Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gender Bender

In light of the recent flurry of comments on my recent post about being pranked Wendy and I have been talking a lot about gender roles.  Both of us thought a lot about it and came to the conclusion that we couldn't really understand the mindset that would be necessary to go through the trauma of changing genders, whether it be just the social changes or the medical treatments.  Not to say we don't support those who feel they need to, but rather that we just can't grok that situation.  We both thought back on our lives and looked at the things we have done and want to do and gender would not have particularly changed those life paths as far as we can see, though this may be because Wendy already took a more 'masculine' path by choosing a serious career focus and I took the 'feminine' path of going to university to meet someone who wants to go out and earn money so I can stay at home.  We both are very at home in our bodies though and she knits while I like chopping things with axes - there are plenty of stereotypes that we fit very cleanly.

I get a lot of really weird looks and questions when I talk about what I do that I know women in the same situation would likely not get.  People seem very concerned to figure out what sort of business I have cooking up at home because clearly a man wouldn't stay at home without being some sort of entrepreneur.  After defending my choice not to turn my hobbies into sketchy small businesses I often have to put the questioner on the defensive.

"You know, our experiences at 1 o'clock are probably really different.  You think about how you only have 4 hours left in the damn place before you can go home whereas I have to carefully decide between a long afternoon nap and just surfing for porn for 4 hours straight.  Good thing all that working has left you almost ready to retire, right?"

People don't like it when I say this but it sure gets them off my back!  When I get hassled about going about barefoot it is a little different though - sidelong glances are everywhere, sneers are reasonably common and outright hostility happens now and again.  That obviously isn't the same thing as violating gender norms but it sure gives me insight into just how ridiculous people get when someone makes a small change to normal behaviour that is entirely personal and harmless.

I am reading Whipping Girl and a big focus in the early parts of the book (which are the only parts I am done up to this point) is how the female role is looked down upon by society.  Having considered Wendy's experiences and my own it becomes abundantly clear how true this is.  A person expressing shock or disbelief at Wendy's career direction would be a very strange thing indeed as she is a woman pursuing a traditionally male career role but I am a man pursuing a traditional female career role so I am deemed strange because that role is looked down upon as inferior.  Why would I choose to avoid a career when I could choose that option so freely?  Well, I have plenty of good reasons, not the least of which is that I mostly don't give a damn if people generally don't respect my choice and in fact enjoy challenging people's assumptions.  Those who know me will not be surprised by this!

I also got to thinking that I know I am male and I know I desire women but I have no idea what that means.  Do breasts define a woman?  A vagina?  The ability to bear children?  Two X chromosomes? Acting like a woman?  Feeling like a woman?  I have no idea where my boundaries are - I have never been in a situation where that came up as a point of contention so even though my desire for women is a pretty defining part of my personality I don't even know what it means.  Bizarre.  Just as much, what does it mean for me to understand myself as a man?


  1. I've been trying sooo hard to just let this one go, but...

    > Wendy and I have been talking a lot about gender roles. Both of us thought a lot about it and came to the conclusion that we couldn't really understand the mindset that would be necessary to go through the trauma of changing genders[...]

    I can't imagine anyone changing genders for the sake of a preferred culturally defined gender role either, that seems categorically insane. (It is, in fact, a specific contraindication to a GID diagnosis in the DSM.) Isn't it fairly obvious by inspection that there's something deeper at work here?

    I am certain that, as a technology professional with executive career aspirations and a very masculine sense of style, who is also exclusively attracted to women, it would probably be much *easier* for me to be a man. Sadly I am not.

    Also, it's worth noting that, to someone who experiences a subconscious sex which is not congruent with their lived one, transition is not in the least bit traumatic. *Not* transitioning is torture.

    > I also got to thinking that I know I am male and I know I desire women but I have no idea what that means.

    Isn't it interesting when the answer is contained within the question?

    You know that you are male. Knowing that you are male is what makes you male. You know that you desire women. Knowing that you desire women is what makes you straight (when combined with your known maleness.)

    It is good and noble to question these things, to learn more about both yourself and humanity at large, but grokking any deeper insight into their origins is on a par with parsing sentience itself.

  2. Oh man, I feel stupid posting a link to the DSM. I'd forgotten how it read... What a pathologizing and inane pile.

    The relevant excerpt:

    > This cross-gender identification must not merely be a desire for any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex.

  3. I think you misunderstood my statement about our thoughts on changing genders. We were just examining the impact that a different personal outlook on gender might have had on certain choices we have made. I completely agree that the desire to change genders for some perceived advantage is not what transgender is, nor is it what we were thinking about. I was speculating on how gender has affected my life and how a difference in gender might have made other things different, and ignoring the obvious contradictions that ensue. It was a game of 'what if...' and not a game of 'this is an accurate representation of what a transgender person thinks and experiences'.

  4. Also, having read that link you shared, I agree that it is a pretty ridiculous and sexist. Naming specific toys that children must play with based on their assigned gender? Preposterous. I do agree that your excerpt is important though.

  5. I did first assume that was what you meant (which was why I didn't really think much of it), but felt compelled to chime in after speaking with someone else who had read it differently. :) (I should have made that clear when replying.)

    Continuing the theme, I think we can both agree that gender is not purely a societal construct. Society, however, is very much a gendered construct. Laying that aspect bare and understanding the role it plays in your own life and others' can be tremendously enlightening in unexpected and wonderful ways.

    I've gained a lot of respect for some of the more academic feminist and queer theorists over the past few years. (It's all I can do to not stalk Judith Butler, who teaches just blocks from my home...) They are not so much just subjects to be examined, but lenses through which the world can be seen in new ways.

    There one trope which I wanted to stomp out most vigorously though was the idea that transition is hard, traumatic or scary. It need not be, not in the slightest. I think this one misconception causes more harm than almost any other (albeit indirectly).

  6. That last point is one I was entirely surprised by, though I suppose I should not have been. I thought that transitioning would be challenging personally but that the reactions of others would be the greatest issue. Having thought about it more I can easily see your point though: To want to transition must require a tremendous impetus and that implies that the state of not transitioning is extremely difficult to live with for a trans identified person.

  7. > You know that you are male. Knowing that you are male is what makes you male.

    I don't think that analysis really works for two reasons. First of all, we can't rely on people to actually know themselves. But I also think that when people talk about male and female they are talking about something more than their own feelings in that regard. It varies a lot from person to person for sure, but that doesn't mean they aren't trying to access something outside themselves.

    We use a lot of mental shortcuts to bundle concepts together, and those bundles are pretty tightly tied. Until you meet a pro-life vegan you might assume that all vegans are pro-choice, for example. But that's a pretty easy one to separate - the personal meaning of your gender vs. your concept of what makes a person a certain gender is probably a lot harder.

    To quote Family Guy:
    A vasectomy's a medical procedure
    One that makes you half a man (you're half a man)

    This is a joke based on how a number of people really feel. It wouldn't be hard to find people who would tell you they wouldn't feel like a man anymore if they had a vasectomy. Somewhere inside them they feel that being a man means being able to get a woman pregnant.

    I bring this up just as an example or people looking to some kind of outside criterion to define their own gender to themselves. Obviously when a person identifies as a member of any group, their idea of what membership in that group means has to match their idea of what they are, but most of the time we are capable of being disillusioned and having identity crises.

    I'm pretty sure that being a man and knowing he is a man are different things even for a man who knows he's a man. He may easily go his whole life without contemplating or noticing that difference, though.

  8. @Sthenno:

    I think it's the only definition which is both necessary and sufficient. Though "not knowing upon reflection, but never really thought about it" is probably a decent proxy for self-identification.

    The problem with any other definition is that it inevitably fails to reflect reality. That failure can usually be traced to an overreaching definition of the word "gender" of course, but responding to a question with a semantic argument is really just being intellectually dodgy.

    A convenient fringe benefit to this definition (in addition to its correctness) is also that it does force people to think about it more, and learn about themselves. Just because someone has never thought about their gender identity doesn't mean they don't have one.

  9. @Sky:

    > Having thought about it more I can easily see your point though[...]

    I'm not sure that you do... ;)

    It's true that the reactions of others is the hardest part. But let me try a different explanation:

    How hard was puberty? Transition is that hard.

    I'm not saying it's a walk in the park, but the neither is puberty. It's actually a remarkably consistent analogy. Doing so alone, with no idea of what to expect and in an intolerant environment would be terrifying; but if you just chill out and let it happen (either as a friend, family or transitioner) it's just a matter of time.

    Transition shouldn't be just an alternative to suicide. It shouldn't be undertaken lightly, and checks should be in place of course; but the amount of individual and cultural resistance to it as an option condemn millions to being "not quite miserable enough" to transition. That's tragic.

  10. Though to continue my previous @Sky, I should add that a world where transition is trivial is sadly not this one. And in retrospect, I'm being excessively optimistic. But by far the greatest regret of every single trans person I've ever met was not beginning sooner. That's really what I'm reacting to here.

    Transition is terrifying enough (for both trans people and their families) without the constant cultural reinforcement. If we all reacted to it as we enlightened folk now react to, say, being gay, the world would be much easier for the gender variant.

  11. @CP: I think my point is that for most people their identification of anyone (including themselves) as a member of a gender is contingent on some kind of criteria. They may be unaware of what those criteria are, and they are (obviously) unaware if they don't meet their own criteria for the gender they identify with.

    Probably most people "know" what gender they are, but for some reasonable subset of people there is something that could happen that would cause them to realize they were wrong (subjectively). This is the big problem with equating self-identification with reality: what happens when someone has a different opinion about their present self in the future?

    If a person with one gender identity discovers information about themselves that makes them lose that gender identity and adopt a new one, it is possible that they say, "I was A but now I am B" but it is also possible that they say, "I am and always have been B." In other words, it may be that they used to be wrong. So I guess I disagree that it is sufficient. It is a sufficient definition only if people can't be fantastically wrong about anything and everything. I think the idea that people can be spectacularly wrong about their most fundamental beliefs is a very import part of my own belief system.

    Self-identification is the only reasonable way to determine someone's gender, and I don't think there are any external criteria that could be applied to prove a person wrong about their own gender. I just think that if I say I'm male it is more reasonable for me to mean, "I'm very confident that I am male" than it is to mean, "I am male by definition."

  12. @Sthenno: I don't see anything inherently wrong with one's understanding of one's own gender changing over time. Why is it important to the definition of gender that it be immutable?

  13. Alright, third times the charm (I just deleted my second ridiculous comment focused on linguistic philosophy).

    What I'm saying has nothing to do with immutability. What I'm saying is that some people have a lived experience of being wrong about what gender they are. Some people surely experience a gradual shift in their gender, but for others it comes as a sudden epiphany that they are and always were (or at least for some time have been) something different than what they previously thought.

    Because people have a real experience of being wrong about their gender, I can't accept a definition of gender that eliminates the possibility of being wrong.

  14. @Sthenno:

    Ok, I see your point. You're suggesting that gender has a kind of Heisenberg-esque quality.

    While cute, that seems to be utterly impractical. *Especially* given the amount of harm done by people who second-guess others' genders, suggesting that a person's own self-identification may be incorrect is a very dangerous road to travel.

    It's a lot like saying: "Homosexuality is abnormal, and if it were more common would lead to the end of human civilization as we know it." Sure, you might be technically correct, but is it really a belief worth having?

    I would propose that in the situations you've called out, where a person's understanding (and identification) of their own gender changes over time, their actual gender is changing as well. There are other qualities which may have been immutable and unrecognized, but I think those require a more specific taxonomy.

    I would challenge you to suggest a plausible (or even possible) real-world scenario where a tautological definition of gender is less practical than a deconstructionist one.

  15. Alright, here's a scenario:

    Therapist: Over the last six months we've talked about a lot of issues you have in your life, and thinking about all the things we've discussed, something I wanted to ask you is if you've ever thought about your gender.

    Patient: What do you mean?

    Therapist: Well, some people have an experience of feeling like the gender assignment they've been given by society doesn't match their own feelings about their gender. Do you think you might feel like that?

    Patient: That's ridiculous, obviously I'm a man.

    Therapist: Good enough for me! Self-identifying as a man is the definition of being a man, after all. I was going to suggest you read this book by a transgender author about her experiences and see whether you see some of yourself in it, but clearly there is no need.


    The amount of damage that has been done by people second guessing each other's genders is huge. But that doesn't mean we should stop second guessing each other's genders, it means that 1) we should stop assuming we know things we don't; 2) we should stop assuming that other people's lives will work out in a way that is familiar or comfortable for us; and 3) we should stop being jerks.

    Second guessing other people's sexual orientation has also done a ton of damage, but that doesn't mean that no parent should ever say, "It doesn't matter to me who you love, I will always still love you," to gently prod their kid towards self-realization. Second guessing who other people should marry has broken up families and friendships, but that doesn't mean that there is no place in the world for a close friend to say, "I'm concerned about your relationship with Bill - I worry that you are only marrying him because you don't think you can do better and you feel like you need someone. You are a great person and you deserve to be really happy."

    Our friends really do often know us better than we know ourselves. Self-deception is a rampant part of the human condition. Believing 100% in your own assessment of yourself is usually foolish and so believing 100% in someone else's assessment of themselves must be equally foolish.

    I know this is going to sound like a ridiculous thing to say, but rest assured I say it because I am crazy, not because I am being a pedantic jerk: You could wake up tomorrow and find out that you were totally mistaken about the words "male" and "female", that somehow you had them reversed your entire life and everyone uses them the opposite way you do. You would immediately, upon realizing this, switch the word you used for yourself from one to the other (if you are smart you would also go get a brain scan to find the lesion or tumor that caused this problem in the first place). The very fact that this would cause you to change how you describe yourself proves that when you describe yourself as having one gender or another you are reaching for *something*. It is not enough that you match your own definition, you are trying to tap into a concept that you think you share with other people.