Crip Dyke has offered to lead a discussion of gender right here in the comments. Read the instructions below if you’d like to participate.
By the way, take it seriously and constructively if you do participate. I’ll be especially ruthless in slapping down trolling.
Gender is an endlessly complex subject. There are people who spend their entire lives attempting to understand and explain it. This is true even among those lucky languages speakers, I’ve been reminded, where “sex” and “gender” are separate words with intelligible histories that we can understand give them distinct meanings. [Note that here any points about language will be limited to English language terms, and not translations or cognates. We’ll have ourselves a sufficiently grand time struggling with one sex and gender in one language.]
And yet, despite thousands of lives devoted to understanding and explaining gender, sex, and their relationships to each other, very little new information has trickled down to those outside of the specialized disciplines that study them. This is at least in part because within and between these disciplines there is often confusion. “Gender bender” is a term thrown around science journalism, and sometimes by scientists to refer to chemical effects on protein expression in fish in colorado, as just one example. But to others, “gender bender” is a term specific to individual resistance to a cultural imposition of mores limiting the capacities, rights, responsibilities and roles based on nothing more than a person’s gender and assumptions that flow from a person’s gender about that person’s sex. Who has more “right” to the term and whether it has been misappropriated is tricky with such an idiom. The argument from etymology gives the nod to culture warriors, with the online etymology dictionary crediting the first use to a 1980 description of David Bowie. But as the same dictionary notes, gender itself was used to describe what we might now call sex for centuries, including the entire period of transition from traditions of “natural philosophy” or “natural history” to the newer tradition of biological science.
With different disciplines in conflict and with persistent public confusion rendering fine distinctions and points barely intelligible – if at all – in mass media, most folk are still struggling to catch up with the distinctions between sex and gender first articulated by second wave feminism. In fact, most feminists largely give up on such distinctions in communication outside academia, and sometimes even inside it. Abandoning the lessons and logic of past distinctions between sex and gender is probably overdetermined, but at least one cause is that English language cultures tend to relentlessly re-conflate sex and gender. In that environment, a feminist would have to be quite pushy indeed to force the concepts consistently apart, and we know all too well the consequences for feminists deemed pushy.
Where, then, should someone turn if interested in understanding sex, gender, their interplay, and the social dynamics thereof?
In a rather unusual move for a blog (Thanks, PZ!) this space will be set aside for a workshop, of sorts. Over the next little while, starting late Saturday night PDT, I will comment here, approximately once every 24 hours, on aspects of sex and gender, then leave an exercise or two for those who wish to do them. Much of what is required is off-line thinking, and the results of some of these exercises I’ll encourage you to keep to yourselves. But for most, I’ll be asking you to post your thoughts when you are done. The first pair, found at the bottom of this post, will include one private exercise and one public where you are encouraged to share your thoughts. These exercises will lose quite a lot of value if you read others’ comments before you undertake them. So please, if you want to get the full benefit of this online workshop, look for my name and don’t read past my comment until you’ve completed any exercises you intend to do.
At that point, posting about the exercises – both about your thoughts and experiences while doing them, and any results that I might ask you to include – and responses to others’ thoughts, experiences, and results are quite welcome and helpful. Following along at home but choosing not to share your thoughts or results is also fine: this workshop is for all those who wish to learn something about sex and gender, not only for the extroverts and regulars.
Over the course of this workshop, each of us will be exploring inward alone, but I’ll be connecting your personal searches to outside information and context. For too many of us, we simply do not know where our knowledge of gender stops and our assumptions begin. We cannot even identify when we are misunderstanding others because we are so uncertain of our own thoughts, we cannot recognize when our assumptions aren’t shared. Eroding this barrier is the first task of those who want to have truly productive communication about how sex and gender manifest in ourselves, in each other, and in our societies.
For people who find concepts of transgender, transsexuality, gender queer, and gender fuck particularly tough nuts to crack, you may be surprised how much more leverage these personal explorations give than even the best set of definitions. For people more interested in social dynamics of gender, we will use limited numbers of “what” and “how” examples to explore the less well mapped terrain of “why”. Why do so many people choose to engage in a system of gender that hurts so many? Why do systems of gender have vocal defenders? Why do some people choose to spend so much effort attempting to dismantle it? Why are people so afraid of a world in which gender rules do not exist? While simple answers might not be available in this or any other forum, I hope and intend that people that engage seriously with the exercises, themselves, and with others’ comments will reach a level of insight necessary to know the frontiers of one’s own knowledge, and to ask good questions capable of moving past those frontiers into new realms.
Frontiers, however, are often dangerous places. They can be unsettling simply to experience, and too often instincts well adapted to other contexts fail us. Acted upon, those instincts can be dangerous, or worse: threatening. I fully expect that this terrain will be unsettling, frightening, and even dangerous for many of you.
But this frontier will not be lawless.
As your guide, I will be watching carefully. Behavior by persons of good will, but generated by maladaptive instincts will be noted and [hopefully-] helpful constructive criticism provided. But making the same mistake twice will be considered evidence of ill will. Unlike in other threads, if you believe a troll has infested this one, I ask that you simply send an alert to monitors. Do not engage here. Feel free, if you wish, to quote an objectionable comment from this thread over in the ThunderDome and then tear it apart there. But this is not a place to shine teeth or make points. These exercises will be more productive the safer we all are to take risks. My time and my words aren’t free, but the cost is minimal: be kind to others. Part of this kindness will be my quick attention to trolls. Part of yours will be to keep up a welcoming, supportive, collaborative tone.
That said, I’ll leave your first exercises below. Do them yourselves – don’t go ogle someone else’s language or ideas. If you’ve found this thread after Saturday (June 7th), feel free to join the conversation late but remember to tag any comments that include responses to exercises with the name or number of that exercise as the conversation will have moved past the exercises you are on.
Welcome to the Undiscovered Country, my gender nerds. Mount up.
1. Gender Identification: Use a word or short phrase to express your gender identification. Think of this as your private answer to your best friend, who knows tons about you and with whom you have shared intimate experiences and secret language … but happens to be a martian and, out of honest but kind-hearted ignorance, has just asked, “So, what is your gender?”
This can be as simple as a standard, one-word response, but if you find yourself going over 5 words (not including “I am a …” at the beginning) think seriously about whether you are writing a **description** or an **identification**. This is giving a name to a category, not giving a life history. Remember that your martian best friend knows your life history already. The fact that you are giving a name to a category, of course, does not preclude the possibility that the category has a total of one member.
This identification is for you alone. You are not expected to share it in the comments, though you are, of course, welcome to do so if you wish. More productive for commenting would be a narrative about how you came up with your gender identification. Was it automatic for you? Was it initially automatic and then you second-guessed it, but couldn’t find anything better? Did you have an initial identification that you rejected? Or did you start without an idea of what you might say and carefully considered a number of options?
2. Gender/Sex Definitions: Define at least three words from the list below. Do not define more than 6. (Two thou shalt not define, unless it is to then proceed on to define three.) Write a definition of each word you’ve selected without looking up the words on the web or in books. This includes declining to read others’ definitions in this thread until after you are done with your own. The definition should express – as exactly and honestly as you are able – what you, personally, mean when you use that word. If you know that you use the word in multiple ways, provide multiple definitions. However, each definition should be a definition according to your use of the word, not the uses or meanings of any other person.
g. Sex. [In this case, you may omit any definition that relates to “gettin-it-on” activities.]
h. Trans (with or without an asterisk, as “Trans*”)
j. Transsexual or Transexual. You may also choose to explain any differences between these that occur in your usage.
l. Socially constructed/social construction. Feel free to take it on only if you’ve already defined at least 3 and no more than 5 other terms.
Once your definitions are written, you should include them in a comment posted to this thread.
3. Introduction and first report: Write a comment that introduces you to the others in this thread. It should say something about why you’re choosing to do these exercises, what level of gender knowledge you feel you have coming in, and what you hope to get out of this. Any other background information that you feel might help others in understanding your responses can be included (for instance, if English is a language you learned as an adult, people thinking about your definitions might benefit from knowing that). After introducing yourself, feel free to include anything (or nothing) that you wish to say about exercise 1. Add your definitions from exercise 2 **without commentary**. Do not include any information “about” the definition that doesn’t fit “in” the definition. If you feel embarrassed by your definition, think about whether the definition is honest and whether it is as clear as you can make it. If it is, you’ve done your work. Be proud. If it isn’t, try to dig up the courage necessary for more honesty or the language to make it more clear. Repeat as necessary.
4. Comment exchange: Read others’ comments after you have posted yours. If someone has defined a word that you also defined, think about how your definitions are the same and different. After we have at least 5 people who have offered an introduction, first report, and definitions, you can also post any thoughts inspired by others’ writing. Please make sure you’ve allowed at least 4 persons besides yourself to comment before you start this process. If 5 is a number that isn’t working, we can revisit that in the future.
Bon courage, and see you Saturday night!
Your friendly neighborhood Crip Dyke.