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Why Do We Have to Gender People to Be Polite?

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.

#whyqueer 3: Decentering (or Expanding) Gender As a Relationship Axis

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.

Birth Assignment and Being Seen

art by alphabonesoup, a femme-presenting person being called male and neutral termsA few things have come up recently that have me mulling over this particular topic:

  1. Some discussions a couple of months ago on Tumblr and Twitter challenging the emphasis on birth assignment in discussion of trans experience
  2. Philly Trans Health being super bro-y, and my own experience of feeling really terrible about myself at a trans conference that’s supposed to be about affirmation
  3. I’ve personally been getting “Sir”-ed a lot lately, and have been experiencing more intense dysphoria than usual.

In recent years, I’ve pretty much stopped referencing my birth assignment, except in private with close friends. What medical transition steps I have or have not taken are basically none of your g-damned business. Sometimes I’m not 100% sure about this, because there are some spheres where birth assignment could potentially matter (what I feel dysphoric about is sometimes related, and also the fact that trans women are far more likely than men to experience violence and other negative outcomes of being trans probably also applies in some cases to AMAB genderqueer folks—the recent discussions by Merritt Kopas, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and others around how “gender weirdness” is policed when AMAB are particularly chilling). But generally speaking, it’s often possible to talk about trans experience while focusing on actual gender, rather than birth assignment, and often better to do so.

What I find interesting is that as a non-binary femme trans person, I default to taking “Sir” as a compliment. I then feel kind of unsettled about it, but gendering me male, as a person who presents femme, is pretty much the only mainstream way to acknowledge my queerness in public—and being acknowledged as queer in public is very important to me. While “Sir” and masculine language doesn’t fit me at all, when I’m presenting femme, I have a sense that it acknowledges at least some difference, however backwards that is.

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Love Is A Many Gendered Thing

button with the text "love is a many gendered thing"I saw this button on Pinterest a little while ago, and the slogan struck me.  Beyond obvious queer cutesiness, I started thinking about what it might actually mean.  “Love is a many gendered thing.”

Though it sounds flip, the slogan really resonates with me, because it reflects the way I look at gender.  I don’t ignore gender in people I’m attracted to, but at the same time I don’t tend to lump attractions by gender, or at least not by gender alone.  My tendency is to create more complex categories–“geeky fannish femmes,” “andro punk trans folks,” “playful trans women with awesome shoes,” “fat femmes that rock the retro chic look.”

Generally, we’re expected to group the people we love into gender clusters, and even in the case of bisexuals or pansexuals, I think there’s some expectation that your “type” will depend on the gender you’re thinking of at the moment.  When we talk about multiple genders, or gender being less important, then it becomes this big incoherent blob of “gender has no meaning” or “we can transcend gender.”  But I think that individual genders do have meaning, insofar as they shape the people that claim them.  And I think that an individual’s gender experience can be sexy, and sometimes I fall in love with the way a particular person experiences their gender.

What do you think?

Beth Ditto Live and the Shamelessness of Little Girls

When I saw the video below of Beth Ditto live, performing “Standing in the Way of Control” with her band, Gossip, I was profoundly affected.  I’ve been thinking about femininity, shame, and femme performance a lot lately.  My latest forays into femme fashion as a genderqueer person have been inextricably tied up in the shame of being a teenaged girl, the pain of rejection by my peers, and the power of shame to shut me up as I move through adult society.

I’ve always been a loud, boisterous person.  I tend to be proud of my accomplishments and sometimes a bit of a know-it-all.  I love karaoke, dance performances, and anything else creative.  But as I’ve moved through my teenaged and young adult years, the pressure of etiquette and embarrassment have had a painful effect on me.  I read a lot about how it’s important to focus not on what girls’ bodies look like, but what they can do.  Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I’m shamed by the realization that what my body can do is not as good as what others’ can do.  I’ve stopped singing and dancing as much in public because of external ridicule and growing internal embarrassment.  Throughout college and law school, clothes went from fun performance to a way to be invisible, proper, and fitting into what I saw as my role.  I’ve been trying very hard to speak less and listen more.  Sometimes, that’s a good lesson to learn, but it also has painful effects.

When I first saw the Beth Ditto video below the cut on the commuter train, I cried.  On stage, Beth is joyful, radiant, and unashamed.  She dances in a purple dress that fully exposes her thighs, in bare feet, fully occupying her space.  She belts the song diva rockstar style, and certainly doesn’t look nervous or ashamed about the thousands of people watching.  Though I may not exactly have Beth Ditto’s voice, I do want to use this video as inspiration.  It reminds me so much of being a little girl, singing in my nightgown at the top of my lungs, dancing, crashing into furniture, convinced that my voice and my body were awesome.  Whenever there was a chance to perform, I took it.  There’s something to be learned from that.  It’s also why cried when I saw this empowering video about girls and body image.  You know what?  I deserve to be a fucking rockstar.

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Hormones and Gender Identity

For a long time, I’ve wondered if there is any connection between my PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that produces excess androgen and thus affects my hormonal balance) and my gender identity.  I would be really curious to see some research into PCOS and gender identity, but I can’t imagine such a thing ever actually happening, because the idea that something like PCOS might affect someone’s gender is such anathema to many people.  When you have a syndrome that affects things like your body hair growth and your period (or lack thereof), doctors are very quick to say “don’t worry!  You’re not any less of a woman!”  Honestly?  I wasn’t worried.

I think it’s a sign of how invested we are in gender that doctors would automatically consider the possibility of hormones affecting gender identity an insult.  Maybe it’s just a value neutral thing that might happen to some people.  I would like to see some research on it, and understand it a little better, while knowing that in the end the labels that apply to me and how I experience gender are my own personal choice and no one else’s.  I’m curious what impact not menstruating, having excess androgen, etc., has on me.

I also find it interesting that when it’s the reverse–hormones going along with the gender everyone assumes you are–those hormones are celebrated and praised.  Whoo hoo, all women menstruate, blood is the tie that binds us, we all understand that monthly “curse,” and other variations that I am oh so sick of.  When I identified as a woman, I found that refrain extremely isolating.  Now, it’s more of a physical confirmation that I’m not female, and I’m okay with it.  But it doesn’t really mean anything, nor should it.  Same deal with hormones, which are the explanation for pretty much everything under the sun when it comes to women.  I don’t think it’s all that simple.

Policy Perspective: Do Gender Differences Exist?

In my last post, I asked the theoretical question, do gender differences exist?  I concluded that there are observable trends that group people more-or-less by gender, but that identifying with a particular gender doesn’t mean that one identifies with every trait society assigns to that gender, and that gender categorization can be damaging both to those who do and do not identify as male or female.

Next, I’d like to consider the policy implications of the question.

The challenge here is to question whether gender differences have any utility from a policy perspective, while still respecting the lived experiences and claimed identities of those who identify as male or female.  I can say that gender differences are illusory, that the “box” created by a lump of traits is in many ways artificial, and that the weight put on certain traits such as secondary sex characteristics and hormones obscures the actual diversity that exists in our society.  But while saying this, I have to recognize that the categories “male” and “female” do mean something for many people, perhaps most, and that these categories can be useful when setting policy, organizing, or doing activist work.

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WAM!It Yourself Blogathon: The Case Against a Battle of the Sexes

Have you been keeping up with the WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) It Yourself unconference this week?  Today is the last day of the Blogathon and we’re talking about various aspects of gender and the media.  My post for this event focuses on the idea of the “battle of the sexes” and why it presents such a barrier to feminism and gender activism in media.

I got this idea from watching the first few episodes of Celebrity Apprentice Season Four, an endeavor I do not necessarily recommend to my readers.  I started watching because my favorite actress, Marlee Matlin, is on the show, and of course it’s not too surprising that a show like this would piss me off with all its ableism and misogyny.  I do think it provides an interesting example, though, of one place where reality TV consistently goes wrong–and it’s not just reality TV.

A battle of the sexes is supposed to be fun, funny, and rile up the audience.  Everyone can root for “their” team, and it’s a clear dividing line that we’re all used to in this society.  You can even make an argument that in this modern, “post-feminist” world, the battle of the sexes is updated and consistent with feminist goals.  Many of the shows that use a battle of the sexes have a strong female team, the women tend to be intelligent and kick ass, and the female viewership supposedly gets excited about this and ratings go up.

But something is seriously wrong with this picture.

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International Women’s Day: Equal Access to Meaningful Education

Yes, yet another post from me on International Women’s Day!

Gender Across Borders, the phenomenal blog where I write a monthly column on gender, sexuality, and law, is asking readers to blog today about the UN’s official IWD theme and answer the question: “What does it mean to have equal access to education, training and science and technology for women, and how do we get there?”

I’d like to take on the question of equal education, because it’s something that’s directly relevant to my life, and I’d like to look at a somewhat less-blogged-about facet of the problem.  There are tons of great blog posts about how to solve the problems of women having no access to schooling, or less access to schooling than men, or less access to particular disciplines.  These are the basic problems and we can’t go anywhere until we solve them.  But I’d like to look at the next step, based on some of my own experiences.

If we look at education in terms of the simple question, do men and women both have a chance to go to school and perform well, I honestly don’t have much to talk about.  I was lucky enough to live in an area where going to school was a given, and I never really noticed gender-based discrimination in school.  I graduated from college and law school with honors and awards.  But equal access is not that simple.  Equal access also means:

  • Access to a broad range of concentrations and skills. When you think about education, you have to think about who writes the curricula and who decides what classes are taught.  I had no access to women’s studies, queer studies, sociology, anthropology, development studies, cultural studies, Black studies, native studies, or Latino/a studies courses before college.  Many women don’t have access to much more basic classes in math, science, or computer skills.  Certain skills also may be easier to learn for men after formal studies–networking, business skills, and public speaking might be more commonly transferred in “boys’ clubs,” whereas women area at a disadvantage when these skills aren’t taught in school.
  • Access to different ways of thinking within an area of study. Within the courses I did take in high school and college, I rarely had a chance to explore differing perspectives.  Feminist perspectives were never brought up in school, nor were POC perspectives.  I read few authors from the Global South.  Disability was rarely mentioned.  Queer perspectives, including non-binary ideas of gender, were never discussed.  History, literature, civics, etc. were taught from the perspective of dead white guys.  Alternative methods of teaching, study, and expression were also discouraged.  Poetry is a valid form of communication.  So is song.  So is activism.  So is art.  So is digital media.
  • Being treated as a subject, not an object. The education I received tended to subtly place students as objects, not subjects of their learning.  Sometimes, this was general–learning was received, not participatory in many cases.  But other times it was felt more strongly by certain groups in the classroom.  White, straight, male views were presented as “mainstream.”  Unique ideas were not discussed and debated in the classroom.  If not objectified, minorities were marginalized and made invisible–queer people, for example, did not appear in the books I read.  Relationships were assumed to be heterosexual.  Everyone was assumed to have a gender.  And yes, the male pronoun was often used to refer to doctors, lawyers, and politicians.
  • Presenting a diverse picture of womanhood. I was thinking about my American literature course in 11th grade, and though we had a really phenomenal teacher, I can only recall three female authors that we read in that class.  Two of those were white, one was Black.  We didn’t read any Native American, Asian American, queer, or Latino/a authors in that class.  Just as “man” is understood to mean “white man” in mainstream academics, so too is “woman” understood to mean “middle class white woman.”  Nor were alternative pictures of womanhood really presented.  The concept of “femininity” was never challenged.
  • Basic resources and support outside the classroom. This is something I was lucky enough to have in my own experience, but I want to mention it because I think that many women do have access to education, but are hampered in their academic performance by poverty, by lack of mentorship or support after school, by difficulties in getting healthy meals or enough sleep, by the need to work while going to school.  Female poverty, young motherhood, and many governments’ absolute failure to support their citizens must be addressed if education is to be effective.
  • Focus on barriers that affect women disproportionately. Equal access is impossible when boys are socialized to harass, coerce, and rape women.  Equal access is impossible when youth who transgress gender norms are threatened, terrorized, and beaten in their schools and communities.  Equal access is impossible when pregnant teenagers are ignored and written off, and when young women are denied access to comprehensive sex education, contraception, reproductive health services, and abortion.  Sex education is an issue regardless of gender, but the lack disproportionately harms those who are able to bear children because of the stigma against pregnant teens and the practical challenge that these teenagers face.  It also disproportionately harms women and queer people in general because no sex education means no education in consent, no education against harassment, and no education in respecting gender and sexual minorities.  Members of these groups live in fear and find it difficult to learn as a direct result of this lack.
  • Creating safe spaces and providing mentors. I have heard of some really amazing projects in a number of cities that provide safe spaces for young women and for particular groups such as girls of color, immigrant girls, and queer kids and adolescents.  We need more of these, and we need them in every locality, in every country.  Most young women I know have never experienced a safe space.  I have been in one once, and I ended up crying from both joy and relief.  Such spaces and groups act as a refuge for kids and teens who feel ostracized.  While boys are encouraged to group around their talents as athletes, girls’ groups tend to focus on frivolity.  This grossly underestimates the ability of girls as thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creative forces.  Similarly, adults need to step in as mentors to young women, providing positive role models where there have typically been none.
  • Not using gender as a factor in how students are taught and socialized. My final point speaks to my own experience as a person outside of the gender binary, and to a long and ongoing struggle to find myself in a binary world.  The question posed to us was about women, but I think that equal access goes beyond that.  It gets at the heart of a huge problem–the way we are socialized into two genders, as men and women, according to cultural norms, early in our education, and then taught as men and women for the rest of our lives.  Not only are women harmed by being taught in a different way from men, but we are all harmed by the way we are labeled as men or women and then shoved into an educational box.  We can talk about how education privileges male forms of communication, but it also teaches us those forms from an early age, and teaches them as male-appropriate.  This is a disservice to the immense creativity, ingenuity, and diversity of the human race.

Alternatives to Strength and Anger

I hear a lot in feminist circles about strength.  Strength is a value that’s really embraced in feminism, along with independence and anger.  And of course, women do have a great big right to be angry.  The stereotype that women should be soft, weak, sweet, submissive, etc., does a great injustice to an entire gender.  But feminism is also, as I see it, about recognizing a wide range of possible behaviors that doesn’t depend on gender.  It’s about safe space.  And for me, it’s much more important to have a space in which it is safe to be soft, sweet, and react to negative events with sadness and a need for protection than it is to have the right to be angry.

The fact is, not everyone feels anger.  And no one has a responsibility to feel angry, to be strong, or to be independent.  You’re not a bad feminist if you just can’t react that way.  It’s okay to depend on other people for support, reassurance, and even protection.  If someone threatens you, gets in your personal space, or uses innuendos that make you feel uncomfortable, you’re not a bad person if you can’t “handle it” on your own.  My reaction in such a situation is to freeze, and to feel embarrassed and sad.  And that’s okay.  For a long time, I thought that I needed to work towards instead feeling angry, getting hostile, and yelling at the person in question.  But that communication style goes against my personal values.  I don’t really want to confront anyone.  I want the world to be a place that’s safe enough that I don’t have to.

Of course, the world isn’t that place now.  But I would honestly rather be harmed or attacked than I would go against my values and my personality in an attempt to defend myself.  My pacifism and my conviction that my communication style is 100% as valid as the alternatives are worth sticking up for.  In the mean time, I’m going to keep working to educate those who aren’t familiar with radical feminism about how to make the world a safer place, and I’m going to keep working with my own process of feeling proud of myself as a somewhat shy, anxious, sweet person who needs a little protecting from time to time.