I must have a gender in there somewhere.
In casual discourse, for example in seminar at uni, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are mostly used more or less interchangeably. Now sure, in some cases the two lead to the same conclusion – in a medieval society with extremely rigid sexed roles, for example, the range of available/acceptable gender performances is severely restricted. But in that sort of case, the correspondence of gender performance to sex only existed because it was externally enforced: there’s no reason to assume that the range of gender identities was any narrower than it now.
In the modern West, however, where we no longer have society-wide sumptuary laws and women who cut their hair and wear ‘men’s’ clothes are no longer burned at the stake, the vast disparities between sex* and gender are starting to show.
We’re now at a place where sex, sexuality and gender identity can be expressed independently, though some identities may assume the pre-existence of others. I have a feeling that I’m not making sense here, so I’ll try to give an example: (as the term seems to be conventionally used by people who ID thusly) a butch’s sex is female, her sexuality is queer, but her gender is butch, a term which, while it may include the information female and queer, signifies a concept more specific than either.
So far, so good. The problem, if I can really call it a problem, is this:
1) the distinctions between sex and gender and between orientation and gender seem to be much more generally observed, and distinct gender identities respected, in the queer community; as a result of which,
2) the very word gender is still marked in popular discourse as pertaining exclusively to gay and trans people (with the knock-on effect that at the moment, anything with the G-word in the title (gender identity, gender discrimination, gender roles, Gender Studies) tends to get viewed through the same inferiorising/marginalising lens as those identities);
3) the concept of having a distinct gender identity on top of sex and sexual orientation feels like something that, as a not-queer, not-trans person, I don’t really have a right to.
I have never had to struggle to have my sex, sexuality or gender presentation accepted. I’ve been misread probably less than half a dozen times in the last ~15 years, and the (always accidental) misreadings have always been apologised for. It took me quite a while to realise what a mountain of privilege that is – cis privilege, straight privilege, combined with aspects of other sorts (thin-, white-, etc.) as they relate to having a physical appearance within the bounds of what society considers acceptable, if not ideal.
The train of thought basically goes: being straight and cis, I already have a degree of acceptance way beyond that afforded to many, many others. Suggesting that anything else on top of that might be necessary, or even just preferable, seems … well, problematic. Particularly as the concept of gender identity as something you enact, distinguishable from (though related to) sex and sexuality, largely came out of theoretical work by and for queer people. The word ‘appropriation’ is hovering uncomfortably close by.
With all that said, I think it’s still worth bringing up the subject. Heterosexuality isn’t monolithic any more than any other sexuality, and assuming that it is perpetuates harmful stereotypes. The assumption that there’s only one way to be straight seems largely to be made by heterosexual people; it’s a nearly-universal assumption that any deviation from conventional heterosexual gender norms (i.e. those of masculine men & feminine women) must imply a deviation from hetero sexuality.**
Which is a perfect example of how for most people gender doesn’t seem to be a concept with a separate existence. Male and effeminate? You must be gay! Female and unfeminine? You must be gay!
The reverse of this mindset is what leads to, among other things, femme invisibility – the assumption that, for want of a better phrase, conventionally feminine-presenting women must be straight. I don’t know of an equivalent term for masculine-gay-male invisibility, but it exists. The conspicuous paucity of, for example, out gay male athletes is an example; the idea that John Q. Premiership-Legend could simultaneously be a manly, hard-tackling, hard-talking, hard-drinking salt-of-the-earth lad and be gay currently simply doesn’t compute.
I think the spread of the idea that everyone, even straight people, has a gender identity*** separable from their sex and sexuality could only help in demolishing the persistent attitude whereby gender is some not-real concept invented by The Feminists/The Gays/The Transsexuals/Whoever and has no application to Nice Normal People.
I’m straight, cis, female; I have a gender that comes out of those labels but isn’t defined by them. At the moment I’m mostly stuck defining it in contradistinction to other people’s, because non-queer genders haven’t yet become distinct enough to have words specifically for them. And that’s a mild annoyance, but it’s one I can live with. It’d be nice to be able to say “I am an X” rather than the long excursus you’re about to get, but I’m conscious that with all the socially-allotted privilege-goodies I have already, a word of my very own can wait a while.
And now, the excursus in question. I’m happily and proudly female, and equally happily and proudly unfeminine. I’m an unfeminine woman. That’s currently the shortest way of describing myself I have: I am not, and don’t try to be, masculine, but I am adamantly not-feminine. I have nothing against femininity, but it’s not for me.
Presentation-wise, I don’t even know what I am or how I read. I don’t know if casual acquaintances assume I’m queer, or what. I don’t know how randoms on the street read me: the only times I’ve had complimentary comments from strangers have been when dressed up (i.e. when I’ve both been making a special effort, and my presentation has been atypical for me), and I’ve never been harassed on the street. (Seriously, never. I feel like some sort of guilty freak for escaping something that’s horribly common for all my female friends.)
I cut my hair short, mostly wear trousers, and I like shirts that emphasise my shoulders. Skirts are for hot days, formal functions, and when all my jeans are in the wash. Trainers and boots are for daily wear, with heels an option when I feel like being taller, but they can’t be fussy ones. I also love and adore my enormous goth boots. (4″ extra height + “You look like you’ve been playing Rollerball” = AWESOME. They were also lifesaving when we got 3″-4″ of unexpected snow in February.)
Makeup and jewellery are strange and alien things – I can’t keep jewellery on for more than a couple of hours, being an inveterate fidgeter, and the last time I wore makeup I was also in full costume as the Joker. (On which subject, if it involves dressing up, all bets are off presentation-wise. I will happily don corset and bustle to be a pirate wench or gentlewoman adventurer because it’s part of the costume, and dressing up is fun!)
I like my clothes bright and dye my hair strange and bright colours (it’s been through peroxide blonde, accidental orange, pink, purple, and currently at bright red). I shave my legs if I’m going to be wearing see-through tights, and all other places get the occasional trim to prevent matting. Otherwise, nope. It’s a pain and a bother.
I have a massively geeky tattoo (it’s in Anglo-Saxon) and am kind of considering another one once I know what it ought to be. I own three purple jackets. I carry a rucksack because English is a heavy course in respect to books – my collected Chaucer weighs more than my laptop – which isn’t particularly gender-coded, but doesn’t meet the feminine standard of handbags.
As to gender orientation (is that even a term?) I like guys with a little of the feminine about them, and J has that – pointy elfin face, long lashes, slender hands, gorgeous waist, and the most adorable long hair. It’s a running joke that if you add us up and divide by two we have two normal people.
Does that lot add up to a gender? It adds up to something, I’m sure.
My friend Rhiannon (of Rhiannon Problematising) who knows a bit more about this sort of thing, reckons I’d fall somewhere around soft butch if we were using queer terminology. But borrowing specifically queer terms seems very much to be appropriation, and there’s no other words that seem to fit: the only non-sexuality-specifying word I can think of that indicates an unfeminine woman is ‘tomboy’, and that doesn’t work for me; it seems to imply wanting to be, or being, specifically masculine, and that’s not really my aim.
‘Androgynous’ doesn’t cover it, because that refers more to sex and physical appearance. I’m quite happy being female. Just not feminine. Maybe a parallel word would work, one that specified in-between gender without reference to sex? (I’m fairly sure a lot of people, of all sexes, would fall into this box, actually – those of us who aren’t heavily invested in masculinity or femininity, and present somewhere towards the middle.)
I don’t know. If anything I seem to be making less sense the more I think about this, so I think I’ll leave it there, with the caveat that if I ever do manage to find a word that feels comfortable, I intend to claim it and own it hard. And, on the way, encourage other people to recognise that gender is a separate animal to sex and sexuality. I’m pretty sure I know a lot of people who would benefit from having a label to put themselves under, rather than being obscurely unhappy for having failed masculinity/femininity for no ‘obvious’ (read: sexuality-based) reason.
That’s the first reason why I think identifying and labelling the genders present within the big constellation that is ‘straight’ could have positive results: more language to help people articulate their identities is never a bad thing.
Second, it’s always handy to have oneself as a counter-example to whatever-ist bullshit, and in this case even a few straight people claiming gender identities could go a long way towards exploding the myth that sex(uality) = gender.
Third, allyship. Specifying what I am, and making it clear that this is me, not some kind of universal, allows more space for other people to be what they are. The very act of mentioning an option implies the existence of others. It’s why I have cis, straight, white, currently abled, etc., in my Me box: mentioning those identities doesn’t erase their privileges, but it does at least position them as things with alternatives, which leaving them unstated would not do.
So hi. I’m a straight, cis, feminist, unfeminine, short-haired, unshaven, tattooed, bright-colour-wearing, weekend-goth young woman. I’m working on a shorter word for it. Who are you?
*A note: by ‘sex’, here, I’m talking about ID’d sex: female, male, plus assorted boths, neithers, in-betweens and not-applicables. Not talking about ‘biological’ sex. For a start, it’s impossible to define – body shape generally? External genitals? Internal genitals? Chromosomes? None of them are as absolute as the people generally purveying the ‘I know what sex you are better than you are’ line would like to think.
**This sort of thing has happened to me, quite often about the short hair, and almost as often about the feminism. (It’s more than a little worrying that there are plenty of people out there who seem to read self-determination and non-passivity as inherently alien to heterosexual womanhood.)
*** Obviously some people identify as agendered or genderless. But surely that’s still a gender identity, same as asexual is still an orientation? Thoughts?
I wouldn’t have had the understanding needed to give the ‘butch’ example above without the wonderful, always-lucid and always-passionate writing of Bond over at Dear Diaspora, where I am a perennial lurker. DD’s blogroll includes many links to more amazing gender-centred blogs.
And I wouldn’t have had the impetus to think about this at all, let alone the vocabulary with which to think and talk about it even semi-articulately, without the continuing company of Rhiannon of Rhiannon Problematising, who I’m increasingly proud to consider a friend.
Naturally, any outright mistakes or inadvertent offense given are entirely my own fault. Still working on understanding … well, everything really, and trying to get better at it. Please tell me if I’ve said something wrong or thoughtless, or phrased myself unfortunately. The last thing I want to do with my vague attempts at self-investigation is hurt anyone else.