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.

“I’ve noticed,” began my lover, “a lot of people stare at you.”


In my life, they are as common as pain.

Four years ago, I read a Rebecca Wald essay on the six types of pain she felt in the hip that doctors carved from her pelvis. It struck me then that our words are too few and too indistinct to describe it: ache, pain, hurt, soreness. How does one differ from the other?

I’ve had the chance in my own life to feel the creeping pain of my disability worry from joint to joint: unfolding in my knees, first, sending roots down to my ankles in adolescence, pushing up through my shoulders during college, knotting in my elbows and wrists after I began to use a cane, and flowering in my fingertips during the midst of Oregon’s evergreen winter.

And just as my pain’s growth and change mark the years, its fluid rhythm sets the pattern of my days: welling pain inside bones as I wake, thumbscrew-like pain as I type, freezing pain in tendons after sitting too still in an office chair, the cloudy pressure-pain that condenses inside my head in the afternoons, the hot, vibrating pain of muscles worked in unexpected directions on the trip back home, then slow rest as the pain returns to my bones.

But as much as the rhythms of my life are defined by my pain, the wake of my life is defined by others’ stares. I’m accustomed to leaving wide eyes and long looks behind me. Peer, glare, gawk, stare. Every one different; every one insufficient. Like pain they have begun to take on the role of a trail breaker’s blazes, but marking people passed instead of trees or time. Unlike pain, they are caused as much by my transsexuality as by my disability. In my life, there are as many different stares as observers.

Security guards don’t like me. Six feet tall? Woman? Lesbian? Cripple? Androgyne? Transsexual? Activist? Each has any number of reasons. Their looks are often as full of mystery as they are of suspicion.

Security guards are the best at concealing the reasons for their stares, but even so, circumstances sometimes betray them. Once, only once, I find them waiting for me as I leave a public restroom. Birkenstocks, beige slacks, and an olive raincoat hadn’t been gendered enough for the woman complaining to security; but my height isn’t gendered enough for the all-male security force who let me walk past as they wait for some male pervert to emerge. “That’s him!” whispered loudly sends them after me at a fast walk. “Excuse me, sir?”

Me? I ask, meeting the gaze rising up from my crutches.

“Are you okay?” Pity, hostility, and intensity bind together to form his face. I can see him preparing to deal with someone, some man, who’s sanity is as precarious as his mobility.

For a moment, I debate explaining that, no, I am on my way to the emergency room as my pain has gotten out of control again. After the briefest moment, though, I just ask, Why?

“You were using the women’s restroom.”

As he shifts from one foot to the other, I see him finally read my ‘DYKE’ pin. In a voice cultivated teaching science to kindergartners, I carefully say, Yes. Thank you for noticing. 

There are stares of gratitude in some eyes when I speak about being lesbian, being disabled, being transsexual. Often it begins in a corner where I can’t see, couldn’t possibly notice the eyes turned toward me. It is a look focussed through the narrowest of openings in the walls that keep a person safe, a look locked not so much on the masculine woman in the light as the vision of a shadowed future self that I, myself, am privileged to glimpse after the spotlight fades and the gathering flows into channels leading some away and some into my life as new, honored friends.

Sometimes, the stares focus through me, not on me. In my black wheelchair, I sneak through anonymously, beneath notice, avoiding the murmuring comment that would otherwise ripple in my wake. I am invisible until I fall between a woman and her goal:

I have a simple piece of paper I need only to lay on the counter a foot above my eyes, but I’m waiting for the pharmacist to take it before I finish my shopping. It takes a moment and a stutter-step for people to realize I am waiting and move behind me in line. Perhaps, they envision wheelchairs as stationary things?

Once in this line, though, the impatient customers stare past me from under flaccid lids. Heads sway slightly back and forth so they can each look past me to consider the Vietnamese script and unreadably complex warning notices glued to the pharmacy counter. At the return of the pharmacist, the woman directly behind me puts a hand on my shoulder, leans forward over me and hands a piece of paper to the pharmacist. “I’m going to do some shopping,” she explains to both of us, “I’ll come back to pick it up in fifteen minutes.” The pharmacist begins typing her prescription into his computer unaware that anything unusual has happened.

A breakfast date with a new friend ends with the two of us on the floor talking about religion, politics, oppression theory. As she speaks, her looks are the everyday, animated gestures of eyes cooperating with memory and imagination. Every so often, though, as I take my turn to speak, she squints as if looking through a shower glass, trying to glimpse me as I would appear to her if not transsexual.

The concrete is wet and rough under my feet, and I’m forced to question my own sanity as I look up the steep stairs, but I grab the rail with one hand and give my crutches away to a friend with the other. Even the first stair is a strain, but the metal steps aren’t as slick as I had feared, so I lean forward on my forearms lift myself up again.

At five meters up, I have only reached the first platform, but today that is all the height I desire. My crutches are handed up from behind, and I take them, putting my weight on them carefully. Strength and warmth have both been siphoned from me by the cool water of the pool. I am acutely aware of how my shaking could put me off my crutches, collapse me to the concrete platform or even over the end, so I find a spot on the black tread in the center and wait out my shakes.

It is as I approach the lip of the diving platform that I first notice their stares. The lifeguard watches me, hawkish and protective as I walk right to the edge. It has been years since I was able to dive, and I am more afraid of this height than I remembered, or perhaps ever was. Before I can let myself fall, I look out, and in the whole, huge building every third pair of eyes watches me. The lifeguards are worried, but the others swimming and playing at the pool are delighted: “Look, the crippled girl is going to jump!” I draw ironic strength from those looks, but cannot stop glancing at the lifeguard. Will he forbid me from diving? It seems he should have said something by now if he wanted to stop me, but the look on his face is almost condemning.

Once more, I hand away my crutches. Then I fall, head first, to universal surprise, and leave everyone down the length of the Olympic pool with nothing to stare at but my back.

Walking the sidewalk just three blocks from home comes the first hint of a dangerous stare. “Hey, are you a man or a woman?” I reply with the simple truth. A group closes in, encircles me. “Just answer the question.”

What can I say, I have answered the question? How do I free myself with no gaps between them? with no self-defense training? with my hands clamped into my crutches? with a body exhausted and sore? I try the only thing I can: I did answer the question.

“Answer it seriously.”

Slowly, I exhale. I know what they want to know, but I refuse let them off the hook. If they want a question answered, they must at least have the courage to ask it. So I don’t explain, I give them only the simple truth again: I am a woman.

Magically the circle breaks, but my initial interrogator follows me. “Where are you going, Freak?” He stays behind me and to the right where I can’t see him. I can’t conceive of how to walk backward on crutches. For a slow block, he politely asks the most insulting questions, insinuates the most demeaning slurs. Then, “You have a sex change?” There it is. Finally.

Yes, I say, Yes, I did. 

“That’s fucking sick. Where’s your dick, up your ass? I bet you suck big, long hairy fucking dicks.”

No. Actually I’m a lesbian, I say, getting very close to home. I wish and wish that I could see his face, see his eyes, see his stare. Is he getting ready to hit me? Hurt me? Shoot me? How can I find the strength to walk somewhere other than my house? How can I stop him from knowing where I live?

“You date women?” Such a mild word, date, after such a long pause. But also a clue as to how small a gender transgression becomes worthy of harassment, of stalking. What is my transgression worthy of? Hatred? Beating? Death?

“That’s for bitches! I bet you sleep with your mother. I bet you sleep with your sister. Your cousin. Your aunt.” There are my stairs, do I turn up my stairs? “You’re fucking sick!” I can’t make my decision without seeing his eyes. I turn. Disgust. He stares with dismissive disgust. For tonight it is enough that his eyes lack the violent hatred I fear. I head up my stairs and let myself in to my home, not turning around, hearing his incestuous slander echoing safely from the street.

Inside I lock the door immediately, spy through the window to see his head turned to my house. Are his eyes watching me? My door? Replacing the curtains, I go to my bed, take narcotics against both the pain and the fear, and fitfully sleep. In the morning the bathwater is not hot enough to penetrate my chill. With my head tipped back and eyes closed, I can still see his stare. In my imagination, it refuses to remain only dismissively disgusted.

“Wow!” I’ll hear every so often. “Where did you get those?” When I turn, I see one of my favorite stares. Unabashedly wide-eyed, some other cripple is envying the bright purple of my crutches.

Of course I answer their question, sometimes adding, How could I walk with crutches straighter than I am?

On one bus, an elder watches me board and take a front seat. I’m used to being watched as I climb the tall bus steps in crutch-powered lurches, but it becomes disconcerting as his eyes follow me, refusing to look away. I sit, then find something to look at through the window behind his head so I can politely return the eyeing. His jaw is noticeably slack. It is hard to keep down the laughter as I imagine him drooling.

Of course, he’s likely nowhere near as smart as a real drooler like Stephen Hawking, but I can tell he’s no idiot from the way he speaks to the bus driver and the engineering book in his lap. He’s another gender mathematician, adding up bobbed hair, khaki pants, malachite earrings, no makeup, loose shirt (covering breasts? Probably, he decides, but finds it hard to tell as I lean forward). ‘Somehow,’ he echoes a hundred others’ thoughts, ‘these things sum either male or female.’ Appraising, judging, estimating, guessing, he is compelled to find some answer. Any answer. He passes fifteen full minutes, rudely staring, in his calculations.

‘Kids today,’ he concludes. His jaw snaps shut, face recomposes itself. But, still, his eyes are staring.

On another bus a child crawls over two empty seats, a sibling and a parent as he tries to follow the swing of my purple crutches, smiling as I sit directly across from him. Shyly, he turns and lowers his head, but his eyes are now smiling into mine. “She looks like Felicia.”

“She does, huh?” his mother asks, looking me over, giving me a polite nod. “Yes, she’s got the same eyes as Felicia, doesn’t she.”

“Uh-huh,” he answers, and grins.

With my eyes closed I can easily tell her leather jacket isn’t new anymore, not much scent left to it, but it feels cool and slick as it hangs down to touch my skin. No position is ever comfortable for my body, so my pain is there, too. I do my best to ignore it, to focus on each individual sensation of our lovemaking as on the scattered wildflowers of a rocky steppe: The teeth of the zipper bite one nipple as they trace ellipses on my breast. The heat of her body passes through the denim scratching my thighs. Involuntarily, my mouth pulls into a smile as I think that the first time we experiment with clothes in bed we shouldn’t have chosen jackets and jeans in the heat of summer. Of her touches, only her lips on my neck are cool, but they quickly pull away.

I open my eyes to see her face above me, smiling, intense, loving and in that moment am finally lifted from my pain. My whole mind is caught up in deciding whether I would rather feel her kiss again, or drift up into her eyes like warm air into a cloudless sky.

Yes, Lover, a lot of people stare at me. The best of them is you.

Exercises. Remember to do the exercises for yourself without putting all your thoughts in a comment. The most useful pieces to share will be identified as the subject of your report (Exercise 21).

Exercise 18: Briefly skip through the piece again. Where is gender obviously relevant to the passages? Who is attributing gender in the piece? On what bases? Most importantly, why is someone attributing gender? What purpose does such an attribution serve?

Exercise 19: Not all of the piece focuses on gender attributions. Some focus on attributions of dis/ability. Why would someone want to attribute dis/ability to another? What purpose does such an attribution serve?

Exercise 20: We’ve briefly discussed confluence before, a concept closely related to intersectionality. Where in the piece do you see confluence? Now focus only on aspects of confluent social identities, memberships, or markers that have the power to affect gender attributions. What does one need to know about dis/ability, as one example, to be functionally competent in one’s gender attributions?

Exercise 21: Pick two of the vignettes from Stares and identify who is attributing gender, on what basis, and why. Do the same for dis/ability, using exercise 19 as a guide. Finally, use exercise 20 as a launching point to discuss things that you have used to attribute gender to others, paying particular attention to things you used even though it surprises you that you used them.

Of course, just because you are not asked to write about a topic, doesn’t mean the topic is forbidden.

Previous Gender Workshop Entries:

Introduction and video exercises

Important quote:

Why do so many people choose to engage in a system of gender that hurts so many? Why do systems of gender have vocal defenders? Why do some people choose to spend so much effort attempting to dismantle it? Why are people so afraid of a world in which gender rules do not exist? While simple answers might not be available in this or any other forum, I hope and intend that people that engage seriously with the exercises, themselves, and with others’ comments will reach a level of insight necessary to know the frontiers of one’s own knowledge, and to ask good questions capable of moving past those frontiers into new realms.

Gender Neutral Object exercise.

Important quote:

Think of a gender neutral object. No. Not that one. Because gender, right? Exactly. That other one.

Gender binarism, gender naïveté,  and confluence.

Important quotes:

In the every day territory of gender naïveté, gender binarism is not merely dominant, it is literally unquestionable.

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.

Definitions of sex and gender and why we use them

Important quotes:

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?

I’m putting forward a few definitions … to eliminate confusion so that each of us has a better chance of being understood by others in this space as we tackle questions that simply aren’t answerable without a common language. Consider them operational definitions within the context of an experiment.

Without gender structures such as “gender permanence” … or “sexual etiology” … or “gender benevolence” …, gender roles could not exist.




  1. says

    Exercise 18: I’m writing this in a text document without reading any other comments, so I have no clue what other people said, but I’ll just come out and say it— gender was not obviously relevant at any point in the passage. In fact, I can’t think of a scenario where gender (as you define it) is relevant ever except to the extent that people discriminate over it and that needs to be dealt with and in that case I’d say it’s bigotry that’s relevant rather than gender— the gutting of the Voting Rights Act was a function of racism not a function of race itself. The closest gender came to any form of “relevance” was the woman upset about a supposed man in the women’s room, and that itself is just a manifestation of sexism— segregated bathrooms are required due to the prevalence of men with a sexism-induced sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, if not entirely irrelevant today. Since I tend to classify LGBT-based discrimination under the umbrella of sexism, the same race issue/racism issue distinction applies to make gender irrelevant there too.

    That said, gender was attributed by a lot of people in the passage— the woman calling security, the people on the bus, the harasser on the street, and so forth. I can’t exactly get inside their heads to find out, but it would seem most of them use some form of stereotype about what it “really” means to be male or female.

    Hold up, let me start again. Sorry, even when you listed the definitions, I still unconsciously revert to my own, where “gender” is just another word for “biological sex.” So on what basis do they attribute “gender” by your definition? Well the way you use the word, gender literally only exists to the extent that it is attributed, so it’s kind of a tautology I guess— I say you belong to the “male gender” because “male gender” is defined by the fact that I say you belong to it. If you asked them, they’d probably cite clothes, mannerisms, biological sex, appearance and traits, anything really, since the “I” mentioned above was plural and the people “attributing gender” are parroting stereotypes invented by other people rather than inventing designations of their own.

    Such attributions don’t really have a “purpose” any more than joining a religion or paying money for homeopathic preparations has a “purpose.” It’s just something we do because our brains are sculpted by evolution to be minimally good enough to ensure overall reproductive success in small tribes with basically no technology and we’ve been fighting their inaccuracies and glitches all the way to some semblance of civilization.

    Exercise 19: Unlike “gender,” disability is an actual thing that objectively exists independent of cultural bullshit and so determining whether someone has a disability or not is a valid thing to do. If I pushed the “humans are now perfect” button, then “attributing” (that is, identifying) someone’s disability is necessary in order to accommodate it— if I know you have difficulty walking, maybe I should make sure you’re not forced to walk as much; if you’re blind, I shouldn’t give directions based on appearance of landmarks; if you’re deaf, I should speak sign language or find someone who does, make sure you can read my lips, avoid verbal notifications or warnings, or some combination thereof. Unfortunately, since the “humans are now perfect” button is unfortunately quite evasive, people are just as likely to “attribute” (that is, identify) someone’s disability in order to mock them for it or discriminate against them because of it, or to attribute (that is, attribute) a disability someone doesn’t actually have because of rank bigotry and the irrational “reasons” that accompany it— like the “your legs don’t work, so I assume your brain doesn’t either” routine that anyone in a wheelchair is probably all too familiar with.

    Exercise 20: I don’t remember any discussions of confluence or intersectionality and I don’t know what those words mean so I’m just gonna whistle innocently and hope nobody notices I skipped this one. Oh, but I can answer the last part— you don’t need to know anything about someone’s disability (or lack thereof) to be competent in your attribution of gender to them because gender attribution isn’t actually a legitimate thing to be doing in the first place so talking about “competence” is completely moot.

    Exercise 21: OK lets see. The woman who calls the security guards is attributing gender but exactly why isn’t explained. Presumably it’s based on appearance or voice or clothes or any of the other things that get hyped up based on stereotypes. I suppose it could be based on “masculine” facial features but that concept is completely alien to me— supposedly, men and women have subtly different features, but I have a hard enough time identifying individual faces so I can’t vouch for the truth of that claim. Short of extensive facial hair, faces are pretty much genderless. (Or sexless? Basically, they don’t convey any information about the presence of absence of an SRY gene and the anatomical features derived therefrom over the normal course of prenatal development.) OK, then the bigot on the street outside the house is obviously attributing gender though he comes across as so completely irrational that I refuse to make any attempt to examine his thought processes— to me, he’s like someone following me and spouting insults and accusations of incest on the grounds that my eyes are the wrong color or my clothes aren’t stitched in the right pattern; basically, he’s what the Jesus freaks would be if we weren’t conditioned by repeated exposure to consider them “normal.”

    Disability is attributed by anyone who notices the crutches. That one’s more understandable since most people with crutches have some difficulty walking. I’m not sure there’s anything else that needs to be said on the subject.

    As for attributing gender to others myself— well, based on your definition of gender I’ve never done that at all, at least not recently. I’ve occasionally tried to figure out what biological sex someone was (that is, are you physically a man or a woman, not what would other people call you or what would you say if I asked), but that was a purely academic exercise of no direct relevance to anything— I’d form a guess and then get bored and segue into imagining what they did for a living, or if they got arrested, what would it be for? (And did they do it?) I’ve never found myself in any situation where someone’s sex OR gender mattered (although being asexual influences that I suppose, if one is sexually attracted to one sex/gender, then it would matter with regard to sex).

    Just yesterday, I had occasion to try and guess someone’s sex/gender. It’s not something I usually do, but in this case I was curious because they offered conflicting cues— distinct and obvious facial hair, but also the distinct presence of mammaries. Obviously, I didn’t see the latter directly, and a man with certain conditions (like obesity) will develop clumps of fat vaguely resembling mammaries, but in this case the appearance of the facial hair suggested that it was introduced by a medical condition or other unusual quirk, as it was limited to an odd off-center asymmetrical pattern. I tried to resolve the distinction and get a definitive answer through social cues (ie, eavesdropping in search of a pronoun) but ultimately never received an answer.

    So ultimately, I classified/attributed them as: Gender— whatever. (Or, rather, sex— whatever; gender— that’s not actually a thing.)

    So here’s what I’m wondering— how do you attribute gender to yourself? If you asked me whether I was a man or a woman, I would (metaphorically) look down and answer based on what I saw. If you wouldn’t do that yourself, how would you answer? Do you look in a mirror and attribute “gender” to what you see as if it were another person? Is it just something you know, that doesn’t require any verification, even with your own body? And if I then asked what biological sex you are, would/could the answer be different?

  2. Chicken Chicken says

    Oh dear lard, this is very soothing after having talked to three different TERFs for the past 48 hours. I feel so raw and tired and angry and I want to smash the patriarchy so hard that all the TERFs splash out from the sides and are propelled into oblivion.

  3. Dutchgirl says

    I’ve read the post and am doing the exercises. I will be back later with my report.
    Chicken Chicken: that sounds very sucky, and I hope your next 48 hours will be TERF-free.
    Jake: on your response to 19 you wrote “Unlike “gender,” disability is an actual thing that objectively exists independent of cultural bullshit and so determining whether someone has a disability or not is a valid thing to do.” Please remember that not all disability is visible, and is not at all free from cultural bullshit (think of a morbidly obese person in a scooter, yeah, assumptions will be made).

  4. says

    @4 Dutchgirl: I’m well aware that not all disabilities are visible (being as I have a generally invisible disability myself) and they aren’t free of cultural bullshit (as I gave an example). It’s just that disability does exist independent of the cultural bullshit— and if a disability is visible, it’s only polite to accommodate it as need be.

    I don’t consider obesity to be a “disability” as such, though. And I’ve actually been obese (not necessarily “morbidly” but clearly obese nonetheless). Even when a fairly paltry two mile walk was a feat of endurance I’d be foolhardy to try, I never figured it was a disability itself. Though admittedly, my case wasn’t typical— I had “fake” obesity brought in my chemically induced changes to my metabolism and slimmed back down when my medical regime was changed, unlike “real” obesity where the weight is pretty much impossible to permanently lose.

  5. Dutchgirl says

    Jake, thank you for your response, and your clarification. I don’t think obesity is necessarily a disability, although in my example the person is in a scooter so has some kind of mobility issue. But while many people would assume it is the obesity itself, they could have a sprained ankle sustained while jogging; there is no way to be sure. But I think we probably agree with eachother, we are just saying it differently. [Now I’m off to coax the baby to sleep….]

  6. AMM says

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting more and more lost with these workshops. Some stuff seems too obvious for words, and some I can’t get at all. I have no idea what “confluence” is, even though I reread the article where you use the word. (I’m familiar with Intersectionality.) It never occurred to me that anyone would think that inanimate objects had gender (other than grammatical gender), although I’m aware that somethings are seen as appropriate for one gender or the other. (I’m saying “gender”, but in the world where these associations are more than bizarre cultural artifacts, I could just as well have said “sex.”) As for attributing gender to Shirley Temple vs. Conchita Wurst, I guess the answer seems so obvious — I’m trying not to get into trouble. With most people (including many trans people), if you don’t figure out what gender they see themselves as without having to ask (or worse yet, get it wrong), they get upset and insulted. Conchita is an exception because it sure looks like they intended to be ambiguous. It make me wonder if there was something deeper there that I missed.

    The same with the story “Stares.” Unless I’m missing something, it seems pretty clear when gender is being attributed (or misattributed — I’m assuming the narrator is a trans woman who needs crutches or a wheelchair to get around), and when disability. And, though you don’t ask, when gender transgression is being attributed. I’m not sure what’s to discuss, or whether I’m missing something.

    There are a lot of bits and pieces here, but I can’t put them into a coherent whole or direction.