Maxine's Journal

Adventures of the Polka-Dotted One

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Defining My Terms: On Gender.

This is an essay about gender. Mostly it's about mine, though due to the way that gender works it is incredibly difficult to self-define in any way that doesn't reference how everyone else 'does' gender. It has been a long time coming and has not been easy to write.

I have started and stopped writing this essay several times over the last few years, because I was never happy with it, much as I have never been happy with gender in and of itself. My original title was 'Gender-Fucked', referencing both the joyful playing with gender that tends to happen in the queer communities I'm a part of, but also the fact that it felt like there was no good way to turn. There were problems in every direction. There still are. It's still a messy and difficult subject, and yet it's so deeply rooted in our culture that it feels like an enormous omission not to talk about it, especially within the context of an essay series about my personal definitions. So here is the story about how I came to my current gender definition: 'Trickster'.

But first, a little bit about what 'gender' actually is.

Collage of images of myself with different gender presentations, overlaid with an image of a Rubin Vase.
Gender: Mostly an illusion.

What is gender?

The way our society is set up we just can't get away from it. Gender is built in to the way we interact with each other at an incredibly deep level. It's the first thing most of us ask about a baby. It influences the way we interact with each other on all sorts of conscious and unconscious levels. When we meet people on the street, or deal with them professionally, we are expected to reliably 'read' their gender and respond accordingly. To choose between the titles 'Sir' and 'Madam' with 100% accuracy, and then apply all of the assumptions and behaviours associated with those labels. Our language doesn't even *have* a non-gendered polite term that can be used on a first meeting, yet to ask, amongst the vast majority of our society, to imply that the person in front of you is somehow 'failing' at gender, that they are failing to be male enough or female enough for you to recognise without error is so taboo as to be almost unmentionable. It's seen as so rude we literally can't even talk about it. We whisper behind backs, not out of spite, but out of fear of offending, and yet... if it's so all-important, why on earth would we expect people to *guess*?

The biggest trouble with gender, though, is that, much like money, it's imaginary. It's a set of coded symbols through which we simplify our understanding of the world. A currency, if you will, only for the exchange of social pleasantries and expectations rather than goods. And also like money, we know that gender has value because other people tell us that it does. We know what men are supposed to be like, and what women are supposed to be like, because the rest of society tells us so, and we know that someone is a man or a woman because they look and act like we expect of their labels... and if they don't act like their labels, we tell them so, reinforcing those labels and stereotypes as negative space even when we happen to respect that particular person's right to be different.
"You're not like other girls" we might say to a woman, "you're a tom-boy, aren't you?", or "you embrace your feminine side" to a man. Reinforcing the stereotypes even as we accept difference. Because somehow the exceptions prove the rule instead of making it irrelevant. Little, if anything, about gender is actually written into our genetic code, but it's encoded into the society we live in so deeply that many of us forget that. It's self-fulfilling prophecy, a perpetual motion machine, a serpent devouring its own tail. And it's almost impossible to live outside of.

Gender Trouble

I have had trouble with gender all of my life.

I wish I could say that I would have had just as much trouble with gender if I had been born into a male body. Sadly I don't think that's true. A large part of my gender trouble has been to do with the fact that, born with 'innie' genitalia, I was told from birth that I was a girl, and that as a girl, I would grow up to be a woman. Two categories which I have been battling with all my life since, thanks to societal ideas of what being 'feminine' means. Either way, I spent a large chunk of my life desperately wanting to be male. Planning for it, wishing for it, determined that I would somehow magically at puberty become something other than my genes might have indicated, and then when it didn't happen, considering surgery, hormones, all that shebang.

Does that make me trans? It's hard to say. If you had asked me at any age between ten and twenty years old, I would have said yes. Earlier, or later, not so much. Given a childhood spent mostly with my nose mostly buried in text books and science fiction, I felt that there was a world of possibility out there, and it simply didn't occur to me that there was any difference between how girls and boys should behave. It was only later, as I was approaching puberty, that it started becoming clearer to me that there were expectations associated with being a girl. Being a girl meant wearing dresses, and being told off if I tore them climbing trees. It meant makeup and hair styles and babies, it meant lower pay and being unable to make the first move, and a whole lot of other things I had no interest in. And worst of all, it meant being passive. A prize, a damsel in distress, at best a companion, a wife, a mother, a helpmeet. I started to feel that I needed to be male simply in order to be a protagonist in my own life. From puberty through to my early twenties I became increasingly sure that what I wanted was a male body to match the man I felt like inside.

Those who have met me or who have seen a picture of me recently, will of course realise that I chose not to transition. For now. I am not now running around in the world wearing a male body, or even 'male' clothes. At least, not most of the time.

So what happened? Was there a sudden change of heart? Was there a realisation that I'm actually happy with my body and the gender that I was assigned because of it? Not really. Some of those feelings are still there. They didn't just melt away into nothing. Having breasts is inconvenient at best. As I have no intention of having babies they're just useless weight I carry around with me. Periods are pointless and miserable. There are one or two good bits, but on the whole I don't celebrate having a female body. I tolerate it. I keep tabs on medical technology that might some day be able to offer me the bit of 'masculinity' I'd like the most: yes, okay, it's a penis. (Even a freudian stopped clock is right twice a day, after all). I remain ambivalent about accepting the label of 'woman' and reserve my right to change later, but eventually I decided I was not going to try to transition. Or not any time soon, anyway.

One part of my decision not to transition was stupidly pragmatic: For several rather unpleasant medical reasons, my body simply hates wearing trousers. There was every chance that if I did transition I could well be doomed to kilt-wearing for the rest of my life, without the medical technology to give me the appropriate genitalia (and artificial cocks really are incredibly basic, even more than a decade later, and limited both in function and feeling). If I was going to be stuck with wearing skirts, I reasoned, I might as well leave open the choice to wear a full range of the damn things without getting beaten up.

The second part of my decision not to assume a male identity was a growing sense that setting myself outside of the category of 'woman' because I hated the expectations that were associated with having a particular sort of body, was only to add weight to the heap of those expectations. If I was to define myself as 'not a woman' because 'woman' meant being x, y and z, then wasn't I reinforcing that category, narrowing it still further for those still stuck inside it? Did I have to define myself only in terms of what I was not, instead of what I was? I began to feel that transitioning would be, for me, a way of climbing the mountain of privilege by standing on other women's faces. Should I get outside of the box and stand on top, or should I kick it open from the inside?

So does that make me, instead, genderqueer? I find that a hard question as well. Some days it seems to me that yes, the idea of a middle ground between genders is a perfectly fine place to be, that genderqueer's habit of picking and choosing aspects of whatever gender suits at any one time amounts to exactly the sort of questioning that I would like to do, and that building gender-neutral options into our culture is terribly important. I'll support anyone's choice to define themselves as 'other' any day. But at other times I can't help wondering if the middle ground is just more weight piled up on top of the lids of the boxes of both male and female. If genderqueer is the vase between two faces, does it mean that both categories of 'man' and 'woman' are defined and reinforced by negative space without actually questioning the definitions of either of those categories? Can genderqueerness even exist without the binary categories it pushes off from? Does it make gender less relevant, or does the very act of 'queering' it bring gender stereotypes to the fore? I still don't have answers to those questions.

So what am I?

I'm female-bodied, yes. [That is, I have a body shape that people tend to register as 'female' when out in public.] And mostly I dress in a way that makes a pantomime out of that. I have often referred to this manner of dressing as 'fuck-you femme'. To dress in such a manner that makes it abundantly clear that yes, I'm a 'girl', and I am also competent, articulate, powerful and not to be messed with. I choose to over-do femininity in ways that make people uncomfortably aware that it is a form of drag. I 'perform' femininity in a way that challenges notions of what that means, and makes it clear that it *is* a performance (and while gender isn't only about style of dress, an awful lot of it is).

Except sometimes I won't. Sometimes I do other things. Maybe I'll go out in male drag, or packing a strap-on under a pretty dress, or add a false mustache to set off the lipstick I'm wearing that day. Because the idea that these things don't go together needs challenging. Maybe I'll encourage my partners and friends to question their own gender, or express it differently just to see what happens, and especially what happens when we challenge the status quo together. Because society really needs people asking the questions 'why shouldn't I?', 'why not?', and as an artist I have the privilege of being able to say that challenging these assumptions is literally my job (not that it isn't everybody's job to question their own assumptions, but sometimes folks need a little help).

Trans doesn't fit. Genderqueer doesn't quite fit. So many things didn't seem to quite fit. 'Woman', though I choose to use it now as my primary identity for the purposes of challenging assumptions, still doesn't quite fit.

It literally took me years to come up with a word that really resonated with me, and eventually I reached into mythological archetypes to come up with a quick way to sum up how I feel about my own gender identity. The word that finally clicked for me, out of the blue in the early hours of one sleepless morning, is 'Trickster'.

Image of Loki, a well known example of a Trickster character from mythology.
Loki is one example of a mythological character known for playing with gender.

A New (Old) Archetype

In mythology, tricksters "...violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis"(Source). A quote which I think rather elegantly describes the way in which I play with gender in a way that aims to challenge and re-establish new norms. Seen as a crucial part of the stability of their society, many tricksters also literally play tricks with gender in their stories in ways that encourage the observer to question how fixed their definitions really are.

As a Trickster, I choose to be unashamedly who I am, in all the ways that match and mismatch with the categories that people put me into, and those I put myself into, and in all the ways I shift and change from day to day and with the passing seasons. I try to live my life as though gender was irrelevant, because quite often the way to effect change is to act as though the world is already how you would like it to be. Most of all, though, I choose to challenge, to question, and to cause and support other people to do the same.

So for now, I'm sticking with the female body and feminine presentation, although I have absolutely no intention of fitting in with social ideas about what that means. I'm sticking with being called, for the purposes of most of society, a 'woman', because I think the way we treat women, and the assumptions that even women make about what it means to be a woman is an area where our society really needs challenging. For now I choose to be inside that box kicking outwards and breaking down the barriers from the inside, but that identity feels, and probably always will feel relatively superficial to me. Whereas in the archetype of the Trickster I finally feel like I have found a label that sums up my identity much deeper down, and underlying everything that I have ever been is that need to explore, to examine, and to question.

That's who I am. Deep down, my identity is 'someone who questions'.

Ultimately, I'm perfectly happy for folks to call me 'she', 'he', 'they' or 'cheeseburger' as a pronoun, or whatever else they fancy. I really don't mind, as long as they also question the underlying assumptions that go along with those labels. If they don't, they might be in for a surprise.

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if you were native american, you'd be Heyoka in that tribe.

It's possible, but at this point I'm not even sure I would. Much like some of the questions I raised about the genderqueerness, the 'third gender' category seems to me not to actually question or critique norms of masculinity or femininity within that culture, but rather throws them into sharper relief.

So to automatically cast me as 'not a woman' because I don't fit all of the associated expectations only reinforces and narrows the expectations of what it means to be a woman. Similarly to say someone is 'not a man' because I don't fit that set of expectations narrows the category of what it means to be a man.

I feel that the 'third gender' category is an effective way of allowing a safety valve in a culture where gender is set up to be the most important aspect of a person, but it doesn't actually question the existence of gender, the specific expectations and stereotypes associated with each gender, or the importance of gender in social structures. All of which are things that I personally feel should be challenged.

From what you say it feels to me like you issue is with the way the Woman Box is defined, and fitting into it, or not fitting into it. Where the "Woman Box" is that set of assumptions about how Any True Woman will look, act, what she will do, etc. And there is of course a "Man Box" (eg, as described by Charlie Glickman) which is fairly constraining too.

I think the Woman Box started out smaller and even more constraining than the Man Box. But over the last 100 years or so what fits in the Woman Box has expanded a fair bit (career or not; mother or not; marry or not; ...), so it seems likely not as many woman feel constrained by the Woman Box as in the past. (It also feels to me like the Man Box has not changed as much in that space of time -- but it did start out larger.) But the boxes still exist. They might be bigger and less constraining, but they still constrain. And anyone who doesn't fit into those boxes is cast as "not a woman" or "not a man" -- or for bonus points both "not a woman" and "not a man".

Having an "other" option can be helpful for some people and some situations, particularly if it's common enough to establish a clearly distinct "third gender" (which has occurred in several cultures around the world/throughout time). But it's also helpful to have people "inside the box, kicking out" as you put it. Expanding what is possible in that box. Making it clear that many things belong in all the boxes. Hopefully eventually so much that the boxes hardly seem to be there at all...

Finally from what you say it sounded to me like the Gender Role dysmorphia ("I don't fit in this gender role") is stronger than the Body dysmorphia ("I don't belong in this body") for you. And that you've at least (rationally) decided that the body you have now is at least as good as any alternatives realistically available to you. I suspect that "I don't fit in this gender role" is a more common experience for others too.


Re: The $GENDER box

I think that sums things up pretty nicely, yes. And bonus points for referencing the 'No True Scotman' fallacy! :)

My one objection is that I think the 'Man Box' can be just as constraining as the 'Woman Box', but while pushing against restrictive stereotyping is seen as a step up for most women, it is often seen as humiliating for men, if not physically dangerous to risk being seen as less than a 'real man', so even fewer are willing to come out and openly kick against that.

One experience that led me to really deeply question gender was attending a sexuality related event where everyone attending was asked about their gender definitions. I noticed that *every single one* of the female-bodied people present tempered their feminine identity with some sort of male aspect, ranging from 'gay man in a woman's body' through 'butch/transmasculine lesbian' out to 'goddess with an energy cock', yet every male-bodied person present barring two shrugged and said 'I'm just an average guy really'... the two exceptions seemed to conflate femininity with both submissive behaviour and with being 'slutty', which I have to admit left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

I came away realising that at least one of two things must be true: either it had to be far, far easier to live in our culture with a masculine identity, or it was significantly harder for male-bodied people to challenge the gender expectations associated with their presentation - or both.

Re: The $GENDER box

I think the right answer is "both".

From everything I've experienced (as someone with a masculine identity, read as male), and seen, it is still generally easier to live in society with a masculine identity. There is privilege there. The Man Box might be constraining, but there's a fair bit of valued-by-society stuff in there, and Passing As A Man in most contexts is relatively easy if you're careful to hide the bits that are "not in the Man Box" -- assuming your physical appearance is close enough to "looks male" to be read that way. And since male is the "default gender" for lots of situations, it's easier to see how many might go through much of life without being put into a position where they're forced to look more closely at their gender identity.

But on the flip side, as Charlie Glickman points out elsewhere, even "talking about the Man Box" or "questioning Gender identity" is most certainly Not In the Man Box. And the gender policing can be fairly strong (including, as you mention, in some situations, physical risk to ones body). Fitting in, being that "average guy", becomes a pretty conditioned habit. Particularly since it's not really possible to be "a little bit out of the Man Box" -- you're either in it, or you're most certainly not in it. And it of course doesn't help that the Man Box view of femininity is "not acting like a man": which is how "weak", "submissive", etc ends up being perceived as "feminine", by default. (I'm at a loss to explain "slutty" -- the "Man Box" term for "slutty" is normally "stud"; perhaps they mean "insufficiently selective about partners", because a stud "gets (only|all) the hot women".)

Combine those together -- fewer situations that cause one to question one's gender identity, and a strong discouragement to questioning one's gender identity -- and you get, at least, a lot of people unwilling to admit questioning their gender identity. So the exceptions end up being where it flips, binary-style, to being "way outside the Man Box, can't even see it from here". And those exceptions may not have much other background about gender roles, so probably carry over a lot of those Man Box assumptions.

Plus of course there's probably a selection effect: the woman who have got to a point of being willing to attend a sexuality related event have probably done a fair bit of introspection to get there, where as "duh, men are supposed to be interested in sex, so of course I went" may allow attendance without as much introspection happening first. (I'm not saying that's everyone; just that it's probably also a factor.)

It's a self-reinforcing mess :-(


PS: I do agree that the Woman Box now includes "questioning gender identity and roles", so doing so is seen as a positive attribute; the Man Box... not so much.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about it further though!

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