an ontological category of one's own

I have tried writing about this twice already and it is not working well. The moment I am trying to describe is elusive precisely because it is a moment in which I realized that in the reams of cultural histories that have been written, at least in any language that I can currently understand, the universe is assumed to rest upon eternal principles that almost everyone can participate in by virtue of their full assent to the gender to which they were assigned when born–an assent that I have withheld for most of my life and thus which has placed me in the position of one for whom there is no cosmological correspondent.

It is all well and good that I understand that human mythopoesis is always a very human construction and that whatever principles we assign to the cosmos are thoroughly anthropomorphic and in such a way as to reflect only what a limited group of people felt was true about themselves in a limited time and place and so it is not that I think that literally there is no place in some cosmic order for someone like me who cannot sign on to being a case of either male or female humanity. The positing of eternal male and female principles is always a positing and nothing that reflects anything that is actually timeless and universal.

And yet.

And yet it seems that I do wish for a place in more narratives, or in at least some narratives, or any narratives at all. And that although there certainly is a place for me in some very specific contemporary narratives where transgendered individuals have names for themselves and where there proliferate names for genders that do not fit into the traditional western binary anatomical essentialist way of categorizing people–although this is all true, I cannot deny the alienation with which I read monographs on this or that culture in some time and space related to our time and space either by virtue of filial reproduction or cultural contagion or even nothing other than brute historical accident, the alienation that results from the reduction of much of a given culture’s own mythopoetic being and its own production of the principles on which it sustains itself to an all-too-westernized conception of anatomical essentialist binary gender.

Do I need to define that? I use anatomical essentialism whenever I write binary gender because the two are so very closely related to each other in how gender in the West has been figured–and I say “in the West” because those are the narratives that I read, by and large. Even when I read about non-Western cultures almost everything I can access about any of them has already passed through a Western lens, and so I suspect that there may have been erasures that I do not know about and I want to make it clear that I understand that those erasures might exist and that the Westernized narratives I read might leave something out–in fact this is one of my central points in writing this: the extent to which any gender that cannot be recuperated by the anatomical essentialist binary Western model might simply have been glossed over and left out only reinforces the alienation I feel when I read anything that has been drawn through a Western perspective.

OK that paragraph drifted. What I mean when I talk about the Western anatomical essentialist binary gender system is not simply the idea that there are only two genders–male and female–but that they are also essentially tied to anatomical features as they present themselves at birth, and cannot be disassociated from them–er, unless a baby is born with “ambiguous” genitalia in which case traditionally they have been subject to surgery and/or hormonal treatments to which they could never have possibly consented in the name of making sure that everyone corresponds neatly to only one pole of this system. This of course is the subject for another screed, but it is important to note here because it shows the lengths to which this essentialism will go: belief that gender is dictated by gross anatomy is so strong that it must modify those anatomies that do not clearly enough express a particular gender and thus call the whole system into question.

And so some people’s anatomical gender is forcibly erased shortly after they are born. I cannot speak to this experience beyond noting that it happens because it is not my experience and it is not exactly what I am on to here, but it is a related erasure to the one that I feel begins to erase me.

What I am on to here is that this particular worldview, as written down and read, that is so deeply steeped in an essentialist position that believes anatomy determines gender and that it must do so unambiguously and only once for all time–or for the time of a lifetime–is deeply alienating in its own histories and mythologies–its own and those of others it attempts to describe–if one reads it without being able to say that one’s own gender matches up with any possible options given in that worldview.

And by not being able to say, I mean literally that I find that I fumble for words when I try to match my experiences with those that have been taken down and formalized as historical and cultural discourse within the traditions whose languages I can read (so is the answer to learn more languages? Perhaps..). My own conception of my gender is complicated. Although some who have transitioned from one gender presentation to another can say that they “simply” identify as their “target” gender, or that is the gender that they most deeply identify as can be accommodated by a binary system of male and female. I cannot say that, however, because I find that my history is too complex to be able to say that I am simply male. I was not male growing up; my body was visibly female at least as culturally recognized; although for some it seems a cliché, I was socialized as a female and although I was also socialized to believe that women could do anything they wanted to do, and I was allowed (mostly) to be my own tomboyish self, it was never questioned that I was in fact female even if I did like to play (American) football and with my highly prized GI Joes. The facts seemed incontrovertable: I was a girl playing with boys’ toys and I was extraordinarily lucky to have parents who would let me do that. (They get props when they are due. It just doesn’t happen very often that they really are due.)

It took me 35 years to realize that the desires I had when I was very young were in fact realizable and that my belief that I was supposed to be a boy could be made more concrete in the facts of my anatomy, and so I transitioned into a more male-presenting body, but I cannot honestly say that I am simply male because my history includes long periods spent identifying as female–even to the point of, for a short time, wanting to be a separatist lesbian, but that fell through when it became apparent that I was a polymorphously perverse dyke. But even there I retained a version of femaleness that I had more or less accepted as immutable.

Until it occurred to me that it wasn’t and I made the move that I had wanted to be possible when I was about four but had no idea would ever be. But even the body I have produced for myself does not stack up neatly as “male” or “female.” Only my clothed presentation seems unambiguously male.

And so I cannot find my way in narratives that say that at such and such a time at such and such a place men are/were generally found to be doing these things and women are/were generally found to be doing those things, because I have no idea how I would be or have been recognized at that time and place because it is never included as part of the story. It only gets worse when masculinity and femininity are projected outwards as cosmological principles because once again there is never a word about what alternative categories might exist in a given system or what alternative life paths might be available to those whose anatomical gender–as Western culture would determine it–differs from that with which they identify. And it gets worse three times over when nothing is ever said of genders that do not match up with male or female–nevermind any possible transit routes from one to the other; how might one be received or hailed were they to take a completely different tack right out of the polar system defined by binaristic gender models?

I will not go into great detail on how it is I have come to see myself not as a third gender, which relies on the first two as originary poles, but as an nth gender whose physical conformation and hormonal makeup place me in an anomalous position that has no name. I have body parts for which I have no name; I have physical features that are common in people like me for which there is no name beyond “that x that ftm’s get.” It is true that my body responds to testosterone in relatively unsurprising ways, but what has surprised me is the way in which my body seems to have jetted out beyond the linguistically-conceived sphere of being, putting my own existence in question as a possibility anywhere except right here in my room. Is it any wonder I rarely leave? I find that large portions of me simply vanish into the unnameable whenever I am caught in the multiple gaze of the street.

Of course, I live in the bubble that is San Francisco and I can get warm regards here from people who have actually seen bodies like mine up close, but the feeling of relative safety recedes very quickly outside the city limits. And although I do not wish here to talk about how it feels to expect one’s life to be threatened were the truth revealed about one too far from home, there is nonetheless a sort of slow disappearance that my body must perform in order to go about in “normal” society.

My point though is that although there are the beginnings of a culture here that can recognize me and which is gradually testing out and using its own language to describe its members, this is all so very new that the words do not have the cultural footing of thousands of years of usage–even if that usage has been distorted by our own contemporary insistence on simple, either/or questions with simple, either/or answers. Whether or not it is a contemporary myth that Western culture itself leans heavily on the system of two opposite genders determined by birth anatomy, it operates as a myth of wide circulation and, if not an ascertainable depth of historical currency, at least of the breadth of its almost universal acceptance in the places I often find myself.

While I was thinking about these things, a friend of a friend wrote about linguistic dysphoria, which surprised me out of sheer synchronicity because it comes very close to describing what I have been trying to write about myself this week. For me, though, it is more than–or fully charged by the ultimate consequences of–a dysphoria that comes and goes with language. It is an ontological dysphoria, a feeling of absolute erasure and that one simply cannot be, and that certainly one’s existence as a fully realized human being can have no impact upon cultural mythologies and the way in which we as communities conceive of our place in the universe. It is through linguistic channels that we create possibilities for ourselves and frame our own potential; even if we communicate in pictures and symbols rather than words, it can be argued that these too are linguistic insofar as they create and perform meaning, or make possible meaningful acts. Without some word or banner or icon or other meaningful gesture that conveys the sense one has of one’s own way of being, it becomes extremely challenging to imagine that one has a place in human history, even the very small piece of it that we are all given when we are born. If I cannot find a name–broadly speaking–I cannot find a place in language–broadly speaking–and I cannot find a place in culture–that place from which one speaks.

6 thoughts on “an ontological category of one's own”

  1. Oh this is so good. The body I have produced for myself… yes. and…

    “the way in which my body seems to have jetted out beyond the linguistically-conceived sphere of being, putting my own existence in question as a possibility anywhere except right here in my room. Is it any wonder I rarely leave? I find that large portions of me simply vanish into the unnameable whenever I am caught in the multiple gaze of the street.”

    Come on over to my house some time!

  2. Also, I wish we could go back in time. We will keep on writing backwards and forwards into time… To form ties with that history.

  3. This articulates things I’ve never seen articulated quite as well before. One nit — you have an extra set of quotation marks around the link to urocyon’s Dreamwidth post, which breaks the URL.

  4. @Liz: I’d be happy to come over! All I need is an invitation and a map. :)

    Also yes I do suspect that there are histories that have been fairly obliterated by dominant narratives and that a certain type of linguistic archaeology may well turn up the sort of conceptual and/or mythological categories that I am finding so lacking even in monographs that claim to be sensitive to gender. I mean, it is a good thing that women’s histories are also being uncovered because those too have been erased, but it cannot stop at just two genders–or I’d like it not to.

    @Tim: Thanks for the heads up. Switching back and forth between wysiwyg and html editors sometimes adds results in extra entities sneaking into places they are not wanted. Is fixed now.

  5. Thanks for this. I also like the term linguistic dysphoria–I feel it when I’m referred to as “she,” though also when people make other assumptions.

    I appreciate reading about this other depth to the lack of language: the ontological depth. (Which is mostly out of my own personal depth since I get read as a woman in mannish clothing, which has its advantages in terms of safety on the street.)

    I’m spending too long editing this comment. It says too much about me, and it maybe sounds like “Gosh, this is so educational!”

  6. @Cole: No worries about your intent; even if you did find this educational I tend to assume that people want to learn about things that are important to them for a reason and, unless someone is asking impertinent questions or demanding answers that I am not in the mood to provide, that desire is not something that offends me. I write in hopes of giving words to anyone who might be searching for them as well as to make sure that, whatever side of the story it is that I might represent, that story gets told.

    I’m also still a compulsive educator even though I do not teach formally anymore, so being “educational” is the least of my worries. I suspect, though, that you found something here that resonates with you, and that is a good thing, I think.

    The gendering of language–and English is even less gendered than most European languages–has repercussions that I imagine most people are not aware of unless they run up against its boundaries, as you have experienced and I have experienced. It is difficult to articulate by definition, so it is good to know that I seem to have articulated something useful. :)

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