Modern Gender

“We all began female, and always had both sexual hormones in us. We always had masculine and feminine behavioral traits, which we had to train into gender-appropriate behaviors, even though they were traits that everyone has. We selectively encouraged or repressed traits, so for most of our history we have reinforced gender. But in our deepest selves we were always both.”

(Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312)

From time to time I’m asked why I specialize in gender and sexuality. My answer shifts and grows as I learn more about myself, but ultimately it revolves around being able to support people in knowing and expressing exactly who they are. Really that is the core of any therapy, whether or not its focus is on gender or sexuality. But such a focus, especially coupled with a somatic approach, makes this work especially valuable and sustaining.

I chose that quote from the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson for a couple of reasons. Mostly because the brilliant Robinson offers incredibly insightful bits of future history. But also because even inside this beautiful piece of writing, he does that thing that we all do so often: needlessly assign gender.

For the first five to six weeks of gestation, only the X chromosome expresses. This is where we developed the notion that we all begin female, which I appreciate and find very romantic. But beyond the intention to draw people together, it doesn’t make much sense to give an embryo a gender label. However, intention is exactly what words are all about.

So, I’d like to highlight what I believe are very important aspects of the landscape of non-binary and queer identities.

Understanding Intent

There is very likely no one who identifies as non-binary in order to screw with you. The intention is to express themselves. It is to communicate that they don’t relate to the words “male” or “female” as we’ve been using them. It is a rejection of the baggage that comes with labels that have been misused or overused. It is a request to focus on what is important to them, rather than on what you might assume based on your past experiences with a particular gender. When you really think about it, it’s quite clever. It makes me think of the many women who have hidden behind male names in order to have their work taken seriously. Historically, we have been quite destructive in our use of gender notions, so it should come as no surprise that so many people in younger generations are wriggling out from under gender labels altogether. We must constantly return to what honors our individual bodies and selves. Each of us defines our own gender.

The Positive Effects of Re-defining Gender

Words hold tremendous power. Didn’t we all secretly hate that schoolyard rhyme about sticks and stones? Who made that up? Words can hurt like hell! Removing toxicity from our language helps everyone. I suspect that in a generation or two, our associations with gendered terms will have very little negative charge. Perhaps they’ll even have grace restored to them. They’ve come a long and interesting way already. Just take a peek at the etymology of words like she, he, and they. We do seem to be amidst an acceleration of changes and a fight against bottlenecking, and I believe we’re well on our way to resetting inclusiveness.

This is about to make for two science fiction references in one article, so bear with me. One of my favorite aspects of the remake of “Battlestar Galactica” is how infrequently gender is bothered with. Bathrooms are gender-neutral (which is never remarked upon), there are almost no gendered slurs uttered, and the only gender tropes or gendered dynamics included in the writing are there to make a strong point about their insidiousness. It’s a fine example of what we might call ultra feminism, a term my mother recently offered, or post-feminism. By limiting when it’s focused upon, gender is no longer a distraction. This shows up in the characters’ word use, too. It took me a few episodes to get over the term “sir” being used for any gender, but really that isn’t very long at all. I quickly experienced the term losing its association with gender. And doesn’t that make the title even better? It was never intended to distinguish between genders; its function is to show respect.

There are, of course, many possible emotional and psychological effects of this shifting of word use. When someone I relate to or who seems uniquely themselves decides against using female pronouns, I sometimes react with disappointment at the thought that the term “woman” is losing some of its needed complexity. But that puts us right back in the subjective, because that response is entirely about me and my process. I have fought internally and externally for many years to have the words “girl,” “woman,” “female,” and “feminine” encompass an adequate amount of complexity. So when someone exits like that, it can feel as though the term is reduced. It can sort of start over my process of redefining or re-identifying with female terms. But I enjoy something about this, too, as it renews my sense of the limitations of words. Words are only as effective as what they are able to communicate, so it’s necessary to continually return to an openness to understand the intention behind them as it relates to a particular person.

Different Words for Different People

Different people need to use different words. This is something that any good education on psychotherapy will teach you: hear, understand, and use the client’s own words. The “negotiation of meaning” that occurs in therapy is a huge portion of the work, because we humans lean so heavily on verbal communication. If understanding and connection is to be created, we must know what the words being used are meant to convey. Nonverbal cues give us a lot of information, but there is still too much room for assumption if we don’t consistently reflect and clarify. We need to know what the particular speaker means on the visceral level. I know what “thrilled” feels like in my body, but it won’t feel exactly the same to yours. So we must stay open and curious, and clarify.

The term “queer” is usually a good example for demonstrating this point. For people of a certain age, “queer” was a slanderous strongly associated with trauma and other unpleasant experiences. Along came a younger generation who decided to reclaim the term, but it still held its dark magic for the older crowd. And while those associations have shifted for many because of this new use of the term, many still prefer not to identify with it. Why would we ask them to? We can only offer a new way of looking at it by owning our own use of it, which they may find helpful and which puts us on a path to where “queer” will rarely evoke negative associations anymore.

For the most part, as in the above example, people use words intentionally. Even when use isn’t conscious or deliberate, it has an intended purpose. The knowledge that words are a fluid process is an important part of understanding language and communication. Speaking or writing something creates a change either in us or others or both.

Words are a process.

Words change through a process, and the words themselves allow us to process. For example, frustration is very often a gateway emotion. People will often say they are frustrated when they are bashful about or not conscious of feeling anger, sadness, or fear. When this happens, correcting someone would be very unhelpful. Instead, I watch for signs of anger, sadness, or fear, and then I can reflect what I see. The use of the word “frustration” should communicate to me that the person using it needs a little help with safely feeling and expressing something deeper. If I fail to recognize that words are a process, I fail to receive the entire message. ”Inaccuracies” like these stem from somewhere, and that somewhere often needs our attention as much as any other part of what’s being conveyed.

What’s Next?

I’ve noticed that a lot of conversations about the shifting landscape of gender tend to include a nod to the notion that all people contain both feminine and masculine energies or traits. So I find it interesting to see something of a cycle reflected in this. Perhaps we are returning to more helpfully abstract definitions where traits are not considered to be limited to any particular group of people. In my recent Reddit AMA, someone asked how I expect relationships to gender will change as equality grows. It was a very rich question to think about and attempt to answer, and I’m reminded of it again now. I know I’m very curious about what will come next, particularly in regards to how the definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” will change and evolve over the next several decades. Kim Stanley Robinson offers a thought in Blue Mars about paradigms being residual and emergent, which I find provides a useful frame:

“Each great socioeconomic era was composed of roughly equal parts of the systems immediately adjacent to it in past and future. The periods immediately before and after were not the only ones, involved, however: they formed the bulk of a system, and comprised its most contradictory components, but additional important features came from particularly persistent aspects of more archaic systems, and also faint hesitant intuitions of development that would not flower until much later.”

I am very much looking forward to seeing what will unfold and flower over the next few generations. I suspect that a lot of good will come from our brave and increasing insistence on honoring individual bodies. We have gotten quite good at thinking, and we are moving towards getting quite good at feeling, too. The two bring a beautiful balance- one that’s necessary for us to function well. Take heart in what we’re seeing in our modern landscape of gender. It is an excellent and important step in our collective ability to get out of our own way.

#MasculinitySoFragile

#MasculinitySoFragile is a hashtag movement intended to shed light on the very important issue of ego in the self-expression of males. The message is supposed to be that masculinity is strong and complex enough to withstand such things as two straight men sitting right next to each other in a theatre, or the use of things colored pink. However, even just standing on its own, the wording of the hashtag borders on mockery. Worse, I’ve been seeing it used too often in shaming and passive aggressive ways. So I feel compelled to unpack it a little. There’s so much juice in this movement, and we need to reach in and extract some of the sour flavor so that it can have a wide positive impact.

First of all, the essence of this message is beautiful: Masculinity is complex and diverse. It can stand up to judgment or doubt. It is not devoid of vulnerability or emotion. I love seeing people push this. I especially love what a great reminder it is that gender is a social construct. It is what we make it. It is what it already is inside of us. That’s good stuff. It’s the true stuff. And we need it to reach the people who don’t yet understand. We need seeds of complexity tolerance to be planted in the people who use phrases like, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Those folks won’t be reached through posts that use broad spectrum or absolute language like, “#MasculinitySoFragile that these manbabies are offended by this HT.” Ouch. Wouldn’t you like to show your vulnerable side around the person who wrote that? I sure as hell wouldn’t. What runs through so much of what is being made fun of is shame. It will not be a shaming stance that brings people out from underneath shame. One of the loudest voices of opposition, who has been tragically attacking back with his own use of absolute language and cruelty, happened to find a great word for it: taunting. Indeed one can’t expect a taunt to result in change, let alone self-reflection. Taunts buy you hurt feelings and defensiveness. As the same fellow pointed out, negative comments in response to this hashtag do not prove that it’s true. They prove that cruelty begets cruelty. Somatically speaking, this creates severe muscular tension and shallow breathing that can become chronic if they aren’t already. This serves to perpetuate the problem. Free expression of the self comes through relaxation, warmth, connection and safety. We don’t need more divisiveness; we need less.

Where we find shame, we know lives anger. So let’s unpack this a bit, too. It’s ok to be angry. It makes perfect sense that the tone in many of these posts is an angry one, because it’s a response to the oppressive force of patriarchy. And anger is excellent fuel for action. Expressed cleanly, it has the power to be heard and to exact change. Anger expressed through hate can be cathartic, but it’s important to know that that will be solely for you and those who already get it. If you’d like to help create change, it will be through connecting.

Patriarchy and simplistic views of masculinity are painful and damaging largely because of their ability to divide and disconnect. Being inside the man box means that a man is forced to be separated from a terrifying number of things: vulnerability, the landscape of emotion, fraternal or platonic intimacy, delicateness, sensuality, receptivity, openness, gender fluidity, orientation fluidity. It’s a force so oppressive that it causes massive internal oppression and splitting. “Splitting” is something that we do in our minds to keep things in tidy little black-and-white packages, and it’s hugely responsible for the absurdities we’re trying to call out. It’s what happens when you refuse to allow new information to expand your understanding of a concept.”What?! I’ve never seen a blue pen before. This must be an entirely different object!” A narrow definition of something that is in reality quite complex creates endless absurdities.

Being in touch with and expressing emotions and vulnerability takes practice, and it’s wonderful to see attempts at empowering more men to start practicing. That’s the feeling to look for: empowerment. So sure, poke fun at things, point out the absurd. Just be sure that what you say has an air of “fuck that,” instead of “fuck you.”

When something like this hashtag surfaces, I believe that it’s really important for lots of people to speak up. I’d love to see Twitter flooded with positive messages for males as a result of this so that when a guy clicks on it, he feels inspired to shed false fears. So here are a few tweets that I appreciated:

#MasculinitySoFragile that in general, men either challenge my masculinity or assume we’re allies in an unhealthy toxic masculinity. Over it. -@handsomefmnst

My brothers told me that they’ll never paint their daughter’s nails. #MasculinitySoFragile -@funfettipancakes

#MasculinitySoFragile 2 men at a Subway will LET U FUCKIN KNOW just bc they are paying for their food together doesnt mean THEY are together. -@discohaylie

#MasculinitySoFragile “My masculinity is so important that I’d rather go a week without washing than use some god damn pink FAIRY SOAP!” -@N_Ver_Sean

All of these tug at my heartstrings. Even the last one in all its silliness, because I have heard sentences exactly that absurd uttered with total seriousness. These posts leave me wanting to make sure that I’m helping to make it safe for the men around me to just be. Make no mistake, there must also be an internal process for everyone in order for change to be made. But it’s welcoming and informed environments that make internal change possible and effective. And it’s our widespread mutual goal to be allowed to simply be who we are.

Combining humor and activism is a form of artistry. Sex educator and comedian Dane Ballard once said to me that humor has this beautiful ability to deliver a sort of package. It’s easily received, but then unfolds in the mind of the listener. This is the opportunity we have with #MasculinitySoFragile, but it must be used well.

How to Speak Out Effectively

  • Anger towards an oppressive force is an early stage of healing. While you’re in it, direct your anger as specifically as you can. Avoid speaking in absolutes and making generalizations. Be mad as hell, just not at everyone. That feels crappy anyway.
  • Ask if your feedback is willing to be received. This isn’t necessary in an original post, but it is in any conversation- especially ones with strangers. Before you get into it, ask the other person if they have a few minutes to hear your impressions. If they say no, you’ve wasted no energy on them, and that’s a win for you.
  • Speak about your experience only. A point is not made stronger, but weaker by exaggerating or using absolutes. Tell the person what you feel, and why. That will indeed mean being somewhat open, and that’s exactly what’s needed in order for someone to hear you. If you can’t communicate with at least some openness, that’s ok. Wait to say your piece until you can, or find someone who can say it for you.
  • Jump at opportunities to speak up, especially when you can use privilege for the good. It is easiest for a person to hear something from someone they consider an ally or the same as they are in some way. When that’s you, it creates a beautiful opportunity for change if they say something with which you disagree. Remember that what you say can be very simple. “I’m not sure that’s true,” or, “My experience has been different than that,” are brief and safe, but very powerful statements that can get others thinking. This isn’t easy, but it’s easier. And it feels really, really good.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke from 1908:

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

A Public Display of the Therapeutic Process

The marriage of activism and the therapeutic process has been on my mind constantly. Perhaps that’s why I’m seeing so many examples of it lately, but I hear others remarking on it, too. We seem to be experiencing a major boost in raw feminism as of late. This particular public announcement of self-reflection and healing was such a display of activism that I couldn’t help but write about it.

After the Vanity Fair article “Call Me Caitlyn” was released, a man named Terry Coffey responded with the following post, which was promptly shared thousands of times:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a sentiment shared by many, who seemed to feel that the term “hero” being applied to Jenner negated other uses. It’s not an uncommon belief that the only true heroism comes in the form of facing physical danger, preferably war.

Well someone noticed that the image is actually not of real people, but of figurines. This was drawn to Coffey’s attention, and after some research and some pretty epic self-reflection, he created the following post:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a beautiful example this is of the therapeutic process of tuning in, self-reflecting, and practicing something more authentic. When Coffey educated himself on the history of the photograph he’d chosen, he must have had many, many sensations and emotions arise. I am very impressed with how honestly he listened to them. He let those feelings guide him to a new way of seeing things. And then he immediately and publicly exacted change. So not only do we get to hear about this incredible (and quick!) journey, but we get to be inspired by his process, which can in turn affect our own self-understanding.

When I saw Coffey’s follow-up posting, I didn’t feel surprised. I felt relieved. I had that lovely grounding sensation in my stomach that a deep truth can bring. This is what can happen when someone unpacks their beliefs. Love comes springing forward.

We probably don’t get to know what factors in Coffey’s life led him to react with that initial post, nor do we know where he’ll go from here, but the gift of witnessing his experience will remain. And there’s so much power in the fact that he will reach people who may otherwise not be exposed to such a change of tune, or those who would discount his second sentiment if it came from The Opposition. Interestingly, the sentiment isn’t actually that different. It’s just more inclusive. Transpeople are risking their lives for their freedom.

The Inherent Feminism of Psychotherapy

One of my very favorite descriptions of therapy is that it’s about being with a person in such a way that they can be exactly who they are. This is also a fundamental part of the feminist movement, and all equal rights movements- differences are to be honored through equal rights and equal treatment. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s difficult to put into practice when you’re dealing with unconscious beliefs and motivations. These things guide as like a trance. And it is the realm of the unconscious where change must be exacted if we are to see it on a global scale. The practice of knowing yourself well enough to understand when you’re being guided by these unconscious forces is tremendously helping for staying mindful and present. Through the observation of present behavior, we are able to understand what the past meant to us.

When it comes to feminism, understanding the past occurs on a very grand scale. We must look at the thousands of years of cultural perspectives on gender to understand history and what led us to this point. This is why good education is paramount. It’s why it drives us feminists crazy that history lessons have such a heavily heteronormative, cisnormative and masculine bent. Worse, we too often fail to educate our children about how beliefs systems shape behavior and social constructions. Because it’s not just having information that exacts change.

This shows up in the therapeutic process all the time, and it’s why one can fairly quickly exhaust the benefits of the talk therapy modality. Insight does not always exact change. It gives us the why, but not the how. It is in the mastering of mindfulness and presence through much practice that we are able to really get our needs met. Only with this skill can we effect larger scale changes.

Institutional sexism (or any -ism) is a macro scale version of this unconscious process. The continue inequality of pay, for instance. is less of a malicious phenomenon than an unconscious one. For many historical cultural reasons, women are still often seen as inferior. So when it comes time to decide where a woman ought to fall on a pay scale range compared to a male counterpart. it’s the underlying beliefs that play the role that ends in bias. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock capture this beautifully with their comedic genius in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when Carol Kane’s character Lillian says, “Ah change the channel; I can’t get the news from a woman.” This strikes us as absurd, because it is! As a viewer, you can feel that this isn’t something she’s though through. It’s unintentional. It’s unconscious. It’s a spot on example of internalized sexism.

Internalized oppression is when a person has negative beliefs about oneself which result from the experience of oppression. This can pop up all over the place, because it’s inadvertent. And this is where we must explore ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Because activism, as with therapy, is impossible if we focus on patching up all the symptoms of the problem. If Lillian is to change this belief about a woman’s ability to provide the news, it will be necessary for her to explore her beliefs about the female gender. If we over-focus on the news issue, her beliefs will pop up somewhere else, perhaps even somewhere very similar. But through a therapeutic process she would be able to look at her own personal history to understand the influences leading to this belief, to process when she’s been a victim of it herself, and to be mindful of when and how she’s unnecessarily limited herself and others through the behavior resulting from this belief.

Institutional -isms are macrocosms of internalized -isms.

The skills one learns through psychotherapy can then be extended to others. Fostering the process of therapy as a society would cause a whole lotta healing on both the personal and, eventually, the societal level. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where most people welcome a reference to therapy. I can say, “I’ve been exploring that with my therapist,” and get an, “Oh, that’s great,” instead of a, “What do you need therapy for?” I love when people say to me, “I don’t need therapy, but…” because no matter how they finish their sentence, I get to say, “Actually, it sounds like you’d really like therapy!” Those sorts of negative reactions are indicative of underlying negative beliefs about therapy. And lemme tell ya, negative beliefs about therapy are misunderstandings of what it actually is. Negative experiences as a client certainly happen, but that doesn’t mean that all of therapy is painful or unhelpful. We can change these misconceptions by inspiring others through self-disclosure, normalizing, and through demonstrating what we’ve learned. The more people who are skillful at understanding, accepting, and expressing themselves will mean way less baloney interactions, personal and macro scale.

Mental health is a social contagion. Just look at powerhouse of openness and insight Amy Poehler. Her message “good for her, not for me,” encourages people to disengage from comparing and making assumptions, and it is a fabulous example of this. This one simple sentence demonstrates self-knowledge as well as openness to and acceptance of others’ differences. This is what comes from the therapy process. You learn how to reach understanding, so you can practice with yourself as well as with others. Engaging in the work of psychotherapy is a revolutionary act.

Big ol’ shout outs to the likes of HeForShe, Jade Rivera, Jenipher Lyn, and SmartGirls for engaging in this kind of micro-level activism. I triple dog dare you to watch one of Poehler’s Ask Amy videos and not feel better about yourself, others, and the future of our world.