So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

02 December, 2007

Sexes and Genders and Bears, Oh My

So I was reading some of the discussion on the Trans 101 thread on Feministe, and one of the things that came up in a number of comments there is about the intersections between transsexuality and genderqueerness. And I've written about related stuff before, most particularly in the Lamia piece, but not so much directly on that subject.

And so I want to poke a bit at that.

I'm cissexual. I'm also genderqueer. I'm not transgendered -- there is no 'over there' for me to go to, so I rattle around in the amorphous space between 'gender congruent' and 'gender incongruent', a sort of gender dilettante.

When I say "I'm cissexual" I don't mean that I am 100% down with the whole having a female body thing. I've slept on my side all my life; I still haven't adjusted well to what that does to my spine now that I'm not flat. I am so not in the "I love the profound spiritual experience of my moon time" camp. If there were a magic way to swap sexes freely, I would certainly try out being a man for a while to see what it's like -- I might even like it, who knows? -- but I'm pretty damn sure I'd want to swap back after I'd given that body a test drive for a while. (And some of the reasons for that swapping back, to note one of the standard hostile commentary directed at trans people, include particular sexual kinks that hook into this body configuration.) I don't mean that I don't have little dysphorias about my body, though none of the significant ones are sex trait linked.

But all of these are little minor things, comparatively tiny. I didn't used to wear glasses; I remember when I had really spectacular vision. The state of my eyes doesn't leave me with a feeling of wrongness, just mild annoyance at times. My body isn't wrong. It's out of warranty, sure, my skeleton could have done with a bit better engineering, an upgraded gastrointestinal system would be appreciated (but I'd give one to my brother first), but it's still my body. I greet menstruation with "Oh, this nonsense again", not, "This is wrong. It can't be happening to me. My body is making it clear that I don't belong." (Every trans man I know well enough to discuss this with has referred to menstruation as 'cognitive dissonance week'.) There isn't a sense of profound wrongness attached to these things, just aggravation. Inconvenience, perhaps. I'm not thrown out of my head by any of it.

I get thrown out of my head by gender stuff.

A couple of years ago I commissioned a custom NancyButton with the text: "Deborah Tannen thinks that I'm a man." (To be less pithy and more accurate about it, reading through the gendered-communication stuff she wrote about in her pop linguistics stuff, I probably come out to about 2/3 male conversational pattern, 1/3 female conversational pattern.)

There was one of those "What sex are you?" internet quizzies that went around a while back, with result options 'male', 'female', 'either', and 'neither', and I came out male on top ... and then neither. Female clocked in at 39% match.

I got told by a Radical Faerie (I think) once that I had 'a lot of male energy', and commented something in response about my self-perception of androgyny, the experience of an astral penis, though not mentioning that in most of my very few explicit sex dreams I'm male with a female partner.

On the one hand, there's the whole "Of course a woman can do this; I'm a woman, and I do this" thread of things. But at the same time there's this whole thing where I've always felt like a poser, a faker, someone with passing privilege who has to be sure to not be caught doing it wrong, or watching the other people surreptitiously for cues. The body things I don't have a problem with, but I don't seem to have a woman's mind. Or at least not what gets portrayed as one in any of the gender presentations and behaviours standardly allowed for women.

Or something. I've written about being much more comfortable with the trappings of femininity once I gave up on the whole female-gender thing as describing me, because then I could go at them with the same attitudes I did at the trappings of masculinity -- I can get out of this what I want, I don't have to fit a pattern.

I've noted that the only gender I've ever been comfortable with is "geek", but that's not right, it's merely not wrong. I once gave my gender as "music elemental" in response to a casual poll. I have a perfume that I wear when I want to keep myself mentally off-balance for some reason, because it makes me smell like a girl. I commented to Little Light a while back that my sort of ur-formalwear includes a frock coat and elbow-length opera gloves. The idea of having a single gender expression -- picking, say, the pseudo-Victorian look and attitude and priorities over the long-skirted long-haired hippie or the sleek, spiked goth or any of the other things that I pick up and put down depending on the tides and the weather -- or even a dominant one with little lapses into the others for special occasions -- is weird and uncomfortable and pinning me down somewhere I don't belong.

And it isn't that standard gender roles are oppressive -- which they are -- or that the alternate conceptions of gender strike me as similarly, if not as severely limiting -- which they do -- it's just that the whole damn thing is a mask-dance anyway. It's all drag, man. None of these are me -- or at least not all of me.


Trinity said...

Thank you for this. :)

CrackerLilo said...

Amazing, and amazingly well-written.

Deborah Tannen thinks my wife, my mom, my favorite aunt, and most of my female friends are really men, too.

I'm very happy to be female, but so often I find myself thinking that two genders just aren't enough, and even the genders themselves just aren't *big* enough!

Elizabeth McClung said...

I wish there was more definative writing on this because it is a mental experience that I am curious about simply because I don't understand it. I know that dreams aren't everything, since I've dreamed I was a dog a couple times and a ROCK a couple time (very odd), but still, I think they say something.

For example, looking back at someone like Patricia Highsmith, it is pretty clear what her identity was (since Pat told everyone he was male until forced in teens to do otherwise and required to marry so solved that by marrying a gay male.) But the idea that all presentations are drag? I guess growing up in a relgion which regulated hair length and what you could wear down to the metals you could wear (earrings required, but NOT gold and not longer than a 1/2 inch in length). Going out into the world was a giant, "woo hoo!" And when people said, "well you can't take that, no woman has ever taken that course." I was like "So? Change the rule" (When you are going to hell for shaving your legs, what else matters?).

I guess the thing is in adult life, I have never had a problem knowing who I was regardless of what I was doing, wearing, whatever. And I am trying to figure out what that would feel like - to do the same thing but be identity that it?

If you want a penis, I recommend the Feeldoe.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

The identity isn't ambiguous.

It's just ... here's a way of maybe looking at it.

Gender is a shadow. People talk about gender as performance, as acting a role, a lot, but in its social context it's sort of figuring out who people are by their silhouettes.

You can get a lot of information out of silhouettes; there are entire art forms operating in that sort of thing, playing with the shadow-images that are iconic; you can tell a lot of stories with silhouettes. It strips out a lot of the three-dimensionality of the people who were casting them, but also one can see how people move and animate their shadows as an active thing, how they wear those flat things like clothing (which is kind of blah unless it's on a body, after all). Just because it's a shadow doesn't mean it's not real.

I can't deal in silhouettes without being unable to resist the urge to make shadow puppets. The whole 'what form do you cast on the social wall' question is full of, "Well, if I hold my arm like this and waggle my fingers, it's this way, but if I stand just *so* it looks like that, and ..."

"Do Deformed Rabbit! It's my favorite!"

None of these things are real to me. I can get different ones depending on how I choose to arrange my substance. Sometimes it's fun to cast the same shadow for a while in a row; sometimes it doesn't matter what shadow I'm casting; sometimes what I want to do is go, "Look! Look! I made Chthulhu!"

Like Lilo said -- the genders aren't big enough, and there aren't enough of them.

stevethehydra said...

"Astral penis"??? :o

Very nice piece of writing. Actually, despite what i just said over at Questioning Transphobia, i might not be *quite* the same kind of genderqueer as you; i think i'm just Not The Kind Of Thing That Has Gender. You might as well ask me my miles per gallon.

Although, i have had fantasies about being penetrated from the front, and i don't actually have an orifice at the front. What that means, i have no idea...

stevethehydra said...

And i've just read that for a second time and now think that i'm exactly the same kind of genderqueer as you, except that i simply can't be bothered with all the performative stuff, so i just wear whatever i feel (physically) comfortable in (which turns out, surprise surprise, to be "male" clothing, because, y'know, patriarchy allows men to have clothes assigned to them which can actually be worn comfortably)...

I need to start stating my gender as "geek" and/or "music elemental"...

(seriously, is "geek" regarded as a gender identity? i was musing about its etymology today, and wondering how it got from "circus performer who acts crazy and bites the head off things" to "anyone with an obsessive knowledge or interest in something"...)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

The concept of 'geek' as a gender identity cropped up in one of the parts of usenet that I spent/d a fair amount of time in, and was enthusiastically recognised by a number of people there.

It's an interesting thought experiment to work with, at a minimum. For one thing, it's a construct of gender that is not dependent on genitalia, though assumptions about it are that the people who are geeks will likely be male.

But consider:

The geek has a particular social status defined by that trait. There are jobs which are socially assumed to be better for geeks or will be primarily staffed by geeks (mostly technical and computer-based); there are expectations about the sort of clothing a geek will tend to wear, and particular expectations about personal appearance (mostly negative); certain social traits (such as social ineptness) are expected of geeks, and some of the negative effects of those social traits are considered excusable from a geek when they would not be, say, from a person presenting as masculine or feminine.

The stereotypical social activities of geeks tend to be focused around particular types of activities (model-car building, gaming, computers) which reward particular sorts of maniacal attention to detail and do not necessarily require intimate social dynamics (as one would expect of stereotypical women) or competition (as one would expect of stereotypical men).

The geek is typically deemed romantically oblivious (though there is also the stereotype of the hypersexualised and utterly denied geek type), leading to the common cultural practice of the "geek flirt", which can be expressed as a direct, "Hi, I'm interested in/attracted to you. If you wish to implement something on the basis of this knowledge, let me know, otherwise let's go back to playing Warcraft/building model airplanes/discussing the physics of Roadrunner cartoons." (It is slightly more likely for female geeks to initiate the geek flirt than male geeks, in my experience, probably due to the weird sexism of surrounding society causing the female-bodied to be defensively aware of the possibility of sexuality entering into interactions. I once geekflirted someone -- my most recent ex, about whom I write occasionally here -- because he knew I was polyamorous, wanted to seek my advice on how to deal with a potentially-poly situation that was confusing him, and started out with something to the effect of, "I tend to fall for my female friends ...." When I pointed out that I was interested in him in response, he actually bothered to consider it, and said, "Now that you mention it, I notice the feeling is mutual." Engineers!)

(That's not as bad as my husband, with whom I had the following conversation back before we were vaguely involved:
"Did you notice you were flirting?"
"No." *gets on bus*

He's better now, but it's such a funny story I can't stop telling it! ;) )

There's a set of social expectations and stereotypes, behaviours that are expected in performance, failings that are taken as given, and generalised attitudes that are basically presumed of a geek; the experience of same strikes me as very similar to the sort of patterns expected of femininity, masculinity, butchness, femmeness, and any other more commonly recognised gendering tags.

It works well in combination with other gender tags, too. If I were to describe someone's gender presentation as "butch geek", for example, I imagine that most people would probably get an understanding of the sort of practical, multi-tool-carrying hefty-boot-wearing occasionally flannel-shirted nerdery that I am attempting to describe.

stevethehydra said...

"leading to the common cultural practice of the "geek flirt", which can be expressed as a direct, "Hi, I'm interested in/attracted to you. If you wish to implement something on the basis of this knowledge, let me know, otherwise let's go back to playing Warcraft/building model airplanes/discussing the physics of Roadrunner cartoons."

Oh God, you have no idea just how much i wish that was the norm...

Direct versus indirect communication, social norms and theorising sexual consent (Antioch rules vs society's expectation of non-verbal propositioning and non-verbal assent as norms)... that's something i really need to blog about...

Dw3t-Hthr said...

My relationship with the guy who sexually assaulted me is the only one I've had that started out according to social norms; this did not, y'know, endear me to the practice. ;)

But the overwhelming majority of my relationships have started out with me delivering the geekflirt; generally the conversation then goes to implementation questions, and a couple of times to "Thank you, I'm flattered, but I'm not interested; are there comfort concerns that need to be taken into account now that we've had this exchange?"

Dw3t-Hthr said...

(It helps that I spend pretty much all of my social time with people who operate at least partially in geek social role; I'm actively disconcerted by areas with more normative gendering expectations, and thus avoid them.)

(This is rendered much easier by the fact that I live under a rock and I like it that way.)