I’d like to talk about something I haven’t touched on the literary front for a while: Gender. I always worry when writing or discussing this subject, because “gender” means a lot of things to a lot of very different people. Gender can be about expected roles. It can be about “gender dysphoria,” the feeling of being in the wrong body. Gender can be about the way we see our parents or our families or our friends. For some people, “gender” means “women.”
You’ll notice that my explanation and examination of gender involves a lot of labels, and that’s because I think that gender in itself is very hard to remove from the social labeling system, part of what makes it so problematic for discussion.
Labels in our society are a part of how we define ourselves, not just each other. Think of our great philosophers, and the topics they have chosen to discuss. Kant talks about our visions of beauty. Plato talks about our understanding through experience (learning the labels of our world by gradually defining things with greater and greater knowledge). Labels are integral to our social being, and yet like many of our integral urges, carry with them a great potential for disaster.
Consider for example the tragic confusion depicted in John Fowles’ The Collector. “The Collector discusses the dangers of the aesthete coming under the control of a vulgarian who confuses living aesthetically with being a piece of art...the difference between the role of the artistic piece and the role of the aesthete.”(Dove 2). ( I always feel odd citing myself, but this is how it’s done). It sounds like an odd jumble of words, but what I’m exploring in that piece is the difference between someone who lives and creates artistically and the creation that they make, or the piece of art. It sounds like a difference that wouldn’t be easily mistaken, but it’s one that comes up again and again in literature, (Dorian Grey) and indeed, again and again in our lives. It’s a basic conflict; we mistake art for the creator, or we mistake the creator for art. We put the voice in the wrong place.
Think for example of when we find ourselves offended by a piece of art. We are offended by our own interpretation, and in fact, our own voice responding to this piece. We think the piece has offended us; and here we have mistaken it for a creator. The piece didn’t create the conflict, we (the viewer) did in our response.
The same comes in the other direction when we discuss people, and here we get closer to gender. Sometimes, as has happened to the extreme in The Collector, we mistake a person for a "piece of art"; we see, instead of a fluid, growing person, a flat screen to be interpreted or bounced against.
This is where we get in trouble with gender. For so many of us, gender is a foreign discussion, and as such, when it is presented in a way that we don’t understand, or in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we respond to it as though it is an unmoving piece. We see this reaction all the time to homosexuality, for example, in the form of stereotypes for both men and women of varying sexuality. We also see this with transsexuality, which is probably the most under discussed and growing gender issue out there; in this area we see people who are trying to define themselves (or not) in a fluid way. The word here is “fluid,” moving, shifting, undefined (at times), or moving towards definition. It’s tricky, because we have a lot of people trying to figure themselves out, surrounded by a lot of people trying to support them (and not knowing how), and surrounded by a lot of people trying to tear them down. There’s even in betweeners here: people who aren’t supporting or trying to tear anyone down, but are merely reacting to an unfamiliar situation and therefore jumping to labels that might cause issues.
One of my main fears is accidentally labeling someone in a way they don’t want to be labeled. I am so conscious, overly conscious, of reacting to a person and treating them as they want to be treated, that I try to jump to labels to make sure I have something to lean on to do it correctly. I think a lot of us have struggled with this before, and it’s a part of labeling that we don’t visit very often; people who are labeling because they are trying to understand. I think that this is actually a larger portion of the population than we credit.
It’s hard to be of a fluid or transitional gender. The world seems like it’s out to get you A LOT of the time. And so labels automatically feel like an attack. But sometimes they come from a desire to understand, and so I’ll get to the part here that we might call a thesis:
I want to talk about allowing that awkward zone where we can ask and say the wrong things until we learn how to approach gender with each other.
As a teenager, I got to experience what transgender could mean through the transition of one of my close friends. I think it was pretty confusing for both of us. For this person, who we’ll call Joe (never, ever out someone without their permission), puberty was the beginning of a FtM transition. Joe related to the changes going on in her body differently than the rest of us, and that was something that I think tipped all of us off (including Joe). While we moaned about periods and breast development, Joe lamented too, but in a way that made it seem that these developments felt like an actual disease or growth. That something simply was not right. Joe had a boyfriend at the time, and this boyfriend remained through the transition, which is another point that causes a lot of confusion.
Let me talk about the things I struggled with that Joe and I learned to field together (it was a learning curve for both of us). First, pronouns. My god. I loved Joe so much as a friend, and could not get it through my damn thick skull that “she” was now a “he.” I never messed up intentionally; in fact, I over-thought. I kept thinking, oh god, ok now, don’t say “she,” Joe isn’t a “she,” he’s a “he.” And then I’d panic, because I was thinking way too much, and it’d slip out, and this would hurt Joe, and this would hurt me. Because it’s frustrating when you’ve asked your close friends to help you identify as you want to be seen; and this is where Joe was coming from. In his world, he was only “out” at this point to a close group of friends. That meant that this group of friends was where he was currently presenting as his truest self, and so it was very hurtful to have anyone in that group misgender him.
Now it hurt me, because I would see my friend get very frustrated with me, and this was distressing because I was trying SO DAMN HARD to understand what was going on. I knew that I loved this person and that I wanted them to be happy in their body. I just didn’t know if this meant talking about it (are we allowed to?) or how to make myself get my head around this emerging gender identity.
The second portion is the romantic aspect, and here I messed up too. Because Joe’s boyfriend wasn’t gay, I wondered: What happens when Joe transitions and is a man, and his boyfriend isn’t gay. Do they still stay together? And is this relationship healthy for Joe?
It was a question of, where do I get to stand and make judgements as a friend? That sounds bad, but I mean it in the same way that you’d advise your best friend if you thought that their partner was a jerk. Except now I felt scared to bring this up, because I didn’t want to come across as judging anyone’s lifestyle. But this was my friend.
And right there, we have the confusion of a flat image versus a person. Because in that moment, I struggled to figure out whether or not I was allowed to treat Joe the same way I had in the past; as a friend with whom I could share my honest opinion about their and my own relationship and life choices. This is the big issue we need to start tearing down.
Because the answer is, we have to learn to treat people with the respect of our opinions and questions. That is, if you love someone and they are figuring themselves out, gender or otherwise, you both need to keep talking. You are going to stumble on a whole load of uncomfortable subject material, and you need to keep talking through it as honestly as possible, so that you don’t start treating them as “Transgendered” INSTEAD of “my friend,” and so they don’t start treating you as “the other” instead of “my friend.” It’s a two way playing field.
Now if you’re still with me at this point, I appreciate it, because I recognize that this is getting unusually long, but I’ve got to keep going with a few examples before we wrap it up.
See gender confusion has also long been on the minds of the bisexual community. It’s part of the reason that we sometimes get excluded from gay and lesbian communities, and it’s because we don’t always “pick a side.”
My personal experience? I’m a very masculine woman. There was a point where I thought that maybe I was a man inside of a woman’s body, and that somehow I was just ok with it because of my sexuality. As a more emotionally and generally developed person, I feel very happily female, but also very masculine.
I get asked probably one in every three times that I go out if I’m gay. What an awkward question to bring up at the bar! But I stand by my belief that honest communication is the most important thing here, and so my solution is to be playful, but open. “Only 50%,” I say, and then leave the floor open to see if they’d like to continue. Sometimes it ends up being a whole awkward conversation, and again, that’s ok. In fact, it’s ideal.
Because to overcome this labeling issue, we need to start humanizing ourselves again. My stance is to communicate openly and playfully (the playful part is important, and I may discuss that more later. It breaks down walls).
Thanks for tuning in!