Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gender Identity

I wrote this piece for a blog called Schools of Equality and I'm resharing it over here.

I’m going to begin this essay the same way a lot of personality development courses do (albeit for a very different purpose) – think of a sentence that would paint someone who knows absolutely nothing about you, a rudimentary picture of who you are. Chances are, the words you pick shall be core aspects of your identity. Employing this exercise on myself, I would probably come up with, “I’m a Bengali woman living in Chennai and studying the liberal arts.” The word “woman” or “man” or “boy” or “girl” probably featured in most of your sentences.

Gender is a core aspect of most people’s identities. There is usually a distinction drawn between gender and sex. Sex is biological, the hormones and the genital organs one is born with, and gender is social, the way you choose to dress and speak and talk and love. Judith Butler, a postmodern feminist, identifies what she terms the “compulsory order of sex-gender-desire”. As a rule, the body you are born with determines the gender you assume, and the gender you assume determines your sexuality. I was born with a vagina, I identify myself as a woman, and I am attracted to men, making me a garden-variety heterosexual woman.

We are also deeply familiar with the binary nature of sex and gender. There are either male or female bodies, and these bodies produce either men or women respectively, and these men or women are “naturally” attracted to the opposite gender. And in this case, gender and sex overlap and are practically indistinguishable from each other. However this binary seeks to exclude a significant section of the world’s population; a section that is gradually gaining more visibility – the LGBTQI population. That stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and intersex. These are the people that fall outside the “compulsory order of sex-gender-desire” and disturb the binaries that society has created. They demand the creation of terms outside the binary – a woefully blank slate that academia is struggling to fill. Earlier, the term “transsexual” was used as a blanket term to cover anybody who did not conform to the male-female binary. But, as Facebook popularized by introducing 51 terms of gender identity for users of its social network, there is far more to gender identity that just “transsexual”. See this article for a more comprehensive understanding of its various gender identity terms, like trans-gender, cis-gender, gender fluid, intersex, and genderqueer. (For those wondering, the term “queer”, originally used as a slur against LGBTQI people, was reclaimed and appropriated by them to identify themselves – words can be quite powerful depending on whose side they are on).

Put yourself back in a situation most people in India have faced – you are travelling on a train, or trying to cross a road, and suddenly you are accosted by a band of hijras, clapping their hands together and demanding money off you. You feel flustered, possibly a little scared, and frantically hand them the money they demand just so they will move away from you. Why do you feel flustered? Why are you more scared of a hijra, whether or not they are accosting you, than a homeless man begging for money on the pavement?

 The LGBTQI population is excluded from the traditional societal framework of identity, the framework most of us use to identify ourselves. They disturb the notions of identity most of us grow up with, and this flusters us. It troubles our notions of who we are, and what we should be. Incoherent gender identities are those where desire doesn’t follow from gender, and gender doesn’t follow from sex. The question that occurs to us when most of us see somebody gender-incongruent, is what sex are they biologically? The answer to this question is – it doesn’t matter.

Judith Butler introduces a concept called gender performativity. Simply put, human beings perform certain roles that they identify with their gender. By performing these roles, they produce their gender identity. The most overt manifestation of this is in drag queens, or hijras – they perform the gender role of a woman, while not necessarily being born female. And when the question of what sex a particular human being was born into occurs to us, a more pertinent question might be to ask what gender they identify with. This would tell us how they wish to be known, rather than what we decide to categorize them into.

Sex, gender and desire are better understood as spectrums than binaries. Respecting LGBTQI populations involves understanding and respecting their expression of identity. I’m going to end this essay by sharing a photograph I found on Facebook that explains this rather aptly.

1 comment:

  1. Having lived for 2 years in a country where equality is more the norm than something to fight for, I think it's more about the mentality. I'm not sure that people who have been trained to think one way for as long as they remember would want to put the effort into seeing/are aware of the existence of another point of view, even if you're just asking for tolerance.

    I think it's a matter of time though. As this alternative message is slowly imbibed over generations, I think it will be a lot easier to be tolerant of these "alternative" choices. Another big problem which a country like India (or even the USA) would face, unlike say, a country like Germany is the problem of numbers. With the multicultural nature and sheer number of people representing a certain ideology, it is extremely difficult to make outright rules. This variation is probably one of our biggest plus points and at times like these, a huge negative because you have to take into account the reaction of so many people before making a decision.

    Coming to the specific point you raised about the hijras, I do not think gender plays an important role in people getting flustered. From my personal experience, they can get extremely annoying (sitting down in the compartment and singing out loudly until you do something) or even downright abusive (at times physical as well) if you don't give them what they want. This is unlike the situation with the beggar on the street, where you have a choice in your actions. You can walk away. I think the hijras take advantage of that helpless situation and of course the lackadaisical conductors do nothing to help.

    I like what you've written but hopefully this message becomes the norm someday and doesn't remain a plea for equality.

    P.S. I tried looking for your article on the blog you said you had originally published it on, just to look at the comments and the reaction to the piece. I can't find it though

    P.P.S: By no means am I stating that Germany is above all this controversy. Quite a few states have their own rules and laws regarding such "unnatural" states of existence. And indeed, gay marriages aren't legal yet while registered partnerships are allowed. At the same time, you do have HUGE Christopher Street Parades and laws which protect against discrimination against the LGBTQI community so I think the country as a whole is pretty tolerant in general towards this often maligned community.

    P.P.P.S: Why identify Judith Butler as a feminist here? I would've identified her as a gender theorist given as to how relevant it is to your article (while feminist seems to be thrown in there for the heck of it).