B.C. on Gender: My TG Mail

One of the interesting things about being "out" on the web is that people from all over send me nifty e-mail. Occasionally, I discuss gender with people whom I've met on newsgroups and mailing lists; often, complete strangers will send me their thoughts about what I've written. Below are some especially interesting comments:

Note: I only ever quote people's mail with their permission!

From December, 1997

I had a really interesting conversation with Laura last December; Laura is one of the people responsible for the absolutely incredible Metro'on website. Anyway, we were having a pleasant chat about this and that, and then we started getting into a really neat debate about "normal". Laura wrote:

As people are getting to know us and think about us and about what our existence means in relation to their lives, they are making judgements. We all do! They ask, "Are transsexuals 'real' women?" By that they mean, are we essentially females with some manner of birth defect. Mostly, they decide and rightly so, "No, apparently they are physically male, they write and speak with the authority of men, furthermore there are many things about being a female, the complete physiologic, emotional, intellectual package, that simply isn't there in transsexuals. So, while they are not men, they are not female either, they are male women."

To which I responded:

Personally, I wonder why it's so necessary to get so hung up about just "what" we are. I mean, in the long run, does it really matter? Now, it's easy to say that, and forget that we live in a culture that has *huge* investment in the idea of gender, but all things considered, what value is there in claiming some definitional "right" to be a woman, or a male woman, or a female, or whatever?


It matters! People want to know who they are dealing with and there are differences between different types of people. That's why we hang labels and names on things. WE have a right to be who we are ... if we intend to marry, or live with someone, they have a right to know what and who we are as well. Lies about such essential issues, or withholding information, is wrong.


I understand where you're coming from, but perhaps I should clarify: I'm not suggesting that we assimilate and withhold information. I'm certainly not suggesting that we lie about ourselves. But I do wonder about the relationship between our "selves" and our lables.

Now, on the point of assimilation, Laura and I seemed to agree. In an earlier e-mail, she said:

The problem, as Julia and I have discussed it, is that if we, as a communtiy, don't begin to define ourselves as gender variant male/woman, healthy and normal variations that occur when two sexes produce offspring.

But the difference, in my mind is one of mindset:

Read My Lips

Again, this drive to define ourselves as "normal". I just read Riki Anne Wilchins' new book, Read My Lips, and she talks about how people in marginalized communities use the tools of discrimination against more marginalized communities, in the quest to become mainstream. So, what do we do? Use some notion of "normalness" to argue that "we" are really normal, but, say, transvestites aren't? And, hey, aren't Drag Queens the de facto definition of artifice? Certainly, Drag Queens are nothing like "us", because we're "normal", and they're just gay people in frocks.

Bah. I want nothing to do with that.

I'm *not* normal.

I mean, pragmatically, I'm interested in getting the people around me to like and accept me for who I am. Beyond that, I'm not sure I'm interested in having huge debates about how we define the "realness" of women, especially in some essentialist way. I also wondering if maybe we need to stop thinking about gender as an either/or thing, too. Am I a man? Yup. Am I a woman? Yup. Am I a woman, in the same way Madonna is a woman? No. But few people are, I figure.


Then it is important they know about you. And female women are not women like we are women.

To which I responded:

I guess then that I'd need to clarify "important" and "they". On one hand, I don't think it is "important" that store clerks know anything about me. On the other hand, I'd like to think that they have exposure to TG people so that they won't freak out if I'm read. On the other other hand, I'd certainly tell any prospective lover that my body is different than most bodies they've seen. On yet another hand, I don't understand why my body needs to be treated as "the exception" to "the rule" just because my body is transgendered. Around about here, of course, I start running out of hands.

When I'm in a social interaction, I really have two choices: I out myself, or I assimilate. And in most transient relationships (store clerks, people on the street, etc.), I assimilate. If I'm dealing with people who'll become friends, I out myself. I was on a cruise recently, where I chose to assimilate, even though I made friends with people; the friendship was only a week long, really.

But there's different ways to out myself. I can meekly state: "Uh, look, I think there's something you should know...", or I can proudly state, "I'm one of those TG chicks." That stupid thing that people refer to as 'common sense' suggests that the former will be better. I can't say that I agree. An FTM friend has been exceptionally successful blurting out to people "Guess what? I'm having a sex-change!" I also prefer the ideological position of that approach. You don't have to reinforce the idea that "we" are "unusual".

Here's something I often think about (it's the closest thing I have to a motivational speech). I was a theatre student in university, and we once talked about the dilemma of reading lines without rehearsal: what does one do if one doesn't know how to pronounce a particular word? This advice was given to me: choose a pronunciation, and say the word twice as loud as all the other words. If you got it wrong, people will assume that you must be right because of the force of your conviction.

I like to think of "normal" the same way.

There was another dimension to this discussion, however. Even if I'm not too hung up about debating whether or not I'm "really" a woman, I think that it is disempowering that other people are having this debate about us and in our absence. I think that if mundanely-gendered people are deciding whether or not "we" can be accepted into a gender category, this is not an empowering dialogue.

As a point of illustration, I quoted the following from Wilchins' book, in which she responds to the ever-so-sweet phrase "Well, I want you to know that I certainly consider you a woman.":

It is a never-ending source of wonderment that well-intentioned, and otherwise very well-brought-up people say this to me, with a light of total sincerity in their eyes for which any self-respecting cocker spaniel would kill.

Unfortunately, this assurance turns on at least four assumptions which, upon closer inspection, prove to be unfounded:
(a) my gender is a subject about which reasonable people might be expected to reasonably differ;
(b) my gender is a topic that is currently open for discussion;
(c) my gender, and your perception of it, is something about which I am seeking some reassurance; and
(d) you, since you are a nontransexual, are in just the providential position of providing me with this reassurance I so desperately seek.

Finally, I added:

While this sounds quite harsh to someone who might actually convey this sentiment, and while I agree that one of the best ways to successfully transition is to "be a really nice person", I'm conflicted by the whole political message when someone says such a thing.

Laura had an interesting reply to Wilchins quotation:

(a) Is the way it is;
(b) All subjects are always open for discussion as far as I am concerened;
(c) I agree, I seek no one else's support; and
(d) True, but the woman is well meaning and I see no harm in her statement. Riki forgets that we, most of us, were hard on ourselves and we have a vested interest in knowing better. These people are obviously trying and I, for one, would not condemn them for their attempt at support.

This response made me think, because, to be honest I couldn't imagine, in practice, being so harsh, and I felt there was something that wasn't being articulated that was causing us to seem to disagree. As our debate went on, I felt like I was arguing a position that I didn't really believe. So I thought about it for some time, and wrote the following to Laura:

And I agree. But.

Okay, now to explain this, I kinda have to back up for a bit and talk about pragmatism and dogmatism. I work in the computer industry, and I'm a programmer. I work with other programmers and designers, and by and large they're mostly logical thinkers. I watch them get frustrated a lot, because they get annoyed that decisions are made for reasons of business politics, expediency, etc., and seldom because of logical considerations. To them, politicking has no place in the computer industry.

I consider myself something of an oddity. I'm always getting into discussions of the pragmatic. I argue it's silly to go on about how *wrong* it is that politicking influences decisions. That's a reality of the business world, and you'll get along much better if you acknowledge that it exists and look for strategies to keep business politics from impeding you. My co-workers would rather say, "it shouldn't be there in the first place", and, well, basically pout about such things. They get very frustrated. The turn-over rate in a lot of jobs is high because of such frustrations.

"The politics are never going to go away," I say. "Work around them." My friends are being very dogmatic: this is "right" and that is "wrong", and working around the "wrong" stuff shouldn't be necessary, and therefore it's a waste of time. I consider myself very pragmatic. My pragmatism leaks out into almost every aspect of my life. It's the basis behind my interest in neo-paganism. I like a system of philosophy that defers doctrice to practice.

So I find myself befuddled that I'm having this conversation with you about what "should be" in genderland.

In a sense, I feel like I'm arguing that it is "wrong" not to confront people who are ignorant of gender-variance. And that's unlike me. I think the reconciling idea here, though, is that although one gets along better in life if one lives pragmatically, there is a place in my world-view for hopes, and goals, and belief.

In practice, I believe that you and I would probably handle most interactions with mundane people similarly. But I think there's good reason to be *driven* by a profound belief that the world should be different. I think our actions should, in some way, resonate with the desire to change the world into a better place for transfolk.

It was a fascinating discussion we had. It challenged me to think in a whole whack of new directions.

Laura was right: the hypothetical person in Wilchins' dialogue was trying.

I guess what I'm saying is that I can, at the same time, appreciate how far some people manage to come, and, with sadness, wish that they had come farther. I can smile at the little victories, while worrying that they're not enough. I'm Walt Whitman. I contain multitudes.

From June 10th, 1997

Jennie D-O'C recently sent me the following question:

Hey B.C. --

While perusing your web page, I realized I was confused about something. You say you don't see gender in a binary way, but you also say that you are sexually oriented toward "women".

If you wouldn't mind answering a rather personal question, how do you reconcile that?

Wow. That's a hard question. Perhaps the hardest I've been asked. I guess my first tendancy would be to say: "Gee. I can't."

Actually, now that I think of it, that's exactly what I did say. Jennie responded:

Heh. You make it sound like you've never thought about this before. Somehow, I don't believe you. :-)

Okay, I'll try for a real answer:

I've read so much about gender from a biological perspective, from a post-modernist perspective, from a feminist perspective, etc., that I know less about gender than the average person. In a sense, I feel that I've pretty successfully unlearned what gender means. But I must confess that I think that gender does mean something; I just don't know what. And the fact that I'm attracted "to women" is one of the reasons that I think gender means something.

Basically, I've given up my belief in essentialism. I don't think that one can define what it means to be a man or a woman, nor do I necessarily think that those are the only two catagories.

I have a gendered identity; what's more, I have a sense of my own gender identity being at odds with my body. But if I were to try to elaborate, catalogue, or define what I mean by that, I can't do so without relying on definitions which, to be frank, I have a lot of problems with.

And what does that mean, "sexually oriented toward women"? Does it mean you are sexually attracted only to people who have a gender identification of "woman"? So, you could never be attracted to someone like, say, yourself? Or does it mean that you are sexually attracted only to biological females?

Basically, all I really know about my sexual orientation is a history of whom I've been attracted to. The partners that I've bonded with in the past have all self-identified as women, have all had the traditional female sexual equipment, and as far as I know, had no genetic or hormonal 'abnormalities'. So, if I had to peg my orientation, I'd say 'toward women', because that's what's worked for me.

(I'm also inclined to agree with Diane Wilson, who suggests that "toward men" and "toward women" are much clearer orientation labels than "heterosexual" and "homosexual" when you're dealing with transgendered people.)

Maybe I would be attracted to a person like myself -- a kinda "transgender/third gender/bit of both" type. It just hasn't happened yet. I'm not sure I'm ruling that out by labelling my orientation the way I do. And maybe it's wrong to rule out attraction to men, or any of the other genders. I just don't know.

On the topic of TGism and orientation, Kate Bornstein has something interesting to say:

I remember one time at a gay and lesbian writers' conference in San Francisco, I was on a panel and asking these same questions. Because it was a specifically gay and lesbian audience, an audience that defined itself by its sexual orientation, I wanted to tweak them on that identity. I asked, 'And what if I strapped on a dildo and made love to you: what would that make me?' Without missing a beat, panelist Carol Queen piped up, "Nostalgic".

Heh, heh. Kate Bornstein makes me grin.

From Earlier Than That

I was recently talking to a young, bright South-Western Ontario TS who offered this gem after reading my web page:

On the issue of male vs female vs one hundred other sexes, I look at it all as various degrees of detail employed on the basis of necessity. If you point to a bird, and ask "what is that?" a kid will say "a bird" an adult will say "a robin" and an ornothologist will start to rant. If I have to declare my gender in society as either male or female, I'll say female, that matches my societal role and a lot of my biology. If I'm having a discusion with a gender activist, I'll throw out labels left right and center, as appropriate. What always strikes me as weird though is how some people think that gender labels should be usued on a regular basis with the average people in society. That seems to me to make as much sense as telling a little kid that the 'birdie' is actually (insert genus biological ornothological rant), and to then expect the little kid to relate to what you just said. As much as gender variant individuals may be interested in moving gender beyond the simple "male" and "female", when interacting with the more gender blasé population there's nothing to be gained by trying to force our facination on them.

I thought this was a really cool, clear idea, and it makes a lot of sense, too. But I'm slightly uncomfortable "giving up" in the "hundred gender war", though, because to some extent, I think "the more gender blasé society" should be forced to think about these issues more. I think, to a great extent people are very complacent.

The author of this idea did suggest that this might only be applicable to those people who are willing to catagorize themselves within the two-gender system.

I've exchanged a couple of e-mails with Kate, who wrote the following:

Let me creep up on the idea of a binary culture from the side rather than attack it directly from the front. I have always thoroughly enjoyed the larger-than-life characters of Max Brand (one of the twenty different pen names of Frederick Faust). In one of Brand's western yarns, the hero (Tom) successfully concludes his first physical encounter with an itinerant Mexican peddlar. He is entirely unsuccessful in the verbal exchange which follows.

"What is your name?" he asked good-naturedly.

"I, said the other, "have a number of names, as every man should have. There is no reason why we should limit ourselves to one coat; neither should we be held down to one name. In Boston I have been called Robinson -- with a dash of old Indian blood to account for my dark skin. I have been Taliaferro in Virginia, and Van Blicken in New York, and Jansen in Minnesota. ... At the present moment, it is Pedro Aguillar, or 'Pete the Muleskinner,' sometimes. It all depends."

I agree with Pedro that there is no intrinsic harm in a person having several names, or even a whole string of them. Nor would I be disturbed to find that a person's coat buttons sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right. These are non issues, or at best trivial issues.

Three things fascinate me about this quotation.

  1. We are all a bit like Pedro. As we move from one social encounter to another we naturally and unconsciously adapt our choice of words, sentence structure, dialect, clothing, and so forth to the role and venue in which we are operating. In a sense, even if we carry the same name with us from place to place, we take on and drop a whole series of identities. Pedro simply carries the same process to greater extremes than most of us find expedient.
  2. I suspect that Pedro does not stop to ask who he really is -- i.e., which of his many identities is the true him, or the only valid, genuine, legitimate self. In this respect, too, he is like most of us. We seldom ask whether the self we present at home is more real than the self we show at work, and so forth. Like Pedro, we learn to live in the moment: "At present, you may call me ...." And, like Tom, we seldom trouble ourselves with the vexing question of who we are "really" talking to, teaching, taking orders from, or sleeping with. As long as people carry on their present role convincingly -- i.e., as long as they don't let their alternate selves intrude -- we simply take them at face value. In an ideal world, it would be possible for a person to be Paula at home and Paul at work without raising anyone's eyebrows. When you get used to the idea, all that is happening here is a simple alternation of roles and identities similar to the transformations we accept everyday.
  3. Most significant of all is Pedro's attitude towards the whole question of identity. His identity is not something he is, for now and for all time, but something he creates, uses, and drops like a coat. He has learned the knack of staying in control of his identity at any given moment, and of not being overwhelmed or buried by it. Moreover, he persistently remembers that he has been this, that and the other, that he is not merely what he appears to be at present. Paradoxically, while his identity should impress us as being fragmented, ephemeral and contrived, we know intuitively that his awareness of a larger self -- or at least, of all the other bits and pieces -- helps him remain whole, integrated, and supremely functional. Far from being confused and uncertain, Pedro is very much his own person.

I admire Pedro a great deal. I may not have his force of character, but if someone asks, "Are you a man or a woman, or something else entirely?" I would like to reply, like him, "It all depends. At present you may call me ... ," thereby indicating that my self is too large to be contained or defined by those terms. If only I had the courage to carry it off!

Fascinating. I can't add anything to that.

Stef made the following comment, when we were talking about gender cues:

I find myself looking for clues, but not so much to peg someone's "real" gender as to enjoy the experience of the gender switch in my mind, like the illusion of the two faces and the vase. Hardest is seeing both at once. It does work when I get to know someone better, though.

Another really kewl comment. What I find interesting is the idea of looking at things from two perspectives; Stef's really into perspective switching.

Copyright © 1997 by B.C. Holmes and the people I stole words from. Last updated April 21st, 1998.

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