Some Words (not all nice) on Gender

This year I met trans people who have helped shape the way I see the world and listen. It is like I have new ears that now begin to pick up gender oppression coming from channels I never expected.

Just this week, I felt shocked and unsettled by words I heard and read, some coming from trusted sources. Seems even in “progressive” queer circles, gays and lesbians need to sort out their issues around gender. Our societies taught us severe rules in regards to gender presentation. Just like the ex-gay movement vehemently seeks to stamp out same-sex attraction and behavior (along with behavior and presentations that are not gender normal) many gay, lesbian and bisexual people insist that queer people must act “normal” in regards to gender, or they will be punished.

Punishment comes in many forms but often begins with a look and a few words.

Overheard at a street fair in Palm Springs.
A very gay male/gay-friendly crowd gathered at this street fair on Thursday night. As I walked past some booths, I overheard a man lash out in harsh tones at someone near by. I can’t say for sure, but from the company he was in, I assumed the man hurling insults was gay. He sneered:

Choose a gender that works and stick with it!

I then saw the gender blended person he attacked. Male and female beautifully balanced with the hair style, clothing, makeup and walk. Yet this look provoked the man who saw the genderqueer person. Unhappy with ambiguous gender, he verbally flogged the person.

Words of a friend on gender exploration
Recently I spoke with a gay bio male friend on my pondering about gender in general and mine in particular. I stated that I don’t always feel 100% male, that I feel I am part male and part female and want to understand and express my gender more fully. I added that I’m looking to buy more pieces of women’s and unisex clothing to add to my wardrobe as one of the ways that I can explore my gender. As I spoke he gave me disapproving looks and he replied,

You are exploring someone else’s gender. You are male, Peterson.

A respected web source pontificates in the dark
In reporting about New York City’s recent decision to allow trans people to change their sex status on their IDs without having to have sex reassignment surgery, a usually thoughtful and insightful blogger I like to read shocked me with her opinion on the decision.

I’m with some of the doctors on this one. I think it’s extreme, and potentially problematic from a legal identification and social standpoint (affirmative action, population and demographics spring to mind). Birth records are supposed to be factual and a matter of legal and historical record. I believe in self-identification and self-definition. I believe that gender roles are socially prescribed. But how you identify yourself and live your life doesn’t change how you popped out of your mama’s womb.

I think of the often clueless and hurtful words about same-sex attraction and the “gay lifestyle” I hear coming from straight people, many of them well meaning and identifying as my ally. I know they still have things to learn about gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and I try to be gracious trusting the heart from which they speak. In the same way as a gay bio male, I learn bit by bit how my mind needs to be renewed in regards to gender and in particular transgender issues.

Thanks go out to folks like Diana, Elliot, Alex, Jen, Jay and others who share themselves so deeply through their blogs and their lives. You have given me ears to hear in a whole new way.

This post has 15 Comments

  1. Anna HP on November 11, 2006 at 3:05 pm

    Very frightning how narrow even the open-minded can be. We all have our predjudices, to say that we don´t is the worst one of all. But sometimes people can make me so sad … I wish they could just open their eyes and see that there is so much more to it then just the gender. Gender is just yet another exampel of how mankind has a need to give everything a name and place. I wish we could stop making our fears into narrow-minded opinions.

  2. alex resare on November 11, 2006 at 4:35 pm

    First, your link to Jay didn’t get right, I got Jen on his link. But another trip to Jennifers blog is always welcomed of course 🙂

    Gender is hard. Identity is something every person has some kind of battle with and trans gendered people often is looked upon as traitors. Especally genderqueers.

    When people makes hurtful comments it is almost always based on fear. I try to be thankful that I don’t have to struggle with that fear they are wrapped up in instead of being hurt by their words.

    They know not what they do.

  3. Peterson Toscano on November 11, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    anna hp, thanks for all you many wonderful comments. I always light up when I see an e-mail come through with a comment from you.

    alex, fixed the link. thanks!
    Such wise words. You are writing lots about fear these days. Good stuff.

  4. grace on November 11, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    I hope/pray you are not going to be horribly disappointed in me because I value your friendship highly. But….you are going places I’m just not ready to go. I’m NOT saying I’m going to be ugly in any way to transgendered (and all those other labels) folks. Not at all.

    I believe that one of my purposes is to build bridges between Christians and gays, and most specifically to demonstrate what it might (i hope i get it right sometimes) look like to treat each other as Jesus did. But this particular issue….for me, would be like trying to hold a 2 yr. old birthday party at a 5-star restaurant. The 2yr. olds would probably have a heyday and I’d be left with a mess I probably couldn’t afford to pay for.

    I apprecaite your willingness to push the envelope. If I’ve said anything offensive…let me know…and I’ll take my lumps! 😉

    love and grace,

  5. Elliot on November 11, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Thank you for posting about this, Peterson. I know how confused and upset you were about that friend of yours who made the comment about your wanting to expand your wardrobe to explore your gender further. It’s really hard to hear such harsh words coming from friends. But, personally, talking with my friends about my gender identity and listening to their reactions has been a good way to judge character for me. Most of my Queer friends have been okay with it, but many of my straight friends (and of course my family, as you know) have not been.

    Welcome to the Wonderful World of Gender Exploration.

  6. Jerry Maneker on November 11, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Perhaps one way of defusing the confusion and/or animosity held against Trans people among LGB people is to ask the question that Straight people must ask themselves about LGB people when saying homosexuality is a choice: “Why would anyone voluntarily choose to become part of a despised minority group?” It’s crucial that we all see that exhibiting prejudice against anyone threatens our own civil rights and dignity, as to deny those to others is giving permission for others to deny those to us.

  7. KJ on November 11, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    I do not pretend to understand the “T” in GLBT, but I barely understand my own experience with the “G”. So, if I can barely understand my own experience, I certainly am not going to tell someone else how they should live since, in my simple mind, there are only two “lifestyles” — Gospel and not.

  8. Steve Boese on November 11, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    As I approached adulthood, I had inner conflict and confusion about the kind of man I wanted and intended to be.

    In many ways I wanted to be the opposite of my dad and some of my stereotypes of what it meant to be a traditional, mainstream sort of guy. But that turned out to be a trap. Even though I could be empathetic, flexible, expressive, open in ways that were different from my perceptions of a lot of guys, trying to be not anything was like trying to create a vacuum into which no “bad” traits would be allowed to enter.

    Making peace with myself ultimately grew out of choosing to create my own version of myself, my own masculinity, becoming my own man.

    I had wanted to let my hair grow. While no longer perceived to be solely a feminine trait, I liked the way it eventually flowed softly past my shoulders. In the initial couple of years I kept it tied back neatly, particularly at work in conservative corporate environments, but gradually started to let it flow. Choosing the conservative tied-back look had often been motivated by a sense that free-flowing, traditionally feminine hair might be uncomfortable for my colleagues or clients, and I reached the place where I was ready to move beyond changing my appearance to suit others.

    There were a number of other ways in which that process has been repeated — deconstructing my perceptions of what it means to be male, to be more gay than straight, to a parent, to name a few, in order to find my own center. That center embraces a bit of the fierceness that Robert Bly described as integral to the masculine soul, and yet is more collaborative than competitive. I am OK with being soft, tender, receptive, openly vulnerable. I’m OK with being decisive, directive, assertive, tough. Each of those finds its own time and place

    So, I salute you, P.

    It surprises me sometimes when folks, regardless of their orientation and gender, don’t get that healthy development, and living fully, often require exactly that sort of exploration.

    If nothing else, the mainstream, non-genderbending folks today have so many options regarding grooming, hair, clothing, and jewelry which were considered exclusively masculine or feminine just 30 years ago… I encourage folks recognize that a majority of us are already breaking our parents’ and grandparents’ gender rules.

  9. Bruce Garrett on November 12, 2006 at 4:07 am

    You really wonder why people can be such a damn pain in the ass. It’s like they just can’t let anything beautiful and amazing alone without trying to deface it. It’s disgusting. That guy who gave that beautiful androgynous person at the street fair grief was being a jerk. And so was the person who told you you’re exploring someone else’s gender. Sorry…I know he’s a friend of yours, but that was deeply unkind to you. No, you’re not exploring someone else’s gender, you’re exploring yours. And you have every right to. We all have the right to find our center, wherever it is. And this poor world doesn’t need people taking human beauty, in all it’s wonderful forms, away from it.

    I =Still= get catcalls from time to time for the length of my hair. Some nitwits just can’t abide a male with long hair, and especially Real long hair (I only wish I could grow it longer…but halfway down my back is about as long as it gets). I can’t count the times I’ve been asked, sneeringly, whether I’m a boy or a girl. And it’s intimidating, even for those of us who think we’re comfortable enough in our own skins to shrug it off. It’s only been recently in my life that I’ve felt comfortable wearing jewelry. I remember it was at a trading post a few years ago in Gallup, that I saw a lovely turquoise nugget choker, and I hemmed and hawed over buying it for the longest time until I finally had to look long and hard at why and had to admit to myself that all these years I’ve been intimidated by people like the guy at that street fair, who sneer at people who don’t stick to the code of gender.

    I’m 53 years old and only now am I willing to look beautiful in my own way. I thought none of that really bothered me all these years and it did. All these years, and deep down inside I envied all the beautiful male peacocks I used to see. I love native American turquoise and silver jewelry…always have. I like hip hugging jeans. Some people have a cow when they see guys dress like that. And having long hair just adds to the crime. I was looking at a bunch of pictures of me when I was a twenty-something and I see a cute guy who dressed so drab and plainly it was painful to look at. I’m working on getting my figure back into the kind of shape it once was so I can wear those jeans again, and I have a jewelry box now, with a nice collection of native American silver and turquoise and lapis things…and about a dozen or so turquoise necklaces and chokers that I’ve only begun to feel at ease wearing now. But for once I can accept that it’s okay for me to want to feel beautiful. Guys aren’t supposed to want that. Rationally I never accepted that. But clearly all these years, somehow, deep down inside, I did. And all these years I let it stifle me.

    I’m sorry you had to hear that from a friend of yours Peterson. Don’t take it to heart. He’s obviously got some issues he needs to work out. And that blogger who wrote that your gender is merely a matter of how you popped out of the womb is a nitwit. What I’ve learned from the few transgendered people I’ve met, is that there is more to it. Much more. Be beautiful in your own way. Life is is an amazing, wonderful, beautiful thing. If we can’t answer it back happily, wholeheartedly, are we really living?

  10. Peterson Toscano on November 12, 2006 at 7:00 am

    Steve and Bruce, my two long-haired male wonders. Thanks so much for sharing your own experiences around your hair and your presentation and masculinity. It helps to hear your own struggles.

    Grace/Pam, thanks for being honest. That is the best we can ask of each other.

    elliot, thanks for being such a super role model. I CAN’T wait for you TC workshop this March. (and I am so excited about my own. Man, oh, man, I have a GREAT idea to do something with this fabulous Christian drag queen!)

    kj, well said. I so appreciate that sort of humility. That is what is needed.

    jerry, excellent question. In fact, it reminds me that the best response often is a good question.

  11. Willie Hewes on November 12, 2006 at 9:47 am

    Pick a gender and stick with it? Ouch. That’s so sad and so… dumb.

    I guess I’m very lucky. In the years that I was at odds with my own femininity and wearing my hair short and my breasts wrapped up, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it, but I never took much shit for it either. Just the occasional “is that a boy or a girl”, but that always made me smile, because I could pretend they really couldn’t tell. ^.^ A bisexual friend of mine once said my ‘boyish’ look was beautiful, and that felt great.

    My mother did advise me to buy some skirts, because with my hair so short I might be mistaken for a boy otherwise. I didn’t take her advice, but I took no offense either. Just my mum being practical. It wasn’t really necessary though, this ass don’t fool nobody. 😀 I’ve got that whole childbearing hips thing going and, well, whacha gonna do?

    Later I explored my feminine side for a while, wearing dresses, wearing my hair up, buying lacy bras and stuff. It felt as much like “crossdressing” as binding my breasts ever did, and it was fun in all the same ways. That’s all it should be: fun, trying on different styles, working out what you are and what you want to be. It’s perfectly normal. Why can’t people just GET that? So what if you end up somewhere in the middle. The middle is a good place to be.

    One girl-person who does get it is the creator of a little comic I found the other day.
    It’s called Girlfuck and discusses some of the many ways you can do that, so if you’re in work or allusions to kinky sex get your hair in a frazzle you might want to give it a skip -but- it includes a very cute explanation of gender identity. I think you’ll like it, P.

    Right, enough with the rambling. Today, I feel… mostly female, slightly hyper and hopefully artistic. Also, slightly under the weather. *cough* *cough*

  12. Daniel C on November 12, 2006 at 1:58 pm

    Ok, I am from Sweden so you have to excuse my english for not being so good. Blame the school, or my own lazyness or that I grew up without MTV.

    I wonder if I am going to be the “bad one” here.
    Not that I do not agree with the things you say but have to warn the “enlighten ones” to look down on the ones that still is a gender. Its during my studies of gender – not specificly only my universitystudies – I discovered something that made me somewhat catious about the whole queer thing. Now, don’t take me wrong. I am a big queer-fan, and Judith Butler moved my world around. But soon some queer people (often upperclass, universitystudents) started to see themselves as the “enlightened”. They even saw themselves as being MORE free and looked down on anyone that identified with a gender.
    Perhaps this is only a small small problem, compared to the big problem of people having a gender wich the surrounding does not think is the correct to the person. But those of us tha come to identified us with a gender (not saying forever, but for now) are perhaps not suffering from being unenlightened.

  13. dragonfly183 on November 12, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    Ok that does it! i really like your blog and i am linking to you 😉

  14. Diana_CT on November 12, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    Getting to know us, is to understand us.
    Sit down with someone who is trans someday and just have a good talk, that’s all it takes. I think the reason that we uncomfortable is the result of never having met someone who is trans and the reverse is true about transpeople not understanding gays. We have to open a dialog.

  15. Jay on November 13, 2006 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Peterson,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    What I can say most assuredly is that whatever people say about someone else’s gender is usually really about their gender.

    We believe that by policing others we can keep all those fractious, nasty parts of ourselves in line. (You know, “I know I’m good because I beat myself up when I’m bad…”)

    Everyone has a gender. My question to folks is always: what investment do you have in believing that my gender is special or different?

    And lastly, to quote one of my favorite cartoons, “If man and woman are the answers, what are the questions?”

    You are a kind, wonderful man. Funny, too!