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Saturday, August 29, 2015

By any other name . . .

This is a blog about how we self-identify and express ourselves - the essence of who we are and how it is we want to be known in the world. 

So, the first thing I want to say is, "Relax!"

This is not a manifesto. This is a blog which contains my personal reflections. These are my thoughts. This is not my advice or direction.  Don't give me authority - or ascribe to me motives - I don't have.

I'm just . . . to sound like a totally California-Sunshine-girl . . . . sharing.  Well, not "just". I'm sharing in the hopes to stimulate some thought and start a conversation. Not a debate. Not WWIII.  A conversation.  You know, where people agree to disagree. Like mature adults.

So, the next thing I want to say is that I have evolved on this position. I didn't arrive here today. And, I've probably been exactly where you are - at least two or three times - on this journey I'm calling "naming my own reality".

There were two prompts to this evolution. The first came after someone - some cheery, positive-sounding, all-inclusive, relentlessly liberal - called me a "cis-gender woman".

What the heck is THAT? I asked.

Cis-gender, I was told, means that the gender assignment given me at birth matches the way I understand myself and self-identify. It was developed by some trans-women and their allies to soften the harshness of not being considered a "woman" but a "trans-woman".

You get a modifier to your gender, I'll get one, too.

So, the way it works, apparently, in this perfect world, is that no one gets their feelings hurt because they feel excluded or categorized.  There are no more women and men, just trans-women and trans men and cis-gender women and cis-gender men.  See?

I sat uncomfortably with that for a while and then heard myself say, Hey, wait a minute! If self-identification is my right, and I can name my own reality, why can't I say that I'm a 'woman' rather than a 'cis-gender woman'?

Why do I have to accept yet another label someone has assigned to me, albeit out of a spirit of generosity and inclusivity?

I mean, who sent - much less wrote - that memo?

Answer? I got Bambi in the headlines looking back at me, surrounded by radio silence.

Look, I said, you want to refer to the general demographic of non-trans women as cis-gender? Fine. Or, if you are talking about me, specifically, in my absence, to a group of people and feel the need to identify me as a cis-gender woman? Fine.

You're a trans woman who wants to simply identify as a woman? That's fine with me, too. 

All I ask is for the same respect I extend to others who have the right to name their own reality. My reality is that I am a woman. Who lives in America. In the Year of Our Lord 2015.

That means that I am constantly pushing against expectations of how a woman - especially a woman who is a woman 'of a certain age' -  is supposed to behave.

So, I get raised eyebrows because I drive an "Omaha Orange" Jeep Trail Hawk - not exactly a 'chick car' (whatever that is).  Which has a bumper sticker that reads, "Silly Boys, Jeeps are for Girls" and another that reads, "God is Not a Boy's Name."

And, I'm an Episcopal priest who occasionally wears a black shirt with a starched white collar around my neck (in the style of an 18th century gentleman of financial means) and, when I'm in church, I wear a long white dress but I'm in traditional men's liturgical clothing.

That means that my reality as a post-modern, American woman is . . .well . . .  complicated.

To be honest, I am not comfortable with the cultural expectations placed upon me as a woman. And, as a woman of a certain age. And, as a woman who is in what was, for centuries, a traditionally male profession, wearing the patriarchal garb that has been assigned to men.

So, I'm not exactly 'cis-gender', you see.

At least, not as I understand the word. Meaning that, in the opinion of many, many men and women in this country, I have utterly failed to live up to the expectations of the the gender assigned to me at birth. And, it is certainly not the way I understand myself and self-identify.

Anyway, it's a bit ironic to me. That people who argue against 'the binary' go right ahead and create another. All in a spirit of "inclusivity" to "Leave No Classification of People Behind."

So, once I got over that, I settled down to enjoy watching the movement of Marriage Equality sweeping over this country. And then, the Supreme Court decision just overwhelmed me with joy.

I listened with interest - if not slight amusement - to people on the BBC and CNN and NPR carefully - if not occasionally awkwardly - enunciate every letter in the "L . . . G . . . B . . .T  . . . community". It sounded like they were trying especially hard to get it right and not offend anyone. I mean, now that we were 'official citizens' with actual civil rights.

And, thus began the second prompt.

It seemed to me - and, I'm just reflecting on my own experience here - that, if we were really a "community," we wouldn't need to insist on a letter for every single member.

Which, in the end, we don't do, anyway. Have a letter for every single member, I mean. For example, there are members of the trans-community who are more nuanced in their identification.

Some are "I" which stands for "Intersex" (which, as I understand it, is the medical term that has replaced 'hermaprodite').

Other terms used are "genderqueer," "bigender," "pangender," or "agender". 

Other terms include "third gender" and, in what I understand is the Native American tradition, "Two spirit".

Some "trans people" prefer male pronouns. Others prefer female pronouns. Others, prefer "they".

Which may be why I've been seeing, more and more, a "Q" added to the end of LGBT and before the word "community".

However, it's not entirely clear whether it means "Queer" or "Questioning". Or, both.

Neither is it clear - as I understand it - what "trans" means, exactly. It can mean both Transgender as well as Transsexual.

So, if you're paying attention, what we've got - so far - is:

L,G,B,T, I TS, TG, TS, GQ, BG, PG, AG, Q, Q,

Seriously? Seriously. At least, those are the ones I know. There may be more. Probably are.

Someone is bound to write me an angry note calling my attention to some particular demographic I've omitted.

Now, mind you, there is no "Homosexual Central" where these things are decided. No memos are sent out. No enforcement officers sent out to make sure everyone minds his or her or "their" .... um..... "P's and Q's" (Sorry, I couldn't resist.).

It's a wonder we were able to accomplish achieving the civil rights of Marriage Equality.

So, here's where I've evolved. I've decided that I am Queer. That's how I want to be known. That's the term I will use to describe the "community" to which I belong.


I know. I know. It's a word that comes with a whole lot of baggage. It is still listed in the dictionary as a 'pejorative term'.  It is, for many people, right up - or, down - there with the "N-word". It often elicits the same response that "faggot" does for gay men and "dyke" does for lesbian woman.

As I say, I've evolved in terms of my position on this word. Here's why.

In addition to the point I've made about "community," I especially like it because it's easier to say and all-inclusive in nature. Queer.

It's an umbrella term which covers all the letters of the alphabet soup of "God's Rainbow Tribe."

Not only that, it includes "heterosexual" or so-called "straight" people who also don't fit into the dominant cultural paradigm of either gender identity or sexual orientation. Some are divorced. Some are celibate. Others practice serial monogamy or polygamy.

And, some are happily married to people of opposite gender who regularly subvert the dominant cultural paradigm by standing in solidarity with Queer people.

Indeed, some of them have been amazing activists. If it weren't for them, I am convinced we would not have Marriage Equality.

Finally, I think using Queer joins the movement that began in the late-1980s.

Queer scholars began to reclaim the word to establish community. At that time, we began to see the emergence of Queer studies and Queer Theology.

Activist, especially, sought to assert Queer as a politicized identity distinct from the gay - or LGBTQ, etc. - political identity.

I remember when a dear friend returned from a high school reunion in her native Alabama. She said, in her lovely Southern drawl, "Honey, we all knew there were homosexuals in town. They were the antique dealers and the art collectors and the designers and hair stylists. But, nobody was 'gay'. And, there certainly weren't any 'lesbians'. They were 'sistahs'. Or,  they were women who had a 'Boston marriage', but that was only said in whispers in the ladies room or over the bridge table, "

When I asked her why this was so she smiled and said, "Well, sugar, you see, homosexuals knew their place and everyone got along. You start talkin' 'gay' and 'lesbian' and, well, now you're talkin' politics and religion and everyone knows that's just scratchin' for a fight."

Then she smiled and said, "Besides, you wouldn't want to scare the horses, now would you?"

Yeah, well, I guess I'm thinking that's a problem for the owner of the horses.

So, for me, anyway, it's buh-bye "lesbian," a term I've never really liked since the first time I saw it in a book in a library along side pictures of women who were either dressed as men or in a hospital gown looking like a zombie after having had a pre-frontal lobotomy to "correct her behavior".

I totally get why Ellen preferred to call herself "gay" vs. "lesbian" when she first came out. 

I'm also old enough to remember one of the first Gay Pride Parades in Baltimore, MD. We were stopped as sometimes happens in parades. One of my female colleagues decided we needed to fill the 'dead space' and fell back into her cheerleader days.

"Gimme an L," she yelled. And the crowd yelled, "LLLLLLLLL!"

"Gimme an E," she continued.  And the crowd yelled back, "EEEEEEE!"

"Gimme an S," she yelled, kicking up her leg and clapping her hands under her knee.

But, suddenly, the crowd began to get where she was going. "SSSssssssss . . . . ." came the response, which was decidedly less enthusiastic.

By the time she got to the last three letters, heads in the crowd were actually turning to look up or down the street or up the street, praying for the parade to start again.

That's why it's known as "The 'L' Word." In some places, it's worse than being a "Liberal".

Yet, I know I'm not 'gay'. That has a very different meaning than 'lesbian'. Very. Different.

And, adios and chao baby to "bisexual" which some have insisted I am because I was once - in another planet on another galaxy far, far away - married. To a man. And had children. Two. With him. Which I don't regret.

This woman is naming and claiming her own identity.

I am a Queer woman.

Don't like it? Don't have to. Tell me what you want to be called and I'll use that word just for you. I promise. Even if you want to be called a "cis-gender pansexual woman." Fine with me.

As Shakespeare once said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

At the end of the day, I'm still just Elizabeth, child of God, citizen of the universe, lover of mercy, doer of justice and someone who seeks always to walk attentively with God.


JCF said...

Full-disclosure: I ID as Queer, too. It covers so much!

Re the issue of "cis-", let's check Wiki:

Etymology and terminology
Cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis-, meaning "on this side of", which is an antonym for the Latin-derived prefix trans-, meaning "across from" or "on the other side of". This usage can be seen in the cis–trans distinction in chemistry, the cis–trans or complementation test in genetics, in Ciscaucasia (from the Russian perspective) and in the ancient Roman term Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., "Gaul on this side of the Alps"). In the case of gender, cis- is used to refer to the alignment of gender identity with assigned sex.

I honestly don't understand the controversy over this. In the Western world (probably a result of patriarchy?), the Powers That Be care *very* much whether a newborn baby be labeled "M" or "F". The baby has no say in it. For most of those babies, as they grow to be children, adolescents, then adults, there's no disputing that "M" or "F". Good for them!

...but for all those who feel burdened by that un-chosen label, surely we can come w/ a dichotomy that's not, essentially "Normal" or "Freak"? Hence, the more NEUTRAL spectrum ending w/ "Transgender" on one end, and "Cisgender" on the other. Makes sense to me.

Thanks for this, Elizabethl.

Lindy said...

I am all-in with this, and thank you for saying it.

Could you say more about this, though. I may need a little education today:

"Yet, I know I'm not 'gay'. That has a very different meaning than 'lesbian'. Very. Different."

I thought a lesbian was just a gay woman. Tell me what I'm mising.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

HI, JCF. Thanks for your comments. Let me see if I can help you understand why "cis-gender" is such a problem for me. And, if you'll notice, it's mostly women - and of them, many lesbian women - who have a problem with it. First clue.

The problem, a word, is: Patriarchy. With regards to this particular issue, it is assumed, unexamined male privilege which is the problem. Which includes "naming". It's in the Bible, you see. Adam - not Eve, but Adam - was given the power to name every living creature in his reality. So, women have traditionally given up their birth names to take on the name (and family identity) of their husbands.

So, some of us - not all of us, some of us - are just a bit sensitive around this issue. We are women who are struggling with the harsh realities of NOT living up to the cultural expectations of what it means to be a "woman" and then, here come some transwomen who insist that women who are born with an assigned gender which matches their lived experience take on a label that we didn't create, didn't ask for and don't want. It feels a bit like - not saying it IS, not making a judgment, just expressing a personal, felt experience - some folks have not done their homework with regard to examining assumed male privilege.

I get it. I've never experienced male privilege - just white, middle class, well educated privilege - but I'm quite sure it must be very, very hard to relinquish. Especially if you've always just simply assumed it would be there.

The fancy Latin root of the word "cis" provides absolutely no comfort. Women can understand this. Contrary to some myths about women, we are not the "inferior sex" with regards to intelligence and our ability to understand. It's that, ironically, the very people who chide us (and rightfully so) for "living on the binary" then create a whole new binary and foist it on people who don't want or need yet another label, yet another expectation to live up to which we can't meet.

I thought I covered this pretty completely in my blog. I'm Queer and woman and not cis because I can not possibly - will not ever - live up to the cultural expectations of what it means to be a woman - much less a "cis woman" in 2015.

If that's a term social scientists and transwomen need in having their discussions about particular demographics, well, I suppose that's fine. But, if others are allowed to name their own reality then so am I. And "cis" is not my reality. Do not EVER refer to me as "cis" in my presence. Or, you will hear from me. Loudly. And, clearly.

"Cis" may "make sense" to you - and, I understand how it might, if you look at it from one, single perspective - but it really doesn't "work" for me. And lots of other women, apparently, if you check the comments on my FB page.

Here's my question: Why do transwomen have to identify as trans? Why not just identify as "woman"? It's fine with me. I don't need to know the modifier. I think, mostly, I can figure that out all on my own without the label. And, if I can't, well, what's the issue, really? In the end, do any of these labels really matter?

I hope that's helpful to you. From one Queer to another.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Lindy.

I'm so happy for these questions and for the conversation we're having. It's really important, I think. Well, at least, to me. Because, you know, we don't have any "Queer Central Authority". I think we get to make these decisions for ourselves - individually - which affects the collective consciousness of the group.

Again, as I said to JCF, "gay woman" - for me and lots of other lesbians - is part of a remnant of patriarchy. I don't draw my identity from gay men. I have my own identity as a woman who loves women and has loved a few men in my time. Some have told me that this means I'm not "really" a lesbian. That means I'm bisexual. Seriously. Even after 39 years (this October) with the same woman. Apparently, my credentials as a lesbian are tarnished. Shame on me.

Being a lesbian is as different from being gay as being a woman is to being a man. We don't have the same privileges in this society as men do. And, as society is more and more accepting of Queer folk, gay men continue to have privileges lesbian women don't have - and transwomen and transmen who don't "pass" are even more oppressed. This shows up most clearly - as it does in the broader culture - in terms of economics. I think the stats bear this out in very stark numbers.

So, I reject the label "lesbian" and "gay woman" and "bisexual" as things which make other people comfortable. If I'm going to have to bear a label for my gender and sexual orientation, I'm going to chose my own. And, for me, the best umbrella term is "Queer".

Let me reiterate: You are absolutely entitled to call yourself whatever you want. Even "gay woman". I may choke on it - as others may choke on Queer - but, you know, at the end of the day, that's a personal problem. You have a right to name your own identity and reality and I respect and honor that. Hope that's helpful.

Kay & Sarah said...

Sarah and I speak to classes at the local university several times a year. (I am a woman who loves and is married to a transgender woman) I am always asked, "what is your sexual orientation?" The person is asking for label. I always tell them about my life and relationships but I never label myself. I tell them if they need to label me that is fine and they can choose what they thinks fits me but I will not choose a label for them. I believe we are more complex than either/or labels. By not choosing a label for myself, I hope that causes others to give more thought to differences in people and in their relationships.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, both Kay AND Sarah. You both are inspirations to me.

AnnBarbie said...

Thanks Elizabeth,
I actually stopped identifying myself as anything at all several years ago. I'm fine with the use of political/societal labels if people want demographics for some reason, and proceed to classify me as I appear to them (Married to a woman? OK, I'm in a lesbian relationship. My passport, driver's license and birth certificate all say "female"? OK, you can call me cis-gendered). But, if you ask me how I personally identify, you will not get an answer (unless you actually know me and are close enough to me that I actually WANT to talk to you about my innermost feelings and sense of self). I also get a bit testy with people who think they need to supply such information on my behalf (particularly when they are not even among those who know how I feel). Why should that be a question that just anyone feels they have a right to ask, or to know about another stranger?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

AnnBarbie - YES!! You have pointed out the serious flaw in my post. I feel the same way and ended by claiming the identity which is most important to me. I should have underscored that. It's really none of anyone else's damn business, is it? Thank you for that important reminder.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

A real conversation I had recently:

"What are you?"
"I'm female."
"No, I mean what ARE know...."
"I'm female...and beyond that, it's kinda complicated and you need to let it go at that."

Lost in Texas said...

Can I just go by person? Does my, or yours or anyone's sexuality have to be the first most important thing about that person? I'm a father, son, brother, uncle, well before a hetero normative CIS whatever blah blah blah. At this point it's just getting a little silly.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I love that answer. Good for you. I probably would have answered, "Human - beyond that is really none of your business."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear Lost in Texas. It's really the flaw in my essay. I really should have (1) framed the issue a bit better. Like "When asked to classify myself, I answer . . ..". (2) Underscored the importance of being human first and foremost, beyond the labels. Thanks for helping me underscore that point,

Marthe said...

I fully endorse the free-to-pick-your-own-label plan ... seems to me that's exactly what living in a free society ought to mean ... and yet, I'm finding the whole labeling thing exceedingly tiresome and intrusive. Since you pointed out that the naming started way way back in the Old Testament, here's a thought: if we really mean it when we reserve the right to self-identify, why not start with children (who are human beings, not property) choosing their own names (pick a reasonable age - 13 or 18 or 21 - when they're considered mature enough to choose intelligently), and until that age, they would be known as the son or daughter of a parent (in my case that would be Anna's Daughter Four, being her fourth girl child) ... that would end the patriarchal nonsense of having to live with a designation of either male or female lines for life. Of course, there would be some monumental pressure to continue family line names (change hurts someone's feelings every time), but it would start a process of seeing a person as an individual, not an inheritance or family definition that may not fit at all.
Perhaps I am somehow immune from any desire to identify with a community or see myself as somehow one of many (no natural herding instinct?), so the label I choose is ONLY - One Not Like You ... just one of me, similar to other human beings in many ways, but still unique, not better or worse, just different than all others, only Marthe ... and I decide when and if any more information is called for ... it's called privacy, that thing we all claim as a right and actually have precious little of and seem to respect for others even less in this age of alleged openness which seems to me to be more voyeuristic than informative. You be whoever and whatever suits you, and I will be only me over here cheering you on.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe, I couldn't agree with you more in terms of the importance of being able to name one's own reality and identity. I wonder how much the names we were given at birth influence the way in which we see ourselves. One of our kids dated a man named Edgar. He hated his name. He was a very unhappy person. She didn't date him long before that relationship ended. I always wondered how much his name influenced his personality. Now, I've also known a few men named Edgar and they were delightful human beings. Except, I knew them as "Ed". Not Edgar. I often wondered if that made the difference.

camilla the chicken said...

I love this article! Thank you so much. The funny thing is that I have this compulsion to disclose, out of some misbegotten sense of courtesy, all the labels other people use to identify me and through which they can filter their reactions to what I say and judge me according to what they see as my privilege or lack thereof.

But after reading this I'm not going to. Except to say that I'm a woman too and add to the mix one more label with which I for one have been struggling since my early twenties: childless...not just the state or the reasons for it, but the voiced and non-voiced assumptions it carries and their implications for the way others view me. (And there's a whole subset of labels there, too...infertile, voluntary, involuntary (that's me), and others I worry might be too painful to name aloud, so I hold them silently.)

Now I'm going to go out and practice being gender-label-free today with a lighter spirit...and practice not labeling other people against their wishes, either!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Camilla the chicken. Stop by any time. Whatever you call yourself. Even chicken. LOL.

Anonymous said...

To me, "cis-gender" means "living as and accepting of gender assigned at birth". "Transgender" means "living as gender other than that assigned at birth", and includes both binary (female to male, male to female) and non-binary (agender, fluid gender)identities. There is a privilege in not being the "marked" individual, true enough, but I don't know that that is the main reason for the invention of the term "cis-gender". It is merely convenient short-hand in discussions about the similarities and differences of experiences of cis- and trans- people. Outside these discussions, cis- sounds a bit pompous and a bit like I ought to be reading labels for what sort of fat is in the food product (ie, the chemistry use of the prefixes cis- and trans-). In everyday interactions, cis-gender women and trans-gender women are....women....(moving on to discuss some other topic). Gender-non-conforming individuals can still identify as their gender assigned at birth. There are gender-non-conforming heterosexual-identified people."Queer" is a good umbrella term, another humorous one is the QUILTBAG. I figure - call people by their preferred pronoun and terminology, when talking to them. Save the sociological and theoretical terms for specialized discussions, and define the terms for purposes of discussion.

I am just a simple Midwesterner, out here the community uses the LGBT initials and acknowledges that there are other non-heterosexual "miscellaneous" identities. We don't use the very fine distinctions seen on the coasts, or at least I am too old to know about the proliferating terms around gender expression.

Now to throw even more out there: the whole asexuality community terminology: asexual (not interested - further divided into sex-repulsed or sex-indifferent)or demisexual (doesn't fancy strangers or new acquaintances, might get interested in a friend), hetero- or homo- or a-romantic. I identify as demisexual homoromantic (lesbian) woman. Phew. I would likely get a vacant stare about the demisexual homoromantic bit in the local community.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, NancyP - I am working with the definitions for 'trans' and 'cis' that I found on various sites on the Internet. I am strenuously opposed to any label except the one I choose for myself or the one you choose for yourself. I absolutely, positively, vehemently reject any label someone imposes on me - no matter what reason, however benevolent or well meaning.

And, just to state again, I would rather there be no labels, except human. Child of God is good, too. Easy enough, right?