Verbing Gender: Where Humanistic Practice and Fixed Labels Diverge

Verbing Gender: Where Humanistic Practice and Fixed Labels Diverge March 3, 2019

 

Let’s begin with a statement. I have no inner gender identity. To me, gender is the label others put to my public self, and sex is the body I was given at birth and developed with pubescence. Both track as feminine, especially here in Colombia (where looking less like a foreigner means performing more feminine with hair and clothes), so I am read as “woman”, and referred to as such.

And for me, such naming doesn’t matter. Those who know me, those who make the effort, warm the cockles of my heart with the neutral singular, “they”–or even better, when they leave pronouns out of it entirely–but for me it’s not important that everyone address me as such. Why not? Because it will never be consistent here in Colombia. Because unless I go to an elaborate effort to be gendered male, here in a culture with a highly gendered language and a social narrative to match, I’ll always be gendered female in every casual encounter every day in the street.

So what matters more to me? Well, it’s bridging the gap between labels and humanistic practice. When I talk to people who feel adamantly that they are “X”, that they feel “Y” right to the core, it fascinates the heck out of me. I look in the mirror, and see only externalities. There is no warrior cry of I AM WOMAN in the centre of my being. Nor is there a challenging I AM MAN, much as I wondered about my stereotypically masculine preferences throughout childhood.

And part of that gut feeling of genderlessness, I strongly chalk up to being atheist from a place of scientific rationalism. Because I know that the self is a construct. I know we’re all just putting language to human experience that follows no master plan, no grand teleological design. And so I recognize that the labels we use for ourselves simply fulfill specific hierarchical functions in our societies. (Technically, the words I’m supposed to use for myself are “non-binary” or “genderqueer”, if you were wondering.)

But I also recognize that I only have access to my noumenological truth, my inner sense of genderlessness, so I 100% accept that others do have a strong innate sense of gender–either in keeping with the outer label imposed by others, or at odds with it.

What troubles me, though, is that the words we use to articulate any facet of our identity are all tied into a political endeavour somewhat at cross purposes with humanistic intent. We name ourselves, we refine the names for ourselves, all so that we might be heard… by whom? By others. By family. By friends. And by the state and the offices through which it polices communal conduct. We seek to establish a currency of social exchange that allows our experiences to be legitimized–and in so doing, we intrinsically make concession. We agree that the game must be played this way; that an experience of being human needs a name before the human who experiences it can be respected.

Now, granted, we can move a long way towards a fairer and more just society with such an approach. We can relentlessly fine-tune our vocabulary for distinct lived experiences until we’ve almost as many names for ways of being human as there are human beings themselves… but the line will invariably be parabolic, always approaching but never quite reaching its destination.

Why? Because the “limit”, that point of full acceptance of each other’s humanity, comes when we do not need to name our distinction in order to be permitted to live in peace, with equal opportunities for growth and safety and inclusion. When we are all simply fellow sentient beings in each other’s eyes.

But how on earth are we who live in a world of labels to bridge that divide?

I have an idea, and I want to try it out today.

I want to tell a story about the range of stories I experience more or less daily on account of my external gender performance.

And I want to argue, as I did for humanism last week, that what matters less is gender-the-noun and gender-the-adjective.

What should concern us more is gender-the-verb.

Chapter 1: Monday Morning, Running Up That Hill

Grey morning, overnight showers two hours behind me. Dare I risk a run up Cerro de las tres cruces, along a trail of clay and sand with a breathtaking view of the city?

I risk it. Sweater over sports bra, black running shorts, sneakers. At the bottom of the hill it becomes clear that very few people are willing to ascend the hill, and I grin. Fewer people means fewer threats. Back in Canada, I used to joke that running at 6 a.m. to the river in frigid winter was perfect, because only nutters like me would be out; even would-be rapists had the good sense to stay warm. (But then again, back in Canada, I could also expect to be propositioned on a Monday morning just dropping off library books and going to the post office, by folks idling in downtown Kitchener–so anyone’s articulated fear of pre-dawn “stranger-danger” held significantly less weight with me in general.)

With fewer people, though, my spidey senses are more acute, and at one leg up the slimy grey mud I realize that there is no one for a ways ahead of me, and only one man a little ways behind me. More importantly, I notice this man because he stops at his distance just as stop to adjust my shoe. And then, when I start up again? He starts up again.

Every feminized person knows the rubberneck test for being followed–cross the street once, see if he follows; cross back, see if he does so again–but how do you do the same up a hillside? There is, actually, a little space on my two-lane trail, so I find occasion to pause again, still a ways ahead of him… and sure enough, he pauses again, too. So now I need to find a way to let him pass me, while giving wide berth… and luckily, the path gives me such opportunity, too. I let him get a little closer, then hop well aside, past a wide divider of mud, as if to enjoy the beautiful view on the other side. He lingers just by the point where he can pass me. Then he passes me on the main trail. Then he pauses again, waiting.

But I’m seasoned at this game. Boy, do I love this view! What a morning! Why, I could stay here forever and not ever budge a step more!

Finally he whistles, and I distinctly hear “Pues… no es importa…” before he continues on. I let him get well ahead of me before I continue on myself, and only start breathing deeply again once I encounter others on the trail.

PAUSE

Now, if my story stopped here, its implications for defining gender would be simple: Being gendered female means being targeted. It means always having to weigh the safety of one’s activities, to make excuse or punchline for any time spent solo, and to be prepared, always, to look for danger and safe harbour. And sure, maybe there was an entirely logical and non-threatening reason for whatever the man in question was up to. But that’s not an easy risk to take, in my shoes, with experiences like this being common.

And yet, my story doesn’t stop here, because don’t stop here.

And that’s where seeing gender as a label gets complicated.

Chapter 2: Monday Morning, Running Down That Hill

Atop the hill, I linger because it’s started to rain again. Not ideal. The last leg of my run up the hill was hard enough, the clay too slick to find easy purchase, and now… to find my way down again? Even worse. You cannot allow for any friction on this incline: just weight. Just presence. And so I focus on being present footfall after footfall (contemplating, of course, the philosophical resonance of this act as I go), and still, I find myself relying on many a sturdy weed or bit of bramble, along with some spryness learned in my dance classes, to help wend my way down.

I’m not alone on the hill, though. A less fit fellow is struggling behind me–and with far less grace. He’s wearing a white shirt that doesn’t stay white for long. I pause to extend a helping hand after one fall, and immediately realize my error–the shame, the embarrassment, that many masculinized persons show the moment that a feminized person is helping them. I smile encouragingly and share my own near-misses to make him feel better. He does, but he also hears the accent, and grows curious. He insists we go the rest of the way down together, and tries to repay my favour by offering his hand even when it’s not needed. On one occasion, I let him. We are, for now, fellow travellers.

And so he asks about my accent: where I’m from, why I’m here, what I do, if I like Medellín. I give him my boilerplate responses, but to my surprise he’s already rushing past them–but! but! do you like the coast, too?, he wants to know. I pause, and finally place his own Spanish accent. “¡Aii, eres costeño!” He beams with pride and tells me about his home, then tells me I should visit, and then tells me we should exchange numbers and I should go with him to his home in Barranquilla to meet his family, so he can show me around. Personal tour!

…We have been going down this hill for, oh, maybe 10 minutes at this point, but this level of eagerness isn’t uncommon among men here. Usually I go along with it, non-committal but polite, until the soonest point where I can part ways.

But I do something funny this time, something I don’t expect in myself. See, he’s told me in the course of this chat that he’s a lawyer, and I’ve been looking for a very specific sort of lawyer, so at his friendliness I consider giving him my number, and maybe extending our interactions long enough for him to help me with a professional issue, before I decline to abscond solo with him to the coast.

And yes, it feels rather sleazy of me even when I consider this, so I really don’t know what to think of myself when I follow up by asking him what kind of law he practices. Environmental, he tells me–and that, instead of the simple desire not to lead him on, decides the issue for me. At the bottom of the hill I shake hands with him and jog off, feeling rather bewildered by my cut-throat logical processing as I do.

PAUSE

Because… if my story of gender-ing ends here, the game changes, doesn’t it? Suddenly I’m not simply a victim of my circumstances, but someone who has chosen to indulge a wounded ego, chosen to continue interacting with someone who got far too eager too quickly, and in fact started scheming how to turn his interest to their own advantage.

And we all know this story from some of the wounds shared by masculinized persons in rather extreme forums. It’s the story of WIMMIN just out to get their money, lie to ruin their reputations, work them to the bone at some of our most thankless and dangerous jobs with nothing to show for it, and ostracize them from their kids. It’s a story informed in part by misplaced anger, but also in part by our current language around things like “rape culture”, which as I noted in another essay is not quite comprehensive enough to address the full weight of our underlying entitlement issues.

And it’s also informed by how much gender is treated as noun even by many of those advocating for women’s rights. Even among people who can readily recite Simone de Beauvoir’s famous “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” or who have read any number of academic spins on the concept of “doing” gender. It’s one thing to talk about gender being fluid, but in the political sphere, when playing the game of institutional appeasement that labelism is really all about… you will always find people who approach identity discourse as a matter, more, of fixed states.

But gender isn’t, is it? And surely on one level we all know that–because neither man here knew that I don’t have an inner gender identity. In both encounters, my labels didn’t mean a damned thing, because who I am will never matter as much as how I am read.

And that “reading” is a conversation–or, okay, sometimes more of a monologue.

But either way, it’s a developing narrative.

It’s activity, enacted most every darned time we interact with the greater world.

Chapter 3: Monday Afternoon, A Legal Affair

I meet a friend for a working lunch with his local lawyer. I’ve been helping my friend with a massive undertaking to right some wrongs back in Canada. English is his second language, but bureaucracy–especially the language of Canadian law and the Canadian Revenue Agency–might as well be his third. It’s hard to manage these systems alone.

These are an odd set of issues, though, because technically I’m just a friend, but I’m also the person who gradually put together, from his various comments over the last few months, the gravity of the problem and what needed to be done to solve it. And so, as a friend, I first only provided information to empower him to fix these problems himself, but–especially due to the second-language component–I soon took more of an active role in key conversations. And the background research needed for them. And the small errands necessary to prepare for each stage in the process. And gentle check-ins to make sure my friend was attending to what he alone could do to fix parts of this problem.

In fact, that very morning I’d gently reminded him of two pieces of ID that needed to be present for this meeting. In his presence, I tell him I feel bad about the reminder, because I don’t like the implication that he can’t “adult” on his own. But he laughs, and tells me, no, I was absolutely right to remind him, because he would have forgotten, and he needs that–he needs me to keep “pushing” and “reminding” him every step of the way.

And I’m happy to, because he always shows genuine thankfulness for the help, and because seeing my friend relieved after so much time quietly enduring the stress of these issues alone, with no path out, is all the reward I need.

But I also carry within me a very common discourse among feminized persons, the question of “emotional and managerial labour”, which French comic artist Emma most effectively depicted in this comic on the “mental load” of having to remind other people (partners especially) how to contribute fairly.

And I also carry within me the gendered discourse about “nagging”–which is why my friend knows my rule, that I will only remind him about something if I have promised to give him such reminders when we first discussed the issue. After that, he’s on his own.

So when the meeting ends, with more homework for me to dole out to my friend and to myself, I just feel exhausted. But I can’t figure out exactly why.

PAUSE

So how does this change the story? Fine, okay, gender is relational. Gender is a conversation. But where, too, does it end? In my experience, gender performance gets culturally policed in a lot of ways, and it frustrates me when I catch myself partaking in that policing, through anxieties about outward performance. Yes, maybe, for my friend, I am doing too much “managerial labour”–that dread marker of polite sexism in action! And yes, plenty of discourse communities talk about how critical it is for feminized persons to make masculinized persons take more responsibility for themselves and their problems. Look at me being a lousy ally in the struggle!

But also… I’m aware that I’m doing managerial labour; I’ve chosen to do it; I’m thanked warmly, sincerely, and often for it; and for it, I get the pleasure of knowing that one less person I care about is getting screwed over.

And yes, maybe giving my friend as many reminders as I have feels like nagging to me. Maybe I have a fear of being seen as a nag by my friend because of the relentless cultural conditioning about this highly gendered term and activity. But… is it still a negatively gendered behaviour if it’s wanted? Hard to say. And so all I really know is that whenever I have some agency over how much my performance will be read as “female”, that false sense of control over how others read me always leaves me feeling like a failure, for not doing more to eradicate the accompanying stereotypes.

It’s like WarGames, where you know that the only way to win is not to play… except we’re all well past that decision now!

Chapter 4: Tuesday, Early Morning, English Class

My first class the next morning is at 6:30 a.m. It’s one of my one-on-one English classes with upper-management types for major businesses–all men. I find these classes curious, because I feel less like an English teacher and more like a paid conversationalist, of an almost French-salon quality. (Charlotte Brontë would either be proud or defeated to hear how resonant feminized experiences are across the centuries!) I am polite, professional, and engaging, but above all else I am well-educated, so that our classes end up navigating a wide range of nuanced themes: global economics, political theory, political praxis, history, etymology, science, technology, and cultural anthropology.

Oh, right, yes–and I help with their pronunciation and add to their vocabularies and understanding of English syntax as we go.

This client is a charming and well-educated man himself. Married for over thirty years, though, he is also no stranger to the usual jokes about how marriage is an institution (but who wants to be in an institution?). I am used to that level of playful comment from him, and it doesn’t trouble me, because he never sustains it for long–so happy is he in actuality with his life. He might make superficially envious comments about one of his fellow Captains of Industry with “Peter-Pan syndrome”, a man in his late fifties still switching out 25-to-30-year-old women quarterly, but he always sobers in the end, and speaks about the value of not having to play that exhausting game anymore.

…Of being fortunate enough, that is, to be exhausted by just one person all year instead.

You get the idea.

This class, our discussion wends at one juncture towards historical roots for the veneration of mothers in South America, and I share something that I have heard the women say here–how “a man can only be loyal to one woman at a time: his mother”–to affirm how much a truism that veneration seems to be among many. My comment has the desired effect: he laughs, but then sobers and agrees that there is this belief among many women here, and observes, furthermore, that it is a hard belief, because it creates so little narrative space for the men in this culture to be otherwise. We talk about the confining nature of most of this discourse, and I leave class feeling rather buoyed by his affirmation–even though he wisecracks in the same manner as many men in his position–that he knows these glib cultural declarations only diminish human potential.

We can be so much more–we are so much more!

And with a bright smile and good cheer I return to the outer world.

PAUSE

So if we stopped the story of my being gendered here–if this is where I arrived–what a strange story this one, too, would be. Because my client doesn’t know my inner identity, but he does know–quite well!–the social script between heterosexual men and women, and for the purposes of my job it serves well enough to give his perspective conversational license. And so, for well over an hour three times weekly, our discussions always carry with them the possibility of highly gendered discourse that I, too, perpetuate, however much I want to deflect from my responsibility in this regard.

Now, I’m fortunate that, when his perspective is given license, I invariably find, behind the rigid rhetoric of Men and Women in Latin America and the World, a human being who does not at all see humanity in so binary a manner. And I do take some comfort in hearing myself hold firm against certain stereotypes of women if ever they arise.

But what an uncanny microcosm these meetings nevertheless are for me–because in them, ultimately, I hear what I do in the world at large, among anyone who holds to such strongly gendered language: I participate, even if to a far lesser degree, in the idea of gender as a set of fixed states rather than as a series of dynamic interactions.

And boy, even on the good days, even after a satisfying class like this one, does that ever trouble the humanist inside.

Chapter 5: Tuesday Morning, Expedited Delivery

Still riding high on that morning class, I take a letter to a nearby expedited delivery service–a part of my “homework” after the legal meeting to help out my friend. I’m in an industrial part of the city and it’s only 7:50 a.m., so outside the vehicular traffic, there really isn’t anyone else around. I enter a set of doors to the building containing this business, only to find that the kiosk doesn’t open until eight. Ah, well, I can wait.

But a guard has appeared behind me. Young man, bright smile, piercing eyes, well built, with a hand on his belt just by his baton. He is by the outer doors, plainly curious. I explain that I’m early, and ask him for confirmation that the kiosk opens at eight. He gives it, and I say that I’ll wait outside then, and move for the door.

He blocks it.

He blocks it. His hand still by his baton. His figure towering over me.

“Pero, eres bonita,” he says. “Quiero hablar contigo.”

[But, you are pretty. I want to talk to you.]

All levity from my morning class evaporates. I know this game. This game doesn’t end in assault, but it does leave me performing politeness, not willing to risk a scene when I’m all alone for ten minutes. It leaves him, too, getting what he wanted–my attention for ten minutes, until finally an employee rolls up the kiosk’s metal gate.

Even then, though, the encounter continues… because when I go to the main desk, this guard follows and idles by me–right by me–while I’m asked all the personal questions needed to deliver this document. My name. My phone number. My email. My address. I’m sure he isn’t doing anything with them, but the added sense of vulnerability, having either to relay all this information while he watches, or to make a scene by explicitly asking to do this away from the building’s security guard, is acute all the same.

And it’s uncanny, too, how similar two different worlds can be. As I mentioned earlier, in Canada on a Monday morning I would also experience gendering when propositioned by downtown locals on my way to the post office. No wonder, then, that so many of us conflate gendering for a static state, when the verbing it involves can happen in so predictable a way in so very many different places, all the world over.

And yet… here, as in Canada, my abiding hope always belies the truth of the matter–for me, at least–because all I want to do, when these situations happen, is leave, leave the person with whom a specific story of my gender is being told, leave that dizzying and estranging conversation of imposed identity, and return to some calm clear light of day where I can just… be human again.

Be somewhere, that is, where I can hear again in my heart the only roar I do know to be true to myself, the one that says…

“These are the continuing adventures of a fleeting speck of sentience.”

And no more.

But also, one day I hope for all of us, certainly no less, either.


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  • Illithid

    Very engaging, thank you.

    I am continually struck by the extent to which (perceived) women are harassed and threatened. I find myself, as a man (by all appearances), looking for ways in which I might seem threatening, to avoid them. And the more I look, the more I see. Does she think I’m following her? Does she think I’m staring? Dammit, I am staring, stop that!

  • Oh, your comment made me laugh. Thanks, Illithid!

    I did in fact once get “stalked” by a neighbour who was trying to be helpful–as you no doubt were when accidentally staring. I noticed a man following at a distance while I was teenager walking home from the bus stop, so I did the rubberneck test–and when he followed both crosses, I sped up. He did, too, and this time waved at me and called out. I then recognized him as my neighbour from two doors down. He’d been worried about me, walking home alone late at night, and so he’d taken it upon himself to follow at a distance to make sure I was safe. I told him in no uncertain terms that the better option would have been to greet and /walk with me/ instead of nearly giving me a heart attack. He sheepishly agreed, but it genuinely hadn’t occurred to him that, at a distance in the dark, I would see him as a threat instead of a protector. We have a ways to go, always, with this social conversation!

  • bekar

    Good article – thanks! Definitely a lot of things to think about. I was particularly struck by how you describe your gender identity or lack thereof. Because I’m very much the same.

  • Glad it resonated, bekar! It’s a tough one to talk about without slipping into the use of /more/ labels, so I’m really glad this essay nonetheless served as a bridge between two humans’ experiences in the world. All best wishes to you in yours!

  • guerillasurgeon

    I think I’m pretty harmless looking, but some years ago I saw a woman drop her wallet in the middle of the main shopping street, so as long as if there was no one around. So I grabbed it and ran after her and caught up with her and said “excuse me”,and was about to say “I think you dropped this.” When she gave me this really nasty stare and walked on. But I wonder now if it was because she was afraid of being harassed, but in the middle of the street surrounded by hundreds of people including other women? So I’m afraid I walked to the nearest litter bin which was 20 m ahead of her held up her wallet in two fingers so she could see, and dropped it in the bin. I was younger then and more sensitive.

  • I think you’ll enjoy this joke by John Mulaney–the rare rape joke that properly makes fun of rapists, not victims, while also reflecting more deeply on how this culture affects how human any of us gets to be while moving through the world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbc_1T6SxrY

    And thanks for sharing, guerillasurgeon! Yes, even among other people the danger is significant: I was groped, harassed, and stalked on the transit system even when it was bustling while growing up in Toronto, and I’m groped and harassed on the Metro here, too–sometimes quite cleverly, during rush hour, but also sometimes when there /really/ isn’t anything they can use to justify their conduct. It always astonishes me the level of impunity some people realize they can enjoy in public, but there’s a well-documented human behaviour of deferring to other people’s reactions when confronted with domestic violence and even explicit sexual assault in public, and so failing to intervene. A generous reading is that we assume someone /else/ will step in or call for backup, but mostly we prefer not to “rock the boat”. This is also what makes us so susceptible to the rise of tyrants!

    In any case, glad you had the opportunity to benefit from time and experience (and hopefully, so too did she!). We all have our learning curves. Whether our culture accepts their inevitability is another matter entirely!