Gender – Poltergeist*

*What I’m saying is, gender might be something insubstantial that we made up, but it still manages to throw shit around and break things.

I received a detailed and thought-provoking comment on my post Bending Gender – Until it Snaps, which made me realise I may not have been expressing myself clearly in that post.

So, some clarification:

When I use the term ‘sex’ in this piece, I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, I’m talking about anatomical gender, as in does someone have a penis or a vagina?

Also, I’m not at all trivialising gender or claiming it is ‘fluid’. Quite the opposite – gender is a huge (and, IMHO, VERY problematic) part of our constructed performative cultural system. It is EXTREMELY rigid, but that doesn’t make it REAL or innate. Gender identity (as opposed to the sexed body) is a socially constructed idea, and we are all to some extent bound by its expectations. Even if we choose to subvert it, we feel its ramifications, as Lacey Roop did when she was asked if she were a ‘dude or a dyke’. A man cannot simply chose to wear a dress casually in our culture without attracting stares. A woman can’t step out without makeup without being accused of lacking in pride in her appearance, as though a woman’s worth is only in her aesthetic.

(Check out Lacey’s quite frankly AWESOME spoken word performance Gender Is a Universe)

What I’m saying is that gender as a set of behaviours and cultural expectations is actually made up – it has no real basis, no relationship to ‘nature’. In simplistic terms, there is absolutely NOTHING about my body, with its breasts and womb, that insists it must be clothed in soft lines and flowing fabric and framed by long hair and enhanced by make-up. But this is certainly what the dominant culture expects of me. And I, personally, actually conform to that. It doesn’t bother me in my own life, but there was a time when as a ten year old child I cut my hair off like a boy and wore overalls because I was a rough-and-tumble kinda kid and dresses and long hair just weren’t practical, and at the age of TEN I was teased as a lesbian. Apart from being confused about why being a lesbian should be something to tease someone about (we were a very liberal family, and whilst I am straight, I copped the ‘lesbo’ teasing throughout my schooling because I am a little bit different) it shocked me even then, as a child, to realise that people would draw such huge conclusions from the way I cut my hair and dress. Our culture is profoundly gendered, and it is a problem because gender – the behaviours and dress styles and demanours we culturally associate with anatomical sex – is actually arbitrary, i.e. made up.

To further complicate the matter, when we look into the science of it and realise that anatomical sex is not even a fixed thing in nature, that this division between the male body and female body is, like gender identity, an arbitrary binary that we have imposed on nature and not innate to biology, then gender and all the cultural implications of it is revealed as a farce.

Sexuality is one such cultural implication. Seeing that gender is a farce illuminates sexuality as a similarly flawed concept, because it is dependent on gender. How many children suffer brutal teasing at school on the grounds of sexual orientation (in my case an orientation I didn’t even identify with!)? And when we understand that sexuality is just nomenclature, a collection of categories that respond to the presumption of the REALITY and INNATENESS of gender and anatomical sex, we see that homophobia (or, indeed, heterophobia, which I have seen in full flight! Or bisexual individuals copping it from the gay community for ‘not picking a side’ or from the hetero community for being supposedly promiscuous) is not only ridiculous on humanitarian grounds, but competely divorced from reality.

I would go so far as to say that gender is a construct designed over the milennia to control people, much like class systems.

I agree that in the short term, helping people ‘reassign gender’ (in this case gender meaning anatomical sex) seems like the best solution, but the culture needs to shift in the long run, and I’m not convinced that gender reassignment doesnt actually hinder this shift by giving the culture a get-out-of-gaol-free card.

In summation, what angers me so much about this phenomenon is realising how much pain people suffer, believing that they are somehow wrong, when the standard by which they are measuring their ‘correctness’ is in fact a milennia old cultural LIE.


Bending Gender – Until it Snaps

So a while ago I posted a link to a docco about kids growing up with “Gender Identity Disorder” or “Gender Dysphoria.” Translation: kids who are convinced they’re the wrong sex. Something about it bothered me at the time, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. And the bothering bothered me, because (as I’m sure you’ve cottoned) I’m kinda liberal.

I couldn’t grasp why it should bother me so much that kids might want to change their gender. After all, I have zero issue with transgendered adults, and I’ve always upheld that kids have a whole lot more smarts and self-awareness than we give them credit for. If anything, I think the transition into adulthood, those perilous teenage years of surging hormones, might be something akin to chemical warfare on common sense: things that seem so clear to kids can be absolutely impenetrable to their supposedly wiser elders.

So why was I so uncomfortable with the idea of a ten year old male beginning hormone therapy?

Ten is young. Really young. But by ten, I’d had more than a few crushes. Had I the vocab for it, I’d have called myself ‘straight’ by then, if it had occurred to me to differentiate myself on the grounds of whom I wanted to crash-tackle in the sand-pit, as western culture expects me to do today (Whoops, there goes another piece of The Culture Sniper’s poorly guarded identity). I think it’s important to bear this in mind in this discussion of gender identity, because our conception of sexual identity is predicated on a sociocultural understanding of gender as a) real and innate, and b) fixed. So for a male, of any age, to identify as homosexual, he must first identify as, well, male. Ditto for a females. Homosexuality is an attraction to sameness, but sameness of gender can only be determined by the fixing of gender itself.

The problem is that gender is neither real, innate, nor fixed. Thus, insofar as sexuality is understood only in relation to gender, neither is sexuality real, innate or fixed. In fact, taking the logic to the extreme, it could be argued that sexuality as defined by gendered attraction doesn’t even exist.

OK, I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Let me rewind and explain where I’m getting these whacky ideas from.

I’d like to introduce you to two women: Judith Butler and Alice Dreger.

Judith Butler kind of accidentally founded Queer Theory in the nineties. Accidentally. I’m not sure how you accidentally found an entire arm of cultural inquiry, but there you have it. The interesting thing is that she accidentally founded Queer Theory by theorising not sexuality but gender. <;- Point in case for my claim that the two are inextricably linked, and by debunking one, you necessarily debunk the other. Anyway, Butler's central claim is that gender is 'performative'. This basically means that gender is not a noun but a verb: it's not that we ARE our gender, so much as we DO our gender. So I wear my hair long and put on makeup and high heels not because there is anything innate in my body that suggests or demands that I behave in this way, but because I have learned culturally that this is what a woman is. And by doing so, I reify, perpetuate and make the gender of feminine by doing the gender of feminine.

I do it because it’s done and it’s done because I do it.

There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t shave my head, wear flat shoes, and step out with a naked face. Indeed, many women do exactly that. And what does our culture say to them? Well, in the words of spoken word artist Lacey Roop, our culture asks “Are you a dude or a dyke?” as though choosing not to adorn ourselves with the cultural accouterments of this constructed idea of femininity can mean only one thing: not that she just doesn’t like lip-gloss, but that she must be gay… because sexuality is so bound up in gender.

It’s ridiculous, of course. I could shave my head tomorrow and I’d be no more gay than I am today. My sexual orientation has zero to do with my haircut, funnily enough.

So we can see that ‘gender’ as a facet of identity is a construct, and so we make distinct gender from sex, which in this discourse and for the purposes of this discussion shall refer to anatomical sex, i.e. what bits you got. But surely, I hear you cry, surely sex is fixed! And so this discussion of gender identity, whilst very interesting, is even more arbitrary than gender; a lofty musing for academics who have nothing real to contribute!


But not.

For those of you who might have done a bit of reading in the field, I am not going to talk about Julia Kristeva at this point. Mostly because that would be drifting off in the stratosphere of theoretical mumbo-jumbo that a) I barely understand myself, and b) is difficult to demonstrate real-life implications with. Instead, I turn to Kristeva’s scientific alter ego, Alice Dreger.

Dreger works with people “at the edge of anatomy” , with a particular interest in intersexed people.



It means people who anatomically don’t fit into our neat little male/female binary. Men with a fully functional uterus. Women with testes. And any other combination you can think of. These are naturally occurring bodies, but because they don’t fit the mould – a mould that we seem to have imposed on nature – we think of these bodies as abnormal. Dreger’s central contention is that sex is not as straight forward as we’d like to think, that in fact it exists on a spectrum and beyond, on axes of a plethora of intersecting lines, and that this division between male and female is, well, kinda made up. That’s what the science suggests (dare I say proves?) anyway.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of my argument.

Gender is a pattern of behaviours constructed in arbitrary response to sex, which is itself a far more complex thing than we have previously imagined: sex is not a neat little binary, but a complex matrix of possibilities. Thus, given our understanding of sexuality is entirely dependent on the fixity of sex and gender, it is difficult to claim that sexuality is anything but just another arbitrarily constructed sociocultural concept. (Cue usual rant about stupid anti-gay BS and fast forward to next point).

What does this have to do with transgender kids?

It comes down to this: how can gender identity every be a disorder if gender is made up? Is the child sick, or is the culture just, well, a bit screwed?

Of the kids that were old enough to be experiencing sexual attraction, all of them were attracted to the same sex. I wonder (and I really do just wonder: I don’t know or make any solid claim on this) if the real issue with these kids is a discomfort with their sexuality because the culture has told them that boys kiss girls and girls kiss boys, and ‘dykes’ are gross and ‘fags’ are some how lacking. I have to wonder if these kids would be so desperately unhappy with their anatomy that they want to cut it off or stitch it on, take drugs to stop their voices dropping, or bring out hair, and completely remodel their bodies if we lived in a culture that said, “You know what? Love whom you love. Wear what makes you comfortable. Love the face in the mirror.”

Certainly, as with transgendered adults, I assume not all kids diagnosed with “Gender Identity Disorder” have same-sex feelings. But again I ask, is the child sick, or is the culture? What exactly is wrong with a a child with female genitalia wanting to cut her hair short and wear pants and sneakers and heavy-metal band tees? If gender is arbitrary, the binarised sexed body an idea more than a scientific fact, and sexuality nothing more than a concept wrapped around other concepts, you have to conclude that there’s nothing wrong with it.

Instead we should be asking, what is wrong with a culture that trains its young to emotionally brutalise each other for something as arbitrary as a hair-cut and choice of footwear? What is wrong with a culture that essentially makes shit up, designs a game no-one can win, refuses to publish a rule-book, and then punishes the losers? What is wrong with a culture that has its kids so convinced there are right and wrong ways to be born, right and wrong ways to love, that these kids want to chemically and surgically alter their bodies, be it in pursuit of a new sex or a new nose or bigger boobs or a smaller belly?

What is wrong with that?


The Other.

I love the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. I love the colour. I love the music. I love the dancing. And, yeah, I do love the thirty-foot mechanical genitalia.

The Mardi Gras is a great party.

Is it a particularly good advertisement for equal marriage rights? Erm… not so much.

See, the key to winning a debate is not actually in highlighting the points where you disagree – it is in highlighting the points where you concur. ESPECIALLY when your opponent starts invoking ‘moral’ rhetoric.

At the heart of this debate, and similar controversies we’ve seen over women’s rights, racial equality, religious freedom and so on and so forth, is actually a conservative fear of difference. It’s arguable that fear of progress and change is at the heart of all social debate. General ignorance about what it actually means to be gay, or bisexual, or transgendred, a transvestite, a lesbian, pansexual, homosexual, asexual, whatever nomenclature you want to employ, as opposed to heterosexual, is what has caused such anxiety for those opposed to LGBQT causes. What slimy, ravenous monsters might lurk in the misty, swampy expanse between hetero and homo?

And then, as though to answer all these fearful questions, a giant penis comes galumphing around the corner of Taylor Square, accompanied by an army of scantily-clad, glitter-drenched, thrusting men.

Because that will put the Evangelical mind at ease.

At this point, let me stress quite emphatically: I LOVE THE MARDI GRAS. I LOVE THE GIANT PENISES. I LOVE THE GOLD HOT PANTS AND ANGEL WINGS AND DANCING AND CARICATURES OF POLITICIANS. Because I don’t think sex in any form is anything at all to be ashamed of (insert obvious exceptions, breaches of consent, etc etc). And I believe that a culture that can look at a giant penis and not squirm is a culture at ease with its own humanity, with its bits. We’ve all got ’em, folks. Even you, Christian pastor, you have ’em too. So deal with it. After all, didn’t God figure out we’d fucked up because we started covering our bits? Isn’t shame, Biblically speaking, actually the marker of sin? So I say – let’s all be naked!

OK, maybe not. But you get my drift.

BUT – however ridiculous, nonsensical, contradictory and arbitrary the conservative right-wing objection to and discomfort with homosexuality (and, indeed, sexuality in general) may be, rubbing it in their faces is not going to win them over. You won’t solve my cat-allergies by rubbing a Persian in my face, and you won’t solve homophobia by burning effigies of conservative religious leaders and marching down Oxford St in chaps and a bare bottom.

Again, LOVE the Mardi Gras, not saying we should can it, just saying… Sexualising a debate that exists because your opponents are uncomfortable with sex… probably not helpful. Shift the focus.

Want to win over your opponents? Show them how much they have in common with you.

Randy Roberts Potts, grandson of TV evangelist Oral Roberts, has the right idea. His touring performance art piece, ‘The Gay Agenda’, consists of a set lounge-room with one transparent wall. Potts and his partner spend their evenings watching television, eating macaroni cheese, and getting an early night. In full view of any passing public. It’s boring. It’s mundane. It’s normal. It’s the point.

Guess what doesn’t feature in this poignant political piece? A giant mechanical penis.

Magda Szubanski and Channel Ten have the right idea, too. No bare-breasts, no footage of same-sex couples making out and getting all handsy to put the right-wing on edge. No. Just one of Australia’s most loved comedy icons, dressed neatly, calmly letting us know with minimal drama, ‘I’m gay. I’m gay and you’ve let me into your lounge rooms for fifteen years. I don’t even have a girlfriend. I just want to know that if I fall in love, I can marry her. That’s all.’ (not actual quote). If it weren’t quite so moving, I’d say it was cunning. Clever. Well-staged. But it was so very moving. If you haven’t watched Szubanski’s appearance on The 7pm Project, I recommend it.

So many of these civil rights debates have been fought and won on the premise of SIMILARITY, not difference. Both women’s liberation and African American civil rights activists invoked those soaring lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence in their rhetoric. Potts and Szubanksi have cottoned onto the incredible power of recognition and empathy. Whilst in principle I think we should be able to celebrate difference, the unfortunate reality is that difference scares people. I’m not saying reduce the difference, I’m not saying hide the sexuality of homosexuality (or heterosexuality or any sexuality). Not at all. To do so would be to dishonour human sexuality entirely. I’m simply saying lets work from a presumption of similarity.

So here it is: What makes human sexuality special? The psychology of it. Sure, a lot of what we do with our bits and why we do it is arbitrary, chemical, biological; whose pheromones you caught wind of on what day, what cheese your mother ate the day before you were conceived or whatever. Granted, there’s a lot of terribly un-romantic science in this stuff. But then there’s the other thing. The mix tapes. The copy of that book you’ve always loved sitting on his/her bookshelf. The mutual love of peanut butter ice-cream that no-one else understands. The finished sentences. The synergy. The other.

The OTHER is the SAME. Let’s start with that.

Shakespeare was on it.

So, they killed Osama Bin Laden. Because their kind of killing is better than his kind of killing. Because the book they wave around to justify slaughter is better than the book he waves around to justify slaughter.

Look, I have no problem with books. Love them, in fact. I think there’s a lot of wisdom to be found in books. Books are not the issue. The pen is mightier than the sword in a lot of ways. But when we willfully chose to interpret a book as a mandate to kill, as some kind of linguistic Lady of the Lake handing us Excalibur and saying “slice ‘em up, baby,” we are in serious trouble.

Let me make this very clear: both the Koran and the Bible are filled with some of the most beautiful notions the human mind ever conceived of. But the human mind has a tendency to interpret some of these beautiful notions in the ugliest of ways.

I have a book I’d like to wave around. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The great thing about Shakespeare is no-one thinks he’s God (there may be a little known cult somewhere that does, perhaps, but I’ve never heard of them. Come to think of it, if anyone knows of the Cult of Shakespeare, point me in their direction: I’d like to join), and everyone knows HE’S A POET. So the figurative nature of his work is not some great ontological contention. No-one’s soul is in mortal danger for mis/reinterpreting Shakespeare.

I refer you to one of my favorites, The Merchant of Venice, 4,i,180-194.

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,

Upon the place beneath.

It is twice blessed.

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

It is mightiest in the mightiest,

It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

An attribute to awe and majesty.

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself.

And earthly power dost the become likest God’s,

Where mercy seasons justice.