Gender Identity: Continua and Ambiguities

LGBTQ: Language and Justice, part 3

We’ve seen the meaning of “man” and “woman” shift. It used to be that we thought of the biology as the fixed essence. There are two sets of reproductive organs, and someone with one set is a woman and someone with the other set is a man. The social roles might be malleable – the kind of dress and hair styles, the accessorizing, and the shoes, and the sorts of roles and behaviors associated with “man” and “woman” could evolve. These were secondary aspects of the meaning.

We’ve seen a reversal of the primary and secondary meanings. Now the meaning of “man” is primarily to present in the way recognized as a man – to look and dress and act in mannish ways, And the primary meaning of woman is to present as a woman – to look and dress and act in the ways recognized as womanish. The biological equipment is a secondary association – and one that modern medicine has made malleable.

Why did we change how we understood these words? Same reason we changed how we understood "planet"? Because we learned something. In the one case, we learned there were dots of light in the night sky that weren’t stars. In the other case, we’ve learned that there’s something very important about the formation of a gender identity that’s in the brain and might or might not correspond to a given set of reproductive organs.

We’ve also learned that though our language is binary – man, woman – reality is on a spectrum. This has led me to see myself in new ways – brought to light aspects of my self-understanding that had been hidden.

I present as a man. I'm content to dress in the culturally recognized male ways, and walk into the men's bathroom, and all of this is quite easy for me because male is the gender I was assigned at birth. But I don't really care -- or, at least, I'm inclined to suppose that I don't. If, in some bizarre, improbable scenario, I were compelled to present as a woman, I wouldn't regard that as so terrible. It would certainly be a hassle to learn and get used to all the details of clothing and grooming -- and if it included being subject to harassments to which women are subjected, then it would be more than a mere hassle. But it wouldn't feel like a deep and fundamental violation of my basic nature. There's a gender identity continuum, and I'm somewhere in the fuzzy middle, a tad on the male side. That is, that's my best guess. If I actually were compelled to present as a woman for any extended period, I might discover that, in fact, my gender identity matters to me more than I now imagine. (I've reflected on this at: "What If I Don't Have a Gender Identity?")

On the other hand, I'm pretty definite about my sexual orientation: I'm straight. On gender identity, I'd put myself somewhere on the "male" side of the middle third. On sexual orientation, I'd put myself more clearly toward the "straight" end of the spectrum. Other people might be just the reverse: quite definite on their gender identity, but rather fuzzy, bisexual, or "bi-curious" about their sexual orientation. Others might be in the fuzzy middle on both, or very clear about both. We're all somewhere on the gender identity continuum, and somewhere on the sexual orientation continuum.

(It occurs to me that a curious consequence of where I place myself is that, when it comes to prospective mate attraction, other people's gender matters to me more than my own does. This does seem strange, but there it is.)

The LGBTQ movement has brought attention to these continua and, as a result, a lot of people like me have introspected about where we are on them. I've examined myself in ways I otherwise would not have done. All of us -- whether LGBTQ or not -- have been helped by the LGBTQ movement to understand ourselves better, to know better who and what we are.

Even the idea of a continuum may be too . . . well, linear. New York City officially recognizes 31 gender identities and expressions. They don't all fit on a single line going from "strong female identification" to "strong male identification." Here are the 31:
  1. Bi-Gendered
  2. Cross-Dresser
  3. Drag-King
  4. Drag-Queen
  5. Femme Queen
  6. Female-to-Male
  7. FTM
  8. Gender Bender
  9. Genderqueer
  10. Male-To-Female
  11. MTF
  12. Non-Op
  13. Hijra
  14. Pangender
  15. Transexual/Transsexual
  16. Trans Person
  17. Woman
  18. Man
  19. Butch
  20. Two-Spirit
  21. Trans
  22. Agender
  23. Third Sex
  24. Gender Fluid
  25. Non-Binary Transgender
  26. Androgyne
  27. Gender-Gifted
  28. Gender Blender
  29. Femme
  30. Person of Transgender Experience
  31. Androgynous
(See article HERE. The flyer from the NYC Commission on Human Rights is HERE.)

I don't know the distinctions between all of these -- what would lead someone to identify as "Male-To-Female" over "MTF," or "Androgyne" over "Androgynous," or "Transsexual" over "Trans Person" or "Trans." The list simply recognizes a number of the terms that are current (Facebook gives 56 options). It's good to be aware of them -- and then let individuals themselves tell you which label feels right for them. While it's generally rude to cross-examine people about their self-labels, the context of the conversation might allow for respectful curiosity. Only a particular androgyne, for instance, can tell you why that term seems to fit them better than androgynous. People get to choose their own self-labels. The list will therefore need continual updating as people seek and find new ways of saying what and who they are.

It can be confusing. And the terrain is constantly shifting. We can’t really get a handle on the right way to think about it – because any way to think about it is one more temporary product of culture and language and power. The urge to find a clear resolution to the ambiguities is an urge best resisted.

Tell me what’s important to you. It might be your sexual identity, your gender identity, your racial identity, or it might not be. Tell, or don’t tell. It's up to you. And I might ask, or not ask. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really don’t know what category you’re in. This is what answering the call of love looks like: the courage to be in ambiguity and shine a warm embracing light.

There may once have been good reasons for wanting to resolve the ambiguities of sex and sexuality. It may have even felt unbearable "not to know" -- and know instantly -- who was and who was not "automatically" in the category of potential mates for reproduction. With a little practice, though, we can be comfortable not knowing.

Answering the call of love requires neither a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity, any definite meaning of a word. Answering the call of love requires the courage to take each ambiguous moment as it is; the courage of justice and the courage to love each person, wherever they are or present on whatever spectrum -- however and whoever he or she or ze or they is or presents.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "LGBTQ: Language and Justice"
See also
Part 1: Words and LGBTQ Justice: Introduction
Part 2: What Changed the Meaning of Marriage

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