Friday, July 24, 2015

Discovering Gender

As I mentioned in some previous posts, I am questioning my gender identity. I know that current societal definitions of being a woman are inhospitable to who I am, and I am not sure if they will ever change enough that I could call myself a woman without, as I just did typing this sentence, grimacing.

The previous paragraph has a whole lot of qualifiers in it, and this is going to be a messy post because I'm in discovery mode. Onwards.

Last year, I wrote a post called the Worker Caste Option detailing how societal expectations for girls led me to disown traditional femininity. The post preceded my revelation that I am asexual; as it turns out, I wasn't disowning my sexuality because of fear of being called a slut, I was being true to who I am (admittedly, I'm probably prudish even for an ace person).

Could this be the case for other feminine traits? I'm naturally very interested in the question of women in stem because that's nominally what I am (nominally because, spoiler alert, I am no woman). But, aside from one case where my (research chemist) mother told me she was worried that engineering would be too hard for a girl, I don't feel as though I've been treated differently, as a girl. I'm also highly oblivious to social cues so maybe I didn't notice sexism directed towards me. Or maybe people tend not to respond to me as a girl because I'm not one.

This was the line of thought that kicked off my recent questioning. I easily came up with a list of my traits that are not traditionally feminine/that are traditionally masculine; recalled in elementary school always picking male big cats as my character in games of pretend; made a list of my Doppelgangers and "my" songs and noted in the former an even gender split and in the latter a huge predominance of male voices; and then stopped and asked myself, What exactly are you doing?

It is trivially easy to prove that I am unfeminine.

It has taken a bit longer for me to reclaim feminine things like dresses, and trying to be emotionally available to my friends, and maybe cooking (at least I could see myself enjoying it in the future), and then to realize that even though it is true that society pushed me to disown my femininity, there wasn't much in the first place and I am naturally not that feminine.

I could have phrased that as "not that much of a girl." I didn't. Because this is the wall I hit this week: if I say that being unfeminine makes me not a girl, does that make me a bad feminist?

Let me explain. My interpretation of feminism is that one of the desired outcomes is that a person's gender won't be used to regulate their character/personality/way of life.

Under this view, if I come to the conclusion that being unfeminine means I must not be a girl, then aren't I buying into the idea that a girl must be feminine? Backing up a step, aren't I doing feminism a disservice by saying that my enjoyment of leading and Neue Deutsche Harte makes me unfeminine? Why shouldn't a girl like to lead, or program, or play instruments in bass clef? Why are these reserved for males?

But even many of the feminists I've read (admittedly, not enough) see masculine and feminine as valid concepts, distinct buckets of traits, or perhaps as a spectrum on which, nevertheless, two poles exist. Statistically, one probably could tag certain traits by gender--but that would be to give credence to learned behavior and societal inertia teaching men to be one way, women another, and leaving those in between little to go by.

Do I owe it to my own identity as a feminist to call myself female in order to expand the walls of what is considered girl-like? Call my traditionally masculine aspects Y; if I declare myself not a girl, does that signal that in order to be Y (which includes such things as studying engineering) you can't be a girl?

I thought about this for a while and concluded that actually, I'm okay with being a girl. I am a girl and an engineer and a trombonist and a lead and there is no contradiction, whether internally or with my sense of who I am.

I'm starting to read about gender dysphoria and running into a lot of questions, because in my initial searches there's not a lot of concreteness. How does one form a gender identity or recognize it in oneself? I see "girl" as what, not who, I am, but even so, I'm okay with being a girl. My gender expression is, as it has been for as long as I remember, a mix of masculine and feminine.

My interior sense of self is not strongly female. But if I'm okay being a girl, am I really not cis? I don't feel as though she/her pronouns are dissonant with who I am, but neither are they/them pronouns. Actually, now that I think about it, being referred to with they/them pronouns sounds kind of nice. Scratch that, it sounds awesome.

...whoa. I'd say I need to lie down but I already am (floors are comfortable).

I would be more than okay if people referred to me with they/them pronouns.

........whoa.

Are she/her okay? Yeah. They're okay. Just okay? Just okay. I'm a girl? Yeah, I'm a girl.

But I am not a woman, and that's a whole other dimension. Being a girl is mostly social behaviors. But womanhood involves the body and social expectations of adult females and connotations and even deeper-running and longer-standing definitions of female that are inimical to or at least incompatible with who I am. And sexuality.

I think that part of the reason I'm coming to these epiphanies about my gender identity now instead of in third grade is because 1) I'm oblivious and 2) the sexualization of women didn't really register for me until after puberty. Being a girl is fine because a girl is still a child. Sexuality doesn't come into the question that much.

(Note that really deserves more air time than I'm going to give it: I'm talking about my experiences only. Recently I came across a heartbreaking Tumblr post showing a histogram of when girls realized they were, personally, being sexualized and the vast majority was before 12, with many before 10. I'm oblivious, plain, sheltered, and have never had the kind of horrifying experiences that some respondents detailed.)

Being a woman is not fine because being a women includes being comfortable with a woman's body and all that entails. I'm not just talking about media sexualization or unattainable standards of beauty, because those are societal bugs and if that's all there was to it then I could probably make the same argument as I did saying why I'm a girl--that being a plain and prudish woman is just another way of being a woman.

The issue is that in all societies, even matriarchies, even ones with gender equality, women have sex and children. Of course not all women do, but it's much more universal than the expectations that our society puts on girls.

It may sound as though I think my asexuality prevents me from being a woman. No, it isn't just that. I think that part of the reason I am ace at all is because I find the human body disgusting. (Though it's not a causal relationship either in my case or in general. Sometimes I worry that I perpetuate a lot of stereotypes about aces that may be damaging to other members of the community--my situation shouldn't be taken to mean that all asexuals are uncomfortable in their bodies and disgusted by the thought of having sex.)

While reading about dysphoria I ran a thought experiment about what physical body I feel would best express the person (of unknown gender) I think of myself as being. It would be taller than me (because height is associated psychologically with power and I loathe being short). It would be stronger than I am. It would not be marked as either male or female (that is, and this is a potential anti-TMI, it would lack any and all sex organs).

(Its skin would also possess chemicals that kill mosquitoes and make cats happy, but that is not related to my gender identity.)

So maybe I couldn't fight for the definition of woman to include me, even in a society where women's bodies were respected. Like the color pink, I'm not disowning my body because I'm conforming to society's value system; I'm disowning it because it does not accurately reflect who I am.

Thinking about this stuff feels like trudging through a swamp. Everything became clearer once I came out as ace, but these revelations are much messier. I guess it's a sign that who I am is more complicated than what I want.

An attempt at clarity:

My physical sex is female. However, this body does not accurately represent who I am.

My gender expression includes a large proportion of traits, behaviors, etc that are traditionally masculine. As I try to de-indoctrinate myself, the number of feminine traits I claim has increased, but still does not predominate.

My gender identity is neither male nor female but because I have been raised as a female, it lies closer to that end of the spectrum. In childhood I was indeed a girl, because having masculine-coded traits does not disqualify me as a girl; going forward, however, I do not accept the distinction of being a woman, not because being a woman is bad (it isn't) but because in my case it is inaccurate.

My asexuality is fundamental and related but distinct.

My pronouns: she/her, they/them.

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.

--

Obviously, I am new to all of this. Any recommendations for where to go for more information would be greatly appreciated. I am gingerly considering returning to Tumblr as I think there are a lot of productive discussions/resources on these issues (as well as other topics such as feminism and racism) going on over there, but the site as a whole is so large that I doubt wading in without direction is the most efficient way to find value.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Value of Religion pt. 2

Namely, religion inspires beautiful buildings. Pictures are of various religious buildings from in and around Semarang, Central Java.

Pagoda - Vihara Buddhagaya Watugong complex

Masjid Agung Jawa Tengah (Grand Mosque of Central Java)

Gereja Blenduk (old Dutch church)

Sam Poo Kong complex (dedicated to Admiral Zheng He)

Backdated to July 21 because that was when I saw most of these.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Value of Religion

My relationship with religion has always been pretty straightforward: I'm atheist. After living in a Muslim country for a few weeks, I am still atheist, but I feel compelled to lay out some thoughts about the value of religion and religious practices, because it's a topic I've never sought out and on which my default has been disdain. But religion has been around for a lot longer than I have, and even as I hear the echo of Nietzsche--"even mould ennobleth!"--I want to think about what gives it such staying power.

The subject compels me, perhaps especially so because this weekend was Lebaran, or the end of Ramadhan. People described it to me as "the Muslim Christmas," a time to go back to your hometown, to visit graves, to go around to your neighbors and ask forgiveness for your faults of the past year...

First whisper: "take notice!" I'm an American atheist and I've celebrated Christmas, never with the sincerity and indeed profundity with which people carried out the Lebaran traditions.

Tradition and ritual are, I think, the most important aspects of the holiday. Having a set of rules and procedures is comforting, and ensures that people will go around asking forgiveness, will see their families. If you have religion, you have a ready-made reason to do these things. Religion gives structure to social relations (I do not claim that this is an original thesis) and to people's time.

The social cohesion aspect is fairly obvious, but perhaps easy for someone who doesn't have an analogous community to dismiss. The family analogy doesn't work for me since most of my family is on a different continent.

In a (productive, exhausting) conversation about race that I had last quarter with two of my (white, male) friends, the Christian one said that what I described as a safe space to talk about race sounded similar to the sense of safety and belonging he got from church. Maybe the analogy goes both ways.

The need to belong to a group is one that I've been walking around the past year, or maybe my whole life. (I doubt I am unique in this.) Being aggressively introverted, I don't like to admit that frequently I prefer being around people to being alone. The catch is that I actually have to care about the people, enough to outweigh the energy that they require by virtue of being people. That means that whether being around people is going to be a good experience or not depends on the individuals involved.

But special occasions can override that. Celebrations, some sporting events, parades--in this kind of atmosphere, everyone is a friend, and your "community" expands (elastically; once the event is over individual metrics take over again). On Thursday evening I trailed around the edges of the Lebaran parade on the back of a motorcycle and witnessed that magic madness of crowds that makes people you have never seen before into family members. This is also the post where, because Islam is demonized in America, I get put on a government watch list for saying that I looked upon a crowd of people singing "Allahu akbar" and saw something beautiful.

Religious traditions regulate social relations on person-to-person and person-to-community scales. What does religion do for the individual?

The ulamas start to call around 0330 in the morning. Prayer occurs five times a day and on Fridays the men go to the mosque specially. What is the value of prayer?

I don't pray so I can't say with any authority what it does for people. But I can see the value in setting aside time to be alone with yourself and with the thought of a higher power, because just being alone with yourself does not suffice. I imagine your thoughts become deeper. Of course it is probably possible to pray lazily, even thoughtlessly, but most of the time I imagine the call to prayer is a trigger to think more deeply.

What about fasting? What is the point of denying yourself food and drink from sunrise to sunset? A lot of religions have set fasting times, a day or two, or periods where you give up something.

I'm writing this without looking up the official rationales or asking anyone who participates in such practices. My guess is that the Doylian reason is that arbitrary sacrifices set one religion apart from another, and the Watsonian one is that denial of the physical body promotes spiritual (or mental) clarity, empathy with others' suffering, and discipline. Maybe moral superiority plays a part as well; certainly, I felt craven when eating lunch in the presence of a fasting twelve-year-old.

Notice that none of the beneficial practices I have named specifically require you to believe in a deity. Anyone can visit their family, ask for forgiveness, find a parade to walk in, set aside time to think (this may require some higher ideal to set the tone of the thinking), fast, sacrifice something. But do people do this, without religion guiding or forcing them to it? (Similarly, would people go to school if they didn't have to be there?) Religion acts as rationale and accountability mechanism for a given set of priorities and practices. The value in that, I suppose, is still subjective.

--

Backdated because I actually did write this on 17 July.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Summer 2015 Weeks 1 and 2

Something different today: a look at the work I've been doing. Marginally more technical than usual because this was originally written as an update for my other blog.

What I've been working on:
Setting up the receiver half of a system that is intended to get data from the field in text format and then parse it and put it online in the form of visualizations and CSV files. A lot of the system will run on a Windows XP computer, which presents difficulties because it's an old OS.

The steps that I've accomplished are:
1. Connect modem to computer (via drivers)
2. Connect modem's received texts to the computer's file system (via Gammu)
3. Collect and parse those text files and output them to a CSV file (via Logstash and Elasticsearch)
4. Upload CSV files to the organization's hosted file system (via Core FTP)

I am currently (and have been for most of this week) working on:
5. Figuring out how to visualize the data in graphs
6. Integrate the visualizations into a web page

The original intent was to use the full ELK stack and do the visualizations with Kibana. I actually got to this point, and the graphs were really quite nice. But the next question is, how to get those visualizations onto the internet in a secure way? Port forwarding, even password-protected, has some major safety gaps, and Elasticsearch's in-house security system Shield is expensive (to get a license after the 30-day trial, you need to be a Gold or Platinum subscriber). Now I'm working on learning how to use D3.js, which is free and can run on a web page.

Notes on my workflow since I'll probably find that interesting anthropological data later:

XP computer: for anything that requires actually running the system (testing new Logstash configs, etc). Usually has a couple of different Windows Explorer folders and at least two command prompts open. Chrome on special occasions (needing to look at localhost:9200 [Elasticsearch] or :5601 [Kibana]). Wordpad for editing scripts.

My computer: research. A lot of research. I brought nine books with me to Indonesia but I've probably read more documentation and forum/mailing list posts than paper pages. Usually there are multiple windows of Firefox open, each with several different tabs, with the windows segregated by topic. If I Google something, right-click and open in a new tab so that I don't have to hit backspace. Notepad++ for programming fun.

Small notebook with pencil for writing down what I do/try, idea mapping, to-do lists, etc. Pages are indexed with a Sharpie by topic (mostly, what software I'm working with--Gammu, Logstash, etc.). Pencil has not been sharpened since I got here. Reminder: fix that.

Cup of tea always necessary. Phone used as distraction an alarmingly large amount. Glasses on and off, depending on what kind of eyestrain I'm feeling at the moment.

The next couple of weeks are a holiday because of the end of Ramadhan. I'll take the opportunity to do the heavy-duty introspection that I need. Things to think about:
-myself, as usual. More specifically:
-what I'm going to do with the "revelations" about my gender identity I've had ("revelations" because if we didn't live in an overbearingly cisnormative society && I wasn't oblivious to everything, I'd have realized in elementary school that calling my gender "girl" is less than 100% accurate)
-courage/a sense of adventure and my admiration of those who have it
-what I've learned about myself from working for two weeks
-what I need to be happy and content where I am
-how I disagree with people whom I admire
-my quest to become more high-functioning (or rather, to function at all) in high-context situations

And things that are less self-centered:
-stories I've heard about traditional Indonesian beliefs
-the intersection of environmental, economic, and social good in organizations such as the one I'm interning for
-how Indonesian Islamism also informs the above
-folk tales and science
-what makes a book good (this is also self-centered in the sense that it involves taste, which is largely subjective)
-and just for fun, since I've been rereading a lot of Paul Graham essays, environmentalist startups

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On the Dimensional Escalation of Character Profiles

The second week in Indonesia begins. I haven't written as much as I should, possibly because I've discovered something more immediately gratifying to do related to my portfolio of stories: make character profiles.

Character profiles in this case amounts to a simple list of character attributes, demographic data, weird things I associate with them, music, similar characters from other works. As an example:

-

Full Name: Marilla [middlename] Rieux

Birth Date: November something
Hair: long, straight, brown / ends dyed blue in modern AU
Eyes: dark blue
Height: 5'6"
Gender: Cis female
Sexuality: Homoromantic/sexual (lesbian)
Ethnicity: French
Religion: Catholic
Voice: soprano

Related weird things:
Animal: Sparrow
Color/Number: 06
Flower: Lily
God - Greek: Artemis
Hogwarts House: Ravenclaw
Instrument: Clarinet, piano
MBTI: INFJ
Stone: Sapphire

Similar characters:
Belle - Beauty and the Beast
Jena - Wildwood Dancing
Kagome - InuYasha
Nita - Young Wizards
Sailor Mercury - Sailor Moon

Music:
Lorde (especially "Team")
Owl City
Faded Paper Figures
Mika (especially "Elle Me Dit")
"Take Me to Church" - Alice Christiansen cover

Creator's notes:
Last name after Doctor Rieux from Camus's Plague

-

These are fun for a few reasons: it's similar to taking personality quizzes but it's for someone else, it's easy (because you fill in what you know and if you don't know an answer you just delete that field for now), it lets you consider your character from different points of view (what kind of tea is my character, after all?), and it provides you a common platform for looking at your characters, which means that you can discover patterns. Everyone loves patterns (everyone's brains, at least).

The first character profile I made was of Vincent Linden, my main Doppelgänger, and I made it at the beginning of the year because for some reason, writing that Vin identified as aro/ace (prior to falling in love for the first time at age 25) felt like a necessary step in claiming my own identity as an asexual.

(My experience with my Doppelgangers has made me very sympathetic to the use of thinly veiled self inserts. Vin was a civil engineer before I knew I wanted to be one. Terez, the current WIP's Doppelgänger, is helping me think about my gender identity.) (Spoiler alert: I'm questioning it.)

The one that started off the current spree was Stefano Idoni, main character of the as yet undeveloped Shadow Fissure. He and Marilla are both very different from me and I wanted to list a lot of details about him to try to triangulate an identity. Of course characters develop as you write them, but I wanted a first guess from which to iterate, especially since I don't (think I) personally know anyone who can serve in a pinch as the proxy.

Marilla is very similar to my best friend since they're both INFJ single children with long brown hair, a love of the ocean, and advanced observational skills. They're definitely different, and Marilla was not based on LS, but the similarities were useful enough that early on, I could ask as a check for character plausibility "would LS have done that?" If the answer was hell no, then it was wrong. "Maybe not?" could still stand.

For Stefano, there isn't anyone analogous, so asking "what Hogwarts house would he be in?" actually provided useful information. (The answer is Hufflepuff, by the way.) Modern-America-AUing it also helped a lot. Which university would he go to? Stanford, I found.* Why? Because it would mean disregarding his father's wish for him to go to an Ivy League school and instead spend his college years in California. Which dorm would he live in his freshman year? Ujamaa. Of course. What would he major in? Probably public policy, but I discovered to my utter surprise that he would minor or double major in computer science.**

*You may accuse me of being biased and working from my narrow experience. Fair enough. But Stanford is a school full of ambitious idealists an Ste is definitely one of those.

**Or CS+Public Policy?

What does this mean when I write the Bildungsroman of a medieval Italian prince, that in 21st century America he would study computer science at Stanford University in California? It means he has a methodical mind, that he pays attention to detail, that he likes to think about systems, that he takes advantage of the situations presented to him, that he is willing to learn new things and not just in a superficial way. Why is he interested in CS? 1) The intellectual challenge and reward of making something out of nothing. 2) The practicality of being able to do so. Not the prestige, the money, or the glamor. He likes to hack situations in beneficial ways. (Remember: he is a Hufflepuff.)

I was worried about Stefano. He started off in the very first iteration of SF as an evil prince, then a Machiavellian prince, then swung all the way to being a shiny ingenuous pure-hearted Disney prince who is the very paragon of goodness and also not a character I could bear to spend any time writing.

But now I know that his patron god is Apollo, just like Octavian, and that while the Hufflepuff could have been predicted it's significant in that he is Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor, as one might expect for a guy who is expected to lead an army. Realizing that he's a closeted CS guy is my most important discovery, because it introduces a note of tension. He's not just a fuzzy-hearted golden prince: he's also a guy who, in the right circumstances, would stay up late writing extensions to a project because he thought wow, this would be useful at midnight and then could not bear to go to sleep until he'd made the damn thing work.

Despite the mileage I've gotten out of the "Stefano likes to code" discovery, I still suspect he will be a more difficult character to write than Marilla, and Marilla is a difficult character to write compared to Vin. But at least I have a better idea of who he is. I don't know any princes, but I do know programmers.

As my story ideas go, Shadow Fissure is more close to critical mass than most others (critical mass being the point at which it becomes something I could start writing). Marilla is of course my current main character, and I am Vin. But it is also fun to make these profiles for characters who have not yet found their story yet, and realize how consistent they are already and also where there are gaps in your knowledge of them. The main thing that's missing is often what was missing for Stefano: a source of tension, contrast, even contradiction. Real people are three dimensional, and characters should aspire to that, but to get a character off the ground often I need that duality as kind of a starter. The ideal is that then I write the character large enough to enclose the contrast believably.

The list is one dimensional; but see where it may lead.