I still don’t understand gender

Some time ago, I foolishly wrote a blog post trying to understand how I felt about gender.

I ended up somewhere I didn’t expect.

This is something like those react videos the kids are doing these days, except in text form.

Here we go.

17 MAY 2014

It feels longer ago than this.

This post is almost entirely from and about my own perspective. I hope it doesn’t mean I’m self absorbed, it’s meant to reflect I don’t feel I have the right or understanding to properly address anyone else’s perspective.

This is a good start.

Recently, while listening to the very excellent GCN Radio, …

I just went looking for this. It’s since gone offline. I’d really like to hear it again.

… the episode Transparently transgender with Lisa Salazar gave me pause. Everything she was saying about how she felt about her gender identity as a trans woman made no sense to me. Not in a ‘how could you!’ way, …

Be honest Dana, there was a bit of ‘how could you!’ in there too.

… more that she completely invalidated my entire concept of gender as being socially constructed, mostly negative, and ultimately transcendable.

Gender is mostly negative? Ultimately _trans_cendable? Why did it take you 3 more years to figure out you’re trans?

I’ve previously assumed that people making bold statements about man vs woman or masculinity vs femininity or etc are completely missing the point; No we’re actually not all from either Mars or Venus, we’re from Earth and we’re pretty much the same, excepting (usually negative) societal expectations.

This I mostly still agree with.

Lurking on /r/AskTransgender helped me to point my distrust and it’s-all-just-a-social-fiction in more of the right direction

Stop blaming transgender people for society’s regressive ideas about gender!

though I still can’t truly understand the experience being transgender the same way colour-blind person can’t experience redness as distinct from greenness.

You could say ‘gender is social and sex is intrinsic’ as I learned in my design theory class…

I have way more to say on this over-simplistic frequently-repeated idea but maybe that’s another post.

…but in this analogy that’s basically saying ‘the lighter colour is green and the darker colour is red’. It is a simplification that often works (based on my talking to colour-blind people), but it’s nowhere close to being correct all the time.

Like, I clearly knew enough to know sex-is-between-your-legs gender-between-your-ears is simplified to the point of being harmfully wrong, but not at all how or why, thus tortured metaphors about colour-blindness.

I don’t and can’t know what it would be like to be able to experience the green of a male-gender distinct from the red of a female-assigned-at-birth-body or vice versa, it’s all the same continuous grey mush to me.

Look, I don’t understand this metaphor today, and the convoluted writing implies I didn’t understand it then either. BTW girl, if your experience of your gender is a continuous grey mush, maybe think about that.

Gender roles/norms

This is the part my that makes the justice-fairness-anger burn and caused me to throw any description or prescription of any gender in the ‘dangerous and unhelpful’ bin1.

You’re getting your causation a bit backward here. You’re not nearly as goody-socially-conscious as you think you are, you’re just really aware the unfairness of gendered expectations for “some” “reason”.

Which I’m beginning to understand is dangerous and unhelpful in itself. I don’t think gender roles or norms should be prescriptive or restrictive, or something one should measure themselves against. at all. ever.

Yes I agree well done good work 5 stars.

I frequently feel like I’m being made to feel like I’m doing being-a-man wrong2.

This is still one of my favourite sentences that I ever wrote.

Almost everything that I hear about manhood, or masculinity, or Wild at Heart

I really hated Wild at Heart.

… or whatever guns-cars-booze-yay that gets posted to Facebook just makes me angry.

I might’ve had a fairly dim view of masculinity. I mean, I still do, but it’s not quite as stark as it used to be.

Because I’m know I’m a man, and can’t respond with ‘I am not a man’, …

You totally can though :)

… all I can say is: I reject your definition of man and substitute nothing in particular of my own because I have no idea and don’t think it’s important3.

I still couldn’t possibly define what it means to ‘be a man’ or ‘be a woman’. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Gender presentation/expression

This is the part that’s always thrown me about discussions of gender (and the tiniest bit of sexuality questioning) …

The “Tiniest Bit” huh. Miss “I can’t be gay I like girls” because gay is the only word you ever had for anything different. Even at 26 you still had this hopelessly tangled.

… because the idea of wearing women’s clothing or clothing styles doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable.

Red flag!

I don’t mean to say I cross-dress - for all my anti-authority anti-tradition ideologies I pretty much live colouring inside the lines.

You’ll get over it.

Dresses just seem like a cool thing to wear and women’s fashion is so much more interesting than men’s.

RED FLAG! Also, I’m still kind of amazed that I posted this admission publicly. I was so far in the closet I was out the other side chatting with Tumnus, I don’t think I realised what I was admitting.

As for the physical body and gender: If you look for sex-distinctive facial characteristics of other races than your own then it’s easy to be misled.

I’m pretty sure this is racist somehow.

Sex-distinctive build characteristics in very skinny, very fat, and very muscular people can also misleading or missing.

Just stop. this is not something you understand enough. I think a better way of expressing the ideas I was grasping for is something like: Gendered phenotypes are deeply connected to systems of power and oppression, and don’t represent the full range of humanity.

That there is some archetypal male and female figure is an unhelpful fiction and can’t be good for those more distant from that fictional archetype.

This at least is true.

I don’t think it’s that important to have hard distinctions in men’s appearance vs. women’s appearance ether for myself or in the ways I find people attractive.

Still don’t. In fact, I think it’s important to not.

Gender identity

This is the part where I am reduced to tautology. I am a man because I am a man.

You’re really not selling it, girl.

I don’t feel strongly aligned to men as a category. I don’t feel any more comfortable or welcome at men-only church than women-only church events4.

I hadn’t articulated to myself the different ways they were each uncomfortable though.

Whenever there’s a cry for men to “stand up and be men” I shrink back because I don’t want to be part of standing up and being man because I don’t like what that looks like.

I mean, even if I was a man this would probably be a fair response.

Shortly before I wrote that post some clown literally told all the men in the church to “stand up and be men” or similar, and I stayed sitting down and cried a lot (mostly, but not solely about the events around my post on masculinity (which I should also write a reflection on at some point)).

Being a man is not something I’m uncertain about; I know I’m not a transgender woman.

Lol.

The lady doth protest too much.

Also this “knowledge” is because of a series of myths, like “born in the wrong body” or “trans people know from a young age” (though I know young trans people get “you’re too young to know that at your age”. We can’t win).

However, I don’t think I’d be distraught or have my whole sense of who I am turned upside down if I woke up tomorrow and I was suddenly magically a woman5.

It’s pretty great.

I don’t know how much of that is a strange kind of empathy, how much is genuinely having only a weak identification with my own gender, and whether my identification with my own gender is actually much stronger than I think it is because it’s invisible and indistinct to me.

I feel like this sentence conveys my confusion at the time pretty well, and some of why it’s common for some trans people to realise they’re trans later on. It’s difficult to see your own gender from inside yourself.


In summary I don’t understand gender, and what I thought I understood I now understand even less.

This was the start of a long, inevitable tumble down the rabit hole.

Rereading, I realise I concluded every section with some variant of ‘It’s not important’, however I want to stress that the distinctions are not important to me rather than unimportant universally.

Everyone experiences gender differently. Some feel their gender strongly, some weakly, some not at all. Sometimes it fluctuates. And sometimes this matches that which they were assigned at birth. Sometimes not. Sometimes it fluctuates. Let everyone do their own gender thing. Be like Vi. We can all not understand each other’s genders together.

  1. I approach anyone talking about manliness, masculinity, or whatever with a great deal of suspicion and prejudice. Possibly unwarranted in some cases, and that definitely hurts me trying to understand gender and transgender people and so I’m trying to keep that prejudice confined to the places where it’s useful.

    Note that only manliness and masculinity is getting called out here. Anything you want to tell the class Dana? no? carry on 

  2. This sentence must remain as awkwardly constructed as it is.

    And will forever 

  3. For an example see the second half of my post on masculinity

  4. I’ve been to a couple of women-only events when there were zero women who volunteered to run the sound desk.

    Really 

  5. Excepting difficult conversations.

    There’s not nearly as many difficult conversations as you’d think 

More things I no longer believe

I did this a few years ago, and wow, there have Been Some Changes!

Pronouns

Why is the most important thing to continue mentioning when we want to refer to someone in the simplest manner, their gender?

We get along fine with extremely confusingly imprecise pronouns in English, you that could be plural or not, we that could be ‘we but not them’ or ‘we but not you’ or ‘we: I, them, and you’. They that could be a collection of individuals, or a group acting as one, and so on. but heaven forbid we not be precise with the ‘she’s and ‘he’s and ‘him’s and ‘her’s and etc.

Hypothetical People

These are the illustrative drops of imaginary human who are called into action at a moment’s notice then dismissed without any name, race, age, background, hopes, dreams, even hair colour, but because of a quirk of grammar, they have a gender.

Because of this, and because there’s often no other specifiers, you will end up making a commentary or meta commentary or counter commentary or something whether you wanted to or not, drawing attention to gendered stereotypes and expectations and relative populations whether you follow them or counter them, all of which will distract from the point you were trying to make using this ethereal person.

I noticed this so many times in an otherwise very engaging book “Thinking fast and slow”. It is filled with these hypothetical people. The seemingly arbitrary yet accidentally meaningful ‘he’s and ‘she’s became increasingly noticeable and distracting, but led to this post so maybe it’s not all bad.

Potential People

Unfilled roles, future children, partners, and other not-yet-specific but-one-day specific people. why. why do we need to gender these. even when it’s probably illegal in things like job descriptions, it still creeps in. Why.

Trans People, Non binary people

Not everyone has a clear answer for ‘what is your gender’, or even ‘what pronouns do you prefer in every case’ because not everyone is consistent. Just chill everyone.

Gods

Whether or not a deity is a multitude or singular, it still manages to end up with gendered pronouns - even the giant spaghetti monster has his noodly appendage praised. (Sidenote: surely it is correct to refer to a triune God as ‘they’? majestic? multiple persons (“it” though genderless, is also personless), and avoids having some folks complaining that using a feminine pronoun for a God who transcends gender will gender God more than using the *cough* default *cough* masculine pronoun. Maybe monotheists prefer explicitly singular pronouns, but prayers addressed to ‘God, you…’ are not questioned.) (Sidenote, the second: I tried for a while to avoid gendered pronouns for God, but it was never unconscious (and is almost entirely impossible while singing worship songs written by others).

Anthropomorphised things

Robots, cars, post-it-note-piles, glass cups, form fields, and pretty much everything is made more awesome when imagining personality, but for these objects to have a personality they can’t be referred to with the impersonal pronoun ‘it’, and we so quickly reach for ‘he’ or ‘she’ (somehow either choice manages to be sexist… how do you do it patriarchy?). BB-8 is not a he. BB-8 is a genderless ball, but BB-8 is full of personality, and the only way I can continue to refer to BB-8 as a person it to use BB-8’s name. Were I to refer to BB-8 as it, it would feel significantly less full of life, and if I call him a he, then he has personality again. How, language? How do you work?

Programmers and copy writers.

Now the self-serving part, If I’m trying to construct a string of text about how this person that you know did a thing, I could use their user name over and over again. ‘catfriend77 wanted you to visit catfriend77’s page of catfriend77’s cat photos’. We could ask catfriend77 catfriend77’s gender so we can construct the sentence simpler in english, but we have no business knowing that, we just host catfriend77’s cat photos. and maybe ‘catfriend77’ is a brand™ anyway, so our insistence on gender pronouns is frustrated.


Use they more, and embrace the awkwardness of repeating a name 100,000 times, it’s fun.

Lost

I don’t want to write this post, but I want to get it out of the way so I can write about anything else.


I have lost my faith. My previous drafts of this post were mostly attempting to explain why or how, and they read like trying to convince you of my new position or, even more unhelpfully, invite argument. I want neither, so deleted the paragraphs on paragraphs of explainyness. You don’t need them anyway.


Losing my faith was an extremely emotionally stressful activity. I don’t recommend it. Christianity was a foundational part of my identity. God and being part of the Church was for me the source of purpose, belonging, direction, worth, value, ethic, coping mechanisms, confidence, kindness, hope, joy, beauty, creativity, and so many other good things.

As my faith tore away from me (which took a long time) I closed up. I stopped writing openly. I closed away friendships, many of whom I had absolutely zero cause to hide from. And I regressed so much, falling back into depression, back into a level of social discomfort that I hadn’t seen in myself since before high school.

I feel ashamed at this regression, I feel ashamed of how I hid, I feel ashamed at giving up instead of continuing to try to resolve my various issue with God and the Church and the Bible from within. And I feel ashamed of how I’ve felt ashamed about all this. And now I have no-one to go to with all this shame.


What is ahead? I don’t know. These days I’m trying to build hope and love and boldness and purpose on that which I have always seen as meaningless and worthless1 and sometimes it even works?

(Even writing the various drafts of this post has been a roller coaster of emotions and not something I could’ve done even 6 months ago. So that’s something.)

  1. Even my brief stint at atheism however many years ago never escaped a kind of disconnected nihilism. 

Vegitariagain

I’m a vegetarian again.

As I see it, there are a variety of overlapping reasons people are vegetarians, it’s not just because animals are cute. Here are some.

Environmental Sustainability

It’s inefficient and hard on the environment to use animals for food in our industrial scale. Plants are easier to grow and store and prepare and ship.

People sustainability

There’s enough food production on the planet to feed everyone already, not just that everyone is fed, but that everyone is fed to healthy and strong. However, a lot of that food goes to livestock, so rich people can regularly eat meat and poor people can regularly eat nothing. Yes, worldwide distribution isn’t this simple, but nothing is this simple, so it’s a start.

Treating animals humanely

It’s arguably barbaric that we take creatures that have complex brains and raise them in order to slaughter and eat them. We’re basically the hyper-intelligent villains in some alien invasion movie, asserting its dinner is more important than a human’s life. This is not a convincing argument for me but it’s an added bonus.

Other people

This is a motive in both directions, if the people you regularly eat with are vegetarians then it’s easy, if they eat meat, it’s hard. In my case I have no people I eat with regularly, however this was a significant part of my vegetarianism last time.

Taste

Astonishingly, Dae Hee, some people don’t like the taste of meat. I personally consider chicken and pork the same as tofu: a white protein that, even when the best quality stuff is cooked in the best possible way, is still to be eaten only as sauce/spice/flavouring vehicle, and when cooked poorly it just ruins everything. I can also clearly remember the taste of the first lamb I had after being a vegetarian for over a year. It tasted like blood and farms. I kept eating meat because it’s easier and the shock of that faded, but it’s still really weird.

Health

My interpretation of why unscientific fad diets work for some people is that if you go from not paying attention to what you eat to paying attention to what you eat, you’ll probably eat better. The same for switching to a vegetarian diet, with the added advantage that you have to be purposeful about protein and iron and such.

Decisions

Restaurant menus become so much simpler. I’ll have the one vegetarian option that doesn’t have tofu, please.

Religious/Cultural

In the first version of this post I totally missed one of the more common reasons people are vegetarian. This doesn’t feature in my list of reasons at all except perhaps as an instigator for consistency-of-ethics.


My own reasons are mostly the consistency of ethics in environment sustainability and global poverty, with side benefits of taste and health. This is something that I’ve been increasingly leaning toward and now I’m in control of my own meals again I can be freely vegetarian.

I’m not going to be strict or even necessarily consistent. I have leather shoes and bags and wristbands. I’m probably not going to worry about vegetarian cheese or gelatin, or shrimp-based curry paste, I’ve been vegetarianing for not even three weeks and I’ve eaten meat five times (partly because travelling, and partly because refusing meat cooked for me when I’d been a vegetarian for 48 hours seemed pretty rude).

Dude, that’s kinda [__]ist

“Accusations of racism and sexism are just as bad as racism and sexism.”1

I keep coming across this. I just…. ugh. Let’s drop in other offences.

Accusations of murder are just as bad as murder. Accusations of kicking puppies are just as bad as kicking puppies. Accusations of harassment are just as bad as harassment. Oops. That’s said too.


We live in a sexist, racist, classist, ageist, ableist, homophobic2, cissexist, etc society. We’re excellent at prejudice, at tribalism, at discomfort with people different than us on any axis. To think we’re unaffected by that is arrogant and/or naïve.

Everyone is all of these things to varying degrees (yes. Even you). So we are free to a) not be so skittish and defensive when called out for problematic behaviour, and b) not be so haughtily self-righteous and pitchfork-wielding burn-them-to-the-ground when someone else is.3


Sure, when I’m accused of something like that it doesn’t feel good. It is jarring and uncomfortable to learn I’ve unintentionally denigrated someone. I (with most) like to think I’m one of the Good Guys, It hurts to realise I may have been the villain. Crucially though, that hurt is my fault, it is not the fault of the person who brought this to attention.

And yes, sometimes it was legitimately a misunderstanding, a mishearing, a lack of context, whatever. But. More often these are the excuses we tell ourselves to keep being the hero rather than take the time to examine the implications of our (unconscious) behaviour.

When someone says “Dude, that joke/​comment/​act/​word/​behaviour is not ok.” I have two choices: I can apologize and learn, or I can follow the instinct to double down. To justify. To defend. To make sure everyone knows I’m the good guy here. It was all just a hilarious misunderstanding, see. My prejudice is perfectly reasonable according to this graph from the internet. And your criticism is invalid because of this [_____]ist thing you did that one time, perhaps even as part of this very criticism.

But all that defence is not even necessary. They’re (probably) not saying “Dude, you’re a horrible person”. They’re saying “Dude, that’s not ok, it’s [_____]ist and because you’re apparently unaware of it I’m pointing this out, I’m hoping that by letting you know this is a problem you’ll change your behaviour to not be un/intentionally hurtful because I actually don’t think you’re a horrible person”.

Though, even when they are saying “You’re a horrible person”, even if they subsequently write me off entirely, I can learn, apologize, and do better next time.


P.S. I will continue to mess up, to say or do things that I know are hurtful when I’m tired or angry or stressed (or it’s a Tuesday), or to suddenly learn things I’ve been saying or doing for years are hurtful to a group of people I’ve never even thought about. But that is not really the test of character. What we do next is.

  1. Not quoting anyone specifically because 1) It’s too common, and 2) specifically calling someone out who’s said this feels kinda counter-productive. 

  2. I tried and failed to come up with an -ist synonym for homophobia. sexualityist? heteronormativist? Nope. Sadness. 

  3. A case can be made for the problem of insincere accusations for the purpose of defamation. Sometimes calling stuff out is irrelevant/​defamation/​libel/​slander, but frequently this is overused to dismiss sincere accusations. 

Sorry (not sorry)

I’ve read a critical mass of ‘apologies’ on the internet in the last few days. Provoking headdesks, facepalms, and now this list.

An apology is:

  1. Unqualified

    No “But you must admit’s”, no “I was just’s”, no “To be fair’s”.

  2. Owned

    There is a subtle but essential distinction between “I’m sorry I hurt you” and “I’m sorry you were hurt”.

  3. Explicit

    There should be some indication that that the issue and its gravity is understood, and space for responses like: “actually that wasn’t the (only) issue, X was (also) the issue.”

  4. Just the start

    “But I apologised” is not a magic phrase. Apologies, regardless of their sincerity, don’t automatically grant forgiveness or absolution or an audience.

Apologies are not for avoiding embarrassment or guilty feelings, or for making yourself look good, they’re not resolution, and their acceptance isn’t automatic or required.

I have fallen short of many of these. If you too have apologised incompletely, don’t fret! It doesn’t mean you didn’t genuinely feel apologetic. However, it does mean you expressed it poorly if you truly meant well, and (like me) can do better next time.

Do you believe…?

Belief is complex and slippery idea, but also an useful everyday word. I enjoy categorising things. Thus.

This scale is about how strongly you hold a belief, not how true, popular, reasonable, explicable or false, unpopular, unreasonable, inexplicable such a belief is.

  1. Knowledge.

    Unquestioned beliefs. You’re still aware that you can think your way out of this belief, but so many things would change that abandoning this idea is not useful. (for example: ‘other people exist’).

  2. Belief.

    Strong beliefs. You can, at a stretch, put yourself in the mind of someone who doesn’t believe this thing to see where they’re coming from, but they’re definitely wrong, mistaken, deluded, deceived.

  3. Opinion.

    Weak beliefs. Your belief of this affects your life and the way you think, yet you can easily put yourself in the mind of someone who disagrees, and either you think it possible you could be wrong or see it as merely preference.

  4. Assent.

    Forced beliefs. If asked, you’d say you believe, but it doesn’t affect your life. It either follows logically from what you do believe or is something you believe due to social pressure, but you possibly wouldn’t believe this in isolation.

  5. Apathy.

    Disinterested ignorance. You might have an answer if pressed, but it’s a coin toss which way you’d answer. There’s nothing you do believe that requires you to believe about this thing any particular way, so you don’t. You also feel no pressure to learn or have an definite position.

  6. Dissent.

    Weak disbelief. Your disbelief of this affects your life and the way you think, yet you easily can put yourself in the mind of someone who believes, and either you think it possible you could be wrong or see it as merely preference.

  7. Disbelief.

    Strong disbelief. You can, at a stretch, put yourself in the mind of someone who does believe this thing to see where they’re coming from, but they’re definitely wrong, mistaken, deluded, deceived.

  8. Incredulity.

    What you see as absolutely ridiculous to believe. Things that are impossible for you to imagine actually believing. Thought experiments can take there, but surely no-one actually, sincerely believes this.


Examples!

It is super difficult to think of examples that have even a whiff of universality. Even finding things that don’t interact with identity in rage-inducing ways is tricky.

These (hopefully politically inert) maths examples might help you get the idea.

  1. 1 + 1 = 2
    Knowledge: Arithmetic requires this or the entire mathematical enterprise falls apart. (assuming a base greater than 2, pedant)

  2. 0.999… = 1
    Belief: I can see why this is not as immediately obvious as 1 + 1 = 2, but it’s just as true.

  3. Imaginary numbers are as arbitrary as negative numbers.
    Opinion: Counting numbers work with the analogy of how many apples you have. Everything else doesn’t. I can see why imaginary numbers seem more made up: you learn them much later and the name certainly doesn’t help, but they’re not in different categories of arbitrariness.

  4. 0! = 1
    Assent: I watched the video. Sure, whatever.

  5. 1 is/n’t a prime number
    Apathy: 1 is an exception either way.

  6. 1+2+3… = -1/12
    Dissent: I’m pretty sure this has broken a rule somewhere and done something with infinity or equals that it shouldn’t have.

  7. numbers exist
    Disbelief: I see mathematics and numbers as internally consistent fictions/human inventions useful for modelling the physical world. I know the majority of people disagree, but any other position seems ridiculous to me.

  8. 1 + 1 = 3
    Incredulity: Arithmetic requires this to be false or the entire mathematical enterprise falls apart.

Cheap grace?

I don’t understand the concept of cheap grace.

As near as I can tell it is invalidity of grace shown to someone who doesn’t respond “appropriately”. Or something like that.

But by definition, grace is unearned and undeserved. How can it be cheap?

Cheap grace seems often an excuse for unforgiveness or judgement or an expression of incredulity about Christianity. It is there in our struggle with truly believing ourselves forgiven. In that case the problem is not cheap grace, rather, the problem is grace grace and how maddeningly unfair God’s grace is.

Perhaps a better formulation is cheapened grace. Our response to grace given doesn’t determine its value in abstract, instead it reveals how much worth we see in it. And our attempts to earn God’s grace by our limited good behaviour cheapens it just as much as squandering it.

Grace is always an unaffordable, undeserved gift.


Finally, lest you think I’m saying something I’m not:

“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!” Romans 6:15 (NIV)