Why I don’t want to have a gender identity, and languages without gendered pronouns

I have recently decided to understand the economy (ambitious project, but let’s say) – and of course I won’t go for some standard textbook (if the standard approach wasn’t so off-putting to me, I would have mastered this in kindergarten).

No, I went for Charles Eisenstein’s hippie-spiritual “Sacred Economics” (since I liked his other books) and for the francophone left-ish (what else?) “Heu?reka” series and book by an ex-banker (see on Youtube – but no multilingual captions that I can find). A bunch of similar titles presumably to follow.

But in this post, I have nothing to say about the economy: it’s about gender, autism, and a specific indigenous culture. How I got there? Via the book “Women and the Gift Economy” (edited by Genevieve Vaughan), quoted marginally somewhere in Eisenstein’s essay (who makes theories about gift economies but didn’t want to go into gender himself).

Intrigued by the context in which it was mentioned, I managed to find a badly scanned, poorly edited (excuse my professional eye, which I never bother to employ in my own writings) and illegibly formatted copy somewhere on the “Russian internet”, as we call it. The title of the apparently obscure tome got rendered as something like likeqykljasf9873169598653.pdf, which is why it took me a while to even open the file. Then I tried to scroll through the jungle of scrambled preambles and copyrights to the actual content: and there it was, the land of treasures.

Turns out the thing is a collection of conference papers, meaning write-ups of presentations given at a feminist conference about the gift economy early in the 2000s (if I remember correctly). That’s nice, but the real highlight is that the organisers decided to invite a large number of women from a variety of surviving indigenous cultures to speak, as experts on the gift economy: because it’s the standard economic system of many peoples.

I got really excited to hear directly from people having lived life experiences not otherwise accessible and known to me, rather than utopian dreams by well-meaning white folk that doesn’t really see stuff much differently from how I’ve been taught to (and what I’m unlearning, in part). Of course some of the indigenous women are also Western-educated theorists. But heck, reading first-hand about alternative modes of organising communal life that have survived for millennia (and survived colonialism and various genocides) is just amazing for a creature like me.

I’m not going to write about all that content though – I wanted to quote one or two passages from Jeannette Armstrong’s chapter that impacted me personally so much that they probably gave me some sleepless nights. Because they fit somewhat into the context of this blog, being perhaps relevant or interesting to folk who follow this for the autism and queerness.

Let”s start with the latter.

I’ve recently tried to blog on my various dilemmas and developments in gender identity, problems with understanding what that actually is, and how it interacts with cultures and views and understandings of human nature (sorry, I can’t leave that out as a perpetual migrant forced to become some sort of non-academic anthropologist).

Specifically, I’d read this blog post (by another autistic queer person as far as I remember) and was thinking to either reply in a comment, or in a blog post of my own. But it didn’t come out right. In short, I disagree with the author on factual points and find some expressions cringeworthy to read for trans folk, but I think I understand the core paradox they are addressing. And my own version of this paradox goes something like this, in a nutshell:

“Gender” is a mythology attached to the human sexual differentiation. It is stories, images, associations, “auras” and feels (styles, mannerisms), qualities, and also simply norms and injunctions, and expectations attached to us because we have a set of genitals (and/or the corresponding hormonal influence on the rest of our appearance). There is no question about it that this mythology is culturally and historically relative – if you don’t know it, go and study it. In short, “feminine” and “masculine” mean different things in different times and places.

Now, Western culture at least has developed this idea that this attachment (of mythology to genitals, let’s say starkly) is somehow fixed and “natural” (but you could also say “logical” or “inevitable”).

And then there’s the trans movement: folks who have some set of genitals, but heck, really, really, really can’t deal with this whole attachment (like me: force me to dress “feminine” and it will make me not just unhappy, bewildered and nauseous, but suicidally depressed on and off). Then, many of us can’t deal with the actual genitals – and/or with what the hormones produced there do to the rest of our bodies. Some trans folk can’t deal with either aspect, others are only bothered by one. Some folk can’t deal with (1), but don’t call themselves trans – they’re just people (or men/women) who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. (At least, that’s my current understanding of this whole landscape.)

To make everything more confusing, throw (queer) feminism into the mix: the social force that pushes society to abandon strict gender-policing anyways. Why can’t men wear dresses if they feel like? Why can’t you look like a butch lesbian and take testosterone for some extra definition and just treat this as your personal brand of “feminine”? Why should we keep associating certain characteristics, roles, professions, looks, or even genitals with specific genders or sexes? Why can’t we just have freedom – everyone looking, dressing and self-labelling any way they want to?

As someone who couldn’t really get trans-ness once asked me – initially irritatingly, but then I figured that the questions forced me to really think through it: could you still have body-dysphoria in a world where there was no gender-binary (perhaps because everyone had the same body type as you)? Or, similarly, in a world in which gender is confusingly (to my old brains) deconstructed as above?

In other words, how often is body dysphoria strictly about the body?

As someone who knows what changing cultural contexts can do to your head (and feelings), including gender feelings, for me that’s a real question. I think if I had travelled less (physically and mentally/emotionally), it might not be. All this (the experience of our bodies) might appear far more static, solid, and well-defined. It might appear less fluffy, foggy, bendable, less like somebody’s random psychedelic delusion that’s going change with the next thing we swallow collectively (historical development or wave of propaganda or cultural revolution).

Some trans folk likes to lynch other trans folk for this kind of question, but trust me that body dysphoria made me miserable for at least 15 years of my life. Probably closer to 20. Really miserable, it was probably the root of not just an eating disorder, but also some other health issues I developed as I tried to prevent my body from developing in a certain direction. (And, amen, of course the psychological, social, and based on that professional and material costs.)

(It still often makes me miserable, but I’ve perhaps grown crazy enough – in the positive sense – to tolerate high levels of absurdity and take some stuff with a grain of salt. For me, understanding myself and lately “society” / social forces / history helps with that.)

As in each post, I’ve forgotten what the point was supposed to be – let me trace back. Ok, economics, indigenous folk, gender – and I’ve recently wondered seriously whether I may suspect to contain a healthy dash of ADHD in addition to being on the spectrum, as the “what was the point again?” line seems to be a tradition not just in these posts, but … in general.

The point was that I had been in a loop for a while regarding gender. I went through phases of assuming I’m trans-masculine and really dreaming there was a way to transition without the involvement of … the medical establishment (of which I’m phobic, perhaps partly for reasons of being from Eastern Europe, and partly for being autistic). I moved to Berlin, hung out in queer spaces full of non-binary folk and I started to feel differently – where nobody bothered me about gender in general. I stopped bothering to try to look like some gender – i truth, just being queer or “whatever”, where nobody was bothering me by pushing gender-based assumptions on me, seemed cooler and more convenient and just easier than necessarily being male (just because the “feminine” stuff annoyed me). I came to the conclusion that it’s probably best to say I’m NB (non-binary, you won’t make a woman out of this, but neither do I really see masculinity as an ideal – though I still love looking “masculine” and being addressed that way in most cases). But then, what’s “masculine” in a subculture where many men are taken to deconstructing patriarchy? Like, in short – why bother with all of this?

With “this” = giving so much weight to the classification, I mean?

Then, getting out of the Berlin bubble (one of Europe’s queerest cities, if you happen not to know), back to the countryside somewhere, where people address me with gendered phrases assuming that this is flattering – yeah, I remember what the fuss was about. In Berlin I relaxed so much that I even stopped dressing to pass, and here it flies into my face how irritating it is when people throw this whole gender-fantasy-game on me again (talk to me a certain way cause I was careless in passing), and how it changes how I feel, about everything, including my body.

And then, randomly, in an essay entitled “Living in Community”, a Native American author (Jeannette Armstrong of the Syilx of Okanagan, now Canada) writes this:

In our language, in our pronoun structure, we don’t use words like “he” or “she” that are used in English.

It is quite a difficult thing to think in the English language, because everything is gender-based in that way. I talked with my mother about it, and my Aunt Jeanette, whom I am named after, and both are medicine women, and I said, “How come we don’t have that idea?” And my aunt looked at me and she said, “Well, it has to do with being a person.” I asked, “What does it have to do with being a person?”

She replied, “If you were to say ‘he’ or ‘she’ in our language, you would have to point to their genitals, you would have to point to what’s between the legs, and why would you talk about a person and point between their legs?” She said, “It doesn’t make any sense.” And it doesn’t—people are what they do and who they relate to and how they relate to the world. It has nothing to do with gender, except that there are males and females. So there are words like “maleness and femaleness.”

Jeannette Armstrong, “Living in Community.” In Genevieve Vaughan, Women and the Gift Economy.

That’s just one indigenous community among many, but something about this view struck me as really “sane” – very reasonable, very close (I think) to how I’d naturally see things if I had’t been brainwashed into gender-classifying absolutely everything (colours, clothes, objects, activities, abilities, writings, styles, psychologies, persons) from age 0.

I showed this fragment to some friendly queer folk, and not everyone relates to this. I do, for me, for some reason, at this precise point in my life (and gender story) it sounds really like “the answer” = the answer to everything: to what my “natural” mode of perceiving persons and the world actually is, which mode would be healthy for me, which kind of social arrangement I could perhaps live in without all this insane gender drama.

The “answer” being, heck, at heart, I feel exactly the same and I really like how they expressed it. Just scrap all that crap about gender being a basic category of personhood (as English speakers and speakers of other gender-based languages, can we really think “person” outside of “woman” and “man” easily? And what implications does that have, honestly, perhaps, for collective thinking – of the stuff we find so hard to conceptualise?).

This difficulty – of just thinking “person” without having to think it as either “man” or “woman” – which I just postulate exists for many or most of us – specifically, what effect does this have on the lives of what we call trans people?

If we had a good, solid, functional, natural-feeling way of thinking “person”, first and above all, would it still be so hard to think “that person, who by the way shows a mix of maleness and femaleness” or “that person (whose sex isn’t relevant to this context)”? Would it be easier to think of “humankind” rather than “mankind”?

I think some people (both queer and not) might dislike going down this road, but I like it. I don’t think it means being blind to sex, or even to gender, or not having words or customs for these. But I think personally, this lack of a central “human” or “person” category to use in most context (and really most everyday contexts) … bothers me. Complicates my life. Cost too much energy.

And incidentally, this reminds me a bit of some conversations I had with autistic non-binary people. I think there are some of us who really enjoy gender-based styles and codes (and unfortunately(?) sometimes we “fit” the ones we are barred from based on (other people’s associations with) our biology), but then there are also people like me – who, given the chance, would really prefer to be just people, or at least first and foremost that, without obsessively enforced (from my/our perspective) gender/sex-classification/emphasis in all (even the most irrelevant, from our perspective) contexts.

Maybe for some of us, being ourselves is really just not having to think about all this complex gender mythology (style, expression, classification) in most contexts. Not having it imposed and assumed by others; not holding it as an internalised limitation, either.

(I’m thinking, for me it’s about as unnatural as having to constantly prove with my clothes, gestures, style, choices, voice, abilities, that I belong to ethnic group X – and/or constantly getting mistaken for something else and being flooded with weird assumptions about it, or talked to in languages I don’t get. I know some people are actually in this kind of situation, and how burdening is that? For some, the whole gender thing is equally or more disturbing (add in sexism).)

I don’t know the rest of how Armstrong’s community deals with gender, and I have no idea if I would like it, or if it’s a model, or whatever. I know from scattered history readings that Native American societies were not trans-phobic or trans-exclusionary, at least nowhere near the level we have in most places now.

(And now reading this makes me wonder if these person-based thinking patterns might radically simplify and help the whole issue.)

Of course it’s not like Westerners (or Eastern Europeans) can’t think of people as persons, abstracting to some degree from gender. But heck, I’d still bid that many of us have to make a mental effort to abstract, and most of us (even trans people) have to go through an (un)learning process to cognitively cope with the existence and presence of trans people.

Maybe it’s easier in the generation that follows mine, at least I hope so.

I’m a bit scared of this topic as in my experience it tends to be trigger dynamite for various parties (not just the trans people), but I’m curious to hear back from various people who read this, the queers, auties, but also the neurostraight folk, how this strikes you. I’ll try to actually respond to the comments for a change 😀

Jeannette Armstrong also has another quote in the article that I felt is super relevant to neurodiversity and the supposed social “deficits” of autistic folk, but I’ll save that for a follow-up (that I’ll hopefully follow up after all the old follow-ups :D).

Admiration to anyone who actually read the whole thing!

4 thoughts on “Why I don’t want to have a gender identity, and languages without gendered pronouns

  1. Now, this is the type of thing you tend to want to read twice. What is gender, really? Why does it matter so much to society? I was raised with more flexible gender expectations, with my brother and I driving matchbox cars through a pink and purple palace, but you still grow up surrounded by it no matter what.

    I think if we just stopped judging people or trying to force them into strict categories, we’d be off to a decent start.

  2. Yes! Exactly this.
    (And now I’m twisting my brain to see if I’m capable of an ungendered concept of “person”. The concept seems so right and natural, but in practice is not so easy, with the need to overcome decades of social conditioning)
    But yes, this is the way forward I was trying (less eloquently) to suggest in my own post.

  3. Read it through with care because this cluster of issues I want to grasp better, as challenges people actively live with. Thank you for making a lot clear that wasn’t at all. And another read would do me good too. My own identity has been a simpler journey than yours (from what I get) but still remains a mystery. And what society or institutions or movements want to reduce this to is hard for me to accept.

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