Coloring Outside the Lines: Troubling Gender and the Myth of Universality

Hello, beautiful creatures. Previously on Outside the Charmed Circle, I wrote a piece about Beltane, gender, sexuality, and queerness. Some readers found it useful, even validating, while others found it… less so. That’s neither here nor there, of course; readers are free to react and respond to what I write as they will. What I found interesting, though, was the reasons why people responded as they did. Some of them had reasons were clearly specific to their own lived experiences, which is entirely legitimate and, at a certain point, beyond critique. I’m in no position to tell someone they didn’t experience something, nor to argue with them about their interpretation of their experience. De gustibus non est disputandum, after all.

Others, though, had reasons which were attached to sets of assumptions I found less compelling. Chief among them, and the one at the core of today’s little ramble, is the assumption that the binary paradigm of gender is a universal truth which applies to all people equally—except, of course, for the unfortunate outliers whose lived experiences don’t match the model.

You can probably guess what I think of that assumption.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It’s a rare week in which I don’t find myself in conversation with various folks about gender. That’s probably not surprising, given my academic background… well, that, and the whole “being nonbinary” thing. What this means in practice is that I spend a lot of time having what amounts to the same set of conversations with a lot of different people, doing what I call “Gender & Sexuality 101.” These conversations generally involve us talking about gender theory and sexuality, with me listening to their ideas, answering their questions, and telling them about my own experiences. They can be really casual talks, but they can also get pretty intense. I’ve been privileged to be witness and companion for a lot of folks who were in the process of exploring their own sexual and gendered identities, including being the first person to whom a couple of people disclosed their own queerness of gender or sexuality.

I’m pretty comfortable with all of this. After all, this work is what I signed up for, and it comprises a core component of my calling. I’m fascinated by the ways in which gender interacts with society, culture, language, and spirituality, and I’m genuinely touched and honored to be someone that some folks will trust with the vulnerability of their questions, beliefs, and struggles.

The work can be a bit exhausting, though. Sometimes the work means standing in front of a university classroom and opening yourself up for questions, and other times it means engaging with an angry white man who doesn’t understand why the woman of color with whom he was speaking just moments ago has thrown her hands up, tapped out of the conversation, and walked away from him. Sometimes, it means sitting with a woman you’ve never met before and validating her experience of male aggression, and other times it means explaining to people you know and love, for the sixth or sixteenth or sixtieth time, why you don’t call yourself male or female.

And on some occasions, like this one, it means getting up on a soapbox and reminding your community that universalist ideas about gender and sexuality are, ultimately, harmful.

That might be a little densely packed, so I’ll expand a bit.

Troubling Gender with Gender Trouble

Most of us proceed from the basic assumption that words mean things, and specifically that the words we use to describe our experiences—woman, man, female, male, gay, bisexual, straight, and so on—have particular and easily quantifiable meanings. I’ve written a glossary for this blog based on this very assumption, in fact. (I even titled it “Words Mean Things,” because I’m nothing if not recursive.) It’s kind of the fundamental principle on which the idea of language is built. The trouble is, we tend to think of the words and the ideas they’re intended to convey as concrete things whose definitional and discursive parameters are set in stone. In other words, we believe there’s a particular objective thing we’re referring to when we say a word, a thing which has an existence and definition independent of our ideas about it. This becomes kind of a problem when you start applying that concrete definition to people, who are notorious for refusing to conform to laboratory conditions even under ideal circumstances.

We color outside the lines. And on other surfaces. And on random objects. Basically, we’re kindergarteners… and that’s a good thing, (Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash.)
But don’t take my word for it. Allow me to direct you to the work of American philosopher, gender theorist, and all-around intellectual rock star1 Judith Butler. Specifically, I’ll point you towards her revolutionary 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. It’s a notoriously tough, but eminently worthwhile read. (Wikipedia has a decent summary.)

She opens the book by calling into question the very notion of “gender” or “sex” as being categories with an independent, universally-applicable definition:

Is there some commonality among “women” that preexists their oppression, or do “women” have a bond by virtue of their oppression alone? Is there a specificity to women’s cultures that is independent of their subordination by hegemonic, masculinist cultures? Are the specificity and integrity of women’s cultural or linguistic practices always specified against and, hence, within the terms of some more dominant cultural formation? If there is a region of the “specifically feminine,” one that is both differentiated from the masculine as such and recognizable in its difference by an unmarked and, hence, presumed universality of “women”? The masculine/feminine binary constitutes not only the exclusive framework in which that specificity can be recognized, but in every other way the “specificity” of the feminine is once again fully decontextualized and separated off analytically and politically from the constitution of class, race, ethnicity, and other axes of power relations that both constitute “identity” and make the singular notion of identity a misnomer.

My suggestion is that the presumed universality and unity of the subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constraints of the representational discourse in which it functions. Indeed, the premature insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women, inevitably generates multiple refusals to accept the category.2

She goes on to call out “[t]he univocity of sex, the internal coherence of gender, and the binary framework for both sex and gender… as regulatory fictions that consolidate and naturalize the convergent power regimes of masculine and heterosexist oppression.”

The assumption of universality is harmful, not only to the outliers I mentioned above, but to everyone: cisgender, transgender, female, male, nonbinary, gay, straight or bisexual or otherwise. Rather than acknowledging the pluralistic lived experiences of real human beings, universalism flattens the broad diversity of experience into a binaristic, hierarchical framework which, as Butler points out, inevitably empowers oppression.

So, this may help to explain why I don’t have much of a sense of humor about dick jokes and simulated penis-in-vagina intercourse at public Beltane rituals. The personal is political, as feminists have been reminding us since the 1960s, and few things are as personal as the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. It’s hard enough to be a queer person—someone “outside the charmed circle,” if you will—in a culture which treats queerness as something between an antisocial habit, a mental illness, and a spiritual defect. It’s even harder when you’re confronted with your outsider status in the places you most expect, or hope, to be accepted.

For those who would see my comments here as humorless nitpicking, I encourage you to reach out to the queer and trans people in your circles and ask them how they feel. Listen to what they have to say these subjects. I suspect that you’ll find some voices that that ratify your own opinions, but also that you’ll hear others voices that speak about exclusion, rejection, and pain, for many of the reasons I’ve discussed here.

All I can ask is that you think about those folks, openly and honestly.

Until next time, dear ones, may Spring find you safe and cozy. ♥

  1. And by “rock,” I don’t mean “arena rock” or anything similarly showy and pedestrian. In the philosophy-as-rock-music metaphor, Butler is the fiddly sort of progressive rock, the kind with weird time signature changes and video screens. And possibly an animatronic dragon.
  2. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition. Routledge, 2002.
About Misha Magdalene
Misha Magdalene (Seattle) is a multi-classed, multi-geek, multi-queer witch and sorcerer with a degree in gender studies and a slightly odd sense of humor. They're an initiate of multiple lines of traditional witchcraft, including the Anderson Feri tradition and Gardnerian Wicca, and have also been known to dabble recklessly in both modern ceremonial magic and grimoiric goetia. They've been blogging since 2001, negotiating the online world since 1987, playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1981, and listening to weird music since birth. They live on occupied Duwamish territory in the Pacific Northwest with their polymath partner, their precocious daughter, far too much coffee-making apparatus, and a long-suffering bamboo plant named Smitty. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, or lurking somewhere around the Seattle area, usually hiding behind a cup of coffee. You can read more about the author here.

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