Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer

People of Indeterminate Gender Freak Us Out?

Filed By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer | May 07, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

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This morning, a friend on Facebook posted this link to a blog called Hyperbole and a Half. The entry is titled, "Things That Can Make You Feel Like an Idiot Almost Instantly" -- confidence.pngfunny stuff, basically a list of things that make you feel uncomfortably self-conscious in public.

Third on the list is "People of Indeterminate Gender." It's short, you should read it. The blogger is female and heterosexual (I make that assumption because there's a pic of her with her boyfriend on the FAQ page) and I think, judging from a quick random look at previous posts, liberal-minded. She writes very funny stuff and the illustrations are pretty hilarious, too. A lot of it is humor about social anxiety, about awkwardness. I get the feeling she's, well, nice.

Anyway, I'm not going to attempt any analysis this morning. I just wanted to share it with y'all because I figured you might find it as interesting as I did that "People of Indeterminate Gender" made this list. I found it even more interesting that it was the most commented on.

Clearly this is something people worry about:

"The woman/man/person of indeterminate gender looks exactly like most of the people that come into the doctor's office that I work in every single day. So many women with facial hair. Do they not realize that there IS a solution out there?"

"I've been in a situation where I encountered a person of indeterminate gender. Actually, I see it when I go to the local art center. It's a small person, and it always wears loose shirts but I think there might be some boobs hiding in there. But it has a beard and mustache. But then it has a kind of high voice. WHAT IS IT?!?!?"

"Indeterminate gender makes me crazy. We had an androg working at our Wal-Mart and I got to where I avoid his/her line just so I wouldn't have to make the awkward eye contact and the totally awkward eye-roaming as I tried to guess . . . ."

"Androg"? That's a new one.

But then it gets good:

"Re: the indeterminate gender thing? Is it really that hard for y'all to just treat someone as a human being *first*? Are you that uncreative and mired in the ideas of gender roles that you can't figure out how to just be decent and communicate to someone as a person, rather than as a man or a woman? Does it ever occur to you that male and female might be a false binary in the first place, and some people are quite comfortable somewhere in the middle?

I don't look at *all* indeterminate these days, and am quite clearly female, but I was born intersexed, and was raised male. So I spent a lot of my life somewhere in the middle. While I understand people don't want to feel like they're being prejudiced or stigmatizing, if being around people in the middle seriously makes you uncomfortable, then guess what you're doing...? You need to think about that, and address the questions above. Things can't genuinely improve if they're just swept under the rug to satisfy your ego about being all tolerant and accepting.

Anyways, no harm, rant over, and I love this site. :D"

In response, the blogger shares this sweet, nostalgic and insightful story about her own flirtation with indeterminate gender.

Further down, someone indentifying as genderqueer puts in 2 cents. The blogger chimes back in a few times to explain herself. And most of this dialogue is conducted in a spirit of generosity, open-mindedness, and humor.

Sure, there are always a few mean-spirited idiots in the crowd:

"The point is this: If there is a Person of Indeterminate Gender (PIG? no, that's bad) who choses to be such, they have every right be. However, I have a right to mock them. When they decide to make an effort one way or the other, the laughter will cease."

They're ignored.

I know when we read stuff like this we have reactions of various levels of anger and pain and frustration, but the big picture is encouraging to me, and it stirs my utopian fantasies about the potential of the internet. This blog post and the comments it generated make up a little conversation among people who might never encounter each other anywhere else. Some people express their anxiety about something they don't know much about. Others share personal stories which shed light on the subject. Some are unmoved. Some are provoked to apologize. And, most importantly, a handful of people learn things about queer lives that they will take with them into every encounter they have with a "Person of Indeterminate Gender" for the rest of their lives.

Good stuff, right?


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This made me think of Pat from SNL years ago. We've come a long way.

I'm not sure that we have come a long way. The kind of anxiety that Julia Sweeney was mining with her character "Pat" is still very real and immediate. Encountering people whose gender we can't figure out is still profoundly unsettling for most people. I find it unsettling -- I've come to realize that the feeling of being unsettled is not a bad thing, that not everything has to be settled, but I still find it unsettling.

Don't worry about it, Steven.

Part of the problem for many with dealing with Transsexuality is that they feel the same way.

Looking in the mirror, and seeing a face of the opposite sex is profoundly distressing. But in order to break through to the other side, there will be a period, often of many years, where you look ambiguous. And all too often for older transitioners, that is a permanent situation.

You get instinctively unsettled by it. Not a lot you can do about your feelings, only your actions. But at least you can look away. You don't get reminded of it every time you look in the mirror. You don't have other people turning away from you, because you're a "freak" (to be totally non-PC).

That's why some trans people are, shall we say, a little sensitive about certain issues. They feel unsettled too, but can't escape it. Some can't deal.

I've been fairly lucky. I don't look too bad, objectively. But I am far more aware of my own flaws in appearance than others seem to be. I get unsettled too, you see, I know how you feel.

It's normal. You don't hate because of it. You don't treat people differently because of it. Some do though, that's the problem, not the instincts or the feelings.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | May 7, 2010 11:10 AM

I never really had a problem with Pat from SNL. It was obviously done in good fun without malice or hostility and always refrained from taking the lower road.
Some of the comments reminded me of the old aol chat rooms which were always being invaded by twisted people who either got their jollies on hate or fantasy. I'm always disturbed when someone refers to another human being as the pejorative "it". I think that person may be a sociopath in the making. Dehumanizing is what they do right before they harm or kill.

Yeah, Pat on SNL was on while I was in High School and I still have intense hatred for the character, due to other kids calling me Pat.

There was one sketch where somebody got so confused by Pat that they jumped out of a window to their death. If lethal violence is an appropriate response to gender ambiguity, it's almost never self-directed.

I don't think Pat was good fun at all.

Sheesh, it is not "PIG". Pig is a police officer with a nasty attitude. It is TWIG (thing with indeterminate gender). That's what goes at the end of GLB, GLBT. Just kidding. I didn't like PIG so I had to come up with an alternative.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | May 7, 2010 11:43 AM

Now that I find incredibly offensive.

Margaret was it the "just" or the "kidding" part that offended you? OK, I apologize if you self selected into my sarcasm. I'll get you out of it by changing it to be... I would rather be called a twig than a pig. Now it is a group of only one (me) and I wish you a very happy day.

You're a moron and I hope you die. Just kidding.

I think one of the issues about the P... I... G... snark (I'm not going to use that acronym) is that it's often used as a way of saying someone is ugly in a certain way. It's not used about androgynous models, queer-chic hip types or the young Leonardo DiCaprio, it's used against "ordinary" looking people who are being seen as an "IT" (and yes, some people might identify as 'it' but most androgynous looking people don't). So the acronym has within it a high degree of lookism and judgment.

Some ethnic groups get stuck with the term more than others... living in a city with a very large Asian population, I've heard many white people say this about Chinese people. I think many African American women have had their womanhood disrespected in this way. Yes, the blog is pretty harmless, and silly but riffing on it is an insult even if the OP tried to mitigate it by focusing on her own humiliation. Just like there are those who feel having someone around them who's seen as ugly (or, for instance, disabled) is putting a damper on their otherwise perfect sunshiny day.

Sometimes what freaks people out when they don't know my gender is that they're not sure how to relate to me right off the bat. There are subtle differences in the way some people communicate with men, women, masculine or feminine people. They pick different topics and use different language. This goes away eventually when they get to know me more. They just don't know where to start.

I'm not bothered when I'm unintentionally misgendered. People really are inclined to just pick one of the two genders they know. And I'm perfectly aware that I don't fit neatly into "woman." I'm not trying to. I mostly just find it amusing when I'm called "sir" or "he" because they're probably basing it on something as simple as my hair or shirt. And they often think I'm considerably younger than I am. When they realize their error they're usually very apologetic because they assume they've really insulted me.

The only time it gets unpleasant is when the person knows full well I'm female and act like I've done something wrong...like I've made them gay or asexual or something. I've messed with their sexual orientation somehow. I just don't know my place as a female. I don't know how to be feminine or wasn't properly taught how to be a woman. And occasionally the "You're making lesbians look bad." But these are really their issues and insecurities not mine. It's these people who intentionally misgender me or may call me "it" or "thing" or "not a real girl"...as a way of teaching me some sort of lesson. They're on the same list as those who yell "dyke" or "fag" at me. It feels exactly the same.

SarasNavel | May 8, 2010 12:12 PM

GrrrrlRomeo, I truly enjoy your posts, thank you.

You revealed something wonderful and interesting with your post. People that are secure in their gender, all parts of it, view this issue very different from those that are not. By secure in this instance, I mean that their internal identity, social presentation, and body all match. And therein lies the problem -and challenge- for many parts of the gender spectrum. We need to get over being defensive and adopt an attitude much closer to that of butch lesbians while we are in transition. We need something that is akin to trans pride. But, I'm not sure that is possible. It worked for Gays and Lesbians that can blend but gender spectrum folks may have biology working against us.

Often people's reaction to Humans On the Gender Spectrum (HOGS...hmmm, maybe not) appears eerily similar to their reaction to movies featuring animated renderings of people when the realism is almost but not-quite perfect. There's a name for the concept but it escapes me at the moment. Point is, there are intrinsic functions in our neural anatomy that do things like recognize faces, voices and even body movement styles. It's part of how our ancestors identified threat from ally. POGS (People On the Gender Spectrum, it's cuter, and raises questions) may biologically be like those animations that inadvertently presented mixed cues. This would account for many people who are more comfortable being in the middle somewhere feeling forced to adopt a handful of visual cues of one gender or another, even though they don't intrinsically feel any other need to do so.

If this is on the right track it could also explain why transsexuals that may not otherwise fit in without question tend to adopt *all* of the gender cues they can. They do it because it works most of the time. Sheeple tend to make quick, almost instinctive, decisions based on those cues. Unfortunately, that may also account for accusations of being "phoney" or "dishonest". I don't know how much of that is biological and how much is learned.

And (again, if these thoughts are not ridiculous), should anyone use these ideas to take the stance that it's biological to treat trans people with contempt and hatred and call us "it", please remember that the ability to do things like killing, rape and physical abuse are biological as well, but humans and many social animals have largely risen above them.

Sadly, PoIG (?) people do tend to freak people out. It's half the reason why Boy George was so popular back in the early 80s when his crossdressing was so scandalous. It helped him sell records, but most aren't nearly as lucky.

Mocha Jean Herrup | May 7, 2010 6:44 PM

It totally agree with you Steven! Very encouraging indeed. I LOVE dialogue!

Renee Thomas | May 7, 2010 7:47 PM

It's odd really - I'm employed in a field where I have daily contact with the public and straight folks have NEVER mis-gendered me. Now I'm under no illusions of passing 100% of the time yet they seem to be able to manage the courtesy to get it right 100% of the time. It seems to be dykes of a certain age that invariably, casually and pointedly screw it up.

Full disclosure – I identify as a dyke too

And Deena . . . don’t even start, spare us both and just put a sock in it

Lovely Renee. It is so nice that you thought of me.

I find it interesting that we have such a hard time with this. I think it's because humans are categorizers, just like any other animal. We want to define others so we know how to act.

But I also find it interesting in light of a sub-culture of Japan, which has the Visual Kei movement.