Beyond the Binary: Question One
June 6, 2013 § 38 Comments
Following the Trans 101/201 Q&A panel series, I put a call-out in April for questions on genderqueer/androgynous/gender-neutral/binary-breaking things – many thanks to everyone who responded. I’ve whittled the questions down to 24, and will be posting one per weekday until we’re through.
As before, I’m indebted to an amazing panel, and owe them all drinks/coffee/cake – check them out on twitter, because they’re doing wonderful things.
Another lovely panel
I’m a journalist and human rights campaigner based in Glasgow, Scotland. I’m content director at Eye For Film and chair of Trans Media Watch and I also do research work; I completed my second masters degree a couple of years ago and am currently doing a correspondence course in epidemiology and statistics. My activities are somewhat limited by my disability but I’m also involved in filmmaking and I do some public speaking, mostly on gender and media issues. I’m partial to good books, avocados and argument.
I’m a 30 something amateur activist and full time IT professional living in Nottingham, UK. I have interests in liminal identities, transgender inclusion, nonbinary gender, asexuality, neurodiversity and their fictional media representations. I’ve identified as transgender since my teens, underwent binary transition aged 19 in 1999 and ‘retransitioned’ to a nonbinary role in 2001. My appearance is androgynous (ambiguous by binary gender standards) and I prefer to be referred to with gender neutral language. I currently run the ambiguous gender presentation resources and information site PracticalAndrogyny.com and host the Nonbinary.org wiki. I’m also interested in fandom culture, (multi)media science fiction and illustration. Last year I was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition.
I’m a psychotherapist, academic, author, artist, artisan and social activist with clinical and research interests in transgender and adult ADHD, and a curious passion for social media and video production.
And something of a trans-fashionista
I’m out as transgender.
I’m a writer of poetry, prose, and fairytales that are somewhere between the two. I’m queer and genderqueer. I am coming to the end of my second year as the Trans Rep on the NUS Women’s Committee, and at the time of writing am just about to finish my internship with On Road Media working on the “All About Trans” project. I’m a feminist and activist; an occasional academic interested in the literary historiography of gender and sexuality; a member of Lashings of Ginger Beer Time; and the main organiser of the Cutlery Drawer.
Three related questions in one: How would you define sex and gender from a genderqueer/non-binary/neutrois/etc perspective? How do they intersect and/or conflict? And in the latter case, how might such a conflict be resolved?
Jennie: For me, my relationship to my gender is informed by my experience of physiological difference. Whilst many intersex people identify as male or female, I don’t, and one thing I take from the intersex experience is that it’s not as simple as being ‘both’, ‘a bit of both’ or ‘in between’, as a lot of people assume. Just as there are many different ways to be physically intersex, there are different ways to be psychologically neither male nor female.
I was three years old when I first began to express my gender. Knowing that (in the ‘seventies) pink was supposed to be for girls and blue for boys, I asked my mother what colour clothes etc. people bought for babies before they knew what sex they were going to be. Having established that it was yellow, I then asked for my room to be painted yellow and developed a fondness for yellow clothes that lasted some years. Of course it’s difficcult to look back now and say exactly what I felt then, but based on that and other childhood behaviour I’d say I felt myself to be in some sort of third category even though I didn’t know what it was; it felt distinct, not defineed in relation to the other two of which I was then aware. Something of that feeling remains with me.
Some people have suggested that the relationship between my sex and gender makes me cissexual. I have no problem with that idea, but it’s complicated by the fact that, throughout most of my life, I have been assumed by others to be female. As my body becomes increasingly wasted by illness, that becomes a position from which I cannot easily escape. There is therefore an ongoing conflict, for me, between my perceived sex and my gender, and it is something that often causes me considerable sadness. I don’t know how to resolve it, except to try and make people more aware generally that individuals’ gender identities might not always be easily discerned from outward appearance.
Nat: I used to have a lengthy talk I gave just on the different ways one could define sex and gender, but I’ll try to keep this answer as brief as I can and avoid examples and elaboration.
Even working within the dominant cultural concept that ‘sex’ is biological and physical, this ‘physical sex’ can be split into several separate primary and secondary sexual characteristics, many of which do not neatly separate into a binary, or which are seen as gendered in different ways depending on the cultural context.
When gender identity and expression are considered as well, there are endless ways one could experience gender, express gender or feel at odds with ones body or the cultural expectations and pressures assigned to ones perceived gender.
Ultimately, within any cultural context there are some expressions of gender and narratives of gender identity that are considered acceptable or normative within that society and there are others that are othered, dismissed or attacked.
For those of us who don’t fit these normative standards of gender, there are alternative narratives of gender identity which seek to expand, reject or bypass the current normative view of gender. For those of us who change our gender expressions, identities and/or bodies to resolve discomfort with some aspect or gender, there are a wide variety of different transgender (and queer and counter cultural) narratives to conceptualise our experiences and actions. Some of these may fit within normative societal structures (albeit due to year of activism by pioneers), others are defined in reaction to and rejection of these cultural standards and their enforcement.
Each genderqueer/nonbinary/neutrois/etc person will have their own perspective on sex, gender and transgender and how their own experience of gender intersects and/or conflicts with that. We can guess what these may be based on the language and labels they identify with or use to describe themselves, but any writing on gender that falls outside of the binary must acknowledge that there is no single narrative that reflects how everyone in this group conceives of, expresses and describes their gender, or rejection of gender.
GrrlAlex: I shall take the view that sex could be defined legally/politically/medically or argued on biological determinants such as chromosomal array; genital arrangement; anatomical dimorphism. Gender I shall argue can be divorced from anatomy so that one might have a gender identity that differs from genital or biological physicality, and that gender is an intrinsic internal identification based a socially defined set of aptitudes and interests defined as either masculine or feminine. As a cognitive therapist though, I would make the observation that internalised rules about social acceptability (family of origin; social millieu) can compromise that sense of self identity and push it into denial or create alternative manifestations leading to the presentation of a false self and of periods of congruence and of incongruence. Rules on social acceptability create internalised shame and this directs behaviour in an individual. A big part for me about coming out as trans has been accepting that I can live as female [gender] without having to “pass” as a natal female [sex].
The conflict for me comes from being mis-read or constrained by medico/socio-legal systems that make an assertion that sex and gender are concordant. At an aesthetic level I’ve often considered surgery and hormones as a way of creating a more congruent body but concerned about the health consequences have endeavoured to find a way of living congruently as female without feeling forced to surrender my body to medical science to have it modified to make it more socially acceptable to others.
Hel: Wow, this is a big one. I’d first like to give the caveats that this is my perspective, rather than any claim to a monopoly on genderqueer (etc) perspectives; that my perspective is that of someone coming from (and critiquing) white Anglo/Western culture, and I don’t feel it’s my place to offer an opinion here on how gender operates in cultures other than mine; and that I’m not sure I can do justice to this topic in a couple of paragraphs!
The model of gender that makes most sense to me is gender pluralism, as proposed by Surya Monro in her book ‘Gender Politics: Citizenship, Activism, and Sexual Diversity’ (2005). Gender pluralism is basically the idea that ‘cis man’ and ‘cis woman’ are just two ways of understanding one’s gender, among a vast constellation of other gendered identities and experiences. I find this model extremely useful, because it resolves two different understandings of gender that are sometimes considered to conflict: firstly, gender as an oppressive power structure; secondly, gender identity as something valid and real. I’m a feminist, and I would love to get rid of the current binary system of gender, as it is incredibly damaging to so many people: but unlike some feminists who want to ‘abolish gender’, I don’t believe that wanting to abolish gender as a power structure makes trans identities somehow less legitimate. Recognising and encouraging a plurality of gendered identities/experiences is something that explodes the binary gender system (and its attendant oppressions and power structures). So, in a fully gender-pluralistic world, neither oppositional sexism nor traditional sexism would make sense. While ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ would probably continue as visual codes if nothing else, I’d expect (or at least hope) that they’d become value-neutral things (rather than standards to which someone is held because of their body morphology and/or gender identity, or an unequal pairing in which femininity is devalued compared to masculinity.) … so that’s my dream of a queer-feminist utopia, anyway.
As for sex – well, I believe ‘sex’ is another form of gender, in that ‘sex’ (as commonly understood in my cultural context) is a discursive construct that’s used to make sense of bodies, but one that is frequently erasing of their variety and complexity. Humans are not uncomplicatedly divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’: on this topic I 100% recommend the work of Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, who is both trans and intersex – start with ‘The Phalloclitoris: Anatomy and Ideology’. Oh, and while it shouldn’t need saying, just to be entirely clear: I think that while intersexuality challenges the idea of sex-as-dyadic, and being genderqueer (etc) challenges the idea of gender-as-dyadic, I in no way think that being intersex and being genderqueer are the same thing, or that being one necessitates being the other. But in both cases, I think things are far more complicated than binary structures would indicate – I guess that’s where they intersect. As for potential conflicts, I think the only one is the (supposed) tension between wanting to abolish gender-as-a-power-structure and considering gender identity to be a real thing – but as I say, I think a pluralistic model of gender resolves that.
CN: I think that part of the point of trying to define sex and gender from a genderqueer point of view is that there is no one definition, and that no personal definition is necessarily static, or lacking in contradictions – but this is what works for me.
I believe that ‘sex’ is a cultural term laden with gendered meanings and, frequently, prohibitions and boundaries, nominally concerned with the parts of the body connected to sexual reproduction but, in practice, often extended to try to categorise and demarcate large swathes of the body into a distinct, exclusionary binary of male/female.
Trying to describe what gender ‘is’, to me, feels like trying to grab a handful of air – it’s all around us, but it’s an evasive little bugger when you try to work out exactly what it consists of, or try to get a firm grip on it. I think ‘gender’ is a word we use to describe the ways in which we present our bodies, the way we talk, write, pitch out voices, move through the world, the work we do, the way we work in relationship to one another, who we identify with, how others see us, how we capitulate or rebel against that viewing, what we hope we are, what we’re frightened we are, and how we navigate societal structures concerning the above. I ultimately think that gender is a social term – ‘how am I a human among other humans – how am I the same and how am I different and how do we all intersect?’ Each person will have a unique way of doing these things, informed not only by their own choices, but by the particular milieu they find themselves in, their particular intersection of historical period, class, race, culture etc. The words each person uses to describe gender change in each telling (the ‘proof’ one person gives as evidence of their masculinity could be the same as someone else gives in support of their femininity, for instance) – I think it’s a collective responsibility to listen closely to each other and try to hear all of what someone is saying. I certainly don’t believe that there’s any kind of Platonic Ideal when it comes to gender – or sex, as it happens.
I think it should (and could) be each individual’s own responsibility and choice to determine what works best for them in terms of their own bodies (whether seen in a sexed or generalised way) and ways of being in those bodies, provided that those choices don’t damage others (the old liberty vs. license). Sadly, that’s not where we are right now – and so I would seek to change/break down any concepts of gender and sex which deny people their uniqueness and their right to self-determination.