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?

Attraction, sex, and gender: what’s going on here?

As a queer person of the omnisexual variety (I’m attracted to people of many different genders), the nature of attraction for people who identify as straight, lesbian, or gay is a bit of a conundrum for me. The discussion that follows is my attempt to parse and understand the experience of what, for the sake of ease, I’m going to call ‘monosexuality’ here (though I in way mean to imply that the sexuality of straight and homosexual folks is in any way monotonous, or uniform.)

My major questions are: Does monosexuality imply that one is attracted to people of a single gender, or people of a single sex? And what qualities of gender and sex are required to make a person fall into the sex/gender category to which a monosexual is attracted? I suspect this varies greatly from person-to-person, actually, but I still want to explore some of the configurations this might take.

For starters, as a nonbinary/genderqueer person who is generally read as female, it happens straight-identified men often find my attractive. Now, there’s a lot of things going on here, of course, and sometimes simply being informed of my gender identity is enough to scare a guy off, other times, it isn’t. And I want to be the first to say that I don’t think this should in any challenge their conception of their sexuality as straight. The fact that I do not identify as a member of the group to which they purport to be exclusively attracted doesn’t really matter to me.

The thing is that, of course, no monosexual person is attracted to all members of the same (or opposite) sex, as the case may be. Each monosexual person is attracted only to some subset of that group. And the alchemy by which such attraction is produced is the result of the interactions of any number of difficult-to-define qualities encompassing appearance, personality, and many other factors. The way I conceptualize it, when someone identifies as straight, lesbian, or gay, what that means is that the combination of qualities to which they are attracted is somehow tied to the sex (and/or gender) of the person in question. And it is simply possible that I possess whatever inherently necessary quality that is connoted in their sexual identity, without actually having to be a member of the group that contains the overwhelming majority of people to which they are attracted.

But then, what baffles me is what that inherently necessary quality may be. Because I’m not actually certain that there is a quality that can be identified that differentiates universally between men and women. Chalking it up to being attracted to primarily masculine or feminine traits certainly doesn’t cut it: there’s plenty of lesbian-identified women who are primarily attracted to masculine-presenting women, but whose interest in masculinity does not extend to include men. There are also straight men who are more attracted to androgynous or masculine women, and straight women who are primarily attracted to androgynous or feminine men. And the are people of sexual orientations who find themselves attracted to gender-benders.

So, is the difference simply sex-based? Does it come down to genitals? I mean, I know that base-level attraction has nothing at all to do with genitals, since most people establish some level of physical attraction long before clothes are removed or genitals are discussed. I also know that discovering that a person’s genitals are different from the ones that were expected can signify an end of attraction for some people.

Or, rather, I suspect it ends the desire to have sex, but not the attraction that was already felt. I suspect that what happens here is that whatever sexual fantasies a monosexual person may have been having about a person to which they were attracted are disrupted when they realize that whatever they had been picturing might not be a physical possibility, and lacking a model for what they might do with that person instead, default to not fantasizing sexually about them any more.

This tends to be the way that such negative reactions to trans folks are conceptualized by those who view them as symptoms as anti-trans bigotry, anyway. But I don’t really think it’s necessarily quite that simple. I do think that for some people, even monosexual ones, genitals needn’t be a deal-breaker. In fact, I know there are some monosexually-identified people who have relationships with Trans* folks who have their ‘original plumbing’, so this can’t be the issue in its entirety. Or at least, not for everyone.

Because really, I’m sure that there is endless diversity in the way that monosexual attraction functions, and what causes that monosexual limitation on attraction to be such as it is. But, and you’ll have to excuse me if this sounds ignorant, or as if I am disrespecting anyone’s identity or self-description, I have yet to find a way of conceptualizing monosexual orientations that doesn’t seem like it’s really just an approximation.

Like, a woman identifying as a lesbian might mean “I’m attracted to feminine people,” though we know this often isn’t what it means, and I don’t see why such an orientation would exclude feminine men. Or they could mean “I’m attracted to people who identify as women,” which, well, I have no idea what that means, since there isn’t a single quality that defines that group of people, or even that differentiates them from the group of people who identify as men, other than their self-identification. Which brings me back to, “I’m attracted to people with vaginas.” Which, again, we know that the primary basis of attraction can, at best, be predicated on an assumption about a person’s genitals, so I don’t get this delineation, either. Even any combination of these statements leaves holes. So I simply don’t understand what it means for someone to only be attracted to one sex. I don’t understand where the delineation of the group of potential partners gets places, and by what mechanism.

Like, lots of straight dudes are really heavily attracted to and invested in having really feminine partners. They value and respond to feminine qualities in the women they date. But even as I respect and comprehend that fact, I don’t understand why all of the attraction would go out the window if they discovered that a person possessing all of the valued feminine qualities was, in fact, a man. What if they were a feminine-presenting person who was assigned female at birth (i.e. had a vagina), but identified as male? Or a person of whatever gender identity, who was extremely feminine-presenting, but who had a penis?

What makes the difference here? Is it really the penis? And if so, why? What changes in your attraction when you learn that someone’s genitals are different than you had imagined? I’m really curious to hear from anyone who’s had this kind of experience. Or from anyone who has gone through any sort of evolution in sexual identity, and seriously given critical thought to the basis of their attractions. I know a lot of it may very well be “Well that’s just how it works for me. I don’t know exactly why, but I know in my gut that this is how it is.” But I’m curious if there’s really something I’m missing that would make me able to empathize with the experience of monosexuality.

I’m seriously confused about this. And please don’t take this to mean that I believe that everyone is secretly bisexual/omnisexual. I simply don’t understand how monosexuality works, and I’d like to try to. So if anyone can offer me some insight, it’d be greatly appreciated.

So monosexuals: how do you define the boundaries of the sex to which you are attracted, and what qualities are the essential ones? Can you explain what might happen if you found someone of a sex to which you are not attracted, but who otherwise possessed all of the qualities you would normally consider essential? What makes the difference? Is it even knowable?