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Unseeing Gender

Katie Randall's picture

In class we started to discuss Wilchin's question (one of many): Why do a gender at all? However, we didn't get very far in our answer. I noticed that many of us were focusing on potential individual actions, and kept getting stuck on the fact that any of our actions, no matter how unique or transgressive, would inevitably be read through the “slits” of the gender binary. This seemed to mean that none of our actions could lead to the option to not do a gender at all.

Thinking about this topic later, I was struck by a huge misunderstanding in my approach to the question. I think the foundation of not “doing” a gender has nothing at all to do with individual actions, and everything to do with observation. To not “do” a gender, I don't have to change my way of behaving-- in fact, I could change my way of walking, my way of speaking, my way of dressing and it wouldn't make the slightest difference. To not do gender, and to allow others to not do gender, I have to change my way of seeing.

The issue of gender is fundamentally an issue of the observer. If none of us observed gender, it wouldn't exist. I look at the pink, dresses, dolls and lipstick and see symbols. After learning to instantaneously recognize and interpret these symbols, it's nearly impossible for me to step back and see only a color, a piece of fabric, a toy and a red paste. Trying to unsee gender is like looking at a typed page and trying to see abstract art instead of language. I'm not even sure that I can.


Amophrast's picture

This is a good point... Is it

This is a good point... Is it possible to reteach ourselves to not see gender? Why is gender made up of what we can devise from someone's external appearance?

I find this bothering myself a lot when trans issues come up:

As much as I love that Jackie's parents are loving and supportive, why is it that sparkly dresses and "a pink bedroom filled with girly things" are what constitutes being a girl? Is it impossible to blur gender lines? Can't a girl want to dress up like a sparkly princess one day and go hiking in cargo shorts and a tank top the next day?

What I'm really trying to address here:

Does Jackie love sparkly dresses and pink things because that's what she likes looking like externally? Or does she like them because they're associated with being female/feminine internally and that's what she wants to achieve?

It has been an issue in the past (is it present still?) with doctors who perform trans surgeries, where if you don't prove that you're really truly are the opposite gender, then you shouldn't really get the operation. You might be lying. You might change your mind. It might be a phase. Does a ten year old understand the need to present an exaggerated version of femininity as a way of passing as a girl?

I am not free and able enough to be able to see past gender lines, especially when it comes to talking about people (rather than talking to them) and not knowing how to address them in terms of pronouns. I have butted heads with people arguing that "they" can be used as a singular pronoun, and personal preference trumps grammar. I mourn the lack of presence and availability of gender neutral words, though I've been growing increasingly fond of words like "significant other" and "partner." As Wilchins has said, I think rethinking language is one of the first steps to take when trying to reteach or unsee gender.