|Sex: M is for misfit
||[Mar. 17th, 2011|09:15 am]
Gender’s been on my mind a bit for the last year or so. It’s always been a bit of an awkward topic for me, but lately I’ve been spending some think-time trying to analyze why. I think the narrative of how it’s surfaced is interesting in its own right, but I’ve tried to write that once or twice now, and it always seems to get bogged down and unmanageable. So instead, this post is about what I’ve come up with. Before I get to gender, though, I want to talk a little about sex.
Discussions about gender are often rooted in sex. The two aren’t always inextricably interrelated, but personally I find a lot of my thoughts on gender grow out of my thoughts on sex. And in terms of sexual identity, I guess I’m essentially male, more or less. I mean, I bear the primary and secondary sex characteristics typical of an adult human male. I assume I have XY chromosomes, though I don’t think I’ve had that verified. It doesn’t really matter to me, anyway. People describe me as male, and it’s never really been an issue for me, so… er… I guess I’m male, right?
See, identity is sort of an odd thing for me. I grew up in a household with certain strongly-imposed external views. I learned that in some things it didn’t really matter what I wanted: Other people had certain expectations, and that was simply the way things were going to be. Today I struggle with whether that model is entirely broken or if it perhaps has some kernel of value but was grossly overapplied in my youth. Regardless, sex was one of those strongly-imposed views: I was male because of my primary and secondary sex characteristics, and questioning that didn’t even enter the realm of possibility. What else would I be?
At the same time I learned early that it didn’t really matter whether someone was male or female: that socially, females can do everything males can do and vice versa. (At least nominally. More on this in later posts.) Sure, there might be some minor biological differences, but it was a person’s mind and heart that counted for the things that are important in life, not their sex. So growing up, I was male, and so what, really? There were other, more interesting things to think about, like computers and Choose Your Own Adventure books.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I encountered the formal concepts of transsexualism and sex identity. And I absolutely respected people who identified with those terms, but I didn't get them. In my world-view growing up, sex was a meaningless category describing those biological characteristics, and so the idea of feeling mismatched or that it was valuable to construct a psychological identity involving one sex or the other (I hadn’t been exposed to non-binary options yet) baffled me. It seemed extraneous.
Now, as I’ve grown up I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that most of my early models of the world were pre-scripted for me, and some of them frankly unhealthily implanted. I’ve been trying to balance re-examining old views against making forward progress with new ones, and it’s a pretty uneasy balance for me. On reflection I think that I tend to give more time to moving forward. And where I tend to bypass the older decisions it’s often hard for me to tell whether I do so out of a right and healthy sense that it’s just not that important, or whether I’m motivated more by inertia and an unwillingness or even fear of risking my bases. I’m still not sure how to analyze this, and I’m looking for models of how to understand it better.
In the meantime, that re-examination (as I’ve made time for it) has led me to question what it means to identify with a particular sex or set of them. Some people call themselves transsexual on the grounds that presently and from a young age they consistently thought of themselves with different-sexed bodies. And if I’m honest, I had those ideas when I was young. I wondered about what it would be like to have female sexual characteristics or perhaps a mix of male and female ones. And I sometimes explored that idea in fantasy, both sexual and non-sexual. It’s hard for me to make many judgments about that, though, because I lived most of my young life in fantasy.
See, I was pretty unhappy in my youth. (Don’t worry: I’ll get back to the story in a moment. This diversion is going somewhere, I promise.) It’s a little embarrassing, honestly: I was white, male, and middle-classed—maybe even upper-middle—so the idea that I was self-centered enough to be unhappy with my life speaks to my own naïve ignorance of what it was to be truly unhappy. Still, naïvely self-centered or otherwise, I was unhappy. I didn’t have friends: My local peers mostly either picked on me mercilessly or ignored me, and it affected me deeply. I ended up living most of my life in fantasy: first books, later role-playing games, and still later surfing the nascent Internet. And so for me to say that I imagined myself sometimes with female sexual characteristics, well, that just doesn’t seem that odd to me. I also imagined myself wielding a sword or slinging magic spells or as a member of some alien species. Heck, I even acted the part sometimes. I’m not sure how to tell the difference there between identity-formation and escapism. And I don’t have any mental models that justify those fantasies as transsexual but exclude transspecies, except perhaps that the former has some social traction where the other is so marginalized that I would be incredibly uncomfortable to even consider accepting it.
So the model of childhood fantasy seems like a dead-end, though perhaps if it weren’t I suppose I might be intersexed-identified or something.
Alternately, sometimes people describe their sexual identities not in terms of childhood fantasies, but in terms of what bodies they might have today if all options were on the table. And honestly, if we threw real-world restrictions to the wind, I think it would be pretty awesome to be able to switch out my primary and secondary sexual characteristics on a whim. Real limits on the plasticity of the human body under today’s technology make those kinds of fluctuations unmaintainable, though, even if the cost weren’t impossibly prohibitive. Giving up whimsical free-shifting, it would be pretty cool to be intersexed, I guess: to have both male and female primary sexual characteristics. The costs of that—financial, physical, social, and more—are astounding even at the tip of the iceberg, though, so that seems impractical at best. Still, if identity would be based on that sort of imagined ideal form—impracticalities and accusations of self-centeredness aside—then perhaps I might be intersexed-identified by that measure, too.
For me, though, my tendencies toward impracticality have gotten me in trouble before. I try to stem the worst of them. And so to me it feels very awkward to accept an identity that doesn’t and can’t be a practical and feasible reality. It feels like it would be a distraction from more important things, from computers and Choose Your Own Adventure books to connecting and learning and building.
And so mostly I don’t bother to construct a sexual identity. If I’m filling out a web form, I click male since I don’t care to put much effort into overcoming society’s biases (and perhaps my own) of scripting sex from primary and secondary sexual characteristics, and because I rarely find myself motivated to make much effort to change my presentation of those characteristics enough to call those scripts into question. I do sometimes question my own priorities with regard to those motivations, but I haven’t made the time to fully examine them yet. And so I go along with male, though I find the fit sorta awkward, not unlike a threadbare coat or a too-large t-shirt.
So… er… I guess that makes me male, right?
(LJ Spellchecker Genius of the Day: overapplied -> overruled)