Archive for the ‘Gender’ Category

I wrote in Part 1 about how I came to see myself as agender, and the theoretical frameworks by which I understand that term. This post will deal with the intersections of privilege and oppression that come with trying to navigate such an identity as a person who is perceived as unambiguously female.

I. Oppression

Once, in the midst of an emotional confrontation, someone accused me of using “male-like privilege” to shut him(!) down in our argument, reasoning that my “rational mode of speaking” was a typically masculine-identified way of communicating that is often used to try to negate or discount the input of the interlocutor as “too emotional”. I pointed out that, a) the dynamic he was describing is one wherein someone pretends that it is somehow “reasonable” or “logical” to discount feelings, which I was not doing; but moreover, b) as a woman, I am structurally incapable of accessing male (or, presumably, “male-like”) privilege anyway. “But,” he said, responding to the latter, “You’re not really a woman, though, are you?”

This was fairly early on in my process of gender-questioning, and he was one of the few people I had spoken to at length about my thoughts that I might actually be agender. To have this thrown back at me as a reason to discount my experience of structural oppression as a woman was jarring, to say the least.


In common with most(?) anarchists and other radical socialists, I view gender as a class structure. That is, it is a hierarchical system whereby men are privileged, as a class, and women are oppressed, as a class. This is not a definitive description — it is not the case that what it is to be a man or woman is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender in society. However, it is certainly the case that, contingently though it may be, part of what it means to be a man or woman at this particular time and place in history is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender groups, respectively.

However, this particular axis of oppression has little, if anything, to do with its object’s gender identity. Rather, it is based on how they are perceived by those around them. I am not subject to misogyny based on my identity as a woman, but because people see me as a woman, regardless of how I see myself. As such, I find it useful, as a point for organising around issues specific to the oppression of women, to continue to identify as one.

This is something I’m still thinking through. I worry that by failing to take up a more explicitly non-binary gender identity, I am contributing to the overall invisibility of gender minorities. On the other hand, I worry that by expressing a non-binary gender identity when my actual gender identity is more “IDGAF, woman-I-guess” than “definitely neither man nor woman”, I would simply be appropriating an identity that isn’t rightfully mine (a fear, I note, remarkably similar to the rather common fear among bisexual women that someone is going to come and take our queer cards away if we end up in exclusive or primary relationships with men).

II. Privilege

The thing is, though, whether or not I call myself cisgender, I have quite a lot of cis privilege.

Namely, precisely because I am agender in such a default and uncaring way, it doesn’t actually cost me anything to simply continue to identify as a woman in a default sort of way. Yes, I may have awkward and ridiculous conversations like the one recounted above (an accusation so absurd that the person later denied even having made it). But, for the most part, I am able to pontificate about gender identity mostly as an abstract exercise. All of this has very little effect on the way I present myself to the world, or on how my gender is (usually) read by other people. I may feel like I’m “in drag” if I dress up all femme as much as if I dress in very masculine-signified clothing, but (at least for me) that amounts to little more than a trifling psychological quirk. And sure, I am subject to the same oppositional-sexist policing of my gender presentation as anyone else — but no more so than many unambiguously cisgendered people, and certainly less than some.

I have heard several people express the opinion that ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are not a spectrum, but a strict binary: that everyone who is not trans is cis, and everyone who is not cis is trans. I don’t know whether they are a ‘spectrum’ as such, but I do know this: nature abhors a strict binary system. The entirety of biological science is filled with almosts and admixtures and grey areas, and I don’t see why human gender, being either a biological construct, a social construct made by gooey biological creatures, or some mixture of the two, should be any different.

As such, I tend to identify as ‘cisgender’ or not based largely on the circumstances, and on who’s asking. That is, if someone is just wanting to catalogue the various sorts of gender identities people might have, I’ll raise my hand as genderqueer. However, when it comes to talking about trans oppression, I feel like I would be remiss not to identify myself as cis in terms of privilege.

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Every so often, you come across one of those ideas that crystallizes everything. That slots into your mind like a perfect tetris block, and suddenly everything is clear.

For me, the most recent of these was reading Julia Serano’s excellent book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. There’s much in there that I would love to discuss at length — such as the idea, one that I share, that much of what gets called ‘homophobia’ is in fact a species of misogyny — but for the sake of tidiness, I’ll stick to just one concept. Namely, Serano’s hypothesis that there exists some sort of ingrained, inherent and potentially immutable ‘internal gender’ in every person.

She illustrates this, she says, by asking workshop participants what amount of money it would take for them to choose to transition, to live the rest of their lives as another gender to their own. For most people, apparently, no amount of money seems worth this; or, even if they think they’d do it for some large amount of cash, simply working through the thought experiment leads them to realise that, even if they were to live as another gender, they would still feel that they were ‘really’ their own gender, all along, ‘on the inside’. But my only thought was, “Hell, I’d do it. I don’t want to have invasive surgery, or go through the hassle of re-teaching myself how to walk, move, and interact, but if you could somehow magic me into maleness, I’d do it for a pittance. I’d do it for free, even, if I had some reason to.”

Yet, at the same time, I have no particular desire to, either. This, then, was the revelation: if there is such a thing as an ‘internal gender’, I don’t think I have one. Note, please, that this is different from claiming that no such thing exists. There are children who will never develop wisdom teeth as adults; but that does not mean that these teeth are not lurking inside the jaws of most children and teenagers, waiting to emerge as they become adults.

Furthermore, the reason this felt like such a revelation to me is that I had had reason to think, for some time, that my conception of my gender is very different from most of my peers’. The inquiry began with someone’s offhand suggestion that perhaps all these TERFs, who insist on denying trans women’s experiences of their genders, are actually agender. I believe this was meant, in the context, as a (deeply problematic!) joke, but as a suggestion I thought it might have some explanatory power. That that’s why they’re so insistent on [oddly restrictively applied] social-constructivist theories of gender: because they’ve only ever understood their own gender as an arbitrary category imposed on them by society, and cannot fathom someone feeling differently — even to the point of insisting that those who say they do are somehow ‘deluded’, rather than accepting that other people may have different phenomenological experiences of their own genders.

I had never considered myself as ‘agender’ prior to these conversations, because everyone I’ve known who has identified as agender has expressed, very strongly, that they felt themselves to be neither male nor female. They’ve had a strong sense of a truth-value gap, as it were, in terms of their gender. (And can be contrasted, incidentally, with other sorts of gender-queerness, such as feeling like one is both genders, or in-between, or a third gender.) But I never felt any of those things. I just didn’t care. People told me I was a woman, and I believed them because the way they treated me was consistent with my understanding of that category. I never questioned the feeling of arbitrariness, because I naively assumed that other people experienced their own genders in the same way.

I began polling my friends about their own experiences of their genders, and found that, indeed, most of those who identified as one of the two primary binary genders felt like it had some inherent quality, which I would later be able to describe with Serano’s concept of an ‘internal gender’. Not all, though. In fact, it seems that my own feeling of simply not having an internal gender might be rather common, at least in the sense of being a trait shared by some significant minority of people, and not a special snowflake condition unique to my own psyche.

Coming up in Part 2: Why I choose, nevertheless, to identify as a woman, despite evidently falling somewhere within the category of genderqueer.

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I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek recently. (Don’t laugh.) I find it pretty nostalgic, even having seldom actively watched it as a child, since my mother’s been a Trekkie ever since the days of Captain Kirk and the first interracial kiss on television. Not that I ever watched Captain Kirk, since there were always new episodes of new series, and the ones I associate with childhood are those from the early ’90s: The Next Generation — Captain Picard, Geordi La Forge, Data. It is cheesy and wholesome and sweet, but with space aliens.

Something’s been bothering me, though, and it’s not just the utterly nonsensical physics, or the ideological mallets banging through the plot of every show. Well, related to the latter. Closely related.

See, the original Star Trek was intentionally cast with a crew that was racially and sexually diverse, the better to display Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a socially egalitarian future society. See above: first interracial kiss on television (though for some reason the many inter-species kisses did not cause such a stir… presumaby because the actress playing Uhura really was black, while all the ubiquitously blonde aliens were obviously just safe white girls with a little bit of facial putty.) I read somewhere that in the pilot episode, the First Officer was played by a woman, though this was changed for the series because network execs didn’t think a 1960s audience would find a female commander plausible. This changed over the course of the series, of course, with Star Trek: Voyager even having a female captain. (And, for what it’s worth, in TNG we are introduced to a number of female admirals in Star Fleet.)

So as far as women having the same economic power as men, the show does okay — though, I’m not sure whether ‘economic’ is an appropriate term here, since the show seems to operate in a (blessedly) post-capitalist society where money does not exist. In terms of sexual politics, however, the 24th Century appears to be gloomily like the 20th — and, though the makers of the show may perhaps be forgiven for their lack of prescience of their own near futures — to have even lost some of the advances of the 21st. I am talking, of course, about gay characters. Or, more accurately, the total lack thereof.

It’s hard to criticise something for an absence. It could be incidental. However, it’s pretty hard to stomach a show that tries so hard to be ‘inclusive’ in the ’90s Liberal sense of the word, with its many Powerful Female Characters and racially diverse crew (albeit mostly-white main cast — and, for that matter, a crew only ‘racially diverse’ by the standards of the United States, not the globe. But nevermind.) Homosexuality seems conspicuously absent. And it’s not like they haven’t given themselves opportunities to talk about it.

In one episode, Dr. Crusher, one of the ship’s Powerful Women, falls in love with a visiting science officer, who turns out to actually be a symbiotic parasite living inside the body of the ‘person’ she had fallen for, and when that body dies it has to be temporarily housed in Commander Riker’s body, while it awaits a new host body from its home planet. Yet, through a bit of personal angst, Dr. Crusher finds that she can still love this person, even when it is in the form of her (male) colleague, and not the body she originally fell for, because love conquers all!. Skip to the end: Dr. Crusher sits in a room awaiting Her Love, which has just been installed in a new host. A woman enters. Female: INSURMOUNTABLE OBSTACLE! So she breaks it off. She, uh, just can’t deal with all of this constant changing of her lover’s body — despite the lack of any indication that this body will last less than a good few decades; the other had only been lost due to a freak accident. The End.

Another episode (117: ‘The Outcast’ — Spoiler Alert!) seems like a clear allegory for the repression of sexual ‘deviants’ in our own society. The Enterprise meets a totally androgynous race of aliens, one of whom feels like she is, deep inside, really a woman (and thus, of course, falls in love with Commander Riker). This genderedness is heavily repressed in her society; she is discovered, and psychologically “reprogrammed” to “fix” her gender back to neutral. But… the episode does nothing with this potential allegory, and if anything, allows it to re-enforce the heteronormativity that permeates the entire show.

Because, of course, it’s not the lack of any non-heterosexual characters that makes the show heteronormative. That, as mentioned, could simply be incidental — in the same way that there are not representatives of every human ethnicity among the crew of the Enterprise; identity politics can get a bit silly that way, and I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m criticising. Rather, it is the fact that, as evidenced by their conversation, the questions they ask alien races, and the questions that alien races (even androgynous races!) ask them, all characters are automatically assumed to be heterosexual. The mere possibility of a female being attracted to other females, or a male to other males, is never broached. Not even once. Granted, I have a few more seasons of TNG left to watch, and I haven’t seen most of Deep Space Nine or Voyager… but given the Very Traditional nature of what few actual relationships and marriages exist in Star Trek thus far, I don’t have much hope.

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