I had the pleasure of attending “Queer U: Fluidity in Identity” at UBC this past Saturday. Queer U was the final event in a week of queer events for UBC’s Outweek 2013.
Fluidity in identity is a favourite theme of mine. In particular sexual identity. I’ve witnessed my own movement through different sexual desires, orientations, and experiences throughout my life. I’ve written about this before, in relation to long term partnerships and marriages, and how it is necessary to have some leeway for sexual exploration within these unions.
Sexual identity is not necessarily stamped on one’s head at birth. For many, it is a moving target with no clear definition.
This has become ever more evident over the past few weeks, as I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few trans people – especially trans 20-somethings. I’ve been blow away by their eloquent dialogue and self-awareness. An entire vocabulary is being built-up around the concept of self, gender, sexual orientation and expression.
Queer U was an opportunity to learn about the latest academic views and thought on these issues. The day was divided into four topics – Family, Education, Community, Art – in relation to gender and sexuality. There were three or four speakers per topic, each of whom was a graduate student, many from other cities on the continent.
Although there were no formal conclusions from the conference, what stood out was that our ideas on gender and sex are changing and expanding, with traditional thought and assumptions breaking down as people openly admit that they do not fit into these norms. I overheard a number of people comment that they used to be in Women’s Studies, but that name was being changed as it was no longer representative.
It was interesting to see my mother’s reaction as I mentioned this transition, and the impending name change to something which has the word “Gender”, instead of “Women”. My mother can be pigeon-holed as a feminist hippy who has been both student and teacher in Women’s Studies departments. Her first reaction was to take issue with the change.
“If you’re still studying women and women’s issues, then why not call it that? It’s still about women, right?”
“Well, what do you mean by ‘women’? Is that people who were born with a particular kind of genitalia? Or chromosomes? Or who dress in a certain way?”
“Yeah. OK. I see your point.”
Please have another look at my my post on personal pronouns, where I mention the “Genderbread Person“. It’s a useful tool in clarifying the nuances of self-identification. The genderbread person breaks the sexual self into four different aspects: gender identification; gender expression; sexual orientation; physiological/biological sex.
What I’ve been encountering lately is people who are liberated enough to allow their self-expression to cross and blur the lines we have – for the most part – unconsciously set up for ourselves. Their identification does not fit in with our idea of what it means to be a man or a woman, male or female.
One such person I met considers themselves (their preference in personal pronouns is “they”) to be “Gender Fucked”, meaning they do not fit in to any standard gender definitions. I was struck by how limited and narrow these definitions are, and how much sway they hold over our lives: boys don’t wear pink; girls don’t fist fight, etc. etc.
My 16 year-old daughter reminded me that a few years ago I’d been complaining that having two sexes was boring, and that we needed more. I thought 6 sexes was a good number. I used to try to imagine what the other 4 would look like, and now, a few years later, I am meeting them.
“Standard” biological norms are being challenged by those who make physical rearrangements with surgery, hormones, and/or personal emphasis (e.g. breast binding). And the medical establishment is also coming clean about the high numbers of people born with “non-standard” genitalia (genitalia which does not conform to our ideas of what they should look like).
According to the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) http://www.isna.org/:
Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female – one in 100 births.
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance – one or two in 1,000 births.
Layered over these non-conforming physiological attributes are the infinite varieties of “Gender Fucking” expression, which is how one chooses to present oneself to the world: dresses like a boy, talks like a boy, has facial hair like a boy, buuuuut shehe’s not a boy in the standard sense. Nor is shehe a girl.
It could just be me, but it seems like young people are beginning to explore these nuances of expression in greater numbers than ever before. According to one gender-fucked person I met, Vancouver is a magnet for trans folks.
We are witnessing the creation of those new “sexes” for which I’d pined. We are moving into a future of sexual fluidity, where we leave behind rigid ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman, and instead become people. We will no longer identify as gay, straight, bi, or trans either. We will be free to express gender and sexuality without stigma or shame, mixing and matching attributes – and creating new ones!
In light of this expansion of our ideas on human sexual expression, homophobia itself sounds so outdated: what do you mean two “men”? What would it be like to go about your day without the ability to judge people in terms of man/woman; straight/gay; single/coupled? How liberating is that!
No one will have to declare an orientation – and then feel as if they’re stuck with it for life. Having multiple intimate relations with varieties of biological configurations and gender expressions will be the new norm. Now that sounds interesting!
Along with this expansion in consciousness comes a new vocabulary to express it. I know some of you are familiar with the following terms, but they are new to me, so I thought I’d present them here.
Heteronormative: The expectation and/or assumption of heterosexuality. For example, your identify as male and your aunt asks you if you’ve met a nice young girl yet.
Assigned Sex: The sex one is assigned by the medical establishment at birth. There are only two choices: male and female. The ISNA recommends each child be assigned a sex at birth, and be allowed to change that later in life. They believe it is easier for the child to grow up as one or the other, although many do not identify as such, which can be problematic.
Cisgendered: One’s sexual identity matches one’s physiology: you were born with girl parts and identify as a girl. For many this is not the case, which creates a host of issues, such as which bathroom to use.
Sexual Binary: a system which only allows for two sexes, female and male. This system excludes all those who do not fit into this binary.
Genderqueer/Genderfucked/Genderbashing: Those who do not identify solely as one gender or the other; and/or who choose to express their gender in ways which do not conform to standard norms.
Gender Variant: Those whose gender expression falls outside of the norm.
Genderless: People who do not identify with a gender. The country of Nepal has recently allowed for a third option when applying for a passport: sex: male, female, other.
A final word: I may not have gotten all my vocab, pronouns, and references completely accurate. Please feel free to write to me. I’m happy to amend this post.