Post-Gender Gender


I'd like to make a few comments on gender identity from my perspective. It may or may not jibe with the positions of various people on this list, but it is where I have come out with.

The first is the simple notion that virtually all people like gender, and that all systems of gender have certain natural predlictions of humans at their core. Across time & culture, most females want to be the mommy, most males the daddy, and most of them want to find partners that help them play out those roles.

The most fundamental use of gender is as a system of desire that helps achieve the desired reproductive status for that society. Gilbert Herdt in "Third Sex, Third Gender" notes that gender roles tend to become less fixed in cultures with less pressure for breeding -- as population pressure slows, diversity emerges.

For me, the dream of a post-gender world seems unrealistic. We need the roles that gender plays in desire, as identity props. Most people like having a system that simplifies desire, codes some sort of romantic tension between "opposites"

To me, this is why cries for a gender free world don't ring true, no matter who calls for them. People like have differences between men and women and then feeling the spart between them. We like having a rich set of gendered symbols, from high heels to cycle boots, from hair dye to goatees, to communicate who we are and what we desire in the world.

The problem with gender is, though, that it sets up a clear demarcation between people. We enjoy communicating about who we are and and who we desire, but we don't want anyone to make any other judgments about us based on this communication. This is, of course, very hard -- if you persude people to gender themselves in order to participate in the system of desire, then you can easily use these cues to divide roles.

The basis of heterosexism is that dividing of roles, where women get the inner/private roles, including emotion, love and family, and men get the outer/public roles, including money, property and politics, and the only way to become whole is to come together to breed. As society turned more and more around public issues, women knew they got the short end of that stick, and started voicing complaints. For example, women suffrage was a demand to break this system so that women could share political power, and the key argument against it is that it would weaken the current gender system, and therefore the family.

Every study ever done on the difference between men and women or males and females (which, today, are for all practical purposes synonymous in this culture, even if the meanings of role and anatomy are very different) include the disclaimer: "Note that two individuals of any given sex/gender may differ more from each other than the difference between the norms between the sexes/genders." That means simply that some females are more "manly" than the average man, and some males are more "womanly" than the average woman.

Because gender only exists as some inner feeling, the only way to communicate it is though metaphor, and the shared symbols humans use to communicate feelings. Gender will never fit neatly on a graph -- it is not easily digitized. Most people, including most TG people don't want to live in a culture where all diversity is ironed flat, nor in one where there aren't effective and shared symbols and metaphors to communicate inner, gender feelings and beliefs.

Throughout history people have had gendered feelings and desires, and they then look for words, symbols and behaviors that exist in the culture to express those feelings. For example, someone trying to express femininity today may try to look like a supermodel, where in the 1950s they may have chosen to look like a stereotypical movie star, and in the 1850s they would have followed other rules. Each culture and time has a range of symbols, and we pick the ones that fit us best. The symbols are designed to reflect common, shared feelings, and that means that the people who have one feeling will gravitate to one set of symbols, while those with another set will gravitate to another. If a tg man feels masculine, he will gravitate to symbols that are marked as masculine, for example.

It seems to me that the goal, therefore, is not to call for the end of gender, but rather to call for the end of compulsory gender.

This means a culture that has a rich gender language, but without the assumptions that people should be pressed into a set of expectations based on their genital configuration at birth.

The big dilemma with this system is that it removes the simple cues for breeding, knowing a man can inseminate and a woman can get pregnant, and if they fail at this task when they try they have failed in their obligations. If we don't have clear expectations about men and women, at least in regards to breeding status, then why gender at all?

Changes in reproductive science over the next century or so will change our belief in these requirements. I think of "Steel Beach," John Varley's novel of the future where complete sex changes can take place in an afternoon, with reproductive changes, and where gender equality exists without the removal of gender as a system of desire. But that won't happen within the lifetime of most of us.

I prefer the terms "man born female" (same as transgendered man) and "woman born male" (same as transgendered woman) because they clearly show the connection of a gender role with an unconventional sex, and usually an unconventional history of gendering. TG people are people who went though puberty and the associated gendering process, in another sex/gender than they choose.

What does all this boil down to? To me, it means that we all learn the language of gendering, of expression, in this culture and gravitate to the symbols that we feel express us. However, as the mechanics of desire kick in, we are pressed to choosing symbols that are designed to attract the kind of people we want to meet, moving away from wild expression to tame assimilation in order to effectively partner in the breeding dance.

This is the reason that most people assume that TG people are wearing gendered symbols in order to attract partners rather than express their own feelings. Most people are compelled to choose gendered cues to attract and satisfy partners.

Yet, for TG people, we are simply trying to express some inner self that is very attracted to those symbols, that does not feel comfortable with the symbols that are assigned to the compulsory gender they were given after examination of their genitals.

There are lots of genders out there, all designed to find some melding of the primary duality: to be wild enough to be individual, unique and different and be tame enough to be attractive, effective in getting us personal power (the ability to have people want to work with us), and in gaining acceptance in the tribe. We all construct a gender because we all have to communicate in culture.

We just don't want to be limited because of that surface. We want to be able to be freer, wilder, without losing most of the benefits of being part of the tribe, tamer. These are the questions of assimilation, being assimilated enough to have standing in society, but also being unique enough to be ourselves. Assimilation is the process of taking on the characteristics of a target group in order to be accepted as a member of that group -- and giving up some of our own characteristics in trade.

This is the question in the queer community: "How queer is too queer? How queer is not queer enough?" In other words, when do we sacrifice too much standing, too much tameness, and when do we sacrifice too much uniqueness, too much wildness?

Coming full circle, how we adopt gendered symbols to express our unique identity or to assimilate, the existence of gender, in the form of symbols, language, behavior and attributions, is an important part of our cultural language.

But to make gender, and the corollary limits that come with gendering compulsory is to limit everyone. It ignores the basic truth that "two individuals of any given sex/gender may differ more from each other than the difference between the norms between the sexes/genders."

We each have to build our identity, TG or not. And we each have to balance wild and tame, individuation and assimilation. The rules are just skewed for genderqueer people, who get the intense assimilation pressure to conform to breeding rules -- we are the nail that sticks up and must get pounded down more than the nails that have no trouble fitting.

But that heterosexist pressure deforms everyone in some way or other. It negates the freedom of thought we need in an information society that was seen as undesirable in a machine age, where the purpose of humans was to serve the machines that like to run in 24 hour shifts without change.

The world is changing. And the compulsory assimilation that includes heterosexism seems more and more limiting.

So, if heretosexist gender is dead or dying (or, at least, gender is always being reinvented), how do we form a system of post-gender gender, rich with symbols, desire AND freedom of thought?

Those are some of the questions I ponder.