Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gender Sanity

I hadn't thought much about gender identity in awhile, but at NEU one of my new friends, Michael, led a talk on transgender issues, and that reminded me of a great site I found earlier this year. It's called Gender Sanity, which I think is a fantastic name. I found it by googling "gender scale" to see if there was a gender identity equivalent to the Kinsey Scale, which is used to explain the spectrum of sexual orientation. On this page I found that there are actually several scales relating to different aspects of gender, and I found it interesting to see where I fall on each of the various scales.

The first scale deals with biological sex, with male at one end and female on the other. This one should be a no-brainer, right? I mean, you're either born with a wee-wee or a hoo-hah, right? Well, no, not exactly. For most people biological sex is a more cut-and-dried issue than, say, sexual orientation, but there are still many ways in which people can fall toward the middle of the scale. In my case, I was born 100% biologically female, but I have a hormone disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome which gives me a smidge more testosterone than your average woman. Since biological sex includes hormones, this inches me slightly to the left of "purely 100% female", though I certainly have all the working female parts and would not consider myself anywhere near being intersex. I suppose I'm "slightly-less-pure 99% female", the main consequence being that I spend more time shaving than most women. I struggle a bit with the fact that society has for some reason decided women cannot have one single strand of body hair without being disgusting trolls, but otherwise it's not a big deal.

But for many people, biological sex is a more ambiguous thing. In terms of chromosomes, most men are XY and most women are XX, but men with Klinefelter syndrome are XXY. The Y chromosome ensures they are still essentially biologically male (they have a penis and testicles), but they may have some feminine features such as a more rounded body type or breast development. There are also women with Turner syndrome, who have only one X chromosome. Just as Klinefelter men are male but not "male enough", Turner women are female but not "female enough". People with both these conditions are generally infertile. Then there are people who are born with ambiguous genitalia, or with unambiguous genitalia that nevertheless don't match their chromosomes, or with missing genitalia. There are people who don't go through natural puberty, because their bodies either don't produce or are insensitive to the hormones that would turn them into pubescent men and women. In short, biological sex isn't as simple as it sounds.

The next scale deals with gender identity, or your internal sense of what gender you are. This is generally what transpeople are referring to when they say that they were born into the wrong body; their gender identity is/was at odds with their biological sex. Gender identity is what made me look this up in the first place, because mine is weird. I kind of feel like I don't have one. Sure, I've been socialized as a female and had all kinds of dolls and pink things as a child. But in terms of the sense of who I am, I just don't factor gender into it much at all. My favorite toys as a kid were mainly unisex things: building blocks, video games, jungle gyms and art supplies. I've never felt masculine or wanted to be a boy, but I've never felt feminine either, never felt that being female was a big part of my identity. My interests are a pretty even mix of "guy stuff" and "girl stuff", perhaps leaning more toward the guy side much of the time. Gender just isn't much of who I am. This is one reason I'm grateful to be aware of transgender issues, because it would be very easy for me to go through life believing that everyone else is like me and that gender identity doesn't exist or is socially constructed. But I would be wrong. Gender identity absolutely *is* a big part of who many people are. Just not me.

The third scale covers gender expression: the way you dress, your mannerisms, and the general impression you send the world about what gender you are. Once again, I find myself somewhere to the middle of the scale. I wouldn't call myself androgynous, necessarily, because androgyny tends to imply a person who intentionally uses clothing or mannerisms typically associated with the opposite gender: men in makeup, women in suits, things like that. I tend to be most comfortable in gender-neutral clothing: jeans, t-shirts, some makeup but not much, some jewelry but not much. In very heavily gendered clothing I'm uncomfortable. If you put me in men's clothing, I'd feel weird, though I might find the novelty kind of fun. If you put me in a dress and heels, I'd feel even weirder (long hippie skirts are an exception, mostly because they're so comfortable). I do tend to prefer that my hair and face look feminine, but still less feminine than women are "supposed" to look. I don't do flat-irons and curlers and such. My mannerisms are NOT feminine; I don't "sit like a lady", I don't flip my hair, I talk pretty loud. Basically my gender expression matches my gender identity: vague and noncommittal, leaning towards feminine but only very slightly.

The final scale on the page is the Kinsey Scale I mentioned earlier, covering sexual orientation, with "attracted to men" at one end, "attracted to women" at the other, and "bisexual" in the center, though of course people's stated identities don't always match the scale 100%. Most people, regardless of their stated identities, are neither purely heterosexual or purely homosexual, but somewhere in between. Personally, I play hopscotch on the Kinsey Scale. At various points in my life I've been exclusively attracted to men, exclusively attracted to women, attracted to men more than women, attracted to women more than men, attracted to both equally, or not attracted to anyone. I'm pretty sure I signed the Jasmyn paperwork with a different orientation every time that I went there. "Bisexual" is probably most accurate, but it never felt right to me, in part because I kept changing my mind, in part because it reinforces the idea that there are only two genders, and in part because people carry so many assumptions about it that really don't apply to me. Most recently I've settled on calling myself simply "queer". It makes it clear that I consider myself something other than straight and that I'm not ashamed of it, but it doesn't tie me down. I also like that people aren't sure exactly what it means: I'd rather have people go "huh?" and have to ask me about it than jump to conclusions that aren't true. The only downside is that many people assume it's a synonym for gay, which can drive away guys I might want to date, but then I wouldn't want to date anyone who hasn't taken the time to get to know me, so I don't worry about that much.

The idea is that I'm attracted to who people are, not what's in their pants.

So on all counts except biological sex (which in my case is pretty clear-cut), gender is a vague, ambiguous thing that I mostly kind of ignore. I've found that I'm usually most comfortable being friends with people who aren't very "gendered" one way or the other; I have little in common with people who are very masculine or very feminine, because I don't relate to either of those traits. My scales are mostly in line with each other, but that's not true for everyone. Some biological males who have no desire to become female like to put on dresses and makeup. Some straight people are transgendered. Some gay men are very masculine and some lesbians very feminine. You get the idea.

And while the scales are useful, they're not perfect. You get people like me who hop around the scales or don't fit on them at all. And that website puts asexuals in the middle of the Kinsey scale, but I don't think my one firmly asexual friend would agree with that. The scale is useless to her. And I'm not sure that all intersex people would consider themselves "between" male and female. But imperfect though they are, the scales are useful for introducing people to the idea that gender, sex, and sexual orientation are not strict dualities with no room for ambiguity. Gender is a complicated thing, and we as a society need to get over the idea that it's simple and clear. That's the first step not only to accepting transpeople, but also to freeing children from learning oppressive, enforced gender roles. The more people understand the complexities of gender, the closer we come to creating a culture in which people are free to be exactly who they are.


Netzi said...

And that's why sexual orientation and gender identity issues are appealing. There's more to them than what people think.

Great post.

hahamommy said...

Wow! What an intimate post for my first comment ;)
I heard a talk once of the Oglala Sioux's 7 categories for gender identity:
Male 1/2 spirit
Female 1/2 spirit
--marry one another to "become complete"
Male w/female spirit, lives as man or woman, generally asexual
Male w/female spirit, lives as man or woman, possibly though not necessarily homosexual
Female w/male spirit, lives as man or woman, generally asexual
Female w/male spirit, lives as man or woman, possibly homosexual
Wakonda, Sacred "transcending of gender" humans; usually shaman.

I cannot find a clear description on teh interwebs, so I will have to track down an original source, from my source... The description alone made *so* much sense to me, I hope it brings some peace, knowing you made sense to someones, somewheres, sometime :D

Annie said...

Very interesting. Sorry I can't say anything more concrete than that :) I did very much appreciate your consideration on this: "...it would be very easy for me to go through life believing that everyone else is like me and that gender identity doesn't exist or is socially constructed. But I would be wrong. Gender identity absolutely *is* a big part of who many people are. Just not me."

(Also, *waves* I'm reading up a little on unschooling and some stuff around it, so I'm poking around a bit)