Notes from a Presentation: An Introduction to Gender Variance

Earlier this year, I conducted a short program for my local PFLAG group titled “An Introduction to Gender Variance”. In 20-30 minutes, I tried to expose this group of almost-entirely cisgender people  to all the lovely varieties of gender out in the world, and it went surprisingly well.

I started with an up-and-moving-around activity: I placed post it notes around the room, on different areas of the walls, each with a different category written on it. Shall we investigate what turned up when I let a bunch of then-uninformed people add their own sticky notes under each category?
Sexes: Most common answers were Man, Woman, Boy, and Girl. Also appearing more than once were Intersex, Transsexual, Bisexual. Other answers of note were Chromosomes and Genitals – a sticky that went outside my intention of the category but allowed for a brief touch on how sex is determined during our discussion.
Genders: Common answers were Male, Female, and Trans. Answers that appeared 2-3 times were Nongendered (also seen as Agender), Queer, Poly/Polygender, Both/Bigender. One attendee shone (which was good, as this is the population this person works with for a living), adding in the following answers: cisgender man, cisgender woman, genderqueer, genderfuck, boi. Other one-time answers include partner, roommate, friend, XX, XY, and XXY.
Gendered Pronouns: Every person included pronouns from the “he” and “she” sets. Almost everyone included pronouns from the “they” set. Other pronouns or sets mentioned only once: shim, ze, per, sa, and a note reading “initials only or name only”.
Words that Describe Gender Presentation:  This category seemed to fall into two subcategories as far as answers go. The first subcategory is my original intention, with words like Masculine, Feminine, Butch, Femme, Hunk, and Metrosexual. The second subcategory is more of how people use presentation to determine likely gender when encountering a person: hair, clothes, makeup, jewelry, appearance, speech, manner, personality, curves.
Words that Tell the Relationship between Sex and Gender: Most common answers were Trans, Binary, Fluid, Spectrum, and “?”. Other answers of note that each only showed up once were Physical Characteristics, Feelings, Self-Image, and Cisgender.
Your Favorite Word: here, “Love” and related were the most common answers, followed by various types of food, with a special mention for “Snicklefritz” as least expected.
After everyone placed their sticky notes and was seated again, I wandered around the room, discussing one category at a time. I started with Sexes, assuming it would be the most straight-forward, and it really was – I confirmed their answers, explained the concept of intersex (and why we don’t call it “hermaphrodite” anymore), and addressed the confusion over why “transsexual” may be included here but “transgender” never is. For those looking for those answers, intersex is a condition wherein the infant presents with ambiguous genitalia – that is to say, the doctors think it’s too big for a clitoris but too small for a penis. The child is often assigned to male or female sex, with female being more common because of the option to have a quick surgery to reduce the phallus size to a clitoris; the children are often unaware of their intersex status until later in life, where they may or may not have physical differences resulting from their body’s own hormones or hormones prescribed to them, and when they may or may not decide to remain with the gender assigned at birth. As for the inclusion of transsexual under “Sexes” category, one attendee convinced me that some trans people who retain some secondary sex characteristics of their birth sex and some of the sex to which they transition prefer to be thought of as both sexes when it comes to medical needs – needing a breast exam and a prostate exam, for example. However, transgender remains a descriptor that apples to gender or the sex/gender relationship, not a descriptor of a person’s sex.
This discussion made for a good jump to the sticky note reading “Chromosomes” and “Genitals” – we see how genitals are related to determining sex, and people were already asking why DNA wasn’t being examined to determine the binary sex of an intersex person. Why isn’t DNA being examined to confirm the sex of those infants labeled girl and boy without question? Nobody at the table knew their own chromosomes; they were all confident in their guesses, but nobody actually knew. Why don’t you know? I never thought about it. I think it costs a lot if you do. It wouldn’t change who I am. Remember that: It wouldn’t change who I am. Remember your confidence in your own gender, even though I’m questioning your sex.
The next category I hit was Words that Tell the Relationship between Sex and Gender, thinking that it was also a relatively simple topic to tackle. While very few people had heard of the term “cisgender” before, nearly every person understood the concept after just a definition. Nearly every person was already familiar with the concept of trans, though we did get sidetracked on another transsexual vs transgender debate – the conclusion of which was that transgender is the term to use when talking to or about a person unless that person tells you otherwise.
Words that Describe Gender Presentation was split into the two subcategories based on the answers. We shared the “ways that one typically attempts to identify gender” and all agreed on those ways listed, and then I asked the people who listed Butch, Femme, and Metrosexual to explain those ideas to the others, which seemed to do a much better job that I would, seeing as how the nuances of gender presentation are really not my strong point.
This left the two most in-depth categories, which were the purpose of this presentation in the first place: Genders and Gendered Pronouns. It also left Your Favorite Word, which we shared at the end of the session for entertainment value.
Genders! Nobody questioned male and female. After the preceding discussion, people were surprised that nobody thought to specify “trans man” and “trans woman”, but they understood that most trans people prefer to state their gender only, disclosing trans status later if ever. Having been introduced to intersex already, some people were surprisingly ready for additional genders, and everybody knowing that I’m genderqueer made them at least willing to feign interest and openness.
There are a million and three good resources out there explaining various definitions for various genders, the use of “genderqueer” and/or “non binary” as umbrella terms, the use of “trans” to encompass some, none, or all non binary genders, and other related topics. I’d rather not spend as much time on that information here as I did during the session, but I would like to share some reactions. Almost everybody at the meeting was open to genderqueer, genderfuck, third gender, boi, grrl, and queer, with the only major objection being to the wording. (“What if I’m not comfortable using the Q word?” “Tell the person. Ask if there is another word you can use. Alternatively, don’t introduce the person as your queer friend. Do you introduce other people as your male friend or your female friend?”) Agender and nongendered were a more difficult concept, and I can’t say that I really did those identities justice in my limited time frame and personal non comprehension. (I don’t know what it feels like not to have a very definite gender, so I can’t explain it in more than one way; that would have been a very good benefit.) However, the hardest genders to explain were bigender, polygender, and pangender. They could understand how a person with a fixed and single gender identity could present differently on different days but have the same gender. They could understand how a person could transition from living as one gender to living as another. They could not seem to grasp the idea of living as one gender one day, another gender the next day, and the next week back to the first gender without assuming the person was confused or not yet decided about their gender.
Gendered Pronouns was fairly straight forward after the gender discussion. I explained that most genders don’t come with an assigned set of pronouns, and that you can never be certain what pronouns someone prefers until they tell you. Not someone else tells you, not you guess and they don’t correct. They. Tell. You. There was plenty of discussion about when to ask, and we decided as a group that the best time is when you first meet the person, assuming you intend to spend more than a few minutes with them. (For example, a new coworker or a friend of a friend who just moved to town and is going to go out with your friend-group for a while.) That you probably don’t need to ask every person you casually meet (someone you smile at on the sidewalk, cashier at the grocery store). That if you suddenly realize your new neighbor down the road is more than just a smile-and-wave relationship, it’s a good idea to stop and say, “Hey, I just realized I never asked you, and I want to be sure – which pronouns should I use if I’m referring to you?” That it’s better to say “I’m sorry, I forgot, please remind me of your pronouns” than muddle around using incorrect pronouns. That if they ask you why you ask, it’s a good opportunity to either teach about gender variance or just say “I like to be sure I’m using the words you would use about yourself so nobody gets confused or has the wrong idea.” Most people seemed too worried about the possibility of social censure to actually implement this plan, but some have told me about the “surprisingly positive” reactions they’ve gotten to their asking.
But everyone came out of it at least exposed to these genders, aware of their existence, aware of the sheer lack of awareness those of us with nontraditional genders have to combat before we can even combat distaste for our genders. Aware of the battle for our own pronouns. Aware of the pain of being misgendered or of having our names refused. If this presentation makes even one person more understanding and more supportive of us, it was absolutely worth it.
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