Tag Archive: gender identity


boy in blue and girl in pink standing back to backI firmly believe that we do not give kids enough credit for their ability to navigate, question and deconstruct concepts that adults find incredibly confusing.  No, I’m not saying that it’s time to start teaching your four year old theoretical physics (although my dad loved to do that—unfortunately, I never really appreciated it…), but it does mean that we should question some of the basic assumptions about how we teach and interact with young children.

Case in point: gender.

I’ve been sitting on this article for several months, and every time I re-read it, I get giggly and smiley all over again.

“Hi I’m Alec are you the babysitter mommy said that we can go to the park if you want to and feed the ducks do you like legos?”

“Yep, hi, my name is Andy.” I said, kneeling down, “Let me talk to one of your parents first, ok?”

While I was saying this Alec was looking me up and down.

“Yeah ok, hey, Andy, do you use boy words or girl words, or the other words but I can’t really ‘amember them?”

I looked curiously at his mom, Amelia, who was busy tiding up the table.

“Oh,” she said, “he can’t remember the word pronouns.”

“Ah,” it clicked, “I use boy words. What about you?”

“I use boy words, too. Do you like legos?”

“Of course I do!”symbols for male and female

Alec, the star of this adorable article was raised not to equate gender presentation with gender identity.  Granted he probably doesn’t have the vocabulary to express these ideas, but at the heart of it, his behavior towards others reflects a nuanced and tolerant, thoughtful way of looking at gender.

At one point he asked his mom and she said, “Honey, do you remember what Aunt Sarah said to do if you can’t tell if somebody’s a boy or a girl?” he didn’t respond. “You ask.”

You. Ask.

You don’t guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.

 

There’s an element of common courtesy to living your life this way—no frills, no guesswork, no assumptions or hurt feelings.  You just ask.  I can only imagine that Alec will grow up feeling much less constrained by the idea of gender himself, and feel free to experiment and explore his own identity, his likes and dislikes, and to define himself as a person, not as a boy or a girl.

pregnant woman holding blocks that say "boy"Unfortunately, most kids aren’t brought up this way.  Gender policing and gender messaging starts from birth and becomes so engrained into our psyches that it’s sometimes hard to disentangle our own feelings about gender from the messages we’ve been fed since we were born.  In this sense, it’s both easier and way harder for young kids to have meaningful conversations about gender.

On one hand, they are not authorities on the matter.  To a large extent, children rely on the structure and conditioning of their parents, teachers, family members, and other authority figures in their lives.  If those people are saying “Boys do this; girls wear that,” then it is incredibly hard for them to separate their own feelings from the opinions and conditioning of the important people in their lives.

On the other hand, children have had decades less of gender policing than their adult counterparts.  They may have experienced discrimination, but rarely do they fear for their lives or their livelihoods based on the way they perceive and present gender.  They are still malleable with their opinions, and open to the idea of contradiction.

So while it can be difficult to combat the harmful way gender is explained in our society, I think the work of Melissa Bollow Temple, of Jackson County, Wisconsin shows how important, and sometimes how simple breaking down those messages can be.

I taped up two large pieces of paper and wrote “Boys” on one and “Girls” on the other. …When we had two extensive lists, I read both lists out loud to the class and then studied them carefully.

“Hmm,” I said. “Here it says that Legos are for boys. Can girls play with Legos?”unisex bathroom sign

“Yes!” most of them replied without hesitation.

“I wonder if any of the girls in our class like to play with Hot Wheels?”

“I do! I do!” blurted out some of the girls. We continued with the rest of the items on our “Boys” list, making a check mark next to each one as it was declared acceptable for girls.

Then we went on to the “Girls” list. We started with baby dolls. Because we had just read and discussed William’s Doll, the children were OK with boys playing with dolls. “It’s great practice for boys who want to be daddies when they grow up,” I mentioned.

But when we got to nail polish and makeup the children were unsure. “There are some very famous rock ’n’ roll bands,” I said, “and the men in those bands wear a lot of makeup.” Some of the children gasped.

Then Isabela raised her hand: “Sometimes my uncle wears black nail polish.” The students took a moment to think about this.

“My cousin wears nail polish, too!” said another student. Soon many students were eager to share examples of how people pushed the limits on gender. Our school engineer, Ms. Joan, drove a motorcycle. Jeremy liked to dance. I could see the gears turning in their brains as the gender lines started to blur.

Conversations like these might be the most crucial to ensure that the children we raise grow up to be caring, compassionate, and empathetic men and women (and those who identify otherwise).  Working to blur the lines of gender early gives students critical thinking skills to challenge the messaging of media, consumerism, peers, and authority figures.  This generation can grow up to understand gender so much better than most of us do now.   And that will benefit more than just gender non-conforming and trans* people.  Because acceptance and critical thinking lends itself to a deeper understanding of people with all types of differences: disability, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and yes, of course, gender.

Stay cool, queer kids, and keep pushing for acceptance and dialogue in all areas of your life.

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The Butch is Back!

I have complicated feelings about butch/femme identities in lesbian relationships.  On the one hand, I find the contrast incredibly sexy- I have a hard time aesthetically appreciating lesbian couples where the partners look too similar to each other.

((that being said, my straight, cis parents look so similar they are often thought to be brother and sister, and they are darn attractive people and a cute couple, so there are exceptions))

On the other hand, I dislike how that dichotomy of gendered identity in couples can play into the hands of people who completely distort conceptions of gay relationships, gender identity, and queerness to ask inane questions like “Who is the man in the relationship?” (um, last time I checked, we were both women, and I really hope it stays that way…)

Which is why I LOVE this piece that was written on the Made of Words blog for Sugarbutch’sButch Symposium.  I’ve recently come to follow some amazing bloggers who are participating in the Butch Symposium and writing about Butch identity and all the complexities that come with it, which has made me fall in love with butch (and femme) identities all over again, for the incredibly complex picture of sexuality (and genderfuck) that they represent.  In this piece, the blogger is femme and writes about her experiences dealing with stereotypes about her girlfriend’s butch identity. 

According to common wisdom. I’m supposed to be a huge pillow princess.  Complete bottom.  Love, love, love penetration with the biggest, most realistic cock ever in the history of cocks.  That common wisdom comes from the same people that ask “So…who’s the dude?” when trying to figure out how my and Jae’s relationship works. …If the above is true about me, then the following is true about Jae:  she’s the dude.  She’s got the biggest, most realistic cock (which she packs everywhere) and she can caulk the tub while fucking me at the same time.  She is always on top and calls me her girl and has a touch of chauvinism to her.

This is precisely the kind of distorted conceptions I am talking about, and it has much to do with the ideas I presented in Christmas and Gender Stereotypes back in December.  People love to conflate gender with sexuality and vice versa, and then further conflating those gender roles with sexual roles, which doesn’t work in straight relationships, nor in gay ones.  (I won’t go on a tirade about how your boyfriend asking you to fuck him in the ass is not an indication that he’s gay, but suffice to say that this is a prime example of one such wrongful association of gender and sexual roles in straight society).

When it comes to lesbians, people love to assume that butch women are also dominant sexual partners, primarily because they have first associated butch-ness with masculinity, and that same sexual assumption is packed into straight relationships too.  But if you separate out these “linked” dichotomies, you get a much fuller picture of what “butch” means.

Holden, at the Packing Vocals blog, eloquently explains one of the facets of butch that ze identifies with (I use ze as the pronoun because Holden identifies as genderqueer as well as butch, which is another bit of vocabulary unpacking you should consider when reading zir entire piece here):

“The Butch gentleman is chivalrous in an innate way, socialised as female she has an instinctive ability to care for her lady and others around her. She conforms to the accepted notions of being a gentleman but simultaneously her very nature is non-conforming. The butch gentleman has the guts to buck against society while maintaining (to a high standard) some mainstream societal values. She is gentleman performed in different way, more controlled and thought out, deliberate and not just because it’s expected. She anticipates rather than reacting to the needs of others and is almost one step beyond good manners. She will endeavour to control her emotions and hide her feelings, but unlike the English gentleman in the right hands it will all come flooding out.”

I think this is a brilliant explanation of one variety of butch, because, as Holden points out throughout this same entry, there are many different ways that a butch identity can be enacted, beyond simply how one dresses or styles her/his/zir hair.  I’ve written about similar thoughts related to femme identity expression that are more personal, which you can refresh yourself about here.

Most importantly, Holden sums up:

“Butch for me is having the strength to be true to the inner voice which guides me while ignoring outside influences which try to dictate how I should be. It’s the name for all the feelings and desires which have been with me since birth. It’s the label that most completely captures the essence of who I am and who I want to be.”

Butch identity can be beautiful in its completeness if you have the strength and vision to shape it, rather than allowing society’s expectations and understandings do the shaping for you.  Butch is deconstructing the contradictions that binary-style genderism has created about simply being yourself.

And whether you identify as butch, femme, a power dyke, a chapstick lesbian, a boi, or something in between or in combination, that’s advice we all can take to heart.

Rent

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the musical “Rent.”  I’m a musical-fan in general, but Rent is a standout for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its incredible score and vocal casting.  There is simply too much talent in that cast to ignore.

Now, I will put out there that I have not seen the Broadway show, only the movie (for financial reasons, mainly), so any and all comments are directed at that version, but nonetheless, I have a problem.  And it pains me to have a problem with Rent, because it has done such an amazing job showcasing the vibrancy and interconnectedness of individual lives, of embracing what the rest of the world might consider sinful bohemianism – drugs, stripping, the struggle with AIDS, being LGB, and most importantly, perhaps, the trans community—in a way that is both humanizing and entertaining.

I was especially taken in by Angel, the drag-dressing transwoman who falls in love with Collins, and eventually succumbs to AIDS and dies, but not without providing the inspiration and reminders of love that keep her group of friends together.

Rent doesn’t address the issue of Angel’s identity directly, but it is alluded to in artful ways, that reveal the cis world’s difficulty in understanding trans people and the multifarious ways they negotiate gender.  Most telling is when Angel’s friend Mark stumbles over words when he delivers Angel’s eulogy, occasionally referring to her as a “him,” but then correcting himself.  Angel is made complicated in the same way she is made human, by dressing primarily in outrageous drag, yet taking off her wig during support group sessions and while performing out on the street for spare change.  She and Collins use the terms “king” and “queen” to gender themselves in the song, “I’ll Cover You,” yet other songs continuously refer to Angel with male pronouns.

This is where I start to have trouble with Rent.

I will admit that I didn’t catch this until just today, while I was cooking up a storm and playing the Rent soundtrack on my laptop, but I started hearing a lot of “him” and “his” and “he” in songs I know were speaking about Angel, and these were songs that were reverent and loving, not humorous ones like “La Vie Boheme,” (A and B)  which poke fun at gender and sexuality by turning around negative or incorrectly applied words like “trisexual, faggot, or lezzie” to reclaim agency.  No, these were songs like “Halloween,” where Mark wonders about the fate that led all his friends together:

“Why did Collins pick that phone booth back where Angel set up his drums?”

And “Goodbye Love,” where Roger, frustrated with Mark, who has invoked Angel’s death as a reason to learn from mistakes, says,

His death is in vain.”

Now this is where I get confused.  While Mark has set some precedent in the movie of being bad with gender pronouns, Roger has never had this problem.  And perhaps most disconcertingly, Collins, mourning Angel’s death, says in the same song, only lines earlier,

“Can’t believe he’s [Angel] gone, can’t believe you’re going.”

Collins has always referred to Angel by her preferred gender, as in the song, “Today 4 U,” where, upon introducing Angel to his friends, says,

“And you should hear her beat” (referring to Angel’s rad drumming)

Collins is also her lover.  Why in the world would he screw up Angel’s pronoun usage now, when he’d never done so earlier in the movie?

I have 3 potential theories here.

  1. Pronoun usage is inconsistent because of poor editing and oversight by Larson and his production crew.  This seems highly unlikely, as there are hundreds of people who worked on this movie, and the Broadway show before this movie.  At some point in the rigorous editing, rehearsing, and production process, someone would have noticed this.  I’m 90% sure that this was not the problem, although Occam’s razor suggests it is.
  2. Each individual instance of incorrect reference has its own contextual reasoning behind it: Mark, who has had little interaction with trans people in general, makes pronoun mistakes out of discomfort with the contradicting language.  He “knows” Angel as being male-bodied, and thus, often forgets to address her as a female.  Roger, angry and upset, and Collins, distraught and mourning, make their respective pronoun mistakes in the song “Goodbye, Love” because of their emotional rawness, making the “details” of Angel’s gender less important.  This seems nuanced enough to be unbelievable to me.  Don’t get me wrong- Rent is a groundbreaking and deep movie, but it does not probe identity questions enough in the rest of the movie to assume so much nuance on this particular issue.
  3. I have interpreted Angel’s identity incorrectly, and ze actually considers zirself as genderqueer or something of that ilk, and has alerted zir friends in some heart-felt moment off-camera that ze doesn’t give a flip what pronoun they use to address zir.  This does seem consistent with some of Angel’s behaviors, like taking off zir wig at the support group meeting, and playing drums dressed as a male.  However, one may also note that Angel always carried zirself in a feminine way, never mixes male and female clothing, dances in a way that is considered predominantly feminine, and only dresses as a male in “stress situations” (homelessness, sickness in the hospital, and the support group), which indicates that zir priority remains performing female (if not identifying as such) in most situations.  Even when Angel removes zir wig at the support group meeting, ze waves by curling her fingers in towards her palm, rather than with her whole hand, indicating that ze is still maintaining facets of female-ness, even when she is not dressed exclusively feminine.  For these reasons, I can’t say the term genderqueer fits quite right, yet I’m not sure what might be better.

Regardless of which of these potential explanations are true (or if all of them are wrong), Angel’s character in general gives us a lot of questions to ponder about trans/genderqueer people.  How much should one read into physical behavior in gendering a person?  Should we, as observers with limited information on a given character, allow ourselves to gender that person at all?  Is it safe to say that all of us understand gender and its manifestations differently?  How does and how should that affect the way we view entertainment?  How much can we assume about an author or director or producers intensions about gender when they are dealing with queer characters/subjects?

All of these questions blur the lines of agency- do characters have thoughts?  Do actors form the way a character is interpreted (theirs or their co-workers)?  Do writers occasionally place flaws like these in their work to provoke just such discussion and analysis of our modern conceptions of gender?

I wish- truly, madly, deeply- that I had the answer to any of these questions.  But unfortunately I don’t.  And perhaps that’s my real problem with Rent.  There is no conclusive or succinct answer to these queries in the script, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not.  I will probably never know.  But as James Thurber once said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”  Rent is just trying to remind me.

Trans________

I think for anyone who has read even 2 articles on this blog can tell you, I love talking about sexuality.  Especially how the practices and viewpoints which make up our psyche affect our interactions with language, with other people, and with ideas about normativeness and privilege.  So I was more than ecstatic to take Sex, Gender, and Culture, an anthropology class at American University as a way to satisfy a general education credit and a major requirement for International Studies!

So far, I’ve been loving the class, but yesterday our conversation delved into the realm of performance transvestitism (which I already dislike the term for, as “transvestite” has a very negative connotation in society and is often used as a pejorative way of lumping gender non-normative people together).

Regardless, we dove in, and I tried my best to play along, inserting gender-sensitive definitions wherever I could, but the conversation inevitably overwhelmed me as my instructor accepted glossed-over explanations of very complicated gender concepts and the students absorbed nothing (in addition to not having done the reading- an excellent piece about drag performance in the home and in relation to Carnival in El Salvador). At one point, attempting to draw the distinction between transgendered people and “transvestites,” the professor asked the class to define a transgendered person- a concept we had fleshed out earlier in the semester- and they could come up with nothing better than “a person who wants to be the opposite gender.  *sigh*  Really?  Is that the best we can do?

Frustration mounted in me, but it came to a boil when the professor, in an attempt to focus the discussion on gender performance instead of gender identity, wrote the word “Tranny Prostitutes” on the board and then crossed it out, illustrating that this phenomenon was not what we were talking about.  I’m still at a loss for when, in an academic environment, it would ever be appropriate to use that phrase, except to deconstruct how horribly offensive and inaccurate it is.

The problem is that cis-gendered people are horrifically ill-educated about gender and the different ways that gender non-conformism occurs.  Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, transitioning, gender non-conforming, gender non-normative all mean the same thing, if they’ve even heard the words.   The use of the word “tranny” in everyday conversation is just one more example of this: rather than recognizing the word for what it is (a nasty way of referring to non cis-gendered people), people just see it as a shortened word, a harmless abbreviation.  Asher Bauer, whom I’ve featured before, talks about this concept brilliantly in his article, The T Word.  Ze further goes on to say how the term tranny is disproportionately placed upon trans women (biological men who dress/live as women), and in that regard he is spot on.

My professor implied, through the use of the phrase “tranny prostitutes” two inappropriate things, both of which stem from the poor intersection of sex and identity: one, that the sexualization of transgender or transitioning women is not legitimate; and two, that said sexualization can only occur within the bounds of “bad industry” such as sex work.  By pairing “tranny” with “prostitute,” he unconsciously equated the connotations of the two words.  AKA- prostitutes are bad, and trannies are bad, therefore tranny prostitutes must be REALLY BAD.  Ignoring the vilification of sex work, which bothers me equally but isn’t relevant here, the association made is that trannies can only be sexual when they are prostitutes, as if that is the only sphere in which they are acceptable.  Coming back to Bauer’s point, this critique only seems to apply to trans women, as trans men are excluded from discourse about prostitution altogether (despite the fact that the industry exists, the same way there’s a market for straight and gay male prostitutes).

I know that this isn’t the way my professor actually meant his comments, but the juxtaposition of his words was not an accident: it betrays a cultural misunderstanding and vilification of  trans and gender non-conforming people.   So lets all take a moment to run through our vocabulary list and consider the ways in which we oversimplify our understandings of sex and gender.  If you haven’t taken a look yet, I’ll direct you to Susan Stryker’s “Transgender Terms and Concepts,” which is in the downloadable blog articles box to the right of this post.  Educate yourself.  Watch the associations you make in speech, and apologize when you slip up.  We don’t vilify the people who make mistakes, only those who refuse to learn from them and become better.

Stay cool, queer kids.

In a Bind

One of numerous difficult aspects that comes with the territory of being a transgender or gender non-conforming biological female (to unpack that, I mean a person born with female characteristics like breasts and a vagina but who does not feel that he/she/ze is a woman) is the issue of secondary sex characteristics.  A lot of trans and gender non-conforming people do not feel comfortable with the body parts they’ve been given, so there’s now a decent market of products to help you alter that body- with chest binders, padded underwear and bras, etc.

The awareness of the need for these items and also an information sphere surrounding them has led to intriguing “do-it-yourself” pieces like this gem from Carnal Nation, A Butch Girl’s Guide to Chest Binding.

HOWEVER, there’s a really intriguing split between trans/gender non-conforming (GNC, for now, since this is getting long to type) who feel the need to bind and alter their bodies, and those who are comfortable living in them…at least for the moment.  I can’t claim to speak for these people, but I will direct you to a really interesting blog, That’s What Ze Said, written by a GNC person (who considers hirself to be “female-influenced”  in gender identity).  Said article explaining the concept of being ‘female influenced’ is here, and introduces us to the idea that one can acknowledge aspects of female-ness that apply to ourselves, but simultaneously reject the social framework which then makes us “female.”

“The fact that I, along with most everyone else in society, have been trained to see my body as female influences my life in so many ways. It affects how I think about myself. By being raised female I internalized a lot of messages sent to those with my assignment….The important differentiation between being female-assigned and female-influenced is how I see myself. I like having a connection to female-ness. Many transfolks do not hold any attachment to their assigned sex, but I do. Whenever I feel the need to distance myself from “female,” I feel part of me being erased. It’s too much a part of my experience, past and relation to body.”

This forces us to do a little bit of mental legwork in teasing apart the difference between gender identity and gender association.  A female-influenced person can have a gender identity which is neither male nor female, but still embrace

male and female associations- like womanly curves or masculine confidence and stature- without fixedly ascribing them to their identity.  They can take on and accept those associations when it feels right to them, and reject them when it does not.  I think this is an important construct to understand not only for cis-gendered people (those that are lucky enough to beborn with a body that fits our understanding of our own gender) who want to know and understand Trans and GNC people, but also for young people who are coming to realize that they are trans or GNC, but feel conflicted about their bodies.  You don’t have to want gender reassignment surgery to be trans.  You don’t have to feel an alienation from all things male and female to be GNC.  There are elements of both genders that can resonate for all people, but it is everyone’s job to better understand the manner in which gender binds us as a construct and to be mindful that it not restrict our thinking about friends and coworkers.

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