Tuesday today, rubbish day. Along the side of the road are the taxed landfill rubbish bags, bold letters reading Trier c’est Valoriser, literally, “sorting is valuing”, or if you sort your recycling from your landfill stuff, you’re a great human being. A good sort (see what I did there?) I wondered, on my way down the road, if it were really true. For rubbish and recycling, yes, absolutely, but does it transfer to other areas? People, for instance?
People, you cry!? Keri, people don’t want to be boxed or sorted or labelled! Society has striven against this for years, breaking boxes and labels and stereotypes and we’re totally beyond that now. Get with the times!
… but … hang on a minute.
My facebook news feed is full of friends who are desperate – apparently – to be classified, boxed, labelled and identified. And for what? To discover which breed of dog they are. Which musical instrument they should be if ever reincarnated as an inanimate, sound-producing object. Which Game of Large Chairs, Odder Things, Big Blast Theory character they truly represent. And why? Are labels so important? Is it because we don’t want to be alone? Is it because, even today, we feel that we need a tribe, that we must conform (to something, anything), we have to fit a description. Not only that, but that description must be recognised and valued and honoured by everyone else.
To make matters more complicated, there are layers of description. Combinations that must be used with care. I’m an engineer and I’m a woman but I wouldn’t like to be called a woman engineer. Why? Because the combination seems to imply a degradation of both of them, like somehow engineer or woman don’t quite mean what you think they should when used together. But that’s my own interpretation – which is important to remember as the term woman engineer is literally true.
Some labels are now forbidden, even though their literal meanings seem much less offensive and much more accurate than their accepted counterparts. For example, I’d personally prefer to be called handicapped (implying having an extra hurdle to overcome but still capable of making it to the finish line), over disabled (implying not able to finish or not able to finish well enough). Is it just language and fashions and politicising? Or is something more significant than that?
I think it’s more, and my reason for writing is two-fold. On one hand, inconsistency is something of a personal bugbear. I don’t care what the argument is, if it’s inconsistent I don’t subscribe. And vice versa. I loved reading the first few Dune books because of the level of detail and canonical consistency throughout the imagined history and the plots. It bugs me that Captain von Trapp has a five-year old daughter when his wife died seven years ago. So many legitimate argument positions are plagued by inconsistencies, and I believe their cause suffers because of them.
The other reason is a little darker, and I need to tread carefully with it; first because I’m unsure and personally unfamiliar with the background and truths surrounding it, and secondly because it deals with real people and real people’s real lives and real struggles. I also don’t want to be one of those people who say, “If I don’t understand a thing, the thing must be stupid,” when all definitions of stupidity seem to indicate it points in the other direction. Please, please don’t read what follows as a judgement or condemnation. It’s intended to be a logical, clinical train of thought which results in release from condemnation rather than the opposite. But it’s a tricky business. Please forgive me where I get it wrong.
Every human alive has an X chromosome. You can’t live without one. And generally speaking, males have a Y chromosome, and females have a second X. Genetic disorders which buck this rule include Turner’s syndrome (female appearance, with only one X, 1/2000), Klinefelter’s syndrome (male appearance, with XXY, or other numbers of each, 2/1000), and triple-X syndrome (female appearance, with three X, 1/1000). Even rarer, Swyer Syndrome (XY but female appearance, 1/80000) and de la Chapelle Syndrome (XX but male appearance, 1/20000) are also possible. Together, these very rare conditions do not come close to providing a simple genetic basis for the variety of labels and interpretations of gender which we see in gender fluidity. Recently other measurements of gender have been investigated, including scans of brain function and response to steroids, and I’m sure that in the future there will be more. The trouble is, however they’re arrived at, we’re still looking for a biological foundation for a social label, and that doesn’t make sense to me.
Here’s my reasoning. I’d call myself a woman: genetically, biologically, and manifestly in my appearance. I have breasts and no penis. I (probably, I’m not sure how to check) have two X chromosomes and no Y. I am female because of the lack of Y chromosome and I am a woman because I’ve gone through puberty. What a scan of my brain would show, I shudder to think, but here’s the crux:
Do I feel like a woman? No, Shania, I don’t, and here’s why. Because I don’t think that woman is a feeling. For me to feel like a woman, I would need to know what like a woman really was (let’s leave alone questions of which woman, when, where, and who chose her and why?) I need parameters by which I could test myself to see if they were true or not for me. Bear with me while my sarcasm level rises:
- If being like a woman means liking pink, then I certainly do not feel like a woman.
- If being a woman means enjoying housework, then I do not feel like a woman either. (Not too upset about either of them so far, to be honest).
- If being a woman means, in the wonderful words of Ronnie Ancona, “raising kittens and knitting cakes”, then I still don’t qualify. Three strikes! Am I out? Am I not a woman? But what about my lack of dangly bits?
Of course these are all absurdities to make a point, but they depend on one, crucially crucial aspect: the definitions. The labels. A set of them. Assumptions. Yes. To use an old and very much worn out phrase, when you assume it makes an ass of u and me. Groan. To be able to say like a woman we must have some way of describing what like a woman means: we choose to assume some set of womanly parameters, and as it seems that our definitions can’t be biological, we turn instead to the sociological.
And this is where I have the problem.
I saw a job online for an engineering professor in Saudi Arabia. The title was “Electrical Engineering Professor (Male)”. I shudder (and I’m sure the candidate would too) to think what use his dangly bits would be put to in an electrical engineering setting. While the job ad asked for a CV and photograph, they presumably meant of his face, not dangly bits, which is interesting considering how clearly important the dangly bits are to his ability to do the job. I’ve also been explicitly turned down for a job because of my gender. As an engineering student looking for summer work, I sent out truckloads of CVs and received a (very) few job offers from them. I was offered a job with a local factory which made wire-extruded products, but when they phoned me to discuss the start date and other details, realised that I was not equipped with the proper dangly bits to make extruded wire. Apparently. (The sheer extent of things I never knew dangly bits could be used for!). Anyway, the conversation was pretty short: “I’m very sorry, Keri, we didn’t realise you were a girl. We don’t have a job for you here.” I’m not so sorry that that particular company has now been liquidated. I say all this to explain that, while very real and very important, sexual discrimination is not what I’m talking about. Never once did I think that I should be a man in order to be a better engineer. Would it be easier if I were? Who knows, but that’s actually someone else’s problem and I’m not going to change my gender to make them safe in their erroneous-assumption world.
The people who choose to change gender, whether once, or – according to gender fluidity – one way and then again the other must rely on some sense of distinction between like a woman or like a man (or like a something else) in order for there to be something which changes. There may be contributing pragmatic factors (like a job offer from the Saudis), there are probably childhood experiences, and certainly much much more. So shouldn’t the first examination be of our personal definitions of like a woman or like a man? Just as, earlier, my own interpretation of woman engineer is a personal but flawed interpretation? Surely arbitrary, shifting, frequently flawed social constructs should not be allowed to define us like this?
In a twist of irony that Alannis would appreciate if only she understood what that word meant, aren’t the people who choose to go against the arbitrary connections between biology and sociology therefore the greatest reinforcers of the connections they want to avoid? If I say, “I do not like pink” and from here choose to follow it with “… and therefore I am not a woman”, the validity of liking pink in womanliness has just been given the greatest endorsement ever.
And this really bothers me. Again, emphatically, not people or lifestyles or choices or clothing, but the logic and the irony. It’s that consistency bugbear thing. There is a tragic flavour to the self-imposed intolerance which leads us to question our own self’s identity when, I think, we would be better questioning the assumptions of a worn out and misguided society. Or, better yet, ignoring them all together and just being who and how we want to be.
Why is this important? The rates of suicide and mental health trouble among transgender populations are terrifying, and – directly related to the logic above – is the finding that:
“[There is a] significantly lower prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents who said people can “never” tell they are transgender or gender nonconforming, and those who “never” tell anyone they are transgender or gender non-conforming. Collectively, these findings suggest that not being recognized by others as transgender or gender non-conforming may function as a protective factor for suicidal behavior.”
Wow. There are, of course, huge numbers of interrelated contributing factors, but it seems that labels are a really risky business. Not something to be done lightly and without a concrete benefit. And don’t get me wrong – this is not really about gender and biology, it’s about labels. I could just as easily have used the examples of race, of autism diagnoses, of ADD/ADHD, of so many other things instead, but this is already a novel of a post, so I’ll leave you to think of the others. So where are we now?
Labels should be useful. Where they are not useful, they become dangerous. Jars of Miracle Whip and Cool Whip, to an ignorant Kiwi in Canada for the first time, both look like they should be fine on a tuna sandwich (to my Kiwi friends, one is fake mayo, one is fake cream). Their labels and names are not helpful, and the resulting tuna sandwich was more memorable than edible. Labels and categorisation of any kind should not rely on inconsistencies; labels which have the power to change (and end) lives most certainly cannot.
But we’re all still human, and, according to my facebook news feed, we still all desperately want to belong to a label, to a group, to a tribe. To be known and accepted and loved and understood and able to wear whatever we’re comfortable in and work at what we’re good at and fulfills us. So please, can we just do that? To anyone out there who feels like there’s just not the right breed of dog or Game of Thrones character for them, you belong. To the people who feel that they’re somewhere between the red aura and the green aura on the magic aura colour predicting test and aren’t a fan of mud brown, you belong. To the women out there who don’t like pink, or the men who do, you still belong, though I promise never to borrow your clothes.
Let’s leave the sorting for the rubbish.