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.

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.

Supporting Your Partner and Yourself Through Transition: The Basics

One of my specialties in working with clients is helping people and their partners navigate the world of gender bending. If your partner likes to crossdress or is interested in transitioning, you will need some solid facts and emotional support on your side.

First of all, crossdressing and transitioning are completely different. While they can coincide, a person who likes to dress doesn’t necessarily wish to transition from male to female (or female to male). I will be speaking about both of these in this article, because there are many overlapping myths for each. I will also be speaking primarily to an audience of heterosexual couples wherein the male partner is the gender bender, because this is the most common (and widely considered the most taboo) configuration. But know that each factor I discuss here applies broadly.

Basic Facts:

  • Crossdressing has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Your partner isn’t gay because he likes to wear women’s clothes. The very notion that dresses, skirts, etc. are women’s clothes is, in itself, a topic worth debating.
  • Transitioning has nothing to do with sexual orientation. A new coat of paint on the outside doesn’t change the interior of your house. Transitioning is intended to result in integration of inside and out- to make one look they way they already feel. Believing that your guy will become gay if he transitions is sometimes just an easy way to defend against understanding the truth: he is actually female. What’s cool about being able to grasp that is finding out that it doesn’t change much…
  • Your partner will not have severe personality changes. Hormones do cause some changes in self-expression and some people have stronger reactions than others. While you should be informed about and expect some shifts, you needn’t be concerned that your partner is becoming someone else. He will remain, essentially, the same person. His beliefs, interests, sense of humor, cadence… none of it will change because of putting on a dress or even because of transitioning. It should look no different than a new outfit, mood, or hormonal cycle change bringing out different self-expressions in you. If your partner does show signs of extreme change, a change in treatment is necessary, and this is why it’s important to already be in therapy!
  • Crossdressers are not seeking sexual contact. This is an easy concept to grasp if you switch it around and make the object a heterosexual woman: “She must be on the prowl with a skirt like that!” Cue a feminist crisis! That is hardly the case. As with any dressing up, it is a means of expressing oneself.
  • Gender benders are not psychologically unwell. I will quote blogger Lacey Leigh here, because I couldn’t say it any better:

“Modern psychology accepts that crossdressing is an expression of personality which is as immutable as left-handedness. Any problems crossdressers may develop are in reaction to social stigma, prejudice, and bigotry – not disorder. Social judgment is not a valid basis upon which to regard human idiosyncrasies as mental disorders.”

As with anything we believe, socialization is a major component and it must be kept in contextual check. For a little brain-stretching reading about society and gender, check out my other posts.

Notice how many of these overlap with or circle back around to each other. That is because we’re dealing with the topic of correlation and causation. See? Your math teacher was right: you will need to know this later.

If you find these things difficult to believe or understand, you must talk to your partner. For something you believe to be removed, it’s vital to know what to put in its place instead. So if he isn’t trying to hook up with other people, what is he doing? Ask him! For me to tell you that he’s using it as a means of self-expression probably isn’t specific enough and frankly, it shouldn’t be. I believe we should know our partner’s depth as well as we possibly can, and that takes constant and effective communication, which is no easy task. Many couples chose to make this a process supported by therapy, and they are among the happiest couples out there! You are also invited to begin your own individual therapy while you are navigating these beautiful, deep, and complicated waters of gender expression.

Gender is not Dichotomous

We grow up formulating thoughts and feeling about gender around just two options: male and female. However, dichotomy of gender must be realized as a Western Judeo-Christian belief, which is not generalizable. Many people do not fit entirely into one notion and instead spill over into the realm of the other.

I wish to distinguish between physical hermaphroditism (which is purely physical) and gender mixing, which refers to elements such as role expectations, mannerisms and sexual orientation.

In this and a few entries to follow, I would like to present what I hope to be thought-provoking information about gender as a spectrum according to various other cultures.

The most commonly known and discussed of these is the berdache of Native American cultures. A berdache is a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities, which may or may not be related to their biological sex. An often preferred term for a berdache is niizh manidoowag, meaning “two-spirit.” This is essentially a third way of gender-typing and venerates those who do not fit neatly into the role of “female” or “male.”

I very much like the term two-spirit, as I believe it speaks to something that most people in Western culture can relate to: a feeling of containing elements of both male and female. It is refreshing to consider that one need not fit into one or the other label. For many, this is a very strange concept! Two-spirit people are not only recognized and accepted in Native American cultures, they are revered. They are believed to be especially spiritual, beings who “bridge the gap between the temporal and spirit worlds.”

I encourage trying on this concept. Imagine what would change internally and in interpersonal relationships if we were to organize ourselves around these ways of thinking. What would it mean for you if you were completely unlimited by gender expectations?

 

References:

DRK. (1999) A native american perspective on the theory of gender continuum. Retrieved fromhttp://members.tripod.com/berdache_two/twospirit.htm

Jacobs, S. (1997). Two-spirit people. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Working with Gender

Gender is a spectrum. And the spectrum is a rich and beautiful one. It is not news that the notion of “blue or pink” is outdated, let alone damaging. As Jung proposed (1953), “identifications with a social role are a fruitful source of neuroses” (p. 83). Ideally, we would raise our children with little to no expectation of how their gender will affect who they are or what they do. Possibilities for the expression of self are infinite at birth and they ought to remain as wide open as possible.

So what does that mean for us as adults? How do you know your true gender? Therapy provides a safe container in which to explore your possible expressions. Gender therapy embodies a non-judgemental approach to exploring what you know about who you really are. Why do this? Because you should not be limited and wherever you feel that you land on the spectrum is perfect, because it is authentically you. A life rooted in the comfort of one’s own body and mind is a vibrant and meaningful one.

Inspiration:

Jung, C. (1982). Aspects of the feminine. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.