Online Gender Workshop: Be Confused, Be Very Confused Edition

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.


Exercise 23:

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:

Introduction and video exercises

Gender Neutral Object exercise.

Gender binarism, gender naïveté,  and confluence.

Definitions of sex and gender and why we use them

Gender Attributions in Practice

Put Your Definitions Where Your Genitals Are

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.




  1. Rich Woods says

    I can’t. I think each of those situations is bastard difficult to deal with. I don’t have the words to even start.

  2. AMM says

    I’m going to try for myself at 10 years old, but with my present understanding of who I am and was, and assuming society is more like the present day w.r.t. gender than it was 50 years ago.

    Mom, Dad —

    I’m no good as a boy. I hate athletics. I hate having to get those stinky uniforms on and go out and run into other boys. I’m no good at throwing or kicking or knocking people over or jumping. And I kinda don’t want to be. Sometimes I think, I wish I could be like the other boys and then I feel like I’ve got a mouthful of source milk and I want to throw up. And when the other boys are horsing around and stuff, it’s creepy and scary. Even when they’re not stealing my lunch or throwing my underwear in the shower. And all this stuff about being tough and demerits and acting like we’re in the army when we’re at school. I’ve tried and I can’t. I can’t hit back. Mr. Pitt talks to me all the time about what I need to do but I can’t. I don’t know why, I just can’t. And okay I’m a crybaby and a sissy and a queer and a wimp, but I can’t.

    Sometimes I wish I’d been a girl. If I were a girl it would be okay to cry, and people wouldn’t yell at me if I couldn’t hit the ball very well. When I was in first grade, on the playground, I wished I could play with the girls, but of course nobody would have let me. The girls pretended they were horses and got rounded up and then rounded up other girls who were horses and they didn’t get hit and have to hit back or be called names. Girls hug each other and sometimes kiss each other. They can want their mommies and get hugs when they’re sad. I could be pretty and wear pretty dresses and nobody would call me a sissy or anything. If I were a girl, Dad wouldn’t give me a crew cut all the time, he’d let me grow my hair long.

    I guess I’m just stupid. I bet I’d be just as bad a girl as I am a boy. I don’t know what. I can’t figure out what to do. I don’t know why I’m writing this, if I can’t figure it out, I don’t know why I think you all can. I just know I can’t do this any more. I feel like I’m dying. If I have to keep on being a boy, I think I _will_ die.

    I had a hard time writing this, because I cannot imagine ever having any hope that my parents would have listened, since they never listened about the more conventional things, either. I had to imagine this as a suicide note before I could get any words out.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    For AMM:

    I had to imagine this as a suicide note before I could get any words out.

    For that? All the love. All the spoons.

    You’ve also written incredibly well in attempting to communicate around the inability of others to distinguish between assertions of sex and assertions of gender. Thank you.

  4. says

    23c. I’ve been struggling with something–my feelings, for a long time. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been depressed and withdrawn, I’m having some trouble socially with my peers. I’ve been working with a therapist, and, well, the last thing I want is for this hurt my work in the program, so I want to come clean about what is going on. I am struggling with my gender identity–I don’t really feel right as a man. Internally, I feel that I am really a woman. And I’m working with my therapist and she thinks my dysphoria–my depression–won’t really resolve until I can transition to living as a woman. That hiding my true self is interfering with my ability to live. I’m…I’m not sure how to explain how weird this feels, but I just don’t belong in this body.

    (It’s hard to do this–I’m a professor in a professional psychology program, so I think I’d handle the other role well. But what about, say, a chemistry professor? I have no idea.)

  5. Jake Harban says

    I’m hungry, sleep-deprived and running low on spoons so this is about as confused as I get. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too much. The basic parameters of the exercise are bouncing around in my head and I can’t pin them down.

    I had the good fortune to be born into an extremely progressive family (by American standards at any rate) and I’ve always been a bit off with society in general but unfortunately I just can’t wrap my head around the notion of gender being core to one’s identity. I cheated and read AMM’s post and that resonated a bit— 10 was roughly the age that I was finally exposed to enough peer pressure to stop doing things I enjoyed on the grounds that they were “girly.” So I certainly understand the concept. But I never thought of my pink shoes or hair bow as “feminine” in any way; they were just things I did. Even when teased for being “girly” to the point that I stopped, I never regarded the accusations as true; all that mattered was that I was put through considerable distress and changing my fashion would make it stop. I had to change a lot of things in order to conform enough not to be a pariah and I made no distinction between the “reasons” my peers offered for why each thing I did was “wrong.”

    It was only fairly recently that I was willing to try letting my hair grow out again and I’m still choking up at the thought of adorning it. I designed a dress I’d like to wear but I’m worried about what I might face. That said, if I did, my immediate social circle would have no problems with it and neither they nor I would try to claim that this means I’m female.

    So basically, what I’m saying is that I have no experience with trying to convince someone to accept my flouting gendered norms— everyone I’ve ever met has been either accepting of me or simultaneously so obstinate and so powerful that it was far easier to give in. Yes, I’ve had to lie to my friends, my family, and myself— but I had to lie about my traits and interests, not my sense of gender. I speculate that my, er, disconnect with society/culture/other people during those formative years and my unusual circumstances means I never fully internalised the cultural notions of gender so I don’t think of myself in its terms.

    Oh great, I’m rambling so my comment is going to be deleted. Let me see if I can take one last stab before the spoon drawer is empty.

    23b: An address to my high school friend, James Kirk (not his real name, but it would be awesome if it were).

    OK, um, Jimmy… you know, like, how I always wear the exact same clothes every day? Well I mean not the EXACT same clothes, but it’s like a billion copies of the same outfit? Well, I used to have different clothes. I mean, when I was little and before I knew better, I used to wear GIRL clothes. But it’s like, why are they “girl” clothes? I mean a skirt is only for women here but if you go to Scotland and call it a kilt suddenly it’s men’s clothing? It’s like, who made up who gets to wear what? I mean, if I come in wearing the frilliest dress I can find, are you going to say I’m a girl?

    Sorry, not quite as good as I’d hoped. 16-year-old me was too self-conscious to even consider testing the waters— and I didn’t exactly have the closest of friends anyway. I think I’m a bit out of my depth here.

  6. azhael says

    As a 16 year old.
    So, thanks for coming, X, i really need to talk you in private. As you can tell i’m pretty fucking nervous right now so i’m just going to blurt it out and see what happens because otherwise i’ll never be able to say the words.
    You know how i’m always kind of nervous around people, the others make fun of me for being socially awkward and shy and because i just want to be left alone and not receive any attention…i didn’t use to be like this…There was a time when i was very different, i don’t remember being so afraid all the time, my father says i used to be the happiest kid he’d ever seen, but i can’t really remember not being afraid…and that’s what i am now, ALL the time….i’m afraid…i’m terrified of everybody else…I’m terrified that they might found out what really goes on inside my head, that they’d laugh at me for the things that make happy, for behaving in any way that they don’t think it’s normal. I’m afraid because i don’t want to be the weird kid, i don’t want to be laughed at or worse…i don’t think i’ve ever done anything to anyone, nothing serious, anyway, that would make me deserve any of that shit. Why can’t i be myself without having to worry about everybody else? Everybody else doesn’t seem to have to do anything to not be laughed at….they just fucking glide through life, they aren’t constantly self-conscious, they aren’t controlling themselves every minute of every day. Why can’t i be like that? I’m not hurting anyone, all i want is to be able to breathe without thinking about breathing…i’m so exhausted all the time…i barely sleep and waking up makes me want to cry…just another day trying to pretend i’m what others want me to be…
    What i’m trying to say is that i’m not like you, or the others…but there’s someone i’m similar to, you know my cousin Sarah? We like the same things….when i’m over at her house we play with her things and play pretend. I’m never happier than when i’m with her and…’s because she treats me like i’m one of her friends, you know… Please don’t laugh at me, i really need you to not laugh at me right now…but one day she put make up on me and we pretended we were pop stars…and it was really fun..really, really fun…i know that if anyone had seen me i would have felt so stupid and so embarrashed….but i didn’t feel stupid or embarrashed that day…i had a lot of fun and i couldn’t sleep because i couldn’t stop thinking about it, not because i couldn’t stop thinking about the way everybody else makes me feel….
    Do you think that’s weird? Isn’t there anythign you really like to do that you don’t want others to know about because they’d laugh? Do you think everybody feels the same way but they are just better than me at pretending? I don’t know why i feel how i feel…i really don’t….i just feel it…i just find myself enjoying things that i’m not supossed to be doing…i don’t even plan on doing them, it just sort of happens…whenever i’m not trying really hard to not let them happen…you know, it’s like a thing that only moves when you are not looking at it…
    You’ve known me for a long time….and you haven’t fled yet…i know this is weird and i know it’s making you uncomfortable and i’m sorry, i’m always trying not to make people uncomfortable andi’m always failing…i just need to tell you…i need to know that you are my friend even though you know my darkest secret…i need someone i don’t have to act around all the time because it’s sufocating and i hate it…i really hate it….and i feel like i’m always lying, to you and everybody else and i don’t know if you’ll like me when i’m not lying….
    There’s something else i haven’t told you…it’s not just that i like doing girl stuff…it’s that sometimes….when people are calling me and they say “hey boy” or whatever…if i’m distracted i don’t even realise they are talking about me…it’s like it doesn’t make sense. The other day i was with my cousin and when her mother called her by her name i responded without thinking…
    I….i sometimes feel like if i was her i’d be happier…like all of my problems would go away…You know how you told me that you wish you were Charlie, because he gets all the girls and everybody treats him like a god…well…i wish i was Sarah…everything would so much easier…i wouldn’t have to lie all the time, i wouldn’t have to pretend, i would just be me and nobody would think it was weird….
    Will you still like me if every now and then i don’t pretend to be who i’m not…?

    To be fair, as it’s probably very, very clear, A LOT of elements are common to my own experience growing up as a bisexual kid, so i tried to put myself in the mind of who i was when i was 16, but i couldn’t really do it, because i get angry every time i think about how i used to feel back then….the fear, the meekness, the desperation not to upset anyone …So, to be honest this is not exactly what a 16 year old me would have sounded like xD But, anyway, i tried…

  7. azhael says

    Oh, and if i may, and i hope this is fine to post here, i wouldn’t normally participate in a topic like this because i feel like i am so out of my depth that if i open my mouth, sooner or later i’m going to say something very stupid out of ignorance that is going to ruin someone’s day. However, because we are allowed the ignorance and the language of a kid or a teenager here, i feel like a trans* individual would have felt and expressed themselves in a way pretty similar to what i would have done myself, since the parallels at that level are very strong.
    I also want to thank Crip Dyke for these posts. So far, if i’m honest, the lesson has largely been a lot of confussion, but i feel that that’s a valuable lesson in itself. The fact that the subject is so confussing and that it’s so difficult to even find adequate language to communicate about it says a lot about the subject itself.

  8. zaoldyeck says

    I spent the last month working with a large number of transgender individuals… so much so that each day we had a list of “pronouns” for the ‘identity’ of all of the people on the crew.

    I’m no closer to understanding gender identity now as I was before. Gender seems such an arbitrary and meaningless concept, as do gender norms. “I prefer to wear dresses so I think I’m a girl” doesn’t really feel right to me, because that’s such a societal pressure, and I’m confident the transgender people I have known *feel* off, in ways that cannot be just social. There’s no reason I see why guys/girls couldn’t fundamentally dress differently, it’s just a societal norm.

    So if I were to really try to convince someone that I am transgender, at any age, it’d relate more to the physical aspects that feel ‘off’. “Mom, dad, I have felt for a long time that something feels off. I rub my chest and it feels like there’s something missing. I look down at myself and feel that it looks wrong. I feel if I could change these, I would be happier, and more comfortable in my own body.”

    I don’t really like the idea of gender norms, and don’t want people to feel they are forced to identify by them. So the only real cue I have to go off of is things like ‘feeling uncomfortable’, which I can readily identify with. I could imagine something in the same way I could imagine having phantom limb syndrome.

    I’m a ‘male’, and a ‘he’, and while I recognize that I enjoy benefits because those are so ubiquitously used terms… they mean rather little to me, as they’re not central to the idea of who I am. If I felt my body was ‘off’, and needed to change, I could imagine that… but needing to conform to ideas others have of gender doesn’t appeal to me, and something I wish others had the luxury of not dealing with as well.

  9. amrie says

    Yeah, I’m confused, and the intro really didn’t help. This is difficult.

    16: (Problem: I think all 16 year old girls hate their bodies and their lives and everything and want to be boys sometimes…) I wish I was a boy. Not just so I’d get away with more and not have to always be nice and quiet and polite like you said, I mean I really want to be a boy and not a girl. I feel all wrong as a girl. I hate my big tits, you can have them if you like. No, I don’t want smaller ones so that dress would fit better, I don’t want to have tits at all. Or wear a dress. I don’t want to be a woman. Thinking about growing up and having to be a woman all my life scares me, I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know why I feel this way, I just do.

  10. amrie says

    @AMM #2:
    I don’t know what to say except, thank you, and… I wish I could lend you my parents.

  11. Caroline says

    Ex 23 : I am not 10, 16, nor 23, but I am coming out to a community I love and feel deeply connected to. I have been reading and lurking about on this site for a while now and I felt it was such a good fit for me. I felt safe enough to open up a little and let some light in. I began to grow and stretch and feel my wings a little. I began to feel my way through some murky issues that have chased me throughout my entire life, no matter how frightened I was I must have been determine cause I kept going. I became fond of so many you , thought of you as my friends even, and read here when I was alone and felt so lonely.
    About ten years ago I decided to work from home and get to the bottom of what was wrong with me. I knew I was deeply disturbed and was not ‘passing’ as a mentally healthy person anymore.I began to read and explore. I knew I was mentally ill. I knew medicine didn’t
    work for me. I had to keep searching. Along the way I found this site through the Atheist Experience and I couldn’t stay away. I was on my way from spiritual to godless, and Tracy Harris saved me! Matt D was there too.
    I was also introduced to asexuality through this sight and that helped me to take some time off, relax my gender identity a little, and try on some new ideas. So I did. Finally I came out queer because I thought I was sexually attracted to women too. That made sense to me, so I am like,” okay you are lesbian. ” But….. do I get to still have sex with men? Okay, then I am a ? Wait where are you all going? It was rough and tumble for a long while as I was trying to ease into my sexuality without the advantage of a primary sex drive.Then about a year ago, after I started therapy with someone I could trust, I allowed myself to realize the abuse I suffered through as the ‘only girl’ in a house full of boys, and began to reconcile my mothers deep hatred of and toward me, which I found out was an open secret . There was a lot of pain to process there. It was then that my sex drive emerged. I felt bodily what it is to be horny at 52! Um , that coupled with perimenopause was, and still is, a real trip. I started aiming my new compass at everything . Then, Crip Dyke started another gender thread and I read it through and attempted several times to answer. I couldn’t. More work. More pain. I experienced fuck tons of fear, but I wanted to be genuine most of all. Then, when I was describing my new self to my therapist I described myself as a man in a women’s body.Then I retracted it as quickly as I put it out there. I think he noticed. I know I did. The last thing he said to me is that I might experience a little more sliding around and to just go with it. I slid into home base, but instead of “SAFE!” being called, I realized why I have been in hiding and why I have been trying to decide how safe it really is for me to come out. Trigger warning ahead. I have been inundated with my childhood abuse. NOW I know why I was always getting my ass kicked, or raped or undressed and laughed at. NOW I understand my partner choices: It’s hard to find love when you are looking for safety. So I am a man in a female body who passes really well and is smart enough to know how it can go for small gay men. I feel so disadvantaged and for some reason the queer community is seeing me . I am seeing them . I still don’t know even how to talk about me or do this. I know this will be a wall of text. I have learning issues and I really want to learn how to express myself better here but for now I am doing the best I can. I also came out to my oldest son on the way home from picking him up from San Jose. It was a two and a half hour drive, locked in the car with him driving. He didn’t jump out or anything. Neither will I.