I know this is a fairly long post and you should read the entire thing to get the full effect, but if you must skim I have put the important passages in bold for you.
I would like to preface this by saying that I am not writing about how the world we live in should be or indicating that a lack of self-identification is right; I am strictly discussing the status quo and how things actually are. I find that people get hung up on the word as soon as I mention self-identification and become automatically defensive no matter what I am actually saying, so please keep that in mind as you are reading this. I am simply musing about the social construct of gender, how I think society plays into identity and how I observe society operating within those boundaries.
Take the following scenarios as food for thought and contemplate what you would genuinely do and think in the situation, as well as what you would label these people as. Do not focus on the should, but rather the would. The questions I pose are what someone may be potentially thinking.
That being said, this is not a scientific study or experiment by any means. It is simply my observations and hypotheses as best I can articulate them, with most of them being broad generalizations that focus on the macro aspects of life.
And while I try to be objective, it is impossible to be completely aware of all of one’s biases. For example, this will probably be an extremely Westernized view of gender and society, but that is because I am American and I have only a very small amount of exposure to specifically non-Western gender study; therefore, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to pretend like all of this is applicable to every single person in every single situation.
All right, disclaimer over.
We don’t live in a vacuum. There isn’t a wide selection of any and every identity that people can just try on at will, like at a clothing store. But much like a clothing store we have a certain amount of options to choose from, and each one looks different on us. Am I going to the men’s or women’s section? If I am in women’s, do I want a femmey dress? Or maybe a more butch polo?
But these decisions have more weight than one might think. I might believe I look good in the more butch attire, but to the unsuspecting society member, I look like lesbian. But what if I am straight? What if I am a self- identified straight woman who is a bit butchy in appearance, but I am read as a lesbian by most people? What if I am interviewed for a job and then don’t receive it because my potential employer thinks I am a lesbian? Does my self-identification as straight mean much to society at large because my gender expression leads people to believe I am a lesbian?
I personally am a femme woman and pass as straight to almost all straight people. I am sure I receive privileges that come along with assumed heterosexuality that my gender-variant comrades don’t.
I accept that gender is a social construction, and that it didn’t necessarily have to be set up the way it is. But if the entire idea behind gender is that it is something society decided – and thus society pretty much decided your identity for you based upon what’s in your pants – how big of an impact does self-identification really make? Do we even really have the power to self-identify?
Let me make this as clear as possible: I am not saying that people shouldn’t be able to self-identify, I am simply contemplating different scenarios in which our ability to self-identify is lost because our identity doesn’t match up with what other people percieve that identity to be, i.e. when someone doesn’t look like or act like the identity that they identify as. I do not support the gender binary, but pretending we live in a system that isn’t dictated by it – that leaves no room for variation – would be counterintuitive.
Realistically, there are only two options – and I use the term options loosely – that have been set forth for us: male or female. And rarely do most people even recognize gender and it’s consequences and influences, let alone think they weren’t the gender they were assigned at birth or make any real choice in the matter. The vast majority of people and institutions use the terms sex and gender interchangeably, using the term gender in conversation or asking for it on forms – usually in an effort to seem more PC or enlightened or pretentious – when what they are really looking for is sex.
Even some universities ask for gender on applications, and that is very problematic because I know they mean sex. For housing purposes, I know they aren’t putting people of the same gender in rooms together, just that of the same sex, so why use the term gender instead? It’s not what they are looking for.
But if society at large perceives gender, sex and sexuality to all be inherently linked, does that make it so? These are all constructions of that society after all. And if visual cues are used to decide what category of the short list you get, does what you think you are have that much of an effect? Can you transgress what you are assigned just because you say you are something different?
Another example comes to mind about a self-identified bisexual woman. The woman has slept exclusively with women and says she probably won’t be sleeping with men, but is open to the idea. All of her friends know this and view her as a lesbian and treat her as such. Would she then be a lesbian even if she doesn’t identify as one? Her identity is a construction of society, so does society get to decide what definition she fits into?
What if I wanted to go by male pronouns and be referred to as a man, but still dress in my high femme ways? Would anyone take me seriously? Would even my most gender-enlightened friends find me foolish? Would they respect my wishes? Would female-to-male transpeople find it insulting that I am trying to be lumped in with them? I mean, I wouldn’t be doing anything to try and pass as a man. And even if people did call me he, would they just be playing along? Would they really think of me as a man, even if I still had the appearance of an extremely feminine woman? Would my self-identification make any sort of difference other than now people perceive me as a jackass?
What about at work? At school? At home? With my family? Would that be functional? Can I even really consider myself the social construct of a man if I have never been perceived as one, if I am not perceived as one by society, or if I have never really experienced the world the way a man does?
What if I wanted to identify as none of the options presented for me?
There is a serious lack of consent when it comes to identity. And if you do not fit into the social schema of your chosen identity – you are not perceived as that identity – then you are not thought of as that identity. Self-identification makes the most impact when a person is perceived to fit that identity.
This is all like when people think I am a kind of a bitch, something I am sure everyone who is read as female has been perceived as in their lives. I don’t self-identify as a bitch, but that doesn’t mean other people care. They just take into account my actions, appearance, body language, etc., and then perceive me as a bitch. But if I don’t identify as a bitch, does that make me not one? Do people stop thinking that I am a bitch because of my identity? Gender functions in much this same way. (And for the record, I think women who are labeled as a bitch do the same things men do, they just come off as a bitch sometimes because they are women, rather than powerful or assertive like a man would.)
This reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother the other day. She thinks her father is mad at her, and she contends she did nothing wrong and doesn’t understand his behavior. I told her that it doesn’t actually matter if you think you were mean to him, if he thinks that you were then he would be mad. It is all about his perception, and she has to try to think about the situation the way he would.
Another scenario for you: What if two transwomen want to be in a relationship together? Are they lesbians if they self-identify as that? Webster’s dictionary, the socially accepted glossary for everything in our culture, defines the word lesbian as “of or relating to homosexuality between females.” That means biological women. So they wouldn’t be lesbians? But what if they are both perceived as women (i.e. pass) by society? Are they lesbians then?
And I will admit that self-identification does play a role in how people are perceived: If I tell you I am a lesbian and you know little else about me you will probably accept that. But what if I later told you I had mostly slept with biological men and was in relationship with one currently? Would you still think I was a lesbian? Would you accept my lesbian identity? I wouldn’t exactly fit the definition.
I know most people would say that people should have the right to self-identify, but that doesn’t mean we always really allow them to do that. None of us are immune: The gender binary has been ingrained in us since the moment we left the womb. Most of the time it is unconscious, and even the most experienced gender scholars can’t recognize every subtle impact gender has on our lives. It would be impossible. Only someone who has lived genderlessly (i.e. no one) could really see all of the intricacies of gender.
And gender isn’t the only identity we don’t get to choose, as they are all perceived and assigned to us as well. A good example is race. In America, a mixed black and white person is either black or white. They can be light-skinned, but they are still read as black if there is any hint of it. And a light-skinned person who is read as white probably has a different experience than those of others. What someone is actually isn’t nearly as important as what people think you are. You are treated by other people by how they perceive your identities, regardless of how you might identify yourself.
But I just mentioned race and that always raises a read flag. Almost any mention of race leads people to automatically call you a racist, for some reason. Probably because we have been conditioned as to what topics are acceptable, we are supposed to be color blind, but that’s impossible: For example, for me, a woman to say I am uncomfortable around men is fine, but for me a white person to say the same thing about oh, any race, would make me a racist, but they are both prejudiced views.
I really just want people to be honest. Most everyone I discuss gender with pretends like they are perfect, that they never project their own views and labels on another even ever so subtly, but that is completely and utterly false. In fact, admitting that you do it is a step in the right direction; pretending that it doesn’t exist or taking a holier-than-thou attitude when it comes to perceiving others leaves no room to talk about it honestly, how the world really is. The only way someone can be an ally to another group or individual is to admit that you don’t have all the answers or really know what it is like to be that person, but that you are trying to recognize the biases you have and combat them, as well as support the group or individual.
You are going to mess up. You will still put labels on people that don’t match with their self-identification. But the first step to overcoming these practices and breaking down the social construction of the binary is to open up dialogue about how we as individuals and a society go through the labeling process and what it all means. Then we can really queer things up.