(“Genderqueer” is a chronicle of my effort to better understand gender diversity, especially as it relates to identities beyond the binary. In case you’ve missed my previous posts and are interested in catching up, please check out “Genderqueer-Part I” and “Genderqueer-Part II.” )
I’d like to start out today by offering heartfelt bows, high fives and oceans of gratitude to Kate Bornstein. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Kate is an author, playwright and self-described gender outlaw. Born Albert Bornstein, Kate underwent sexual reassignment surgery in 1986 but ultimately came to identify as neither male nor female. Kate has written extensively about gender identity and about life as a transgender person. I recently finished Kate’s memoir “A Queer and Pleasant Danger” and am presently about halfway through “My New Gender Workbook,” Kate’s lifesaving guide to all things gender. Kate’s style is affable, direct, fun loving and nonjudgmental. I am so grateful to the friends who turned me on to Kate’s books. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more compassionate teacher.
In the first chapter of “My New Gender Workbook” there is a gender aptitude test, which is designed to help the reader think about what their sensibility is relative to gender, more specifically, their own. I scored as a “Gender Novice,” which was smack in the middle of the spectrum. While I don’t particularly question my gender identity, I also don’t fall neatly into the normative. More on that later. Kate is particularly skilled at deconstructing some of the language we use when we talk about gender. To paraphrase Kate:
Gender assignment is typically a male or female designation that is given at birth and is determined, in most cultures, by the genitalia we were born with. Kate explains that “Gender assignment is something that’s done to each one of us, long before we have the ability to have any say in the matter.”
Gender role refers to the characteristics and expectations that are connected to a specific gender. Think “sugar and spice and everything nice.”
Gender identity is how we personally identify our gender to be “at any given moment.” This is influenced by a variety of factors: biological, cultural, sexual, etc. In some cases, the “why” of personal identity is not necessarily tangible.
Gender expression, to quote Kate, is “how we show to the world the gender we feel ourselves to be.” Kate also points out that this can shift moment to moment or over the course of time.
Gender attribution is how we decide, upon initial meeting, what another person’s gender is. This determination is based on a variety of cultural cues that “can range from physical appearance and mannerisms to context and the use of power.” It’s an assumption we make, usually unconsciously. And we all do it.
Kate has inspired me to think about my own gender identity, especially as it relates to expression and roles. I comfortably identify with the female gender I was assigned with at birth. However, I find the traditional dictates of my gender role to be somewhat stifling. My mother wanted a girly girl in a navy blue dress with clicky shoes and perfectly manicured nails. Another requisite to my mother’s brand of feminine expression was a thin body. What she got was a chunky tomboy with dusty boots, messy hair and, much later in life, a few tattoos. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, there was a fair amount of shaming over my unwillingness to adhere to what was expected of me. As an adult, my professional life sometimes requires me to present a more polished and fashionable version of myself to the world. I have no problem pulling it off and sometimes it’s even a little fun. But it’s not where I’m most comfortable. The lesson learned here is that whether cisgender or transgender, we all, to one extent or another, are impacted….sometimes enslaved….by the cultural expectations associated with our gender role. Obviously, the degree of pain and difficulty this causes is unique to each individual. I don’t pretend to know what life is like for a transgender woman. But based on my own experiences, I can get some sense of how it feels when who you are does not align with who society expects you to be.
If we start by cultivating empathy, maybe we can ultimately discover the things that connect us, as opposed to those that keep us apart.
Enzo recently enlightened me to some terminology. “AFAB” means “assigned female at birth” and “AMAB” means “assigned male at birth.” Simple enough. According to Enzo, these are standard phrases that I should assimilate into my gender vocabulary. Enzo and I have not had many discussions about gender lately. I shared with them some of the things I’m gleaning from Kate’s book but they were nonplussed. I think this is partly due to the mom/teen dynamic. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not really about Enzo anymore.
What started as an effort to better understand my son has turned into my own personal journey of discovery, reflection, growth and compassion. I am coming to see gender as a social construct and the implications of that are huge. This is not a step-by-step process that I will be able to neatly wrap up in a few succinct blog posts. It’s a fluid evolution, nonlinear in nature. And it’s unfurling slowly. My exploration has been a bit like a romp through a funhouse with confusing pathways, weird mirrors and things appearing differently than they really are. But people, my mind is blown wide open and I’m filled with a rush of love that is so intense it makes me teary just typing the words.
With a heart this full, the possibilities feel endless. Stay tuned.
Postscript: Kate Bornstein is currently being treated for a recurrence of lung cancer and a fund has been set up to help with medical expenses. For more information, please visit: http://katebornstein.typepad.com/kate_bornsteins_blog/.