Subject: Evaluating A Gender Role
Date: Sun 09 Aug 1998 - 14:03:01 BST
If, as I have been discussing, gender is a a form of communication,
communicating who we are and and the role that we can play, then how can we
judge someone's gender, on their intent or or their effectiveness and
integrity of comunicating their meaning?
Bobbie Jo wrote a few weeks ago about how we are cast in roles by the creator,
and that we will be judged by how we play that role. It's much like Brian
McNaught's line "God won't ask us if we were normal, God will ask us 'Did you
sing the song I taught you?'"
This image of God as sort of the ultimate drama critic, rating us on how we
performed the role we had coded into us, amused me, but if life is a
performance, making choices with limited resources to create some sort of
effect, to communicate something in the world, then it makes sense. We are
judged on how we communicate with others.
As I have struggled with creating a gender, I have heard many people say
"freedom is learning to to care what anyone else thinks." They suggest that
we need to rely simply on our own moral authority, and not let others control
us. It's a powerful concept, breaking free of the bounds of socialization and
trusting your own choices, but it is a limited one.
Other people are both our mirrors and our audience in this world. The same
people who told me not to care what others think did believe that I should
care about what they think, care enough to find common ground and accomodation
for their beliefs. In this world, if we want the things that others can give
us, from love to money, we have to care what they think, learn to communicate
with them effectively. Personal power in this world is the power to have
others work with you to achieve your own goals, though intimidation,
negotiation, or conversion.
Many spiritual people have suggested that humans are incarnated in this world
to experience separation, twoness. The threads of the godhead are created
separately when living a human life so that each thread may see their
reflection in the other threads around them, to help shape and perfect
themselves, illuminating flaws --- usually the flaws around fear -- and learn
to overcome them.
What all this means is that, if gender is communication and life a performance
of a role, we need an audience to give us what we need -- the money, the love,
"In order to function, I need a public. We all need it.
And there is none of us who is free of that anxiety."
Eugene Istomin, Pianist
"Your audience gives you everything you need . . .
there is no director who can direct you like an audience."
For most people, who do gender by the book, performing traditional scripts,
it's easy to judge the effectiveness of their performance. Does it give them
the status, the connection, the desire, the personal power to influence others
that they are seeking?
But for improvisational gender artists, who are trying to write new gender
scripts, scripts that can change the way we perform gender, like Christine
Jorgensen, The Prince, Kate Bornstein and Les Feinberg have done, the
evaluation of their gender role is much tougher. They are gender artists on
the edge, not just playing traditional roles to perfection, but like
singer/songwriters, writing and performing their own lives.
How do we judge someone's gender? On their intent, or on how effective they
are in communicating themselves, how they are integral and honest, how they
draw people to them?
For many transgendered people, gender is defined negatively. It's something
that is to be avoided, destroyed, escaped from. Rather than working to create
a powerful new gender role, they work to get out from the gendetr roles they
see as trapping them.
As a communication strategy, though, this causes dissonance in the eye of the
viewer. The bane of communication is noise, conflicting messages that cancel
each other out, leaving only confusion and frustration. We have all seen
transgendered people who we perceived to be something and heard them also
announce that they were not that thing, or were something that was different.
We then had to evalute in our mind which was true, what we percieved from
their choices or what they were saying, and in the long run, we read the
actions, the choices, not the words.
Many transgendered people complain about this, the relational aspect of
gender. "I am what I say I am, dammnit, not what people see me as!" They
claim that it is the intent of their communication that should be judged,
rather than the effectiveness of it. Humans though, as social animals, have a
well developed sense of who is lying to them, and that sense is triggered by
dissonance between words and actions, between choices and intent. We care
more about who people are than about who they say they are, and if those two
bits don't jibe, we tend to flag them as liars, mistrusting them.
Why do transgendered people resist making the choices that would make their
comunication more clear, more pure and more coherent? They resist it because
those choices have costs, the cost of immersion into a role. They resist the
choices because they are hard, but in resisting those choices, they resist
I heard of an MTF TS who was complaining because people were giving her "shit"
about her weight. She rejected those complaints, rejected the social pressure
of femininity. A woman friend noted, however, "Welcome to being a woman!
Women experience that pressure, deal with it!"
Every woman of size has to develop coping strategies with the social pressure
to be thin, but she develops those strategies inside of that pressure, not
simply by declaring that pressure oppressive and choosing not to accept it.
Immersion in a role means you accept the costs of that role and learn to
manage them, not that you simply get to pick and choose which pressures you
will even acknowledge.
When people create a designer gender specifcally with an eye to avoiding the
"pitfalls" and "oppressions" of a gender role, they miss the fact that
response to those "pitfalls" and "oppresions" define a role, a group, however
indviduals choose to respond to them. When we avoid the hard bits of
immersion, we avoid immersion, and that shows up in the dissonance between our
words and our expressions. People can easily see us as trying to avoid rather
than engage, and they may then choose to avoid us.
How do we evaluate a gender role? If gender is communication, we judge it by
the integrity of the choices, the harmony of the words and the behaviors, the
truthfulness and honesty we see in the engagement of life.
For people who play their roles by the book, this may be easy to judge,
because we know the constraints. For people who are shaping their own gender,
this is harder, because the very act of stepping out of the role one is cast
in at birth means that their will be dissonance. Transformation demands
dissonance, a time when ones dreams exceed their grasp, when they act "as-if"
until they can embody the new role though immersion. Yet, in the end, it is
the embodiment that counts, the effectiveness of the role in communication, in
playing with others, not just the words and the intent.
I believe that, any protests to the contrary, we are always playing a role in
culture. We can no more escape the communication of gender when we are with
others than we can escape breathing. When people can't read our
communications, they get uncomfortable -- that's the entire premise of the
"It's Pat" sketch on Saturday Night Live. Others need to know who we are,
where we stand, what role we take.
Humans communicate on the basis of approximating stereotying. When we first
meet, we make assumptions about someone, and the more we know them, the more
detailed, individual and accurate those assumptions become. We create a
mental model of the other person, and that has to happen in the first moment
we communicate with them, or otherwise we cannot find a way to communicate.
The model is shaped and honed over time, but that model is instant. I often
fear that for people who know me for less than 10 minutes I simply reinforce
their stereotypes about TG, because I contribute to their model, not having
enough time to erode and change it, give them a new possibility about what it
means to be a transgendered person.
We communicate with other humans in every moment that we are with other
humans, and gender, as a fundamental part of that communication, is
inescapable. For me, that means that the only possibility is to create a
gender role, including choices of expressions, actions and language, that is
whole and coherent, reasonably consistent and integrated, so that the noise
and dissonance does not overwhelm my desire and need to communicate. I know
that people will read my truth, like they have always read the truth that I
while I may be a man on the surface, when the walls drop, my heart isn't manly
at all -- something that has always challenged my women lovers.
Yet, I don't know any other way to evaluate communications, any way to be in
the world without being aware of your audience, you shaping them and them
shaping you in a continuous dance. It is the hard work of being in a culture,
of needing that culture for sharing and for mirroring.
How do we evaluate a gender role? Just like people evaluate the roles of
people around them in every moment, by reading them and judging their truth.
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