is just a body. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

So far I’ve found this blog to be incredibly helpful for working through my mental health issues. I’m hopeful that it can be just as helpful for dealing with gender issues …

“Transgender Tuesdays” has a nice ring to it. The LGBTQ+ groups I’ve been meaning to join (since the beginning of the semester) meet on Tuesdays. So why not make a feature? I’ll share what I learn about being transgender, any resources I find, and my thoughts/experiences. I’ll also include others’ perspectives when I can; I’d love to have guest bloggers!

The Complexities of Language, Gender, and Identity

gender

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.

girl-or-boy-predictions

The child hasn’t even been born yet and is already being put in a box!

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).

300px-Woman_Montage_(1)

multicultural images of women

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. picasso_mother_and_child_1905_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

  • mamutva reproductive system

    mamuva reproductive system

    mamuva – naturally possessing functional mammary glands, a uterus, a vagina, ovaries, etc.; may or may not menstruate (depending on age, weight, etc.)

  • mamuva’ididentifies 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 reproductive system

    pentestum reproductive system

    pentestum – naturally possessing a penis, testes, scrotum, etc.

  • pentestum’ididentifies 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

Describing Myself

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!

sexism-picture

legs on display, unprotected, in high heels that make it difficult to run away – all part of the daily grind

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.

A1SGQ7DCEAAy-Mq.jpg large

sometimes we have to make the same progress over and over and over again

Moving Forward

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.

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 …