Drew Cordes

Dehumanization & the Hegemony of Gendered Language

Filed By Drew Cordes | February 08, 2013 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: birth gender, boy or girl, combat hegemony, gender, language

The ways in which language reinforces the gender binary are familiar to many of us. The most immediate example being the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun in many of the world's tongues. There have been many attempts to sidestep this limitation historically and in the contemporary queer/trans community, from the invention of new pronouns such as "zie, zir, yo," repurposing the gender-neutral yet plural Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bigstock-Human-Gender-Icons-30597875.jpg"they" for singular purposes, or not having a pronoun preference at all (the latter being my favorite because it forces other people to make a choice they've never thought about making before). At this point, none of these options has been able to do much more than carve out a niche of recognition within the small communities in which they were innovated.

Additionally, many languages go a step further to masculinize and feminize various nouns and adjectives. In Spanish, for example, one can be femininely attractive, "guapa," or masculinely attractive, "guapo," with no neutral option. Similarly, even simple objects are gendered -- car, "el coche," is masculine; table, "la mesa," is feminine. (There is apparently no rhyme or reason for how objects are gendered; they just are, which is pretty much universally frustrating to neophytic students of Spanish-as-second-language at some point.)

Seemingly all of life conspires to support the binary. The sinister aspect of this being that it nestles largely unnoticed under our collective nose. There is no mainstream cultural dialogue about "the pronoun problem" in English-speaking countries. Native Spanish speakers don't perceive their language's gendered means of addressing objects and adjectives as an issue. It just is.

That is hegemony -- the domination of cultural archetypes and methodology enforced and reinforced so slyly that one struggles to even perceive the influence. Frightening, yes? Makes you wonder how much of your life is truly yours, and how much you just unwittingly perform and submit to -- a conglomeration of customs and standards socialized and conditioned into what you consider You.

What has been raising my neck hair the most lately is the manifestation of this hegemony that occurs when life itself begins. Birth.

When we are born, the first thing, literally the first concern of everyone in the room aside from the prevention of death and injury, is gendering the infant. The child is and remains an "It" until it is gendered, and the way our language is constructed we intuitively comprehend an "It" as a thing; not a person, a thing. Gender is the lens through which our humanity is first perceived and understood. Without an immediately recognizable gender we are less than. The way in which we are understood and countenanced is handicapped.

This may seem all theoretical and abstract, so let's get concrete with some examples of how this might affect someone personally. An acquaintance of mine with a trans child recounted the story of her delivery at a recent public trans event. After giving birth, she said the doctor told her, "We think it's a girl." She said her response was, "You think?!" Then the doctor assured her, "It's a girl. It's a girl." In this moment, the joy of birthing a healthy child and that universal, unconditional phenomenon known to us as a mother's love is supplanted by fear and outrage at the inability to group the child into a preconceived standard. Our language and the standards it creates can come between even a mother and child.

Let's look at another hypothetical situation. Two mothers birth two respective children -- one intersex and not able to be immediately assigned a definitive gender by our highly sophisticated glance-at-the-genitals-and-proclaim technique, the other a cis, vagina-possessing "traditional" girl. One OBGYN declares, "It's a girl!" The other hesitates, uncertain. When asked by the mother and father if the child is a boy or girl, the doc has no choice but to admit uncertainty.

However, before the issue can be discussed or the child carefully passed and entrusted to the exhausted parents eager to start loving and bonding, life-threatening complications are detected in both children. Both are whisked away to the always-heartbreaking NICU. Shortly after, the problems prove insuperable for both children, and both die. The doctors cautiously re-enter the respective delivery rooms to break the bad news to the parents:

"I'm sorry, but your daughter has passed on. She had serious breathing problems we were unable to remedy, and she died soon after she arrived in the NICU."

"I'm sorry, but your baby has passed on. It had serious breathing problems we were unable to remedy, and it died soon after it arrived in the NICU."

Which will be easier for the mother to get over: the death of a little girl, or the death of an It? Does the humanity of an It not feel inherently less than the humanity of the little girl? The little girl we can almost picture in our mind. Not so with an It. Does giving birth to an It not smack of some unthinkable monstrosity? Nothing inspires fear in humans like the undefined, after all (See: most good horror/suspense films -- Alien(s), Jaws). And nothing trumps love quite so effectively as fear.

The reason this happens, as far as I can deduce, is that babies are pretty much a blank slate. We have no other means of connection, no other way to identify or empathize with them human-to-human. Their brains are undeveloped, so there's no intellectual interaction; outstanding physical characteristics are minimal (aside from that temporary-but-still-freaky, cervically smushed alien skull) -- even eye color is still in flux, and hair, if they have any, is liable to change as well. Gender is all one can latch on to.

And latch we do. We're a pack of leeches when it comes to humanizing our infants via gender. Hell, as soon as they can, hospitals plop pink and blue caps on top of those aforementioned alien skulls. Parents take them home to gendered nurseries and toys. It goes so far that doctors used to regularly (and sometimes still) perform unnecessary surgeries to make intersex infants' genitals look more "traditional," rendering judgment on what the kid's gender should be for the rest of its life before its eyes can even focus. All this in the name of subscribing to familiar definitions, adhering to the standards set by the tool we innately rely upon far, far above all others combined to countenance the world around us: language.

The gender binary is the most fundamental way people unconsciously attempt to connect, because it has been absorbed from the gendered structure of language. The first thing we do with everyone we encounter, infancy to senescence, is gender them. (Anyone doubting this claim need only monitor their actions and thoughts the next time they espy someone whose gender they cannot automatically place. The need to lump becomes a momentary obsession.) The gender binary and its linguistic buttress make empathy possible, it bestows humanity, it grants personhood.

When we don't subscribe to its qualifiers, we lose something in the eyes of society. We become less than. We become Other. We become "It" -- a thing. A human is hard to disregard (says I, the hypocrite who routinely walks past homeless people asking for money), but anyone can disregard a thing. Even beyond infancy, which do you think is easiest for a shitty parent to abandon or abuse: a little girl, a little boy, or an It? Though greatly expounded, it is this same principle that has led to some of the most horrific crimes in human history. It's unthinkable to us how so many seemingly unfeeling Germans in WWII could coldly kill off so many Jewish people and other minorities. The answer is actually quite simple. They didn't think they were killing human beings. They were killing things. Each one an "It." Hundreds upon thousands upon millions of Its.

The difference, however, is that Hitler manufactured Jews' "otherness" via propaganda and scapegoating; in the case of trans* and intersex people, our otherness is congenital to our culture, our language, in the words I'm writing and you're reading right now. It's present. We're already othered. We're already "It."

So, how does one combat hegemony? How does one combat language? As you might expect, the answers are unclear. This is not like a political battle, where the road of lobbying and campaigning is tough, but at least you can see the road. Here, we're basically groping in the dark. (This is unfortunately the case all too often in the struggle for trans* empowerment.) All I can do is suggest the same small, humble actions I usually do for problems of this sort: visibility and friendly person-to-person interaction/education.

You cannot change the machine, especially not overnight, but as is happening right before our eyes with the (admittedly much simpler) issue of marriage equality, you can change individual hearts, and before too long the sea change of all those hearts can reach critical mass and deliver the status quo one hell of a thump.


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