Response to Thomas’s post on gender orientation labels (on Yes Means Yes blog)

June 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

I just read Thomas’s blog post on Yes Means Yes regarding the terms we use to describe gender orientation: http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/would-that-make-me-queer/#more-1647.

Most of the people I know with any level of intimacy have some qualm with labeling their gender / gender orientation.  They can almost always point to some aspect of what is implied that does not accurately reflect the way they relate to their sexuality and/or sexual partners.   Cisgendered, heterosexual men may be as uncomfortable as gender queers wary of labeling when called upon to self-define, and it isn’t hard to see why.

I think the issue relates more to body sovereignty than language.  When you are called upon to define yourself, the stakes can seem raised, as if you are being threatened somehow.  I think it’s because you are.  You may trip the label signifier that defines you in a manner other than what you feel/know yourself to be.  In literary theory terms via Lacan:  you may be aware that your social I and your ideal I are about to hit a patch of dissonance.  Often, you know your listener(s) will not extend their attention past about three words, so which three will you choose???

I have found that with some people I can talk about my sexuality openly, and with others I want to grasp any fragment of information in a clutch of animal-like ferocity.  Describing the difference is similar to describing why one person can approach you on the street or give you a comment and you feel threatened while from another you feel flattered.  I think it has to do with your internalized sense of whether or not this person is trying to better understand and relate to you on your own terms or maneuver some type of ownership over you.

I would say defining someone is in some manner taking ownership of them.  Hence, you find Thomas exploring this topic as an issue of feminism, applying the same awareness of prejudice and lack of consent and body sovereignty as one would in an analysis of a sexual encounter.

Thomas points out what I think he considers an inconsistency in his feminist MO of letting others define their own gender and gender orientation:

“But when Larry Craig or Ted Haggard tell me they’re straight, I don’t accept their self-definition. I think they’re full of shit. And I’m not the only one. Asher used the term “closet case,” a term the very existence of which presumes that there is a fact of the matter that can be different from what people say about themselves.

But, if we try to go whole hog with that, and come up with “objective” criteria for pigeonholing people by orientation, the enterprise is doomed from the start.”

This is not, I think, a matter of rigid defining, but a response to an awareness of someone who is manipulating their identity to claim a social/political status or statures.

In the case of “closet cases” that are not infuriating, the manipulation may seem more spurred by fear rather than power mongering, and a desire to self-protect from a societal prejudice.

When you push back against someone else’s self-definition, you take a huge risk of being wrong and, since I can’t think of another way to say it, emulating the behavior of the oppressor.  But there are times when you will be inclined to take the risk either because you are invested in a person’s further self-discovery or, in a very different circumstance, because you think they are a conniving hypocrite who lacks integrity and should be held accountable.

Much as the writer points out in “Schrödinger’s Rapist,” there can be a sense of entitlement to someone’s space, attention, and trust, and I would say there can also be a sense of entitlement to knowledge of another person’s identity, especially when it comes to gender and gender orientation.  It has taken a remarkable effort of self-chosen reconditioning for most of us (myself included) to become comfortable not knowing someone’s binary gender label, much less branching out from there.

I once had a group of very progressive folk turn suddenly to me during a planning retreat late at night expecting an explanation of my sexuality after someone offhandedly referred to me a lesbian, and I said, honestly surprised, “Who said I was a lesbian?”  The questions continued until I was asked why I am private about my sexuality unless it’s relevant and “how that works.” Finally one person said, “This is getting inquisitory,” and everyone sort of backed off, feeling a bit ashamed it seemed.

In a far less jarring instance, one of my roommates suddenly asked me how I “as lesbian” liked living in JP (which, as a side note, I will say was even more interesting considering I had only had sexual relationships with men since moving into the house).

Oddly, my severe discomfort and annoyance in both situations made me feel like I was out of line.  Maybe I’m ashamed or homophobic or sexist or sex-negative?  When I brought this up with my very-most-feminist friend, she said, “Making assumptions about someone else’s sex life – NEVER a good idea!”  My friend continued to point out that while she is careful to guard against presumption when someone has not revealed a self-defined sexuality, she also doesn’t feel like she can bring it up out of sheer curiosity.  It takes some other more relevant incentive to get her to breech the subject.

In short, to her, a person’s sexuality (including their gender and gender orientation labels) are not public property, but belong to the individual who chooses when, how, and if to define state them. In both instances, I felt uncomfortable because in our society, even among very considerate and progressive people, it is not acceptable to be private about your gender or gender-orientation.  It is the possession of the public, of others.  It does not inherently and exclusively belong to you.

The most awkward and often threatening moments in life are those when someone approaches you from a standpoint that you owe them something.  At least, they have been for me.  In the same way that feminism challenges us to dismantle our entitlement to another person’s body, it challenges us to dismantle or entitlement to defining ourselves or even being privy to their self-definition regarding gender and sexuality. As the author of Schrödinger’s rapist breaks it down with physical space in public, for some people the boundaries of handing out identity labels you may or not define the same as they do may be lax and for others, no risk is acceptable.

“But how does that work?” people will ask.  It’s pretty simple:  you respect consent, so when both of you want to talk about it, you do; when one of you doesn’t, you don’t, and there are no punishments (physical, psychological, or social) levied as a result.

See “Schrödinger’s Rapist” here: http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger’s-rapist-or-a-guy’s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/

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