Stumbling Over Gender, and an Apology

My awareness and understanding of gender issues is … well, let’s just say there’s an ongoing and deliberate evolution.

As a kid, I got the basic Kindergarten Cop lesson: Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.

By the time I got to college, I was starting to recognize more layers. I distinguished between sex (a biological binary) and gender, the (again binary) performance of cultural sex-roles.

I met a friend who introduced me to the concept of transgenderism. He (at the time we met) was in the process of coming out as female. I stumbled over pronouns a few times, but then got it through my head that she was now R—-, a woman, and that was that. No problem.

Along the way I also sorted out transgender vs. transsexual vs. transvestite in my head (a process that might have gone more quickly if I had been into Rocky Horror half as much as some of my friends were).

Later on, the term “cis” started popping up. “Cisgender” and “cissexual” both threw me for a loop the first time I encountered them, and they still don’t feel like an entirely natural part of my vocabulary. Yet. But I recognize them as useful terms to identify “an individual whose self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth.” (From Wikipedia.) They also help move away from the flawed premise that cisgendered individuals don’t need a particular terminology because we’re “normal.”

I’ve finally started getting past the deeply-ingrained binary assumptions I grew up with. I learned the genetics a while back. Yes, we have XX and XY chromosome sets. We also have XXY, XYY, and other variations. They may be less common, but they certainly exist. If we have that much range at the genetic level, why the hell should gender identity be fixed or binary? For that matter, why the hell should gender be tied to biology at all?

I’m still learning, I’m still struggling, and I’m certainly still screwing up from time to time. I tossed out a joke yesterday that a few people challenged as cissexist. I didn’t get that at first. After walking away … well, I still may not agree with every single comment, but I think I better understand and agree with a lot of what people were saying.

I went through the typical defensive reactions in my head, of course. But that’s not what I meant! Why are you attacking people who are on your side? How hard do you have to be looking for offense to find it in that comment? Look how many people thought it was funny. And so on.

All bullshit. But bullshit that still goes through my brain when people call me on stuff like this.

Where I usually seem to mess up here is by asserting the implied equivalence of biology and gender. Or, to put it bluntly, with dick jokes.

I don’t make them often, because I try to keep a generally PG tone out of personal preference. But in my opinion, penises are goofy-looking bits of equipment, and as such, are useful elements for humor. (Or maybe a part of me is just perpetually stuck at age 12.) So when another all-male anthology or awards ballot comes out, I find myself wanting to make quips like, “Because everyone knows True Literature must be typed using only your penis!”

I think that’s a rather funny (and disturbing) image. It’s also problematic, because it equates “male” with possession of a penis. It reinforces that limited, binary, and demonstrably false worldview.

Defensive Brain immediately jumps in to say, “Okay fine, maybe you’re right, but it’s not like I’m committing hate crimes here or intentionally trying to hurt anyone!”

Defensive Brain needs to shut the &%^$ up. Because what I am doing is suggesting that a subset of people don’t exist. As they struggle for rights and recognition and legal protection, I’m making them invisible. Sure, it may not seem like a big deal to me … any more than “lady editors” was to a pair of SF authors from a recent sexism flap. But it’s one more unthinking erasure. One of a thousand daily slights, indignities, and assaults.

And I’ve contributed to that.

I won’t say that I fully get it yet, but I’m working on it, and certain things have finally begun to click. What can I say … sometimes I can be a little dense.

I apologize for my mistakes and missteps along the way.

The cardinal photo is from