Friday, January 5, 2018

Gender performance: "That's it. That's the exhaustive list of the biological ways to communicate our gender to others. Every other expression of gender is performed."

A little context, the quote in the header is from the third answer provided to the question, "What is gender performance?" at Quora.
It's actually far easier to list ways in which we DON'T perform our gender, i.e. ways in which our gender is expressed in biological ways. Our natural speaking voice usually gives a clue to our genders due to biological differences in pitch, women are more likely to have breasts, men are more likely to have penises, if someone's pregnant or having a period then chances are they are a woman, if someone has a full beard chances are they're a man. (No definite judgements can be made from any of these, however, because on rare occasions someone's actual gender may not match their assigned physical gender, as is the case in trans* people.)

That's it. That's the exhaustive list of the biological ways to communicate our gender to others. Every other expression of gender is performed.
Last time I discussed the subject, I focused on an interesting paradox. Some people say gender is something inside you. You are your gender because you were "born this way". Others say that there is almost nothing inside you, your gender is the performance, the "you" underneath is nothing more than a peg that the roles you play can be hung upon. Nandini Seshadri, the writer who provides the above answer, is very much of the latter school.

I'll start by calling attention to is the rather odd expression of one sentence in that quote: "That's the exhaustive list of the biological ways to communicate our gender to others." Do we communicate biologically? There are biological signs. The list of symptoms for a disease might be an example. But sickness or health are hardly things that communicate themselves. The claim here is that everything about gender is a matter of communication.

If we take this seriously, the notion that you were "assigned" a gender at birth makes some sense. I say "some" sense because it avoids an obvious question: who does this assigning" I've seen this handled in a  quasi-religious way, as if some unnamed biology-god gave you a gender. And I've seen it handled in a very human way as if the doctor who told your mother whether you were a boy or a girl had somehow transgressed medical ethics in doing so.

We might call this the communication theory of gender. You should be able to see where it's going to get very hard pretty quickly. To hold this view, you have to believe that gender is communicated all the time and communication requires intention.

I saw a trans person posing for a fashion shoot on Kent Street this summer. A block away, before I could make out anything other than that this person had long hair, was wearing a mostly unbuttoned blouse with a jacket over it, a short white skirt, and running shoes, I thought "that's a trans person". Look again at X's list of biological ways of "communicating" gender: pitch of "natural speaking voice", presence of breasts or penises, possibility of pregnancy or a beard. None of those things was detectable from a block away. So how did I know? Answer: skeleton! I couldn't see this person's skeleton but I could see its effects.

I was watching someone who was very good at gender performance. Someone who had put a lot of effort into it and who had done so at some expense. When I got to the corner I stood and watched the trans model and the photographer and their team work. Just in the few minutes I stood there, people drove by expressing everything from mockery to outright hatred. You cannot say that this person's gender performance had been undertaken lightly or without price. And yet there was something over done about it; there was something that said, "this is a performance."

The big thing was the walk. The photograph being taken featured the trans model walking in the cross walk. They had to kill time waiting for traffic between shots and because of that there were two modes of performance. One was when the trans model was "on". They walked with considerable sway that was almost a parody of a woman's walk. I say almost, because we've all seen models do this, it's what we expect. Between these moments there were long stretches when the model was not on, when they relaxed. What I saw then was a man's walk. And it is unavoidable that this will be the case: men and women have different skeletons and these structures affect our walk.

There is a similar issue in the movie The Year of Living Dangerously. In that movie, Linda Hunt plays a man. For most of the movie, the performance is quite credible. The pitch of Hunt's voice is feminine as is the shape of her face but there are men with high-pitched voices and feminine faces (as there are women with low-pitched voices and masculine faces). But there is one seen in which Hunt walks away from the camera and that scene gives the secret away. Odd as this may seem, you can't hide your skeletal structure.

I think that is why the suicide rate is so high among trans people. Yes, it is horrible to have society against you and to face haters but that can be done. There are other groups that face similar kinds of opposition and don't have nearly the suicide rate that trans people do. No, the deeper problem in being trans is that your sex is against you. The skeleton, your muscles, your brain are all determined by chromosomes and these things have powerful effects on how you perceive, thing, move and react. You can change what you communicate, you can even get plastic surgery but you can't change your skeleton, your brain or your genes. These things are going to fight you all your life and they will succeed in making you miserable.

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