Category Archives: gender
Ten years ago this summer, I attended an event called Women & Power at the Omega Institute in New York. I was open about not being female-identified, but figured that the feminist focus of the weekend retreat would apply to a non-binary person as well. I remember being extremely turned off by the leader of the event, who spoke about femininity in this really essentialist way–about how as women, we had to reclaim a different kind of power that reflects feminine traits and values, because we’re all a sisterhood, bound by menstruation and reproductive cycles and yada yada. But as much as I was turned off by her delivery, ten years later I’m coming back to the core message about a different way of exercising power and leadership and thinking that I really wish we did talk more about that–just maybe not with such a focus on human gender.
I wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.
I curse like a sailor.
Whenever a new person joins my team at work, I always ask whether they’re offended or bothered by cursing, because without censoring myself I have trouble keeping “fuck” out of my vocabulary. Especially as I become friends with my coworkers, it’s just likely to happen. But one word that’s always gotten to me, that I use far less frequently, is “bitch.”
I think “bitch” is uncomfortable to me mainly because of misogyny–it’s a word used mostly for women, or is supposed to be emasculating when used for men. It has a really ugly sound in my ears when used as a quick insult. But I’ve also noticed that I do sometimes use it in certain phrases, i.e. “bitch please.” In that context other words don’t have quite the same impact.
When I do use “bitch” in phrases like this, I’ve realized that the common element is a certain kind of competition or cattiness. This variety of competition is coded as intra-femme or woman-on woman, and I’ve internalized it in such a way that it can actually make me feel better to put a woman or femme down through such language. Think of the triumphant femme archetype in a movie getting into an argument with a femme villain who’s done something particularly vile. “Bitch, you just made it personal.” I have the urge to cheer on my fellow femme, crow with the heroine’s scrappy resilience, but at the same time this triumph is actually about putting another femme down. What does that say about the values I’ve internalized?
Pitting oppressed folks against each other is a tale as old as time. Using media and culture to encourage poor white racism against people of color in the same economic position was an easy tactic for elite white folks to consolidate power. Similarly, I wonder how media that glorifies femme competition might encourage us to frame personal success as being cooler, more fashionable, or wittier than other femmes, rather than working together in collective action. After all, part of the whole point of femme community is to challenge narratives of female competition, but acting in solidarity and avoiding societal messages requires continuous struggle.
It’s been several years since I spoke openly about my birth assignment. I stopped doing it, initially, because it’s none of your g-d business. It also confuses a lot of cis people not to have a birth assignment to work with. They need to know “which way” you’re trans, to fit you into at least a birth assignment binary, and that feels shitty to me. This not only doesn’t serve non-binary folks like me, but it also is an imposition of a colonial white binary gender system on lots of people whose gender never was assigned to that system. It erases gender diversity on all sorts of axes. And I get really uncomfortable when even trans people start talking about ourselves more along “AFAB/AMAB” lines than in terms of our actual genders.
But despite that, there is some relevance to birth assignment, particularly when we’re talking about transmisogyny. When I stopped talking about my birth assignment, I enjoyed that not everyone could guess it correctly, particularly those who hadn’t met me in person. It made it more difficult to lump me into a preconceived trans pile. My hope, I think, was that in the confusion someone might trip, fall, and land on my actual gender, but of course that rarely happens. Most people couldn’t pick my gender out of a lineup, because I don’t fit a lot of scripts. I don’t present in a way that consistently announces my femmeness, nor do I spend much time hanging around with assumed-female-at-birth white genderqueers. I don’t identify as transmasculine or androgynous. But I do benefit from the privilege of being assumed female both at birth and in most of my life. I don’t experience transmisogyny or the potential violence that my assumed-male peers do.
Today’s gender pet peeve: why does being polite in so many languages have to require gendering?
I mean, in historical terms, I know the answer. Gender has been infused into everything we do as a society for so long, and manners are just one part of society and culture. A lot of languages use gendered terms to refer to people, and so it make sense that polite forms address would follow this pattern. But it’s still annoying.
Earlier in the day I’m writing this post, I had a server who called everyone they presumed to be female “my lady” or “my ladies.” Not only gendering, but ownership, too! Gee, how refreshing. It was particularly cringe-worthy when he did it to folks of color.
Slowly, queer communities are starting to come around on this language. Terms like “Mx.” are available, and neutral terms like “friends” are being used in place of “ladies and gentlemen.” But the mainstream is still going to Mr./Ms./M./Mme./Herr/Frau/Signore/Signora everyone, and it’s frustrating. Personally, I think misgendering is much more rude than “casual” forms of address!
It’s always one of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about personal data and gender: “I understand that calling someone by a first name avoids the gendering, but my boss insists that we need to address people politely if they’re giving us money.” And sadly, this is frequently where things come down. My only answer is to keep pushing, try to demonstrate the impact (including financial) of misgendering, and hope that the culture will continue to evolve so that “casual” forms of address are no longer inappropriate. Or hey, if nothing else, ask folks how you should address them! When you collect addresses, offer a “prefer first name” choice next to all your salutations. That way, nobody gets offended.
Is there such a thing as legible identity privilege?
This thought was tumbling around a lot in my mind for a while, particularly in discussions of what it means to be femme and presumed as female, but also when cis folks would ask me about assuming pronouns when you’re “pretty sure you know” someone’s gender versus when it’s unclear.
As a starter, I’ll say that if there is a legible identity privilege, it’s certainly not anything like as strong as other privileges such as being white. As a white non-binary person, I am less vulnerable to violence and harassment than any black or brown person, full stop. I explicitly reject any arguments that white non-binary people make around “binarism” putting them in a riskier place than a black trans woman, for example. See b. binaohan for why that’s fucked up.
But considering this as its own possible thing, I have a few thoughts. One is that, like “passing privilege,” this has a lot to do with specific cultural context and how other people perceive you. The two are also related. A trans man who is presumed to be a cis man might experience “passing privilege” alongside legible identity privilege, because he “passes” for a cis man and also “man” is a legible identity. Conversely, a trans woman who doesn’t conform to particular beauty standards and expectations might not “pass” for a cis woman, but could have a legible identity in cultural context–it is clear to most people around her that she intends to be read as a woman, and she is a woman.
One of my favorite reasons for identifying as queer is all about fucking with how we center our understanding of relationships and attraction. In the last post, I covered how other terms don’t work well for me because they’re clunky to use as a non-binary person. But also, I don’t find terms that relate to gender to be particularly useful for describing those to whom I’m attracted. Gender just isn’t my main focal point for classifying my relationships and attractions, and I find it strange that a single trait would be so central to how almost everyone talks about these subjects. Even terms like “pansexual” are implicitly about gender–they just mean “all of them.”
Personally, I use other sorts of categories to vaguely describe the pool of folks I’m interested in. I’m attracted to queerness, dominance, and (with some notable exceptions!) femmes. I suppose I could come up with specific terms for these attractions, but I like “queer” as a way of saying “hey, you might want to ask me some more questions to understand my sexuality.” I can then describe my attraction in sentences and paragraphs, and that’s more likely to lead to a connection anyway.
Here’s my current theory of how the medical establishment thinks about gender identity and transition:
- Gender is pretty abstract. It’s more of a decision to group oneself in a certain way than a concrete provable fact. This is a problem.
- We can’t just let anyone who wants to medically transition. How would we know who “qualifies” if we just let anyone who believes themselves to be male or female access medical care for that gender? Transition would be rampant! (Or something.)
- Since we need a requirement to access medical care, masculinity or femininity might as well be the requirement. It’s easiest to quantify your gender in medical terms if you present as masculine or feminine. Femme trans boys and butch trans girls are just confusing.
- Don’t even get us started on those genderqueers–especially those who aren’t interested in a more androgynous. What do they even want? What kind of dysphoria could they possibly be experiencing? There is very little to be sympathetic to, here.
Now I know there are empathetic medical professionals, professionals who understand the difference between identity and expression, and those who don’t think of trans people as requiring a certain level of tragedy and pity to medically transition. But sometimes, it feels like the profession is stacked against us.
Fact: this blogging thing never does get easier.
I keep hoping that consistent posting will one day become natural, that I’ll be able to write and schedule posts every weekend, but that is just not a thing. I’m being honest with myself about emotional and mental labor, and the fact that this world we live in doesn’t give us enough time to heal and just be present outside of our paid working hours. I’m also realizing that as an ADD adult, my attention span will never stick with a particular project for more than a month or two, and that’s okay.
This blog isn’t going anywhere, though. I have a post scheduled for this coming week, in fact, about a really fantastic book I want you to read. I’m just acknowledging that I’ll probably never follow the best practices of posting regularly and self-promoting, that there will be spurts of activity and then months-long gaps as there have always been. But I’ve also been blogging for more than ten years in some form, so I think that’s likely to stay.
There’s another fact in here, which is that I’m not totally comfortable being “a voice” in activist spaces when we don’t as a community acknowledge the labor of people of color who are doing most of the work here. I recently wrestled with the question of whether to write a book about non-binary gender and ultimately decided that I am not the person to write that book right now–because I don’t have the time and energy to do a full, comprehensive survey of non-binary people, focused on the voices of people of color, and the world just doesn’t need a white centered 101 to non-binary identity. I also think that if I do write that book in the future, I likely can’t in good conscience do it without a co-author of color. Since I don’t have collaboration/social spoons right now, I’m instead stepping back. If you’re hungry for queer voices, I recommend you start with checking out black girl dangerous and proceed from there.
As this post goes live, I’ll be sharing a talk at AlterConf DC called “5 Simple Steps for Trans-Inclusive Data.” This talk originally crept into my brain as an idea for a very long blog post, and as I was preparing to cut that idea down to twenty minutes with Q&A time, I decided to also execute the original plan, since I can’t possibly say everything I want to about how to make data more trans-inclusive in fifteen minutes.
The post that follows is a detailed guide of specific steps you can take to make whatever data you work with more trans-inclusive, building off of the talk content. Skim through the list below and use any tips that you find applicable! I’m drawing from my experience working with member and donor data at national non-profit organizations, but you can apply this advice to any kind of human-centered data you collect including data on customers, employees, patients, survey respondents, and app users. My starting point here is that trans people can show up in any data set, and so it’s important to address the needs we have around privacy, comfort, and affirmation not as a special population but as a regular part of data strategy. Rather than othering trans people, consider our experiences an opportunity to improve your data collection, storage, and analysis practices for everyone!
If you’d like to hear more after reading the tips below, check out my speaking page for more information. I’m hoping to do more “dataqueer” talks and workshops in the future.