Gender as advertising

Responsible Gender

gender as advertising.

callan williams, copyright 11/11/99

Our gendered expressions -- from clothes to language to behavior to adornment -- are all external symbols of who we believe ourselves to be inside. Gender is a language we use to communicate who we are to other people.

Our knowledge of who we are includes both who we are trained to be, the lessons we have learned about how to behave, and who we have learned ourselves to be, the lessons we have learned by examining our own heart and our own calling. Both of these things, our training and our own discoveries, are present in every human.

We use the language we are trained in to express both our training and our discoveries. Our training shapes our discoveries about ourselves by shaping our range of vision and the way we can communicate and store what we discover about ourselves. As social beings, we think in the language we were raised in, and that language affects the questions we ask about ourselves and how we pursue the answers to those questions.

Because gender is a language with which we communicate -- advertise -- who we know ourselves to be and the role we are trained and willing to play, it has the same requirements of any language. The most important requirement is simple: it is important for symbols to have relatively well defined meanings so that both sender and receiver understand the message.

This is the pressure of gender, the pressure be who others believe we advertise ourselves to be. This may mean being properly trained, being willing to take the role, or even being appropriately sexed for our gendered expression. Gender pressure is about truth in advertising, truth required in a world where the range of what can be advertised is limited by the range of common gender expression.

We respond to the pressure of gender in two ways. We both find new ways to express our individuality and we find ways to conform ourselves to the expectations that go along with gender expression. We both become what we advertise ourselves to be and try to change our advertising to what reflects who we know ourselves to be. This is very hard when there is no language for who we know ourselves to be.

The process of creating a gender expression is the process of casting about in the living dictionary of humans we see around us for symbols that appeal to us, for the symbols that have the meanings we want in the culture we live in. Those symbols and their meanings change over time and across cultures, so the language to convey an idea in one time and place may be very different from in another.

Some of the expression we create is about who we are, but some of it is about expressing our desires. We do this by looking at who or what we desire, seeing how those people or places are attracted, and then shaping our expression to attract what we desire.

This shaping of gender expression to be attractive, to attain the objects of our desire, is the primary way that gender is used as a tool for socialization and assimilation of individuals. By having the requirement to be attractive to others, we have the requirement to shape ourselves in ways that are socially normative.

The primary gendered expression of attraction is about sex partners, but it is not limited to that. We also craft gendered expression to attract business partners, economic partners, and social partners. We try to be an attractive as an employee, as a wife or husband (as distinct from a lover) and as a friend or acquaintance. The demands for gendered expression to be a member of the ladies who lunch or one of the guys at the game is as strong or stronger as the demands for attracting lovers.

The notion of gendered expression as primary to creating the relationships that we need is at the heart of the stigma against transgressing gender roles. When people are connected with us, they feel that connection is based on who we expressed ourselves to be (advertised ourselves to be) and how we deliver on what they see as the implicit promises of our gendered expression.

This delivery can range from the man who feels any woman in a short skirt is advertising sexual availability to the woman who is distressed when her husband reveals a transgender nature, to many other examples. In each of these cases, people feel that a promise made in gender is broken, even if that promise is as simple that people who look like women are born female.

The challenge transgendered people face is a simple marketing challenge: how do we adapt ourselves to deliver on the advertising promises that attract us, or are attractive to the people we desire, and how to we create new expressions, new language, that expresses who we are inside to people?

This is the challenge of any movement of gender change. The women's movement has struck out to find new ways of being a woman, to find new expressions to code those ways, and then to make those new expressions widely shared. It is a struggle to shape gendered expression by both changing that expression and changing the shared perception of that expression.

Since gender expression is metaphoric & symbolic, not literal, it is almost impossible to define what a gender is or what a gender expression means in text. The challenge is as difficult as describing the taste of a wine, so we use the same techniques, extending metaphors to describe. When we don't share a wide enough range of metaphors, this becomes difficult -- how could we explain the difference in the tastes of a range of wines to someone who had only tasted one wine in their life? Could we say more than it was red or white?

The other option, of course, is the costume, where we are clear that we are not what we are advertising ourselves to be. A sailor may wear a sailor uniform because he is a sailor, but an actor who wears a sailor costume is just an actor. The line between outfit and costume is the line between packaging and content -- if our skills and rank and standing matches our outfit, we are seen as "real," otherwise, we are in a costume.

In this culture, the term "crossdressing" marks "costume": someone wearing something that did not accurately convey who they "really" are, where the packaging didn't match the contents.

A fundamental belief in transgender is that whatever expression someone chooses to adopt does tell you something about the contents of their character. Transgender acknowledges that we often have facets of our character that seem contradictory on the surface, but are real. Until one has tasted sweet and sour pork, though, those contradictions seem to erase each other rather than compliment each other.

When someone advertises themselves as hot and cool, soft and sharp, corny and hip at the same time, it can be hard for those messages not to just create noise and cancel each other out -- the same as when someone calls themselves woman and male at the same time.

In communications, most strive to eliminate noise -- side signals that interfere with the reception of the primary message -- but often, those side signals are packed with nuance and information. People raised in a slower time often see MTV as very noisy, but those who have learned to take in the messages just see the communications as having higher bandwidth. What we don't understand we throw out as noise, even if it contains the most important part of the message.

Learning to listen to the noise and make sense of it, to find the information in the side channels is a challenge. Advertisers know that most people don't want to take the time or energy to do that, so they simplify the message, oversimplify the message.

When you try to be too many things at once
most people can't pick out the threads
only hearing noise & conflict
and not what you want to say.
The question must be asked:
nuance or noise?

These challenges of noise, of having others hear what we say, is the challenge of advertising gender. Do we oversimplify who we are so we fit in what they expect to hear and they hear us, or so we narrowcast complex symbols, assuming that the small number of people who can get the message are the ones we want to talk to? Do we shape ourselves to fit expectations, with just a little twist, or do we work to break expectations and explain who we are in complex new ways?

We hate being told who we have to be, but we love fitting in. Identitity politics is about communicating with people like us, be that women, lesbians or, for guys, cheeseheads -- packer fans. We don't like people to question our validity (packaging/content), but we love to have others challenged

As we get old, our desires drop and our learning increases, we become more ourselves

The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party,
when the masks are dropped.
Arthur Schopenauer

Claim & substantiation

To come together politically, we have to be willing to let go of our words. Political change requires telling our stories that allow connection with the stories of others. We have to be willing to change our words to allow room for them to interlock with others. I told Fran's story in my words, and she thought it was great, but she couldn't make the effort to accept those new words as her own, words that honored her story and gave it a way to connect with my story.


Responsible Gender
Callan Williams Copyright 1997

The Question

Do we, as individuals, have the responsibility to pick a gender? Is the notion of living in a gender free world a dream to be chased, or a folly to be avoided?

Is the goal of gender queers to become gender free, eradicating the whole notion of gender, or simply to change the context of gender so that gender is chosen and asserted rather than assigned by others? Is the issue the end of gender, or the end of compulsory gender

Gender: A Social Dance

Humans are social animals. There is only one human nature, and we all share it.

To me, gender is a social dance that describes, in some way, how we relate to others. Gender is a shared social construct, and to not engage that construct is to not engage in the society that created it. To not engage society is to abdicate our place in it, abdicate our responsibility to create change, abdicate our responsibility to give back to the culture that has nurtured us, a tapestry of culture in which we form a thread.

If we had no need to communicate with others, if we were free floating spirits we would not need to symbolize our essence with gender cues, not need to interact with each other in gender roles. Anyone can have a free and open mind, heart, spirit, but when we have to interact with each other we must become solid, clear, defined.

Everyone is beyond gender in a spiritual sense. What gender are you when you are sleeping? We don't live only in an infinite world of spirit, we live in a finite world of meat. We can't communicate thoughts and nuance telepathically, we have to embody and manifest the contents of our spirit to operate in society.

To me, gender a series of cues to say is where we stand in the circle of life. When we are alone, we are the whole circle. If you are alone on a desert island, who decides that building shelter is men's work, gathering food is women's work? When we are in relationship, any kind of relationship, we have to stake our position, offer our gifts, and gender is a system that we have created for labeling and balancing the gifts and desires we bring to the shared table, the whole circle.

Some see gender as some sort of inner essence. I see gender as a social system that includes gender cues (like clothes) gender choices (like language) and gender roles (like expectations) that is a shared way of communicating who we are. In that case, you gotta play or be out of culture, and suffer the effects of being outside of the tribe, which, as social animals, is not a good place.

This is the reason that we can see many gender systems across time and cultures, why gender systems have shifted even in this country and continue to shift. People's essence hasn't changed, but the way we express them, the way we channel them to build a shared world continues to change. If you want to continue that change, you have to be in the system.

The challenge is not the rich and vibrant images that are every human, but the way that we express those images, the symbols that we have in our shared vocabulary, our shared ideology that we use for communication. We need meanings, but we need symbol too, and that symbol is gender, the shared system of identity definition.

Joseph Campbell talks about the need to get to meaning -- "To stay at the level of symbol is to go into a restaurant and eat the menu." Yet we also need symbol, for a restaurant without a menu, without shared words for what is available is limited in how its offerings can be enjoyed.

Social Responsibility

Responsibility is on the social level, just like gender. It's not about wild spirits simply following their own internal signals, it's about tame humans working together to build a shared world.

We are spirit and we are meat, and that will always be a challenge. Gender and responsibility are two of the ways we get together to answer that challenge.

For years, I have been discussing the challenges of balancing wild and tame, social and individual, parent and child, responsibility and freedom. It has been the one thread that has run though all of my work and my writing.

Many people in the gender community are speaking for freedom, demanding compassion and indulgence. That's great, it's a key part of who we are and what we need.

To talk about freedom in a vacuum, without also talking about responsibility and obligation is to lose the point. Life is not simply a very long work of performance art where an audience indulges our whims and eccentricities -- we have an very real responsibility to those around us. We get what we pay for in the world, and "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch," as that old curmudgeon Robt. Heinlein would remind us.

I have always spoken for the truth that we cannot live as the child forever, but have a responsibility to those we are in relationship with, to our culture, and to future generations, as they all have a responsibility to us.

At some points in our lives, we have to take responsibility for the growth of others as a key responsibility, as the parent does for their children. We are all, in some contexts, parents for the culture.

This is the same as saying that in a society organized on the principle of master and servant we all have to settle down and pick one role or the other for society to function. We have to perform that role for society to function and to change, because it is our engagement of our role in society that creates broader change.

Ghandi: "Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it."

There is no doubt that between order and freedom, order is more important. Humans are social animals, and we need that order to survive and allow room for coming generations to thrive. Freedom is also important, sure, as it can lead us to changes to the order to make the world better and more responsive, but after all is said and done, as social animals, we need order.

That, for example, is one reason I value community/tribe/village over the heterosexist building block of couples making families. Couples break apart for many reasons -- sickness, prolonged absence, divorce etc. -- but it is crucial that community continues.

Many people explore their gender freedom. Great! Fabulous! We need to explore to find our centers. Yet some are left cold by what they see as posturing of being beyond culture. This leads me to explore gender responsibility, the responsibility to engage culture and other individuals and play our part in the greater good, in the world and culture that provides for us and that we often take for granted.

We live in a bountiful world of abundance in the modern world, a gift that not everyone gets. The incredible social order that provides for us allows us the freedom to explore, a freedom that people who worried about sustenance and survival never had. I believe that gift also comes with responsibilities, that freedom comes with obligations that we must be mature to face and to take on.

Is demanding people take responsibility for themselves and for their obligations to culture "closed minded?" I would argue that it is open minded, open to the needs of not just an individual but to the group that supports them.

Is demanding responsibility uncompassionate? I would argue that calling someone to their highest self, putting them in a position where they must take responsibility for the outcome of their actions is the most compassionate thing we can do, as parents know they must do this for their children.

It's easy to be compassionate to someone who is working hard to take responsibility, but it is also easy to require responsibility of someone who is demanding our compassion.

So I explore responsibility, the role of the parent. And if that challenges any one else, so be it. Maybe that's actually a good thing.

Personally I am in favor of positive statements, standing on what one does know, what one does understand, rather than what one doesn't understand yet. Exploration is good, but this is at the heart of what I am speaking of, that we are mature when we speak from our center, what we do know, rather than what we don't like or what we wish to be true.

The Obligation Of Gender

Nobody is handed a "Get Out Of Gender Free" card -- getting out of desire, reproduction, and even public bathrooms at the same time.

We each have lots of identity props, and for many of us man or woman would not be at the top of the list when we describe who we are.

Yet, at the top of everyone's list is "human," and as humans we have to be responsible for society and for the future of society, and that is the role of the parent, someone who takes responsibility for building a safe world for us and the children.

It's easy to be gender free as a child, or as a senior citizen, but during the breeding age, when we all have responsibility for ourselves and our culture, gender is a way that we take responsibility for our role in society.

People get to build their own identity, to create their own gender, to play and explore. I just believe that we need to clearly identify play without responsibility as an adolescent stage. People also have a responsibility to be tame, to take their place in culture. We have an obligation to be responsible for our own obligations, to ourselves and to our culture.

What that means to me is that the "Get Out Of Gender Free" card has an expiration date on it, when we have to be grown ups for some period.

Why do we have to become solid, to be fixed somehow, even in gender?

The first is the issue of stability. It is crucial to offer some sort of consistency and stability to all those who we are in relationship with, from our boss to our allies to our children. We need to be strong enough to be pushed against, tough enough to be relied upon, stable enough to be there when needed. This is a requirement that means that we need to have some sort of stable core, some sort of expectation, some model of stability to provide to others we are connected to.

Children, in particular, have the requirement of exploration. That means that they need an anchor, a boundary setter, a stable force in their lives. What that means is that we cannot be in violent and completely fluid transformative states, nor in states where our only identity is reactionary, against stability and fixed roles to relate to them. We must positively identify ourselves as something and let the child act out against us to develop, as we maintain some stable center that they can find.

What that means is we have to have a gender, of some form or another, to be in relationship with people and with children. It does not preclude transformation -- we all transform over time, move with the challenges, pressures and discoveries of life, but it means that we have to move from positive place to positive place, in a manner that is consistent and understandable, not one that is unreliable and loose.

The second issue is more towards building a world. We only can change a system from the inside, using our own standing in the system to make choices. For change to happen we must be both tame enough to have standing and wild enough to see other possibilities and new ways of doing and being. Outside the system, we lose the power to connect, and we lose the power to exert our own responsibility and authority.

This is important to change our world for ourselves, but also important to change out world to make it a better place for our kids. To make an example, there is value to being in the PTA to enhance a child's experience, and that requires stability, the stability we need to broach changes, like making the curriculum more supportive of diversity.

This is the challenge. We must be both wild and tame, both social and individual, both ordered and free to be effective, and the tame, social and ordered parts of that requires stability, require a gender.

I would be hard pressed to show many genderless people who are responsible for their actions, in any case -- gender is a truth, like it or not.

No Room In Gender For Us

Engaging gender is engaging human life. We easily can feel erased by a shared life that has no words, roles, symbols or positions for us, but we have the responsibility to make our place in culture, not simply to abandon our family, our tribe, our community and our world.

I understand the challenge of not being able to pick a gender, but to have others pick it for us based on the limited range that they hold, the limited choices they recognize as normative and valid. We put together a complex, nuanced and detailed self, and in seconds many people reduce it to a lowest common denominator, make decisions about how we should be categorized and how they should feel about us.

We become erased because the words for us are not part of the shared set, become categorized and eliminated.

Art is a a meaning symbolized by an artist and resymbolized by a viewer. There are many ways to categorize paintings, for example -- by size, by creation date, by where they were painted, the nationality of the painter, by primary color, by subject matter, by style, even by subjective rankings of beauty, quality and power. Every one of these systems puts priorities on some features and excludes others, reducing the painting to a data point rather than a complex expression of an artist's vision. There are also many ways to categorize humans, and each one erases some component of them.

For humans, this means that whatever category we are put in, we will break some of the rules, transgress some of the expectations.

Some societies had many gender options. Each one of those roles was an integral part of the tribe that had a particular responsibility in the life the community. They had a role to perform and they took their part. Today, many of those people are considered queer. As Rachel Novak said,: "Queer what we (either as individuals or some collective society) raise an eyebrow at."

I consider queers to be people who transgress their gender role in one way or another, blending that freedom with some sort of tameness and order. In that way they may be both genders, but they are not neither.

I have written on the challenges today where we tend to let none but the normative, the paired contribute to culture. This is very sad for queers, because in many ways it is in giving that we find ourselves, find our own worth and pride. To be denied contributing is to be forced to stay immature and childlike, to be neutered in the context of community and of culture.

One of the hallmarks of accepting yourself as queer, in my view, is accepting responsibility for how you are and accepting the freedom of diversity for others. That means being both free and ordered. I think that we have to look at ways that we can maintain social order, even enhance it, and allow more freedom of expression, but that is a challenge that takes clear thinking, not just knee-jerk reactions.

Freedom From Gender?

I suspect that people who fight for gender freedom really just want freedom from compulsory gender. They don't want to force little males to be men and little females to be women, but they still like the play of gender, the contrasting cues and roles. They just want little females to be able to play with trucks and little males to be able to play with dolls.

Of course, as these kids figure out who they are, and more than that figure out who they want to attract and partner with, you can be sure that these kids will try to find ways to communicate that with other people -- and that will include gender.

Gender is at the heart of our great social conversation, and if you want to engage in that conversation, you have to engage in gender.

Gender needs a mirror, some sort of partner to make a feedback loop, to have full communication, but not necessarily a romantic butch. We communicate ourselves to other femmes, to gay guys, to whoever in many ways, and with each exchange we become more clear about who we are.

Men & Women & ??????

Some disagree that there are, or should be different "rules" for men's behavior vs. women's. If there aren't different rules for men and women, then is there gender? If there aren't different rules for men and women, why go though all the bother of gendershifting?

Is the goal a genderless, homogenous culture? I know that isn't my goal. I like the snap of complimentary and contrasting genders in creating a world, and that means that there are multiple categories, and different rules, expectations and choices for those categories. I am against compulsory gendering, forcing people into fixed categories only be reproductive status, but gender? That I like.

In any case, I believe that being ignorant, self centered, weak and irresponsible, being a wimp or a wuss aren't good for anyone, whatever gender they are living in.

Some find the notion of asking people to be found the positive of "be a good man" or "be a good woman" to be offensive. Is being a man a bad thing? Is all of manliness to be discarded, or can being manly be a good way to take power?

Some say that being a woman is bad, some say that being a man is bad, but I haven't yet heard any powerful options other than these two -- mommy and daddy -- that have shaped human history from the beginning.

I love the Montel Williams talk show, because Montel has chosen to be the daddy, or more precisely, the father of fathers. He likes to talk to men about their responsibilities in this world. Montel's mostly women viewers like this, because they believe that men need to be men, to take responsibility and do the hard work of being the daddy, the way women need to do the hard work of being the mommy. That is, after all, the benefit of heterosexism, which couples up people.

To have call men to "be a man" is positive makes sense to me. In this culture, men are called to be men, and that means something in terms of maturity and taking responsibility. It's OK to be sensitive and open, it's not OK to be ignorant, self centered, weak, crumbly and irresponsible.

Even gay men are men in this culture, and they often want to make that clear to us. They may be fags, but they are not weak.

I love a range of gender as much as the next transwoman, and I do occupy a range of positions, but I do that actively, with my own agency, not negatively, only shrinking from every choice. I claim what I am, warts and all, not just reject what I am not.

You want my general view? Be a man. Be a woman. Be a man and a woman. But don't be a nothing. You have a responsibility to the world, even if you only use that position to change what being a man, being a woman, being a human is forever..

Cranky At The Challenge

It's been three days and there have been no comments from the gender-free advocates to my post. Does this mean that I have convinced them?

I suspect that they just feel intimidated, still wanting to believe in the separations that comfort them, that they are separate from gender, separate from the messy bits of being a woman or being a man. They see their positions as indefensible, but I suspect that they blame my twisting of their words rather than their own choice not to try to unravel the twisted skeins of their heart to separate what they think they desire from what truths will allow them to live straight, true, pure and whole lives. After all, it is the fire of questioning & examination that allow us to smelt out the impurities in thought & desire and find the voice of our heart.

People who feel that they have untwisted their heart, but that the only way that they can maintain that stability is for other people not to challenge them at all simply move their twists into another person's responsibility, dumping their work onto others. We only can demand our own healing, taking responsibility for our own responses, not demand that everyone else coddle us by not using phrases like "girlie-man" that push our buttons.

Gender In The Mirror

I have previously written about Greer Lankton's art exhibit called "It's about me, not about you." This is one thing that queer people want to scream everytime someone is squicked or "phobic" around them, someone has their buttons pushed and blames the queer person for acting in a way that brings up their own stuff.

The converse of this truth is that when someone speaks their truth, it's about them, not about you. This can be hard to remember.

The process of coming into our identity, of moving past the assumptions and the standard issue ideas, is the process of looking into the mirrors, the other people, around us. We look to find what we believe about the parts of us, look to find what others believe about the parts of us, look to see how our changes appear and how they affect people, look to see what delights us and what enrages us, look to see what we want to steal from others and what we want to get rid of, look to see what we connect with and what we reject.

Look in the mirror too much and you can easily believe that what you see is about you and not about them. There is nothing wrong with taking everything personally, but there is something wrong with assuming that everything you see yourself in is meant personally, that it is something that people are telling you.

We learn from figuring out if "I resemble that remark," but that doesn't mean the remarker is at fault. The line between "I am hurt because I take that personally" and "I disagree with the assumptions that underlie that remark" can be subtle, but it is the line that we have to find.

Often we run to find safe space where we like what we see in the mirrors around us, feel safe in exposing parts of us to people who we believe resemble us. We do that because we tend to jump at the reflections in the bigger mirror of society.

Sometimes though, when we see ourselves reflected in a mirror that we have trouble with, our own inner questioning about what it means to be a man or a woman or anything else comes to the fore. We feel the remarks aimed at our heart when they are just an attempt to communicate something the speaker feels positively about. It's not the mirror's issue that we are struggling, raw and sensitive, and I say that as one who has lashed out and tried to break mirrors that reflect what I don't yet want to see in the past.

Personally, I'm not sure that exclusive spaces are always safe -- after all, who is going to be the biggest critic of a Jewish Lesbian, have the most records, a Lutheran Gay Guy or another Jewish Lesbian? The in-fighting and attacks in exclusive spaces can be intense and powerful. Yet, we do share experiences and genes with people like us, and when we find space with people we share much in common with, nuance is revealed, subtleties come to the fore.

I spent the weekend with a young trans person who is in this stage of questioning every mirror, asking about who is permitted to be trans, how people are seen and treated by society.

My response is simple, another version of claim and substantiation. We become who we are when we trust and we manifest who we are. We come into our own when we find and express our center, believe in who we are and not feel the need to challenge each mirror that shows us reflections that we are uncomfortable with. We become who we are when we know that it's about them, and not about us.

In my experience this is true in any community. To me, Het Crossdressers are not MTF because they are not working to change from male to female, but simply to try to express some of their trans, feminine urges in the context of life as a man. As a transgendered woman, I focus on finding my center as a woman, making the choices of a woman, and not attempting to modify my body to be a simulated female. We each face the challenges of growth, whatever we are growing into next.

For me, the question is "Who Gets To Be Centered?" It's not an issue of someone approving or disproving who we are, but rather an issue of growing into our own image of who we are, of finding our own aesthetic, moral, emotional and intellectual center. The more we become profoundly ourselves, the more we can face the mirrors of life and simply be ourselves.

This growth requires mirrors, and can be painful when too many people see us as a mirror, thinking that our choices are about them and not about us. Yet, if we want to be clear, we need to remember that other people's dramas are about them, not about us.

It's far from easy. We do need to keep looking in mirrors, keep growing and getting better while we retain our own center, trust that we don't have to cater to the whim or challenges of everyone we meet. But for me, being centered is the only choice -- not what someone else decides about who I get to be.