On labels, choice and self-actualization

This comment came from PDO, in response to my Transgender, or not? post:


Congratulations to you and your coming out. I appreciate your willingness to ask questions about yourself and society’s labels and keep the conversation open.

In the interest of keeping the conversation open, and not commenting on your situation AT ALL because I don’t know you, I have a “queery” and I’m wondering what your take on this is:

To what extent are we buying into society’s norms when we use terms like genderqueer and announce that we are rejecting the binary gender system? If we say we reject the label “lesbian” because we are more masculine than that label entails (as that label applies solely to womyn) are we not buying into the society norms of what it means to be a womyn or a lesbian? That is, why must me (sic) reject the binary gender system? Why can’t we just redefine what “normal” womyn and “normal” lesbians are/do/think? By rejecting the label all together, are we not essentially accepting what that label means? Why is it that a “normal” womyn or a “normal” lesbian cannot wear men’s clothes, pack, or hold a “traditionally” man’s job?

Again, I’m not commenting on your situation in any way, but I start to think about this stuff because I’m contemplating that by breaking off into so many factions, we may be diluting the power that lesbians and womyn hold when they pull together to try and effectuate change for the group as a whole.

Am I making any sense? I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while and your post opened a door to my contemplative purge today.


The questions in this comment represents a bit of a tangent from what I was talking about in my post, but the questions are interesting enough, so I’m going to take a shot at them in this post.

Let’s be clear on one thing from the outset, when I wrote about being genderqueer, I was writing about myself.  Other people will look at those words and definitions and use them in different ways and I’m not going to argue them out of that.  However, I will argue for my right to use the words and labels as they suit me.

I’ve seen some of these questions/arguments posed in numerous other blogs and comment sections, sometimes by people who’ve spent time in women’s and gender studies classes.  I haven’t, so my knowledge/experience/opinions on these subjects are the result mostly of my life and observations, conversations with others, things I’ve read and a lot of conversations with my my wife, who did study gender and sexuality in college.

Now, let’s dissect the comment into bite sized questions:

1. Is using genderqueer and other non-binary system terms for gender, in fact, a signal that we’re buying into the norm of a gender binary?

Well, I don’t know if I’m ‘buying into’ that system, but I’ll sure as hell acknowledge it, how could I not?  Gender distinctions are everywhere, in advertising, in department stores, in public facilities, health care, education.  From the time we are infants until we are dead, gender is going to have some effect on us.  We can’t escape the gender binary in all it’s glory and pervasiveness.  For me male and female exist as two end points on a spectrum, because, yes, I’m a ‘spectrum’ person.

I don’t want to do away with gender, I find gender interesting, informative, provocative.  Gender is a turn on, it’s something I feel and something I wield.   When I’m writing erotica especially, I use gender in a purposeful way, I choose gendered terms with the same care I choose the words I use to describe colors or emotions.  I want to get a response from the reader and I want to play with and manipulate those responses.  If I use the phrase ‘his pussy’ or ‘her cock’, I’m playing with that contradiction, I want to get a mental rise out of the reader.  I’ve imagined writing without reference to gender and it would be difficult, cumbersome and, for me, not as interesting.  So, no, I’m not hoping to dismantle the gender system.  I want to expand on it, and I want people to feel free to determine for themselves how gender applies to them, even if they decide it doesn’t.  Because non-gendered is always an option, just as being non-sexual is an option available from the spectrum of sexual expression.

So, no, PDO, I don’t think using genderqueer or transgender or any other term is buying into the system.  On the contrary, I believe we’re stretching, bending, changing and manipulating the system so that it works for us.


2. If we differentiate ourselves from lesbians because of a more masculine self-identification, are we buying into societal norms that women should be limited in how they express themselves?

Well, this one is pretty clear to me, but maybe not to everyone.  I don’t think that ‘lesbian’ and ‘masculine self-identification’ are mutually exclusive.  Lesbian is an indication of sexual preference where as being masculine is more about self-expression.  For years, I saw myself as a butch lesbian.  I dressed and acted in ways that are traditionally masculine and was sexually active exclusively with women.

For the record, I do not think that women should be limited in how they express themselves sexually, visually or any other way.  These labels we’re discussing are shadings and flavorings that help to give us the full picture of a person, but they will always fall at least a little short.  They get us partway, but in order to see and know the whole person, we have to take the time to get to know them beyond labels and academic definitions.

3. If I pack and wear men’s clothes, and call myself genderqueer, am I somehow saying that someone who identifies as a woman can’t also pack and wear men’s clothes?

Not at all.  The words I choose to describe myself apply to me and me only.   Men and women have a wide range of clothing, accessories and forms of expression to choose from, and I wouldn’t dream of limiting anyone.  I call myself genderqueer for reasons specific to me.  I could easily be standing next to someone with the same haircut, similar hair, posture and clothing, who also packs and calls themselves ‘woman’, ‘lesbian’, etc.  My choices, your choices, the next person’s choices of pronouns and labels should in no way be seen as a way to limit anyone else.

4. By creating and populating subgroups, are we diluting the larger group?  Should we instead be sticking together for the good of the whole group?

This is interesting, because I believe the answer is ‘yes and no’.  It’s really  a moot point, as large groups will be made up of subgroups.  People are driven to find others with whom they relate.  So we’ll have larger groups made up of subgroups, regardless of our feelings on the matter.  That said, the real question is how do we harness the energy of the subgroups for the betterment of the larger group, without diminishing any of them?  Can’t we respect the identities of butches, femmes, queers, lesbians, bisexuals, etc. and still pitch in on the needs of all women?  I think we can.  I don’t see a need to fight subgrouping.


Questions like those posed in the comment above can be interesting to ponder, and in attempting to answer them, we can learn something about the issues and ourselves.   I wonder, however, about the thread that seems to run throughout that series of questions, that by acting in an individual way is damaging to the tribe.  That by searching for individual truth and meaning, we’re somehow selling out.    That me seeking a balance of masculine and feminine within myself somehow limits another person’s ability to do determine their own set of labels and attributes.

At the end of the day, the question I’m interested in is this:  how do I live in a way that’s authentic to me?  I believe that if we can find a way to do that, and to live up to our own morals and values, the larger group will benefit as well.   I do not believe that self-actualization is a selfish act that robs other individuals of their power.


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