Gender, sex, perceptions and boxes

6 03 2008

Preface: this intro paragraph doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with transition but you have to read on to see the connection. 


So this past Monday, I gave a public presentation on the evolution of sex roles and gender. I was trying to deconstruct common misconceptions that people have about how prehistoric men and women behaved and how these behaviours would have supposedly led to “modern” sex roles. The basic message is that 20th century scientists tried to find prehistoric evidence that would justify male dominance by showing that it had been in existence since prehistoric times but that their interpretation of the “evidence” was coloured by their own bias to start with and, therefore, hogwash. My talk was located within a framework of feminist and postmodern anthropology.

Anyway, how these presentations work is that they are held in the school auditorium and other teachers bring their classes. One of my colleagues who brought her students to the talk saw her class again later this week so they had a chance to discuss the presentation. According to her, once they had discussed the actual topic, the conversation shifted to me and my lack of breasts. Not sure I had heard her right the first time when she told me that on the phone, I said: “What? My lack of BREATH? Like I was talking too fast?” But I had heard right – she really meant my lack of breasts.

Apparently, it all started when one student commented that it was interesting that a woman who looked like a man (as in breastless, because I wear a chest compressor, and as in dressed like a man from men’s shoes to a monkey tie) would stand up there and give a feminist perspective on evolution. Since some of the students in the class had known me when I went by my given female name and had long hair, and some had even seen me in a skirt, a discussion of whether I was an effeminate male or a lesbian ensued. With a name like Jacky, who knows?

I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall as the debate raged. “She can’t be a lesbian, she has a son.” “But then WHAT IS SHE?” My poor colleague and friend was put on the spot. “You work with her, you must know her. What is she anyway?” My colleague smartly responded that it shouldn’t be relevant, since it did not affect the content of my presentation.

At first, when I heard that someone has asked WHAT I was, I thought it was funny. Then I felt bad for my colleague who had been put in such an awkward position. But now it makes me sad. WHAT am I? Not WHO am I, but WHAT. “What” is a word people use for things, not people.

Then, of course, the fact that it even matters to them WHAT I am bothers me. If my message that there is no evolutionary or biological grounds for patriarchy and male dominance makes sense, why should it matter whether I am male, female, lesbian, etc.? Finally, all the assumptions flying around would’ve driven me nuts. I can’t be a lesbian if I have a child? I must be a lesbian if I am female-bodied but wear a tie?

In any case, it was quite a wake-up call. I have been binding my breasts and presenting as male all semester with the assumption that students wouldn’t really notice or question. After all, women in Western society, in spite of all the messages about excessive thinness and unattainable beauty, are given a lot more leeway than men when it comes to dress. And I figured they don’t look at their teachers as “sexed” objects anyway, so why would they notice the flat chest? But apparently they notice – which shouldn’t be surprising considering I used to wear tight T-shirts and have quite a substantial pair.

As I plan to begin hormonal therapy this spring or summer and am on my way toward a period of about a year (I imagine) or gender ambiguity, I imagine the situation will be compounded. Will students be able to pay attention to what I am trying to teach them when they are busy trying to figure out WHAT I am? Should I do like one of my lesbian colleagues who just walks into class on the first day and discloses, getting it out of the way so that we can get on with business because all the cards are on the table?



5 responses

7 03 2008
Tarald Stein

I’ve gotten some of those questions right in my face. When I started my transition I worked at a highschool, as a librarian. The pupils would ask me if I was a boy or a girl, and even what was between my legs. At first it amused me, and I used to reply things like “what do you think?” or “do you make a habit of asking that to strangers?”. I eventually showed them my site on the internet. At least that gave them some good reading.
One of them tipped off the local newspaper. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to be so publicly out, but I reasoned that it would be the best way to inform absolutely everybody. So I went through with the interview and it came across as really good. You could say I really put all the cards on the table.
The teachers and my neighbours came up to me and thought I was brave. I just saw it as the easiest way to do things.
A few days later two of the boys came up to me and asked if I was gay. I gladly gave them a yes. After that, my gender or sex was really no more of an issue. And I hope I contributed to some education on gender variance and LGBT-acceptance.
I think everyone are viewed as “it” sometimes, either in terms of gender, colour, etnicity or an other category. The exception may be white, cisgendered males in a quite homogenous society like mine.
As an anthropologist you should know how humans depend on such labels and categories in our attempt to understand the world around us. I would advice you to put the cards on the table from day one, but I guess that depends upon your personality and what you would be most comfortable with.
Good luck!

8 03 2008
Jacky V.

Hi Tarald;

Thanks for the comment. Of course I know this . . .”as an anthropologist”. And I’m sure not foreign to the idea of applying anthropological concepts to my own life. But I have a right to have feelings about what I’m experiencing. I don’t HAVE to apply an anthropological perspective to my own life experience constantly. That can come later. I reserve the right to feel what I need to feel first, like anyone else off the street who doesn’t have a social science background. So if I don’t like the feeling of being a “what”, I feel that I have the right to *feel* that for what it is before I intellectualise it away. That’s my two cents.

I find that, because I’m an “intellectual”, often people think I should be rational about everything and I don’t think that’s fair. It’s like people who study film and then can’t watch a movie and just feel it because they’re too busy analysing. I’ve chosen to live my life and try to feel as much as I can. It’s important to me, especially since I had to teach myself to actually feel and recognise what I feel.

8 03 2008
Tarald Stein

Hi Jacky
I’m sorry my comment came across somewhat different from how it was meant. Of course I recognize your right to feel first and analyze later.
I guess I’m still too busy analyzing instead of feeling. Raw feelings (my own) sometimes scare me and I tend to avoid them, exept in my writing, but that’s just another way of analyzing.
I do think that feelings are easier to deal with when I apply an anthropologist or sociological perception to them. It also helps me communicate how I feel to others. So I really don’t see it as a negative thing to analyze, but am aware that it can be “too much” sometimes.

8 03 2008
Jacky V.

Hi Tarald;
I understand about the raw feelings . . .they’re scary. But after spending most of my life numb and unfeeling, I had to fight to be able to feel. Now that I can, at least somewhat, I’m trying really hard to acknowledge it.

In the past, I would do the cold analytical thing first to make the feelings less scary or make them go away. I still analyse, but I try to do it later, once I’ve enjoyed (yes, one can enjoy a negative feeling too) what I’m feeling. It doesn’t always work, of course. And I do still tend to have a delayed reaction to feeling. As described in my post, it was only after the fact that I felt a sort of sadness at being a “what”. Yes, of course, people are commonly “it-ified” (wow, a new word!) but that doesn’t make me less sad about it . . . never actually having been “itified” before.

I guess your comment ttouched a nerve (when I came home drunk last night) because the very few times in my life I’ve DARED to feel and express what I’m feeling, I’ve been reprimanded (by people close to me) for being irrational, whereas my usual tendancy to just analyse has led to criticisms that I’m overly analytical and that I intellectualise everything.

As for putting all the cards on the table, I did that with my colleagues in the very first week of the semester and it made me feel much more relaxed (people have noticed and commented on this). But with students . . . I haven’t seen the point because they are only around for 2-3 years. I was hoping to do enough of my transition while I was away for a year as of 2009 doing fieldwork so that they wouldn’t actually see me transition but, since I can’t wait that long anymore, it’s going to be inevitable I guess.

11 03 2008

We’ve occasionally had small children ask us if we’re a boy or a girl, back when I got us short hair and wore a baggy leather jacket everywhere. I remember actually being flattered–though raising an eyebrow when sometimes the parent didn’t go into usual, “Oh, I’m sorry, honey, you’re not supposed to ask that!” Maybe they were curious too.

Good luck on the therapy, and sucks that your coworkers got stuck in the middle there. You mention how people thought, “She might be a guy, how can she speak feminist?” I think ties into the idea of, “You can only talk about this subject if you’re N____” And that irritates me. A lot of people, I think, use it to just segregate themselves when what they claim to desire is unity. “You’re not black, you can’t know what it’s like!” or, “You’re not gay, you’ll never know what straight oppression is like! DO NOT TELL ME WHAT MY OPPRESSION IS!”

Every human being on this planet, I think, has been ostracized for one thing or another, be it for being a tranny dyke or for wearing the wrong jeans in fourth grade. Everyone, I think, can empathize over being ostracized–why do you think comics like the X-men have been popular for so long? It taps into the common human feeling that they are different, unwanted, and alone. Humans can bond over it. So having a pissing contest claiming YOUR ostracization is somehow special or unique? Yeah, no. It ain’t. Not unless you’re being marched to a Swedish death camp and threatened with lobsters.

Hm. Oops, rant.


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