Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hacking Gender, Outlaw Style

The very phrases “hack gender” and “gender and its transitory” send up the trans theory flag. After all, transitory has the word “trans” in it. But it’s more than simple word association. When wiscon attendees first told me about hackgender, an impish grin spread across my face. After all, what would be a better vocation for a gender outlaw than to hack gender – hack the notion of gender in academia, in ministry, in society… and among friends and family.

Perhaps the prompt shouldn’t be about gender and its transitory state in society, but about the transitory state of language in regards to gender. In the words of Carrie Davis, “Trans language is an evolutionary vocabulary that changes intergenerationally, geographically, and within a political context. Trans language is somewhat fluid and continually evolving. Some trans terms have emerged organically from within the community; others have been developed by science or academia (Social Work, 58).” There are so many words to choose from: trans, trans gender, gender variant, gender queer… the list goes on and on. Yet most of these words and terms come from a time when gender was a binary and sex equaled gender. Certain theorists propose that sex is biological and gender is psychological – deos that mean that trans individuals are psychologically wrong? Any trans person who wishes to receive hormones or surgery needs to convince a mental health official of gender identity disorder. As if just because we don’t think of gender as predetermined, unchangeable, absolute; as something that is black and white, pink and blue. I am not disordered. I am what I am, and the terms I choose to identify myself vary from day to day. I went to a woman’s college and my history as a girl is part of who I am. Currently though, calling me a young lady or a woman is the surest way to get me to bristle. Don’t assume. Sure, my body still has that hourglass figure and having a large chest means that even with two or three binders, I’m still a bit curvy. None of that gives you permission to assume my gender. What if you assume wrong? Do you know how much it hurts to be referred to by the wrong gender? Or how much it hurts to stare at every form that insists you check either Male or Female? Where’s the neither box?

Until we can remove gender as an identifier, as something required by the TSA for travel, as a stamp on our passports and driver’s liscences, then the binary system will remain in power and everyone else will simply be an outlaw. There are certainly people in the world for whom the binary system works and I don’t wish to rip their world out from under them, but I want to shake it up a bit, show them that there are other ways of thinking about gender , there are other realities.

It is virtually impossible to ignore the gender binary model that pervades various aspects of our society: the segregation of toy aisles with pink for girl, blue for boy; the need to quickly determine whether a child is a boy or a girl; the desire for men’s groups and women’s groups. The majority of the population has subscribed to this binary gender model on which notions of what it means to be male or female become more normalized and stereotypes. While such a system may work for some people, particularly those who’s gender identity matches their assigned gender, it does not work for everyone. For many trans persons, there are days when there is a strong disconnect between the gender they were assigned and their gender identity, when the mind does not match the perception of the body. This is not simply an emotional disconnect, but a situation wherein the mind – analytical and logical – arrives at a ‘does not compute’ message upon processing the image it sees in the mirror. A more encompassing definition of gender would, in theory, allow a person to alleviate some of this dissonance and reflect a society wherein there would not be heavy pressure to conform to binary gender norms. If biological sex is not just limited to male and female, then how can we attempt to limit gender to such a binary? Is it more appropriate, perhaps, to view gender identity, at least, as any number of points on a linear spectrum?

My narrative doesn’t follow the ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’ model that seems to be the baseline for FTM (female to male) coming out stories, though I am disturbed by the fact that there even is a baseline narrative. Sometimes I wonder how much my story even fits within the transgender category, yet discernment, discussion, and growth over the past two years have taught me is that there is no right or wrong way to be trans. Being gender-variant is to not fit in with society’s imposed gender rules – why then should my story need to fit in with what is supposedly acceptable within the trans community? Isn’t it enough to not be normal? Do I now have to try and be the right type of weird?

I worry about not having the words or vocabulary to articulate my narrative – to articulate the feelings and emotions, the intrinsic internal sense of disconnect, of wrongness, or otherness that has been manifest at various points throughout my journey. As I’ve come to terms with my trans identity, people have asked, “But why can’t you just be a girl?” My response of “Because it just feels wrong” never seems to provide a satisfactory answer by any stretch of the imagination. How do I even begin to articulate what I can only describe as the fractured ontological truth I’ve discovered within myself?

Sometimes I think I can’t identify as FTM because I don’t know how to be a man. I look at my closet full of hand me downs from my older brother and my roommate’s father alongside thrift store purchases: men’s clothes of varying sizes because nothing fits quite right over my bound large breasts or my womanly “childbearing” hips; the perfect hourglass figure gone to waste, as my mother put it. The Harry Benjamin code says I must live full time as a man (and be diagnosed as having gender identity disorder (GID) by a mental health professional) before receiving hormones or letters of support for surgery and all I can think is how can I live as a man when my body is still that of a woman? How can I live as a man when I have never yet been a boy? I didn’t grow up male, no one instructed me, and yet coming to terms with a gender identity somewhere on the male spectrum means I have to catch up quickly. It doesn’t matter how many female gender normative behaviors I disregarded, it seems I never paid close enough attention to male behavior. I viewed people as people. I didn’t understand why boys couldn’t wear dresses or why girls shouldn’t play with trucks or sit with their legs spread apart. None of these norms fit into my conception of gender and I disregarded as many as I could. The world in my head was genderless, how was I supposed to fit into a binary gender system? I lacked the words and I lacked the understanding.

Maybe I was just ahead of my time, imagining Virginia Mollenkot’s “Omnigendered” society where labels and stereotypes didn’t matter; a world where people were simply people. Perhaps I’m doomed to be an outlaw, always existing on the fringes of society, never quite fitting in. I don’t always pass and perhaps maybe I’ll never will, but if I can make just a few people question their assumptions, then I’ll consider that my contribution to hacking gender. After all, if a gender outlaw like me can’t ride a horse through the city and steal from the rich and give to the poor, perhaps I can just try to take off a few people’s blinders. Open your eyes, humanity, and see the beauty and diversity in gender around you.