Figuring out my gender, and trying to figure out gender in general

While writing the last post, I jotted down some other thoughts on gender in general and my gender specifically. One sentence I wrote was, “I don’t know if that makes me agender or gender-neutral or neutrois, but right now I’m not worried about figuring out which label makes the most sense for me.” But, perhaps inevitably, I then got curious about which one would be the most accurate, and after rereading this post and this post (I’ve somehow ended up considering these two to be THE posts on alternative genders, but I’d love to read others if anyone has recommendations!), both of which I’d related to somewhat when I first read them, I concluded that “genderless” is probably the best term for me. Continue reading

Appearance, part 4a: appearance and gender (me)

When thinking about this post I started wondering: Is appearance the only way that gender is expressed? I think most people would agree these days that behaviors, actions, and interests aren’t gendered—while in some circles playing football may still be seen as typically masculine and staying home with the kids as typically feminine, I don’t think most people would say a man is enacting a feminine gender by taking care of his kids, or a woman enacting a masculine gender by playing football. However, if a man wears makeup, or a woman wears a tux, that is viewed as a deviation into a gender that doesn’t match their sex. So is appearance then the only marker of a masculine or feminine identity?

Switching gears a little, the main thing I want to discuss in this post is the overlap of appearance and gender for me. In February of this year, I started thinking about my gender identity, for probably the first time ever. I’d always known I wasn’t typically girly—I stopped liking skirts and dresses before I was 10, I never liked pink, never wore makeup. But I’d never wondered, “Do I actually identify with the feminine gender?”, because I’d been accepting that if I was female-bodied, I was also feminine-gendered. In February, though, after reading an article on Facebook’s new gender options, I finally considered how I see my own gender, and realized that I don’t strongly identify as feminine. Continue reading

My ideal response to “I’m asexual”

In discussions of typical reactions people receive when coming out as ace, I’ve sometimes seen a good or preferred response contrasted with all the negative responses. And the good response is normally along the lines of, “Cool, thanks for telling me.” This response strikes me as inadequate, though, at least when it comes to the reaction I’d hope to get when revealing to someone that I’m ace.

I’ve only officially come out to one person so far. Initially I just told them I didn’t want to have sex, and didn’t use the word “asexual”, but later I emailed them a link to AVEN’s overview page. And they wrote back, “I read this. Guess there isn’t much to say about it.” And that response really disappointed me, because I felt like they were dismissing my asexuality, which I see as an important part of my identity. Maybe they felt like they didn’t have anything else to say because we’d already had conversations about it, but those had focused specifically on my desire not to have sex, rather than on asexuality as my sexual orientation. I felt like sending them that link was my real, official outing, because beyond just saying I didn’t want sex (which they could respond to with, “Maybe you’ll change your mind”), I was saying, “My sexual orientation is different from yours. This is the way I am, and it’s not going to change.” And I guess I had just expected (and wanted) that to lead to more discussion, instead of basically ending the conversation.

“Guess there isn’t much to say about it” would come across a little differently than “Cool, thanks for telling me,” but I think the latter would still leave me feeling unsatisfied. I lived twenty years not knowing there was a word for the way I was, twenty years of feeling different from everyone else—and thus twenty years of silence about my experience. Now that I know that there’s a term that describes me and that other people feel this way too, I want to talk about it. So in my ideal coming out experience, the person I’m telling would ask me questions. Not rude, invasive questions, of course, but questions like, “How long have you known you were asexual? Was it hard growing up not knowing that term?” “Are you interested in romantic relationships? What would your ideal romantic relationship look like?” “Anything else I should know about asexuality or your experience of it?” etc.

Basically, I’d want to know that the person I’m telling cares, and the way I would feel cared about is if they were interested, and showed their interest by continuing the conversation. I can definitely understand wanting to just be accepted and not have your orientation made a big deal of, but that wouldn’t quite be enough for me. Of course, if I actually came out to more people and getting a ton of questions every time became a regular thing, my opinion might change…

Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

I read a blog post in which a woman described meeting a man on a plane and getting a glimpse into his fascinating life. She also spoke well of his looks, not in an “I was attracted to him” way, but in a way you might talk about admiring anything beautiful. This was a very small part of the post, which was mainly concerned with her anxiety about talking to a stranger and her gratefulness that she overcame that anxiety and was able to briefly connect with him. But what was the first comment on the post? “Sounds like you found him attractive ;)”. The author had replied to that comment saying that was her husband’s response as well, but not at all what she had felt or meant. And it made me sad that this was both the commenter’s and the husband’s focus, and that they took the author’s words in an entirely different way than she intended them.

People tend to do this to each other a lot, at least in spaces where heteronormativity reigns unquestioned—if someone shows any sort of interest in a person who is perceived to be of the opposite gender, it’s assumed to be romantic interest and treated accordingly, because of course everyone is both straight and interested in romantic relationships, and that’s the only reason they would ever interact with anyone of a different gender than their own. This often means that the person showing the interest gets teased; my teenage sister mentions a male friend, and my whole family starts asking, “Ooh, do you like him?” and making jokes about the two of them as a couple. Reacting to kids especially this way sends the message that the only relationships there can be between people of different genders are romantic ones, which is severely limiting. It’s quite possible to be friends with, be intrigued by, have a good conversation with, or desire to get to know better someone of a different gender without any romantic attraction being present. But heteronormative circles don’t acknowledge this, and some perhaps don’t even believe it.

The typical nature of the responses—“Oooh, you like her”; “You must think he’s attractive”—makes people (again, probably kids in particular) feel like they need to defend these instances of non-romantic interest in those of a different gender, or else causes them to feel that they can’t talk about them to others at all—because other people won’t understand and will turn the occurrences into something they’re not. The FedEx guy who used to pick up my office’s packages every day was really nice, and my brief conversations with him were always pleasant. But I avoided talking about him to certain people, stopping myself from mentioning a fun place he’d recommended I go or a story he’d told, because I didn’t want to get asked, “Ooh, what’s his name? Is he hot?”. I didn’t want anyone insisting I felt something that I didn’t, and I didn’t want the point of my story—“This is a cool guy, and I enjoy talking to him”—to be completely missed.

Even worse, these typical reactions can cause the person expressing interest to be embarrassed, which could lead them to avoid non-romantic encounters with or interest in people of different genders in the future. Several times I have tried to minimize my interactions with a certain man after being teased about him, because the only way I saw to escape getting teased again was to not talk to the man I was being teased about. But how awful is that? At worst, the person I’m suddenly ignoring will be bothered by my apparent rudeness, and even if he doesn’t actually notice or care, I’m still missing out on interaction and possibly a relationship with a fun or interesting or good person, just because he happens to not share my gender.

I think making assumptions of romantic interest is especially harmful when it’s done to kids, because they don’t know to be heteronormative or amatornormative or assume that they can’t be friends with people of different genders until they’re taught to do so (which is done by popular culture as well as interpersonal interactions). Once they learn that they should only be having certain feelings and relating to other people in certain ways, anything that doesn’t fit into this mold becomes something to be ashamed of—something to then defend, or repress, or excise altogether.

Appearance, part 3: appearance and being ace

I recently read Anthony’s Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality for the first time, and in one chapter he mentioned that asexual women might not feel the need to look sexually attractive (I can’t remember exactly what he said so if anyone else knows, feel free to remind me!). That rang true for me because, taking it a step further, I would specifically like to not appear sexually attractive to other people. When I was younger I did want to look attractive, or at least pretty, and I feel like there might not be a definite line between just plain “attractive” and “sexually attractive”, but for me it meant looking nice while avoiding any clothing that was too tight or showed too much skin.

It really wasn’t (or isn’t, since I still feel this way) such a reasoned-out thing, though; not “If I wear a low-cut shirt, there might be a sexual component to any admiration other people give me”, but something much more instinctual—“I would be really uncomfortable wearing anything that showed cleavage.” I can’t really fathom how people are fine wearing bikinis in public; showing that much skin strikes me as very vulnerable, and I could never do it. And I’m guessing these feelings all come back to that fear of being looked at as a sexual object, or even just a sexual being. I don’t want people to think of me that way, because that’s not how I am.

Teachings about modesty in high school Sunday school classes freaked me out because we was told that men were prowling around ogling women and thinking lecherous thoughts about them—or at least, that was my interpretation. The teachers said, “Dress modestly so you won’t cause your brothers [in Christ] to stumble”, but what I decided was, “I’m going to dress modestly so I won’t be a victim.” Not of any physical harm, but of being thought of sexually. And although I now know that these classes presented an inaccurately homogeneous view of men, I still feel that being seen as sexually appealing would be a form of victimization to me; one I would never know about, true, but still one I want to avoid.

I think this specific idea comes from being a sex-repulsed ace. I would never willingly engage in sex, and so the idea of anyone thinking of me in a sexual way feels like a violation of a boundary I’ve set up, and makes me really uncomfortable. So I try to avoid entertaining that idea, and the way I accomplish this isn’t by actually preventing anyone from thinking of me sexually (because it would be impossible to know if I’m fully succeeding or not), but rather by trying to make myself feel like no one is by looking as un-sexual as possible. Not giving anyone reason to think of me sexually allows me to assume that no one is, which makes me feel safe, even if this feeling is based on an illusion (after all, we were also taught in Sunday school, “Some guys will still lust after you even if you’re wearing  a sack!”)

Anyway, I’m guessing that this is at least part of—maybe even the main reason—why looking feminine in public makes me feel vulnerable (I think another part is that I feel more likely to be critiqued and judged by others when appearing feminine), and why I’m most comfortable presenting fairly androgynously. Maybe it also at least partially explains why I don’t prioritize my appearance particularly highly—I know not all aces feel this way, but I do wonder if it’s a factor for me.

Read the rest of the posts in the appearance series here.

Appearance, part 2: comfort in public

This is a self-analytical post that may not be of interest to anyone but me; it mostly discusses how I feel/have felt about my hair at various lengths and what, appearance-wise, makes me feel more and less comfortable when out in public. The rest of the posts in my appearance series are of more general interest and can be read here.

The other day I was walking down the sidewalk by a fairly busy street, and it occurred to me that I felt more comfortable than I normally would with so many other people around. I usually experience at least some degree of anxiety when in public, and some of this is linked to my appearance—I feel that I don’t look good enough in some way, and that all the better-looking people around me must be looking down on me. So when I’m anywhere where there are a lot of people around, I usually feel very self-conscious. Continue reading

Dividing children by gender

Note: Since non-binary genders aren’t recognized in the situations I discuss in this post and I’m not sure how these institutions would handle trans* people, these groups aren’t mentioned, but their lack of recognition and inclusion by and in society is yet another reason why systems that divide children based on their being one of two sexes/genders are problematic.

At some point during (Christian) summer camp orientation, an adult would always announce to the other teens/pre-teens and I, “Girls are red, guys are blue. No purpling.” I never knew exactly what this meant, and I’m sure it wasn’t completely clear to lots of the other kids either. Did it just mean no physical interaction with the opposite gender, or was it meant to discourage us from even hanging out with them? I remember gossiping with my cabin mates one year about Lauren, a girl with purple eye shadow and pretty hair, because she spent lots of time talking to the guys—”Lauren’s purpling,” we said with condemnation and self-righteousness. We would never engage in such illicit behavior.

After a few years of attending that camp I went to a different one, which had somewhat of a different format. Instead of having boys and girls there at the same time, they had three weeks of boys’ camp followed by three weeks of girls’ camp. Their reasoning, if I remember correctly, was both that boys and girls have different interests and that it was better for them to enjoy camp without being distracted by the opposite gender. This is similar, I’m guessing, to the philosophy behind having separate girl and boy scouts (which I’ll go into more in a minute).

I have two problems with these attitudes. “No purpling”—at least when left up to the kids’ interpretation, who may decide it means all interaction with the opposite gender is prohibited—says that you shouldn’t pursue friendships with people who don’t share your gender. If you’re looking for human interaction, socialization, friends, you should stick with people who have the same body parts (because of course everyone is cis!). Besides restricting potential relationships (perhaps romantic, which I assume is what the leaders were trying to discourage, but platonic as well) that could form, this attitude says that it’s dangerous for you to be around the opposite gender. There will be too much temptation for you to do things that the adults would disapprove of, so they’re going to mandate your separation to keep that from happening. But that grossly overemphasizes kids’ sexuality, as if the only possible relationship a girl and a boy could have is a romantic/sexual one. If kids think the opposite sex has cooties, if they think it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, if they only think of the opposite gender as potential romantic partners to either reject or pursue, they end up denying the humanity of the other gender. Boys become males first, humans second, and the same with girls, and that becomes awfully limiting because the potential for engaging with someone simply as another human being whom you might enjoy talking to or being friends with is removed. And I don’t think kids would hold this view—that you should avoid the opposite gender unless you’re looking for romance or sex—if it wasn’t for adults cultivating the attitude through their fear. Yes, surely these prohibitions have kept plenty of immature summer camp romances from happening. But how many friendships and moments of connection have they also prevented?

By limiting children in these settings to friendships with those of the same gender, we’re also sending another message—that all boys, and all girls, are the same. The attitude of the second camp that I mentioned especially cultivates the idea that girls and boys will get along best with people of their own gender. Anyone who’s found that they connect more with other genders than with those who share theirs, or who likes and forms relationships with others regardless of whether they’re male or female, is out of luck. And beyond the relational aspect, this camp format, as well as organizations that divide kids by gender like girl/boy scouts, declares that girls are interested in X, and boys in Y. When my brother was in boy scouts, I always thought it sounded like fun—wilderness safety, camping, knot-tying (and my sisters and I always enjoyed Boy’s Life magazine, much more than my brother did). I didn’t know what girl scouts did, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as appealing to me as boy scouts, because I knew that their activities would be different from those the guys got to do. And in fact when I was talking to my aunt and uncle once, who have one boy and one girl who are both involved in scouts, my aunt, who helps with her daughter’s troop, told me that all the outdoor/adventure aspects have been excised from the girl scouts. Nothing has changed for the boys, who still go on camporees and learn how to treat snake bites, but girl scouts are apparently expected to have no interest in such activities. My aunt was unhappy—it was a frustrating process for her to convince the higher-ups to let her scouts go canoeing—and rightly so. Just like all boys won’t enjoy camping, all girls won’t be happy sitting inside earning computer merit badges (which is what my aunt told me when I asked what activities were available to the girls. I guess it’s good at least that computers aren’t considered to be boys-only?).

Couldn’t we just have scouts, instead of dividing the organization into boys and girls? Let everyone choose the activities they’re interested in, instead of only making certain ones available based on the participant’s body parts. And if you’re worried about kids’ hormones running away with them, distracting them or causing them to engage in inappropriate behavior, can you give kids a little more credit and see that you’re keeping them from the chance to have friends who are different from them, friends that some of them might get along with better than those of their own gender? If we stopped keeping boys and girls apart and promoting the idea that they’re innately different, maybe we’d see a difference in their interactions when they grow up to be men and women.