Engaging in Gender Culture
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Recently, the state of Virginia has passed into law the option for people to select an ‘X’ gender option on their driver’s license.
I’ve been chatting with various other transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folks and activists to see where we stand on this issue.
This all started because I was tagged in an Instagram post by another creator that was a screenshot of a tweet. It read:
not nonbinary as in “add a third X gender marker to licenses” but nonbinary as in “remove all genders from licenses, holy shit why would you want a cop to know you’re trans”
This tweet, to me, seemed very surface level in both its assumptions and conclusions and also comes from a place of privilege.
Allow me to break this down.
Firstly, this tweet seemed to me to be victim blaming. Essentially arguing that we as transgender people are to blame for our own abuse. Me being out and public about my transgender identity is not the problem. Other people’s transphobic reactions are the problem. If I suffer abuse from someone being exposed to the fact I am transgender, their hatred and abuse is the problem. So wouldn’t removing the gender marker entirely aid in this? Sure, in some ways.
However, this brings me to my next argument. This tweet suggests that we as trans and GNC people are otherwise “unclockable” and that violence comes solely after seeing our identification. As someone who is often read as trans (or at least queer), I am often harassed by people who will never even see my license. If someone is going to harass us, they don’t wait to check our ID first. They simply judge our appearance and choose to engage in violence against us. The question here, then, is if we are not clocked before having our ID looked at… wouldn’t we be afterwards?
Well this leads to another question. How often do other people even pay attention to the gender marker? I was pulled over by a cop and received a speeding ticket. Despite having my license in hand with its previous F gender marker, he still typed M on my speeding ticket. Again, most cis people are simply going to make judgments about our appearances and no other indicator, nothing we can say or do, will change their minds.
This idea has then led me to consider the importance of affirmation through gender for trans and GNC folks. Many trans folks have expressed excitement in the official recognition of their gender and gender identity. I have preached the importance of embracing gender, not erasing gender.
If we removed the gender category from documentation as some other countries have done, we also remove transgender, nonbinary, and GNC folks’ ability to engage in gender culture.
What is gender culture?
It is the different forms of culture (and subsequent subcultures) that evolve relevant to gender. It is the events and rites of passage we have created relevant to one’s gender. It’s gender reveal parties. It’s gender on documentation. It’s Quinceañeras, Bar vs Bat Mitzvahs, Sweet 16s.
The current idea I’ve been considering with others is… what is the balance between increasing inclusion in gender culture vs removing a part of gender culture entirely?
I elected to get the ‘X’ gender marker on my license because for me, a profound way to engage in gender culture is to explicitly reject it. At any opportunity, when asked my gender, I take great pride in writing ‘N/A’ because it is my way of subverting gender roles and expectations.
This can also be said about trans people who have new gender reveal parties later in life. Is that a bad idea because gender reveals are unwoke due to some folks’ obsession with categorizing others, or is it a good idea because a trans person is being respected and allowed to engage in gender culture in an affirming way? Where is this line?
If we look across different cultures that have accepted genders beyond male and female, oftentimes, these people are embraced in gender culture. They are often religious or spiritual leaders. They are often healers. They are often representatives. And these are all relevant to their gender identity.
I feel as though, since having a gender marker on my license is part of my current home’s gender culture, I want the right to engage in it. I want to be able to publicly declare I am nonbinary and be officially recognized in that.
Imagine if, rather than embracing new pronouns and creating more inclusive environments where folks get to play with gender culture, we instead destroyed that by all using solely gender neutral pronouns? What if instead of being able to assert our pronouns for ourselves playing with all sorts of configurations like he, she, they, it, ze, e, ey, and more… that we were instead told to all have the exact same pronoun in the name of inclusivity?
This begs the question… What is more inclusive?
Is it more inclusive to open up gender options or to remove them all entirely?
It is a basic human right to engage in culture… but how much culture do we get rid of in the name of inclusion?
When having this discussion with a friend, we reached a mutual conclusion that the appeal of these events within gender culture is that they are opt-in events, and rather than erase them, we should invite them to be less limiting. It’d be wrong to force someone to engage in gender culture, but it would also be wrong to deny someone the opportunity to engage in gender culture if they want to.
What this would mean is that anyone regardless of gender can have a Sweet 16, but also no one should be forced to have a Sweet 16. That trans, nonbinary, and GNC people should be afforded the privilege of engaging in gender culture if they so choose but also that no one expects or forces anyone to engage in gender culture.
Many issues stem from this forcefulness. Culture should be opt-in so that those who don’t wish to engage don’t have to.
However, aside from all of this, we do know that by categorizing people, knowing that identification can be abused and people can be targeted. How can we promote gender for those who find solace in it while also destroying gender roles, expectations, cissexism, and transphobia?
Back to the original question at hand. How does a gender marker on documentation come into play with all of this? Well, there are many routes we can go down as we move forward. One would be to make gender as a form of categorization to be completely optional and opt-in. Right now, we are forced to select a gender marker. This would be essentially like if we were forced to choose from having a Sweet 16 for girls, Sweet 16 for boys, or a Sweet 16 for nonbinary people… where is the option to not have a party if I don’t want one?
By making the inclusion of a gender marker entirely optional and opt-in, many cisgender people wouldn’t even think consciously to go out of their way to add it. This would normalize all folks (regardless of gender identity) not having gender markers. However, plenty of cis people also have no problem in disclosing their gender, so it’d be just as easy to include it if they so choose. This allows trans, nonbinary, and GNC folks to do whatever they feel most comfortable with.
For some people, the ‘X’ gender option was like a breath of fresh air to finally feel affirmed through an official lens, for others it was a sigh of frustration at yet another thing that feels confining and forced.
I am someone who enjoys engaging in gender culture because I enjoy explicitly subverting it rather than erasing everything entirely to begin with.
I want someone to ask my pronouns so I can declare for myself. I want someone to ask my gender identity so I can scream nonbinary. I want to be able to share this about myself and be loud, out, proud, and visible—especially for those who are not afforded the same privilege of visibility. I don’t want to just live in fear of abuse and therefore remove all questions and categories on the chance someone will react poorly to knowing the truth about me—especially since they can act poorly to me regardless of my documentation.
But removing the documentation is a concrete way to protect people from abuse.