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.
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.
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 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**.
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***.
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.
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?”
“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****.
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.