The trouble with talking about gender

Simple messages are easiest to remember. Being easy to remember is often conflated with being true.

Unfortunately, the traditional view of gender is the simplest — it’s a toggle switch, there are two settings, M and F. Anything that deviates from that rubric is… deviant.

We have a more sophisticated view of this nowadays. Gender is not a toggle switch, it’s not even a dimmer, with gradual settings. It’s more of an equalizer board, with many sliders. I’d say it’s a bank of equalizers with unpredictable interactions — a truly chaotic system. So much so, that it becomes a chump’s game even to discuss, it’s just too complicated.

And, actually, why do we need to? I remember when I was a kid in the 1960s, people being very exercised over men’s long hair. Simpler times, I know! The cliché complaint was, You can’t tell the girls from the boys!

Now that I’m in my 60s looking back, I wonder, Why do you need to tell the boys from the girls again? Are you looking to match up your child? Do you need to know whom to underpay, whose ass you can grab without consequence, whom you would invite to the club? Why is it even interesting to know the boys from the girls?

I’d argue it isn’t — who cares? Well, apparently a lot of people. Parents care. Confession — I don’t have biological children of my own, I am a step-parent. I’ve never had a baby. But it seems that parents of babies are obsessed with the physical characteristics of their children. This is sensible and probably a survivalistic trait, selected for by evolution. Even as children grow into adults, I find their parents obsess over how they look, even if they know this is not a healthy focus. Better to reward them for things they’ve chosen, such as kindness, hard work, and generosity, rather than being pretty, handsome, or tall. But there you are, we are apes and we do ape things.

So parents want to know what their kids are, M or F, and if the kids don’t fall neatly in those categories, parents can get frightened, confused, and upset. Upset people like to blame others for leading their perfect offspring astray, because the alternative is to either blame themselves (very unpleasant) or just accept that life is more complicated than they thought. That is hard to admit.

I am reminded of the endless fretting about exposure to gay people (my family was in the NYC theater scene; I was brought up around every conceivable permutation of sexuality; for the record, I’m straight… though effete and sometimes taken for gay). It was almost as if being straight was some kind of grim duty and took iron discipline, which, if relaxed for a second, one would tumble into gayness. I think all the people who believe that need to examine their own sexuality, if they feel that being gay is truly where joy, delight and freedom lie, and being straight requires constant work.

A difficulty for the community trying to open us up from the strict binary era is talking about schools to parents. If you say that schools need to change, that parenting needs to change, many parents will feel insulted and attacked. They loved school! The sports, the dances, the surreptitious sex, maybe even the classes. If you’re telling them, no, do it differently, the challenge is how to say that without driving parents right into a defensive crouch. I’m not smart enough to do this, sadly. If I were the character in Ted Chiang’s Understand, maybe I could figure it out.

This is often true; one can “say what one thinks” and feel virtuous, but if, in the process, you make someone else defensive, you’ve lost.

Another resonance of the strict binary gender code, is the need, it seems, for many trans people to define themselves according to its strictures. In other words, many would say, there is no such thing as a “trans woman” or a “trans man.” There are just women and men. Even though a trans woman did not grow up as a little girl, with all of its expectations and social impacts. A trans man did not grow up as a little boy, perceived to be a natural heir to male privilege and strength. Every person, trans or cis, is entitled to be treated with respect, but, as with Black Lives Matter, to say “every person needs to be treated with respect” insults the additional scorn, strife and violence faced by trans people.

This binary cage seems to be escaped by those who are non-binary. They may appear androgynous and be dealt with, socially, in a whole different way. These individuals may prefer they/them pronouns, may select an ambiguous appearance, and refuse to be slotted one way or the other.

There is such a thing as a man and a woman. They were raised as little boys and girls, grew up into the gender expression and identity they had at birth, both in their own self-identity and the identity agreed on by those around them. In a sense, they have it easy compared to trans people. Nevertheless, they are in the history of their gender identity and in the reaction to them by their surroundings, distinct and different from trans people.

I have no problem referring to a wide variety of genders: men, women, trans men and trans women, and non-binary. I’m sure there are more that I don’t know of, and will be more that haven’t been dreamed of yet. Each one has their own situation with regard to their families and society, and has some of that in common with the gender group they have been assigned and that they have chosen, however that interplay works for them.

It should be possible for associations to form within each group, and it should be possible for members of that group to decide by whatever mode they wish (formal association, unspoken consensus, anything else) the membership criteria of their group. If business is at stake, or advancement in an industry, it should not be exclusive; so men’s clubs where business deals are made should not exist. Men’s clubs, though, why not? Women’s clubs, why not? Trans or non-binary clubs as well. People should have that freedom of association. And since cis-women have a particular history of oppression that is distinct and different from trans-women, they should be able, without argument, blowback, or recrimination, to form groups and associations of cis-women.

Of course, anyone can mix and match however they want. There will be groups of women both cis- and trans-, and men as well. People who menstruate are cis-women. The existence or the naming of “people who menstruate” as “women” does no harm to the trans-woman community, and to say it does is strange. There are, of course, cis-women who do not menstruate, but there are no trans-women who do.

A political organization devoted to any one, any selection, or all, of these groups, is perfectly reasonable, and should be able to exist without recrimination.