In the process of talking about things like transhumanism, I’ve started to hit a wall in my questions when it comes to identities, most particularly gender identities. It makes perfect sense why people should get to define their identities for themselves. It makes complete sense that there are more identities than male and female, that we need new words and new perspectives about how people can act and dress and talk. This is all new and exciting and I love the conversations about how we can make gender identities reflect the ways that people actually feel and identify.
But there’s been something hanging around at the back of my head that just came to light while reading this article about cyborg as gender (content note: the author has a really rudimentary understanding of trans issues that really detracts from the rest of what he’s saying). And then I realized: I no longer know what the heck gender is.
So the traditional definition of gender is the outward, cultural expression of your biological sex. Gender activists have pretty much blown that to smithereens, and the existence of intersex, trans, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and all sorts of other gendered people really complicates the idea that there is a one to one connection between sex and gender such that gender is an expression of sex. Really the fact that there are people who express the same sex differently (even people in the same culture or family) calls into question the idea that gender is the culture version of sex. The idea that gender is just an outward expression of the body parts you have is pretty outdated.
So what about other definitions? Some newer definitions include the idea that gender is how you feel or identify personally. If you feel like a woman you are a woman. That makes sense, but what does it mean to feel like a woman? Does it mean you’re more comfortable in the body typically assigned to women? No, because there are absolutely trans* or genderqueer people who prefer feminine pronouns and identify as femme but who don’t physically transition to a body assigned female. Does it mean to act stereotypically “feminine” or want people to treat you like a woman? No, there are butch trans women, and cis women who behave outside the norm, and tons of women of all stripes who are active feminists who want to change the way they’re treated.
Is it just about what feels comfortable? Does it feel comfortable to use certain pronouns or a certain name? That seems so far removed from the original definitions of gender that I’m not sure it makes sense to call them the same thing anymore. Perhaps it has to do with comfort in certain clothes or behaviors, but again, the labels that we give to gender seem to have little to no correlation to the outward expressions of gender. There are men who cross dress and women who buzz their hair, but we still recognize that if they identify as a certain thing they get to be that thing.
So when I say “I identify as a woman”, I’m not even sure what I’m saying anymore. When someone says that their gender is cyborg (which seems to make about as much sense as a lot of other gender identities: it’s a particular way of relating to your body and presenting your body to the world), what are they saying? I saw someone once write that they felt autism took the slot in their brain that people typically reserve for gender. They believed their gender was autistic. I’m starting to wonder if “gender” might not simply be a word for “first or basic identity”. Perhaps it’s the thing that we most strongly see ourselves as, and as we begin to create new gender categories, the old ones are becoming less and less helpful since they don’t actually point to a coherent category anymore (as anyone can fit into the categories of male and female. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means we need better categories that actually describe the ways people act and dress and speak without all the stupid baggage of the gender binary).
If that’s not the case, then it might be more helpful to break down the concept of gender into slightly smaller categories. There are already words for how you present (femme, butch, etc) that could be fleshed out to simply describe someone’s aesthetic. We might also need better words for the variety of things that “sex” encompasses (chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics) to allow people to identify if they so choose based on their bodies. Maybe we also need more words for passive/assertive distinctions, or other personality differences separate from gender. But none of these seem to get at the question of core identity that many people view gender as. The problem seems to be that there are so many components to what a gender identity can look like that we’d need more words than anyone could possibly keep track of to label all the combinations that could exist.
None of this is to criticize anyone’s current gender identity. None of this is to invalidate the way people feel in relation to their bodies. It’s simply to question whether the words that we’ve inherited are the most useful in labeling the ways that we feel, or if we need to explore what we mean when we say them. It’s entirely possible that someone has already clarified a newer definition of gender that I was simply unable to find (if so, please link me), but I don’t think relying on words that imply a connection between sex and gender or between gender and the body is very useful when the ways that we understand gender today don’t rely on those connections.
I would love it if we could start to expand core identities beyond gender (which is the first category most people try to ascribe to people), so that people would allowed to identify as autistic or black or disabled first if they felt it was the most pertinent element of their identity. In order to do that, I think we need to start questioning what we mean when we say gender.
I have a lot of these same questions and thoughts about gender.
My body language and expression can be more “masculine” (I speak loudly, move pretty ungracefully but assertively) and I generally dislike skirts, heels, jewelry and purses, and occasionally wear ties and lots of blazers, but I dress pretty femme. In a sense, I dislike the term “woman” to describe me, but I’m okay with feminine pronouns. I really feel like my preferences are all over the place, and butch doesn’t really cover it. What is gender even? I express my personality and preferences in all sorts of ways that defy social expectations. You’re right, we need labels for lots of different forms of expression.
I relate to this too; I just feel like I don’t quite understand gender, to the point that I now consider myself genderless (I’ve written on my blog about my whole process of coming to that term as well as my questions/confusion about gender). I like what you said about gender perhaps meaning one’s primary identity, and I like the idea of people being able to claim other identities as just as important (or more so for some people) as masculinity or femininity.
This whole issue is complicated and hard to think about and talk about. I’ve had many discussions with Degon in which he’s challenged my views on gender, so I’ve had to come up with new ways of thinking about things and explaining myself.
The difficult thing about gender is that it’s so ingrained in us that it’s hard, if not impossible, to distinguish our personal feelings about our gender from the cultural influences we were raised with. Shit, even *having different hormones in your body* cause you to act and feel differently about your gender. (I say that as an AFAB person whose feelings of dysphoria wax and wane with hormonal tides.)
I honestly think it’s more problematic to reduce gender to one determining factor, because it fails to recognize how intersectional one facet of gender is with another. Identifying as a woman is a thing, but to ignore the fact that that feeling is influenced by one’s upbringing is literally just willful ignorance and I find it irritating.
While I try to recognize that many factors go into shaping how I feel about my gender, I also have tried to simplify how I explain it to people: Being called a woman and treated like a woman makes me feel horrible. Even when it’s positive, solidarity building things and not being confronted with daily misogyny. I’ve tried, hard, to make myself not feel bad about it, but I can’t, and I just end up feeling worse because it turns into “you shouldn’t feel like this”, which as you know is BAD.
Recently I’ve tried a thought experiment where I consider just identifying as a woman. Like, my husband has basically asked me if butch women can still be women, why can’t you just be exactly who you are and redefine woman to fit whatever? (Aside from the bullshit part of this where I have to accept a label that was forced on me…) And basically every time I try to do this, imaginining just identifying as a woman and letting people call me she and relinquishing my identity as a genderqueer person, it immediately makes me want to not exist. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve allowed the genderqueer identity to become so important to me or if my feelings of gender are just that strong, but I would literally sooner die than live my life as a woman. I don’t *want* to feel that way, I just do.
So I’m what they call an indigo, and I’m coming at this from the perspective that all of the gender stuff is an integral part of a larger societal change. As such, we cannot understand this issue without examining the whole.
So where are we coming from and where are we going? Well we’re coming form patriarchy/duality/monarchy/marriage-as-property-transfer kind of stuff, all of which neatly fit together into one big picture that everyone could understand and most people were mostly relatively ok with. It was ok, for kids’ stuff, but we’re growing out of it now, and looking for something better.
But the new state of mind we’ve developed will be no happier with any new system we come up with, because like I said that’s kid stuff and we’ve outgrown it. Only we’re still human, and many fo us still feel happier and safer with the old system, or various stages thereof, and anyway the human mind just doesn’t deal with the Void/chaos very reasonably. if we can’t find something, the abyss of meaning will scare us enough that there will be an eventual reversion to the old system, only with a heavy backlash for making us all go through all this. Noticed how popular certain terrible versions of the older systems are getting lately, in certain parts of the world?So what do we do then? We cannot go forward and cannot go back, cannot unsee the truth.
What is the truth anyway? The truth as i see it, is that some people are happy in limiting systems, and some people are happy living without labels or directions whatsoever, and many people prefer some mixture of the two. And some people of course cannot be honest, or made permanent bad choices because they did not have sufficient data. that will be true in any system,and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something.
I think what we need to do at this point is learn how to know ourselves personally, and others generally and with that basic knowledge choose the best we can personally, while attempting to live with the fact that other people will choose something of their own free will that is personally repellant to us. And try to leave ourselves as many (or as few) options as we feel necessary, and live with the consequences of our actions, knowing that we chose them as best we could, and if it fits our chosen paradigm let ourselves choose anew later, if it’s necessary.
Seems really difficult and complex, yet it’s quite simple “you makes your choice and you pays your price.”
Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to make new labels, but we should do so in the awareness that doing so is an inherently unending task, ’cause we’re all individuals. We should keep trying though, because more options helps foster better understanding and a better personal fit.
Oh, and we should totally Totally work on the issue of consent. What is consent? Who can posses the ability to give it away,and under what conditions can it be denied? The BDSM community has been working on that one for a while, so go exploring in that direction if you haven’t (it’s another integral one, relating to as diverse subjects as government, technology, and psychology).
Happy hunting, and as Mercedes Lackey puts it,
“If you’ve got to traverse thin ice,
Do it in a dance!”
I think you’re right on a lot of this stuff. I do think that having a common language where we all know what we mean when we say “gender” or “sex” would be suuuuper helpful.
Also props on Mercedes Lackey quote. My favorite author in junior high.