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Jun 12 2012

Being (in)comprehensible

Natalie wrote today:

We have a political obligation to present some kind of unified identity. We need to be able to say “this is who we are. This is what defines us. These are our needs. This is what we ask”. We also have a political, cultural obligation to be comprehensible. They won’t see us if they can’t understand what they’re seeing, and they certainly wouldn’t know how to accept us. So we present our simplifications, our “X trapped in a Y’s body” metaphors, and obscure the endless complications and nuances and “well actually it’s not like that at all”s.

You should make sure to read the rest, but it was this part that especially rang true for me. It may not have been her intention, but I recognized that this obligation appears not only at the level of a movement, but also on a personal level. It’s the expectation, usually unstated because there’s no need for it to be made explicit, that we as individuals must exist, present, and explain ourselves in such a way that we can be easily sorted into an understood category. This demand becomes most obvious when we neglect or refuse it.

People attempt to identify a person’s gender out of sheer reflex, and it’s one of the first things they do when they look at someone. The process doesn’t even become a conscious one unless they can’t immediately reach a clear and binary conclusion of man or woman. On the occasions when this happens, it colors your every interaction with them from the very outset. In person, you might get an odd hesitation, a double-take and a once-over. (If you’re lucky, that’s the worst of it.) Online, people are often more direct, so we get “Are you a man or a woman? Are you a woman who used to be a man? Are you a man who used to be a woman? What’s wrong with your voice? What are you?” And so on.

What are you? Hostile and dehumanizing as it is, this really cuts to the heart of it. With a trait so fundamental as gender – something that’s almost universally treated, rightly or wrongly, as the bedrock of one’s personality and physical presence in the world – people are so accustomed to expecting an unambiguous answer that when this answer isn’t obvious, we now must provide it to them. We’re expected to explain, not who we are, but what we are and why we are this way.

“What were you born as? When did you transition? How do you know? Are you sure? Are you on hormones? How do you have sex? What’s it look like? Do you use it? Did you have the surgery yet?” Many people think these are acceptable, even necessary questions – that they must know these things in order to understand who I am before they’ll talk to me like they would any other person. (Which they won’t, of course.)

Yes, I’ve recognized this obligation to make oneself comprehensible to everyone else. And I’ve often rejected it by omission. With the exception of partners and close friends, I don’t see the need to tell people my assigned birth sex, my childhood experiences, my sexual preferences, the extent of my dysphoria, my medical history, the details of my endocrine system, and anything else you wouldn’t ask a random cis stranger about. I’ll gladly share my pronoun preferences, because those who ask have often seemed to do so out of politeness and sensitivity. But I do not need to explain my personal life, my sex life, my body and my mind as a precondition to the most casual interactions in everyday life. I do see the ensuing confusion, and I see it every day. I see the barrier that’s come between my words and those who think they must know my anatomy before they can listen to me. But it is not a barrier that I erected.

Could it be that this is just an obstinate, contrary reaction on my part? Largely, yes. If this intimate, personal information wasn’t so often made the subject of these prying questions, I’d probably be much less resistant to discussing at least some of it openly. As is, I’ve almost always neglected to describe myself as trans unless asked directly – not because I’m at all ashamed of it, but because what I am is not the totality of who I am, and people will see it as such anyway when they’re handed that information. If I don’t prepend “trans” to each of my roles – trans atheist, trans writer, trans videoblogger, trans parent, trans everything – they’ll just do it in their heads. I’d rather wait and see if they’re capable of simply seeing me as a person like any other. I expect that of people, even if they often disappoint.

There’s nothing wrong with being what I am or saying what I am, but there is something wrong when the absence of this one piece of information poses an insurmountable roadblock to hearing me out, and its presence overshadows everything else about me. Even if confusion is the cost of my silence, I’d almost rather let people wallow in their own self-inflicted incomprehension.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    bluentx

    Zinnia,

    I’ve just found out you’re aboard!
    As a long time (mostly lurking)Science Blogs/FTB reader and having enjoyed your videos, I look forward to the chance to catch up on what I’ve missed.
    Welcome to FTB!!!!!

  2. 2
    Daniel Schealler

    Hey there!

    Welcome to FtB!

    I’m not familiar with you yet – only seen a couple of your videos so far. But so far I like what you’ve been doing.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the weeks to come.

  3. 3
    Michael Brew

    Glad to see (read?) you here. I used to watch your videos extensively on YouTube even before I joined the Army. It’s funny, but back then it never occurred to me to categorize you as trans* anything. You certainly weren’t trans parent (ba-dum dah). I remember some of the “is it woman? Is it man?” comments you got, though, and it always seemed so completely irrelevant. Here you are talking about something of importance and all they can come up with is “your point is invalid, for I do not know what pronoun by which to call you!” Anyway, you’re totally one of my early YouTube Atheist heroes, so thanks for being you.

  4. 4
    TTowns

    This is one of the huge problems brought about by culture and gender roles. We are all indoctrinated to view personal identity as belonging to either one of two categories: male, or female. In fact, we are indoctrinated so strongly to think this way that we have come up with terms like “transgender,” when we know that gender is just a social construct. When we look at people, we just feel that they “have” to identify with a certain gender, even if it’s not even classifiable.

  5. 5
    Mike

    Zinnia
    A few months ago I found your youtube channel through Bionic Dance. I was so spellbound by your arguements that I went and watched your entire catelog of videos. You have made me a smarter, more well informed person. You managed to get rid of the last vestiges of religious brainwashing I was brought up with. There is more I would say, but this is a public forum. Thank you for what you do, and what you have to put up with. I hope that you will find a better environment here at FTB.

  6. 6
    peterwhite

    There seems to be a tendency in humans to attempt to categorize anyone who is different from the others with whom they are familiar. I have experienced that attitude among the local people where I live.

    I look very different from the people who were born here. Everyone assumes I am American because I look like the Americans they see on TV and touring the country. If I tell them I am not American they always ask “What are you?”. Telling them I’m Canadian doesn’t help much. I have to explain that Canadians look and sound very much like Americans. We watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, drive the same cars, and watch the same movies, but we don’t THINK like Americans. The subtle difference is pretty much lost on them. I tell all the local residents not to call me Americano – just call me Peter.

  7. 7
    Josh

    Hi there! I’ve only seen a few of your videos – ones that have come up in other people’s blogs or on social media somewhere. The ones I’ve seen have all been awesome, though! Very well-reasoned. Now that you’re here on FtB, I’ll probably read/watch a lot more of your stuff.

    On the subject of identity; I must be a bit naive, because it never even occurred to me to ask those questions. Honestly, I didn’t know you were trans before I read this post and now that I do know – well, nothing. Those videos I’ve enjoyed are still awesome. I’m sorry to hear that the species has been so shitty and dehmanising toward you. Look forward to reading more.

  8. 8
    Jason

    I bet those kinds of questions and comments would get old FAST. Some of the questions/comments, annoying as they are, seem to at least be on the innocent side of ignorance, which is a lot better than hateful statements.

  9. 9
    Polly

    Zinnia, I think you’re awesome. That is all.

  10. 10
    KNessJM

    What comes to mind for me on this topic is the simple matter of curiosity. I think that, often times, people who aren’t hostile or otherwise bigoted towards LBGT folk may just be curious when asking questions like these. It may be insensitive, but I think that often times there’s no negative intent behind it.

    Another matter that springs to mind personally, is the issue of personal pronouns. When I’m talking to or about people, I want to refer to them in the proper way. It would be pretty rude to refer to someone as “it” just because I’m not clear on their gender identity, and it seems even ruder to refer to someone by the wrong pronoun (calling someone a “he” when they identify as a “she”, or vice versa). I can see how questioning might go too far, but a basic question like this (what do you identify as?) seems pretty innocuous, and somewhat necessary to avoid future awkwardness.

    If someone is going to take offense at being referred to by an improper pronoun, it seems the onus is on them to clarify the matter, rather than to expect other people to just automatically know.

    1. 10.1
      Zinnia Jones

      Like I said, people who ask about preferred pronouns generally do so because they care, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  11. 11
    Storm

    Zinnia, it’s a delight to read you here on Free Thought. Welcome.

  12. 12
    Great American Satan

    Heya,

    My partner is trans (not saying which direction, haha), which has me thinking more about the subject than I have in the past. I do find myself unbearably curious when I see androgynous people, but I restrain myself from asking as a basic courtesy.

    So there’s a guy (?) at work that was gendered as male by a coworker of mine which I think is cool if that’s what the guy is aiming for, but he(?) goes by Heather… I just wanna ask him(?) his(?) PGP, but not sure how to broach that question. And if he’d(?) rather go by Heath.

    And I have a whole new kind of grammar to get accustomed to if I want to talk about this subject without sounding like a total dudebag. c’est lavie.

  13. 13
    Hazelwood

    I’m glad you posted this. Despite my own statements to others about how gender doesn’t matter, I must confess to trying to figure yours out. In part that was because I was surprised to see someone identifying as male when I recently saw your past videos and so I was trying to work out how you went from A to B, so to speak. I guess I absolutely was looking for that ‘testimony’ video that you feel like we expect people to provide. But you are absolutely right, it isn’t important and I shouldn’t expect that every person wants to lay out those intimate details.

  14. 14
    msm16

    I think the problem is that most people live the ‘un-examined life.’ Most people live their lives through tropes and stereotypes. It is a lazy way of living, but it is the natural state of the mind without stimulation.

    When people like this come into contact with something that doesn’t fit their basic schema they get angry. I think this is the basis for all bigotry. Ones non-stereotypical existence forces them to think, which they have never done before. This is an affront to their ignorance.

  1. 15
    Trans stuff roundup » Zinnia Jones

    [...] Having a gender that’s (in)comprehensible [...]

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