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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3 Responses to On labels, choice and self-actualization

  1. Roxy says:

    Wow, Kyle, very well written. I agree that the conversation is interesting, instructive and, ultimately, beneficial to both the individual and the group. We are all uniquely beautiful creations – no matter how enlightened we are, we can’t, and shouldn’t, pretend to be the same. That doesn’t mean we can’t embrace our similarities, but it is important to celebrate our differences, too.

    Ultimately, it’s not our differences that separate us, it’s our fears. You and I are different in so many ways – you’re a shorthair, while I’m a longhair, you have two gender identities, I have none, you’re married to a woman and I’m married to a man, you love beer and I love my cherry cokes…and I adore you for all those differences. As you’re defining yourself, I’m learning more about myself as well, and knowing myself makes me a stronger, happier person who can celebrate both of us without reservation. A strong group is made up of strong individuals who love and appreciate each other, and I’m really happy to see you leading the way.

    I think we have a feedback loop going because I know I’m learning a lot from you, too. You’re a very good, safe person to try things out on. You let me fumble and backtrack as I try to explain myself and that allows me to figure things out at my own pace and with your loving support as a constant. Thank you, love.

  2. Holden says:

    Well said Kyle. Some very interesting points but particularly for me the last paragraph; “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 think that’s probably what we’re all trying to do in exploring labels (and gender), be authentic to ourselves. Difficult in a society which offers up so many subtle and subliminal rules.

    Also; “I do not believe that self-actualization is a selfish act that robs other individuals of their power.” I agree but I’d add that self-actualisation actually offers up power to others. Being visible, discussing, writing about who we are presents an opportunity for others to learn and either agree or disagree.

    I know I learn a huge amount from reading what others have to say about their gender, labels and lives. It’s then in my power to take what I want from that and use it or not.

    I’m right there with you, learning more about myself by listening to and reading other people’s stories. It helps to get into someone else’s experience, hear a little of what’s going on in their heads. I learn from the things I can relate to, as well as those I can’t. I discover new words, new resources, new ways of expressing myself through the ways other people express themselves. I find that invaluable, which is why I’m going to keep telling my stories and why I’ll be continually grateful for others, like you, who keep telling theirs.

    I’ve always found it to be an odd bit of counter-intelligence that being an individual is damaging to others, but many people have that perspective. Is it because they feel pressure to be more self-actualized? If I’m successful in being an individual and also being a healthy, contributing member of society, is it a painful reminder to them that they aren’t doing the same?

    And as for that ending bit that you like, I do feel strongly that one of my motivations in living my life fully is so that I’m not disappointed in myself at the end of my life. I don’t want to lie there with a bitter list of things I did not do. There will always be something I’d like to have done, but I want very much to feel that I accomplished the important things.

    Holden, thank you for your friendship and support. Write on.

  3. Pingback: Links of Great Interest: Speak truth to power in anyway possible | The Hathor Legacy

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