Gender, Queerness, and Nonverbal Communication

Posted: January 7, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I’ve discovered recently that the used book store is one of my primary places to find sources for my dissertation. I keep finding incredibly good books there. I’m guessing students who take classes on feminist theory or queer theory sell their books there, and then I can scoop them up. Works well for me. I’d like to talk today about parts of one of those sources. The book is called Genderqueer: voices from beyond the sexual binary, and it’s edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. They open the book by each giving their own introduction, and Wilchins’ is where I’d like to start.

There will probably be more on this book at a later date, but for now, I’m just looking at Riki Wilchins’ contributions.

While Wilchins does begin “A Continuous Nonverbal Communication”  by placing a timeliness on the the essay (written a few weeks after the World Trade Center was destroyed), Wilchins then quickly jumps into some very interesting stuff, particularly about gender and sexuality. Wilchins writes that “I take it as self-evident that the mainspring of homophobia is gender: the notion that gay men are insufficiently masculine or lesbian women somehow inadequetly female. And I include sex, because I take it as obvious that what animates sexism and mysogyny is gender, and our astonishing fear and loathing around issues of vulnerability or femininity” (11). If this is true, then what people are reacting to is not so much homosexuality as it is an Otherness from the gender binary; someone who does not fit into the role of male or the role of female becomes the target of homophobia, regardless of their sexual activity.

This is important, because, as Wilchins reminds us, “although it looks like something we are, gender is always a doing rather than a being” (12, italics in original). Gender is performance, and when we perform outside the heteronormative binary, we draw criticism and even violent revulsion. Yet, as Wilchins writes, the youth today feel that “gender is the new fronteir: the place to rebel, to create new individuality and uniqueness, to defy old, tired, outdated social norms and, yes, occassionally drive their parents and sundry other authority figures crazy” (13). Gender, when seen as a performance, allows those who are examining and constructing their idenitty -usually but not always teenagers- to change the way they perform and experiment with other gender-ness.

Wilchins tells us that “gender is primarily a system of symbols and meanings – and the rules, privileges, and punishments pertaining to their use – for power and sexuality: masculinity and femininity, strength and vulnerability, action and passivity, dominance and weakness” (14, italics in original). This language presents gender in its binary form, but Wilchins seems to be pulling away from this, saying that while it is the predominant way we see it, that doesn’t make it right. Masculinity does not have to mean strength, action, and dominance.

However, and this is what was most important for me personally, when someone mixes these traits, that qualifies them as ‘queer.’ So if I identify myself and perform my gender as one of emotion (ie, vulnerability), action, and submission (ie, weakness), then I am queer. Particularly because I identify myself as a man. I am a man, and I think rather masculine, yet I identify as having primarily what the gender binary calls feminine traits. I like that this makes me queer; I’d been wondering how I could legitimately examine this world without being a part of it. This way, I am a part, but still an outlier. I am an insider who remains removed. I like that.

Once the introductions are done, Wilchins continues with “It’s Your Gender, Stupid!” Gender here is equated with pornography, in the sense that it is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. And, as Wilchins writes, “we see it once we know it” (23), a very important juxtoposition. We can know someone is presenting as male or female when we see them, meaning we know gender when we see it. But when we move outside the binary, when we expand our view of what gender is, then we must know gender before we see it.

It’s a question of identity. Do we identify more than two genders? Are the universal binary genders not all that exist (24)? Wilchins writes that “Identification is always an act, a repetition, a name we give to a collection of discrete traits, behaviors, urges, and empathies” (25). This means identification, like gender, is a performance. This is nothing surprising; anyone who has ever gone to a new school has experienced the possibility of changing their identity, being someone new, getting a ‘fresh start.’ If no one knows you, then you are free to be whoever you want. Rather than being as an opportunity to be dishonest, this freedom is usually used as an opportunity for people to be who they really are, not just who their past suggests they should be.

And just as identities evolve and are constantly shifting, Wilchins tells us that gender does the same. “Having any gender at all is really a sort of accomplishment, a sustained effort” (28). We must always continue to perform as whatever gender we identify as. If we stop performing as that gender, we bring questions of authenticity and begin to slide around the possibilities of gender.

Tht is not to say that gender is a spectrum. Wilchins is very insistent on this point. I myself was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of seeing gender as a spectrum, but Wilchins gave me the reason why. Wilchins tells me that “when you look closer, every spectrum turns out to be anchored by the same familiar two poles – male/female, man/woman, gay/straight. The rest of us are just strung out between them, like damp clothes drying on the line. The spectrum of gender turns out to be a spectrum of heterosexual norms, only slightly less oppressive but not less binary than its predecessors” (30-31). A spectrum really just is a binary. It’s just a binary that looks at the places between. But not as places in themselves so much as portions of one or the other side of the binary.

Wilchins at one point uses the pronoun ‘hir,’ describing someone who is not a he or a she. In the past, I’d more commonly seen “s/he” or such things, and I never understood why that was a problem. But now I know. “s/he” is a very clear binary. Someone is either she or he. And that slash, the space between them, is just a matter of degrees. I don’t think that all people are partially male and partially female. It’s a Sorietes Paradox.

Let me explain. When is a beach a beach? One grain of sand does not make a pile. But at some point, as you add one grain at a time, you DO have a point where it goes from not being a pile to being a pile. This is paradoxical because it at once suggests that one grain of sand DOES and DOES NOT make a difference to the quality of being a pile. We see this same kind of thing when we remove one hair at a time from someone’s head. At what point are they bald? Does one hair make them not-bald?

The heteronormative binary presents gender as this same paradox. It puts a Man on one end and a Woman on the other. Then, in between, there are little steps from one side to the other. So at what point does someone stop being a man and become a woman? 50%? 51? Same problem as the pile of sand. And if we throw other genders in there, like androgyny or a transgender, it doesn’t solve the problem. It just expands it. At what point between Man and Androgyn does a person stop being male?

Hir, on the other hand, is a step away from that binary. Hir, which I assume is a joining of “his” and “her” does suggest that the genders interweave with each other, but not necessarily as a spectrum. Gender doesn’t have to be a spectrum, and therefore does not have to be binary. Or, if you prefer, it is not binary, so it is not a spectrum. This sounds circular, and it is, but it’s circular in a tautological way, like “anything red is red” rather than in a fallacious way, like “the bible is true because it is the word of god, and I know it is the word of god because it says so in the bible.”

Wilchins ends the article with a similar point to circular reasoning. “The debate over the naturalness of binary sex is circular: Whatever reproduces must be one of two sexes because there are only two sexes to be. Thus, it is gender as a system of meaning that produces the ‘natural’ Mother Nature, male and female sexes, and the gender binary that establishes what is genderqueer” (32). In other words, it”s natural to have only two sexes because having only two sexes is natural. Which anyone can respond to with “but what if it’s not?”

*As for the same response to my point about gender binary and spectrum, my response is pretty simple. Maybe it isn’t; that is, maybe gender IS a binary and therefore a spectrum (or vice versa). But all the argument I have seen so far suggests that there are more than two genders (meaning it’s not binary) And if it’s not binary, it can’t be a spectrum. Spectrums are binary.

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