Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Becoming Male (?)

This essay was originally used as a testimony for a Sociology class. Dig it anyway.

Examining gender in oneself can be a tricky proposal, especially when one doesn’t choose to do so until later in life. As a 30-year-old individual who has always assumed the proper identification of their gender to be the same as their sex, my internalized feelings and suppositions about my gender have always been ones constrained by my understanding of society’s perception of my body and identity. I have lately found my feelings about my gender, however, to have recently shifted, and as I look over the course of the past three decades, I can see how it has evolved, unbeknownst to me, in a large part due to the intersectionality of patriarchy and my own sexuality in ways that have defined my identity without much thought or input of my own.

Gender is, of course, one of our attributes that are defined through a process sociologists refer to as “social identity development.” Through five stages, known as naivete, acceptance, resistance, redefinition, and internalization, we come to develop within ourselves classifications that some call necessary in order to integrate within society. Some statuses, such as agent statuses, may not require the completion of all stages. A white person, for example, may accept that they are white and then stop there; they do not need to be introspective as their privilege makes challenge unnecessary to gain membership into advantaged groups. As a male-bodied individual, I have this privilege and never stopped to challenge (or resist and redefine) assumptions about my gender, both on my part and on the part of those around me.

This privilege comes, of course, from patriarchy. In order to maintain supremacy within human societies, males have given special status and privilege to people who are male-bodied. This patriarchy problematically asserts that certain behaviors are appropriate for men and certain behaviors are appropriate for women, which serves to delegate the role of “woman” away from positions of power and prestige.

Patriarchy, however, does not just rule the world of the heterosexual. People who do not subscribe to the gender binary often fall victim to the ideation of the straight male when it comes to “male” and “female” behavior. The roots of homophobia are certainly found in misogyny, as men who have sex with men are denigrated through feminization and derogatory language; when we call queer men “sissy” or “bitch” we are calling them female and somehow this is seen negatively. The assumption that “female” behavior, such as submitting sexually to another man, is negative is one that not only disempowers men in their own identities but implies that women are inferior to men.

Growing up queer, I have of course experienced this. I have always had “effeminate” behaviors, and when I came out it was no surprise to anyone around me. This, of course, exposed me to sanctions from the society I live in, with my peers harassing me and the world at large seeking to assert the “rightness” of male behavior in male-bodied individuals. As part of my socialization process, I accepted this and strove to define myself as male with masculine characteristics. I have since realized that this does a disservice not just to myself but to others.

This was easily illustrated to me recently in a conversation I had with a friend. She loudly proclaimed that she hated all men; I feigned taking offense. She laughed, shook her head, and stated “Oh Ian! I don’t view you as a real man.”

I found myself taking offense, which I quickly stifled and was confused by. “Not being a real man” meant, to me, that I was in some sense female, and I was a little disturbed that I found this offensive. I consider myself pretty staunchly pro-women and have a pretty good understanding of non-gender-conformant issues; why then, was I challenged by this statement?

This led to a whole host of ideas which pretty deeply challenged my assumptions. My concept of self, I realized, was predicated on patriarchy. Further introspection was needed. I began to resist my own idea of who I was, and at the age of thirty finally began to complete the social identity development process. I began to resist the concept of “male” as defined by society and started to redefine myself.

The problem, however, is that when we define ourselves we tend to place limitations on our role in society. I don’t feel female, and since I experience privilege as a male-bodied individual, it feels disrespectful to claim that term. Many of my characteristics are deemed “masculine” while some are judged “feminine.” So what am I? I have male sex parts and yet reject the supremacy of “male.” I feel feminine many times, but benefit from male privilege and act with male behaviors. So what do I call myself?

In the end I suppose I haven’t chosen to conform to anybody else’s definitions. I am not trans nor am I strictly male. I started telling people that they could refer to me either by “he” or by “they”. I have changed my gender identification slightly; I now include a (?) at the end of it. Male (?) perfectly describes, to me, my identity. Yes, I am male-bodied, and yes, I am perceived as male. However, there should be a little bit of mystery. It’s in that mystery that I can truly explore myself and internalize (or not) the conclusions I find. Perhaps through non-definition I can more truly define myself.

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