Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood
Veronica Quaife Crip Dyke.
When we last left our intrepid heroes, they were slogging through the twists and turns of translating “transsexual” into the language of a hypothetical world where sex == gender. As expected, there were some difficulties. Some of these difficulties arise from confusion at the statement, “just what does it mean to say that sex == gender”? While frustrating for those honestly attempting to answer the question, the confusion, I judge, is fair given that actual advocates for using sex in place of gender or gender in place of sex rarely show much of the totality of what they intend to convey by conflating the two.
There are, of course, languages where there is only one term for both sex and gender. Those folks will have had some leg up on the work. Nonetheless, the confusing world of communicating across others’ assumptions that sex == gender does not end at the creation of a definition, not even at the creation of a satisfying one. While the discussion about the implications of those definitions will continue in the original thread, here we will take things just a step further.
Our intent is to understand the difficulties imposed by certain assumptions, and we get at those difficulties by conceptually equating words. In the exercise we will not change underlying facts, events, or natures, and experiences of those facts or events or natures are changed only to the extent necessary to reflect the psychological reality of someone who must deal with thinking about 2 things every time 1 is addressed. If we do this well, we will gain insight not only into the realities of communicating to trans*-hostile folks who take a deliberate and adamant stance in favor of sex == gender, we should gain some insight into the realities of communicating within trans* communities where people often take a practical stance in favor of sex == gender on the basis that using the correct term in certain circumstances is harmful or dangerous or triggering, and the realities of communicating within post-structuralist communities where people often take a pedagogical stance in favor of sex == gender in order to communicate (or reinforce) the idea that sex is a social construction every bit as much as gender is.
So think about changing language, but not changing reality any more than necessary to remove the possibility that someone might easily understand distinctions between female and woman, male and man, intersex and transgender, sex and gender. Assume that every single time you use masculine, your audience will hear “ejaculates motile semen” as certainly as the person hears “wears Y-fronts” or “spreads out on the bus seats”. There is no difference in the language of manly, men, masculine, or male between wearing a top hat and having testicles. Moreover, every time you say “wore a dress” your audience hears you implying “and ovulates”. You can of course say, “The person was wearing a top hat,” but even though the unstated implication of “while dangling some testicles between his legs” is heard by your audience, this nonetheless makes it harder to make statements about groups or even about an individual’s relationship to a group, because you’ve only made a connection to top-hat-wearers and not to the category men. People will assume you only want to discuss the top-hat wearing subset of men, else why would you just say “men” or “people with testicles” or “masculine people” or anything else that includes all men (and no one but men)?
In this world, which I need hardly remind folk here is this world for too many people, there are many pitfalls for trans* folk to even communicating to others one’s own identify and experience.
Allow me to push you into just one of these pits.
Pick an age, 10, 16, or 22. Pick an identity with which you are at least passingly familiar: FtM transsexual person or MtF transsexual person. If you aren’t at least passingly familiar with any of these experiences, read a blog page or two written in the first person by someone attempting to communicate that experience.
Now write what you would say to someone in trying to explain your inner experience. If you’ve chosen age 10, try to restrict yourself to the vocabulary of a thoughtful 10 year old, likewise age 16.
23a: For a 10 year old, your audience is a parent and your goal is to 1) make your parent aware of what you are feeling and thinking 2) while convincing your parent you are neither delusional, nor sinful, nor a liar despite your confusing and difficult-to-communicate experience. Your ultimate motive is that 3) you fear forced treatment or punishment from that parent. How strong your fear and the nature of the punishment you fear and whether you even bother to express that directly is up to you. You might think about your own relationship with your parents at that age for guidance on those issues for this exercise, but you don’t have to. The parent you speak to is fictional and can be much more or less frightening than your own real-life parents.
23b: For a 16 year old, your audience is a best friend and your goal is to 1)make your best friend aware of what you are feeling and thinking, 2) while convincing your friend that you are neither delusional nor sinful, nor a liar despite your confusing and difficult-to-communicate experience. Your ultimate motive is that 3) you fear your best friend will ostracize you.
23c: For a 22 year old, your audience is an employer or a professor in a graduate school program that has power over your graduate work and thus your future career. Your goal is to 1) make the employer or professor aware that you intend to make changes to your behavior and your body, though you aren’t certain exactly what these changes will be, 2) while convincing your employer/professor that you are neither delusional nor sinful, nor a liar despite your confusing and difficult-to-communicate experience. Your ultimate motive is that 3) you wish to be able to have a long, continuous career in which you receive credit for all of your work and are not forced to change jobs or programs because you are happy with your work/graduate school environment.
Note: Although not required, the most useful way to respond to this exercise is to immediately open a text editor or comment window and start writing. Now. Don’t think. Don’t erase anything. If you write something and you realize it could be taken the wrong way, just keep writing. Don’t break character. Real trans* folk make mistakes and then we have to deal with general societal misconceptions and the implications of our own mistakes at the same time.
Any serious attempt to perform the exercise is fine. Maybe you aren’t much of a talker, and you can’t come up with more than 50 words. That’s fine. In real life some trans* folk aren’t talkers either. But then, if you don’t over explain, you have to sit with the fear that maybe you didn’t say something important, that there’s a myth you didn’t dispel which will determine your audience’s response and you just wasted your chance to avoid punishment, save a friendship, have a career. You could go out of your way to explain everything and write 800 words. That’s fine. But then you have to sit with the fear that maybe you spoke for so long that your audience thinks that your obsessed with this topic in an unhealthy way, to the extent of boundary crossing and making other people uncomfortable with TMI, instead of merely saying what is necessary. Will your friend still want you around if they are afraid you’re going to go on and on about this every day, or worse, bring it up in front of your friend’s parents? Will your employer want someone in the office who might make other people uncomfortable with a lot of highly unusual and emotional-because-it’s-confusing gender talk? Will your professor?
The longer you sit with this exercise, the longer you pre-plan or edit your language, the less useful it will be. Be brave: write while you’re still confused.
As with our last thread, in this thread the one iron clad rule: make a good-faith attempt to perform the exercise before adding any other comments. My hand will be exactly as censorious in this thread as in the last: no lighter, no heavier.
Previous Gender Workshop entries that include exercises:
Edited to replace
Yoda with Veronica Quaife. And why did I feel like “be afraid, be very afraid” had come from a star wars movie? I’ll never know.