Dealing with those pesky eternal questions.
Things I am thinking about carefully enough to write them down. Catch my latest article, "Changing Sex, Changing Gender" in the December issue of Sh'ma magazine. Alas, I didn't make the online version, so here's a picture:
"Are you a boy or a girl?"
In which BrerRabbi explains why this question is neither rude nor impertinent, and describes in careful detail why such queries demand complete and truthful responses from BrerRabbi and other transgender persons.
The first crucial categorization humans make when meeting a person for the first time concerns what sex they are, and that determination goes hand in hand with identifying their gender. In fact, we have to read gender clues (especially clothing) to figure out a body’s sex, which is hidden under clothing. Corollary to that is the fact that we wear clothes to do many things: to protect our modesty, to protect our bodies from the climate, and to broadcast our sex and our sexual preference. Sex and gender norms provide valuable information about whether a person is a threat, whether a person might be able to offer a particular kind of help, or whether a person might be a possible sexual partner.
How do we obtain sex and gender knowledge? A binary sex (male/female) gender (masculine/feminine) message is usually communicated instantaneously, without any need for the exchange of words. We infer (genetic testing could prove us wrong) a person’s sex from the shape of a person’s body, from the clothes they wear, and from the pheromones their body produces. We infer a person's gender from their dress, which follows or goes against a set of binary norms. Sex and gender information is primal, visceral, chemical, and for the most part, unconsciousness. The collected welter of sex and gender clues we receive through our senses allows us to make an educated guess about a person’s sex and gender identity. In most cases, our senses are telling us a kind of truth (as much as anything can be said to be “true” in this day and age). In many cases the truth is more complicated, but since the sex and gender message is redundant, (one's clothing, behavior, speech patterns, style of social interaction, and choice of activities may provide incongruent gender clues) we can gloss over ambiguities and guess gender on an average of weighted cues. For the most part, we aren't even conscious of the fact that we’re seeking gender information until the flow of such information is interrupted, absent, incomplete or ambiguous. Then it becomes a task for consciousness and the spoken word.
When a person’s gender presentation is atypical (for example a bearded person with breasts in a men’s business suit, or a broad-shouldered person with razor stubble in a dress), words must be added to the (typically non-verbal) social exchange to obtain the crucial gender information. While asking someone, “are you a boy or a girl?” is typically thought to be rude, children sometimes have the chutzpah to voice the question on everyone’s mind. Yet when, as transgender persons, we are asked that question, some gender activists encourage us to suggest that gender isn’t who we really are, deep down. In response to the question, “Are you a boy or a girl,” some gender activists encourage us to say “why do you care so much?” In effect they ask us to minimize the social importance of gender information, to shame the questioner, or to make gender the other person’s problem. While the sentiment behind such a strategy is good—gender really is a social problem and not a personal problem—ignoring the question doesn’t provide the information the brave child requires, and shaming a person is never a good strategy. Why does the child need to know gender? Some females (like mommy) might provide milk if the child is hungry or help if that child falls down and injures a finger. Some males (like daddy) might help the child retrieve her playthings from a high shelf.
What happens when we don’t know a person’s gender? When the gender question goes unanswered (or unasked) our biological fear/threat response must remain subconsciously engaged in the face of a person of unknown gender, and our mate-finder instincts keep subconsciously casting out the question with no hope of a response. Ultimately, not knowing someone’s gender is a subconscious source of stress. It doesn’t seem fair to me to withhold gender information because it adds to peoples’ stress levels. While “coming out” as transgender adds stress to my life in the short term, in the long term I am accorded safety and allies. IMO it’s a worthy exchange.
What happens when we know a person’s gender, but the gender identity the person asks us to acknowledge is intentionally ambiguous?
Knowing that someone’s gender is ambiguous, intentionally ambiguous or otherwise, is a different kind of stress. Faced with such a person, we tend to ask ourselves anxiety-filled questions like, “What gender pronoun should I use? Is this person interested in dating me, or do they just want to be my friend? Given that there are differences in how I behave with different people, how does this person want to be treated?”
When a transgender person presents aspects of both genders, there should be no fault to our single-gender fellow humans for their simple non-malicious curiosity. In this case, however, I don’t think the point is for the transgender person to attempt to reduce the inquirer’s stress, but rather, to work hard to sensitize this person by telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so that her or his stress is over the long term reduced by frequent contact with humans who are live outside the usual binary gender norm. We’re here, we’re queer, and they really do need to get used to it. But for that, they need time and exposure and they need lots and lots of transgender people to be out of the closet.
For many transgender folks, telling the whole truth is an area where we are typically thin-skinned. It is terrifically difficult to put yourself out there as a person who is different, and to expect respect because of that difference. It would behoove us to help one another to toughen up, to do some strength training focused on this particular area. If one was not born intersexed, it takes some serious cojones to assert one’s proudly gender variant credentials over the “scientific fact” of a body that was born single-gender. But assert we must, doing our best to minimize our own feelings of shame at being different. Before we can hope to have the populace at large understand gender variance, we need to coach ourselves to understand that gender variance is a strength, not a weakness.
So when someone asks, “Are you a boy or a girl” rather than leading them away from the issue of why it is so vitally important to know a person’s gender, I suggest instead that we be forthright and explain, exactly and in age-appropriate detail, what our gender was, how it changed, and what it is at present, and whether it is likely to change in the future. Especially since for transgender persons that long and complicated story isn’t written in the flesh of our faces.
by Noach Dzmura January 8, 2008.