Tag Archives: trans*

Let’s Keep Talking About Gender: Updates and Additional Thoughts regarding Genderbread, among other things

I’ve been talking a whole lot about my post about the Genderbread system for talking about gender. The conversations have been really great and have really helped me to think about how I tackled that subject, my own views on gender, how to be empathetic, and really how I approach writing altogether. I have a few things to add and to clarify, and I do not want to just keep editing and adding to the same post, so here we are!

The most important thing that I want to make sure is ultra ultra clear to everyone is that I really really like Genderbread! In fact, this entire conversation was sparked by me leaving a comment that started with “I love EVERYTHING about this except…” I don’t think that the “except” part means that I don’t love it. I don’t think that criticizing something means that I don’t think a thing is great. Now, I framed my post in terms of criticisms, that’s true, and looking back on it, I’m not sure that was the best format to choose. I was trying to get my thoughts out, and that was the most obvious way for me. I was hearing a lot of criticism, and I wanted to engage with it and respond to it. Some of the criticisms I agreed with, true, but many of them I actually argued against. I brought them up because I thought they were important to respond to, but my response was actually in defense of Genderbread. Here, I’ll show you by going ahead and quoting myself like some self obsessed jerk:

I disagree with this more than any other point I’m going to bring up here. I do not think that it is condescending to try to offer an explanation in an accessible way, particularly when so much of the conversation around gender is SO VERY ACADEMIC that people who haven’t (and in some cases haven’t had the opportunity to) take a gender studies class are a) afraid to talk about gender or b) think it’s all elitist bullshit. But you don’t have to take a gender studies class to understand gender, and you shouldn’t have to!

and, also:

And lastly, I just want to say that when I hear this argument, I kind of feel like it’s akin to saying that we shouldn’t speak English because it is a very gendered language (or French, or Spanish, or, you get the idea!) and maybe there’s a point to that, but when you are trying to explain something to someone who SPEAKS English, if you expect them to learn German before they talk to you, you aren’t going to get anywhere. You have to start with what you have.

 

But the fact that this was not obvious to several different people means something to me. I’m still learning, and I’m going to just assume that people found it to be unclear because it was unclear. I’ll try to do better in the future! In the meantime, let me be extremely clear: I really like Genderbread. I am going to print out a bunch of them to keep around my house.

What I don’t think though, is that liking it somehow makes it infallible. I don’t think that the fact that it does a good job of helping to start the conversation about gender makes it above criticism. On the contrary, I think that the conversation that it does a good job of starting, that’s the conversation that I’m having. I want to keep having that conversation. That will continue to mean being critical sometimes.

I also want to make a note about the difference between sex and gender, and the difference between transsexual people and transgender people. Let’s start with the second one. I made a huge oversight in my first post, I failed to realize that MANY MANY TRANS* PEOPLE ARE BOTH TRANSGENDER AND TRANSSEXUAL. This should have been so obvious to me, and it wasn’t. I treated the two as two distinct categories, and they’re not, and it’s not about that, and I shouldn’t have done that and I’m sorry. And this leads into the thing about sex and gender, because it is all well and good, for me, a cis gender woman, to sit here and say that sex and gender are totally separate and we should view them and treat them as such, but the reality is that we live in the world, and the world doesn’t always do that. And human experiences matter. The fact is that I have never looked at a form that said “gender: check one, male, female” and wondered if my choice would be respected, or wondered at which one I should choose at all. That is not my reality. I can say all day long that “male” and “female” are biological categories and nothing more, but the fact is that they are loaded words for many people. It is not my job to police anyone’s experience or try to force anyone into a category. Emotional reality MATTERS, and I think sometimes it matters a great deal more than the reality of where one fits on paper, whether it’s your driver’s license or a Genderbread worksheet.

I’m not asking Genderbread, or myself, to be perfect. But I do think that we need to talk about the ways that we can make things better.

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When We Talk About Gender…

Genderbread-2.0

Pictured above, you will see the Genderbread Person, and its corresponding system for thinking about and discussing gender, posted a few days ago on Everyday Feminism. It was originally posted on it’s pronounced metrosexual and was created by Sam Killermann.

I want to start out by saying, a couple of things. The first thing is that Everyday Feminism is not my favorite website, and my general complaint about many/most of the things I see on their site is that they over-simplify issues, sometimes to the point of getting them wrong all together. I love that they are trying to explain these issues in a way that is accessible to everyone, but sometimes if you go too far in the direction of trying to make it “easy to understand” you lose sight of the actual thing you trying to explain. So maybe the person can understand it easily enough, but the understanding they come to is not actually accurate, because surprise, the truth is not simple. That’s why my blog is called “I have complicated feelings about that…” because the truth is complicated, and feelings are complicated, and humanity is complicated, and compassion even, is complicated.

The second thing is that the first time I saw the Genderbread Person, I was really, really, incredibly, excited about it. I really liked it, and it was probably the first thing on Everyday Feminism that I got really stoked about. Why did I get so excited? Well, it has to do with those double line graphs. See, in the earlier version of the Genderbread Person, everything was explained on a spectrum much like the kinsey scale (as an aside, I was completely obsessed with the kinsey scale when I was 15). The two parallel graphs reminds me of something a vet I hired to perform acupuncture on (one of) my cat(s) said to me (aaaand this is the part where half of you decide I’m nuts and close the window, that’s cool. Her regular vet thought she had asthma, and it was the treatment that a) had proven results and b) didn’t involve forcing steroids into her lungs with an incredibly expensive inhaler. If you still feel all judgey, go ahead and leave). She looked at the symptoms that Blanche was having, and said that, from a Chinese medicine perspective, Blanche either had “too much hot or not enough cold”. And when I cocked my head and said “aren’t those the same thing?” she said very definitively that no, they are not.

The two parallel graph lines for each category allow me to describe, for example, how much I am feminine and how much I am masculine, as two separate things that are not necessarily dependent on each other. And I feel like that’s a really big step in the ways that we talk about gender. Because on the old model, if we see gender presentation as one straight line, to say that I am masculine at all takes me further away from being feminine and closer to being genderless. And that simply isn’t true (for me). My presentation is generally pretty feminine, I read as a girl. But there are also things about me that are masculine. I have a hyper-masculine walk that comes out as soon as I feel threatened, even if I’m wearing a dress. But on the old model, you don’t see that. All you see is a girl that isn’t as girly as some girls, I’m not allowed to be on the masculine side of the graph at all. So I saw this, and I was totally stoked. Here is a visualization that allows me to discuss my gender in a way that is slightly more representative of me! Maybe it’s also more representative for lots of other people! How very very exciting!

Ok, now that all of that’s out of the way.

A conversation in the comments section led me to think about a lot of the limitations of this kind of tool/infographic (both in specific and in general) so get yourself a cup of coffee because we are going to talk about some of that now. I’m going to talk about the criticisms that I heard both on that comment thread and other places, the ones I think are totally legit and the ones I kind of disagree with.

1. Genderbread Person was made by a cisgender person.
That’s totally true! And it is also totally true that trans* and genderqueer people can probably do a much better job of explaining their particular interaction with gender than cis allies can. However, I don’t think that, in itself, makes it irrelevant. You see, one of the biggest pieces of privilege is often not having to talk about a given issue. I’m a cisgender lady, so I can choose not to speak up for trans* people whenever I like. If I hear a horrible joke about “trannies” that joke isn’t about me, and if I want to, I can lower my head and shuffle on.
But being an ally means recognizing that and choosing to do something else. One thing that all of my trans* and genderqueer friends have complained about is the fact that cis people feel that they have the right to just ask trans* and genderqueer people all kinds of questions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their identity, often in wholly inappropriate situations. I see part of my responsibility as any ally as to educate other cis people whenever possible, that way it DOESN’T have to be solely the job of trans* and genderqueer folk to talk about these things. So when I see another cis person talking about how varied gender can be, I don’t think “oh whatever they’re cis it doesn’t count” I think “YES THIS IS WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING LETS GET TO WORK.”

2. Genderbread Person actually glosses over trans* people.
I think this one is both true and not true. I think it’s complicated because when we say trans* it actually means more than one thing. Like many other words it actually encompasses a variety of identities that can be related and are bound together by some common experiences and struggles, but still maintain their distinct differences.
I feel like (from my cis perspective) TRANSGENDER people are represented fairly well using this system. There’s ample opportunity to use these charts to say “even though I am biologically male I am a woman” and I think that is awesome.
What it doesn’t do very well is represent TRANSSEXUAL people (people who have or currently are changing their SEX to better line up with how they feel about themselves). I just spent some time looking for a good explanation of the differences between these two things, and I haven’t found one yet. Feel free to share if you have a good one, and I’ll be sure to post it when I come across one. For now, I think if you have a basic understanding of the difference between sex and gender it should be pretty clear. And the genderbread person simply does not address the reality that people can and do change their sex. Not at all. And that’s a huge oversight and a huge problem. And it’s one I don’t know how to fix.

*EDIT: After discussing this issue (and the others) with Sam over email, I have the following to share: “the GP certainly does accomodate transsexualism, incredibly well, in fact. Taking sex off of a continuum where male and female pull from one another was crucial to this. For example, a person can denote an increase in their male-ness as a result of their transition, which, in some cases, may not decrease their female-ness. I spoke with a lot of transsexual folks in creating this new schema to make sure we could make something that would make sense for them as they consider their gender.
What the graphic does not accomodate, and what you (or whomever brought up this criticism) might be misattributing to an issue with transsexualism, is gender fluidity. And that’s just the nature of a static image. Some genderfluid folks have sent me examples of how they use the graphic, though (basically just marking the range they experience in each area), and it seems they’ve made it work for themselves.”
I personally think this makes a lot of sense, and I’m wondering if it is just something I missed looking at Genderbread before, or if it’s something that ought to be more obvious (perhaps highlighted with an example, something that says “this is how transition can affect this”) in the graphic.

3. Genderbread Person attempts to illustrate that sex and gender are not linear by showing them in a linear way.
It sure does! Jeepers, why are people always trying to show us that things are non-linear using linear models?
Maybe it’s because we are all taught and conditioned to think and view the world in a very linear way? Maybe it’s because even though many of us feel deeply that linear thought is NOT the best way we still have a hard time breaking out of the habit? Think about it for a minute. What would be the alternative way of trying to explain gender? A 3-D model? That sounds totally awesome to me, but that is partly because I’ve already spent a ton of time thinking about gender and trying to see the world in less linear ways (even though it’s crazy hard for me). I think that for cis people who have never had to examine gender (and never had the tools to do so) a 3-D model would just be overwhelming. And then they would look away. And then they wouldn’t learn anything at all. Besides, I think the plotting of  information on multiple linear variables very clearly gives the impression that it is not a linear issue. That’s actually how most 3-D models are made in the first place.
And lastly, I just want to say that when I hear this argument, I kind of feel like it’s akin to saying that we shouldn’t speak English because it is a very gendered language (or French, or Spanish, or, you get the idea!) and maybe there’s a point to that, but when you are trying to explain something to someone who SPEAKS English, if you expect them to learn German before they talk to you, you aren’t going to get anywhere. You have to start with what you have.

4. By using small words, Genderbread Person is talking down to people.
I disagree with this more than any other point I’m going to bring up here. I do not think that it is condescending to try to offer an explanation in an accessible way, particularly when so much of the conversation around gender is SO VERY ACADEMIC that people who haven’t (and in some cases haven’t had the opportunity to) take a gender studies class are a) afraid to talk about gender or b) think it’s all elitist bullshit. But you don’t have to take a gender studies class to understand gender, and you shouldn’t have to! Explaining things in colloquial language is one way that we make them more accessible and the conversation about gender needs to be accessible. On the contrary, I think that when we hide our explanations behind a wall of academics, and act like it’s somehow beneath us to break it down in simpler language, then we are being condescending. I know I have a tendency to do that, and I am trying to learn how not to.

5. Ok, but that thing about oversimplifying sometimes missing the point entirely…
Yep. Sometimes when we try to explain something in a simpler way, we succeed in being simple but not in explaining what we meant to. Exhibit A, straight from the text that Everyday Feminism posted with the GenderBread Person, regarding biological sex:

Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant estrogen, and you can grow a baby in your stomach area.

Being male means having testicles, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration, predominant testosterone, and you can put a baby in a female’s stomach area. Being intersex can be any combination of what I just described.

Oh jeez. So incredibly problematic! Where to even begin?
*Referring to zygotes and embryos as “babies” is misleading. They are not babies. It matters.
*Male people have no ability to put a baby in any part of anyone else’s body.
*Male people (generally) have the ability to perform the male part of sexual reproduction. That involves putting sperm (not a baby) into a female person, which, if a mature egg is present, can join with an egg to form a zygote. The zygote then MAY grow into an embryo if conditions are optimal with the nourishment, protection, and support, of the female person’s body. The embryo is literally MADE OUT OF the female person’s body. Only with the support of the female body can it ever become a baby.
*The idea that men PUT BABIES in women and women are merely vessels has been around a long time. It’s been very detrimental to women, is capital S Sexist, and do I need to even say this? IT’S PART OF THE PATRIARCHY PEOPLE.
*Furthermore, plenty of people who are 100% “male” or “female” (aka not intersex people) are infertile and unable to participate in this process for a wide effing variety of reasons.
*This made me really mad. Can you tell? You guys! It’s on a FEMINIST website! Argh!

6. Genderbread Person doesn’t talk about cisgender privilege.
Correct. I don’t think it intends to talk about cisgender privilege, and I think it has a very good reason for not talking about cisgender privilege. As we discussed before, I think it’s primary function is to explain gender to those that aren’t familiar with this discussion (which is lots of people!) and I believe that those people need to have a firmer handle on what gender is (and what it isn’t!) before they can talk about the privilege that their gender gives them. Otherwise, the conversation makes no sense.

7. Genderbread Person oversimplifies sexual orientation.
It totally does. The graphs for self identity allow that maleness, masculinity, and being a man, are all different. But in the sexual orientation section, it acts is if those three things are suddenly the same. So you can use this system to say “I’m a biologically male woman who happens to be incredibly butch/masculine!” but you can’t use it to say “I’m attracted to feminine men who are male!” Plenty of people are attracted to masculinity in women or femininity in men, and I really wonder how they managed to erase those people so completely? Bottom line, if we’re using this system to talk about sexual orientation, we need more graphs for it.

8. Why is Genderbread Person talking about sexual orientation at all?
Probably just to illustrate that it is not dependent on your gender? Like there are plenty of people who think that if you are a trans* lady, your need to be a lady must be because you want to sleep with dudes? So I guess it shows that that’s not the case, but in my mind, I see sexual orientation as so separate (and equally intricate) that it almost needs it’s own page.

***

In conclusion, I’m still kind of excited about the Genderbread Person, but it has a lot of issues and probably isn’t the BEST POSSIBLE WAY to talk about gender. However, if we are waiting for the BEST POSSIBLE WAY to talk about anything then we are never going to have a conversation at all, and then where would we be? I think it is a good way to talk about gender, and it is getting better, and that is important. It might not be particularly useful for trans* people, or people who have already spent a lot of time picking ideas about gender apart, but it might be useful to people who are new to the discussion, and could serve as a kind of introduction. I like that it creates a conversation about gender, and causes us to think about it more.
So how should we talk about gender? How do we create a conversation that is open and allows space for all people of all genders without simply throwing up our hands and saying “GENDER IS COMPLICATED, EVERYONE SHOULD JUST BE WHO THEY ARE!” (which often erases people’s personal and individual experiences)? How do cis allies talk about these issues without co-opting the conversation and selling our trans* friends short? How do we talk to cis people who are well meaning and compassionate, but haven’t had the opportunity to understand something as basic as the difference between sex and gender and therefore view trans* people as crazy or damaged? How do we call out our own privilege, and the privilege of those all around us, without minimizing the conversation?

I don’t have concrete answers for these questions, but I’m happy and excited to have the questions. I also want to share this TED talk, as a final thought, called Fifty Shades of Gay. I think it relates somehow and it’s worth thinking about.

In the meantime, I still really like the Genderbread Person, and I’m still probably going to print a bunch of them off and have fun with my friends filling them out to describe ourselves.

***

It takes forever for me to get my thoughts out. It’s 2pm and I am extremely late for brunch.

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I have complicated feelings about that: when feminism fails, part one

The other day I spent wrote a long, somewhat rambling, post about why it is important for me to call myself a feminist, and why I encourage others with feminist principles and ideals to use the word themselves. The backlash against feminism (and feminists) is real and it is damaging, and it is important that we talk about it, and that we do not fear the straw feminists. I stand by that post.

What that post wasn’t about was dissecting the problems that occur within feminist communities. I briefly hinted at the idea that hey, shit ain’t perfect and neither are people, but I didn’t delve. Actually, I don’t like the “of course no movement is perfect” stance because it avoids talking about the actual ways in which movements can be flawed, how important they are, and what we can do to change them. So, let’s talk about a few of the problems that I see cropping up in feminism. To be clear, these are not problems that all feminist movements or all feminists have, but they are themes. They can exist in more mainstream feminist circles, as well as more radical feminist circles, and they are damaging to us all when they happen.

I’m going to tackle different failures in separate posts, as they are getting kind of long.

1. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

From my perspective, feminism is about recognizing and opposing patriarchy. It is a little bit like “oh hey look, I see a patriarchy! I’m against it! Now what am I going to do?” This isn’t how a lot of people see feminism though, a lot of people see feminism as first and foremost a struggle for women.

And you know what? Patriarchy oppresses a whole lot of women, all of them, in fact! And there are a lot of women! And many, many, maybe most, people see the world in terms of a gender binary: there are two types of people, men and women. So I could see how easy it would be to think that opposing the patriarchy and wanting equal rights for women are one and the same thing, I can totally see that. Most of the early leaders of feminism framed their struggle in that sense, and that is literally where the word takes its meaning from.

However, patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women. I believe that if you are against oppression you are against oppression period, not just for people who look like you, live like you, or have bodies like yours (more on that later). There’s a pretty clear loser when we make feminism exclusively about women. Have you guessed it yet? It is so obvious. That’s right, it is our trans* and intersex friends and allies.

First of all, the wrath of patriarchy falls the hardest on folks who don’t fit into the heteronormitive, male-female, binary framework upon which it is built. Trans* people, almost be definition, are hated by patriarchy. They receive the brunt of the abuse, and often the dominant patriarchal narrative would seek to either ignore their existence, or make them actually not exist. The rate at which trans people are murdered should terrify you. If we are against patriarchy, we need to be these people’s champions. When we sweep them under the rug saying “oh well it’s such a small percentage, when we’re done with equal rights for women we will totally work on that” we fail.

Secondly, we need to talk about reproductive health. And when I say reproductive health, I mean everyone’s reproductive health, not just people who identify as women. I am sick and tired of reading about the struggle for women to maintain reproductive rights. Maybe those on the other side of it think this is about women, but we need to be smarter and more inclusive than that. The reality is that some people who do not identify as – and simply are not – women have uteruses and vaginas. When we make having female reproductive equipment synonymous with being a woman we ignore and belittle the experiences of many people. People, who as we’ve already discussed, get stepped on by patriarchy even more than cis-gendered women do. Yes, access to birth control and pregnancy termination services are important things, but they are not important things for women alone.

Those things could just be mistakes made by well-meaning feminists who just aren’t thinking. Often they can be corrected simply by bringing the issue up. I’ve seen people make these mistakes, and hell I’ve made similar mistakes, and what I see is that in generally when they are pointed out, people are ready to wise up. When I say something about “women’s rights” and then catch the eye of a trans* friend who is just as affected by these issues as I am, I feel bad about that and I try to correct it. We can keep doing that, all of us. Let’s do that.

There is, however, something more sinister that we do need to talk about. I got the following comment on Facebook, from a close friend who I have a lot of respect for:

“But the extreme “feminists” that absolutely hate trans* people and don’t want us to have equality definitely exist.”

Yep. This person is totally right. There are some feminists who aren’t making an honest mistake when they talk about feminism in terms of women, there are feminists who really want feminism to be exclusively about helping women. I’m not going to unpack the reasons behind their prejudices completely, because frankly, it doesn’t all make sense to me. This is going to come up again and again, but in my life, the experience of being oppressed always makes me more empathetic to other oppressed people. What it never does is make me feel competitive with other oppressed people, as if equality were a limited resources and I needed to try to get more of it than them. But there are people who seem to feel this way, and I keep not getting it. There are also some feminist, cis-gendered women, who seem to feel especially and particularly threatened by trans* women. These women seem to see trans* women as wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s as if they live in a world where the major force in patriarchy is the penis and that by identifying as women and (possibly) having penises trans women are sneaking weapons into safe spaces. It probably goes without saying that they feel even more threatened by queer trans* women.

(Because, you know, that’s totally fair, I can totally see how you should try to kick people who suffer oppression from all different angles in our patriarchal society out of your club that is against patriarchy. I’m not sure, can everyone read the sarcasm on that?)

First of all, that just isn’t how it is. Patriarchy isn’t propagated by penises alone, in fact I would go so far as to say they aren’t even a major player in the propagation of patriarchy (although many a penis-having patriarch would like to think otherwise). Secondly, this idea, the idea that ones genitals are the most important thing and make a person good or bad, safe or unsafe. Oh hell. Do I even have to say it? You guys. THIS IS A SEXIST IDEA. It is contradictory to all of our ideology to say that we are in a special cis-ladies only club and no one with the wrong junk is allowed in. Unless of course your ideology is self-serving and doesn’t care about the suffering of others, doesn’t seek to end inequality but only to elevate yourself on the ladder of inequality. And if that is your ideology, than I (and all of my totally awesome non-binary friends) don’t want to play with you.

For this reason, many people who support not only women’s rights but trans* people’s rights refer to themselves as trans* feminists. I don’t do that most of the time for two reasons, I think that supporting the rights of trans* people should  be inherent in the definition of feminism, and also I think that it kind of is. Hating someone based on their genitals is sexism. Feminism is against sexism. I don’t want to cave to the crappy definition of sexism that a bunch of jerks have.

(I didn’t include a break down on the different between sex and gender in this post because I thought it was probably unnecessary. If I’m wrong about that, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to write about it or point you in the right direction for further reading in the future.)

Next time: Anti-racism and Feminism! Wahoo!

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