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Just Ben

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Sex: M is for misfit [Mar. 17th, 2011|09:15 am]
Just Ben
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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)

[User Picture]From: justben
2011-03-18 05:07 am (UTC)
Hm. I suspect perhaps I didn’t spend enough keystrokes qualifying that I’m trying to examine sex and gender separately for the moment. Sorry I didn’t clarify that well enough.

Modern American society definitely tightly entangles them, and for many people they really seem to be the same thing. For others, though, they seem to be rather different. I’ve known people who reject the category of gender entirely but still feel a physical dysphoria with their bodies—with their sex. Similarly I’ve known people who are completely comfortable with their bodies but reject their socially-assigned gender roles. And of course, there are people who reject both, and there are those who reject neither. In this post I’m trying to tease sex and gender apart as much as I can and address sex specifically before I dig into gender as a distinct category and then ultimately into the overlap of the two. Again, I‘m sorry I didn’t make that clearer.

Thanks for the supportive words. Particularly when it comes to unhappiness alongside privilege, I find it comforting to be reminded that my feelings were valid even despite my limited perspective at the time. It’s easy for me to reject that out of hand, but it was real, and I appreciate your words on it. I assure you: Your perspective is a far cry from the most new-agey one I’ve heard this year, or even this week.

I find that I’m pretty good at accepting myself for who I am these days: sex, gender, and whichever other categories come up. Still, the more I pay attention to what my mind and body and heard are telling me from my experiences, the more I learn about myself. And yet, deep inside me there’s an academic who wants a model to explain it and understand the how and why of it all. I wonder if I can figure it out, maybe I can help somebody else find their own answers with a little less angst than I had to put up with in learning from experience.
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[User Picture]From: akiko_kalla
2011-03-18 12:47 pm (UTC)
Please define Gender vs Sex Identities? Are you saying the idea of physical gender vs. the concept of gender roles? While they are two different things they often get put together because they are so closely entwined in society and for a lot of people. Not that one view is right or that the tradition shouldn't be tested. In fact that is the exact reason I feel more masculine than some males--I am fulfilling a "male" role despite feeling very confident in my femininity. I added the part about orientation because 1. it often comes up when someone is questioning gender/gender roles (although not always) and 2. to explain my point more clearly. Although me and explaining are sometimes not good friends. :P

I understand what you are saying on wanting a model...but honestly I think the journey and angst that come with it is part of makes a person certain in their beliefs. But at least a model could bring some comfort even after the fact that one is not alone.

If you are referring more to a gender role, the person I refer to above is definitely in a "male" role. She is seen as very masculine by others to the point that when I made a comment that she had a warm personality my colleagues flat out told me I was seeing what I wanted to see. I think it also filters down into how they see her sexuality...she is typically depicted as either lesbian or asexual because their idea of a "female" would be someone more motherly, physical demonstrative, etc. I guess. Obviously I don't agree with how they see her and consequently she has surprised them in how she reacts to me. I can't comment on her sexuality because I honestly don't know, but I do know that it is often judged by how her "role" is perceived.

The idea of a female superior acting like a "male" is just alien to them because they are attributing the traits necessary for her job to a male rather than to the job itself. With time they are getting more comfortable with it, but even so they are still stuck in this duality--even the ones that have questioned their own gender roles or sexuality. Likewise, they see my role in the relationship with her to be "female" because I wear my emotions on my sleeve so to speak. In reality she and I are a lot alike, we just happen to complement each other on a few key differences and for whatever reason there is an unspoken bond that I can't really explain--but I don't think either of us see the other as male/female/yin/yang/etc. We just see each other truly.

I don't really believe in gender roles, at least not in the sense of society...again I think we are all both masculine and feminine. When we meet someone who complements us there doesn't even need to be a set "male" or "female;" the two are simply more than they were before. There is an utter lack of demand for a person to fulfill a specific "male" or "female" role if it is a true union; both people are accepted for who they are and the understanding of their masculinity or femininity is both mutual and unspoken. The union transcends "male" or "female" roles because they are unnecessary--it's a duality that people cling to in this world and it only leads us further away from understanding ourselves.
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[User Picture]From: justben
2011-03-28 01:32 am (UTC)
The distinction of sex from gender was introduced in the 50s and popularized in the field of feminist theory around the 70s. The difference is commonly simplified as: “Sex is what’s between your legs; gender is what’s between your ears.” Less reductionistically, sex is about biology and body and body image, while gender is about roles that people fill in society, linked perhaps partially to sex-linked biology but also so social expectations and to personal identity formation within these roles. The distinction between sex (male/female/etc) and gender (masculine/feminine/etc) provides a handy vocabulary for people to talk about, for instance, sex/body dysphoria irrespective of gender roles, or individuals’ gender presentation and identity irrespective of their sex. While the two are generally closely linked for most of the population, their variations and differences can be interesting in the minority for whom they’re not.

This post was entirely about sex. I have a big post (or maybe several) brewing about gender, but I figured I’d start with sex since my thoughts on it are a bit simpler, and since my thoughts on gender lean somewhat on my thoughts on sex.

For me, models aren’t so much emotional comfort and belonging. I’ve tried deriving emotional comfort from intellectual understanding before, but I find in the long run it tends to fall flat for me. For me, models are more about intellectual understanding, analysis, and verbal communication of those ideas, all opening doors for social growth.

The picture you draw of your coworkers’ discomfort in their interactions with your female superior speaks to me of our mainstream culture’s saddening inflexibility with regard to gender preconceptions. I also see it as closely related to our mainstream culture’s problems with queer people (though orientation, too, is often separate from sex and gender), and honestly it really bothers me. That’s a big part of why I want to make this series of posts. But I’ll get to gender and orientation next, as soon as I can. :-)
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[User Picture]From: akiko_kalla
2011-03-31 12:42 am (UTC)
Okay. Then from your question at the end of your original post...as far as I know the answer is yes. :P

As to the rest...I would say the sex is the least important to an identity of any of the traits. Not that it isn't important at all, just for me personally I don't really put it up there with other aspects of my identity. As long as it works I suppose that's good, as if that matters, but other than that I don't really care.

I don't really like models because I am always the exception. Always. It pisses me off. Most people do not use them to open communication as much as they do to stop it I've found. They want to put you in a nice tidy box that the model points to and refuse to see what is in front of them if it doesn't.

Inflexibility in our culture is just downright hurtful. It's leading to fear, pain, and hate. It makes me very sad. I've heard rumors about myself and others and I always tell the kids that if they want to know they should just ask, because it isn't that big a deal to me since it isn't what makes me who I am. I try to emphasize with them that who you are isn't defined by your sex, gender identity, or orientation, and has no bearing on what type of person you are or what you will do with your life. Middle school can be a very cruel place...especially when the majority of teachers don't stop the harassment on these aspects the way they do on race, wealth, dress, etc.

Edited at 2011-03-31 12:44 am (UTC)
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