Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Gender terminology for those who mean well

on 2015 July 26

I recently needed to get a doctor’s signature on some paperwork. People need doctor’s notes for lots of reasons and this one wasn’t particularly interesting. I sent in the request by postal mail, and someone who’s not a doctor wrote back to me after apparently looking at my file (where it says “transgender”) and told me how awesome my “gender journey” is or some such invasive thing. First of all, this is a violation patient confidentiality. Second, it’s just paperwork; it is not “exciting”.

This vignette is straight out of the scary new world of wannabe “enlightened” trans allies. This progressive subculture is in danger of becoming very straight as it grows crazy-fast. The thing is, I don’t want your support for what you think I’m doing. The new liberal consciousness is oppressive – maybe not as bad as some of the alternatives, but it is not the way forward. In this essay I will spell out what is misleading about the new bundle of vocabulary and consciousness, and provide some new vocabulary and maybe even some consciousness along the way.

Vocabulary: childhood

A quick review of sex and gender vocabulary in a timeline form: In the beginnning, we’re a bit of DNA, and that has chromosomal sex. Over the next few months, this leads to our primary sex or gonadal sex (XX to female and XY to male, with exeptions of course). Somewhere in that timeframe, the brain, the largest sex organ, develops the brain sex, which usually follows chromosomal sex, but not always, and it’s probably not as binary and certainly less open to inspection. Research on this doesn’t appear to be extensive. (“Biological” sex is a vague term that assumes all these are the same, which they often are, but not always.)

At birth or before, we experience gender assignment by the parents. Most of the time the assignment is based on primary sex, which might not match chromosomal sex, and sometimes it’s not based on either primary or chromosomal sex. At birth we unknowningly adopt gender presentation (clothing based on the assignment).

Then fast forward to age two through four -ish, when we develop internalized gender in the mind – which side we identify with, if any. The origin of internalized gender is debated but appears to mainly be based on the sex of the brain and assigned gender, and influenced by things like parental bonds and who knows what else; the main point is that it gets set and no one can do much about it after that point; but even that changes in some people later on. Gender socialization is another term that combines the ideas of ongoing assignment with internalization.

In the primary school years, our gender presentation becomes more intentional and includes manners and accountrements. Along with that we develop secondary sex starting around age nine, controlled by hormones. It usually follows primary sex (with exceptions).

So here we are; Earth is spinning away and nature has made all these children who are cis and children who are every other combination of chromosomal sex, primary sex, brain sex, and internal gender. Transity has all those many flavors; cisity has just two. (Cisity is my new word coined to mean that all the sexes and genders are in the most typical alignment, while transity is anything else.)

To recap, here are the seven different flavors of childhood sexes and genders:

  • chromosomal sex – combinations of X and Y chromosomes
  • primary sex – reproductive and related organs formed before birth
  • brain sex – a collection of variations in “wiring”
  • gender assignment – what parents decided to call the baby
  • gender presentation – clothing and manners
  • internalized gender – sense of self in relation to gender roles in the culture
  • secondary sex – body changes experienced in puberty

Assignment

Now let’s sort out who is doing something, who is being acted upon, and what is really under our control when it comes to transity. We have a personality center that is usually very consistent over our lives; this is not subject to intentional change. We can put on airs or change clothes, project whatever we want if we are good actors, or we can rationalize and try to “be something” all we want, but regardless of all that, there’s a center that includes our outlook, personality and gender, which isn’t very responsive to our conscious wishes – it’s just the person we’re stuck being.

That person we’re stuck being is the person we are constantly applying words to – we may be kind of stubborn, kind of female, kind of optimistic, and so on. Those words don’t make or change us; they are just words; they are true until they are false. All the boxes that we use to talk about each other only help until they hurt. The whole point about queering transity, or queering anything, is to blur the words, to allow everyone to be that word-defying center that they are: beauty.

The acts that we do are that we gender. I see someone and immediately gender them (judge what gender they are), and treat them accordingly. I “assign”, and nearly everyone does. The act – the only thing we almost have control over – is the assigment; there’s less control over the being.

Curiously, gendering children is based almost exclusively on presentation, and not at all on their sex. You can change your shirt and take out a pony tail in 30 seconds, walk into a different room, and everyone will start gendering you differently. Despite the obvious conclusion of this simple experiment (that gendering has no persistent substance), the culture holds the assigned gender as deep, fixed and important.

Queerness

One of the definitions of transgender is being assigned a gender that is discordant with the internal gender. Another definition is having an internal gender that is atypical for the primary sex. Those are really two separate concepts, and so I will avoid using the misleading word “transgender”. A false word in common use is assumed to be true and has the effect of creating a false category, ordering what needs to be queer, like sorting magnets by color instead of polarity and refusing to allow them to sort themselves by their own internal forces. False allies latch onto false words.

If we’re really queer (in the sense of blurred) then we don’t lump together those two definitions of transgender, or any others. We don’t presume that a person means some exact category when they use a word for themselves.

 

Dysphoria and trauma

If you’re lucky enough to be cis – all your sexes and genders in typical alignment – and you get assigned the gender matching your brain sex, no problem. Otherwise you can have dysphoria over the incongruity between how you’re assigned and that lovely word-defying center. Or you might be dysphoric about the incongruity between your brain sex and primary sex. There’s a lot of variables, and people are socialized differently making the weight of the variables differ from person to person, but the commonality is that our culture can’t handle reality, and thus springs up this idea of incongruence, or wrongness. There’s some conflict between the cultural, lingustic parts of the mind as formed by relationships and the center.

All those children noted above haven’t yet rejected reality, so to them there is no queerness. The dysphoria sets in only as queerness is mentalized as being outside the cultural system. There is only a problem if we define being atypical as a problem and then shame people for it.

Assignment, when incongruent, is like abuse. It’s not abuse, legally, because it’s not illegal or even necessarily immoral. But it feeds dysphoria and grows it into trauma. So as far as our emotional state is concerned, it’s abuse. The original trauma was the original misgendering and as our childhood continues, we’re under post-traumatic stress all the time as we are repeatedly being misgendered: each act of gendering against us re-awakens the original trauma and keeps it alive.

The world we’re trying to get to is one in which any combination of genders and sexes is considered okay, and there is no denial of the reality of the diversity.

Word pollution

So back to the better words to replace “transgender”. The definition relating to being misgendered is private for the same reason that people’s history of any kind of abuse may be private. We don’t out people standing around the copier at work by asking “So, were you raped a lot as a kid?” is not a good opener. Likewise we don’t need to out people who have been the victim of accidental or purposeful misgendering. There doesn’t need to be a word because it’s not a single shared identity or trait; it is rather a kind of early childhood experience that’s different for everyone. If we need to talk about it, we should say what we mean – a person who was chronically misgendered. (Since the act was done by others to that person, it isn’t really their own trait or identity, so the adjective form would be misleading.)

The other definition, gender/sex mismatch, is equally private, simply because it refers to private parts. So, in no case is is somone’s history of gendering, private parts, dysphoria or trauma really a good candidate for a single word that would be accurate to throw around in public.

A term that describes the overall phenomon of typical and atypical combinations of the seven sexes and genders that we swim in might be useful – and we could call that cisity and transity as I mentioned before. A person whose combination of sexes is atypical could just be called queer, or even better, Jane (if their name happens to be Jane).

To illustrate how misleading and useless some of the other words in common use are, let’s assume we’re going to group all children into 6 chromosomal sexes (X, XX, XY, XXX, XXY, XYY – yes, all of these exist), 5 bands of primary sex, 5 bands of brain sex, and 5 bands of internalized gender. (I’m ignoring secondary sex, which comes later; assigned and presented gender, which are easily changed; combinations; and changes over time, for this exercise in futility.) With the simplifications, there are 750 types, two of which are cis and the ther 748 types are not. So when people use terms like “FtM” or “transgender” or “transsexual”, it’s misrepresenting reality in a big way, giving the impression that there’s just a few atypical types.

Word pollution comes from both sides. On the one hand are cultural conservatives with their head in the sand and don’t want any of this variation to be scientifically true in the first place (if your child is evidently not cis, assign them harder!); on the other hand there are wannabe allies with all their invasive assumptions and boxing. For example there was an older woman who wanted to know if I was going to “transition” like this other young woman who in her mind had become a man. This older woman had become initiated to a pattern of apparently normal females wanting to be men, and I’m guessing after stuggling with this, perhaps against her cultural background, she eventually got her head out of the sand and now has learned enough terminology to accept that one pattern is a “thing”, and now in an emotionally dangerous way wants to “celebrate” that I’m that thing as well. It’s nice to celebrate and all, but I’m not doing that thing. That model transitioner in her mind was maybe a single category out of the 748, and she used her word for that one thing too broadly.

So what’s an accurate way to talk about the healing from the trauma? Let’s call that “healing from trauma”. How about when someone changes their presentation? Let’s call that “changing their presentation”. We need to talk about things that are real; that makes us nice and queer. (or maybe not-queer, because the more territory we queer, the less queer there is left). If you want to know what someone’s body parts are, there’s words for that too. If you don’t know them well enough to use words like that, please wonder in silence.

Vocabulary: adulthood

I’ve been talking about childhood so far, but the variation expands in a few additional ways through adulthood. One new dimension is that some people are fluid; internalized gender can change. Related to that (but different) is that people figure out who they are and revise what they professed earlier. Someone who acted like a man and said they were a man might say “no that was just an act, I now realize I was always a woman”; but another person might say they really were a man and they changed. Some of those who changed might not have experienced a change in their internalized gender and are the kind of people for whom presentation is their real personality. Others (like me) were really bad at acting as we thought we were supposed to, and never really bought into it. Some people develop combinations of presentations that go along with different sides of themselves. So the interaction of personality type, accumulated emotional problems, and social skills with language and all the genders and sexes makes an impossibly complex situation that I think can’t be effectively catalogued.

A third new dimension is that sexuality and transity interact in adulthood. As an example, one person who thought of himself as a boy might discover that they are gay, and then play a girlish role as part of relationships, or maybe as part of working through their sexual queerness in the face of social expectations. Someone else might appear almost identical on the outside but the play is more real, to the extent they are a girl, they’re not just playing one. Between those two people may lie very little distance; slightly different circumstances might have made either one take the other’s path. But looked at another way, they’re opposites: one’s a gay man and the other is a straight woman. The words, when looked at as boxes, fail to communicate; the words make false categories.

Taking the prior example to a larger scale, there are gay men’s bars with drag shows, and then there are bars where men go to see “T-girls” do strip shows. Those two venues may seem similar – people with all the same body parts tittilating each other and playing roles – but only the second one is straight: it’s still about men going to be entertained by women. By being gay to an even further extreme, it comes completely around to being straight and fits within the dominant patriarchy.

Changes and healing

In trans culture (which is now a thing in the big culture, and it has a gigantic spyglass attached) people talk about “transition”. It’s sometimes in the language of pain and healing, and people going on journeys. It’s often in the language of switching sides and ordering up a new identity. There’s a metaphorical trail being beaten down from one camp to the other and vice versa: People headed on one path wear baseball caps and learn to high-five a lot. The other beaten path involves glitter, heels, and laser treatments, and people are supposedly traipsing back and forth between camps on these paths. Either way those elements are just surface things, and those particular now-known paths are not relevant for everyone and should never be assumed to be where anyone is going.

Let’s get a basic point clear first: people only change what’s easy to change, and only to the extent needed to stop the trauma, to stop being a victim. A doctor can’t make us a different person; we can’t even will ourselves to be a new person. We’re stuck being who we are. The only things changing (when people appear to change) are presentation, and sometimes secondary sex, and much more rarely primary sex. Mostly it’s just appearances, but those things change how one is gendered, and that change can sometimes heal the dysphoria.

So let’s please stop talking about transition as a big word with a bunch of implied components. If you want to talk about a masectomy, talk about that. If you’re not close enough to someone to ask them about their breasts, you shouldn’t be talking to them about “transitions” in general. It’s a code word that people think gives them an appropriate way to be invasive, but it doesn’t give you permission – it just makes you invasive. I recently got the same question coded as just “what are you doing”, which is equally invasive. It doesn’t matter how jolly educated you are; there’s no euphemism that makes it okay.

And I would also like to strike “identity” from the vocabulary, as it is often used as a contrast to actuality. As in, “a woman who identifies as a man”. Identity is very mental and prone to rationalization, so it is not a good touchstone for any conversation about the topic. People can claim an identity as easily as they can order a latte with caramel. You can say anything but your actual identity is often beyond the reach of rational words. Someone once said they liked my “new identity” once as if it was a wine whose buyer was to be congratulated on their refined tastes. At another place I was outed and someone asked only me, but no one else, the question “what do you identify as”. In that person’s mind (apparently) everyone appearing typical has the primal right to just be themselves, while those who set off her trans-dar have to stake out an “identity”. She prefaced that with stories of how open and accepting she is. But there should be no checkpoints where anyone has to identify.

There’s a pattern of people being “supportive” and wanting to do something. I’ve gotten everything from “I heard you are transitioning and want to offer my help” to agonizing pleas to allow someone to support me. A committee even discussed me and sent a representative to ask if I needed help with makeup. I am not kidding. You might wonder what’s wrong with offering support. It’s because the person in question isn’t necessarily doing anything and isn’t any different than the rest of us. It isn’t that target person’s responsibility to do anything; they aren’t defined by what they do or don’t do; rather, it’s everyone else’s responsibility to shut up and just accept that not everyone is typical.

Doctors and the body

In a more rigid branch of trans-culture, there’s an effort to make the body go away by saying whatever a person “identifies as” is who they are. If you identify as a man, you’re a man. This is helpful in social relations, but it is scientifically not a complete fact. One reason is that there is no such thing as a man; there are the seven different gender and sex axes, and you may on the male side on some of them but not all. The other reason is that staking out an identity is a rational act, which might not so meaningful, as our psychology is not always open to accurate inspection by ourselves. We’re stuck being who we are, whether we like or accept it. We can’t build a political movement to will away things that exist.

Here’s a question that can’t ever be answered: Does a so-called “trans-man” have “girl parts” or are they automatically “boy parts” because they are his? When we’re creating false categories by oversimplified words, we fall into word traps like this one.

The body may be one of the more easily altered parts of ones gender-related life experience, but it still important, for at least two big reasons: (1) doctors need to know what parts you have, and (2) we’re sexual and people are attracted to body parts.

To those people trying to make the medical establishment aware of the social issues, please do not fall into the trap of using gender identity as the controlling variable. Instead medical records should just list chromosomal sex, primary sex, and secondary sex all separately, so a more full description is possible. They can say “Patients whose primary sex is male should get prostate exams”. The same person could also have a secondary sex as female and should also go get a breast exam. Having both of those true at the same time reflects actual truth, so that shouldn’t trip up their system.

By contrast, if a medical system used “identity” as the controlling variable (“you are what you identify as, period”), then a doctor would have to explain that “men (other than transmen) as well as transwomen who have prostates should get a prostate exam.” This would be really confusing.

We should not misuse “assigned” to euphenistically indicate body parts. Saying “I know this girl who was assigned male” is suggesting she has or had so-called boy parts. Saying “I’m sexually attracted to assigned-female people” is probably not accurate; if you are saying that, you’re probably attracted to their primary sex, not to their assigned gender or to their internalized gender.

Group identity

Part of the backlash against accepting the reality of sex and gender variance is tightening up the borders of the identity group that we feel we belong to, to keep the weirdos out. Misunderstanding everything about variance, they will say for example “you can’t just put on a dress and become a woman”, and have endless discussion about what makes someone a real woman. Since “woman” is just a word and doesn’t fit reality exactly, the discussion can never have an end. Those discussions go through predictable points which usually reach the ultimate point that a person has to “be socialized as a woman” to be a woman. Socialization is a vague academic term and is not an arbiter of identity. For example I was told I was a boy directly (assignment) but I was still socialized as a girl, in the sense that out of the millions of messages that I was exposed to, I internalized the ones aimed to girls. That’s because by the time I went to preschool and met people outside the family and got messages through TV, I had already established my internal gender, which acts as a filter on the messages received.

There is a cis-group identity, and those of us who are not cis might never be completely accepted in either gender group. The reason is not simply “socialization” or body parts, or any other single aspect of variance. The reason is just that we are atypical and understanding the reality of the variance threatens the artificially black-and-white walls of the two gender groups. I don’t think there is a solution for gender segregation, because segregation assumes cisity is foundational, and ignores reality.

I went to a gender-segregated quaker event once and the leader warned the others in advance about me and invited their questions. The implication was to “act normal” when I got there, and they did act normal. Then she admitted a year later that she had done that – a great way to make someone feel like a freak! The cis group exercised privilege in discussing the outsider and permitting entry at their discretion; we didn’t all automatically have the same rights to belong or participate in the conversation.

Summary

  • There are hundreds of combinations of sexes and genders. Cisgender people account for only two of them.
  • Keep it queer (blurry) – don’t create falsely simplifying boxes.
  • Say what you mean.
  • Don’t be invasive.
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