Just a Person God Damn It

Friday, September 07, 2012

Question

Dear Patrick,

I have never felt very comfortable with social expectations of women or men. When I was a child I didn't want to be told what to wear. I hated being complimented or asked what I was going to be when I grew up, because it was all related to whether I was a boy or a girl. The whole idea of gender is fucked up. Every problem that we have as a society can be traced back to seeing “men” and “women” as the only two choices, and seeing the sexes as “opposites.”

When I left home to attend university, I was finally able to take a lot of classes on this topic that confirmed my point of view. I believe I am gender queer. Coming to this conclusion was a big relief. It explained why I had always been so uncomfortable with things that other people took for granted. I am currently involved in a lawsuit to remove gender from national identity papers and data bases. I don't have a driver's license any more because I refused to check either “male” or “female” on the forms.

The problem is that nobody seems to believe me. My lesbian friend says, “No, you're a cute little baby butch, all you need is a femme who can show you how much fun that can be.” (She is femme and I think she has a crush on me.) An FTM friend says he thinks I will eventually transition when I understand that I have gender dysphoria and stop being afraid to take testosterone. (The idea of taking hormones does scare me. I have a lot of questions about the health risks. But I also don't want to be a man.) Straight guys ask me if I am a man or a woman, and I say, “Yes.” Straight women ignore me.

Nobody asks me what I think of myself! When I ask people to use gender-neutral pronouns, they usually don't know what I am talking about. Or they say it is too much trouble or they feel silly using made-up words. I feel like I am surrounded by stupid people who just don't get it. This is causing me a lot of stress, but nobody seems to notice or care.

I spend a lot of time alone. This is very disappointing. I thought that being in college would help me to find other people who were as weird as me. Sex is also a problem. I get horny just like everybody else, but I am afraid to have sex because I don't want anybody to expect me to “perform” as a “man” or a “woman.” When I think that I will probably never fall in love or have somebody love me for who I am, a gender queer person, I feel very depressed.

Answer

Congratulations on discovering a label that fits your experience of yourself! It is so important to be able to understand one's own emotional process vis-a-vis gender. For some of us, the whole polarized man vs. woman thing seems like insanity. I wish that we had a socially-recognized ritual to recognize your liberation from gender. I also wish it wasn't necessary to enlist the legal system to attempt to get the state to recognize you as a gender queer person rather than as a “man” or “woman.”

Unfortunately, your identity is not generally recognized or understood. It's interesting to note how angry and impatient people become when anybody questions the gender binary. Even people who one would think of as gender transgressors (such as gay men and lesbians, or transsexuals) can be quite defensive about the notion that the sexes are opposites and forever paired, like two planets orbiting one another without a sun.

This means that you are facing a lifetime of education, advocacy, and activism on your own behalf. There's no way around it. When a person finds themselves out on the edge of accepted social reality, your life becomes a labor of love, a continual process of claiming and defending space in which your reality can be recognized and celebrated.

It surprises me, however, to hear that you are all alone at your university. I would have thought that any campus with a gender studies program would have at least a small community of gender queer people. Such communities and support groups certainly exist on-line. I hope you will consider reaching out to others who are facing a similar struggle. Knowing that there are people out there who understand you, who don't think you are crazy, can be vital to remaining sane. And you may get some valuable tips on how to deal with the clueless, intellectually unwashed masses.

I hope you will not feel that I am undervaluing your distress when I suggest that having a sense of humor is a big help. Flexibility and patience are also invaluable tools in the survivor's box of Helpful Artifacts. Getting into arguments can't always be avoided, but once two people face off in conflict, it's rare for anybody's mind to open up or change. People don't accommodate you because they have been stomped in a debate. They change because they like or respect you, or are curious about you, and see some value to themselves in cultivating your acquaintance.

The sad fact is that everybody is in pain. The world is such that happiness is the rarest commodity. Being able to identify and relate to other people's pain can, strangely enough, help alleviate one's own. Your fellow students may not feel the unique pain that you feel when they ignore your identity. But each of them suffers from something else that makes them both a part of humanity and apart from it. Kindness to those who suffer can bring people closer than chastisement.

It's probably going to take a while for you to establish a balance between loving others in spite of their lack of awareness, and setting boundaries with them so they aren't constantly offending you. Having a blog you can refer others to might be a helpful starting point for education. I am imagining, for example, a page on gender-neutral pronouns, with examples for how they should be used. You might want to start using gender-neutral language to refer to anybody you are discussing. If other people hear this type of speech, it might be easier for them to pick it up, much like learning a foreign language.

As far as relationships go, I don't see why you should resign yourself to a celibate lifespan. People learn when they are motivated to do so, and sexual desire is a potent motivator. Someone who thinks you are oh so cute may start out being oblivious to your gender, but as you instruct, zie may achieve gender satori. I agree with you that sex is one area of life where gender is most powerful. It would be such a turnoff for you to have someone interpret, handle, or speak of your body in terms that are at odds with how you experience yourself. You are, however, asking your partner to create a whole new way of looking at desire. Such a radical enterprise will not proceed without a struggle. But some people just can't resist a challenge.

Finally, I want to once more urge you to seek out like-minded folks. Your isolation concerns me deeply. It would be terrible if you lost your potential to create social change and became paralyzed by depression. Finding others who share your point of view would go a long way to making your days seem less futile. I would even suggest that you seek out a university where gender queer people have a more visible presence, and consider transferring there. It would vastly improve your academic experience to be in an environment where you were not only reinventing the wheel, but working with people who refused to believe a wheel could exist.

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