September Online Gender Workshop: Gender Attributions in Practice

After a long hiatus, I am attempting to rejuvenate the online gender workshop just in time for the US/Canadian school year.

In the past, we’ve focused on questions and reports back. Last time, we looked at some definitions. The initial exercises needed to be done in a state of gender naiveté. But more in depth exploration can only be done in the context of a common language and common intent. These are never naively assumed; they must be consciously adopted.

Now that we have these, let’s look at some aspects of gender in particular. Most educational focus is on gender identity and gender identification. But I find it more helpful to start with gender attribution. All of us attribute gender to others very frequently, but the process of attributing gender to ourselves is typically limited to childhood. Long before adulthood, cis* folks’ genders are assumptions living in the background of cis* lives. So let’s start by examining an activity with which we all have more practice and more familiarity: telling other people what there genders are. [Un/]Fortunately for you, I have a piece of creative writing that contains a number of good examples of gender attribution: how it happens, when it happens, and what it looks like. As a bonus which will help us segue into future discussions, it also touches on what it feels like when we are conscious of others’ efforts to attribute gender to us. This piece is called Stares. [Read more…]

July Online Gender Workshop: An exercise in the utility of definitions

When last we left our intrepid workshoppers, one month ago, we had had a rollicking discussion of definitions of gender, sex, and related terms.

One of the things that came out of that discussion is that when we are each pressed to define exactly what each of us as individuals mean by each person’s specific, personal use of terms like “gender” and “sex” and “transsexual” we not only consistently come up with different definitions, but we also routinely fail to come up with terms that actually cover everything we want to say.

In looking at people overtly performing gender, many of us struggled to find a way to express exactly what we wished to communicate using the terms we had just defined. Worse, in something little discussed as of yet, those people who are assumed to be the best and most skilled of us frequently declined to use gendered pronouns for some performers, but not others.

Why is this the case? If declining to assume an appropriate pronoun for Conchita Wurst is respectful, why not decline to assume an appropriate pronoun for Julie Andrews or Shirley Temple? One of the things we should, in fact, be discussing is the coercive nature of many gendered interactions. Did Shirley Temple choose the clothing or choreography for that scene? Did Temple have more agency in creating a gender (or a gendered image) than Conchita Wurst? At age 3 and 4? Given the legacy nature of Temple’s income and ability to work, what are the implications for Temple’s gender agency at age 40? And if Shirley Temple can’t be assumed to have had a free gender hand, why are we willing to trust an application of a gendered pronoun for Temple more than we trust an application of a gendered pronoun to Wurst?

To help solve some of these problems, it is necessary to have a common language. As revealed in previous exercises, we do not currently have that. We have idiosyncratic usage as created and modified by our successes and failures in conceptualizing and communicating sex and gender concepts. That simply isn’t enough when the times get rough.

[Read more…]

Online Gender Workshop 3

I’m going to apologize upfront. First, this is a day late. Real life has intervened, and it looks like every other day may end up being the schedule. I want to keep the momentum of one post a day, and I will try again to do that, but family responsibilities and an upcoming law final are limiting my ability to get longer posts done in a timely manner. For my second apology: I set up a trap exercise, at least to some extent. I won’t do this in the future, but to get a real appreciation of a trap, sometimes you have to be pushed into it. This is one of those times where the artificial trap in the exercises should (I hope) reflect the nature of traps that are integral features of the gender terrain.

Antiochus Epiphanes clearly caught on with comment #25 in the previous thread:

I’m not trying to be difficult, but can an object be said to have a gender?

Call me a jerk for setting this trap if you like, but today we’re going to begin to go back and look at our previous definitions of masculine, feminine, woman, man, and gender. Are your definitions inclusive of objects? If not, and if you then took this exercise seriously, what does that mean?

Feminist analysis of gender has been crucial to the ethical progress the English speaking world has made in the last 200 years. I by no means wish to throw it under the bus. Nor is it illegitimate to argue that objects and their placements in pictures or videos can be used to send messages. But objects have gender only in the sense that objects have sale prices (not even just prices, but sale prices).* In the every day territory of gender naïveté, gender binarism is not merely dominant, it is literally unquestionable. But those who “problematize” gender rope in a blizzard of semiotics.

The result for trans* and intersex folk attempting to explain themselves, attempting to be, literally, recognized by others while interacting with the gender binarists is like living inside a misshapen forcefield. While others might find the field quite protective, a trans* person often can’t function without painfully straining against the field from the inside just to perform everyday tasks. The problems for intersex folk are traditionally different: as doctors are about to bestow a forcefield to an infant, the doctors recognize a difference in shape in one of the most sensitive areas of our human bodies. Thoughtfully, the doctors have a solution: cutting the body to fit the forcefield.

In conversations around gender in those willing to consider either modified gender binarism (yes, it’s binary, but man is not isomorphic with male, and woman is not isomorphic with female) or non-binary gender, it is now possible to have a conversation with others about how trans* people are gendered and intersex people are sexed. However, this topic is given weight and treatment distressingly similar to that of discussions on the gendering of staircases.

In one world, we are painfully confined and, since we are assumed not to exist (and cannot be properly seen through the distorted field when we try to make ourselves known), have no access to help. Our requests for help are not even intelligible. In another world, we have the same status as fascinating objects. In short, there is no language, there is no context, in which trans* people have full humanity. Intersex people are denied their humanity in ways different, but just as consequential.

Where are the gender-descriptive or gender-identifying words that area always humanizing (could never be applied to mere objects), yet just as applicable to trans* and intersex folk as to non-intersex cis folk? Have you seen any in any of the discussion here yet?

This provides an environment of forced choice: if a person can cushion contacts with the field through throwing on a sequined pill-box hat, a tuxedo, a pair of doc martens, or all 3 at once, might it be worth the confinement to have the protection of the forcefield, now that the protection is merely confining, and not actually harmful? If a person feels sufficiently protected by other forces, might more freedom of movement be worth tossing aside the safety of the force field?

And here we get to interesting questions. Like all lives, trans* lives are confluent lives. Is it possible that a person with more money, more class status, or whiter skin will be more likely to feel safe enough without a forcefield? Which disabilities make a person less threatening, and thus less a target for certain types of violence? Which disabilities make a person appear powerless, and thus more of a target for certain types of violence? How many disabilities have both these effects? The effects of confluence are a major factor influencing the number of murders of MtF PoC.

These effects also influence whether a particular victim is more likely to be identified publicly as a victim of a gender or sex motivated murder. Is an FtM person who goes by Alex and wears Dickies going to have hir story told accurately in the paper? Is a wealthy, white MtF person murdered at home going to have family or others concealing the circumstances (even the victim’s clothing!) to “protect his reputation”? And will the police be more likely to forgive the family their deceptions and accede to their wishes than they would be for an MtF person of color murdered on the way home from a bus stop?**

Any number of aspects of trans* life are directly affected by class, race, gender assignment at birth, legal sex, religion, and other socially important aspects of our lives and bodies. But one thing does not change: the gendered world around us is thoroughly dominated by a culture created by and for cis* people. In that world, because of that culture, cis* folks’ obsession with gender rules.

Obsession?

Well, yes. You’re the group that defines gender in terms of people but then tries to shoehorn in pencils and mugs. It is not enough that we have to know the gender of the people around us, but if we wish to engage with others, we have to know the gendered implications of literally everything around us, our entire context.

Why? Social rules and social consequences. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s trivially easy to prove that behavior varies with the gender of one’s interaction partner. Studies of eye contact initiation, cessation, and duration between pairs of persons serve quite ably as proof of concept.*** Violating social rules caries consequences. In an effort to minimize those consequences, it becomes vital for those living in a gendered system to be aware of context and follow social rules of gender. While “nature” might have soft, feminine connotations in many contexts, “the outdoors” might have masculine connotations just as often. Which did your conversation partner use to describe the setting of a vacation? How do patterns of word choice (and tone of voice, use of questions and question marks, and more) influence how one is perceived? While it’s perfectly fine to be something other than a housewife-paragon or warrior-paragon, the more one deviates from gender expectations, the higher grow the risks.

Cis* people often have traumatic stories to tell about younger years when learning contextual gender interpretation and gender risk management. But for cis* folk, by definition, it is possible to live a psychologically healthy <i>adult</i> life that feels authentic <b>and</b> which is also sufficiently far away from the risky features of the gender terrain for cis* persons to make the vast majority of choices without any fear that <i>this one small step</i> will be the step to cause an injurious – or fatal – fall.

It is this relative safety, the distance from dangerous edges, that makes it possible for a cis* dominated culture to be so gender naive and gender obsessed at the same time. Without criticizing anyone, I note that the conversation about what is phallic took (predictably) quite confusing turns: a hexagonal pencil might not be phallic, one suggested, but a cylindrical pencil just might. Likewise, in everyday contexts, children must learn that grabbing a softball for a game of catch is coded feminine, while grabbing the smaller baseball is coded masculine. Take the time to read through just a little bit of past discussion again. Without taking anything away from the utility of becoming **aware** of gender signals, what does it reveal about the depth of our societies’ gender obsessions that we can find gendered cues literally everywhere we look? Imagine being so frequently at the edges that literally anything – whether one’s pencil is hexagonal or cylindrical – might be enough to make one’s gender a safety liability.

Moreover, we excuse our gender obsessions in ways that are horribly harmful. Most of us are willing to go so far as to say that objects <b>have</b> gender, rather than that we, as humans, project gender onto those objects in a manner as artificial as a shopkeeper slapping on a sale price. The price is by no means a property of the object, nor is the gender. It is a property of ourselves, which is, in part, why we can differ so much as individuals and as societies in the gendering of clothes, mugs, and other objects. When we dodge responsibility by saying things like, “Blue <b>is</b> a masculine color,” rather than, “I masculinize blue,” we are teaching gender irresponsibility and gender naturalism at the same time. Is it any wonder then, that in those too-common cases where trans* people’s assailants or murderers are brought before a justice system, defendants will displace the source of rage onto the victim? Is it any wonder that jurors, judges, and the media sympathize with defendant whose expectations of naturalism were violated and who certainly played no role in <b>creating</b> those expectations? If they did recognize that, rather than trans* deception or trans* victimization of cis* folk, what was actually happening was a setting of a trap by cis* folk specifically to catch out and punish trans* folk for being trans*, those jurors, judges, and media representatives might feel uncomfortably guilty.

And they should. While those determined to protect themselves from harm through the reinforcement of rigid gender forcefields go about deliberately confusing sex and gender, those like feminists who have much to gain from separating the two appear to be unable to muster a consistent vision of separate sex and gender, and in both cases the ultimate effects on those outside the norms of gender and sex are similar: dehumanization and invisibility.

So let’s take a look back at our original definitions from a less naive stance. The point of these exercises is still to get a definition of these terms <b>as you use them</b>, not as you would like them to be used. We will come back to these definitions one more time at the end of the workshop to come up with some that we feel will be helpful going forward <b>after</b> the workshop, but changing habits is hard if we don’t know what the habits are in the first place.

 

Exercise 12: Redefinitions. Let’s look carefully at just a few definitions:

a. Gender

b. Man

c. Woman

d. Feminine

e. Masculine

 

Try to come up with a new definition for at least 3 of these. Use your experience in the video exercise (including your critiques or rebuttals, and others’ critiques of your ideas) to guide you. Look back at the cues you used: these are gender cues, even where the assumption is that they reveal something about sex directly and gender only indirectly. What definitions of masculine and feminine accurately represent the indications of femininity or masculinity that you used?

Now think about the object exercise: did you gender an object? If you did, how can you define gender consistently with how it has been used by you in these exercises? Many people in gender studies break gender down into subcategories. Would you find it helpful to create multiple, subcategoric definitions? What would the subcategories be? What would the definitions be?

 

Exercise 13: Justice. No one used the word, or even from what I remember the concept, of justice in these definitions during our first attempts to understand these words. Does the concept of justice belong in the definition? Is gender active or passive? Are we better defining gender first and then looking at the implications for in/justice? Or are we better off specifically defining gender in part in relationship to how it contains or enacts in/justice? As a separate matter, note that I’ve been using pretty common psychological testing schemes: present one exercise, with attention to certain details, but actually testing and examining different details. Did you feel trapped? Do you feel like the exercises were unfair in having both a surface point <b>and</b> an unstated expectation that you would likely reveal what I’m calling gender naïveté and gender obsession? Is the experience of a gender-trap familiar to you? If you aren’t trans*, is it possible to see how the relentless examination of so many aspects of a person’s look, behavior, and context might be harmful? For trans* folks: do you find your response to be more often one of exhaustion or pain, or do you find yourself to be cultivating ignorance of the relentlessness of gendering as a coping strategy? Both?

 

Exercise 14: 4th Report. Unlike other reports, there is no part of exercises 12 or 13 that I’m not encouraging you to report back. Post as much of that thinking as you are comfortable making public. Only after that should you feel free to pick out individual portions of this post for free form response, but, yes, once 12 and 13 are done, anything in here is fair game for any type of serious response.

 

Previous Workshop Thread.

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Notes:

*I’ll let you all work on that for a while. Clearly we have some great minds working this stuff out here. If y’all want me to go into that metaphor more later, I might.

** It seems highly unlikely that the apparent targeting of MtF PoC over other trans* people does not reflect a reality of greater actual targeting of MtF PoC. But we’re frustratingly unable to know for sure, or to quantify those risks.

***See, e.g., Mayo, C and Henley, N M. Gender and Nonverbal Behavior.

 

 

 

Online Gender Workshop 2*

You’ll note that we now have a separate thread for each exercise set. I won’t go back (if it’s even possible) to pull out exercises 5-8 and your responses from the first thread, but starting now we’ll be able to have people continue one discussion (on say, the video exercises, where it looks like Sundays wasn’t a great day for a lot of people) while the next begins.

Today’s exercise may be technically difficult for some of you, so I expect fewer people to complete it, but I hope everyone that joined us last week engages in the discussion. On the plus side, it requires a bit less time commitment than the video exercises, which may allow some people to catch up.

Exercise 9: Think of a gender neutral object. No. Not that one. Because gender, right? Exactly. That other one. Now you’ve got it. Ready? Sketch it. Sketch it without any context whatsoever to keep ideas about gender in relation to the object free from distractions caused by gender in relation to the context in which the object is drawn.

When finished drawing, upload that sketch somewhere (I recognize this won’t be possible for everyone).

Exercise 10: 3rd Report. Narrate a bit about choosing an object (whether or not you were able to post your sketch). Was it easy? Hard? Did the first thing that came to mind remain your choice? Now talk about the actual process of drawing. Did you stop, erase, and/or redraw at any point because of concerns that the sketch might not communicate gender neutrality?

In this report, provide a link to your sketch if you were able to upload an image.

Exercise 11: Discussion. Look at a number of the uploaded images. If there are any choices (or implementations of choice, through the image in the sketch) with which you disagree, say so. Provide an argument for gendering the object someone else considered gender neutral. If there are none with which you disagree, find someone’s comment that does disagree with one or more choices. Read that person’s argument and respond. Are you persuaded? Why or why not? You are welcome to defend your own choice in discussion, but if you do, you must do it using new arguments than the ones you made in exercise 10 when you initially discussed your choice and process.

 

Previous workshop thread. Next Workshop Thread.

*must. not. type. “:Electric Boogaloo.”

Damn you, Ed Brayton!

I am Power-Mad Drunk on Intoxicating Power!

As many of you may know, just less than a week ago some earnest questions were asked – to the Horde generally – about gender by morgan (frequent, though apparently not current, epitheter of metaphors). morgan’s questions reduced to a more fundamental one: “Why is constructively engaging gender so damn hard?”

This is something about which I’ve often written and spoken. It runs through my critiques of a number of disciplines/specialties, most notably the pedagogy of gender itself. It’s long been my thinking that we can teach gender much better than we do, and one important aspect of that is to encourage self-exploration rather than using idiographic studies of various exotic species: trans* folks and intersex kids and survivors of testicular, ovarian, or breast cancer. To encourage that self-exploration, I’ve developed workshops in the past that attempted to reveal to the participants’ view the transsexual analogous and transgender analogous portions of their own psyches. It occurred to me that morgan might find better answers through something like the workshops I’ve led than through simply reading a recommended book or a fantastically intelligent comment (to which, ahem, I might link). And so I offered to create an online workshop, though I’d never done one before.

Quickly others spoke up to express interest, and noted that weaving the workshop into the Lounge’s already multi-threaded complexity simply wouldn’t work. It would compromise the Lounge’s comfortable directionlessness, perhaps making idle chat feel less welcome in the exact space set aside for it. Likewise, it might make it very difficult for people to find, and follow, the workshop itself. So it was suggested that we ask PZ for a separate thread for our experimental conversation.

And how you responded! With more than 50 people – if I’ve counted correctly – jumping in during the introduction period, it became quickly apparent that even with our own thread people were bound to get lost. The solution? More threads! (Good for these cotton workers, if no one else.) I took to PZ the suggestion that he open a new thread for each set of exercises. His counter-offer has given me the power to make my own OPs on Pharyngula, under my own byline.

This will take work off PZ’s plate, permitting me to create separate threads on my own initiative, when my posts are ready. Also, it eases worries about posting times, as starting a new thread will not interrupt a conversation in an old thread. All in all, I think it’s a good idea.

But it only happened because 1) the Horde appeared to want it, and 2) it suited PZ’s whim. It will continue only so long as both are true. I have no aspiration to pepper Pharyngula’s headlines or to change the character of this blog: it is absolutely and always PZ’s house. I just got a spare key. I don’t have any plans at this point to post anything other than the this introduction and my planned workshop posts, although if it seems particularly relevant I might blog about a current event that allows me to make a point useful to the exciting gender discussion happening here.

When the workshop is over, I may hand the spare key back to PZ or, if he prefers, just keep it in my key bowl in case it’s needed. But for whatever duration, a few posts under my byline will, I hope, change nothing about my relationship to the Horde. I expect to be corrected when I make mistakes, challenged when I make an argument, and called out when something I do or say enacts or reinforces oppression. On every single thread not in the workshop series, I hope I continue to be no more and no less than I have been: a member of a very special group of people who enjoy learning from each other.

Rum, chocolate, and confetti (if you feel compelled to eat, throw, and drink these things in despair and/or celebration at this Crip Dyke-has-a-byline development) should be available in the Lounge. Afterparty with the scum and villainy will be in the ThunderDome, per usual. The third exercise set will appear sometime a little after midnight Blog Standard Time as the second OP in the workshop series [given that the second exercise set was posted under the first OP before this development].

In the meantime, thanks PZ, for creating this space. Thanks to the Horde for doing all the heavy-lifting in the workshop thread. I owe it all to… Oh, who am I kidding?

Power! Absolute power!