Sunday, August 26, 2018

Beyond the Gender Binary

In the fifties era of butch-femme relationships, those who played the role of butch or femme, switching at will, were known as “ki-ki”. In later Second Wave Feminism of the sixties and seventies, butch-femme role playing fell out of favor in middle-class circles. The word for lesbians with gender-neutral identity was “androgynous.” The androgynous lesbian was a preferable alternative to the dehumanizing sex-role stereotyping that had been the norm in the fifties and earlier. 

In today’s world this option is known as “non-binary.” Ideally, this would mean that everyone would be free to select ideas and behaviors from a smorgasbord of choices. People of many genders and orientations can fit under this umbrella because we are all so much more than the bodies that we happened to have been born into. 

The thing about both transgender identity that confuses me the most is the way that sex role stereotypes are idealized, romanticized, even fetishized. When I hear about a little boy who loves pink and playing dress up, or the little girl who wants to play sports or be a cowboy I don't automatically think that these are children occupying the wrong bodies. I first wonder if they're just having a hard time coming out as lesbian or gay. 

Yes, some people are genuinely transgender. But other people are truly in pain and confused about their identity. Some are looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. In Iran the government will pay for transgender surgery when it means that the person will no longer have same-sex attraction. If a man who loves men becomes a woman, he will present as straight. Surgery can be used as a means to insure heterosexual normativity at any cost. 

After my uterus was removed for medically necessary reasons, the doctor told me about groups organized around grieving this loss. As a sixty year old lesbian who has remained childless by choice, I found this ridiculous. The body parts I have emotional attachment towards are ones that either can be seen, make my body systems function well, or propel me physically through the world. I never developed an attachment to my uterus and have always viewed the prospect of childbearing as far too similar to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

When I was working as a reference librarian  in San Francisco a regular patron, male the day before, came in and announced s/he was now female. I knew this person’s gender-neutral name and don’t have the greatest memory, so it was inevitable that a few days later I referred to that patron as “he. Very upset, this apprentice transitioner said, “I’m a woman, just like you.”

Okay then, if you’re a woman just like me, you don’t give a damn if people mistake you for another gender, unless you’re planning to sleep with them, in which case, hopefully, they would already know. A “woman like me” has zero attachment to behaving “like a woman” or presenting as such. You would want only to be accepted for what you do and how your mind works, not how you look because you would not see yourself as decorative, but as functional. A woman just like me would believes that the concept of acquiring “femininity” is both ridiculous and a huge waste of time. 

I don’t comprehend the need, in this culture and many others, to place gender markers on everyone and everything. Everywhere I go now people call me “Mam.” I hate it. Not just because of the age reference but because of the explicit gender. I wouldn't like "Sir" either. Why is it necessary to continually point out each persons gender? Can’t you just ask a question without tagging it as female or male directed. What’s wrong with, “Can I help you?” period. Or if you have to add something why not “friend” or another gender neutral word. Even worse are words like poetess or aviatrix, the height of condescension for people with female bodies.

We are all unique individuals. I find sex-role assignment dehumanizing. I aspire to neither of those limited definitions. We all deserve the freedom to do what we want with our bodies and that includes modifying them for any reason. At some point in the future, we might have a society where every person is accepted and accepts their body no matter what shape, size, color, age, orientation or ability it presents. Unfortunately, that Utopian vision is far removed from the reality of the world we do our best to stumble through today.