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.


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.

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