Writing yesterday’s post got me thinking about what it means to identify as something. (Not for the first time, but that’s how it always is with thinking about big issues: you do it a little at a time, and when you feel like you’ve travelled down all available paths, you let it rest for a while and return back later to find new angles and corners to explore.)
[Guess who once again did not start writing today’s blog post in the morning? Me!]
For a long time, I thought that everyone would choose to be male if they were given a choice, and the only reason anyone would ever say differently was because it was a wrong thing to want and therefore a shameful thing to admit. Whether because it was in accordance with God’s plan or because one’s body was part of some “true” self, both my religious upbringing and more secular worldviews strongly pushed the idea that genuine happiness and peace could only come from accepting one’s body (and also the gender assigned on its basis).
Once, when I was a teenager (maybe fourteen, or fifteen) I stood with a group of teenage girls, and one of them actually asked whether we would rather be men. One after the other shook her head, looking to all the world like they really, truly meant it, maybe even slightly puzzled, as if they’d never had even a second of doubt and longing about the question.
When they looked at me expectantly, I quickly bit my tongue and shook my head. I had learned quite a while ago that outing oneself as a freak was not a good idea, and now this desire – one I’d considered ubiquitous, if taboo – was one more thing making me one.
(Strangely, I never had the same issues with being attracted to women. Despite a staunchly heteronormative religious community, I had no trouble at all with accepting the idea that people could fall in love with others regardless of their gender, and when I wondered about my own attractions, I didn’t feel like they made me a freak in the slightest.)
It was not until I started reading blogs written by trans women years later that I started honestly considering that some people liked feminine-coded things not just despite their association with femininity, but in some cases and to some degree even because of it. That some people actually liked being female. That for some people, their femaleness was not something they had to grit their teeth to bear, but something they valued and wanted recognized and seen.
That someone could feel like maleness was a burden pressed upon them as much as I felt like femaleness was a burden pressed upon me.
It’s still not something I can genuinely understand without putting it through at least one layer of abstraction (by comparing it to my own feelings about gender, for example). And it’s not about the feminine-coded things themselves – I don’t have trouble understanding how people could like swooshy skirts, or dangling earrings, or colorfully painted nails, or eyes emphasized by eyeliner, or lips made shiny by gloss. I don’t have trouble understanding how someone could like feeling graceful, or being kind.
But the idea of myself as a woman in a swooshy skirt, rather than a man? A woman with artfully painted nails? A woman moving gracefully, or being kind?
Does not compute. Feels wrong, in an unnatural, stilted, awkward way, like trying to artificially construct an image of gracefulness or kindness or me in a swooshy skirt around a hollow core.
This is what I mean when I say I am male. There is a core part of me that clicks with maleness, and fails to do so with femaleness. All the frustratingly vague and uninformative definitions or explanations of what the term “gender identity” means are trying to get at this core, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a really good way to explain it.
Maybe try to frame it in a different way than by thinking about your gender – you might be so used to taking your gender for granted you can’t tell what it even is, or you might not have a very strong gender identity (or any gender identity at all). Imagine it’s you-but-not-you, imagine you’re wearing a mask that looks really very much like your face but is still off, imagine that feeling most people get sometimes when they leave their house that there’s something – some indefinable thing – they forgot, imagine a familiar music piece with the rhythm or the instruments or the tune just sounding wrong and strange without you being able to name what exactly is wrong. Maybe there’s some aspect of yourself you consider fundamental to who you are, a certain way of thinking, certain preferences, a certain way of viewing or interacting with the world: imagine one of those gone, or strangely foggy and murky and unreachable or hard to remember.
Does that make sense to anyone out there? I don’t know.
Even if it does, it might not make sense to you to that one of those fundamental aspects should be someone’s gender. It doesn’t make sense to me either. It seems weird that there should be an aspect of my identity that somehow naturally lines up with this very specific cultural concept.
On the other hand, there are parts of me I consider rather essential that don’t have words to describe them. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that this one happens to be one there’s a word for. (And it’s even arguable that there is a word for it – after all, maleness means quite different things to different people.)
Last December, I came across a post with an intriguing excerpt from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) workbook and a link to the full text. I saved the link, planning to read the whole thing when I had more time, but neglected to save the text itself, and when I came back later, the site was offline.
However, today I found a working link to the same workbook! This time, I saved it immediately. The excerpted page was page 29, Reality Statements for Interpersonal Effectiveness, and if the whole workbook is like this page, it could be very helpful to me. So I’ll read it, and I’ll probably have some thoughts and comments about it which I might leave on this blog. Feel free to join me!
A few years or so ago, my circle of awareness was abuzz with people voicing enthusiasm for non-violent communication (NVC), and while it seems to have died down by now (the last time I heard anything about NVC was almost exactly a year ago, and only in the form of a flyer promoting a workshop), I’ve been thinking about it again lately.
Every now and then, someone makes a statement like “men are socialized to not listen to women”, or “men feel entitled to women’s time”, or “men constantly cross women’s boundaries”, and almost inevitably someone chimes in with “not all men” – not all men are like that, not all men feel like that, not all men do that, etc.
Back in September, I posted about starting to use a time-tracking app (Gleeo). I used it very consistently and conscientiously for four months, right up until I reset my cell phone a few days ago and lost the app. I re-installed it fairly quickly, but haven’t properly configured it yet, so I’ve spent the past six days off the record. (Feels pretty weird not to pick up my phone and tap a button every time I switch activities.)
[Today’s bonus thought: I should really start working on these posts in the mornings instead of trying to cram them into the ~2 hours in between when I get home and go to bed, which are already filled with eating, working out, and showering.]
“Then I learned that 1) Boys are not Proper Humans, and 2) I was supposed to be one of those”, I read in a post largely about compliments and the social norms surrounding them.
Then I sat back and blinked in momentary confusion.
In much of the society and culture I live in, male is the default and female the divergence. Whether it’s politics, medicine, pictograms meant as a stand-in for any person, fictional characters, language (“give a man a fish and you feed him for today, teach him to use gender-neutral language and he’ll feel uncomfortable with many common proverbs”), or whatever other categories currently escape me but fit the pattern: male is the norm, femaleness a marked trait. (Apart from situations surrounding child-rearing and specific forms of work, like housework, that is.)
Yet thinking in terms of humans rather than people made me realize that many of the traits commonly thought of as distinguishing humans from other animals are associated with femaleness rather than maleness.
I suppose it depends on how one thinks about humans in comparison to other animals: emphasizing reason and dominion over the rest of the phylogenetic tree would lead to the usual androcentric perspective, and so might curiosity or ingenuity. But the traits connected to the very word “humane” – compassion, empathy, benevolence, gentleness – , caring for one another, valuing beauty, and even morality itself are considered feminine traits. (Currently, that is; especially morality was definitely not always seen as a female domain.)
This in and of itself is not new – much pedestalization of women has been couched in the language of morality, of women being the “better” people, much abuse of them excused by invoking the animal-like nature of men, and many demands for forgiveness and submission justified through the same. (The contradictions between this view of femaleness and views of women as inferior are staggering.)
But until today, I’ve never connected these views to ideas of the human default. Thinking that women are the better humans is a slightly different issue from thinking that women are the more human humans.
I don’t know if this train of thought will lead anywhere – probably not, considering that I neither view humans as notably different from other animals in any morally relevant way nor women and men as homogeneous and entirely separate groups of people on any axis.
But it was a curious thought, so I made it into a post. (I did warn you they were going to be shitty.)