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The Importance of Gender Politics

Ilana Masad
April 10, 2016

The Millennial Generation Gets Behind a Radical Issue

by Ilana Masad

From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

THIS IS AN ESSAY about gender. But first, a brief foray into pop culture:

BrysonLate in 1990, in the second season of David Lynch’s TV show, Twin Peaks, David Duchovny entered the scene as Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Bryson. Once known as Dennis Bryson, the agent surprises colleague Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the main character, by showing up wearing a wig, lipstick, and women’s clothing, and asking to be called Denise.

The relevance of this portrayal to today’s social and political climate lies partly in how other characters react to Agent Bryson. Most accept her into their ranks almost immediately. Some blink and pause, then shake her hand in greeting. This quick acceptance — especially on the part of Dale Cooper, who just smiles and calls her Denise from the first moment she asks him to but continues to refer to her as Agent Bryson when he’s talking about her work — was remarkable for its time and would probably be remarkable today, when, more often than not, coming out as transgender is still an incredibly difficult process that is often met with abusive language, misunderstanding, a lack of acceptance by employers, possible violence, and ostracizing by family, friends, and community.

By contrast, Twin Peaks portrays Bryson not as a freak, but as a person capable at her job no matter how she identifies. Her gender presentation isn’t as simple as coming out from male to female (MtF): There is an episode in the show in which she refers to herself as “him” and dresses as Dennis, in a man’s suit, for a sting operation. Agent Bryson moves without apparent discomfort between her male and female identities, though she prefers the latter. She isn’t easily definable — and while I wouldn’t presume to decide how she would identify today, the language that has evolved during my lifetime would have given her more access to self-definition, if she wanted it.

THAT GENDER is simply an identity marker, like one’s name, that can be changed, can be fluid, and needn’t define you at all if you don’t wish it to, is among the first political and cultural ideas that progressives within my so-called millennial generation have come to stand behind staunchly. Before I explore why, I want to introduce some terms of gender discourse that may not be familiar to readers:

• Cisgender: Someone who is cisgender, or cis, identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth, as based on current understandings of biological reproductive and sexual organs. Babies with vaginas are largely assigned the female gender, those with penises the male gender.

• Intersex: Intersex people are born with an anatomy that defies clear gender assignment, either at birth or when puberty hits and their anatomy changes in ways that aren’t usually associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. They may, for example, have a penis and a uterus, or a vagina and Y chromosomes. Intersex people sometimes choose to identify, or are brought up in their families, as one gender or another, and many intersex people don’t know they’re intersex because there aren’t always clear external signs.

• Transgender: The term “transsexual” has been widely replaced by “transgender,” since the former implies that sex is not a social construct, which many believe it to be, and that gender and sexuality go hand in hand, which they don’t necessarily. People who are transgender don’t identify, behave, or present as the gender they were assigned at birth. It is a broad term that usually implies that a person identifies as the “opposite” gender of that which they were assigned at birth. However...

Genderqueer: Genderqueer or gender-fluid folk often identify with the term “trans” as well. “Genderqueer” is another broad term defined differently by many who use it. For some, it means that they identify as neither female nor male (some use “a-gender” to describe this); for others, it means that they fall on the spectrum between male and female. Some genderqueer people are gender-nonconforming: They dress, behave, and identify in ways different from what society associates with their assigned-at-birth gender. For some, the term is more political, involving a belief that the male/female binary is a social construct with which they don’t want to identify. There are a variety of pronouns associated with genderqueer folks, such as ze/hir instead of he/him or she/her, or they/them.

All of these terms have nuances in their definitions. I know someone, for example, who is a transman, assigned female at birth although biologically male, yet presenting as female because he is gay and most attracted to straight or bisexual men who find him more attractive when he presents as a woman. Another person I’ve met is married to a woman and presents as a man around his wife and their circle of friends, but when dressed in women’s clothing she is a woman for all intents and purposes and goes by the pronouns she/her. She embraces aspects of both genders and presents in a very binary fashion.

I wasn’t exposed to any of these definitions, identities, or nuances until I went to college, where I engaged with members of a trans support and activist group and asked questions as politely as I could. I learned the term “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun), and was treated with kindness by these almost-strangers, who saw my ignorance but also my sincere desire to learn and be educated.

WHY IS GENDER IDENTITY so important to my generation? Why do we so avidly discuss the politics of gender identity — the fact that health services for trans individuals are still more scarce than for cis individuals, or that the level of violence towards trans folk (transwomen especially) is still sky-high? Why do we spend so much time correcting our elders or raging on social media about NPR’s use of the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender” — a no-no, because it implies that one becomes trans rather than is trans?

Some take this as evidence that millennials are simply too politically correct, too coddled, too caught up in semantics and identity politics. But there is nothing unique in my generation’s concern with identity; it always matters to human beings. People who served in wars will use the term “veteran” as a defining self-description; people who have a profession like “doctor” or “lawyer” identify as such. “Democrat” and “Republican,” “liberal” and “conservative” are political identities that people claim (and that also fall on a broad and shifting spectrum). Ditto for racial, ethnic, and religious identities.

Belonging to “groups” seems a very basic and passionate part of being human. Gender radicalism, however, upsets the “common wisdom” about what constitutes such basic group identities as “male” and “female” and therefore challenges the importance that people assign to their group classifications.

This enrages the conservative heart, but should delight progressives, who historically have defended the right of identity groups to lead self-determined lives, and also urged people to form movements for change beyond the boundaries of their groups.

When it comes to gender politics, right now, the first order of the day is self-determination.

Freedom of sexuality, until very recently, was a key issue in queer circles — “queer” being the umbrella term for gender radicals (although for some it is becoming a less attractive term because of the prominence of male-identified people who make up much of “queer culture”). In recent years, queer activism focused more and more on civil and cultural equality and an end to gender-based violence and discrimination — activism reflected in the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and its insistence on the legalization of same-sex marriage. However, the gender movement puts forward as its most radical position the eradication of the very notion of gender and all of the constraints and expectations that accompany it.

Misha Grifka, who came out first as bi-gender and later as a transman, has pointed out to me that the millennial generation “has grown up in a world of constant flux, and so is comfortable challenging any convention and asking why things should have to be the way they are. When it comes to gender, this generation questions stereotypes and gender roles, and, when it finds them lacking, creates new gender identities to suit our own understanding of ourselves, because we reject the idea that gender is set in stone, since nothing else is.”

Indeed, with the collapse and the 2008 recession; with the evolution of computers to smartphones to tablets; with 9/11 and its aftermath of endless war; with the abolition of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; with climate change starting to wash across our lives; with the rise of social movements like Black Lives Matter; with the on-demand economy wiping out steady jobs and job benefits — with so much change and so many uncertainties branded into us, why should our gender be the one thing that remains a constant?

WHEN I ASKED Naseem Jamnia, who identifies as non-binary and has written about gender for Proximity, what the phrase “gender politics” meant to her, she wrote that she thinks of it as “just beginning”:

I see the world as only recently, finally, looking at the issue of gender from the lens of “man and woman and sometimes a switch between the two.” What I hope to one day see is the realization that nothing is inherently gendered, and that it can be more like a sliding scale.
... When I say I’m non-binary, what I’m saying is that I reject the notion that we can be all man or all woman and that’s the end of that. That is not to say I don’t empathize with trans individuals or acknowledge the incredible discrimination they face!

This, indeed, is a tricky issue that we millennials face: the use of our words, even within communities that agree, can spin us off into arguments. To be a participant in gender-politics discussions, one needs to be open to criticism, especially when one is cis. There is no authority defining things for us; there are intellectuals, sure, who write about these issues, but even their books or articles can get dated very quickly as my generation continues to forge and evolve its own language, terminology, and ideas. Misha Grifka put it well:

It’s been remarked that millennials are highly individualistic and concerned with self-image. If you care how people perceive you, it can be immensely frustrating [when they] make assumptions about you based on your apparent gender. So if it’s not working for you, why not find a gender (or lack of gender) that is? So, we develop words about new genders that fit our self-conception better. Words that try to communicate how we would like to be thought of and treated, rather than how history has determined we should be treated.

Let’s put the emphasis on “try.” The truth is that we’re muddling our way through, so semantics matter.

Naseem Jamnia rejects the notion of binary gender, of people being only one or the other. Certainly, being trans is somehow seen as being more definitive, as there are clear steps to be taken to “transition” (although no surgery, makeup, or clothing change need occur in order for someone to identify as trans).

Millions of people were riveted by star athlete Bruce Jenner’s coming out as Caitlyn Jenner, a process that included a Vanity Fair cover showing Jenner dolled up and sexualized, like any other woman who appears on that magazine’s cover. For generations older than mine, there was shock: Bruce Jenner was a symbol of masculinity, so her coming out as a transwoman was a big deal. For many, this was the first time they participated in dialogue regarding gender fluidity. For my generation, Jenner’s coming out was a big deal too, but less because we knew her past and more because of what she symbolized for the future: a world in which trans folk are less persecuted, less met with violence, and regarded as normal. But as many trans folk pointed out (notably another celebrity, Laverne Cox), Jenner is not normal: She’s famous, and while she faces persecution in the media and had many difficulties with her family, she also has money with which to protect herself, and is white, which means slightly less liable to be violently attacked.

“As someone who’s non-binary/genderqueer/etcetera,” Jamnia told me, “I have it easy — I’m female presenting. People assume I’m female. But that’s because we talk about gender in this polarized lens — that’s what we’ve been taught to do. In embracing trans issues, I think people are opening to the idea that the gender binary can be fluid... but I don’t think people really understand that fluid can mean without bookends.”

Indeed, as she points out, not everyone has it so easy. According to a countrywide survey [PDF] conducted jointly by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2011, 63 percent of trans people “experienced serious acts of discrimination — events that would have a major impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to sustain themselves financially or emotionally.” In fact, that number seems pretty low, which may be because transmen are able to pass as men more often than transwomen are able to pass as women. As has been true in many cultures around the world, violence against women has always been higher.

Britni de la Cratez identifies as a cisgender woman rather than just as a woman because the language usage points out that she doesn’t assume that “cis is the default,” she says. “It puts cisgender on a spectrum of gender identities that includes trans and non-binary folks, too.” For her, “accepting trans and non-binary identities is simply about being a decent human. Someone tells me that is their lived experience, and who they are, and so I say, ‘Okay, how can I support you in that?’ Then I try to support their community by going out into mine and making it more inclusive — because what happens when people are marginalized and invisibilized is that they suffer, and I don’t want people to suffer any more than they already have to.”

ACCEPTING PEOPLE'S identities is, indeed, part of being a decent human being. While I’ve heard conservative rhetoric about order breaking down and the moral universe spinning out of control, I say, let it spin out if “control” means inflicting pain on people for their nonconformity. Have transpeople hurt you? Genderqueer people? Bi-gender people? No. So if someone asks you to call them Denise rather than Dennis, even if they look like a man to you, just do it. Respect that. Be a decent human being.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel and now lives in New York.