Gender and Stuff: Even When You Opt Not To Wade, The Water’s Still There

For an intersex person who was, at one time, pretty deeply involved in activism, I actually don’t spend an enormous amount of time thinking about questions of gender and so forth. But that doesn’t mean that those questions aren’t out there, thinking of me.

The ocean’s always there, whether or not you get in.

Last year, I came to the understanding that there are people in the world who can’t detect the effects of privilege because it’s really freaking hard to see the privilege you have. (I think I’ve talked about this before.)

I came to this conclusion, in part, because of ballet and my experiences at the ADTA conference (and also because of my experiences as a presenter at academic research conferences).

Being a guy in the ballet world is kind of like experiencing male privilege on steroids. Being a guy at a conference full of polite, well-educated, socially-conscious dance-and-psychology people was much the same.

In both conditions, you’re not just a guy (or, in my case, to add layers to the problem, a conventionally-attractive white guy from a privileged socioeconomic background, etc.), you’re a guy and a unicorn, and everyone is automatically really, really nice to you so you won’t go away … and if you aren’t hip to what’s going on, you’ll just think everyone’s really nice to you because you deserve it (because that’s how we are, as humans: when we’re treated well consistently, we tend to operate on the driving, if oft-unconscious, principle that we deserve to be treated well).

In both conditions, you’re frequently surrounded by women — intelligent, thoughtful, creative, energetic women, but still women who have been brought up with the same unspoken rules, the same pressures, as all women are in this culture.

Or, like, these tights.

Or, like, these tights.

When you open your mouth, things tend to get quiet. They tend to stay quiet until you’re done talking (and, if you’re me, and you have difficulty using a small number of words to say a thing, that can take a while).

If you’re not paying attention, you might just assume everyone thinks that what you’re saying is really awesome, and they really want to hear it — when, in fact, there’s this weird cultural thing where women are very much conditioned not to interrupt men.

Even scrawny little gay dudes in silver tights.

That doesn’t mean that women don’t really want to hear what you have to say, but it does mean that there’s a barrier, for them, when it comes to grabbing some talk-time for themselves.

Not that they physically can’t, of course.

I grew up in a highly-intellectual, debate-crazed Yankee family, and let me tell you — women can interrupt and drone on and talk over you just as well as men, provided — and here’s the critical thing — that their cultural backgrounds allow for that possibility.

Melee combat at Tewkesbury Festival, 2009.

A typical dinner-table chat in my childhood home. (Image: Lee Hawkins [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The thing is, for a lot of women — I would even say for most women (in the United States, at least) — that’s not the case.

Just like a lot of women of a certain generation would never have imagined that they could swing a kettle bell or out-judo the guys or run marathons. Like, it wouldn’t have occurred to them to even think that there was a thing out there that they could do that they weren’t doing. It wasn’t in the realm of possibility.

Worse, even if the concept of running into the verbal lists a-swingin’ that verbal mace exists in the realm of possibility, for a lot of women, it’s something they’ve been taught to see as insufferably, unbearably, abominably rude. (I agree that, at times, it can be.) Worse still, it’s something that many of the same women have been taught to tolerate in men, but not in themselves.

And it’s something a lot of men take for granted (meaning, we don’t even think about it; we don’t even know it’s there) as a right for ourselves, and will accept as simple repartée from other guys, but about which we feel immensely affronted when women do it to us.

So, culturally speaking, while sisters are, in fact, entirely capable of doing it for themselves, it really helps if dudes make a little effort (and if we don’t, like, wall them into a cultural oubliette, and stuff).

Like, we can help by learning to shut up sometimes and let someone else talk, and by learning to notice those cues that say “Hey, I am about to open my mouth and say some stuff that I think is important, or at least I would if you would shut the hell up for a second*.” Amazingly, it’s not even that huge a pain in the ass (which is to say, it’s hard, especially if for those of us who have trouble processing verbal and non-verbal information at the same time, but you don’t really lose anything except the chance to hear yourself droning on and on all the time like a complete jerk).

*I should note that I’m not sure encouraging everyone to interrupt all the time is actually a good thing. I spent my whole childhood basically thinking I was a half-wit because I’m terrible at following multiple conversational threads (I have enough trouble with just one, thank you) and any conversation with my family was basically a pitched verbal battle taking place on four or five fronts at once.

I say all this as a preamble to another discussion entirely: that of the question of gender, and of gender identity, and of the problems that have cropped up around the Caitlyn Jenner issue.

These are waters in which I tread lightly, because my experience is, well, weird. (What, me, weird? That never happens!)

As an intersex person, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to live in a body that (in some ways) doesn’t match my internal sense of identity, and (in other ways) doesn’t match other people’s expectations of who and what I am and wouldn’t no matter how I identified.

I am also aware that it’s painfully difficult to try to express why I identify as I do.

As a neuroscientist-in-the-making, I’m acutely aware of the complexities of the human brain and of the problems that tend to crop up when people who don’t have even the fairly minimal degree of expertise that I have try to make statements about causation**.

**In case you’re wondering: it’s probably nature and nurture that lead to any measurable differences we’ve noticed in the brains of men and women, not one or the other. Likewise, those differences are far from universal, and I don’t think they should be used to prescribe gender any more than, frankly, I think genitals should. That way lies one big giant freaking mess. Hint: there are going to be ladies who are happy being ladies whose brains are wired up and operating in ways that we deem “male-like,” and who want to keep on being ladies, and so forth. We probably shouldn’t tell them that they need to go out and have their genitals reassigned.

As a social-justice wonk (and, again, as an intersex person), I am acutely aware both of the problems with living in a world that demands that people’s bodies conform to pretty strict ideas of which parts go with which label and of honoring the experiences of people, especially people who have experienced real oppression, where questions of identity are concerned — whether or not those experiences have anything to do with transgressing broadly-accepted norms.

There’s a lot of noise being made right now about Jenner’s declarations about having always wanted to be able to do things like wear nail polish and participate in “girls’ night” and about her choice to reveal her post-transition self in an ultra-conventionally-feminine photoshoot.

A lot of people have (rightly) pointed out that being a woman isn’t about wearing nail polish, corsets, and frilly clothes.

Part of the problem, though, is that while we’re really good at defining what being a woman or a man isn’t about, we’re actually terrible at defining what either of those things is about.

Some of the answer, of course, involves shared cultural experience: most assigned-at-birth women have, unfortunately, cultural experiences of oppression that many transwomen don’t experience before transition.

Some transwomen, for example, know what it’s like to have lived their entire lives with the constant fear of being attacked or raped if they venture out on the streets at night (this is a thing that also happens to people who are perceived as male, especially if they are perceived as transgressing against normative conceptions of masculinity) — but many won’t know that fear until after they transition, and some will never know it at all.

Some transwomen, likewise, have been treated with less respect by peers prior to transition: hell, I’m not a transwoman, or any flavor of woman, and I am still routinely perceived as less intelligent simply because I am perceived as feminine — not female, just feminine, effeminate, whatever***.

***Curiously, this is really, really common in both geek circles and gay male circles: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the, “OMG WTF BBQ THE TWINK KNOWS WORDS” look on someone’s face at a gay men’s gathering, or how often I’ve been overlooked at geek gatherings simply because I am, in so many words, a pretty boy, and thus clearly could not know anything about math or science or computers).

However, I wouldn’t remotely begin to argue that my experience is comparable to that of, like, most women in our culture (maybe a few, who have grown up in more-progressive enclaves and not been exposed to too many idiots, I guess?).

The flavor of my experience is different; so is its relative ubiquity (broad swathes of gay men may automatically assume I’m an air-headed twink, but a lot of people might unconsciously assume that an “Asher” is going to know more about brains than an “April.“).

In the overall context of my life, the impact is smaller. There’s less crap, and there’s more cushion.

Likewise, women bear the burden of our guilt-ridden reproductive-rights mess, which, as a whole, isn’t really a thing for transwomen in our era (they can be allies, of course, but will never have to worry about the burden of deciding how to handle an unplanned pregnancy).

But any ask any woman if she thinks those are the only things that define what it is to be a woman — if oppression and struggle are the sum total of Woman.

Go ahead.

I’ll be here with an ice pack for you when you get back from having some sense knocked into you 😉

After you recover, go ask a woman about the good parts of the definition of “woman.” Then ask a few more women, and a few more.

I suspect you’ll get a lot of different answers — and that a lot of them will be applicable to what it means to be a man, too, when it really comes down to it.

A lot of them, probably most, will be just as applicable to people who can’t bear children (for whatever reason) as people who can (by whatever means). The vast majority of them will have absolutely nothing to do with genitals.

…Which, it turns out, kind of becomes a problem for anyone who is ever pressed to explain why they identify as one gender or another.

This is absolutely a question I’ve been asked, by the way — even by other gay men, who I would expect to have at least some concept. Like, seriously, “Why would you choose to live as a gay man, when you could just be a woman instead?”

Well, gosh, Kevin — I dunno. Maybe just because? The fact that my genitals are sufficiently ambiguous that I could legitimately check either box really has nothing to do with it. (To be fair, this is not a question that I’ve ever heard from someone who had known me for more than about five minutes; it’s really one of those questions you tend to reserve for imaginary people.)

I don’t, by any means, “choose” (if you can even put it that way) to live as a man because I like monster trucks or Hooters girls or sportsball.

Okay, so I am capable of appreciating monster trucks from time to time (primarily, I’ll admit, as vehicles of irony), and I’ve known a few Hooters girls who were really cool people: but that’s beside the point. As for sportsball … meh. Who wants to sit down long enough to watch that stuff?

I used to like playing lacrosse, though, because I was good at it and could smack the crap out of people with sticks. Does that count? Oh, wait, girls can like that stuff, too.

And my sister is a huge American football fan, so there’s that.

Likewise, I don’t like Mauy Thai, neuroscience, or big honking boots because I think guys should like them. Kicking people in the face is fun, neuroscience is fascinating, and big honking boots are both sexy and functional (and, on someone like me, delightfully transgressive and occasionally ironic).

And, obviously, that whole ballet thing, and my fondness for tights and glittery stuff and sparkly things … those just kind of throw spanners into the works, don’t they?

So why do I identify, and live, as a male?

Who the hell knows?

Our culture kind of requires you to pick a box. That’s the box that feels better for me.

Sure, I break its “rules” all the time, because conformity for conformity’s sake is boring, and the vast majority of the “rules” in question are fairly arbitrary cultural diktats (seriously; there are plenty of places in the world where tons of dudes wear pink, and entire countries where guys wear skirts, and so on and so forth ad nauseam).

I would say that I abide by some of them: be bold but courteous, respect the elderly, protect the young, hold the door, don’t hit anyone weaker than yourself unless you really have no other choice — but those aren’t just rules for men, now, are they?

Likewise, I recognize that the mere ability to break the rules reflects its own kind of privilege. I would take a lot more flak for flouting the rules if I came from a different background, lacked education, if I wasn’t skinny (okay, so I’m crossing the streams of social problems, here), or if my skin was less pale.

In the end, I’m only able to make these observations about privilege and about the elusive substance of gender because my background framework allows it: I have been doing this for long enough, have been answering and examining these questions for long enough, that I’ve realized that most of the answers which most of us give are basically crap.

Which is, by the way, what you get when you ask a crap question.

That’s basically the first rule of code: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

I rather doubt that Caitlyn Jenner chose to transition because she thinks liking nail polish and sparkly things makes her a woman. I will own that I haven’t devoted as much time to poring over her story as, apparently, most of my compatriots — but I do seem to recall that Jenner tried the alternative where you keep living as a dude but sometimes don frilly clothes and so forth.

Likewise, it’s deeply unlikely that she’s just all that burningly curious about the hallowed sanctum of the ladies’ room (there are easier ways to be a creeper than spending thousands of dollars on surgery and having to put up with crap from every quarter of your nation’s culture about it), or whatever else people assume about transwomen these days (curiously, one never hears the argument that transmen just want to gain access to hallowed male spaces so they can ogle our underage sons, even though it’s much easier to ogle people in the gents’, where we are expected to conduct the greater part of our business without walls and doors).

Chances are, like most of us, Jenner isn’t great at articulating the why of the whole thing.

That’s something that’s still a mystery. That doesn’t mean it’s an invalid experience (nor does it mean that Caitlyn’s experience of being a woman will be anything like it would if she had been born with a female body).

If you’d asked me, when I was a little kid, whether I felt like a boy or a girl, I would’ve said, “Boy.”

If you’d asked me why, I would’ve shrugged.

That’s still pretty much my answer. To be honest, it’s about the same answer you’d get from just about any non-trans, non-IS person if you asked them.

Little kids are pretty up front about it. Conversations tend to be like:

“Why do you want to be a girl?”

“I dunno, because I am. *shrug* Can I go on the slide now?”

Or even:

“Why do you want to be a girl?”

“I am a girl, silly! Boys are stupid! Wanna watch me jump off the high dive?”

Requiring a better “reason” from trans people (and, by extension IS people, because we are always in a freaking awkward spot — locus of both relative sympathy about our “right” to identify one way or another and of parental and medical panic about our unique bodies) is, in short, a double standard.

It’s just one that can exist because most people never have to think about their own sense of gender in that way.

In short, it’s a privilege****.

****The best lesson I ever had, by the way, in figuring out where your privilege lies, was this: on the first day of my Social Problems class with Dr. Medina, she asked us to write a list of one-word statements about who we are. She pointed out that straight people most didn’t bother to mention that they were straight; that guys mostly didn’t bother to mention that they were guys; white people didn’t bother to mention that they were white, etc. Those places where you feel like you’re the default? Those are your zones of privilege. The fewer you have, the tougher life can be.

By the by: the one thing that does really sort of drive me crazy about the whole Jenner thing is that nobody seems to be commenting on how Jenner’s existing privilege has allowed her to do things that, frankly, would very likely get a lot of transfolk killed, like transitioning in Really, Really Public Public; how her existing privilege and fame will continue to provide a cushion of privilege on which she’ll be able to float, shielded from the staggering array of crap that the average trans person will have to deal with from moment to moment on any given day.

Yeah, twenty years ago or more, she wouldn’t have been able to do what she’s doing now, and that’s cool; likewise, it’s cool that she’s increasing visibility for tans folk and that a cultural conversation is happening that was only kind of marginally happening before … but there are still problems with Jenner as an icon of trans experience.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/06/19, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. GREAT post! My favorite part: “Those places where you feel like you’re the default? Those are your zones of privilege. The fewer you have, the tougher life can be.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege lately, for different reasons. I don’t know why, but I’ve been a little more thin-skinned about world news this week, and the shootings in Charleston seem to be just one more example of the huge problems we still have with race issues in this country. In talking about this, a lot of my very smart, very liberal, very thoughtful white friends have said things along the lines of, “yeah, that’s why I don’t listen to the news anymore” or “it’s okay to take a break and pull back from all that stuff”. But isn’t part of the problem that us white folks aren’t taking the complaints coming from everyone else in this country seriously enough? Tuning it out is a privilege, too, and one a lot of folks don’t have.

    I think we all need to look more closely at all of the ways we are privileged, and to remember that with privilege, comes the responsibility to use at least some of it to help even the balance. And to *listen* when other folks are telling us what they’re struggling with. And to hold all of that in mind when we act in the world. All much easier said than done, I know.

    As an aside, those peacock feather tights are *the bomb*! I want a pair – where did you get them? 🙂

    • Thank you a million times!

      I hear you about the shootings in Charleston. That’s part of what got me thinking so much about privilege.

      I haven’t written about the Charleston shootings yet because I’m still sort of parsing my thoughts, there, but there has, at least, been some really meaningful analysis happening (though also some completely brain-dead horsecrap ._.). I’m hoping that will continue to happen, and that the minority voices that have been finding their way into more mainstream channels than they’ve had access to in the recent past will not only continue to be heard, but will be heard more often and in more places.

      The fact that it takes something that singularly horrible for that to happen (and that it’s all too likely that it will un-happen just as fast; that the waters will once again close over those voices) says so much about privilege in this country, as well.

      I think you’re spot on about us white people not taking complaints about racism seriously (and about being able to tune it out!). Even when we don’t consciously dismiss them, we find it really hard to imagine what it’s like to live with it in the way that black people or Mexicans or Arabs (or people who look like Arabs) do.

      At the same, time we want to believe we’re good people, and our cultural narrative doesn’t allow for good people to harbor prejudices (even though everyone does), so we’re awful at gazing into our own souls, seeing what’s hidden there, and cracking it open so real change can happen. I hope I’m less bad at this than I used to be, but I know I’m still bad at it. This is one of the things I love about Avenue Q, even though I haven’t seen it — there’s that song, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” which sort of points out that, hey, yes, we all have this flaw, and we can recognize that and work on it without automatically assigning ourselves to the category of “horrible person.”

      The part about listening and holding the question of privilege and the realities of people with less privilege in our minds is so important, and you say it so well, here.

      I suspect that the ability to tune things out is, at least in part, a direct function of privilege — that thing where a fish swimming in water doesn’t notice the water, whereas a lizard drowning in water sure as heck does. That’s a hard problem to solve, in a way, because the human mind isn’t great at keeping hold of abstract ideas like that without frequent reminders.

      I guess that’s probably one of the reasons that it’s good to know a diverse array of people: when you hang out with someone and see what he or she goes through constantly, every single day, that makes it real in a way that not even the best reporting in the world can.

      Now for the tights — Denis found them on eBay! I’ll have to see if I can get him to dig up the link, because they’re very inexpensive (like $8, I think?), the quality is great, and everyone loves them! They’re also extremely comfortable, though quite warm (definitely better for winter use!).

      • What keeps coming to mind for me, though there are differences, is the whole #YesAllWomen thing that exploded on Twitter last year, with so, so, so many women chiming in about their experiences with harassment – that what so many *nice* men can’t wrap their heads around is that there are enough not-so-nice and/or clueless men out there that sexual harassment is a universal experience for women. What struck me most about that was how many good, kind, thoughtful men still didn’t really believe what they were hearing, despite the outpouring of thousands of women telling them it’s so. I can only speculate as to how that thought process goes – we’re too thin-skinned, we’re being dramatic or overly sensitive, who knows. But I mention this because this past year has been full of murder after murder of black folks at the hands of white cops, along with an even larger crop of reports of routine rough handling of minorities by white cops, when white suspects for similar offenses are treated with a great deal more dignity and respect. Seriously, how many black people have to stand up and tell us this is happening before we believe them and do something about it? And how many more statistics do we have to see about public schools in minority neighborhoods vs. white ones, incarceration rates for minorities vs. white folks, unemployment rates for minorities vs. white folks, access to health care, access to the internet (pretty much a requirement for most job hunting these days), access to safe neighborhoods, good food stores, and on and on and on – when are we going to listen and start working on this? On ourselves – I think that’s true about everyone being a little bit racist, unfortunately, and we need to listen to our thoughts and look at them more critically. On our friends and family and those we encounter, in terms of calling people on bigotry and making it culturally unacceptable. And, at *least* as important, on public policy that affects the vast differences in access to pretty much everything. We have a lot of work to do.

        Let me know if you find a link for the tights! High quality is good – I’m tough on clothes – and warm is awesome because I get cold ridiculously easily! 🙂

      • Very, very well said. So much of these things are direct functions of the privileges we don’t see — men don’t experience sexual harassment as a default condition of leaving the house; white people just can’t believe that things really are harder for everyone else.

        I wonder, too – when are we going to start listening, and what is it going to take?

        That’s the part that I’m struggling with, right now. How do you get fish to perceive the water?

      • “How do you get fish to perceive the water?” – Yes, that’s exactly it. Much to think on here.

      • Thanks!

        Here, by the way, is the link that Denis sent me for the tights that everyone has been asking about (complete with appropriately-problematic product image … gah):

        I’m going to give this a quick post of its own, since that way I’ll be able to keep track of it, as well.

      • Awesome, thanks! Yay! 😀

      • PS – Your mention of food stores reminds me; I’ll have to remember to write about the 2nd Street Kroger, which was the locus of my first really tangible lesson in racial and socio-economic inequity. That was one of the things that made me start seeing the water (though I’m sure there’s a great extent to which I still don’t).

  2. Too true. Very insightful.
    I especially like your teacher Dr. Medina’s comments on how to “see” that you’re privileged.

    • Dr. Medina is amazing. I still find that exercise really useful in my own life, to figure out I experience privilege and figure out how to respond.

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