I mentioned in yesterday’s post that one of the things that was not really an issue for me when I was a child was gender inferiority. I saw it and took note of it, but never (thank heaven) really internalised it; it wasn’t as if I didn’t have plenty of other issues, after all. I was also pretty good at giving it the full-on logic treatment when anyone tried to make me take it on board, which, to be fair, was not often, given the slightly unusual circumstances in which I grew up. For instance, there’s this story, which happened when I was, I think, six years old. The background was a maths textbook which was supposed to be teaching us about bar charts. You had to go round and ask all the boys in the class whether they wanted to be a fireman, a policeman or (I think) a doctor when they grew up, and all the girls if they wanted to be a nurse, a teacher or a shopkeeper. (I know, right?!) Then you had to make two bar charts. For the boys, there was a bar you could fill in if they “wanted to be something else”. For the girls, there was not.
So I got all my classmates in turn coming up to me with this page and asking me if I wanted to be a nurse, a teacher or a shopkeeper. “No,” I replied. “I want to be a scientist.”
“You can’t want to be a scientist. You have to want to be a nurse, a teacher or a shopkeeper.”
“I don’t care,” I replied. “I want to be a scientist and I’m not going to say I want to be something else when I don’t.”
So they went and complained to the teacher that I was being awkward, and the teacher, who was remarkably sensible, told them they had to put an extra bar on the “girl” bar chart for me, the same as there was on the “boy” one. Victory for common sense.
Fast forward to the point where I’m somewhere in my early twenties, I’m in one of the major political parties, and I get delegated to the constituency women’s section because I have an interest in feminist issues. This causes friction. I am not the droids they were looking for. I’m neither a lesbian nor interested in casual sex (in fact I’m known for being chaste, surprise, surprise), and although I’m not really into the whole make-up-and-heels thing, nonetheless my gender presentation is pretty feminine compared with what is going down over there. Now this doesn’t bother me, because as far as I’m concerned we’re all supposed to be working together for the same ends, and I do not care who they go to bed with or how often, or how they dress, or how they cut their hair, just as long as they don’t expect me to do it.
It does bother them. I have to deal. I am quite used to dealing because I don’t fit in. Anyway, while this is happening I move house, and I have to fit a new stair carpet because I can’t afford a fitter, and I have to plumb in the washing machine, and it so happens that this is the day of one of these women’s section meetings and all the faffing around with the wretched stair carpet makes me a bit late.
I walk into the room. They all glare at me.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say. “I got held up. I had to plumb in a washing machine and fit a stair carpet.”
There is absolute silence in which I can hear a roomful of mental cogs going sproing. I sit down, and when all the cogs get back into line apparently I am now a sister. Fair enough, but I have not changed who I sleep with or how I dress. The only thing that has changed at all is how they perceive me. It’s in people’s heads, folks.
So, gentlebeings, today I’d like to talk about gender. The more I think about this subject, the weirder it gets, even though it’s easy enough to summarise: biological sex is about how your body is constructed. Gender is a personal and social construct (I dare say it has been endlessly argued how much of each, but I suspect it varies according to the individual), and it may or may not line up with your biological sex. If it does, you’re cis; if it really seriously doesn’t, you’re trans; and if it’s somewhere in between, you probably define yourself as genderqueer or genderfluid or something of that order.
As far as I’ve been concerned, I have always been 100% cis female, with no particular reason to question that. It’s true that I’ve interpreted that somewhat… robustly, shall we say; I was once accused of doing something “rather unfeminine” (can’t recall precisely what it was), and my reaction was to grin at the person concerned and explain, “I’m a woman. Therefore, by definition, if I am doing it, it must be feminine. QED!” They couldn’t answer that. But since realising I was asexual, I found myself wondering why I actually needed a gender at all.
See, when you think about it, I don’t. Neither do bisexuals, pansexuals and all the other types of sexuals who aren’t 100% straight or 100% gay. Having a gender only really makes sense if you are out to attract another person with a definite gender. If you either don’t mind or aren’t out to attract anyone, then, honestly, what’s it for?
The answer, in my case, turns out to be that I feel comfortable with it, though I don’t as yet know how far that is because a) I have been socialised into it from birth and b) I have had quite a lot of power and agency to customise it to suit who I am. Genders are actually quite customisable if you’re lucky, and they are getting more so as time passes (obviously this is more true in some countries than in others). However, this is far from being a settled matter. There are certainly moments when I wonder if it might be more reasonable to define myself as “neutrois” (neutral third gender) rather than female. Only time will tell whether these moments will eventually disappear, carry on happening occasionally, or crystallise to the extent where I take a deep breath and announce on Facebook that I’d like everyone to start referring to me as “ze” in future, please. But it’s really interesting that I didn’t even think to question my gender until I realised I didn’t have a sexuality to hang one on.
This, apparently, is pretty common among asexuals. Go on the AVEN forum and you’ll find a much higher than average number of people who identify as neutrois, partially neutrois, genderqueer, genderwhatever; and they will often tell you that they had the same experience as I did, and didn’t start questioning their gender until they realised they were asexual. There is, of course, an extent to which suddenly realising you’re asexual makes you question everything, but gender is a particularly common thing to question.
In the meantime, since my gender has suddenly found itself reclassed from “integral part of who I am” to “entirely optional construct, quite well customised and therefore suiting me pretty well at the moment”, the result has been that I’m playing around and experimenting a bit with my gender presentation (not the same thing as gender). Next year I get to direct an opera and will have to appear on stage at the end to take a bow, so I’m going to rock a dinner jacket, wing-collared shirt and bow tie, because I don’t have to look like a woman all the time. Next time I move into a new social or work setting, I’m considering asking people to address me by a gender-neutral contraction of my surname. I’m already fine with being referred to as either “she” or “ze”, whichever you’re comfortable with (but not “he”, please; whatever I am, I’m not a man, fun though it is to present as one from time to time).
This is exactly what Eve Jacques, owner of the wonderful Monster Talk website, refers to as “gendersilly”. I think this is an excellent and useful word, so I’m borrowing it. It’s especially good because the world can be a bit… you know… serious about gender at times, and it’s really rather refreshing to discover you don’t have to be.
I’m a work in progress. Watch this space!