(Notes on Deconstructing the Binary)
I love "queer." I see "queer" as meaning that which deviates from the script. Political resistance is "queer." You live the best way you can, with the biggest awareness that you can, and try to mitigate suffering if you can. That's what it means to be human. There's no purity to one position.
-- Joan Nestle
My parents were good hippies.
They were determined to not steep their first daughter in gender norms by putting me in frilly dresses, pink, hair bows, and polka dots. I grew up in overalls and onesies until one fateful day at the mall. It can be rainy and cold for days on end in the Pacific Northwest, as you know. My mother brought her bouncing-off-the-wall toddler to the mall to work off some energy.
And The (future) Intimacy Dr discovered dresses.
My mother says I was wired from the get-go to be a “frou-frou” (her words). I still have a lot of dresses. And more skirts than tops to go with them. And to be completely honest? Even if I am wearing a “Free Leonard Peltier” tshirt, jeans, shit-kicking rez boots, and ballcap, I am still the girliest looking thing in the room. I ooze female-presenting, matching my birth assignment, no matter what I put on.
I also dig men. Like, a lot. Men are yummy, and just smell right to me. By birth assignment, that makes me heterosexual.
So all of this means that I must identify, gender-wise, as female, right?
Not a chance.
Gender has nothing to do with who you have sex with, what sexual organs you were born with, or how you present on the outside. Sometimes we express ourselves through those means, but gender is more complex and way more an internal state of being than you may have realized.
Here are the definitions related to the gender concepts that I use, the one I teach with and present with. These come from a glossary I created with Beck Munsey, recently updated with assistance from C.G. Jones and Jennifer Robbins. Anything problematic with these definitions are entirely my fault; anything great they get credit for. These terms are soon to be published by TALGBTIC as part of an entire LGBTQQIAAP Glossary. And you wanna buy that shit when it comes out. It’s good.
GENDER: A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity. Fundamentally different from the sex one is assigned at birth, and may or may not be congruent with that assignment. While the historical argument is that gender is purely a social construct, newer research demonstrates that gender behavior does not vary significantly between cultures, therefore there may be neuro-biological roots to gender expression. See also: Gender Identity
GENDER BINARY: The classification of gender as two separate and distinct opposites, disconnected from each other (male/female, man/woman, girl/boy, masculine/feminine). Also known as gender binarism or binarism.
GENDER DYSPHORIA: an intense continuous discomfort resulting from an individual's belief in the inappropriateness of their assigned gender at birth and resulting gender role (recognized as the actual medical condition being treated in the DSM-V.)
GENDER EXPRESSION/PRESENTATION: How one expresses oneself, in terms of dress and/or behaviors that society characterizes as “masculine” or “feminine.” May also be androgynous or something else altogether. Some people differentiate between the two terms.
GENDERFLUID: Being fluid in motion between two or more genders; shifting naturally in gender identity and/or gender expression/presentation. May be a gender identity itself. Refers to the fluidity of identity.
GENDERFUCK: A form of gender identity or expression, genderfuck is an intentional attempt to present a confusing gender identity that contributes to dismantling the perception of a gender binary.
GENDER IDENTITY: A person’s internal sense or self-conceptualization of their own gender. Used to call attention to the self-identification inherent in gender. Cisgender, transgender, man, woman, genderqueer, etc. are all gender identities.
GENDER IDENTITY DISORDER (GID): An older controversial DSM-IV diagnosis still used outside the US given to transgender and other gender-variant people. Because it labels people as "disordered," Gender Identity Disorder is often considered offensive. The diagnosis is frequently given to children who don't conform to expected gender norms in terms of dress, play or behavior. Such children are often subjected to intense psychotherapy, behavior modification and/or institutionalization.
GENDERISM: The belief that there are, and should be, only two genders and that one’s gender or most aspects of it are inevitably tied to the assigned sex.
GENDER NON-CONFORMING (GNC): A person who does not subscribe to gender expressions or roles expected of them by society.
GENDER NORMATIVE: Conforming to the cultural rules regarding gender expression, either explicit or implicit.
GENDER OUTLAW: A person who refuses to be defined by conventional definitions of men and women. A term popularized by Kate Bornstein in her book of the same name, not seen in current vernacular as often.
GENDERQUEER: A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression falls outside of the dominant societal norm for their assigned sex, is beyond genders, or is some combination thereof.
GENDER ROLES: The socially constructed and culturally specific behavior and appearance expectations imposed on women (femininity) and men (masculinity).
I share these terms here (and the larger glossary when I teach) because so many of us, myself included, don’t even have the right words to express ourselves or honor those around us. And language, like gender identity, is fluid and constantly changing.
Which is why, for myself, I don’t accept the concept of the gender binary at all. It doesn’t fit me. No matter how girlie I look, anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in a room with me knows that there is nothing girlie in how I navigate the world.
I have always worked in mental health, and during my early years doing case management, I was well known for my “balls of steel” (Just ask my friend Q, ze will tell you they are clearly huge and steel because they drag and subsequently gouge the ground beneath me when I walk.) My reputation was made when I convinced a local pimp to give up his girl (my client) so she could take the spot I got her in substance abuse recovery.
Because really, what else are you going to do when a mini-van driving mom pulls up and demands you hand over your meal ticket? Besides pee yourself laughing?
I navigated caring for a dying husband while completing a doctoral program. I’ve been parenting two special needs kiddos as a widow. You better believe I have a set of balls that drags the ground when I walk. I had shit to take care of.
Gender is between the ears, not between the legs. It also may have everything to do with how you present yourself to the world, nor nothing at all. So other than the fact that I can rock a short skirt like Tina Turner, there is not much girlie about me.
But I am not traditionally male in any sense either. I am warm, and empathic, and unaffectedly caring about people. My job is to create a sense of safety in my office, and I think I do that well, it’s what people comment on about me time and again. That I accept them, just not their bullshit. I genuinely like people, quite nearly all of them. I don’t chew tobacco and spit in public, I don’t manspread my legs on the bus. I talk about my feelings and cry whenever the fuck I feel like it. I’m may not be girlie, but I’m not very guyie either.
The gender binary (definitions above, in case you forgot) have really fucked us up, as a culture. Why do we have to choose a set of rules and ascribe to them? We lose so much of what makes us the unique, excellent individuals that we are.
When I present with my dear friend Beck Munsey, we ask the room which one of us is gender queer. Only once, in one presentation, did someone say that I was too, not just Beck. I’m in a skirt, ze is in a tie. We are both queer. Beck digs chicks, I dig guys. We are both queer. Ze is the one that gets shit for using the Women’s bathroom, I’m the one there next to hir, ready to pull out a can of whoop-ass out of my Kate Spade carry-all. We are both queer.
Beck and myself, like many other people decided as some point in our lives that we didn’t fit into a neat category and we were allowed to stop trying. We were allowed to be who we were without question, owning all of the excellent qualities that we culturally ascribe to maleness AND femaleness in our same personhood.
Jill Solloway, the creator of the brilliant Amazon series, Transparent, spoke to her own gender identity in the February 2015 issue of Elle Magazine. She stated:
I’ve always been straight identified and always slept with men, but politically I feel like a lesbian – I see male privilege everywhere. She goes on: “I identify as queer. Is that weird? I feel like I am in an ever-evolving state of becoming, and I definitely feel like when my father came out [as MTF transgender], it gave me a comforting feeling that I came from a queer family. And in terms of whether I identify as bi or queer, I feel like there would be a totally different answer a year from now.
Queerness is like an algorithm that can’t compute. Hell, queerness IS an algorithm that can’t compute. Facebook is always trying to figure me out. I’ve gotten ads meant for gay men, and ads meant for lesbians. Social media is always having an “Um, how about this?” conversation with me. Just shut up and show me my feed, yo.
When you break the binary, you break the algorithm. Both online and in real life. That’s the true source of discomfort for people. They want the neat category. If you were born with a vagina, you should act like it. It’s a safer, smaller existence. At least for those around you. In The Cathedral of Computation, Ian Bogost calls bullshit on the deification of an algoristic social system.
If algorithms aren’t gods, what are they instead? Like metaphors, algorithms are simplifications, or distortions. They are caricatures. They take a complex system from the world and abstract it into processes that capture some of that system’s logic and discard others. And they couple to other processes, machines, and materials that carry out the extra-computational part of their work. Unfortunately, most computing systems don’t want to admit that they are burlesques. They want to be innovators, disruptors, world-changers, and such zeal requires sectarian blindness.
But even in my queerness, and likely even in Jill Solloway’s there is an awareness of privilege that other gender queer individuals, such as Beck, are not afforded. Because it doesn’t (often) present in how I dress, I can navigate the aisles of HEB without the side glances. I’ve never been harassed in the bathroom like Beck is (and I use whichever one is empty, no matter what is marked on the door).
I can’t wait for the day where “not my circus, not my monkey” because everyone’s operative phraseology. And no one gives a damn if the person reaching for the last bag of baked Cheetos is male, female, or other. As long as they put that shit down, because you saw them first.
I love that the term two-spirit, which had fallen out of use in native communities for many decades and now is being reclaimed. It is being used to honor all of the facets of identity that can exist within someone. It’s a pre-colonial term, older than America. As my indigenous sisters reclaim it, I hope others do as well.
My fiancé admits that he was confused by my use of the term gender queer at first. I can rock a tiny dress, after all. But I explained to him that all the things he loves about me are the things that have scared off many other men. My education, my propensity to say what I think and back it up with both research and action, my determination in going after what I want. These are not what we culturally ascribe to femaleness in our culture. He’s proud of that shit. Not just in theory but in the day to day reality of our lives.
Now he just laughs when he finds a stray hair on my chin and announces that my maleness is coming out.
My kids? Pretty damn queer, even if they don’t necessarily use that term. My son pulled off his size 12 smelly-ass sneakers the other day to reveal a pink pair of socks. MY pink pair of warm, warm boot socks. That I had spent 20 minutes looking for that morning.
“Mother FUCKER! You know those are mine!”
“No I didn’t, thought they were mine.”
“Bitch! They’re PINK!”
“Yeah, like THAT’S a qualifier in this house.”
Oooooh, well played.
No matter what your birth assignment, no matter what your gender identity, no matter what you look like on the outside? Rock your gender identity. If it’s male or female, get on with your bad self. If it is somewhere in between? I’ve always got a place for you at my table. But first? Could you help me pluck this chin hair, real quick?