Friday, October 12, 2012

Spining the Big COP 24/7 Wheel

Special to COP 24/7

All Knotted UP: Queer People Birthing Sex and Living Gender

I’m convinced that one of the many great contributions queer people have made to the world is to make real the difference between sex and gender. Granted, there is still confusion about this distinction within the queer community, resulting in intragroup oppression and collusion with gender hierarchies that marginalize transgender people, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who reflect society’s gender norms. Dafina Lazarus StewartYet, if it weren’t for queer people strutting their stuff and living their lives as femmes, queens, thugs, bois, studs, butches, kings, and as transmen and transwomen, this very important distinction would continue to go unnoticed in society at large.
In my professional life, I am a college faculty member, whose research and teaching are steeped in diversity and social justice issues and who serves on several campus committees dealing with various issues of diversity and social justice. Through my work, I have participated in conversations with campus colleagues and in professional associations about the differences between sex and gender. I have had to explain to my students why it matters that you not put “male” and “female” as gender categories on a survey. The responses I get typically fall into two groups: on the one hand, some are confused by the assertion that sex and gender are not synonymous; others respond as though a light bulb just went off in their heads and wonder why everybody doesn’t already know this. If people with advanced degrees have a hard time grasping this – and they do – it’s no surprise that the general public, queer and straight, is also confused.

Part of the reason that it’s so hard to disentangle sex and gender in our minds is due to what Allan G. Johnson has termed the “gender knot” in his book by the same name about patriarchy and how it manifests. By situating personality traits, preferences, and habits in biological differences, gender ultimately got conflated with sex. So what is the difference between sex and gender anyway?
Sex is a biological construct with three – yes, three – categories: male, female, and intersex. The term hermaphrodite was used at one time to label humans who were born either with both male and female genitalia or with unclear genitalia, but is now outdated; intersex is the appropriate terminology. You might be remembering your middle school biology class at the moment, but it’s okay; revisiting this is important. Sex is manifested through both primary and secondary sex characteristics. Primary sex characteristics include: chromosomes, males have an XY chromosome pairing, while females have XX; hormones, males produce far more testosterone than females and females produce more estrogen and progesterone than males, but everyone, regardless of sex produces all three hormones; sex organs, the penis, testicles, and scrotum are the primary sex organs used to identify someone as male and the vagina, uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes typically identify someone as female. Secondary sex characteristics include facial and body hair (males have more usually), size and shape of hands and feet (females typically have smaller ones), bone density and mass (females usually have less), muscular growth and development (males tend to have larger muscles), voice pitch (males typically have deeper voices), the angle of the face (females have less angular profiles), and the Adam’s apple that marks most males. These sex characteristics are biological because we are born with them in some form or fashion (more clear for some than others – remember those who are intersex) and require some kind of medical intervention, either surgery or drug treatment in order to modify them.
“Male and female are not mutually oppositional categories.”
Although biological sex may seem a simple, uncomplicated issue, thoughtful reflection will likely reveal its inherent complexities. Beyond the reality of intersex people whose primary sex characteristics defy easy categorization, those secondary characteristics do not neatly separate male from female. We all know females with mustaches and deep voices and males with petite feet and hands and softer facial features. At birth, doctors assign a sex to the infant based on the infant’s genitalia and will “correct” unclear genitalia; however, such corrections or determinations do not mean that the child’s secondary characteristics will manifest consistent with the average for males or females. Male and female are not mutually oppositional categories.

Gender, on the other hand, is entirely another matter, rooted, not in biology, but socialization. Gender is a social construction, and definitions of gender roles and norms have changed over time and are different across societal contexts. Like sex, gender has been portrayed as a binary – someone is either a “man” or a “woman.” However, like sex, gender is more complex than that. Gender includes both gender identity and gender expression. As transgender scholar Genny Beemyn and others have explained, gender identity is about how I see myself as a man, woman, neither, or blend of both; gender expression is how I choose to manifest that through my clothing, preferences, and mannerisms (e.g., one’s walk, hand gestures, posture). Categories like man (boy), woman (girl), transgender, and genderqueer may be used to name one’s gender identity. For gender expression, we might talk about masculinity, femininity, and androgyny as categories. However, I am increasingly hearing other terms enter the conversation as alternative ways to name gender identities, including boihood, masculine of center (MOC), and queen. On the street, beyond the hackneyed ivory tower, people are creating language to reflect the ways that they transgress the accepted social norms for gender identity and expression.

Sex, gender identity, and gender expression are typically thought to be practically synonymous; consequently, the terms for each are often conflated. For example, a survey asks for the respondent’s sex and gives (just) two gender categories, man and woman; a news article refers to a single-sex school as a women’s institution (not all females are women). Moreover, one’s gender expression is assumed to be directly correlated to one’s sexuality as straight or queer: An effeminate man who loves classical ballet is presumed to be gay; a woman in a loose-fitting shirt and tailored pants is approached as “family.” This conflation of constructs also relegates transsexual and transgender people to the margins and undermines their distinctive needs and concerns.
“As queer people, we constantly bend, blend, and defy sex and gender binaries.”
Last fall, I was part of a discussion about a news story surrounding a transgender girl joining a Girl Scouts troop that quickly was reduced to questioning why someone who is born male can’t just defy gender norms and be a different kind of boy in a Boy Scout troop, and leave the Girl Scout troop to actual girls. This came from people who saw themselves as allies mind you, but were ignorant of what it means to identify one’s gender in a way that is inconsistent with their biological sex and that it is legitimate and valid to do so. People who are openly hostile to transgender people propagate transphobic myths about men dressed in women’s clothing who just want to molest little girls in the bathroom. This also rejects the legitimacy of someone knowing within hirself that ze is a man in a female’s body, or a woman in a male’s body. You can’t know someone’s gender by how they look or what secondary sex characteristics may characterize their bodies. We need to start asking each other for our preferred gender pronouns (e.g., he/his/him, she/her/hers, ze/hir/hirs) as part of introducing ourselves to each other as I have seen done in multiple settings in the past year.

I haven’t always understood or validated this distinction myself and have committed the same errors I’ve described above. In fact, we have all done it, whether straight or LGBTQQIAA, because we have all been taught – those of us raised in the United States since the 19th century anyway – that having a penis is causally related to being a male, a man, masculine, and heterosexual by nature, while having a vagina is thought to be predictive of not only femaleness, but also of assuming an identity as a feminine, heterosexual woman. According to some queer theorists, the very categories of man and woman are inherently heterosexual and same-gender loving people are not included in them, but I get enough of a headache thinking my way out of this knotty conversation without having to go there. To put it simply, your birth sex does not predict your gender identity, gender expression, or your sexuality. Moreover, despite the gender roles that seem to deeply pervade our society, gender expression is not predictive of sexuality either. That highly masculine man, a “man’s man” who loves sports (or not), beer (or wine), and works with his hands (or is a corporate desk jockey), can be (and is) just as gay as that feminine woman, the ultimate “girly-girl” who can’t stand to break a nail, wears makeup every day, and wouldn’t pay the bill on a date if you dared her, can be (and is) a “gold-star” lesbian. By the way, that effeminate guy that does your hair every week may just be straight, as might that woman in the football jersey, swilling beer at the local bar on Sunday afternoons. Mind-boggling I know, but true.

Two experiences contributed to my evolving understanding of sex and gender. First was listening to the stories of transgender people and drag queens. I joined an online community hosted by TransOhio, a political advocacy and social support organization for transgender people and their allies in Ohio, where I reside. I also had the privilege of volunteering alongside several transwomen in Bowling Green, Ohio as we fought for (and won) the passage of two citywide ordinances that would extend protection from discrimination in housing, employment, public education, and public accommodations to an additional fourteen categories of people, including sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. These transwomen’s stories helped to open my eyes and challenged me to aspire to a new level of allyship and true camaraderie with my trans-siblings in the queer community. By getting to know gay men who performed in drag, I came to understand how flexible gender expression and identity really can be. I saw manifested the truth of gender as a cultural and social performance as discussed by scholars like Judith Butler.

At the same time as I was in these conversations and listening to these stories, I was taking my own journey toward self-awareness and acceptance as a masculine-of-center, lesbian woman. After a lifetime of conforming to expected gender roles and norms based on my femaleness, including heterosexual marriage, motherhood, and dressing in dresses, skirts, form-fitting blouses, and heels, I finally decided to live an authentic life in July 2008 in my mid-thirties. According to recently published research by Mignon Moore on lesbianism and motherhood, that’s not all that unusual.
That summer I accepted and affirmed the validity and giftedness of my sexual attraction to women, but I also began to peel off the other masks that I had adopted. Although I could strut in a tight top, short skirt, and heels with the best of them (and damn was I sexy!), I admitted to myself that I was never comfortable in that attire. I would say later that it felt like I was dressed in drag. I would rather be in pants, a top that minimized the focus on my breasts, and flat shoes that didn’t squeeze my toes. I always hated wearing cosmetics and began cropping my hair short, shorter, and shorter from the time I was in college. However, I came to adopt a gender expression that was “appropriate” and “respectable” for a female, and especially for a woman with a spiritual calling (that’s another article entirely!).

Once I came out as a lesbian, I felt free to experiment with my gender expression. I was comfortable in my female body for the first time and finally felt appreciative of my small breasts and slender hips. That summer I first went ultra-femme: lip gloss, sexy summer dresses, big hoop earrings, and strappy heels. I had a blast flaunting my sexiness – I had realized that I didn’t have to acknowledge, let alone respond, to men’s gazes and sexual offers. But by the time summer was over, I was bored with the performance and ready to figure out what I wanted. That process took the full academic year of 2008-2009 and an unguarded comment from a stud-identified Black woman at a professional conference in the spring of 2009 (who is now one of my best friends) that I looked like I was “playing at being a boi.” That stunned and offended me and I spent the rest of the spring figuring out why I was offended.

I realized that I was offended because I didn’t want to be seen as a girl in her boyfriend’s jeans; I wanted to be seen as I saw myself – a woman who embraces and celebrates her masculine energy in its female form. So, I started the process of transforming my wardrobe to fit what I wanted to see when I looked in the mirror: I bought my first pair of men’s shoes and started wearing men’s dress slacks, tailored men’s shirts, and neckties. I relaxed my posture, went back to the walking gait that was natural for me and for which I had gotten chastised for in my youth, became even more open with my love of football, restarted my subscription to Sports Illustrated, and allowed myself to enjoy “old man” liquors, like bourbon. I was getting compliments on my new look from other lesbians, from gay men, from straight women, and from straight men. I was comfortable finally (and damn I was sexy!) and my newfound relaxation in my own skin was visibly apparent to others and I was told so.

But questions continued to occupy my mind: How should I name this? What did it mean for my gender identity? Was I transgender? If not, was I really a woman? What did woman mean anyway? How did my valued identity as a “mother” intersect with my very masculinized gender expression? What do I do with this body that is decidedly more female than it is male that has trouble finding men’s clothes to fit it? Surely there are slender, petite men in the world that buy clothes and shoes some place? I wanted to name myself, not because the label had validity in itself, but by naming myself, I reclaimed the power to name myself in defiance of the pathological labels that others would put on me. I claimed my gender transgression with pride and argued for representing womanhood and manhood as overlapping continuums within the gender spectrum. I am biologically female and happily so. I am a woman, a woman who is masculine-of-center, but a woman nonetheless. By asserting my gender identity as woman, I am naming myself in defiance of the social construct that would conflate femininity (a gender expression) with being a woman (a gender identity). But, for crying out loud, please don’t call me a “lady” – I am not a lady.

For me, the term “lady” conflates gender expression with gender identity. A lady is a very particular gender role; its origins are in the Middle Ages along with chivalry and the concept of being a gentlemen, when damsels or ladies were deemed such via their social rank at birth, wealth, and the social graces they displayed (poor women were not and could not become “ladies” nor could Black women or other women of color). Over time, as poor and working class women and women of color fought for the right to be seen and respected as ladies alongside White, middle- and upper-class women, the term has come to be used generically for all women. Nevertheless, the word still has not lost its gender-typed connotations: A lady doesn’t cuss; a lady doesn’t sit with her legs gaped open; a lady is demure, a lady remains calm and doesn’t shout, a lady …; the list goes on and on. I can think of a dozen reasons why no one should ever want to be called a “lady” regardless of their gender identity or expression, but for me, to be called a “lady” seems particularly inappropriate, inaccurate, and even obtuse given my masculinized womanhood. But when I’m in groups of femmes and straight women, I’ve accepted that I’m going to be grouped in with the rest as a “lady” even though it grates in my ears.

Basically binaries are problematic and tend to be fictional constructs; there are few true binaries in life. I don’t fit neatly into simplistic, binary categories – most people don’t. The more we accept and affirm that, the more freedom we will give each other and ourselves to be ourselves and fulfill our roles in the world. Queer people have brought the gift of stretching and challenging the boundaries of sex and gender. As queer people, we constantly bend, blend, and defy sex and gender binaries. Our realities cannot be assimilated into existing frameworks. Instead, those frameworks must be revised and expanded to accommodate our lived realities in order to move forward toward realizing “liberty and justice for all.”

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart is an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Bowling Green State University and consults and speaks on issues of diversity and social justice nationally. Follow her blog at

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