“Nay, even in the life of the same individual there is succession and not absolute unity: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval between youth and age, and in which every animal is said to have life and identity, he is undergoing a perpetual process of loss and reparation.” Plato, Symposium (207d-208d)
The self is always coming into being. That is the actual verb. (Yes, I did study ancient Greek.) In this quote, Plato (in the voice of Socrates) points out our common perception that identity and sense of self is commonly considered consistent or that there is some abiding authenticity that is as real as our physical being, that we are the same living being throughout our life. (The translation of “identity” is literally “to be oneself”). He is also identifying a “perpetual process of loss and reparation” – that it is the nature of our mortal existence that we experience continual damage that we (by our own physical and psychic abilities) resist in our inclination to repair and survive. Thusly, we are always in a process of coming into being, including our own identity as self-perception and an actor in the world. It seems illogical at times, how fiercely we struggle for consistency of identity considering the social disadvantage that occasionally that defiance can produce. Self-destructive impulses, fetishes, obsessions, and secret dark personalities co-exist and co-manage with our highest aspirations, heartfelt intimacies, and loves to consolidate and approximate a person. We begin to depend upon who we think we are at a very early age. A lifetime of submission or resistance to our experience constantly recreates our dependent attachment to our identity which gives the effect of a consistent identity while actually always changing.
What are the possibilities and restrictions on who we can be? How is it that we can look back to our earliest remembered experiences and see ourselves, already working with a set of skills, perceptions, and behaviors that we still utilize in adulthood when so much of our plot has yet to unfold? It is logical, if we are products of adaptive evolution, that we as individuals are creatures of an adaptive nature. It’s what we do. It also seems reasonable that the process of evolution has equipped us, at birth, with certain mental and physical capacities that allow our own unique interaction with our own singular environment. How much of our “identity” as an individual is cultivated as we adapt, even as infants and how much is who we were meant to be or born to be? Babies, while they are learning their language of origin are also learning the social and cultural relationships of power and gender that are simply another aspect of social communication. They become fluent in both by an early age. Have you ever experienced a two-year old lying? No one teaches a child how to lie, which makes this spontaneous competence in the manipulation of language and power seem a little eerie even if they’re not good at it. I think the potential for success as a human organism must have a biological component that we all come with. Little kids do all kinds of things that no one teaches them. We have the ability to create utilizing the rules we’ve been given. We have all inherited an evolutionarily engineered, bio-neurological glob of ability to ascertain and utilize an astonishingly complex matrix of flexible and restrictive rules of language and human relationships that are completely unique to one’s environment of infancy and early childhood. There are rules of gender just like grammar that we must master if we are to be a participant in our world. Our infant genitals determine our starting point on the local game board, but we all pick up on the rules for the other players, too. If the genitals are so important to the game, how does anyone get it wrong? The only difference, I think, between a little human, born with a penis who acts like a boy by the time he’s five and a little human, born with a vagina who acts like a boy by the time she’s five is that the latter has advanced mutant, unicorn genes that allow her more interpretive creativity. They both have learned correctly how a little boy is supposed to act.
I was a pretty big kid. I was 9 pounds at birth. By the time I was 2, I was 45 pounds. I entered kindergarten at 75 and was at least a foot taller than any of my classmates. I have theories about my size, mostly having to do with my body actually physically responding to an inner adaptive urgency to expedite self-sufficiency. Regardless of the cause, my size was part of my inner narrative by the time I got to school. I felt both alien and special, self-conscious and powerful. I knew I was different and that I was certainly not like other little girls, nor was I invited to play in the reindeer games of boys (unless my size and strength was required to vanquish an enemy). I was Ferdinand the Bull instead of a bully, but had a sense of responsibility associated with my superior strength and intellect. Little kids would come to me for protection. In this way, my size augmented my unusual gender expression. If I was invited to a slumber party with girls, I was the one who slept by the door to protect the rest of the girls. The boys, at recess, actually invented a unique game which was basically to see how many boys it would take to tackle me. My physicality made me masculine and it had its own genre of positive feedback in the form of a specialized outsider power in my social group. I think I was an alpha before I was a boy. But, power and masculinity are associated at an early stage in development. Kids know your gender and relative social position better than you do usually, especially apart from the gaze of grown-ups, who have an additional set of expectations. Children understand the language of gender and power long before they learn irregular semantic structure and socially established contradictions in values of gender and power.
In first grade, it was my turn for ‘show and tell’ which was terrifying for me. I had gone to some carnival with my parents and won a doll, I think for throwing a ball at something. I was more proud about winning than of the doll, but my mother suggested that I take the doll for show and tell. She also put me in a dress with ribbons in my hair. I remember being apprehensive, but even at that age, one has an understanding that it should be alright to have and display gender appropriate clothes and possessions, even though it is uncomfortable and you don’t know why. And of course, there’s mom’s face while she is trying to make her big scary unicorn into a pretty girl. She thinks I’m pretty, but I could see her discomfort at wondering why it feels peculiar to dress me this way. But we proceed through the apprehension, which evolves into our interminable collaborative routine of awkwardness and conflict, and I go to school. The teacher calls me up with my doll. She looks nervous, too. Even before I get out my story about how I knocked down the thing with the thing, all of the boys are shitting themselves laughing at me. The girls are giggling, too, but with a look of “oooh, I thought we were clear about you not doing things that we do.” Of course I run out of the room crying. I remember a sadness that was like mourning a loss associated with not being able to be like other girls. Even though I really never tried, it was an expectation that I could not meet and there was nothing more debilitating to me than disappointing my parents. There was definitely a felt deficiency related to the possibility of being like other girls that was also externally enforced. I don’t like being bad at things, even things I don’t want to do. I also remember a deep and clear anger after my first profound experience of public emasculation. I would never get to be a boy either. I was big and strong and good at sports. Other kids looked to me for protection and I was always among the first to be chosen for teams in P.E. That was my source of control and power in my social environment and even though it could be isolating, it enabled a sense of status in its eccentricity. It also made me good at being a boy. All at once, I knew others would always have inexplicable expectations on my masculinity, but I would never enjoy any of the entitlements of maleness. So mad, so, so mad.
How does this happen? How does a person, born with a vagina excel at acting like a boy by the time they even encounter an institutionalized peer group like day care or kindergarten? Why does a little gender queer continue to refine their non-normative gender expression even after they figure out that it pisses everyone off and it’s not going to help you get laid anytime soon? Some say we are born this way. There seems to be a common belief that one’s soul is gendered and one may be born into the wrong body. What this belief does is attempt to shift agency and thereby, a judgement of culpability away from the individual, allowing a possibility for social empathy and access to mental health care. If an individual’s gender expression is somehow innate, commonly contrasted with behavioral, it is somehow more understandable and forgivable, for the individual as well as everyone else. But, do we really want to make the argument that naturalized gender exists? Do we really want to go back in time and tell Simone de Beauvoir that yes, actually one is born a woman. Within the discourses of resistance to hegemonic social paradigms, the assertion that gender roles are socially constructed, is effective precisely because dominant heteronormative gender roles are fucked up, but seem timeless and pre-ordained. To proclaim them artificially made and imposed is to disempower them and reveal their artifice. This opens the possibility of social change in the relative power relationship and acceptable characteristics associated with prescribed gender roles. Though this only really happens at a glacial pace, it is an important rhetorical weapon for ongoing feminist deconstruction. However, for the gender defiant, like this transman, the idea that gender is merely a mutable social construct is initially unsettling on a personal level and leaves the transgender community politically vulnerable to a host of philosophical attacks on our authenticity – from liberal gays to conservative straights. Are we ridiculous children playing dress-up? Can we be “rehabilitated”? Are transmen assimilating an oppressive norm that harms the rest of the queer community? Gender is such a dangerous thing to fuck with because it is so foundational to all of our identities. There must be a way to reconcile these two divergent, yet philosophically important assertions. Gender is constructed, yet it is somehow real and important. It is essential to the way we move, and feel, and fuck, and love…but we shouldn’t take it so seriously.
Judith Butler is a classic rock star in this effort.
“Bound to seek recognition of its own existence in categories, terms, and names that are not of its own making, the subject seeks the sign of its own existence outside itself, in a discourse that is at once dominant and indifferent. Social categories signify subordination and existence at once. In other words, within subjection the price of existence is subordination.” ― Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection
Judy is so smart. Damn, I really wish I could sound that smart. An individual is “bound”, meaning obligated, to look for itself in the relational structures and language it has learned. These structures are “dominant” and “indifferent”. They were here before you and they’ll be here after you. Our identity is relational. We are social animals. Our identity, our “existence”, is continually reaffirmed or denied by our social environment. Our subordination is inescapable. We “seek” recognition as a boy or a girl, which is just a category, but our existence hinges on one or the other. Genderqueer is of course a category, but essentially an unintelligible category in most cultural paradigms. This is why I’ve spent most of my life in tiny, insular urban queer communities. We don’t like to think of ourselves as subordinate. We like to think we are originals, but we are merely a unique amalgam of pre-established social categories. Even our eccentricity is dependent on norms for its charm to be possible. It is important to realize also that this “subordination”, though inflammatory as a word choice, suggests the obligatory nature of gender that we commonly appeal to in the “born this way” argument.
Gender is “a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief” – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Judy makes so much sense she makes me nervous. I think she intentionally uses language that belittles and mocks human experience. As she should, humans are ridiculous. The ones with the most power are often additionally assholes. She is making the point that not only is gender a social construction, but we are all also brainwashed to believe in it. That’s a great point. That’s an extremely uncomfortable point. Is she adding enough subconscious obligation to one’s gender role for a transman to feel like he’s not just playing house? Is she allowing enough agency for social transgression? I think Judith Butler is certainly smart enough to understand her project. I have often thought, though, as an academic, that she may be a little inexperienced when it comes to the weirdos. What does Judith Butler know about punk rock? This is what I want to know.
Noam Chomsky is a linguist, among other things. I once took a beginning linguistics class. They discussed his theory of deep structure or deep grammar. It is about a child’s acquisition of language. He theorized that a child is born with a hard-wired language template in place that merely plugs in the idiosyncratic features of the particular language they are exposed to. Evidence for this comes from children making mistakes like “I swimmed yesterday” instead of “I swam yesterday.” They understand the grammar rule that tells them to put an “-ed” on the end of a verb to indicate past-tense, but they have not mastered the irregular verb forms yet. When I heard this theory for the first time, it was a moment of epiphany for me concerning gender, even though nobody else seems to share my enthusiasm. Language acquisition cannot be detached from the rest of the communication skills we acquire. Social power dynamics and gender relationships must be included in total cultural proficiency. I am not the first to point this out. Judith Butler draws on linguistics, and indeed, Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition theory sounds eerily like Butler’s performativity thirty years earlier…at least in my head. Though Chomsky seems to have a sense of delight and wonder at human possibility, where I think Butler seems deeply disappointed in the human condition.
“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied…We thus make a fundamental distinction between the competence (the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations)…The most striking aspect of linguistic competence is what we may call the ‘creativity of language,’ that is, the speaker’s ability to produce new sentences, sentences that are immediately understood by other speakers although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are ‘familiar.'” -Noam Chomsky
So language, like normative gender roles, have rules which are fixed when we learn them. He makes a distinction between competence and performance. I think we more consciously choose our words than go to the closet and choose our gender, but trying to come up with an entirely original gender would be like me trying to spontaneously speak Martian. Once you are past puberty, it’s becomes increasingly difficult for a human to learn a new language. Actually, it starts becoming incrementally harder past the age of around four. So, my only reason for bringing this up is to say that maybe we don’t start out as a particular gender, just like we don’t speak a particular language when we’re born. We learn the rules of our native language and social dynamics and we don’t learn them wrong. In our mind, we correctly place ourselves within the matrix of social power and by the time we get to kindergarten, it’s too late to change it even after we figured out that everybody else thinks we’re wrong, or when we “produce new sentences…that are immediately understood…although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are familiar.” We are constrained to our own native grammatical laws and the gender dynamics we were taught, but our process of “free creation” can lead to unique performances, like poetry, especially as we further our mastery of the rules.
Often, the whole transgender discourse revolves around a very strict, non-feminist gender binary. The rigid pronoun insistence is exactly in opposition to the feminist effort to make pronouns inclusive or neutral thirty years ago. There is an actual experience as transgender that seems richer than the experience of cispeople. It is a gift of dysphoria. This word is also Greek. It means difficult to bear. It is often commonly used to indicate profound confusion or hallucination, but it is deep adversity. It has a passive sense which is to be born (carried) violently as if by a storm. Those are powered gendered norms that we are subordinate to which toss us about and are painful to bear. But, I am grateful to have been in the storm.
I occasionally experience a little melancholy or longing nostalgia when I think about my transition. I look like a man. For forty years of my life, I looked like a freak. That was my performance. Being a dude is less exhausting, but less fabulous in a way. It’s nuances like this that I don’t think academics understand fully. They only know about the non-normative narratives they’ve read about and happened ten years ago. They don’t know what it feels like to be a gangster. (Damn, it feels good, btw.) Academia is a locus of dominant power arbitration. There are many a treatise about what it means to write post-colonial theory in a squarely colonial institution. I don’t know if I can go back. Harvard almost killed me with its smiley-faced normativity. But now I’m a balding white dude, so I think gangster’s out too. I’m blogging.
By far, the most brilliant philosopher on the subject of the way I feel about gender is John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the most amazing movie in the history of the universe, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. My first semester at Harvard, I watched Hedwig almost every single night. I had been ok being an unbalanced, cocky butch pirate around a bunch of queers in San Francisco and Minneapolis, but not even a childhood in the suburbs prepared me for that kind of elite, east coast, beautiful people, old money kind of soul-crushing polite exclusion. I don’t know what it was, but I completely unravelled. Hedwig was like going to an AA meeting. I was working the program and taking it one day at a time. Hedwig was my sponsor and my higher power. Every syllable of dialogue is brilliant and I’d like to share with you, ‘Wig in a Box’. In this one song, Mitchell conveys a complex theory of gender, including performativity, the feeling of being duped by social constructions of gender, envy and longing, the triumphal feeling of exquisite failure but doing gender better than any cis-counterparts, and of course the fact that no matter how much it sucks, unicorns have the wisdom and the shine.