Natalie makes some really good points


Natalie has a new post up, which you should read in its entirety, but this in particular stood out to me:

One of the immediate issues I have with “gender dysphoria” is that it falls into the very common pattern of people taking a varied range of things and variables and stuff related to gender, sex or sexuality and acting like they’re all one single variable. Sometimes as a binary (“man or woman”), a spectrum (like the Kinsey Scale), or one component of a simplified combinatoric thingy (like the Genderbread Person). And sometimes it’s just one giant stupid spectrum between two poles “I don’t see men and women as binary, really. I see it as, like, a spectrum. You’ve got manly straight men on one end and girly straight women on the other, and then you have gays, lesbians, transsexuals, guys who wear berets, and women who wear jeans, in between” (this, including “guys who wear berets”, was an actual conversation I had when I was 14 with an adult artist from Montreal, a friend of my stepmom’s. It was shortly after I’d tried coming out to my family as trans, and during a time when my body was rather obviously intersexed, so my guess is that she was trying to be supportive and helpful after my stepmom told her I was “struggling with gender” or “confused” or whatever.)

This expresses a problem I’ve had for a long time with spectrum models of gender, sexuality, and so on. “Ranges” of gender with men on one end and women on the other are wholly inadequate, and lead to shallow and wrong understandings of gender. For example, here are just a few instances of the confusion it foments:

  • A woman is not defined by being the polar opposite of a man, and a man is not defined by being the polar opposite of a woman, but that’s what this MEN ———————— WOMEN spectrum mistakenly suggests.
  • It puts trans people somewhere in the middle of all this. Some trans people aren’t binary-identified, and that’s awesome, but some trans people are binary-identified. And we’re not occupants of some middle ground. We aren’t inexact approximations of women or men, who can only approach, but never reach, womanhood or manhood.
  • Conversely, it implies that men who don’t totally adhere to some ultra-masculine manly stereotype in every respect are somehow inching closer to womanhood, and vice versa for women and manhood. That’s not what it means to be a man or a woman, and your gender identity doesn’t depend on to what degree you conform to some opposing stereotypes. (Also, whoa, heterosexuality is not a defining feature of manhood or womanhood. Holy cow.)

More generally, I have the same problems with the “transgender umbrella” concept when it includes “feminine men” and “masculine women” and anyone who isn’t SUPER MANLY MAN and SUPER WOMANLY WOMAN. A cis guy who wears pink or likes Celine Dion doesn’t stop being cis or a guy just because he wears pink or likes Celine Dion. He’s still a cis guy if he identifies as a cis guy. (This also repeats the mistake of designating certain behaviors, attitudes, preferences and so on as inherently “masculine” or “feminine”, when there’s no reason to do so.) Parents of boys who like to dress up as princesses might expect that their son will grow up to be their daughter, but as long as these boys identify themselves as boys, they’re still boys and they’re still cis.

I have a bit of a personal vendetta against the “umbrella” since it was used for a long time to categorize me as being trans, by people who told me “trans is an umbrella term, so you’re trans!” Yeah, maybe under that definition – but this was back when I didn’t identify as anything other than cis and had no intention of transitioning. I didn’t see how just presenting a certain way, or taking a certain name, had to mean that I was no longer cis.

And yes, if the development of my gender and identity had just stopped there, if that was the place I chose to stop and settle down, I’d still feel the same way. I’d still consider myself cis. The reason I stopped being cis, and started being trans, is that I began to identify and understand myself as primarily a woman, and then exclusively a woman.

This didn’t change because I took a female-designated name or wore female-designated clothes. I had already been doing that for years, and it hadn’t made me any less cis. It doesn’t necessarily make anyone any less cis or more trans, if that’s not how they see themselves.

I still have much of the same clothes – and the same makeup kit, and the same online alias – that I’ve had for the past several years. By the time I did begin to see myself as a woman, I had already made a comfortable gender nest out of the kind of self-defined femininity that works for me, but such a nest doesn’t need to have a sign on the outside that says “GIRLS ONLY, BOYS KEEP OUT.” It fit me just fine when I still considered myself cis. If other cis people like the decor, it can fit them just as well, too, without requiring them to be trans.

Particularly, that “Genderbread Person” (and please, let’s never speak of it again) doesn’t actually solve any of these problems. It may have separated gender and sexuality into independent spectrums of gender identity, gender expression, physical sex, and sexual orientation, but the issues presented by a spectrum in this context are not remedied by making more spectrums. Bi people are not a colorful blend of pure concentrated Gay and pure concentrated Straight. Trans people are not some novel and flavorful combination of Essence of Man and Essence of Woman.

There are a lot of troubling social implications arising from the idea that those who fall near the endpoints of all these lines – men and women, gay and straight, masculine and feminine – are the pristine original ingredients, the Coca-Cola and the Sprite, while the rest of us are the graveyard drink that comes from pressing every button on the soda fountain and throwing it all in one cup. The people who come up with these spectrums might think they’re improving on the two-box model of “you’re either in this category, or that category”, but the end result often seems to amount to little more than adding another box: you’re either in the one box, or the other, or you’re the contents of both boxes thrown together and jumbled up a bit.

That’s why every time I hear someone say something like “there’s room in the middle, some guys are feminine”, I’m just like “…lol, no.” Yes, people are diverse and have a variety of gendered features, but that’s not what this is about. While their intention is understandable, the implementation is all wrong. Count me in as not a fan of Giant Stupid Spectrums.

Comments

  1. James K. says

    I like what you are saying. Do you think there is any appropriate analogy that could visually (or verbally) illustrate your point, since “spectrums” don’t fit the reality?

  2. deja says

    i’ve never been happy with the spectrum thing either, whether it applies to gender or sexuality or expression or whatever. People and their spirits are not 2 dimensional like these simple 2 ended graphs. Never been able to place myself on any of these lines.
    We are 3 and 4 dimensional beings, existing in space and time … and our preferences and likes and ideas and attitudes are always changing. Wish i had the logical training to be able to describe an idea that took all these various dimensions into account …. but that’s your job, Z.

    (Quite possibly a Unified Theory of Gender could get you a Nobel Prize in the near future, hun.)

  3. says

    My gender is not man and it’s not woman, and if hard-pressed to explain my gender, I’ll describe it as “nerd”. Which really isn’t even on a spectrum, if you ask me.

  4. great1american1satan says

    OK, if spectra (?) are out as a paradigm for understanding these issues, how should we proceed? I can see the problem as described, but the solution eludes me. And I do think there is need of a solution, because people often need help with gender issues and understanding those issues is the first step.

    Nature is bloody complicated, and for humans to understand it we’ve always relied on labels and categories and so on. Even the concept of species these days has intense political ramifications and all sorts of problems. So how do we proceed on gender if we can’t categorize it neatly? Abolishing legal recognition of gender immediately occurs to me as a possible approach, but that prevents legal protection for oppressed groups. And how do you help some confused person make sense of their gender situation without a language to clarify it?

    I guess tossing the spectra doesn’t remove all the language automatically, but it does make the terms look strange. Binary – Man & Woman, Spectrum – Man through Woman. Two Spectra – Man through Woman + Cis through Trans + Straight through Gay. Alternative: This and that and this and that and this and that, that are not necessarily related to each other in any way? It really is a better description of reality, but mighty hard to parse.

    Of course, I would say something like that, wouldn’t I? Any thoughts? Or am I JAQing off here and should just go back to school?

  5. great1american1satan says

    OK, me and my partner just took an hour and a half to read through Natalie’s post, stopping to parse the information every ten minutes. That probably could have been shorter and clearer, but laborious language seems to be pretty hard to dispense with in this field.

    Yeah, think I was JAQing off earlier. Disregard that post with extreme prejudice.

    It’s interesting stuff, and I don’t feel entitled to add or subtract a jot, really. You are both great writers.

    -

  6. Adrian Riley says

    I should mention that the whole “transsexuals in the middle of the spectrum” thing screws over an awful lot of non-binary people as well (I’m speaking as a non-binary trans* person here). In general, I’ve noticed that the people who view binary trans people as “middle of the spectrum” or “third-gender” are the exact same people who completely deny the existence of actual non-binary trans* people. Whatever your “target gender” is… well, you’re never gonna get there, because you’re not cis. Seems to be how they view it.

    Also, because I’m FAAB and (primarily) femme, a lot of people would put me pretty far towards the “woman” end of the spectrum, even though I’m… y’know, actually in the the middle. Because I’m an androgyne. And lots of non-binary identities aren’t even on the spectrum. So yeah, fuck the “gender spectrum.” Even the most well-meaning people – who base your position on the spectrum on identity alone, and don’t attach any stereotypes to either end – imply that all gender is relative to two opposites (male and female), which is just… wrong.

  7. TomBcat says

    How about a gender tesseract?
    I just wanted to come here and say thanks, the article helped a lot.
    I always struggle with my own gender identity, because I am a mostly heterosexual woman and people identify me as such.
    So they tend to laugh when I try to explain why most of the time I don’t really feel like a woman. Or a man. It can be boy, girl, woman who dresses like a boy today, I actually feel like any combination of anything at any given moment.
    When I see some birds flying around I can totally see me as a cat chasing them around, so, I always felt that being human also means changing thoughts feelings and identity all the time.
    Like when you can see yourself as the villain in a movie, but then you call your best friend and suddenly feel like doing charity.
    To express that, I asked my mum what my name would have been if I had been a boy, and that name now became part of my identity. And identity is such a big thing, I wouldn’t know how to describe something like that on a scale, so people I talk to about this get confused and laughing about it just seems to be the easiest option for them.

    • TomBcat says

      Correction: I wouldn’t even identify as mostly heterosexual, simply because there is so much sexy stuff out there.

  8. Steve says

    You definitely make extremely good points, in my opinion, but I am bothered by the phrase “That’s why every time I hear someone say something like “there’s room in the middle, some guys are feminine”, I’m just like “…lol, no.”

    Is there something wrong with a guy being feminine, the use of the words “guy” and “feminine” together? Or is the problem with the use of a spectrum to describe gender identity? (the latter of which I agree with!)

    • says

      It’s a completely true statement for them to make. But in that particular context, it’s also irrelevant and a little ignorant. In a situation where someone is, say, telling trans women something like that, it’s really not representative of who or what we are. Yeah, some guys are feminine, and that’s cool for them. It’s a totally acceptable existence. But feminine guys and trans women are distinctly different. Feminine guys are guys, whereas trans women are women. Given that there’s kind of an established history of cis people telling trans people that they don’t have to transition or live as their identified gender, by saying something like “you can just ignore restrictive gender roles – it’s okay to be feminine and a guy!”, it comes off as dismissive of who we are. And yeah, people do say that sort of thing, and it’s irritating. Some people are guys, and awesome for them! But… we’re not.

  9. nathanaelnerode says

    Thank you Zinnia… and Natalie. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to ignore restrictive gender roles *without having my actions read as feminine or masculine*. I mean, I understand the urge for classification, but why does everything have to be shoved into one form of gender classification or another?

    How to make a skirt just be a lower-body garment without split legs?

    I like Abdul’s quote:
    “Who needs a gender-theory-of-everything anyway?”

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