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Why so curious?

June 2, 2010

There was an absolutely fascinating guest post at The Thang Blog recently by self-described ‘twenty-something white currently-abled trans-female-spectrum genderqueer and sexuality-queer tomboy geek engineer’ Violet discussing – with diagrams! – some possible ways of conceptualising and talking about nonbinary sexes/genders. One of the points xe makes (I don’t know what Violet’s preferred pronoun is; I hope that this one will do as a stopgap) is this:

In most modern culture, asking about someone’s gender limits your question to the male/female plane, but it’s not evident to me why that particular plane has to be that special. For example, in a lot of situations my geekiness is a lot more important than my projection on to the male/female plane. I’ve even answered the question of “what gender are you” with “I’m a geek” before.

This, basically.

Being binary-gendered, I’ve never had this kind of question.* But the more general version of the situation – of people insisting on bringing sex and/or gender into stuff when it’s completely irrelevant to the subject at hand – I’m pretty sure happens to people of all genders.

Why on earth does this happen? Well, because there are pre-conceived notions of what A Man or A Woman (determined by the contents of one’s pants, usually) can or can’t do (it’s particularly amazing how a certain kind of dude considers a penis to be a better qualification than anything you can get from a university.)

But on a wider level, why gender particularly? Why is that particular axis of difference considered so vital to know?

We talk about gender presentation, the expression of gender via externally assumed/performed means. But the things which we might use to express gender – clothing, makeup, body art, voice, posture – can also and potentially at the same time be expressing a bunch of other aspects of our identity: ethnic origin, religion, profession, hobby- or interest-based subculture, and on and on.

There’s only so much room on one body, though, and so inevitably some layers of identity are going to be invisible, even if a potentially identifying presentation exists for them. And there are plenty of identities which don’t have one: my being a literature student, a reader and a writer, is a huge part of how I think about myself, and yet while that’s obvious from, say, walking into my bedroom, it isn’t from looking at me personally. (Unless, perhaps, I’m wearing my “I have nothing to declare but my genius” T-shirt.)

There’s also the point that ZOMG, clothing in particular has a practical purpose. In King Lear – a play that, when I reread it this year for class, suddenly had oodles of thought-provoking and eerily prescient bits in it that I didn’t remember – there’s a moment where Lear, about to be thrown out into the night by Goneril and Regan, says

If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

There’s no need for Regan’s dress to be as ‘gorgeous’ as it is, and the need it should be fulfilling – keeping her warm – is being failed. (Association of femininity and impracticality, anyone?) Lear’s point is that Regan’s desire to express her status through her clothing has led to its actual purpose being neglected.

This is relevant because well, I do this in reverse. I get cold easily, and so in the depths of winter all presentational concerns go out the window in favour of a number of layers sufficient to get me to class and back without actually freezing solid. Expressing any of my identities (other than Person Who Is Really Cold) is, in January, rarely the first thing on my mind.

So not only is gender presentation having to share space with ethnic/religious/professional/subcultural/whatever presentation, but all those presentations can potentially be squeezed out by practical concerns. And yet people still get weird and jumpy if it’s not immediately clear what sex Person X is. Why do we demand that sex/gender be immediately and unambiguously legible, but not anything else?

Okay, it’s an important factor if you’re trying to decide how much to oppress someone, but if that’s the case then a) so are ethnic origins, religion, class, age, etc., and b) oppressing people is not actually something you should be doing.


*Unless you count the time when I was five and at a party, and another child asked their mother “Mummy, why is that boy wearing a dress?” Short hair + clunky glasses + red party frock = pretty confusing, apparently.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Brin permalink
    March 30, 2011 1:51 am

    >And yet people still get weird and jumpy if it’s not immediately clear what sex Person X is. Why do we demand that sex/gender be immediately and unambiguously legible, but not anything else?One of the points xe makes (I don’t know what Violet’s preferred pronoun is; I hope that this one will do as a stopgap)<

    English gets a bit awkward when trying to be gender-neutral. My very long hair, high-pitched voice, and occasional wearing of a dress signal people "If you're going to talk about me in your inner narrative, use 'she'."

    (Okay, so I'm rather late here. I was looking at the posts tagged "trans" and felt compelled to comment.)

  2. March 30, 2011 4:36 pm

    Comment away! (Were you visiting from the Slacktiverse, by any chance? I’ve seen a Brin in the comments there.)

    The point about people writing other people into their internal narratives is a really interesting one. Approaching things from that angle, the crux of the problem is surely people’s unwillingness to go back and edit said internal narrative when it’s pointed out that they got something wrong – which is a habit that doesn’t just apply to misgendering people but to every case of “This person is not, in some respect, who I thought they were”.

    I guess the broader issue there is that there’s two kinds of narrative mistakes requiring editing. The first is when you ask after someone’s cat and it turns out they actually have a dog – wrong, but not something to sever the friendship over or even think very much about; a single alteration to the mental screenplay. And then there’s finding out that somebody you thought was nice is actually not like that at all, and you have to go back and redraft every scene they were in.

    Discovering that someone’s gender is not what you thought it was is often/always treated as a case of the latter, when in most everyday cases it’s more likely to be the former. (I mean, the number of situations in which a stranger’s or even quite close friend’s gender is going to be immediately relevant is pretty low.)

    Which brings it back to binarism, sexism, and the patriarchy, I guess, which makes sex and gender huge deals when there’s really no need. Anyone sufficiently non-normative to be misgenderable destabilises the absolutist notion that Women Are Like X And Do This and Men Are Like Y And Do That, and is liable to bring the whole thing crashing down if you think about it too hard.

  3. Brin permalink
    March 31, 2011 1:39 am

    >(Were you visiting from the Slacktiverse, by any chance? I’ve seen a Brin in the comments there.)

    Squee! I’ve been recognised!
    Indirectly from there. Slacktiverse –> Mock Ramblings –> This Wicked Day.

    I think it’s not so much two kinds of narrative mistakes as a continuum of severity. “My dad smokes/is autistic/is a furry” all require different levels of rewrite. (And they are all true. My dad is a mysterious and many-faceted dad.) Your point about gender being considered a much higher level then it should be still stands, though.

    I’ll have to be careful about quoting in my usual manner. Your comment software mistook the end of one quote and the beginning of the next for HTML and hid the stuff in-between.


  1. The right to hide our faces « This Wicked Day
  2. Gender and stuff « This Wicked Day

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