Sometimes the Whole Doesn’t Equal the Sum of the Parts

You can only bury your identity for so long. There will always be people around you who say that labels don’t matter, or that how people perceive you doesn’t matter, and while that certainly sounds sensible and logical, it kind of adds up to bullshit.

We all want to be seen for what and who we are. Even if what we are doesn’t conform to the package we might present with (especially if what we really are doesn’t conform with the package we present with), we still have a desire for people to see the real us.

Pragmatists can argue all they want about how it’s what’s inside that counts, and that our happiness shouldn’t be determined by other people’s acceptance, and that you shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think anyway, but those people can shut the fuck up. It sucks to interact with the world and cringe every time you are mis-named or mis-labeled or mis-gendered. It’s an involuntary reaction. You can’t control your discomfort — even if you try to internalize those feelings, a glaring red buzzer goes off in your brain every time someone gets it wrong.

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That’s not my name. That’s not who I am.

Think about that time that dude you worked with called you the wrong name and then you were too embarrassed to let him know, and now every time he sees you he still gets it wrong — are you cool with that? Or does it bug you every. single. time?

Even more simple than that — don’t you get irritated when you give the Starbucks barista your name and she writes it wrong on your cup? No seriously — do you brush it off or do you tell everyone about it for the rest of the day?

Being seen — really seen — is a basic human need.

We all need an identity. Of course part of that identity is what we do in life, the kind of person we are (our morals, our spirituality, our driving force), and a variety of other things, but at the core of our identity are our gender and sexuality (or at least terms that define those in some way).

I don’t think that gender and sexuality are necessarily more important than other aspects of our identity, but because they impact how we relate to others in terms of psychosocial interactions, they tend to be the focus of how we define ourselves. It also naturally follows that because these are the first two identities assigned to us at birth, they end up being attributed as having primary importance.

It’s understandable then, why this is so problematic: The attributes that are at the core of our identities — name, gender and sex — are chosen for us, rather than by us.

Obviously it might be a bit impractical to avoid assigning any of these identities until children reach puberty, but it would certainly be an interesting societal shift if at age 13 we could all have a re-naming ceremony where we decided for ourselves what and who we are. Even that doesn’t satisfy me completely — I think identity can be fluid. I think maybe it should be fluid. In the space of an eighty-year lifetime, why should we be expected to be static beings? Why must we be content to stay in our boxes?

With each label we are assigned as babies, there comes a set of expectations. This means that we are moulded by those expectations, rather than left to grow into who we really are. Even something as simple as the choice of a name can change us because of how those around us make both conscious and subconscious assumptions associated with our moniker. People (think they) know the difference between a Brad and a Brody and a Matt, or a Judith and a Jenny and a Muffy.

So even if labels shouldn’t matter, the reality is that we’ve already been labeled — wanting to re-label ourselves so that people get it right is a pretty natural reaction to what is already an unnatural situation.

For some, making changes coincides with physical transitioning which helps their bodies match the label that they identify with. For others, making changes is not so simple. Not everyone can (or wants to) fit into a normative box. Just because someone is male or female doesn’t mean they will fit into a straight-edged box of how society defines what is male or female. In many cases, a person isn’t going to fit into either binary label. And really, what is the point of setting that as a goal anyway? If we are going to define ourselves, why feel constricted by how society defines those labels?

I suppose the most obvious answer to that question is that labels only work if the person you’re communicating with knows what they mean. That’s certainly been the criticism that people have levelled against they/xe pronouns. I think that’s a lazy excuse. Every day we apply and use unique labels for the people we meet — their names. We don’t say, “I’m sorry, it’s too complicated to call you Dave. I’m going to call you Steve, just like I use for all my friends. Calling you your own name is too much work to remember.” We learn our friends’ names, and when we meet someone new, we don’t assume that their name is Steve — we ask — and then use the right name from then on (unless we’re complete jerks).

The fact that some people are more complicated in the sense that they don’t fit established labels only makes them unique. But we’re all unique. We all possess unique characteristics that make up our character and identity, and people remember those unique characteristics. You know that Bob is your friend who loves show tunes, and that Becka is your friend who loves grapes but only the seedless kind.

When we ask the people around us to use the correct labels or names to identify us, we’re asking for no more than what we all do already for the people we care about: For them to know us and see us for who we really are. By asking, we’re just pointing out that yes, this is a thing that really matters to me. It’s not asking for special treatment — it’s something you should already be doing for someone you care about. It’s just pointing you in the right direction.

When you refuse or ignore your friend’s request to acknowledge their real self, it’s a pretty fundamental rejection. You’re saying, “you’re not worth it.” It’s like telling your friend that you’re allergic to peanuts and they keep offering you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every time you come over. Quite frankly, if you do that to me, I’m going to decide very quickly that we’re not friends. That’s not me being ‘picky’ — that’s you being a crappy friend.

And who needs crappy friends?

/rk

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I Dub Thee XYZ

IMG_0057To say I have never felt the need to define my identity would not be fair or accurate. It has simply never seemed to me to be a thing that is static or definable. At any point in time I may present a certain way, or think of myself in certain terms, but these labels always feel transient and insufficient. I resist being pinned down. I fear being labeled one thing forever.

It might be an easier prospect if any one label had ever possessed any sense of ‘rightness’. Instead I’ve spent a lifetime feeling like an enigma even to myself, and that’s a lot less sexy and mysterious than it sounds. While labels may not be important to everyone, they are useful tools in explaining what you’re (at least superficially) about to the outside world. More important than the labels themselves is what they represent — a clear sense of self — which I don’t have. Or is it that I am just afraid of saying the words out loud and committing to being unchangeable from this point on? What if the thing I think I am today is wrong and what I really am doesn’t even exist yet?

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My earliest identity was pretty typically defined by my relationships: I was a child to my parents and a sister to my brother. That I was a sister and inherently female didn’t actually establish itself as a thought process for me back then as much as that we were different from each other. I was older and he was younger. I was not him and he was not me, and therefore his role was brother and son and mine was sister and daughter. There was a certain logic and balance to that and it didn’t feel overly clouded by sex or gender, especially given that we dressed pretty similarly most of the time (hand-me-downs in the 70s meant a lot of plaid shirts and cords or overalls for both of us).

Beginning daycare and school brought new and confusing questions about my identity. Suddenly gender roles became an unavoidable part of my existence, and my less-than-skillful ability to decipher and mirror them led to alienation from my peers. Nothing felt natural or right. I knew I wasn’t like the boys (all the boys I knew were either athletic and confident or cruel and violent). But I also didn’t feel like I was one of the girls. Kids (male and female) would tell me I wasn’t pretty enough to be a girl and that my freckles made my face look dirty. I was simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the other girls in my class; they could also be cruel, but usually through emotional manipulation or shunning. I would try to fit in with them by mirroring behaviours, or giving them gifts, or dressing the same, but that just ended up painting me as the weird stalker girl. So I switched from trying too hard to not trying at all.

For a long time after that, my identity was… nothing. Invisibility. Most of this was self-preservation. Being invisible protected me from bullying at school. It protected me from abuse at daycare (It was a sickly mixture of pride and relief that I felt when one abuser said, as he repeatedly whipped my brother and I across the legs with a wet towel, “Why can’t you be more like her, you don’t hear her crying, do you?”). Being able to be quiet and disappear into myself saved me from what I was sure would only be worse abuse. It made me a boring target. I got very good at stifling my emotions and not reacting. No jumping at sudden noises. No flinching. No me. Being no person and having no identity seemed like the safest identity, even if it wasn’t a real identity at all.

Obviously I couldn’t stay invisible forever, and I made various attempts throughout my childhood and teens to reach out and form connections. Even though I feared the inevitable rejection when I was bound to screw something up and alienate them, I still ran into the occasional person who lit up my senses and made me want to know them more than my fear warned me against it. This meant locking down my gender identity. Well, sort of. It was more by a process of default than anything else. Heteronormativity was what presented itself, and so that’s what I was, at least on the surface: A girl attracted to boys. It was the only option that seemed viable in the environment I was in (or so I thought at the time: naivety might be responsible for my narrow view of the world at that time). If I wanted my friendships with girls to thrive, I needed to be straight. I’d already learned in the past that coming on too strong would put them off. I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk crossing any lines and losing my one friend (There was always only one friend. It might have been a different one friend at different times through the years, but I have always been a best friend kind of person. And that’s not necessarily a good thing: I tend to put all my expectations and desires in one pot, and that’s a lot to live up to.) Being ‘normal’ (at least on the outside) felt safe and reassuring. Spending my time with girls while mooning over the occasional guy felt right. I liked girls and boys in different ways. I just wasn’t sure if the different ways were the same as my girlfriends. I did know that I didn’t seem to be attracted to the same kinds of guys that everyone else I knew was.

IMG_0162Looking back, it feels a lot like I just put thinking about my identity on hold. I just assumed I was cis-gendered. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I assumed that cis-gendered was how I was going to live and that no other option was really viable. Not being female didn’t feel like an option. I also knew I wasn’t gay because I liked guys (well, some of them, anyway). But in my private explorations and masturbatory fantasies, I knew that I fantasized about both men and women sexually.

It wasn’t until my 20s when suddenly I was very strongly attracted to a friend of my best friend that I came out as bisexual to her (the best friend, that is). After that point I felt no qualms about sharing this fact with boyfriends or anyone who would ask, but it didn’t actually yield much in terms of relationships with women other than being invited into a few foursomes in college.

Once I married for the first time, I felt like any chance at being anything other than an outwardly straight woman was completely gone. Having a child left me feeling even more locked in. In a similar way to when I was a child, my identity was once again defined by my relationships, except now there was an added burden. I felt I needed to be those things out of responsibility to them. It didn’t feel possible to change who I was without causing irreparable harm to the people around me.

When that marriage fell apart, and the one after that as well, I still felt confused and dissatisfied with the image I was projecting to the world. An unfortunate choice of treatment with anti-depressants for what turned out to be anxiety due to bipolar ended up pushing me into hypomania (and inevitably full-blown mania and delusions, followed by a horrible crash of severe depression). During this period I started chasing the numbers on the scale (and on my clothes) downward. I became obsessed with the number zero, or even better, less than zero. I got my weight down to 103, sure that I could crack the lower side of the 100-mark. I made it to zero in clothing sizes and counted it as a victory when I fit into my first piece of clothing in the 00 size (and then even a pair of jeans in the juniors department). It was more complicated than anorexia or body dysmorphia. I was experiencing a recurrence of my childhood identity crisis and my desire to disappear, but with a new twist. I couldn’t be me unless I could see my bones. The only way to truly get to the truth of who I was inside would be to bring the inside out. The flesh was getting in the way of my real self. For so many years I had avoided cameras and reflections of myself because what I saw looking back at me didn’t match the image in my mind. Suddenly I could see the real me peeking through. I didn’t shy away from cameras anymore (Although ironically, there are almost no pictures of this period of time because when you develop a reputation for not wanting your picture taken, people start to take you at your word).

In spite of being a fundamentally unhealthy thought process, it was the first time in my life that I felt like I was finally coming close to understanding who and what I was, and what I was meant to become. As the pounds fell away and I lost the more obvious characteristics of being ‘feminine’, like breasts and curves (and having regular periods), and could see what lay underneath, I felt more comfortable in my body. I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was, gender-wise, but I no longer felt so locked into decisions that had been made for me before birth. My body wasn’t forcing me to be a woman.

Of course, delusions (and there were many more than just those tied into my body) generally can’t be allowed to continue unchecked, and I eventually had to be treated for my mental illness, a process that involved a cocktail of drugs that fortunately/unfortunately caused me to gain all the weight back (and much, much more). I wouldn’t say I was healthy physically or mentally (I mostly felt emotionally and sexually castrated). I felt trapped by my body again, and thanks to my crazy-person shenanigans, I had no job and anything approaching any sense of personal identity had been obliterated.

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This is getting to be an awfully long story of personal discovery for it to have no personal discovery at the culmination of it.

I’d like to say that seven years from my breakdown I’ve had a revelation and finally have my shit together as far as my sexual and gender identity are concerned. In terms of sexuality, I finally became part of a community where being bisexual or gender non-conforming is accepted, but it hasn’t yielded any serious relationships with women. I did fall in love again and marry a man; although I confess that what initially attracted me to him was the fact that he didn’t entirely fit a 100% masculine mold (he’s definitely cis-male, but the first man I’ve been with who is more heteroflexible than heteronormative).

For a while, I thought I was beginning to grasp my sexuality and labeled it pansexual, outwardly explaining it as being attracted to people without regards to gender, but inwardly being pretty sure that what attracted me most was both of those things in one person, especially gender-fluid people and specifically persons with both male and female sex organs/characteristics. This set off a whole series of confused shame feelings while I tried to parse whether what I was doing was simply fetishizing transwomen. I don’t think there is a simple answer to that; ultimately I think that fantasies are fine (and private), as long as you treat real people with respect.

This revelation didn’t interfere with my relationship with my husband, since we are polyamorous and thankfully I could be open about it. But it still didn’t entirely answer questions I still had about my own gender identity. I didn’t feel male or female, but as usual I just let people assume I was female because not only did I not want to have to explain how I felt, I also didn’t have the words to explain how I felt.

Then my sexuality up and slipped away.

I know that this is not unique. There are people all over the world that experience sexual dysfunction, and while I know that technically this is what I am experiencing, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like transformation. Whether it’s from the drugs I take or from nerve damage from my diabetes, I started losing sensitivity; gradually at first, until one day I realized it was just gone. But it’s more than that: I don’t feel any sexual attraction at all anymore. I have zero interest in sex. I am still romantically attracted to people (I think? When you go from a hypersexual being to no longer having any sexual feelings, it can be a bit tough to separate sex and romance for the first time in your life). At first this terrified me, not because I missed sex, but because I didn’t. And that hurt, because I didn’t know how to explain that to my husband. I felt a bit like I had committed fraud in marrying him and then turning around and completely changing the deal.

Claiming an asexual identity also feels like a betrayal. Coming out as asexual means more than just claiming something for myself, it is a reflection upon him and on our marriage. It also turns us into a cliché: the couple who is poly because the wife is frigid.

I’m still not even addressing my gender identity, am I? I put it off and put it off because I always have this sense that anything I lay claim to and change later on then becomes a lie. When I say I don’t have the words or terms to express who I am, that also isn’t as true as it once was: we’re smack in the middle of a gender revolution and treating my own situation like I’m some special snowflake only hurts me, because my struggle is invisible. No one knows that they mis-gender me, because I don’t correct them. Stewing over things other people say because they don’t understand me makes me sound like some emo teenager pouting in my room. But I spend a lot of time feeling “what’s the point” of coming out when it will just increase the pressures and expectations upon me to conform to a new ideal. Being cis is easy. It’s a cop out and you shouldn’t be a thing just because it’s the easy thing to do, but that it is easier no one can deny.

I don’t want to be male or female. Or at least, I don’t feel like I am either of those things. I joked to my husband that “I’m male in the winter and female in the summer,” but that was really a simplification and doesn’t suffice as an explanation. I think gender-fluid or agender feels more correct, but even those words don’t cover it properly. Maybe I’m just androgynous and it isn’t a gender thing at all, but I don’t think so. Certainly I present as mostly femme, but I can’t figure out how much of that is down to socialization: I don’t fully have the confidence to let myself not be female and explore what that might look like. Much like being openly asexual, I feel scared about what the implications are to my husband and son if I explore my complicated relationship with gender openly. It should be stated, clearly, that my husband, rather than freaking out at my revelations, has been very supportive. But it’s one of those things that you don’t really know how it will go until you’re in the middle of it, you know?

There are no great revelations here. It feels a bit like running internal diagnostics. All I can do is rule out what I’m not and work closer to the truth. I’m not straight. I’m not male or female. I don’t think I’m trans (although the trans* umbrella feels closest to correct). Asexual agender polyamorous panromantic feels something like close to right in this moment, but that might change an hour from now.

I just want to be allowed the same freedom granted to every new age hippie to ‘find myself’, at my own pace, and by my own terms.

/rk

Third Gender

(WHAT THE BURRNESHA, FA’AFAFINE AND TWO-SPIRITED CAN TEACH US ABOUT
NON-BINARY GENDER ACCEPTANCE)

While there are clear examples of gender fluidity and/or transgender identity among many cultures, there exist few examples where members of these subcultures are able exist openly with the acceptance and encouragement of other members of their community.

Some, like the burrnesha (aka. sworn virgins) of Albania — women living as men — have their identities thrust upon them. Born into a patrilineal society, Kanun law dictated that property and land be handed down to the eldest males, and when nature did not produce sons (or violent feuds killed off all the male members of a family), daughters needed to step into that role. It was no small commitment: Women were required to take a vow of celibacy and from that day forward dress and behave like the men of their community for the rest of their lives.

Qamile Stema (photo credit: Luis Dafos)

Interestingly, the evolving culture of acceptance around this identity also created the possibility for women to make the choice to live as men voluntarily. In spite of the sacrifice of sexuality through celibacy, this form of gender transition was obviously greatly appealing to those who did not identify with the gender assigned them at birth, and also afforded them not just acceptance, but respect.

Given the historical context of forced marriages in a patriocentric society, it is not unreasonable to attribute a certain percentage of these voluntary conversions to a simple desire for more freedom:

“Imagine […] marrying at the age of 15, 16, 17 years old, conceivably to a husband who might be 40, 50, 60. On your wedding night, your father might slip a bullet into your suitcase, for your husband’s use in case you’re not a virgin […] You will never talk back. You will make no decision, even when it comes to the children to whom you give birth. You will not smoke or drink or shoot a gun. From sunup to sundown, your life will be full of hard labor. According to the Kanun: “A woman is known as a sack made to endure as long as she lives in her husband’s house.””

[… read the rest of my essay at Medium.com]

 

Hope you enjoy it!  I’ll be returning to something more bloggy tomorrow.

/rk

You Keep Using That Word

We asked for this, you know.  When they changed dictionaries to include ‘figuratively’ as an alternate meaning for literally we were basically asking for trouble.  Literally, even.

thatwordIt turns out religious conservatives were right all along:  It is a slippery slope.  And they’re leading the charge.

The number of words and phrases that are being twisted and misused lately would be humorous, if it weren’t also insidiously shaping our consciousness.  Listed below are a few of my personal (un)favourites (feel free to add yours in the comments):

Intolerance:  Accusing liberals of being ‘intolerant of your intolerance towards homosexuals’, besides making very little common sense, is simply inaccurate.  I am not intolerant of your intolerance; I am outright telling you that you’re a bigot.  People are under no obligation to accept or ignore you being shitty to another human being, whether it’s for religious reasons or just because your’e a jerk.

Fascism:  (commonly coined ‘Liberal Fascism’)  This one goes along with ‘intolerance of my intolerance’.  It gets thrown around a lot when conservatives say things that aren’t politically correct* (e.g. homophobic, racist, misogynist) and there is public outcry.  If you got to say your shitty thing and no one killed you, put you in prison, or overthrew your government by force, and ultimately all you got was your feelings hurt, that’s not fascism.  (Oh — if it got you fired, see freedom of speech**.)

*Politically Correct:  Here’s the thing:  You want to make this sound like a thing that is only correct because people are too ashamed to admit they don’t believe in its correctness.  But you know what?  Most of us just think of those things as ‘correct’.  Also decent and reasonable.  If you don’t really think they are, that’s just you.

**Freedom of Speech:  You are totally free to say any old nasty thing you want.  Free, free, free.  But stop acting all surprised when there are consequences to saying those things.  It’s disingenuous.  Freedom of speech laws like the U.S.’s 1st Amendment protect against repercussions from the government.  That’s it.  It doesn’t mean people can’t tell you you’re wrong (hey look — they have free speech too!) or that your employer can’t fire you.  I mean, when it comes down to it, you’re free to do a lot of things.  You’re free to kill people, for example, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to try to stop you or that there won’t be consequences for those actions.  And if your strongest argument for what you have to say is “I’m allowed!” then you’re mostly going to sound like a petulant five-year-old.

Reverse Racism:  First of all, um, that would just be… racism.  Secondly, unless you are part of a group that has been systematically and historically marginalized, then no.  You can convince me that someone was prejudiced against you and was a total jerk, but you are not being subjected to racism.

Bullying:  That one time that person was a jerk to you — not bullying.  Show me a pattern of behaviour and we’ll talk.  The latest take on this involves the new same-sex discrimination law in Mississippi, with accusations that stores that display pro-LGBT shopper stickers are bullying Christians.  Presumably because it will draw a stark contrast to those shops who don’t display them.  But here’s the thing, not having stickers isn’t what will single you out.  How you treat your LGBT patrons will.  If your real goal was to preserve your own rights, you wouldn’t care that people knew where it was safe for them to shop.  Unless maybe your goal was to institute a law that created an environment of intimidation and uneasiness where people were afraid to show their true selves and instead have to conform to your idea of appropriate behaviour lest they suffer the consequences.  You know, unless that.

Words do, it turns out, matter.  They have power.  And while you can’t restrict people’s use of them (nor should you), I think you really have to have your mind open to how they are used to manipulate.  There are very clear patterns here:  One is to co-opt words that have been used against the transgressor and to twist them around and hurl them back at the accuser.  The other is to purposefully use inflammatory words in mundane circumstances.  For example, I refuse to take you seriously if you accuse someone of being a Nazi (e.g. feminazi).  Are they guilty of the genocide of your people?  No.  Then stop using that word.

The problem with this sort of nonsense is that it tends to eliminate any possibility of reasonable discourse or argument. And I know, religious conservatives, you’re probably saying:  But all those other people aren’t being reasonable because they’re saying I’m wrong!  I’m being persecuted!  Here is my basic problem with that assertion:  You are trying to restrict the rights and freedoms of other people.  The only right or freedom that you are being restricted on is your ability to restrict rights and freedoms.  This isn’t a live and let live situation.  You want to impose your beliefs on everyone, legally and institutionally, whether they share those beliefs or not — which sounds a lot more like fascism to me.

But I wouldn’t use that word.

/rk