Signifying Gender

Language has for a long time been one of my big passionate interests. In addition to simply feeling an intuitive draw to it, intellectually, it also strikes me as one of, if not the, most distinct feature of human beings. It and semiotic systems in general, anyway. Lots of animals can use tools, but only human beings can pass that knowledge and innovation along, and build upon it across generations, such that we don’t need to quite literally reinvent the wheel every time we wish to roll something. Lots of animals have societies, but only human beings can record and share those social structures, adapt them into and through signs and messages and rituals and myths, build them into a culture.

Language and semiotics are, perhaps, what makes us human.

I’m drawn to it, to learning about it, to thinking about it. I love its hidden structures. I love its relativity. How much it means despite being so arbitrary and nonsensical in what is “really” there (squiggles and tongues and teeth and pixels and paper). I love its fluidity. I love its breadth. I love how it is both social and yet intrinsic, both structured and emergent, both arbitrary and indispensable, both mutable and inevitable. And in all those contradictions and paradoxes of language, I never really feel lost. It always ultimately makes sense to me. The contradictions always balance out.

That’s why I use it as an intellectual touchstone a lot of the time. A way of indicating how what is seemingly contradictory or paradoxical can actually be just fine, or how what is subjective, social or arbitrary isn’t necessarily meaningless or controllable, or how there can so easily be inversions or alternate interpretations even in what seems incredibly simple and fixed. Such as, to paraphrase Alfred Jarry, we could just as easily have initially described the theory of gravity as the ascension of vacuum towards periphery as  the attraction of mass to itself.

Recently, I’ve been involved in some conversations about gender that have involved discarded the layered assumptions and political necessities to try to build a new working  theory from the ground up. Some of those conversations ended up getting very frustrating or difficult, hitting up against many of the same contradictions and nuances that have been tricky for all of us all along. The questions, for instance, of how much of gender is socially constructed, how much is essential, how much is prescriptive, where there is a “gender identity” and where there is “gender role” and where there is “sex” and how we can really draw any lines between any of those things. What is a woman? What is a man? What does any of that really mean anyway?

As always, when faced with complicated things, I leaned on my old stand-by of language as an analogy. Initially, this was just to help work through some basics, like how something being culturally relative doesn’t necessarily render it meaningless, under our control, or divorced from a phenomenological reality. All languages, for example, have a different word for water, the moon or the sun, but there is definitely real, immutable phenomena those words refer to. I found, however, that the deeper I leaned into the analogy, the more things clarified for me. And I ultimately found myself considering the possibility that it isn’t quite an analogy at all. That perhaps gender almost literally is a semiotic system, a “language”.

Human beings can’t not be semiotic creatures. It’s an aspect of what we are. To create a “language vacuum” would necessitate raising a human being in total, complete isolation (I can’t remember whether or not the rare real life instances of this resulted in those people developing semiotic systems for themselves anyway). But the very moment you were to introduce another human being into the equation, ways of signifying things to one another, in absence of the signified, would begin to develop. There’s no way around it. Once a social situation is created (“social” in its more liberal definition… that is, any number of human beings interacting with one another) semiotics, language, inevitably follows. The exact way it occurs can vary: sounds, gestures, pictures, whatever. But it happens.

I’ve been considering the possibility that gender might work the same way.

One of the common hypotheticals of feminist theory is the supposedly “gender-free” human society. In this utopia (or dystopia, if your perspective is at all like my own), there are absolutely no codified roles or assumptions, and we all simply are who we are. I believe, however, that this society literally could NOT exist, no matter how aggressively we pursued it, and to believe it could is to make a fundamental error in understanding what gender is. It could not exist any more than a “language-free society” could exist. It’s actually a logical impossibility. To do away with language, or gender, would require simultaneously annihilating society.

Imagining gender as a semiotic system, and an inevitable product of human relationships, we can see it as an inherent quality of any human social interaction at all. So long as we exist in relation to other human beings, we will attempt to understand, define, and ultimately express, ourselves (our selfhood itself) as it exists in contrast and comparison to those other human beings. We will see what of ourselves is present in them, and what of ourselves is not. Amongst the vastly diverse range of things we’ll attempt to understand, define and express will be those that are tied to sex and sexuality. That is to say, gender. So long as there is another human being, who we will gender in our perceptions, we will gender ourselves in contrast, and, in all likelihood, attempt to express that understanding.

Imagining some stripped down hypothetical situation where two adult human beings are meeting in the absolute, total absence of a cultural understanding of gender, we can nonetheless imagine gender occurring anyway. Differences or similarities in sexual anatomy, sexual desire, sexual behaviour would all begin to be understood between the two individuals, and they would find ways to express that to one another. For instance, one might be attracted to the other and desire a submissive sexual role, and then proceed to try to communicate that desire to the other. Simple and basic as it may be, that is a form of proto-gender-expression, and not terribly dissimilar from what we do with our far more intricate and culturally coded forms of gender expression.

We can think of our own genders as emerging in somewhat the same way. There are aspects of ourselves that are related to sex and sexuality, and we need to find ways of communicating and expressing those things in the social context we find ourselves in. Unlike the hypothetical gender-vacuum couple, though, we are born into cultures that have long histories of developing and codifying concepts of gender and sexuality. So our deeper, underlying desires… our desires in regards to who we’d like to have sex with, how we’d like to have sex, what kind of body our desires wish to be expressed through, where we see ourselves in the larger sexual dynamics that culture presents to us… all of that is something we’ll try to express through the “language” of gender we inherit from our culture. Someone who, presented with a range of genders, sees themselves and their desires and needs most reflected in that concept of “woman” would then wish to express themselves through however that culture has codified the gender expressions of “women”: playing with dolls, wearing dresses, etc.

Of course, it isn’t even remotely as simple as that. There is an enormous range of behaviours, actions, modes of dress, modes of speech, body languages, verbal language, and so forth that any given culture will end up gendering, which creates a “lexicon” of gender as broad as the lexicon of that same culture’s written languages. This allows an individual to express their precise sense of self and desire, to manifest a gender expression, just as individually as one might compose a paragraph. Those gender expressions may also be coloured by particular accents, dialects, tics, idiosyncracies and even “speech impediments”. Furthermore, along with the range of possibilities presented in the expression of self through gender, a given culture will also present a range of baggage: roles, prescriptions, taboos, expectations, prejudices, stereotypes, etc. As such, the person who initially comes to understand her self as resonating most strongly with the concept of “woman” she inherited from her culture may also find herself keeping that understanding of self as a private, secret shame as she instead communicates her gender expression in the “language” of men and masculinity, as expected. Alternately, she may express herself as woman in highly subtle, nuanced ways, vastly divorced from the clichéd dolls and dresses. She may feel dolls and dresses repel her just as strongly as “womanhood” resonates with her. We each compose the poems of our gender using whatever combinations of words we have available, whichever work for what of ourselves we wish to communicate when we wish to do so… adapting verse by verse.

Ultimately, however, it boils down to the fact that we have a sense of self, desires, and a need to understand and express them in relation to other human beings. The expressions of both that are tied to sex and sexuality, mediated by the “languages” we inherit from our culture, are what ultimately manifests as our gender. It’s a semiotic system, an arranged (in varying degrees of intentionality) combination of behaviours, actions, modes of speech, modes of dress and so on, that ultimately add up to say “here I am, this is me, this is what I am, this is what I desire, as I exist in relation to you, and to our culture”.

Of course, we don’t always get read correctly.

What I find most compelling about this model, the concept of gender as functionally a language or semiotic system, is how many of the contradictions and difficulties it resolves or renders moot. It provides a model through which gender can be understood as both socially constructed (or, more accurately, socially emergent, like language) and yet also an inevitable aspect of human social identity. How the precise iterations through which gender is communicated (like long hair, skirts, pink) can be intensely arbitrary, shifting dramatically from culture to culture, year to year, at the same time as being intensely and legitimately meaningful for those expressing their gender through those iterations. How there can be both an underlying neurobiological origin (the self and the desires we opt to express) without essentializing what is ultimately social and mutable in nature. How we can understand gender as mutable without seeing it as really under our control. And perhaps most importantly, it provides us a framework for directing our energies into adapting our cultural frameworks of gender into something that is more compassionate, free, open, livable, diverse and non-prescriptive in a way that doesn’t demand sacrificing the value and significance that gender can have for us, as a means of a self-determined expression rather than a mere adaptation to inherited roles. It provides a framework for writing new books instead of burning old ones.

The thing is, syntax is not the same thing as grammar. Language is not the same thing as “a language”. English is not the same thing as “Proper English”. So long as meaning emerges from a semiotic system, we’ve communicated. The structures we use to try to describe, prescribe, normalize and codify our languages don’t have a monopoly on those languages or their use. Instead, the move fluidly, adapting to the needs of those who speak them. We don’t need to live by the prescribed rules of gender in order for gender to be meaningful and important and beautiful for us any more than we require the mastery of “Proper English” in order to speak to one another, to write our letters, stories, poems, essays, blog posts…

To riff on Joyce, this blog post was plagiarized from the English language. With or without the formal systems of grammar, my run-on and fragment sentences and all, I didn’t create these words. What I’ve done is arranged them to express myself. So too can we maybe find a way to move past whatever shame is associated with the cultural understandings of “feminine” and “masculine”, and the strict and limiting roles they’ve been used to enforce. I’m not the one who decided long hair is feminine, and if I lived in a culture where long hair was understood as masculine, I probably wouldn’t want to wear it this way. But it’s not the length of my hair that matters. Those 14 inches or whatever is exactly as arbitrary as the squiggly pixels that make up this sentence. But just like the sentence, it’s not the shapes of the squiggles that matters, nor the length of the hair… what matters is what it is I’m saying through it. Every aspect of my gender is plagiarized from our cultural codes. But the self I’m communicating is my own, and I refuse to feel ashamed of what I’m communicating it through. Just like I refuse to feel ashamed that I’m writing in the same language that wrote “The Transsexual Empire”.

Like everyone, I want to be understood. There’s nothing shameful or destructive in that. Only what makes us human.


  1. says

    I really hope this doesn’t sound nit-picky, but I think it would be somewhat more accurate to say that gender expression is the language that communicates gender, with gender being the idea being communicated. And what a beautiful language it is too!

    • says

      That seems to be going down the rabbit hole of abstract philosophy. Does the idea exist without the expression of it? How do you know?

      From any materialist viewpoint, an idea and its expression have an inextricable linkage. In more concrete terms, the idea of natural selection didn’t exist until Darwin expressed it. The process of natural selection, of course, existed anyway — systems and objects can exist even though they have no name and no one is aware of them. It’s just that no conscious agent understands them.

      Likewise, gender can be a real thing even if no one understands exactly what it is. The expressions are about exploring it, not creating it.

      • nancylebovitz says

        A good bit of my inner life is having (kinesthetic?) feelings, then finding words to express them as coherent ideas. To a large extent, I’m checking the words for whether they feel right. It certainly feels as though I have the ideas before I have the words for them.

        Now that I put it into words, this is a weirder process than I realized. Where do the feelings come from? Why/how am I able to generally turn them into something which makes sense and/or is useful?

    • says

      Because I think the thing being communicated isn’t actually “gender” until it is confronted with social existence and the necessity of that communication.

      • says

        I’d still argue that one has a gender whether or not their is a semantic involved, or even anything to compare it to. Gender is a quality of human physiology, thus a person experiences gender, whether or not they have a semiotic system to communicate it. A person could, in a social vacuum, still experience gender dysphoria, but just not be able to articulate it. Even though obviously (being trans myself), I had social contact, I still experienced dysphoria without any syntactic, or pragmatic understanding of it.

        I felt it even in the absence of any means to express it to others. It wasn’t until later I came to associate shame with it. Psychologically, I didn’t feel like anything particular, my anatomy just felt wrong and I felt dysphoric about it. I didn’t learn until much later that there was another state of being… Female. The realization didn’t alter my dysphoria, but gave me words for what I “desired” to be, and felt I was. These things are states of being which semiosis allows us to understand and articulate because of sentience.

        The word “Gender” is the semantic construct of our understanding of the feelings that originate the meaning. Where I find issue with some traditional aspects of feminist theory is the dismissal of biological gender traits simply because it is “inconvenient” to their philosophy. What we need is not to be “genderless”, but to define our “genders” in a scientifically, and pragmatically correct way. If we were all one gender, or genderless, the discussion of difference would never occur. Even though feminist theories tend to try to “depart” from traditional notions of gender, the product of that discourse still exists.

        I feel feminist theory tends to, however, push that way to far. Perhaps this is because of inherent aversion to the negative aspects of gender when sexism comes into play. Gender can not, intrinsically, be “only” socially constructed. Anatomy on it’s own would contradict that analogue, but to further that point science has come in and displayed that hormonal constitution, physiological/biological configurations, and in utero exposure to those controls of gender, sex (and sexuality through it) ensure it. Even if you can detach yourself from the semantics of it, it still exists. Even in a Gender Neutral Society, people would still have gender.

        To be honest, I also feel a gender-free culture is impossible as is. Humans have gender identities, sexes, sexualities and a social desire to express those things. The only way to change that would be to literally make all humans into one gender. Biological gender is inconvenient to some feminists, because many of those theories hinge on “gender” being “entirely socially constructed”. This is a complete falsehood. The problem isn’t gender, it’s the language of gender that needs to change. I think you piece on this is very good for that. Language doesn’t bring things into being, only describes them.

        • says

          Personally, I think gender is not physiological. Sex is. Therein lies a very important hinge to what I’m getting at here. And dysphoria in relation to sex can certainly exist before its given any definition or understanding, but it doesn’t manifest as gender until it does. Before that it’s just an abstract, well, dysphoria…unease, discomfort, etc.

          • says

            In line with that thought, would you consider the state of ones neurological constitution (the way they feel about their ‘sexed’ body) as gender or sex?

            I ask because of perhaps the way I am consciously, and subconsciously thinking about “gender” as opposed to “sex”. I know people go both ways with gender identity, either considering it “gender” or “sex”. I personally do feel that it appears to be a sound conclusion to say that gender identity is more like “sex” on a neurological or biological basis. I think we are saying the same thing, just the way I am using gender is either inappropriate for that situation, and possibly also an artifact of some cultural framework. Even with as much as I have come to understand myself, and my culture I still find the cultural language around gender and sex to befuddle me a bit. To some degree I have had to create my own understanding of it, with help of course, and it is still developing.

          • says

            Whatever neurobiological structures might be there is sex. But that’s pretty much meaningless, because neurobiology doesn’t mean anything outside of how it MANIFESTS, especially in human beings. And how it happens to manifest, in relation to the socio-cultural and semiotic systems the individual tries to understand themselves within, is gender.

          • says

            Your point in that way makes total sense to me now. You post is also the first I have seen of this type that discusses it in a manner relating to meanings and language without falling into the pitfalls of some mentalities. I really do like this piece, so thank you for putting it out there. It is an very key and important perspective, and I seriously hope people are paying attention, feminist and especially radical feminists.

  2. says

    Zinnia Jones was talking about the same kind of thing just recently. Gender is a subject that confuses a lot of people. Why can’t we just define ourselves as our genders? Why can’t we just be ‘us’ without having to change our genders? If we don’t believe in gender roles, why worry about being a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ at all?

    I (very briefly) was dating a man who continued to read me as a man despite telling him I was trans. He seemed confused and kept saying that he didn’t believe I was trans because I was so confident and so masculine. I don’t know if he was expecting me to be a little shy, wilting flower of a woman or not. I’m confident beyond all else. I am bursting with it to the point of knowing I’m a good-looking person!

    Why is it ‘masculine’ as he thought, to be completely at peace with who you are? Why is it ‘feminine’ to not be?


    What is a man?

    A miserable little pile of secrets!!

    (Sorry, I had to do it)

    • says

      *smashes wine glass on the floor*

      Symphony of the Night is a great game, despite some over-dramatic dialogue. I suspect the original Japanese voice acting was much better.

    • says

      He seemed confused and kept saying that he didn’t believe I was trans because I was so confident and so masculine. I don’t know if he was expecting me to be a little shy, wilting flower of a woman or not.

      it’s funny how this is definitely something reinforced both by other trans people and by cis people alike. the top thing that seems to spin people around disclosure is the “well, but you’re butch…uh….i don’t get it” sorts of responses. i think the reality is that gender is this weird mesh of personal and social factors and there are gendered expectations of all people as well as expectations of trans people to conform to specific versions of gender.

      we do as good a job enforcing this kind of thing inside the “trans community” as cis people do in doing it for us. this is something i don’t think i’m ever going to understand, but that’s life…maybe i’m better off not understanding.

    • says

      Because that’s how femininity is socially constructed. Feminine doesn’t mean “likes sparkly things”; it means inferior, subservient, subhuman, lesser and so on. Feminine behaviour is deference; if you fail to show that you will be labelled as unfeminine, bitch, dyke, ballbuster, and in need of a rape/beating to take you down a peg etc etc – no matter how much pink and sparkly stuff you like to wear.

      • says

        No, I disagree. IMO, “feminine” simply means “culturally associated with women”. The fact that subservience, weakness, inferiority and so on are coded “feminine” is a consequence of women being culturally positioned as the “lesser” sex, NOT the other way around. Likewise the devaluation of femininity as weak, frivolous, artificial, etc. is a direct consequence of misogyny. But you can be femme in a completely self-determined, empowered way and, provided you aren’t dealing with someone who carries associations of femininity with weakness (as you seem to, no offense), you’ll go right on being seen as femme.

        Or, in short, femininity only goes hand-in-hand with inferiority and weakness in misogynistic / femmephobic contexts.

        • says

          Yeah… the notion of “hard femme” quite neatly blows the idea that femininity = subservience and weakness out of the water…

      • ik says

        Not to me!. And there is a whole army of other people saying ‘Not to me!’ behind me. And most of them are not feminists.

        I know some very feminine, very annoying assholes and some very feminine, very badass women as well. And basically everybody who I care about would call them feminine as well.

  3. karmakin says

    I saw the tweets talking about this, and after having a bad day mulling over some stuff, I was left nodding my head quite a bit.

    One of the problems I have with the “gender-free” approach, is that I find that it’s often objectifying and dehumanizing in its own right. It tries to strip away from people elements of who they are. I know often it doesn’t intend to be, but intention isn’t magic, after all.

    It’s something I think that “ism-fighters” of all stripes have to be aware of, and something that there is a real blind-spot at from time to time, as we allow the intentions to trump the actual effects. And otherizing people tends to result in them opposing you.

    • myxoz says

      On the flip side of this, there’s the fact that our current society genders interactions that have nothing to do with sexuality or gender identity.

      I’m a woman (or, at least, I’m read as a woman most of the time) and the vast, vast majority of my communication is not about sexuality. But, too often, gender comes into it anyway. I raced cars this weekend? Wow, it’s cool that a girl is into cars. I saw an adorable baby burro? Girls love cute animals. I spent all of Sunday assembling prefab furniture? Did your boyfriend feel emasculated that you put it together instead of him? In all these interactions, gender is totally irrelevant to what I’m talking about–it’s not important that I am a woman who’s doing those things, and the idea that racecars and furniture-assembling are Man Things and cute animals are a Woman Thing are totally arbitrary and based in sexism.

      So I guess the answer is not a gender-free society, but current society does put way too much emphasis on gender–and there isn’t a way for women to opt out of having their entire lives interpreted as products of their gender.

      • says

        It’s interesting to me that all three of your examples are about activities you did mostly on your own, even if other people were around. If we think gender is by definition interactive, then at first glance it seems that under this theory, your choices should have nothing to do with gender.

        Of course, even solitary things we do are interactive with society, in that society transmits norms and expectations to us beforehand, and in that we affect norms by talking about what we’ve done later. But it seems to me that that’s not very interactive, or at least it’s a kind of interaction it’s easy(ish) to think about consciously. Perhaps that’s why “things girls do” and “things boys do”, i.e. gender roles, seem to be the easiest things to change about gender. Much harder to consciously change stuff that is directly about interactions between people of different genders. Not that I’m advocating getting rid of gender–just advocating some shifts in interactive norms, particularly the kinds that make men feel threatening to women.

        • says

          Oh, and add to this thought process examples like women’s colleges, where without interacting with a lot of men, students show a freer range of interests and expression. In fact, essentializing though women’s colleges are, it would be really interesting to compare how body language, assertiveness and other aspects of gender evolve in such an environment, vs. coed ones.

          • Sarah says

            Similar patterns develop at single sex colleges for men. In an isolated environment where none of the students are female, the constraints of masculinity grow slack, and in that freedom, some people are drawn to places and roles that may not be as readily available or comfortable in a co-ed setting. When this happens, from certain perspectives, it may appear as though a new dichotomy of masculine and feminine has emerged within the community. Similar to the way that complexity seems to emerge inevitably from sufficient iteration, gender takes forms wherever there is a sufficiently viable substrate of community to sustain it. The phenomenon very readily lends itself to a re-framing of gender as a natural process of community rather than any sort attribute of individual community members.

        • ik says

          That’s cool. Maybe we should have society be gender-separating for a few generations (making provisions for genderqueer or agender individuals), long enough to break the hold of old norms but not so long as to make the norms completely forgotten, and then have everybody come back together. I wonder what it would be like. I’d expect there to be some clear gendering.

          I really, really MUST oppose the anti-gender people. I am a cis man and trans people such as her inquisitiveness Natalie Reed have taught me just how much gender I have, and how much I like it. It seems kind of weird, to not realize the strength of something that now seems so important.

  4. CCC says

    Hi there. This is my first time commenting here but I’ve been reading for a few weeks now 🙂

    I find gender a very confusing topic: the kind of thing that really makes my brain hurt when I think about it too much. Gender expression makes sense to me somehow, even though I find myself lost as to what gender actually is. I guess I’m thinking about it in terms of what the first commenter said, that “gender” and “gender expression” are two different things. What are we expressing? A person could choose to have long hair to express her femininity, but what is femininity? Natalie described gender expression as an expression of one’s “sex and sexuality,” so if femininity is a sexuality, I guess it would be a submissive one. My question is whether gender expresses any other aspects of a person’s sexuality beyond dominance or submissiveness. Can anyone come up with more examples? Also, why are not all feminine people submissive and all masculine people dominant? Are they expressing something besides sexuality with their gender expression?

    • says

      No, I’m not thinking of it SIMPLY as the expression of sexuality, nor would femininity simply be submission (femininity is a TON of things, including everything individually or culturally associated with women… submission doesn’t even necessarily need to be coded as feminine). What is being expressed is those aspects of self and desire that are connected or related to sex (as in “male/female”) or sexuality, which is a very broad, complex and nuanced range. But ultimately “gender”, in terms also of “gender identity” as well as “gender expression”, is a manifestation of that expression/understanding in relation to others and to our cultural semiotics of gender.

      • CCC says

        I’m probably leaving this comment too late, but I’ll give it a try. I guess I left out “sex” because I wasn’t sure what you meant by it. Is it correct to say that expressing sex means expressing:
        1.what your body looks like (whether it be the one you were born with, that you created, or that you wish you had)
        2.a certain set of feminine or masculine personality characteristics
        3.the role you take in interactions with others?

        And that the expression of sex is called gender (and is totally influenced by social norms and stuff)?

        • says

          By “sex” I meant physical, anatomical sex. The presence or absence of various sexually dimorphic characteristics. By “sexuality” I meant the act of intercourse, and related behaviours.

    • says

      Sexuality is a layer higher than gender in my understanding, so it should make sense that dominance and submissiveness don’t necessarily match up with gender.

      Indeed, gender as a language helps explain why no trait is in perfect alignment with biological sex. Since we cannot completely extract the social context from the gender expressions that formed, and the social context itself changes based upon the setting, there won’t be any single fixed elements in gender expression.

      Even supposing we are to look at gender identity, the sex differences which gave rise to classifications of “male” and “female” are not nearly so clean cut as to really justify such a simple explanation. We’re forced to introduce “intersex” and “none/neither” in order to get a more complete picture. Yet if we look at how gender identity was understood through different cultures at different times, the actual categories that were written and recorded have clearly changed. Gender and its variations were certainly still there, but the understanding of it adapted to the cultural context and factual knowledge available.

      Hopefully that answers some of your questions.

      • says

        I’d argue that maybe “gender”, in as much as the concept ultimately makes sense, ends up changing when the categories and concepts available with which to present it change. Such that while the underlying aspects of self or desire that are being expressed may be the same, the gender of a kathoey in Thailand is actually a different gender than what she’d experience and express if she’d been raised in Canada and ended up being a trans woman.

  5. says

    This is a fascinating take on the reality of gender. Describing it as a socially emergent system which builds upon sex and the underlying environment has a great deal of explanatory power.

    The only aspect I’m not fully sure of is whether gender is wholly independent of spoken/written/sign language. I don’t think it really needs to be in order to have essentially the same meaning, whether for the individual or in the broader social context.

  6. DJMankiwitz says

    I kinda get a closer idea, but then I’m confused once again. I am starting to believe I’ll never truly understand the nature of sexuality.

    My previous understanding was that ideas of gender identity were separate from both sexuality and even desired body type, a sort of “hidden attribute” only clear to those where it manifests differently from the others.

    This post seems to intricately tie gender identity into sexual identity, which seems to make it more about sexual preference than an entire identity construct. Later though, it shifts further in the “identity construct” direction.

    I also am a little confused about the “hypothetical genderless world” where gender just comes up anyway. The discussion those two hypotheticals seem to be having seems to be more about sexual attraction than anything like gender. Noting one is slimmer than the other and then noting a higher chance that’ll have something to do with sexual attraction seems more likely. All the same, I always imagined that a genderless world would also be a sexless world, absent of sexual desires entirely. I also am still picturing gender as a physical description rather than a mental one. Even my previous understanding of trans wrapped up gender identity as a desire to be in a different body. It’s all beyond my ken I’m starting to think… Sometimes I believe that people can never truly understand each other…

  7. Pen says

    Working with your language analogy, I have to point out that our languages are full to the brim with things that don’t exist, whereas things that are under our noses pass invisible for centuries because nobody has put them into words.

    In this case, the whole gender thing really is nothing more than a bit of a nuisance to me, an accommodation to other people at most. Raw biology is about the only aspect of sex/gender that I find intrinsically meaningful. I recognise this is not the case for you or many other people I know. So probably this is one of the differences that can exist between people that has so far largely passed unnoticed in our language.

    For example I am struck by Karmakin’s comment that gender-free language strips people of part of who they are, whereas I feel it leaves me free to be who I am, without side-stepping through the bars of a cage all the time.

    • Theo Bromine says

      Pen @7: In this case, the whole gender thing really is nothing more than a bit of a nuisance to me, an accommodation to other people at most. Raw biology is about the only aspect of sex/gender that I find intrinsically meaningful. I recognise this is not the case for you or many other people I know.

      That describes my feelings very well. I have long experienced (and fought against) gender-based discrimination, for myself and my kids. My thought has, until recently, been that the ideal solution would be if we could just eliminate the concept of gender and let people behave according to their nature. Natalie’s piece has caused me to re-think (thanks 🙂 I don’t personally feel much of a gender-identity, which makes it a challenge for me to understand the trials and tribulations of those who do feel a strong gender identity that does not match their body. (Granted it could be a symptom of blindness resulting from cis privilege, (since I am physically female, and living as a woman) but as pretty much all of my inclinations and proclivities are counter to gender expectations, I tend to feel weird far more than I feel privileged.)

  8. Sarah says

    On first reading, I was troubled by what appeared to be an over close link drawn between gender, sex and sexual behavior, but maybe those are just primary examples of the phenomena that gender expresses, so that other traits, such as differences in cognition or perception could also be incorporated into the phenomenological basis of gender, along with other traits as we discover or expand our understanding of them?

  9. says

    It’s said that back in the old days, you could travel from Portugal to the southern tip of Italy and every town along the way would speak a language mutually intelligible with those within 20 miles or so. The idea of distinct Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, etc languages is newer than the United States. I think the gender analogy still sort of applies.

    • Kilian Hekhuis says

      Language continua exist in many places, and you could probably still find one stretching along the mediteranean, with a bit of luck. However, your statement that “the idea of distinct Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, etc languages is newer than the United States” is false. It was already well known in the early Middle Ages that the local version of Latin (as those languages were regarded) were quite distinct from each other.

  10. Kilian Hekhuis says

    I can’t remember whether or not the rare real life instances of this resulted in those people developing semiotic systems for themselves anyway

    I have seen a documentary of at least one case where a deaf-mute girl who was abandoned at a very young age seemed unable to effectively communicate, and later attempts to teach her sign language were not effective (she did learn a few signs, but was not able to use grammar).

    A converse famous example is the genesis of the Nicaraguan Sign Language, developed by deaf children left at their own device (linguistically speaking).

  11. says

    This is a wonderfully written piece. I love the way you lay the groundwork by drawing from other experiences of thought which relate to my own. When you write like you have here, I believe you are writing for thinkers. It reminds me very much of your critique of capitalism using the analogy of a pie shop.

    To me, your writing is very much a delicious caramel pecan pie rather than the very accessible apple. It’s not any notion of elitism that I’m appreciating, nor that I think your writing is perfection. I simply appreciate that what you’ve created is a beautifully nuanced, finely crafted, and exquisitely meaningful expression. Rather than simply spitting out a very precise and detailed picture of your philosophical idea, you have thought to bring us back through your footsteps to help us see the full context.

    I still appreciate a very well written “apple pie”, to be sure. We certainly hope that some expressions will be more accessible less we be very well thought out in our own little corner, and equally unheard. I just really love what you do. Thank you so much. xD

  12. Sinéad says

    Likewise, there’s been an ongoing transformation of language that further alienates trans women, the term “vagina owner” especially in the context of dating sites. It presupposes all lesbian trans women are pre-op and essentializes lesbian as “vagina owners” who like “vagina owners” to what’s between someone’s legs. It seems like cutesy way people get around accusations of transphobia by not saying “cis woman seeks cis woman”. Honestly, I have a hard time messaging a cis lesbian to see if she is interested, because I still fear that my being pre-op is the major disadvantage to allowing someone to get to know me. (And I can go on a tirade about the classism of accepting post-op trans women)

    Nonetheless, instead of “womyn born womyn” gathering because of their “shared girlhood” it will be “vagina owner human beings” gathering to celebrate our “shared vagina ownage” or something. Those who want to exclude trans women, and to erase pur existance will find a way to do it with language.

    I am not a penis owner. I don’t own my penis. My body, in how I articulate my identity, is incongruent with any assumption made about any general population of human beings with a penis. Calling me a penis owner assumes that I am comfortable with that part of my body and that my identity is contigent upon that.

  13. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    This is somewhat consistent with my experiences. I’m curious as to how you would account for people like me who don’t have a strong internal sense of gender identity.

      • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

        That’s more or less what I thought. Is it even worth my time to describe how my experiences are inconsistent with that interpretation?

        • says

          It depends. I’m open to hearing things that differ from my assumptions, but the vast majority of the time people describe the reasons they personally don’t have a gender, it just ends up being things I’ve heard before and consider really just a product of cis privilege. But I’m not going to deny the possibility outright that you may indeed have a legitimately exceptional experience. I know too much about gender to know that nobody knows anything for sure about gender, especially not how it “always” operates. Whether it’s worth your time is up to you. I can only tell you a) I promise to genuinely listen, and b) nobody has yet described anything to me that seemed inconsistent with my present interpretation.


  1. […] Signifying Gender is a post by Natalie Reed that Mx. Punk links in their article that I recently reblogged. Its an intriguing post in which she aptly defines gender as a semiotic system a “language” or as Mx. Punk put it in their own words, a “communicative function”. I really enjoyed reading the post and appreciated this conception of gender for both its uniqueness and they way it allows for a very nuanced understanding of gender expression. Though, while I loved reading it and definitely would encourage others to do the same (especially before reading this post), there were definitely some things presented in the post that don’t really jive with my own continually evolving gender theory or my personal experiences. […]

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