It’s time for another installment from new guest-writer Jane Heenan! Enjoy!
Growing up in Chicago, I regularly heard stories of and sometimes experienced late-season snowstorms. While rare, an April snow in that area can be especially dangerous because snow can change to sleet can change to frozen rain and back again. Driving can be impossible in such conditions, and even walking can be a challenge. As a child, however, I was not needing to drive and the difficult conditions often brought days off from school – YEA!! Such freedom would allow plenty of opportunity to get out into the cold white world – in a way that was much less stigmatizing than the other cold white world I confronted most days. Playing in the snow was one of my favorite things, and even from inside a building I could watch for hours as the snowflakes fell.In Las Vegas, it’s not just late-season snowstorms that are rare – any snow in our valley is quite a sight (if you weren’t around for the snow here in December 2008, you missed out!). And I remain just as grateful for such events as I was as a child, although my connection with snowflakes has grown since then. Indeed, the “snowflake” metaphor is now a regular part of my discussions with others around the system of sex/gender. It came to me while giving one of the hundreds of presentations on gender and gender variance I have made during the past 10-plus years. I liked what I found as I continued to play with it along the way. My experiences in such play have taught me that the “snowflake” metaphor can provide an easy-to-understand window into a more liberating way to engage with the structuring system of sex/gender.Snowflakes, in the ever-evolving words of Wikipedia, “are conglomerations of frozen ice crystals which fall through the Earth’s atmosphere. They begin as two snow crystals which develop when microscopic supercooled cloud droplets freeze. Snowflakes come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Complex shapes emerge as the flake moves through differing temperature and humidity regimes. Individual snowflakes are nearly unique in structure.” What happens when we allow ourselves to respect our inherent gender snowflakiness? Confusion, judgment, ridicule, shame, loss – and liberation.For me, I knew I was more snowflaky than most at a young age – maybe 4 or 5 years old. I also knew, even at that time in my life, that it wasn’t really safe for me to express these differences into the world. Like all of us, I confronted a binary system that demanded I conform. Such demand good in many ways for the larger system in the same way it is good for your car’s gas pedal to remain a gas pedal and for the brake to stay a brake – no one would drive a car in which such mechanical systems were fluid rather than static. And, yet, I would suggest, the demand to conform to a binary system distorts our snowflake-shape as individual human beings.When I engage in discussions with persons about such things, inevitably I hear that “that didn’t happen in my family – I was free to be whoever I wanted to be.” Well, maybe. Maybe you grew up in an area where snowflakes were more common. But you were gendered, labeled “girl” or “boy” at birth. I know this because it happens to everyone – at birth. You can’t not be branded as one or the other. It is the only way to become a human being anymore, and the evidence for this lies in the simple language we use (mostly without being conscious of its meaning): “It is a boy” or “It is a girl.” Before you are labeled a “girl” or a “boy,” you are an “it” – not a person. Each of us is granted access to human status only as a result of being gendered, and, like all labels, “boy” and “girl” are restrictive repositories of stereotypes. These “either/or” structures are not about liberation nor do they accurately describe lived human experience. They are, to draw on the work of trans author, playwright and performance artist Kate Bornstein, the demands of a bully. Having only two answers to the question of gender identity “robs you and supports the system of a gender binary,” according to Bornstein.The bullying binary labeling system is also present in how we talk about birth. For instance, did you ever ask someone whether ze had a “girl” or a “boy”? From what I can tell, it’s the first question anyone asks anymore – even before, “Is your baby healthy?” Have you ever known anyone to answer the binary baby question by saying, “I had a child, and I’m waiting for my child to tell me who ze is.” My, oh my! That’s a good one, ain’t it?! “I had a child.” Might as well say, “I had a snowflake.” What nonsense!! And while almost no one ever supports the right of a child to decide who ze is, that doesn’t mean that this social custom is either ethical or accurate. I was labeled “boy” at birth. It wasn’t until I was 27 that I ever actually talked with anyone about how this label didn’t fit for me. And it hasn’t been until the past several years that I have been able to sufficiently support myself to say that the label “girl” doesn’t fit me either. Who am I, indeed. I am a snowflake. Ah, liberation!I’ll leave you for now with this excerpt from Kate Bornstein’s book My Gender Workbook. Kate has been an inspiration to me in many ways, and she is the person from whom I have learned more about how the system of sex/gender works in the world than from any other. I had the great privilege of meeting her in Fall 2010 when she came to Las Vegas for the ComeOut conference at UNLV. Her first book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, is a fast funny fuck-up-your-world-view kind of read, and I highly recommend it.If It Walks Like a Duck, Then So Will I
We tend to take on patterns and behaviors that will make us feel most part of the social unit to which we belong. Corporations mimic families and friends in this regard when they publish their guidelines for acceptable behavior and dress at work. Unfortunately, most family members and groups of friends don’t write down their guidelines for acceptable gender behavior and presentation. Most of us have learned our genders by trial and error.
1. Can you recall times when as a child you experimented with some new form of behavior, only to be told or to somehow discover that this behavior was not appropriate for your assigned gender?
2. Can you remember one or more times when you as a child learned a specific gender behavior from an adult family member?
This gender game, especially when it comes to family, friends, and lovers, is not a one-way street. It’s not all about someone pressuring us to be one way or the other. We bring our own preferences and needs to bear in all these relationships. We depend on others to remain stably gendered in much the same way we’ve known during the time we’ve loved them. So, take a deep breath and relax, and let’s do a little mind stretching stuff.
1. What if you found out that your birth mother went through a gender change and is now a female-to-male transsexual man?
2. What if you found out that your birth father went through a gender change and is now a male-to-female transsexual woman?
3. What if a close relation to you told you that hir sexual orientation was different than the one you thought it was?
4. What if a lover or friend told you that ze wanted to take on a different role in your relationship, a role that you have been fulfilling so far?
Taken from Bornstein, K. (1998). My Gender Workbook. New York: Routledge.