Ambiguous messages of gender
On May 27th, 2005, a post called “Gender Activism” went up on a blog that I have followed since the tender years of Web 2.0, We Make Money Not Art. The post is about Amelia Marzec’s The Gender Anarchy Project, which was an ode to gender ambiguity in honor of the fight for gender-neutral bathrooms. (Yes, we were fighting for those even in 2005.) The post includes an image of the nine different graphics that interchanged in Marzec’s installation – on a bathroom door, where a “gender” symbol would generally be placed.
Upon seeing this graphic in 2005, I saved it to my hard drive (thankfully, backed up on an external) and saved the link to the post in my del.icio.us account. Over the years, I’ve thought about it a lot. Does the best art make you think or does the best art make you feel? Does the best art create dialogue beyond meaning? Do words, shapes, patterns, arrangements, and rhythms create nothing but ambiguous messages? Or is it in the eye of the beholder?
For some people, gender matters a lot, whether it’s about how they identify or how other people identify: there is no ambiguity. And then there are other people for whom gender doesn’t matter much or at all, not how they identify nor how others identify. There are a lot of words, so many words, that can describe all of these types of people. Some of these folks follow patterns of prescriptivism and others of descriptivism. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that there are countless shapes, arrangements, rhythms, and dialogues about and surrounding gender, nor that there are, simply, countless genders. To paraphrase the comic Hyperbole and a Half’s ubiquitous “All the Things” meme: Be all the genders.
Be all the genders
According to the LGBTQIA Wiki, which has the definitive internet guide to gender, as of this writing the internet has named 166 “miscellaneous genders” that “are not categorized in feminine genders, masculine genders, androgynous genders, abinary genders, outhrine genders, xenic genders, uingender, fluid genders, demigender, multigender, or genderless, nor any other gender categories.” That’s a lot of genders, and the internet isn’t done – additions and edits are made to the LGBTQIA Wiki every day.
I’ve used the term “queer” to describe my sexuality since I was a young teenager. Queer means a lot of different things to me, particularly as I’m anarcha-queer. But when it comes to my gender, I’ve lacked a vocabulary for it since my pre-teen self first realized something about me was falling on the off-beat in the gender rhythm. Something wasn’t “right” or “normal” (the word “cisgender” wasn’t yet being used in the mid-1990s) about how I felt and how my body was born.
I felt then, and still feel – or rather, know – that despite being assigned female at birth, I’m a dude who likes to dress up as femme. There’s an emphasis on “dressing up” because I’m not a femme dude; I like to put femme on and take it off. Femme, for me, is a performance or a play space; it’s drag and not an identity. My default is not-femme, it is androgyne. Of all the gender identity and gender expression pages I’ve read on the LGBTQIA Wiki, of all the gender theory I’ve devoured over the years, nothing describes my gender identity.
In the past, I tried to specify, calling myself an “androgyne tomboy femme” and other such variants. But descriptors such as these are specious at best. I’m genderqueer and genderfluid, I’m genderpunk / genderfuck. I’m neutrois and I’m anarchogender. I’m genderflux and cassflux. The only term that can encompass all of this has been what’s been easiest to use: non-binary. But, I have ambiguous feelings about identifying as transgender.
“Transition from nowhere to nowhere” - Ezra Furman
From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
word-forming element meaning "across, beyond, through, on the other side of, to go beyond," from Latin trans (prep.) "across, over, beyond," perhaps originally present participle of a verb *trare-, meaning "to cross," from PIE *tra-, variant of root *tere- (2) "cross over, pass through, overcome." In chemical use indicating "a compound in which two characteristic groups are situated on opposite sides of an axis of a molecule" [Flood].
Linguistically, to be transgender means that you are “across, beyond, through, on the other side of,” or “to go beyond” gender. By this definition of the word-forming element trans-, I feel like I should identify as trans. I feel that my gender matches the description. But it’s not that simple to me. Trans- indicates a starting point and a destination and I don’t know where the fuck I’m starting from, let alone where I’m going. Ambiguous messages, indeed. I question how I can be transgender when my gender is already nowhere on a map. Even within all of the identities mentioned above, I still don’t feel in sync with any of the described genders.
I keep reminding myself that language evolves from its roots to mean new things. For that matter, so does gender. A transition need not mean a process or a connecting piece from one state to another. A transition may now mean less of a process and more of a praxis; ie, the application or practice of gender.
Praxis comes from Medieval Latin and means action or doing. It comes from the Greek word prassein, meaning to do or practice. From this we get the word practical. Practical got its start in Middle English, from the Late Latin word practicus, from the Greek words praktikos and prassein (to pass over, fare, do); akin to the Greek word péran (πέραν), which means to pass through, across, or beyond.
Gender contains the praxis of moving past the binary of male and female. Some of us pass through those states with a continual journey of moving across the gender spectrum, destination: beyond. Destination: anywhere but here. A practice in moving from anywhere to nowhere in particular, though perhaps somewhere peculiar… To find a new rhythm, you’ll need to get there from beyond your roots.
Getting back to dys- roots
The root word-forming element for dysmorphia and dysphoria is the same: dys.
From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
word-forming element meaning "bad, ill; hard, difficult; abnormal, imperfect," from Greek dys-, inseparable prefix "destroying the good sense of a word or increasing its bad sense" [Liddell & Scott], hence "bad, hard, unlucky," from PIE root (and prefix) *dus- "bad, ill, evil" (source also of Sanskrit dus-, Old Persian duš- "ill," Old English to-, Old High German zur-, Gothic tuz- "un-"), a derivative of the root *deu- (1) "to lack, be wanting" (source of Greek dein "to lack, want").
What I find interesting about this is that the original Greek word is dein, meaning “to lack, want.” This evolved over time to be a prefix, from the Greek dys-, meaning “bad” or “difficult” or “abnormal.”
When I feel body dysmorphia, I feel that my body is bad. When I feel gender dysphoria, I feel that my body is lacking. They are two feelings that are somehow interconnected.
Indeed, it’s not uncommon for people who do not fit into the gender binary to experience both dysphoria and dysmorphia. According to an eating disorder treatment center, the Center for Discovery, transgender and non-binary folks often experience eating disorder and body image distress at higher rates compared to their cisgender counterparts. In the same post they add, “it is often hard to decipher whether or not one’s body image distress is related to gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, or hesitancy and self-doubt fueled by societal expectations around body ideals and gender norms.”
Body dysmorphia is rooted in anxiety, causing us to have a distorted view of our bodies which is accompanied by shame about what our body looks like. This results in a negative body image and focusing on imagined physical flaws. It comes largely from having diet culture shoved down our throats since birth. It is not improved by any physical processes such as weight loss or surgical alteration. Body dysmorphia has its roots in feelings of shame.
Conversely, gender dysphoria has its roots in the feelings of incongruence of identity. It can occur with body dysmorphia and disordered eating behaviors. According to a 2021 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders:
“Transgender patients report high levels of [eating disorder] symptomatology. There are subtle, yet important, differences in [eating disorders] between gender identities and gender affirmations. High [eating disorder] prevalence may result from the dual pathways of sociocultural pressures as well as gender dysphoria.”
For many years, mental health providers and even non-binary and trans people ourselves have looked to gender dysphoria to determine if one is trans or non-binary. Gender dysphoria is the absence of feeling pleasure in one’s gender presentation, including bodily attributes, gendering or misgendering from others, and societal pressure to conform to expected gender roles based on assigned gender (slightly paraphrased from Gender wiki). It’s constantly feeling like your mindbody’s rhythm is off-beat while most of the folks around you are on-beat.
The trouble with relying on the presence of gender dysphoria as a marker for our gender identity being outside the gender binary is threefold. First, cisgender folks can experience gender dysphoria (which can often turn into body dysmorphia)! Second, gender dysphoria generally refers to the absence of pleasure in the gendered attributes of one’s body, but social dysphoria (dissatisfaction or discomfort with one’s “assigned” gender as based on socio-cultural attitudes and behavior toward our gender) is just as, if not more common, than gender dysphoria based upon physical dysphoria. Third, using distress as a marker turns the trans and non-binary experience into a negative when it can be a positive: gender-affirming actions can cause gender euphoria.
Gender euphoria is the pleasure and delight found when one’s gender presentation (bodily, socially, or both) or elements of one’s gender presentation are in alignment with how one feels about their gender identity.
Because of my body dysmorphia, I find that I often can’t distinguish between my feelings of my body being bad (dysmorphia) and my body lacking (dysphoria) without a great deal of analysis. However, I can always tell when I’m experiencing gender euphoria – a feeling of belonging in my body that often overrides the dysmorphic feelings of self-hatred toward my body. Often, but not always, because there’s always more to the story. There’s always more to our roots. Gender is not created in a soundproof booth.
When there’s more than you bargained for: non-cis bodies with chronic illness and/or pain
As touched on above, the way we perceive our bodies and our gender can be impacted by the state of our mental health and how we feel about our bodies. So, what happens when our bodies have more going on with them than effects from mental health and gender identity? What happens when we throw chronic illness and/or pain into the mix? How does this impact our experiences of gender?
Given the current explosion in gender identifications, paired with the large segments of the population living with chronic pain (1 in 5 adults in the USA) or chronic illness (3 in 5 adults in the USA), there’s at least a sizable subset of people in the United States experiencing those impacts. We have yet to see many formal surveys or studies on the experience of non-cisgender people living with chronic pain or illness, though preliminary studies such as this one and this one indicate that transgender folks have higher rates of chronic conditions than cisgender people.
In my case, it makes gender identification a mess. Throughout all of my life, I have felt out of sync with the gender I was assigned, always one or two beats off from gender expectations placed upon me by society. For decades, I questioned whether or how much certain things influenced how I feel about my gender. Two personal examples, as someone gendered female at birth, follow:
- I’ve never been able to wear elastic bands, tight- or form-fitting clothing, such as bodysuits, stockings, tube tops, bras, and fitted leggings. Not only do they overwhelm my senses (stemming from sensory processing disorder), but they hurt the ever-fluctuating inflammation in my body (stemming from an autoimmune disorder).
- Despite my inclination toward “fun” shoe designs, I can only wear orthopedic sneakers without excruciating pain (as one of my legs is longer than the other, because I need the extra ankle support so I roll my ankles less, and to keep my hips aligned – thus preventing pain from foot to neck).
Even when I want to, I simply cannot wear “feminine” clothing. This leads me to feel like I can’t be feminine because I can’t conform to a femme presentation. But what is gender presentation if not a social construct made up of gender cues, differing by each society – or even each subculture? If that is so, then what matters most is identification, right? For many of us, not so; see: gender dysphoria, as above. We identify our gender not just with our bodies but also with socio-cultural attitudes and behaviors about gender. Enter: gender roles.
Socially constructed gender roles
Simply put, gender roles and cues are increasingly being met with anger or dismissal. Many of us are discovering that we can’t live up to these roles and cues, or that we simply don’t want to try to live up to them.
I believe that more people than perhaps ever before are confronting these societal stereotypes of gender and declaring them bullshit. There may be evidence for this in Generation Z in particular, many of whom are not just fed up with society’s emphasis on conforming to norms but are fed up with our societal impact on their lives in general. More younger people identify outside the gender binary than in any other generation.
- As of 2016, of the 1.4 million transgender adults in the USA, 0.7% of all adults in the USA age 18-24 are trans, while 0.5% ages 65 and older are trans;
- As of 2021, the majority of the 1.2 million non-binary adults in the USA are under age 29; and
- As of 2021, half of Gen Z (and 56% of millennials) believe that the gender binary is outdated and thinks that traditional gender roles and labels related to the gender binary are outdated
It could be argued that this is because in some places, not conforming to the gender binary is becoming more acceptable or more tolerated, thus increasing the comfort of folks to come out. But if it were solely about that, then more people of older generations would also be coming out and so far, at least, that statistically has not been the case. Gen Z is out more than any other generation.
Could this be partially attributed to a generational dismissal of societal norms and mores regarding gender? Could the explosion of gender identities be linked to the rejection of neo-liberal capitalism and its enforcement of gender roles, as well as linked to the increasing embrace of political identities outside the two-party system? Could the looming global environmental apocalypse be influencing Millennials and Gen Z to embrace their own rhythm, and opinions of others be pretty much damned? And if the answer to any of these questions is yes, does it matter?
If it’s not gender dysphoria and is, instead, gender euphoria, that makes us who we are as non-cisgender people, then it makes sense that those of us who do not fit into our society’s expectations of gender are finding euphoria outside of gender roles and cues.
Does this make us non-cisgender? Does it make us gender non-conformists (not to be confused with gender non-conforming)? Yes, and, both, or?
What does it matter?
There will always be gender gatekeepers. There will always be those who say to be A you must experience 1, 2, and 3, or some equivalent formula. There will always be those who consider themselves “purists” or “real” who will be dismissive of anyone with a different background or understanding. And just as those will always be, there will always be gender rebels, dancing to the beat of their own syncopation.
Gender is a rebellious rhythm
My body was made with this attribute, too
The need to become something totally new
Mysterious process that don't involve you
Body was made
Body was made, so just fucking relax
Don't pile my plate with historical facts
I want to go forward, don't want to go back
And my body was made, oh, oh, oh
Your body is yours at the end of the day
And don't let the hateful try and take it away
We want to be free, yeah, we go our own way
And my body was made, oh
– Ezra Furman, “Body Was Made,” from her album Perpetual Motion People (2015, Bella Union)
From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
(12c.), from Old French rime "verse," from Latin rhythmus "movement in time," from Greek rhythmos "measured flow or movement, rhythm; proportion, symmetry; arrangement, order; form, shape, wise, manner; soul, disposition," related to rhein "to flow" (from PIE root *sreu- "to flow").
As Ari Up sang in the Slits’ song, In The Beginning (There Was Rhythm):
Makes us create our own rhythm
Based on your natural rhythm
And dance with people and by yourself
Gender is ours; it is movement through time. Create your gender as you see fit. Be a gender rebel if that’s what you feel. Embrace your own rhythm to feel euphoria. Let your rebellious euphoria shine.
But we should harness that rebellious energy to change the world around us, not just our identities. And I get the feeling that many of us will.
Gender is a rhythm, too.
(P.S. for Avery: rhythm is a dancer.)