hilarious groveling and the effort to be known
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
When a stranger has the good sense to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to me, it’s transcendent. The desire to be known—or at the very least, recognized for more or less who/what you are—is an experience all living things have. When a tree reaches out underground for a mycelial network delivering essential nutrients, that tree is saying, know me. When a child announces their name and age, they’re saying, know me. When a stray goose joins a migrating flock, it’s saying, know me.
A few days ago, the state of Virginia reversed protections for transgender kids in schools, stating that the importance of such ~political~ business best be left to parents. In Texas, the battle rages on over whether trans kids can be taken away from parents helping them access gender-affirming care.
All of those kids—now at increased risk of mental health crisis because of these attacks—are saying, know me. The experience of being unknown, and othered because of it, can be deadly; the opposite, life-affirming.
At this point, the idea of being either a man or a woman is abhorrent to me. There’s nothing wrong with either of these identities, but they are both so obviously inaccurate. Looking back on my childhood, the places where gender roles were most enforced (sports, summer camp, elective activities) were where I struggled the most. Long before I had the words for it, the implementation of gender binaries registered to me as a means of social control.
I spent this weekend celebrating some dear queers getting married, at a venue where all the bathrooms at the venue had been re-labeled for all genders. Repeatedly, I found myself in there with people of assorted identities, cackling over the enigma of opening the paper towel dispenser, commenting on the night’s events, adjusting an outfit. Bathrooms, like pronouns, have become our proxies for talking about gender, and in turn battlegrounds for defending an archaic and unhelpful binary. Bathrooms, like pronouns, needn’t adhere to that binary to fulfill their intended use.
When I got home, there was a thick envelope waiting for me. It was a new passport, loaded up with the usual barrage of US government security features. And, in the place where you might find an M or an F, mine has an X.
I had really agonized over this. Choosing to get an X on my driver’s license was easier; it’s a state ID, the one I show to people more often. I’ve wondered and worried about the implication of telling the state you’re a gender deviant, especially given the constantly fluctuating access to recognition for trans people in this country. And then there’s international travel; as I was looking into the gender neutral passport, I read about how the TSA perceives gender, the potential lack of recognition of an X elsewhere in the world, and the inconsistency of an X option across government forms.
This week, I devoured The Power, a novel in which women gain the ability to conduct jolts of electricity through their fingers, and as a result become the dominant sex. There’s some really biting and hilarious male groveling and self-doubt, and critique of what happens when power is assigned according to (perceived) sex, rather than skills or compassion or community. At the very end of the book, a male writer (whose work has only been published as Men’s Literature, regardless of its subject matter) pleads to an accomplished female writer. His case is this:
“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there.”
The book only for the briefest moment acknowledges genders outside of the binary, and suggests that men and women could wholly switch roles and basically nothing would change about how society is structured. There are plenty of holes to poke in this argument, but the core seems steady to me: gender is a way of categorizing and defining people, which is an elemental step to controlling them. The categorization of people by race does this as well, and race is often determined by visual cues. Addressing problems of systematic discrimination requires some identifiers of those impacted. But these announcements of which box you fit in still show up in plenty of places they don’t belong.
When I was contacting an elected official recently, I got to wondering about why a salutation is required to do this. It’s a weird formal thing, in my world, but it’s everywhere: teachers getting called Mrs. this and Mr. that; customer service representatives switching to Miss last name as soon as they verify your information; women still taking men’s names after marriage.
Before bathrooms and before pronouns, this was the gender designator our society had. I assumed it, like most archaic forms of determining human value, had an ugly past. It does: Mr is an abbreviation of Master; Mrs and Miss are both abbreviations of Mistress. The hierarchy to our modern ears is obvious. There’s plenty of nuance, most of it not that interesting, although I found the determination of Ms as ‘neutral’ pretty funny.
When there’s no genuinely neutral option on my Senator’s comment form, I usually choose Dr. or Professor or General, whatever’s available and least tethered to gender. Sometimes, there’s Mx, the third option, the one that does not designate by gender. Both Mx and the X on my passport define the meaning of that X not as something specific, but rather as the absence of specificity. The X is queer; the X is what happens when you look under the shells of male and female and find an open, new place.
What is the value of defining oneself as undefined? Herein lies the question of being known. By announcing ourselves, by marking ourselves socially and in the eyes of the state, does this make us known? Presenting an X demands that others put in work to know you. And does being known, given the political implications of transness and gender deviance, protect us, or make us more vulnerable? It seems that both must be true.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman, back next week.