A queer exploration of all things gender

Archive for the ‘Men’ Category

Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

The game isn’t so beautiful: homophobia and football

This is a topic that has received a reasonable amount of attention, particularly because of a documentary aired on BBC 3 on the 31st January. Britain’s Gay Footballers was presented by a young lady called Amal Fashanu, who has clearly demonstrated herself as having great social conscience in examining the current culture of the game under a critical lens.

Fashanu’s passion is not without precedent – she is the niece of the ONLY player to come out as gay in the history of professional football in the UK.

Oh wait. Not quite true. Quite amazingly, Lily Parr was openly lesbian during her football career that spanned 1919-1951. She was also reportedly uncommonly strong and certainly a match for male contemporaries of her day. Of course the lesbian female professional footballer is never talked about. But before I end up writing a post on that instead…

Justin Fashanu, 1961-1998. He was also the first black footballer to command a transfer fee of £1M. 

His name was Justin Fashanu, and he committed suicide in 1998. Shortly before his death he had been accused of sexual assault by a 17 year old in the United States. Circumstances appear to suggest that fear and guilt related to this accusation may have compounded the burden of vicious homophobia borne for years, as highlighted by this excerpt of conversation, taken from the manager Brian Clough’s autobiography:

“Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?”

“A baker’s.”

“Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?”

“A butcher’s.”

“So why do you keep going to that bloody poof’s club?”

Says it all really. One can imagine the entirely aggressive tone that exchange must’ve embodied. But yes, the homophobia present in football hasn’t only been seen in the reactions to the only gay player that there has been any chance for discrimination to occur against. As far as I’ve been able to find, there’s only one openly gay player in the world of professional football currently, and they are Anton Hysén, found in the incredibly minor Swedish Fourth Division. Unfortunately he hasn’t made any particular point of coming out in order to act as a role model or provide support. Rather anti-climatically his father simply mentioned it in passing to some journalists. Whilst Hysén doesn’t express much of a problem in the environment he plays in, plenty of straight, high level players have received abuse because of how they’re perceived.

This is Freddie Ljungberg. He was the captain of the Swedish national team. Rumours flew wildly around that he was gay because of the fact that he apparently dressed too well, and also openly ‘admitted’ that he enjoys musical theatre. The fact that one has to experience extensive rumour and gossip simply for not fitting the cookie-cutter ‘lad’s lad’ image in every conceivable way is rather depressing. Good on him for shrugging such questions off as a compliment reflecting the stereotypical fashionable grooming of gay men. Interesting to think how many individuals would react defensively or angrily at such a question.

In 2009, Ian Trow and a 14 year old boy were convicted of shouting homophobic abuse at Sol Campbell, and yet this case was regarded as a legal first, despite piles of evidence of abuse being hurled with depressing frequency. Evidence for this can be found in a report written by the charity Stonewall, titled ‘Leagues Behind – football’s failure to tackle anti-gay abuse’, which can be found here.

Whilst the survey’s usefulness is limited due to being a collection of simple statistics of football fan’s answers to a survey, some of the quotations found in the survey reveal attitudes and behaviour that are really rather shocking.

“If I found out one of my players was gay, I would throw him off the team”

Luiz Felipe Scolari, 2002, manager of Palmeiras, one of the most successful Brazilian football clubs

“The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football. I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going. I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors”

Graham Le Saux, retired professional player who experienced homophobic abuse due to how he was perceived

“Sol, Sol, wherever you may be; you’re on the verge of lunacy; we don’t care if you’re hanging from a tree; ‘cos you’re a Judas c*** with HIV”

Chant used against Sol Campbell at the Tottenham Hotspur vs. Portsmouth game on 28th September 2008.

I feel this beautiful Husky sums up my feelings with adequate eloquence.

As far as I see it, the biggest barrier and problem regarding this sort of abuse lies with the supporters. I can’t think of any other sport where thousands of supporters chant ‘banter’ directly at players or teams during play, often with massively abusive overtones. Peddling the excuses of ‘it’s not meant with malice’ or ‘such chanting is part of the tradition and people shouldn’t take it to heart’  are tiresome, and certainly don’t hold any weight with regards to racial slurs any more. yet another quotation that sums this up rather neatly states:

“It’s not about thinking the player actually is gay but about finding something abusive to say that’s still legal. The fact that “gay” is used as an all-purpose epithet by Chris Moyles and the like doesn’t help. Most people have been socialised out of racial comments; many still use “gay”.”

Graham, 62, Charleston Athletic supporter

That’s not to say that attitudes of other players and managers aren’t important. Of course, they’re crucial. Just as the reactions of friends and colleagues are important when any gay person comes out. What is more, they set a huge precedent. Fortunately, official action is being taken in recognition of this as a continuing, real, serious problem. Unfortunately, when comparing this issue to that of endemic racism in the world of football decades ago, someone stepping up to say they condemned racism didn’t and doesn’t result in whispers and accusations that the individual is black.

Classical music and gender – instruments, orchestras, and stereotypes

There are fricking loads of stereotypes everywhere you look in society related to gender and sexuality. The most basic things like the choice of colour of an object can cause people to make all sorts of judgements on things such as ‘how you act’, or who you like to take to bed.

It fascinates me how some straight males behave as if they’re all magnets of the same polarity. Also that more than 6 square inches of physical contact with another man will irreversibly lead to sodomy. Just call it queersteria.

Arguably, one of the stranger realms into which these stereotypes penetrate is that of music. I want to focus today on looking at two sides to this – sexism encountered in professional classical music, and gendered associations with instrument choices.

When I talked to a few musicians (professionals and students) about this, on at least three separate occasions I was asked “you’ve looked at the Vienna Philharmonic then?”. Seeing as I was just vaguely musing on that it was an interesting thing to consider at that point I had not, but I now have. With a reputation as one of the finest orchestras in the world, they had a policy of women not being members until 1997. Today, they have progressed to have a depressing 6 women…out of 138 members.

It amuses me that the Google search ‘sexist orchestra’ gives the Vienna Philharmonic Wikipedia page as the first hit.

It’s a Vienna sausagefest.

The reluctance that this orchestra, and many others have exhibited in their hiring of women players  has been pathetically defended in terms of fluffy claims about the ‘soul’ of the music, and importance of a ‘unified, masculine aesthetic’. In 1996, a radio interview was held in Germany that included 3 members of the Vienna Philharmonic along with a Viennese sociolgist, who were defending “the priority of musical results over all other concerns” (The full article on this, and other issues discussed in this post, may be found here). Some of the gems they stated included:

“So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers.  It is a racist and sexist irritation.  I believe one must put it that way.  If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant.  Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards.”

“Pregnancy brings problems.  It brings disorder.  Another important argument against women is that they can bring the solidarity of the men in question.  You find that in all men´s groups … And the women can also contribute to creating competition among the men.  They distract men.  Not the older women.  No one gives a damn about the older ones.  It is the younger ones.  The older women are already clever, they run to you!  But the 20 or 25 year olds…  They would be the problem. These are the considerations.  In a monastery it is the same.  The alter is a holy area, and the other gender may not enter it, because it would cause disorder.  Such are the opinions.”

Men are musicians because they don’t get emotionally worked up about silly little things, like women being musi- oh wait.

So they argue that women shouldn’t be allowed because either men get too distracted by their wicked feminine wiles, or basically that women don’t play with the same emotional control as men do.

I would say this was bullshit, except that they do a pretty good of this themselves through their actions. Let’s see how.

  • The Vienna Philharmonic, like many orchestras, has a female harpist. She wasn’t recognised as a ‘member’, but played with them for 20 years. It was okay though, because she sits *near the edge*.
  • More and more, and since as early as the 1940s and 1950s, various orchestras have been using ‘blind auditions’ in order to remove racism and sexism from the auditioning process. The lead to a 50% increase in female audition success rate. This rather blows the claim that women ‘naturally’ produce an inferior sound out of the water.
The painstakingly slow entry of female musicians into these old-school bastions of white male tradition have predictably not been easy. When the Berlin Philharmonic allowed entrance to its first woman (Sebine Meyer, a clarinetist), she was rejected after her probation period, with a vote of 73-4. This was apparently due to her ‘musical tone’ not being a woman. Funny how at rehearsals she was made to feel as welcome as  flatulence in a lift, as other members would literally move their chairs away from her, as if she’d give them music-cooties.
I can be quite a simple creature. I was amused that these three options fit with what happens in an orchestra.
To give a bit of comparison with UK orchestras, this neat little piece from 2003 gives an illustration:
A random sample of five British symphony orchestras suggests that gender ratios vary wildly: the Hallé and the BBC Symphony may not do badly (the Hallé has 45 men and 38 women; the BBCSO 55 men, 37 women), but orchestras such as the London Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony trail, splitting at 52-23 and 45-26 respectively. And the London Symphony Orchestra, widely regarded as being the country’s most successful, has 77 male members to 22 female.
In relation to gender division between instrument choices, she adds:

And, if you sweep your eye over any orchestra on stage, you will notice a particular phenomenon: women players are concentrated among the string sections, with fewer appearances in the woodwind. They are almost absent from the brass sections, traditionally orchestras’ laddy, hard-drinking outposts. Meanwhile, you will rarely see a male harpist.

To be fair, this reflects a cultural fact that parents are more likely to give their daughters a nice, “girly” instrument such as a violin or a flute than the galumphing, “unfeminine” trombone or tuba. And to suggest that your boy plays a harp might seem akin to some parents to encouraging an encyclopaedic knowledge of show tunes and a taste for interior decoration.

And yet despite this social stereotyping (which I found echoed when snooping on a classical music forum), virtually all professional/soloist/famous flautists are men. It seems like whilst on the one hand a lack of women playing particular kinds of instruments such as those in the brass section will be due to the social encouragement that high-pitched, soft, delicate sounds are more appropriate/desirable/’feminine’, on the other hand there’s still a worrying smattering of old-school sexists smattered around this particular industry.

In that much of the musical professional world is connected through who has played with who, who has been taught by who, who went to what conservatoires and met who, etc. This network-oriented system reinforces similarity. It was politicians that caused the much needed change in the Vienna Philharmonic’s policy rather than musicians.

The essentials – Trans 101, but not as you know it

This post is particularly exciting for me, because of how important I feel it is. Also because of how unexpected its formation has been.

The other day, I was talking to one of my queer companions-in-arms about an idea I had. I expressed how keen I was to write a piece explaining what ‘transgender’ actually is. I wanted to carefully explain out definitions of words and terms like ‘MtF’, ‘FtM’, ‘cis-gendered’, and other terms that may leave the average Jo(e) mystified. As I try my best to be a good ally to the transgendered population, I hoped that my little platform might be good in raising some awareness, and I expected my friend to agree with me.

I was being a bit mentally lazy at the time, and rather narcissistically was looking for a verbal pat on the back, but this wasn’t what I got.

I was a little surprised when she ‘ummed’ at me, and seemed rather uncomfortable about the idea. Her concern was that in speaking about trans people, for trans people, I risked preaching in a way which didn’t offer room for variation – seriously problematic for any trans person who could have a hypothetical problem with what I might’ve said. I’m not trans. I’m not a member of that group of marginalised people. I possess what is termed ‘cis-privilege’ – certain automatic social advantages simply due to not being trans.

It’s not up to me just to do a job of writing. It’s up to me to do a good job. Or I just put stuff out there that it’s then up to someone else to fix.

This obviously isn’t something I have any control over. It also isn’t something to get upset about if someone points out that it’s something I possess and should bear in mind. Indeed, the usefulness and fairness about what is said about trans issues by a non-trans person can only be improved by the recognition of cis-privilege. Whilst LOADS of people still don’t know about this sort of stuff very much, I’m sure there are plenty of trans people who are pretty tired of non-trans people trying to tell an audience who and what they are – either because they do a crappy job, or because of the principle of having someone speak as though they are ‘the expert on you’ – when you might want, er, a voice of your own, thanks.

This made me really worried! I didn’t want my good intentions to go unrealised because of a property about myself that I cannot help. So I decided to change how the post was going to be written. Welcome to the first collaborative post on GenderBen!

Below you will find two accounts, submitted very kindly by Amy Boyd (whose G+ page can be found here), and Jack Pinder, who is also one half of the up-and-coming Indie Rock duo Silence Kid. You can check them and their music out on Facebook, Tumblr, and if you like what you see and hear and wish to support some young, impoverished, queer musicians, they have a kickstarter project here.

Everything written by these individuals is entirely their own, and has not been edited by me in any way.

First, we have Amy’s post.

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What Does “Transgender” Mean?

At first, I didn’t know where to start. How do I explain to people who might never have heard of transgender people what it is like to be transgender. I thought, “I don’t know what it’s like to not be transgender!”.

And it’s true. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt unhappy with being male.

To not be transgender, like the vast majority of people, is just how life is. They are born with male genitals and assigned male. They are born with female genitals and assigned female. They grow up as that gender assigned to them on day one. For them, everything is great and nothing feels wrong.

Transgender people aren’t like that. Nobody stops to think, “what if the baby has male genitals but actually has a female brain”? For millions of people, this isn’t a “what if” scenario. It is reality. Transgender people have the brain of the opposite sex. Brain scans show it. Those unlucky babies are brought up how society expects them to be brought up, based on their genitals at birth, not their brain.

Some feel from a very early age – 5 or less in some cases – that their brain is different to their body. For others, it takes a while for the feelings to develop – as late as the teenage years.

It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to want to be a girl or a girl to want to be a boy… It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to play with barbies or a girl to play with action men… It’s not OK, says society, to be different to everyone else…

So we hide those feelings, or try to for as long as possible. Hiding these feelings hurts. To the average man reading this: imagine being expected to play with dolls and try out for cheer-leading squad and read Vogue and wear dresses and date boys. Can you imagine doing that? To the average woman reading this: image being expected to jump in mud and get dirty and play football and lift weights at the gym and date girls. Can you imagine doing that? Would you do that? Would that hurt?

Trans-girls and trans-women are born with male genitals and a female brain, assigned male, later feel these feelings of not being right, and finally transition to female. Trans-men are the opposite case: babies born with female genitals and a male brain, assigned female, and transition to male.

My Transition

It took a while for me to understand that I was transgender, because until I was 19, I didn’t know what the word meant. Sure, I have saw drag queens, and what movies and TV shows portray as “men in dresses”. But a man actually becoming a woman? That is such a taboo topic that nobody ever speaks about it. Certainly, nobody spoke about it in front of me.

It was my luck, I suppose, to stumble upon an article about transgender people. Suddenly I realised, I’m reading about myself. The people in the article echoed my own thoughts: “I hate manly things. I hate sports. I hate cars. I hate getting dirty. I hate not being able to express myself in the way I want to because I’ll be laughed at and told to stop, I hate having this stupid penis attached to me… I hate being male. I’m not even tall enough or strong enough to be considered a man. My name “Michael” doesn’t suit me. Everyone is Michael. I want to be unique. Why can’t I have a nice short feminine name? I like feminine clothes. I liked those two guys at school… wait, am I gay? Were those feelings of attraction? I thought I just liked them because they were nice people. I always wanted to be a girl anyway.”

And that was when it stuck me. “I always wanted to be a girl anyway.” So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?!

I needed more information first to be sure I wasn’t utterly deranged. I needed to know that being transgender was different to being a drag queen or a cross-dresser or one of those people you see on Britain’s Got Talent with 10-foot-high hair and a dress and a full beard.

I turned to Google searches, Wikipedia, YouTube and studies. They all confirmed that how I felt is a real thing – Gender Identity Disorder, or Gender Dysphoria. And the only “cure”, if it can be called as such, is transitioning.

Within a few days, I ordered hormones drugs over the Internet. About three weeks later they were delivered and I started taking them.

It only took a few weeks for me to notice something amazing: the suicidal feelings I had been feeling, dating back to when puberty began, disappeared. Actually, nobody knows this, but before I started “hormone replacement therapy”, I was completely suicidal and had only two options left: kill myself, or travel the world for as long as possible on my savings and then kill myself at the end. I was going to do the second option. I got passport photos taken. I printed out the passport renewal form. I had figured out to where I would go first: Khao San Road, Thailand. Thank you, luck, for letting me run across that article on the Internet about transgender people before I followed through. I have those passport photos in my safe at home. Every time I look at them, all I see is an extremely depressed version of me.

Transition – It’s A Gradual Process, Not An Instant Change

I would like to think I had a realistic timeline of how long it would take to “pass” as a female. I’m still not there yet, but 14 months of hormone replacement therapy has had a big effect, physically and mentally.Mentally I am much happier, more stable, more confident and stronger. On the flip-side, I cry more and have mood swings. Hormone replacement therapy really is like going through puberty a second time.

Physically my face and body have changed to have female “secondary sex characteristics” like fatter cheeks, wider hips, needing to pee every five minutes, softer skin, less body hair, lighter body hair, and so on.

I’ve also done things that drugs can’t do like permanent facial hair removal (expensive!), growing my hair out, making my eyebrows more feminine, generally taking care of myself, making my wardrobe more androgynous, and most of all learning. There is a lot to learn about this whole “being female” business.

Today, I am 20 years old. I recently moved back to London and since then have felt free enough to try making lots of progress in my transition.

I don’t know how much longer it will take. 14 months of hormones got me to the androgynous phase. I hope another 14 months will get me to the “definitely looks like a girl” phase.

And then I can be Amy.

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Transgressive Gender for Dummies: An Anti-“Trans 101”

Hey! My name’s Jack, and I’m a 22 year old trans guy from Baltimore. Ben asked me to write a “trans 101” of sorts for this blog, so here goes.

There are probably a million and one reasons why someone would want to read, or find themselves reading, a “Trans 101”, or an introductory guide to transgender issues. Maybe you’re grappling with, settling into, or exploring your own gender identity. Maybe you’re a confused parent, or a friend of a trans person who you want to be a better ally to. I’m hardly the first person to create an introductory guide like this but the way I’m going to go about doing this isn’t exactly typical. I don’t plan on making an easy list of definitions of jargon or some kind of handy cheat sheet to refer to when you forget what MtF means. Instead, I’m going to strike at the root of the problem, the very reason you don’t know these words in the first place: everything you know about gender is fundamentally wrong.

Sex=/=Gender=/=Sexual Orientation

First, let’s talk about why sex and gender are not the same thing. Here is an example of a well-intentioned but misguided and incorrect understanding of gender:

Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head!

Sex is biology; it’s what you were born as, what chromosomes you have and what genitalia you have. On the other hand, gender is whatever you “feel” like you are.

 

People say things like this with the best intentions, and probably genuinely believe that this is a progressive framework for understanding gender identity. Really think about this, though. How many variables make up what we think of as sex and what we think of as gender? Biology itself doesn’t even play by the rules of the gender binary—check out Ben’s amazing post about the genetics behind intersexed individuals. There’s your internal genitalia, external genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones, the pitch and tonality of your voice, your wardrobe, hair, mannerisms, and a million other factors that decide whether or not the guy at the deli calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. If every single one of these variables lines up as exclusively “male” or exclusively “female”, you are cisgender and pretty dramatically socially privileged over people who are not because of that. If not, congrats! Your very existence reveals the fallacy of the socially constructed gender binary. You can call yourself whatever you damn well please, but others in this category use words like transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, ftm, mtf, mtm, ftf, genderfluid, agender, pangender, and neutrois. This is hardly intended to be an exhaustive list on non-cis gender identities; the point is that if you aren’t cis, and even if you don’t think of yourself as male or female, your identity is legitimate and real and it is up to you, and only you, to label it.

Now let’s talk about gender versus sexual orientation. To put it simply, gender is what you are, whereas sexual orientation is about who you like. Sexual orientation can of course be extremely complex and nuanced and a ton can be written about it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here, because an individual’s sexual orientation has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THEIR GENDER IDENTITY.

I make this point because you may be approaching this Trans 101 with the idea that trans-ness is some sort of extension or expression of homosexuality. This isn’t true but it’s a pretty understandable misconception, thanks to what has become the generally accepted lexicon of these issues. When people talk about LGBT (that is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) issues, 99% of the time, they’re really only talking about the LBG. The word “queer” also has a tendency to complicate and confuse things because it is an umbrella term that encompasses both non-heteronormative sexuality (Queer for You-The Degenerettes),and gender expression. Personally, it’s a word that I like and identify with because I’m queer in both senses of the word.

Another reason why I’m abstaining from creating a list of definitions with this post is that when it comes to gender, words are personal and powerful. To define the term FtM, for example, as “Female to Male”, or “an individual who was assigned female at birth who now identifies/has transitioned to/lives as male” is terribly incorrect and erasing to people who identify with that term but that definition does not apply to, as well as people who that definition applies to but do not identify with that term.

Think about every film or tv show you’ve ever seen about a transgender person. They all had the same plot, right? We’re used to hearing transpeople say “I’ve always known,” and something about this seems to be comforting to cisgendered people. If you’re cisgendered, chances are that YOU’VE always known what you are, so this makes sense to you. The expectation of gender consistency throughout one’s life is easy to take for granted. It’s a part of the trans narrative, and it’s actually pretty harmful and repressive. Cut-and-dried definitions of very nuanced and complex human identities reinforce this oppressive narrative.

Consider all the ways it is possible for a non-cisgendered person to deviate from this narrative! Anyone can discover new things about their gender identity at any age, and one’s gender journey need not fit cleanly into a Lifetime movie storyline. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-cis person the next time you question the validity of their identity based on the way they’ve chosen to transition or express their gender. Could you afford a $7,000 surgery? Could you ask your family to refer to you by pronouns besides the ones you’ve used since birth? Would you be okay with the side effects and risks associated with hormone replacement therapy? If you realized you weren’t cisgendered, would you come out about it immediately?

As someone who deviates from the gender binary, the trans narrative kept me from coming out to my friends and family and getting the therapy I needed for entirely too long. My fears were completely justified; when I did come out, friends and family refused to believe me and treated my transition like some sort of passing phase I was going through. This is the social function of the trans narrative, to create “symptoms” that are so specific that hardly anyone could fit the bill.

If you want to be a better ally to a trans person, this is what I have to say to you: do everything you can to not reinforce this narrative. Never assume anything, and never police anyone’s gender journey.

Yes, there is jargon you should probably know, but to paraphrase your sixth grade English teacher, if you don’t know what something means, look it the fuck up. More important than words, though, is attitude and understanding, and I hope I was able to at least lay the groundwork for that with this post.

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I was going to add my own two cents on this topic, but I really feel like Amy spent one cent and Jack spent the other far better than I could. I hope you found these heartfelt and eloquent accounts as informative and important as I do.

What Tinky Winky says about gender…

You may be familiar with the colourful, fuzzy little oddballs the Teletubbies, whose BAFTA winning performances entertained young children since 1997. For anyone who isn’t acquainted with this ambiguously alien quartet of characters, or for those who simply enjoy looking at bright colours, this is what they look like.

Come and play with us, forever…and ever…and ever…”

In the programme, each Teletubby had his or her own special item. For Po (the red one) it was a scooter, for Dipsy (the green one) it was a rather epic black-and-white mottled top hat. Laa Laa (the yellow one) had a massive orange ball, whilst Tinky Winky had:

“I keep a brick in here, do not cross me, bitch.”

The producers of the show refer to Tinky Winky’s bag as his magic bag, as the inside is bigger than the outside. Most people who saw it, particularly the media, immediately thought ‘handbag’. As Tinky Winky is voiced by, and recognised by the producers to be male, this actually managed to have a political reaction. And more than once! Oh social conservatives, you so crazy. The idea that a character designated (pretty arbitrarily) as male should carry a ‘social marker’ of femininity caused reactions from quite a few people.

As you might expect, the reliably morally outraged evangelical Christian right of America spewed its disapproval – in this instance out of the hatch of Jerry Falwell (who, to give a 60 second summary of his relevant social views, can be heard dishing out blame to abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian folks for 9/11  here). To quote from a BBC news article from 1999 reporting on Falwell’s views:

In an article called Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet, he says: “He is purple – the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.” He said the “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality are intentional and later issued a statement that read: “As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”

Then in 2007, the spokesperson for children’s rights in Poland, Ewa Sowinska, ordered psychologists to ‘investigate’ whether watching the programme might promote a ‘Homosexual Lifestyle’ (rumble of thunder) to children.

Other folks were also eager to out the purple…space baby thing, but with entirely different motivations. various LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) organisations believed and supported a gay interpretation of Tinky, and indeed specific claims of Tinky being transgender have also been raised.

Now, my point isn’t just ‘haters you suck, gay/trans Tinky is win’. The consideration of sexuality by Falwell and Sowinska is quite obviously backwards in being based on absolutist moralising about sin and delinquency – whilst the support from LGBT groups and people in relation to the interpretation of Tinky’s traits is also pretty easy to expect. But why do people feel the need to make these ascriptions of gender and sexuality in the first place?

If Falwell was really concerned that this asexual character aimed at entertaining those who’re 0-5 years old was a degenerative influence as indicated by his colour and shape, there’s probably plenty of other targets he also missed in trying to protect America’s youth.

“My my darling, the garden is looking very homosexual this morning…”

People like to see patterns in things. In the last post about defining biological sex, I mentioned some of the things people look for in everyone they meet in order to make the (socially coded, and enforced) judgement as to whether someone is male or female. This need has even extended to the non-human secondary-sexual-characteristic-less Teletubbies, as Tinky Winky and Dipsy are officially labelled as male, with Laa Laa and Po as female. There are none of the typical cues from their physical forms to see this however (nudges and winks about Dipsy’s aerial aside), but Tinky’s voice ‘reveals’ him to be ‘male’.

Now unless I missed the episode where Tinky Winky goes to a gay bar and hooks up with a trucker, the judgements on sexuality – whether from under-educated homophobes or from optimistic advocates – rests, in this case, entirely on stereotyping. Maybe without articulating it so barely, it’s clear that people have gone ‘male + female traits = you’ve got a gay/trans!’. The conflation of sexuality and gender identity has got a LOT of interesting background and historical precedent, but it also almost goes without saying – people viewed as ‘men’ exhibiting traits commonly viewed by most members of a society as ‘feminine’ are not necessarily gay or transgender. Likewise ‘men’ exhibiting masculine traits aren’t necessarily straight or cisgendered. ‘Women’ who are ‘masculine’ are not necessarily gay or trans, and ‘women’ who are ‘feminine’ aren’t always straight or cis.

The clichéd statements of ‘oh! I never would’ve guessed’ or ‘Yes, I’ve thought so for a while’ are things that many gay people may have heard one or the other of when coming out, depending on how their characteristics are judged by their peers. Traits that people commonly use to decide whether someone is masculine or feminine can be described as hegemonic. A hegemony is the dominance of one group by another, so for instance, ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – which could be described as big muscles, aggressive attitude, great physical strength, involvement with sports, etc. are all obvious things that could be referred to when someone casually describes someone as ‘masculine’. It’s the obvious, stereotypical understanding of having qualities associated with being male, rather than other experiences of masculinity, such as how some gay men may consider their experiences, or the experiences of men from different cultural backgrounds. Likewise preoccupation with fashion, make-up, and babies, a delicate and dainty physique, and an empathic, caring nature may all be described as ‘hegemonically feminine’.

Not hegemonically masculine, but does this make Tinky like Winky?

Judgement of people (or Teletubbies) in terms of these hegemonic understandings may often have correlation (plenty of men are involved in sports, plenty of women do like make-up, plenty of gay men do like fashion), but it is still hugely flawed, and never fair. The particularly sad thing is, is how much ‘policing’ of deviations from this so-called ‘normal gendered behaviour’ goes on. Whether it’s full-on verbal or physical abuse from strangers, or comments from friends like “why have you got that?”, a man (or someone judged to be a man by looking) can’t go out with a bag like Tinky Winky’s without strongly risking being questioned, and definitely will make people who see him question why, or question his sexuality to themselves. In the interests of true freedom of expression and personal growth, this ‘gendering’ of traits, behaviours, and activities is something I believe should be resisted. Let your little boys carry red bags and wear tutus, let your little girls play rugby, and don’t let these things inform whether you think they like other little boys or other little girls – or whether they are indeed, as you may have judged!

Is there a clear way to define a ‘biological’ sex?

One of the most fundamentally obvious things people might think when they’re asked what ‘Gender Studies’ actually is, is that it may look at differences between men and women… in some way. An interesting question to ask might be what actually is it that makes a man ‘a man’ and a woman ‘a woman’? It’s not as obvious as one may think.

When this question was first asked in a legal context (roughly 50 years ago), three factors were used to define ‘biological sex’: the chromosomes of an individual, what gonads (ovaries or testes) they possess, and their genitals. This is overly simplistic as it turns out that many different combinations of these three factors exist than the two categories everyone was assumed (or expected?) to fall into.

The rest of this post will contain science. For anyone apprehensive, I dare you to read on. I double dare you.

We are all told in school that with regards to chromosomes, men = XY and women = XX. For many people this is true. On the Y chromosome, which is a small, stumpy little thing, lies a gene called SRY, which stands for ‘Sex Determining Region Y’. It is responsible for unspecified gonads in a foetus to develop into testes. Seems pretty straightforward. However this area of the Y chromosome can in rare cases cross over to an X chromosome. If this X chromosome is then inherited, an individual who is XX but in all other ways ‘male’ (gonadally, genitally, and in appearance when older) will result. If the SRY-less Y chromosome is inherited, then the foetus will be XY, but otherwise ‘female’. Because sex on a birth certificate is decided just from someone taking a cursory glance, these conditions may be undiagnosed until the age of puberty, or sometimes not at all.

Individuals who possess a SRY gene will develop testes. Testes then produce testosterone, which is responsible for the development of typically male external genital structures (penis and scrotum) and internal genital structures (the bits needed for reproduction inside that aren’t the testicles themselves – mainly specific tubes).

Before sexual differentiation, all foetuses possess two structures where their internal sex organs will be, called the Müllerian and Wolffian structure. Testes produce a substance called ‘Anti-Müllerian Hormone’ (AMH), which causes the Müllerian structure to regress. The testosterone produced by the testes causes the Wolffian structure to develop into male internal structures. Lack of testosterone prevents the Wolffian structure from developing and causes it to regress, and lack of  AMH allows the Müllerian structure to develop into ‘female’ parts.

The ‘triggering amount’ of testosterone needed to cause penis and scrotum development is lower than the amount needed to make Wolffian structures develop – so if a foetus has a condition that results in lower levels of testosterone (and there are quite a few that can), the result will be someone without the corresponding male internal organs to match the external ones.

Whilst there are many, many different genetic conditions that can make fitting clearly into a ‘social sex box’† problematic, there are a couple that illustrate the potential ambiguity in defining sex very well.

The first of these is called CAH, or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. This is a mutation in a gene which causes a particular enzyme the body normally produces, to not work. This enzyme is essential for the production of the substance cortisol, and so people with CAH cannot produce cortisol. The result of this is that the hypothalamus (the region of the brain which monitors certain hormone levels among other things) says:

“There is no cortisol! Release precursors!”

Various human brains (paraphrased)

In normal circumstances such precursors would get made into cortisol – but because the enzyme responsible doesn’t work, the precursors end up getting made into testosterone and other ‘masculising’ hormones – giving XX foetuses male genitalia. Due to not actually having testicles, no AMH gets produced, so female internal structures still form. Sometimes the genitals of such individuals are judged to be ‘ambiguous’, and tests are done at birth that reveal the condition. Some however look like entirely unremarkable boys, and may go completely undetected.

Another interesting condition is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, AIS. This is a mutation that occurs on the X chromosome, and happens in a gene that encodes a receptor (protein that senses when a particular thing is present) for testosterone. This means that in XY foetuses, even though testes are produced normally, and testosterone is then produced normally – none of the rest of the body can detect that the testosterone is there…so female genitalia develop. AMH is produced which prevents Müllerian structural development, but the Wolffian structures can’t develop either as the testosterone can’t be detected. AIS babies show no signs of being anything but female, though are XY and have testes. There’s no clearly agreed reason or way to decide whether possession of one trait or another is what indicates a foetus or babie’s ‘true’ sex, if such a truth can actually be said to exist.

AIS can be ‘complete’ or ‘partial’, with the ‘partial’ condition resulting in ambiguous genitalia. To quote from the book ‘Brain Gender’ by Melissa Hines:

The direction of sex assignment of individuals with PAIS depends to some extent on the appearance of the external genitalia; those judged to have a penis too small for success in the male role may be surgically feminized and raised as girls, whereas others are reared as boys and treated with andogens to try to stimulate penile enlargement and development of other male secondary sexual characteristics. In this syndrome and others involving undervirilization in XY individuals, however, additional considerations, such as the desire of the parents for a son versus a daughter can also influence the direction of sex assignment.

It’s fair to say that the result of accident or injury resulting in penile loss wouldn’t result in an individual who would be unable to have ‘success in the male role’, regardless of the fact that they have already been raised and socialised as male. This discussion hasn’t even touched on the importance of how personal understanding and identity of one’s gender can reflect on how one is defined. If an individual ‘feels’ strongly that they are a given sex, how is this necessarily any less biological? Whatsmore, is there even reason why choice of identity (particularly beyond the strongly binary male-female that is enforced by much of society) is ‘less valid’ as a way by which sex can be defined? It’s easy to get into some very tricky philosophical areas related to this, and certainly the arenas of biology and socialisation are virtually impossible to disentangle from each other.

When it comes down to it, none of these factors are how people judge the sex of people they see day-to-day. We look at what clothes people wear, their size, build, and where they have hair. We listen to what they sound like, and what their name might be. Most people rarely question what they’re presented with assuming they can easily put a person into one box or another. The questions asking why people feel the need to do this, and why people react the way they do when they can’t, are further huge areas to consider!

†If you’re into that sort of thing.

The Beginning

Hello lovely readers. You are here because you find gender to be an interesting enough topic that you fancy having a bit of a read and seeing what this is about. Alternatively I, or someone else has prodded you into having a look.  For actually coming to this blog, you officially win at the internet. Please feel free to print off the image below and wear it at all times as a mark of your success.

The reason you win, oh worthy reader, is because gender is, like, important and stuff. The big amorphous field that is gender affects virtually any social issue you might care to name in some way or another. This means that it can be very multi-disciplinary which can make it hard to know where to start, and many authors who even when regarded as important or useful (if you’re already academically equipped to actually use them) are as dry and inaccessible as a quantum mechanics treatise in the Sahara*.

I hope to address this issue by talking about all kinds of things. Some topics will naturally strike more of a personal chord than others, but the aim is to pique interest. Both the abject ridiculousness and amazingness of people may perhaps then be a source of amusement, shock, disgust, arousal or wonder. Anyone reporting all of these sensations simultaneously will gain my respect.

*Unless you are a physicist, or camel, or both.

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