Gender: social personas vs personal identity

[Originally written c.2014 – & no I have no idea what I had read on the internet that had irked me so]

I’m afraid I’d quite like to make a long-winded ramble/rant.

…I know its been said before, and far more eloquently, but I believe its a point that can’t be made too often and I do keep reading things on the net that seem to miss the point.

Social gender is the convention used to differentiate individuals according to their clothing, demeanour, recreational preferences and role – it is broadly aligned to biological differences but the details are culturally and historically contingent (the simplistic examples being that Ancient Greek men thought trousers were feminine, pink has been considered a masculine colour and a number of societies do not use a binary system).
I believe it is important to recognise that the existence (and mutation) of social gender roles seems to be universal, and that it allows a convenient short-hand that can help distinguish people and teach children about personalities and social roles but also that it can be destructive, restrictive and inaccurate.
By contrast personal identity is the clothing, demeanour, recreational preferences and role adopted at any given time by an individual. It also encompasses the labels that individual applies to themself, including the gender they assign (or disclude or invent)  to/for themself -regardless of their apparent physical or genetic make-up or their adoption of local social customs for their chosen gender [also true for sexual/romantic orientation etc etc]. It also covers the kind of body that person feels is appropriate to them, from something as simple as whether they have tattoos to as fraught as whether they change their genitals and everything it between including weight. Broadly speaking personal identity when it comes to ones actions should not (though often is) be denied by any other individual or society.
[We do make exceptions (in terms of rejecting identity claims) for people complaining of discrimination based on a racial/cultural identity they either have no biological connection to or no evidence of a social connection/commitment to (e.g. adoption by or long-term integration within) and I forsee trouble in terms of biological essentialism in this area for gender… We also tend to make exceptions based on whether actions cause ‘harm’ but deciding what constitutes harm is an especially difficult and contentious topic]

I believe that there is nothing wrong with having  socially normal expectations. The idea of a persona to copy, adopt, adapt, build on, exaggerate and satirise is very valuable for many people.
I do, however, also believe that actually thinking any given individual fits that role is wrong. I do not disbelieve that certain genetic configurations are statistically more likely to be better at certain things (e.g. types of running) than others but statistics make sod all difference to individuals. It may be true that statistically men are physically stronger than women but that doesn’t mean that woman A is therefore weaker than man B or that their physical strengths determine what they enjoy doing. It is especially important that statistical probability and normalised roles are not allowed to dictate what someone can and cannot do; particularly if that role is thrust upon by virtue of their biology and not their choice. Furthermore, not only should we allow/encourage people to explore multiple roles and personas but we should be prepared to not let their apparent biology frame our judgement of them. A biological male in drag might be enjoying the clothes for their own sake, or the sensation of enacting female social persona, or wish to permanently adopt a female social role or wish to have a biologically female body – and we have no way of knowing without talking to that individual and nor should it matter.

And that is the reason all this is important – I have read a few things recently about trans individuals which argue that (for example) because some girls (who biologically present as XX) like traditionally (socially agreed) boyish things it is better to use their energies to encourage all biologically XX  people to acknowledge they might like masculine activities than it is to acknowledge that some people find their sense of their own body does not match with what is physically evident or that the wish to enact a male role neither requires you to want the ‘matching’ biology nor requires you to fulfil one variety of that social role for ever more.
Many traditionally butch lesbians take on a masculine-looking social role without wishing to change their biological sex and may in fact stridently champion their ownership of cunts and that is, and must be acknowledged as, different to adopting a gender neutral stance when raising children which does not equate their interests with their genitalia and it is also different to someone assigned female at birth who wishes to be recognised as a man but may still not want to adopt all the masculine traits society offers.
What I mean is just because we might want to change the way that society views gender  – or that we want roles to be unrestrictive – doesn’t mean we should be dismissive of the fact that they can be useful not just for those who naturally conform but also for those who want to experiment with something outside of their assigned role. We also need to acknowledge that some people have a very strong connection to a particular identity (regardless of biology or own ‘approval’ of that identity) and some people don’t have a strong feelings about it and still others shift in their connections to identity.
If it ain’t your body or body or your identity -shut up &  listen to the actual person.

 

[Addendum July 2017:
On a personal level I have never felt any strong connection to female social roles (some are alien, some I feel actively rejected by and some are ok) and only a mild connection to some male social roles but I am lucky enough that I have little or no dysphoria relating to my biology & am even sometimes happy with my body plus I am financially stable so I am able to wear almost anything and create my own identity as I go along.

Reading back through the above it is clear I was struggling to articulate something about race and about cultural appropriation – there is currently no evidence for “racial dysphoria” and cultural appropriation is a worryingly imperialistic issue but I don’t know that it is always going to be that simple.]

 

On living with Privilege

How do you put your hands up to those things that allow you better access to social respect and activities in the environment that you live in without whinging about the aspects where you struggle? How do you go one step further and use those privileges in a positive fashion?
Its really easy to qualify your positives by enunciating the negatives but how do you manage the interfaces?

I happen to be:

  • White [in a neighbourhood & country where not only is that is that the majority but it is the historical norm]
  • Culturally average in proportion (height, weight, shape ratios)
  • In possession of all my limbs and able to use them to carry out basic daily functions
  • My chosen gender presentation matches the genitalia I was born with
  • Sighted & Hearing
  • Not living with a neurological condition
  • Brought up without fear of deprivation (hunger, cold, loss of home etc.)
  • Brought up broadly safe from the threat of violence (not in a civil-war zone, social area with widely respected rule of law)
  • Given a regular education, not at odds with social norms and enabling developmental progression
  • Competent in the achievement of local educational goals
  • Financially solvent [and educated in such a way as to comprehend local financial practices – e.g. taxes, credit-systems, wages etc] enough to maintain adult independence

And probably a whole load of other things I haven’t even thought about.
I am trying to work out the way I can notice and demonstrate that the things that I sometimes take for granted are not straightforward and use my position to help changes happen.
My key thought-process at the moment revolves around education – my knowledge and ability to critically analyse the world is a privilege like no other in that it allows me to dissect other issues; it has given me an awareness of so many things outside of my experience, encouraged-no forced- me to take uncomfortable viewpoints and just plain thrown hard truths at me. So I’m going to spend a little time thinking about the parts of my education that really matter and why.

I’ll get back to you on this topic.. I hope.

What’s in a name?

A friend of mine recently commented about her resistance to changing her name when she wed and shared a link to this article.

As a woman in the “Western World” it is still usually assumed that you will take on your husband’s surname and yet as civil partnerships become more common and people who have delayed marriage til later in life find that their professional life is dominated by the name they built up this must surely be becoming as much a practical issue as it is a gender politics one.

Personally I feel no more strongly about changing your name if you get married than I do about keeping the name assigned to you by your parents – neither is automatically your identity so much as they are about your family and your connections. Sharing your surname with your parents or your children marks out a sense of belonging (in both a negative & positive sense) and builds up history. A similar trend must surely be seen in the continuing desire for many people to give their children the same names as their parents or grandparents (even if it is often relegated to a middle name).For some this is a burden and for others a sense of joy.

Whether you feel more strongly connected to the past in your own parents, desire a connection to the family who you marry into or wish to forge a new family bond and new name must surely be a personal choice in this day and age…

More importantly I feel that we should not question an individuals relationship with their name – for some it is a torture (be that through bullying at school or the gender assumptions it carries) for others it is an intensely personal point of pride. What is interesting, socially speaking, is the expectations we put on people:

  • That women will change their name at least once in their lives [and those who don’t are spinsters, lesbians or uber-feminists (which may because they are both of the first two of course)]
  • That men won’t change their’s [and those that do are milksops to their wives or hiding something]
  • Hypenation is an ugly postmodern cop-out that suggests you are a bit too right-on
  • If one half of a homosexual couple changes their surname to match their partner’s they are the more feminine party
  • That wanting to change your name substantially marks you out as odd
  • That children having a different surname to the main adults in their life is undesirable

I think that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how tied we are to a traditional family structure despite the number of possible variations currently experienced…
Food for thought.

 

On a completely personal level – I have no desire to change the name my parents gave me (indeed with the exception of my online persona and the pet name my wife uses for me I have never settled into any nicknames); I never expected to change my name even as a child despite the attitudes of most of my schoolfriends; my name is my brand academically speaking and is even more so for my wife; we are all (all 3 of us?) slightly attached to the connection to the history and continuation of our families as represented in our names; we have not been able to settle on what surname we would give any children but agreed that something new is the best choice/compromise for our blended family….

Dr Who & Gin

What did you do with your christmas day?

I walked the dog, went back to bed, opened presents from my in-laws, made a haggis breakfast, read a whole novel, watched Dr. Who, had steak and mushrooms for dinner and had a few drinks..
Despte my basic misanthropy I did also speak to people – the man who was also walking his dog at 8am, W and B, my father and my sister..that counts as being sociable right?

This is a success.

 

The Scene

It doesn’t matter if its queer/poly/kink, music/literature/geek alcoholica or Academia there is always a scene. That is – a place to see and be seen.

When I was 17, living far from the metropolis and alienated, I dreamt fondly of that opportunity. My experience before university was limited to the local gay club (deserted and not a little seedy) and a trip to see Rocky Horror in the theatre (we dressed up- the locals assumed we were hookers). I had high hopes. University was going to be the place where I’d be able to explore my sexual identity, hook up with men and women without the need for conventional relationship structures and find out what turned me on even if it was unusual; I was going to meet other people who liked learning for learnings sake, read Pratchett and Herodotus, watched Buffy and Euripides; I was going to go to folk clubs and metal nights….I was going to meet new people and learn new and exciting things.

Needless to say I was disappointed.
Not only were the majority of people I met as closed-minded or more than the people I’d known before but the spaces weren’t as diverse and experimental as I’d hoped. It turns out that even in places supposedly filled with people ‘like me’ are not in fact for me. Now that is not to say I didn’t meet new people who introduced me to new ideas and taught me things I had never imagined but it wasn’t on ‘the scene’.

The point is not that these places don’t exist and that some people don’t both enjoy them and learn from them – its that I am fundamentally unsuited to them and not only feel alienated but also find them stifling.
It is a symptom of their role in bringing together people with similar tastes or interests that they consequently often exclude people and ideas that are marginal to that interest and can be downright hostile to certain viewpoints – such activity fosters the sense of belonging. But I would rather begin with the idea that since we are sharing a space there is already an agreed overlap and therefore it is the sense of difference that is interesting. Whilst it is nice to hear my views and preferences validated by other people’s expression of them, I am interested in discovering the new.
In general, I am quickly mystified by the jargon, the pre-existing networks and drive towards finding a partner. In turn though I am just as confused by the non-stop criticisms of those spaces and networks by the people who are in the midst of them. I don’t understand how the rules are created, why some people are naturally central to group dynamics or what people gain from this form of social inclusion?

Will someone please explain to me how and why these things work? And how to get what I want from such gatherings without upsetting people?

Heirarchy of Historians

When researching Classical ‘factual’ prose it becomes painfully obvious how varied our attitudes are to the individual writers. There are marked differences in how much we write about them and how much we teach them as well as our attitudes to the literary skills or historical accuracy. Thus it is easier to write a bibliography for Herodotus than it is for Strabo; there is far more commentary on Polybius than Pliny the Elder and there are only a handful of experts on any of the fragmentary authors.

As a phd student comparing and contrasting different works this is incredibly frustrating – I can talk about the arguments scholars have had on Herodotus’ attitudes to non-greeks but there is no overall study of the same group in Diodorus (presumably because of the opinion that his work represents the attitudes of several sources and is therefore inconsistent – but surely that is interesting too?). I am not confident enough in my own ability to make too many assertions where I must go against other scholarship, and whilst this is in theory less ridiculous if there is only one authority on a topic it is more daunting and more complex to defend. But mostly it makes writing a literature review look really unbalanced or out of date!

As a reception enthusiast, on the other hand, the way that our attitudes have changed fascinates me. Why do some topics keep grabbing our attention? How have our publications changed as less people access texts in original languages? When is political history more important and when is the cultural material more prevalent?
I don’t know the answers to these questions – in fact I haven’t even begun to compile data on what is published when (has anyone ever created stats from L’Année philologique?) – but I know I want to find out.

[On a related topic: Has anyone ever created a digital, cross-referenceable Sandys? And how long do you think it would take to create a table of every critical edition and translation since Gutenberg?]

Lesbians don’t have Babies: Kids-part 1

Once ‘married with kids’ stopped being the only idea of adulthood I knew (c. 7yrs old) it stopped being the kind of adulthood that would ever happen to me.
Pretty early on, way back before I gave a damn about sexuality I was sure that I’d never be a housewife and not much after that I knew I’d never be like my mum.

[Insert stuff and things – to be considered later(?)]

I was 15 before I ever heard of being bisexual (no I don’t know why it took so long – yes I even read porn mags without twigging..) and so for many years I believed I had to choose. Boobs or cock. Babies or dildos. Shaved head or shaved pussy.
I faked some interest in boys (I like older, macho, hairy Men – not footballers and Leo diCaprio) but could never commit and I just knew that only proper heteros got married and had children. Gay marriage was but a twinkle in an activists eye and besides which who would inflict that kind of lifestyle and bullying on any child. Even if I gave up my inclinations towards women, perhaps I would be too feminist, too career-oriented and selfish to dedicate my time to a child. A quasi-lesbian, semi-feminist? I would be a BAD mother.
Even without a commitment to a bisexual poly life, I had planned my funeral long before a wedding – no disney romance, no white lace and church for me and all in all the message was if you can’t be a good wife you can’t be a good mother – and queer folk ain’t good for marriage…

But married I am. and happy no less.
Lesbians with kids aren’t big news any more, whole functioning adults exist who not only grew up with gay parents but weren’t even in a media storm because of it.
I am 7 again and kids are back on the table and I don’t know how that feels.

International Women’s Day & Court

There is in its own way a delightful irony that the arraignment/hearing/whatever word they use in french for my sister’s sexual assault case was on International Women’s Day.

For me there are two key thoughts to this; firstly that there is still a massive amount of violence against women and that sadly there are still a vast number of countries in the world where women are less than second class citizens and the effort we are putting into changing that is still minimal and secondly that my sister and I have been extremely privileged in that we have grown up in an environment that actively supports our right to speak up as well as theoretically.
Starting from the second point – though  I haven’t asked my sister about what happened in detail and though I was not there for court time or am in any way responsible for the reactions of her colleagues, I feel it is fair to say that she is (& I am by extension) privileged by the fact that there has never been assumption that she is lying and that there was no suggestion that she should be less of a person because some arsehole raped her. My father has unquestioningly stood at her side to make sure that she was not (any more) broken or frightened by trying to bring her attacker to justice. But in all truth not only am I proud of my quasi-conservative father for his attitude but I am pleased with the response of the company she is working for. They have offered her time to come home and collect herself and the opportunity to move to a different venue to do her job as well as helping her deal with lawyers and police in a different language whilst still letting her get on with her job looking after kids. This is a world of difference to the attituds seen by various of my older friends and it represents a world where  a woman is allowed to be affected by and deal with these things.

As we move forward in our attitude to respecting and supporting people who have been attacked and condemning those who attack we don’t just make our society more fair, we also allow those groups most afraid of admitting they have been hurt by others to come forward – men who have been systematically abused and/or raped, women who don’t ‘dress appropriately’, prostitutes and others . The world is slow but it gets better.

Sadly though this brings me back to the first point – that in some respects our privilege underscores the lack thereof enjoyed by other people. I don’t think any number of statistics can convey the experience of women living under oppressive regimes (though plenty have been offered – See also the UN page on women’s day) and I think that as we come closer to a better position in our lives we are in danger of assuming gender dialogue is no longer relevant.
I became involved (the friday after IWD) in an online debate where a number of men suggested that the focus on women perpetuated the notion of division rather than celebrated diversity. The key contention was that continuing to have separate days of focus on a particular group reinforced a negative perception of difference and allowed a culture of ‘feeling persecuted’ and encouraged positive discrimination rather than meritocracy. I was deeply saddened by these thoughts; partially because I genuinely feel that there is a danger of negatively stereotyping men in the quest towards equality and partially because I feel that the processes and rhetoric we are using in our gender discourses clearly obscure real issues.

So what should we be doing to help people reflect on the engrained social biases and unconscious stereotyping we indulge in (and I am just as guilty…more on that in a rant about beer I feel) without getting bogged down in petty trivia when there is still a war against poverty and violence to be fought?