androgyny

Discuss how your clothes do or don’t reflect your gender: 30-Week Genderqueer Challenge part 26

This post is part of my participation in the 30-day genderqueer challenge, which I have modified to a weekly exercise.

Today’s prompt: Discuss how your clothes do or don’t reflect your gender

Honestly, thinking about writing my way through this issue again just seems exhausting right now. Clothes are important, and they are a big aspect of gender presentation for lots of people. But they don’t define a person’s gender. There’s a weird tension with clothes, because they feel so important to so many people, because wearing clothes that “match” your gender can feel so freeing and validating, because it is a major tactic for dealing with dysphoria, etc. But at the same time, many of the same people who find clothes personally important really do just wish that society didn’t insist on gendering clothes so damn much. Anyone should feel comfortable wearing a skirt if they want, and anyone should feel ok wearing a three-piece suit or whatever, too.

The question of whether my clothes match my gender almost doesn’t make any sense to me any more. I know what it means, obviously, but I don’t know what it would mean for my clothes to match my gender, given the amorphous character of my gender.

I gotta get me some amorphous clothes, I guess?

But really, though, I touched on this issue a bit in an earlier genderqueer challenge post. What I’ve been focusing on when I shop for clothes or put together outfits these days is whether or not they seem to reflect me back to myself. I’ve been working on reclaiming the aspects of my aesthetic and style that don’t fit into the norms of white genderqueer androgyny (more on that here and here. Setting gender aside (if that’s even possible) is the only way I can deal with dressing myself without constantly second-guessing whether people will think my presentation ‘matches’ whatever they think my gender is or means.

Ugh. I dunno. I’d love to hear other enbies’ persepectives on this one though!


Catch the rest of my 30-week genderqueer challenge here!

Gender identity vs. gender presentation: my gender is adorable, y’all

My gender identity and my preferred presentation don’t really “match”. Which I guess is more a way of saying that my gender presentation doesn’t read true to my gender, which is a complicated thing, since the way I am read is tied up in gender norms I have no interest in complying with in the first place.

My gender, as I have best been able to understand and articulate it, is fluid and moves among agender, androgynous, genderfuck, and slightly masculine leanings. There have been times when I have tentatively identified with transmasculinity, and I do have continuing interest in some day pursuing masculinizing medical interventions, but when I get right down to it, transmasculine is not a good descriptor for me.

My presentation, meanwhile…

When I first came out as genderqueer, I had a strong urge to lean hard into a masculine-androgynous presentation with my clothes and hair. This was a very important part of my gender journey, no question; at the time, I was trying out new things and seeing how they felt (oddly liberating in many ways, and I found it fascinating to watch people’s perceptions of my gender shift the harder I leaned into masculinity).

But in the long run, I find masculine-androgynous presentation bores me. I missed a lot of my old clothes (which thankfully I did not entirely purge). I got bored of my hair being to short to do anything with (though to be honest even when I had long hair all the time, I only ever *did* anything with it once in a blue moon), and for the last while I’ve been growing out the top part while keeping the sides and back shaved down. The top part just reached the point where it’s long enough to pull into a bit of a ponytail, and this delights me because it comes with so many adorable possibilities.

Which brings me to the point of what I think I’d been missing. What isn’t represented in my understanding of my gender in and of itself is a desire to be adorable. I am sometimes a spiky person, and I have a lot of walls that I put up around myself with a lot people – though far fewer than I used to – but I don’t really want that to be the sense I put off, and mostly it isn’t. I’m actually pretty approachable. And cute!

Masculine clothes hide my badass adorableness in a way that can be useful, for sure – it makes me seem more grown up and professional sometimes when I need that – but also in a way that makes me feel boring.

I’ve been working on rebuilding the adorable part of my wardrobe, and it makes me really happy to be reclaiming the parts of my previous aesthetic that always rang true. It’is really hard for me to navigate the waters of keeping a certain level of ambiguity in my presentation (to ward off dysphoria), while also getting back into what are ultimately some more “girly” clothes stuff. But I feel like I am getting somewhere with it, finally.

Hooray for small victories.

Gender Perspectives, Vol. 9

download[In the Gender Perspectives series, I aim to highlight diverse kinds of personal narratives and reflections on gender, gender presentation, and identity, to broaden the gender conversation and boost a variety of voices. Check out the rest of the series.]

The author of “this is a gender blog” writes their narrative of coming to a gender variant/androgyne identity:

There isn’t a real narrative in how I came into terms of my gender identity. More than anything else, it was something that grew on its own separate accord – an asset of myself I’m still growing to accept. This was all a result of my influences, social and cultural. Interests weren’t so much of a contributing factor, even though I likened to both typically masculine and feminine parts of Western culture, be it toys, TV shows, comics, what have you.

Even though my gender has a firm definition, I’m technically still exploring myself.

Eliot does some thinking about what sorts of things cause a person to be read as one gender or another. (Of course, it’s never the things that cissexist assholes insist are definitive of gender.)

As someone who lived for a long time as a girl and now dresses quite masculinely, I am most frequently read in public as a butch girl/a lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a lesbian. Just that I’m not one (and also, not all lesbians wear plaid button-downs and loose jeans.) And this is despite the fact that I can be wearing entirely “men’s” clothing–from underwear and socks out to shirt, pants, sweater, and jacket. When I wear a chest binder, I have a flatter chest than lots of cisgendered men do. When I wear a packer (a prosthetic phallus), I’ve got a bigger dick than most cis men do, and because of the way men’s pants fit on people with exaggerated hips, it’s also more prominent than a lot of cis guys’ packages. But I still get read as a woman. Similarly, my trans sisters can wear all kinds of makeup, pink dresses and hose and high-heeled shoes, and still get treated as a “man”.

The pros and cons of using traditional versus gender neutral/otherwise alternative parent titles:

Now my biggest issue with the current set of gender neutral titles is that society doesn’t understand and recognise alternative family structures. At the time we were having this discussion, neither of us had the language for describing ourselves in terms of genderqueer or non binary, which resulted in us framing our family in the most socially obvious framework. Lesbian parents. We chose to use mommy (me) and mama (spouse) as these words have a societally weighted meaning. The relationship of mommy or mama to child is obvious and doesn’t require explanation. Using those terms becomes shorthand for “we are a family, these are our kids” without having to educate people on our family structure.

In hindsight I am disappointed that I bought into the heteronormative structuring of family. I feel awkward that I put so much weighting on the opinion of society to give validity to our little family unit. Why do we have to be a mommy and a mama to ensure credibility in our roles as parents?

Reflections on femme identity through a gaming lens:

In real life, I plan my outfits before going out, and when I put them on, I have memories about my previous experiences. A certain dress will be the one I wore when my friend said I love you. My bunny rabbit flats are often complimented for being cute—and cute is what I aim for, so I keep on wearing them. When a random dude on the street harasses me with some transphobic bullshit, wearing cute shoes, a cute dress, having freshly shaven legs, and knowing my makeup is at least half-decent all give me a fairly good armor score, so I can be bothered a lot less.

In Splatoon, the more you wear any given accessory, the more abilities you unlock. I’ve seen similar mechanics in other games, but never something that seems to so directly work as an analogue for the way I experience clothing as powerful items that gain in power with more use and care. Sure, you can use a snail shell as a shortcut, but can’t you say the same about sewing on a patch or adding rivets, bedazzling, or so on? Nobody in the Splatoon universe tells you how cute you look, but nothing needs be said.

And reflections on gender neutral identity through Pokemon

I never had outlets for my gender identity or expression growing up, and most of the avenues I did find were highly monitored or criticised, either by my family or my peers at school. Instead I buried myself in books and gaming, with Harry Potter and Pokémon becoming my main forms of self-expression and validation.

Ralts represented in the Pokémon world everything that I unconsciously felt about my own body and gender: that it was completely ambiguous and devoid of gendered presumptions.

Genderqueerness and the inadequacy of language

One of the major stumbling blocks for me in conceptualizing and discussing my gender identity is the way that terms like “women” and “men”, while they are assumed to represent very straightforward and solid groups, get used in a variety of different contexts with different boundaries – sometimes we intend to include (or should be intending to include, if we thought about it) different subsets of humanity with the same word.

I’ve touched on this concept a few times in the past, but I want to take a moment here to consider the different ways we use words like women/men, male/female, and feminine/masculine, and how it can really complicate the discourse. I’m going to approach this discussion through the lens of my own self-concept as a genderqueer person, but please don’t assume that you can generalize from any of the personal experiences I talk about here to any other genderqueer people, who may experience their gender identities very differently than I do.

Yes, these symbols are inherently connected to the biological definitions of men and women.

Biology: men are people with penises, and women are people with vaginas

Honestly, if it was as simple as this, I would be perfectly comfortable identifying as a woman. I have the good fortune of never having had any major body image issues, and I have no dysphoria around my body at all, so if this were a valid way of defining “woman”, I’d be on board with the category. But I hope it’s obvious that these definitions of “women” and “men” are cissexist and inherently disrespectful to the lived experiences of a great many trans and intersex people. And I’m not going to really bother refuting them; I think that most people these days understand that even if it makes them uncomfortable to think about, these definitions don’t hold true for all people. They are an approximation of the groups women and men, and as far as accuracy goes, they aren’t terrible (most men do have penises, and most people with vaginas are women, and all the vice versas there hold true as well) so I understand why most people sort of use this definition as their jumping off point. And I even understand how this results in people sometimes talking about women and men as if these definitions hold true.

Any time you hear a discussion about “men’s health” or “women’s health”, what’s really being talked about is the health of people with vaginas/penises. Issues affecting pregnant women are almost always relevant to pregnant people in general. And to make matters even more complicated, when we talk about things like breast cancer as a women’s issue, we are even erasing the experiences of some honest-to-goodness men-with-penises who have breast cancer. But we use the words anyway, even though they aren’t strictly correct, and even though they implicitly erase people who don’t fit into the strict biological definitions of the gender-sex binary.

I really think it would be useful to find a words to use for the categories of “people with penises” and “people with vaginas” instead of the approximately correct ones we are currently employing, but since even Ozy’s crowd-sourced request for this terminology (zir blog seems to be down, hopefully only temporarily, but I will add a link here when I can) turned up no viable alternatives, I’m not really sure what to suggest. For lack of a better alternative, for the remainder of this post, I will be using the terms “femaleness” and “maleness” in discussing the state of having a vagina and having a penis, respectively.

Which do you look more like?

Society: men are masculine and women are feminine

Ok, I actually don’t think anyone uses this definition explicitly, though gender policing against people whose level of masculinity or femininity doesn’t match their perceived gender is a very real thing. So, many people certainly believe that men *should* be masculine, and women *should* be feminine, even if they can’t actually ignore the reality that this isn’t so. I actually find the fact that we, as a society, are readily able to incorporate the idea that, for instance, butch women are still certainly women (even if some people will denigrate them for failing to be good at being women, it’s rare that it will be outright denied that that is what they are). I do think this points back to out general dependence on the biological imperative of sex being of the utmost importance, even to those of us who may strive to avoid biological determinism in our language.

The really interesting upswing of society’s acceptance that people needn’t necessarily have gender presentations that mesh with either their biological sex, (or the gender-sex they identify with, as the case may be) is that it can sometimes be a struggle for people with less recognized forms of gender non-conformism to get read the way they hope to be read. I get the impression that transmasculine people who opt against major medical interventions like hormones and surgery very often get read as butch women, often by extremely well-meaning people. On a recent episode of the Masocast, Brant MacDuff discusses exactly this phenomenon, where he gets misgendered by people who really think that they are doing the right thing and being affirming by recognizing that even though he’s wearing a three-piece suit, that doesn’t make him any less of a woman to them (ouch, right?).

It seems that the successful decoupling of femininity and masculinity from maleness and femaleness, though certainly as step in the right direction, has ultimately exacerbated the issues raised by the continued linking of womanhood to femaleness and manhood to maleness.

The real problem is that we use the words “men” and “women” to cover both of these (somewhat related, but very imperfectly correlated) binaries: that of biological femaleness/maleness, and that of femininity/masculinity, when we should be using them for neither. I mean, I’ve chosen the terms I’m using carefully here, and I hope it’s clear that what’s really happening here is that the two categories of “men” and “women” are being forced to fit into the spectra (or multi-dimensional spaces, depending on your perspective) of male-female and masculine-feminine in a mutually exclusive and exhaustive way. And they are utterly inadequate to the task.

Men and women are perfectly functional identity categories, but they are adequately defined neither by the characteristics of biology nor those of gender presentation. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that “men” and “women,” as categories, are not sufficient to express the diversity of people’s experiences of their gender. And honestly, I think a big part of this is that we’ve decoupled the binary of man-woman from the mappings of male-female and masculine-feminine about as much as we can without rendering “man” and “woman” devoid of meaning. Because really, what would it mean to identify as a man if it had nothing whatsoever to do with societal concepts of masculinity or maleness? At some point, the category becomes arbitrary and meaningless, if there are truly no characteristics that are associated with it.

I dunno, man. What are woman-ness and man-ness, if not socially defined categories that depend on those other factors?

And, I mean, I’m not sure if this would be a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a neutral thing. A lot of people depend on recognizing and valuing certain characteristics that are associated with maleness and/or femaleness (or with masculinity and/or femininity, or with whatever characteristics still cling to and define the categories of “men” and “women”). This is one of the tangles I was trying to unravel in my head when I asked for monosexual people (people attracted exclusively to men or to women) to try to figure out what the fundamental characteristics were that defined the boundaries of their attraction. But a lot of us are also just kind of sick of the whole system, and the ways that sex and identity and presentation get conflated in the everyday we talk about people, and for some of the people that feel that way, genderqueerness is a kind of refuge from the whole unravel-able mess.

Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote even go so far as to describe themselves as gender-retired. And I think the sentiment of gender retirement is one that I can get behind. Yesterday, I came across this remarkably concise definition of “genderqueer”. I think it might describe precisely (probably a little *too* precisely) the internal processes and unspoken desires that motivated the formation of my own genderqueer identity. I balk against it, too, because it feels a little too pat, and overly simplified. But the most concise way I’ve ever been able to come up with to explain why I reject the gender binary is simply that I am much more comfortable and happy with my own self-concept when I remove the framework of “female” from the picture. I feel more free to be just me, unencumbered, when I’m not somehow failing at the indistinct and moving target of womanhood.

So instead, I choose to make myself an indistinct and moving gender target, undefined and impossible to police. What I love about One Multiple Code’s definition is that it precisely defines genderqueerness (as I experience it) in terms of its inherent imprecision. What could be more fantastically linguistically ironic than that?

The relative nature of gender presentation

The concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are generally talked about as fairly well-defined categories. Now, this is not to say that these categories are at all concrete, and the definitions certainly can vary between cultures, but I do think it’s fair to say that most people can tell you whether x quality is more masculine or more feminine in their particular cultural milieu.

And I do say “more masculine” and “more feminine” there deliberately, because of course, things usually aren’t simply one or the other, and most people acknowledge that there’s some sort of spectrum here, and some qualities that are more definitive of either masculinity or femininity than others. (So, for instance, ‘having a beard’ may be considered more distinctly masculine than, perhaps, ‘being tall.’ Though both are qualities that are more often associated with masculinity, there’s often more leeway for a feminine person to be tall without it being perceived as detracting from their femininity, than there is for them to have a beard and maintain others’ perceptions of them as feminine.)

Ultimately, what we’re dealing with is some sort of murky idea of the ideal embodiments of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity,’ wherein different personal qualities carry different weight as indicators of one or the other category. Makes basic sense, right?

But here’s where this starts to fall apart for me. Consider, for instance, this fairly androgynous person.

Photo by Alexandre Cicconi. Click through for the full set.

If I tell you that the person in the picture is a man, you’d probably think that they’re a fairly feminine guy. Very pretty face, eyebrows that appear to carefully manicured, and all that. But then, if I told you that the person was a woman, most people would have the exact opposite reaction, and declare them a very masculine woman.

So, is it as simple as simply adding up a person’s qualities and getting to their position on the surface of masculine-feminine sphere, then? The way that the descriptor used for the same person can change so violently by altering one piece of information (their sex) certainly tells us just how important we (society, anyway) consider sex to be as a factor in masculinity or femininity. The single variable of sex carries enough weight, in this case, to swing the pendulum from feminine-leaning to hyper-masculine.

But it actually tells us something more than that, as well. Because it’s not that we switch from seeing the person as feminine to seeing them as masculine. We switch from seeing them as feminine for a man to seeing them as masculine for a woman. We’re operating with different base-lines, which are determined by our belief about the person’s gender. In fact, the arithmetic of masculinity and femininity seems to be predicated on knowing (or guessing) a person’s gender. (Remember how I started out by describing them as androgynous? In this context, then, androgynous doesn’t mean “a mixture of masculinity and femininity” so much as it means “of indeterminate sex”, since we no longer necessarily consider them androgynous when we assign a sex.)

I would go even further, and argue that we use the metric of sex as a starting point from which to set a target for this person’s gender presentation. For every aspect of a male-identified person that is not distinctly male (i.e. a femininely pretty face), they become considered more feminine (though in this case, I would hesitate to go so far as to say that it makes them unmasculine – the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, either). And when we change, and evaluate the person as a female, we similarly notice all the qualities that don’t ‘match’ with the femininity that we as a society insist on associating with femaleness, and that are instead distinctly masculine (and in this case, I do actually think that the word ‘unfeminine’ actually might be applied by a great number of people. Considering that I’m being told that unmasculine is not a real word, while unfeminine is, I suspect that the societal recognition of one concept, but not the other, is meaningful. There is, perhaps, the implicit message here that while it is possible for men to be feminine – i.e. a lesser form of man? – but that women, no matter how unfeminine they may be, can never truly be attributed with the glory that is masculinity. But I digress :P)

It cannot be denied that we, as a society, evaluate people in vastly different ways depending entirely on our perceptions of their gender. A man and a woman expressing themselves in exactly the same way are perceived in completely different lights. And, while this example tells us nothing about how this affects the way people are treated, or the level of respect that they are granted, it is certainly something to be cognizant of in our interactions with others.

Feeling Sexy

A couple of years ago, I participated in a study on people’s experiences of sexuality. The participation involved an hour-long interview intended to map things like the timeline of when and how I has learned about sex and sexuality, when and how I had started experiencing sexual feelings, and my sort of basic sexual history as it’s generally understood, regarding sexual activity with other people.

The process was absolutely fascinating for me, because during the interview I wound up thinking about all kinds of things about my sexuality and my sexual experiences from a new perspective, and I found that I learned a hell of a lot from it.

There was one question, though, that absolutely stumped me. I had no answer. I couldn’t even begin to formulate an idea of an answer. The question? It was:

What makes you feel sexy?

I spent days after the interview mulling this over, and not really coming up with anything. And every now and then since then, it jumps back into my head. I still don’t know how to answer it. I really don’t have a clue. But I am starting to get a sense of why I feel this way.

The thing is, I don’t think I even really understand what it means to “feel sexy”. Or rather, I actually think that my experience of “feeling sexy” is completely and utterly separate from my sexuality.

Because I can definitely remember as an adolescent, getting a charge out of the idea that my body was starting to look like an adult woman’s body, which as any of us who grew up with any access to television knows, is a sexy thing. And I enjoyed playing with the idea that I might have a body that people would find attractive, and liked trying to play that up as much as I could within the (totally reasonable) dress code my parents imposed on me.

It’s really important note, though, that I was also functionally asexual during this same time period. I was a late bloomer sexually, and I didn’t start having any kinds of explicitly sexual feelings or fantasies (though I have since come to interpret some things about my childhood as sort of protosexual expressions) until my late teens, well into high school. So really, my new-found sense of being sexy had nothing to do with me at all; it was based entirely on external messaging about what was sexy (since I had no internal guide-posts for that sort of thing). I had clearly absorbed the message that being sexy was a good thing, and of course I had plenty of data on what was supposed to be sexy, and I simply worked it that data.

But (shockingly enough) I’ve never actually fit the cultural standard for sexy woman all that well. I actually probably could – I have the kind of height and body type that made people ask me if I was a model. And I’ve never had any major problems with how I look; I’m incredibly fortunate to have grown up without any glaring body issues. But I’ve never had much interest in grooming, either. I preferred to wear pants year-round rather than shave my legs (though of course as a teenager, baring my hairy legs was unthinkable). I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn make-up in my life. It just doesn’t interest me, and when I see myself in make-up it’s really disconcerting, actually. I don’t look like me!

Really, at my core, I had no desire to be the kind of sexy that I knew and understood, the kind I had received strong messaging about. So, what, then?

I can say with some confidence that since ‘blooming’ sexually, the closest I have come to feeling sexy is when I am having naked fun times with someone and their visceral sexual response to me is apparent enough that I can’t disregard it. Then I feel confident that I am sexy, and pretty much only then. And I don’t like that very much, because this means that my experience of sexiness still has very little to do with me; it’s not something I am in charge of, and it’s not something I get to define for myself – it’s inherently dependent on other people.

However, I was lucky enough recently to discover the Gendercast, and I’ve been madly consuming their episode archives lately, and a comment Sean made in Episode 22 helped crystallize some things for me. This may not seem directly relevant immediately but bear with me:

Is my way of dressing or my gender expression depicting a different type of identity than I see in myself…? Is my masculinity being seen as more effeminate because of something I’m doing outwardly? Do I need to tailor that in? My internal gender has remained the same, but then my outward gender has to shift, and it’s not that I’m shifting to meet everybody else’s needs but at the same time it’s my internal and desire to be seen as me. How can I convey that? How can I convey that I have this gender identity to you, if you understand French and my internal dialogue is in Italian? There’s gotta be some way to meet in the middle… How can I show you what I want you to see?… We’re always reacting and responding to others and figuring out what that looks like so we can better craft ourselves.

Among many other things, this is a really good personal account of how the performative aspect of gender plays itself out, and how fraught it can be for people who either want to portray a gender identity that deviates from the standard (i.e. an identity that most people won’t know how to read), or people who struggle to convey their internal sense of self outwardly, whatever the reason. But when I listened to it, it clicked with me on my issues around feeling sexy. Because for me, the idea of being sexy is very much a performative thing; again, it’s a thing that happens outside of myself.

And as an adolescent, I had absorbed the mainstream idea of female sexiness, which is passive. So passive, in fact, that I was able to fleetingly feel sexy without performing in any way at that age. Just being a person with hips and breasts was performance enough. But then I started actually experiencing my sexuality, and once I understood the relationship of “sexy” to “sex” (which I couldn’t understand until I had experienced sex, and made the concept concrete), feeling sexy stopped being about passively being sexy, and became about doing sexy.

And this is not a thing I have scripts for. I’m fairly certain at this point that I’m physically incapable of flirting – when people try to flirt with me, it’s terrifying. I have no idea what to do, and usually just try to escape. It’s not fun for anyone. I simply don’t understand what it means for someone to be interested in me, somehow. And I can’t even explain it better than that.

OH HAI SHANE!

I wrote in my personal journal last year that my genderqueerness actually exacerbates this issue. Because while I can at least identify all of the the ways that I fall short of the ideal of feminine sexiness, I simply have no standard for androgynous sexiness.

Actually no, as much as I’d like the answer to be that easy, that’s simply not true. Plenty of people are into androgyny, and while it’s a quality that is sometimes desexualized, you need look no further than Shane in the L Word to find an androgyny that’s portrayed not just as sexy, but as nearly universally appreciated. (Full disclosure: my first girlfriend compared me to Shane, and definitely wanted me to be more like her, but I lacked the confidence to be that awesome at the time, alas!) My point is, plenty of people are into androgyny; hell, I’m into androgyny! Of course I know that it can be super sexy.

Ultimately, what I lack is confidence. I think that the picture of myself that I carry around in my head is lagging behind my actual outward presentation, though I can’t figure out in what way. I do know that this is a real thing that can happen to me; I spent a good part of last year as a blond (where I’ve spent most of my life as a brunette), and I never failed to be surprised at how the outfit I’d picked out came together completely differently than I had imagined when my hair was factored into the picture. I never really internalized the new colour, somehow.

So, I come out of this no more informed than I began, I guess. But I’m really curious about other people’s experiences. What makes you feel sexy? How do you even define “feeling sexy”? Help me out here!

Jiz Lee. Doin’ it right.