Four things about men and women I’ve learnt from being neither
March 30, 2014 § 55 Comments
I think part of it is a family trait, of being treated as a safe person to talk to – several relatives have had similar experiences – but part of it is most definitely being publicly genderqueer. Since I came out, nearly half a lifetime ago, I’ve found that so many of my interactions with women and men* have been marked by them designating me as something like safe territory. Someone they can talk to about gender, sex, sexuality, identity, who will both understand where they’re coming from and give them another perspective – like a gender translator and diplomat – and, crucially, listen and respond without judging them along strict binary lines. Because I’ve already transgressed those boundaries, and won’t try to punish them if it turns out that they’re transgressed them too.
This isn’t anything more than anecdotal evidence and personal experience – in generalized, anonymous terms and without personal details – but I wish we were having these conversation in public, as loudly as possible, and could have done with them and move on. Maybe this is too obvious for words – but if there’s anyone out there reading this who’s worried about any of these points – worried like the people who’ve opened up to me have worried – then I think they need saying.
* Most often this has been in relation to cis men and women – not because I believe that trans men and women are somehow less ‘natural’ or ‘real’, but because most of the trans people I’ve met have been forced to untangle societal ideas of sex and gender in a way that most cis people haven’t.
1. Most people don’t fit common gender definitions
I say ‘most’ people to be safe – in my own life, I don’t think I’ve met a single person who could fit themselves perfectly into the templates our society has given us of ‘men’ and ‘women’. Not without cutting out crucial parts of who they are, not without pretending, in whole or in part, to be something that they aren’t. Some have an easier time than others – and some who look, from the outside, like they’re having the easiest time of it are actually having the worst. So often the face presented to the world doesn’t correspond comfortably with the person behind the face – and, yet, so many of these people think that the fault lies with them, and not with a definition that fails to include the people nominally included under its auspices.
2. Most people keep secrets
Whether it’s how often they cry, or how they’ve stopped themselves from crying for so long that they can no longer let go, how they feel about their bodies, how they’d want to be penetrated, or be the one penetrating, how they’ve wondered about being transgender, how they felt when they were first punished for not being a ‘proper’ girl or boy, how they can’t even remember how to be angry because good girls are never angry, or forget how to count calories and hide it because that’s not what men do…
If a system can only exist because people can’t tell the truth then I think that tells you all you need to know about the authenticity of that system. I think if we could, collectively, tell the secrets we keep about what our selves are and are meant to be, it might go a long way to knocking patriarchy down entirely.
3. Most people worry
How could you not worry, when faced with a culture that presents two (and only two) options, allows little to no dissent, failure, divergence – and pretends that it should be natural, easy – because to find it unnatural, or difficult, is proof of failure, and failure (as previously stated) is not allowed?
The standards of manhood, of womanhood, we’ve been presented with are, in my experience, impossible. Not just impossible for me, as a genderqueer person, but impossible even for cis people who suffer no bodily dysphoria – because they don’t allow wholeness, exploration or freedom.
4. The binary gender system hurts everyone
It doesn’t hurt everyone equally – that should go without saying, but still probably needs repeating – but, again in my experience, I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been hurt by it. Even people I’ve met who benefit most from the structural benefits of the kyriarchy, and the binary gender system that goes with it – the secret hurts they carry, which cis men are not meant to carry under patriarchy – which, by definition they cannot carry – it astounds me, how much hurt there is. The number of cis men I’ve met who want to talk about their experiences of eating disorders, of child abuse, of being raped (by women as well as men), of bullying, of depression, of street abuse. It shocks me how we could, collectively, allow a system to continue when it hurts us so badly. It saddens me to think of the reasons why we do.
This isn’t a ‘what about teh menz’ – but it does amaze me, that an oppressive system supposedly in service of some people manages to damage even those it most benefits.
This isn’t to say that everyone should give up the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ and call themselves ‘genderqueer’ instead – but it is to say that the ways we’ve taught people to use those terms, what those terms supposedly mean, does not cover the totality of what people actually are.
Maybe this is simply the verbal equivalent of throwing up your hands in frustration.
A lot of the trans activistism I do is about the specific rights of trans people – the fact that we’re still unequal under law, that we’re frequently punished by mainstream society, that, all too often, we’re not treated as fully human. But, for myself, there’s a broader point I want to make about trans activism, about gender and selfhood and cultural systems – and that’s that in helping the people most oppressed by harmful gender norms, we’re in fact helping all of us. I want cis people to care about trans activism because they care about trans people – because transphobia and cissexism are terrible things.
But I also wonder why more of them don’t care about it from a selfish place – because, from where I’m standing, being a man or a woman in a binary gender system is not half an easy as it seems.