Friday, August 6, 2010

And Even Thee's a Little Diverse

Along with my coworkers, I went to a training session on diversity on Thursday. Both of the presenters (a man and a woman) were gay, which may be why they spent so much time on sexual orientation and "gender." That wasn't such a good idea, because those issues were the ones they were most confused about. (Not only those, I admit: the male presenter claimed that Sunni and Shi'a are "ethnicities" as well as religious sects, which is like calling Roman Catholicism an ethnicity.)

First the presenter began by distinguishing between "sex" and "gender," and in good 1960s Second Wave Feminist fashion she defined these in terms of biology/physiology/external genitals ("sex") and behavior/dress/job appropriateness ("gender"). Having done so, though, she kept equivocating, especially about "gender." For example, she defined "gender identity" as a person's sense of whether they are male or female. But "male" and "female" are sexes, not genders; the proper words would be "masculine" and "feminine," but they aren't identities. I understand why "gender identity" is used this way, of course: "sexual identity" was already being used for a person's sense of their sexual orientation, though that's problematic too. Does it mean what someone knows inwardly about his or her desires, or does it mean one's publicly declared identity? The latter would mean that a closet case's "sexual identity" is heterosexual, because that's the mask he or she wears, so it seems an odd waste of the term.

Personally, I don't seem to have a "gender identity": I know that I'm male, but subjectively, inside myself, I don't feel that I'm either male or female. This makes me wonder about transsexuals: what does it mean, I wonder, to feel that one is the 'wrong' sex? The closest I could come to something like that is the shock I feel when I look in the mirror each morning and an old man looks back at me; but I've never much liked my own appearance, so it's not much of a change. (What am I rejecting in my reflection -- my "gender," my age, or my looks?) Nor do I feel masculine or feminine, though like many people I've often worried about how other people perceive me. Self-image is notoriously unreliable, but is that what's meant by "identity"? Sometimes it seems to be, and it should be obvious how problematic it would be to equate one's identity with one's sense of self: my "identity" is that of a fat person, but I'm actually skinny (or vice versa); I "identify" as a young person, but I'm 70 years old; everybody thinks I'm a manly man, but inside me is a little girl who wants to sit in Daddy's lap; and so on. These discrepancies are surely interesting psychology, but are they identities? What is an identity, anyway?

But back to "gender." The presenter stuck to the older sense of the word when she talked about transsexuals who get a sex change; they're not the same as the transgendered, who may not conform to local social norms about gender, and may seek to modify their bodies to some extent (just as the cisgendered do), but don't want to alter their genital organs. ("Sex" used to be used to refer to those organs: caught without clothing, he tried to conceal his sex.) But how far can you fail to fit the norm without being "transgendered"? After all, I fall short of masculine norms in various ways (such as my lack of interest in sports), but no one would call me transgendered. Does it count if you violate the norms but see them as part of normal variation? It often seems to me that the advocates of transgender equivocate between seeing it as an identity -- a label one applies to oneself -- and seeing it as a description that can be applied by others, at least as long the others are sympathetic. Joan of Arc, who cut her hair short and took up the military as a career, is often called transgendered nowadays, but she certainly never thought of herself that way.

It also seems to me that many (not all) transgendered people have a very conservative, restrictive view of gender: they are trans because they don't fit the norms, but they never question the norms. If a little boy plays with dolls, should adults assume he is transgendered? Or should they consider that little boys often like to play with dolls? I get nervous for children's sake when adults (who often have no expert knowledge at all, for what little that is worth) jump to conclusions about their future gender or sexuality on the basis of such crude stereotypes, which I'd thought had been challenged effectively but seem to be making a comeback -- and often among the same people who were supposed to be challenging them.