Gender, Sex, Identity and A Bunch of Other Fascinating Issues

Last weekend, I attended a workshop at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center on “Gender, the Search for Self and the Search for Acceptance,” facilitated by Chloe Schwenke, an ethicist who is herself a transgendered woman. Although much of the workshop centered on personal issues of gender and identity, it struck me that as writers, we can discover much depth and richness by asking the same questions.

For the workshop, we defined sex as the classification of people as male or female. Intersex individuals, that is, people possessing the external characteristics of both, are usually “assigned” to one sex or the other. Gender, on the other hand, is a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person.

In science fiction and fantasy, we have been playing around for a long time with such notions as more than two sexes/genders, none, fluid sexes/genders, and a diversity of gender role expressions. Every so often, a story that takes a new or not-new-but-splashy look at the field garners a lot of buzz, particularly in the queer and queer-friendly community. Yet much genre writing continues to perpetuate the world view of two oppositional and fixed genders, each with equally unyielding behavioral expectations. For many writers and readers, a character or society that goes too far outside the familiar becomes so uncomfortable as to fracture the necessary sympathetic identification. It strikes me, however, that even within the limitations of conventional portrayals of sex and gender, we can reach for greater depth. We can go beyond the Caveman Model of Gender Roles, the Separatist All-Men or All-Women Worlds, the Rambo-in-Drag/Supersensitive Male dichotomies and other variations already done to death.

To give you an idea what I’m talking about, here are some questions from the workshop. I’ve rephrased them to apply to characters, rather than personally.

How does your character know “what” that person is? What feelings, sensibilities, and other forms of awareness (other than simple body awareness) most make that person feel male, female, or somewhere in between?

Can you describe your character in non-gendered terms?

Does gender influence the spirituality of your character? How?

Has your character experienced a dissonance between what is expected and what was felt internally? How does the character deal with this tension? How does the character’s sense of integrity and honesty affect the response?

How does this character (and the surrounding culture) consider the issues of equality and fairness between the masculine, feminine and androgynous? (Is there a difference between equality and fairness?)

How does the character’s experience of gender affect the perception of the Divine, either within or outside the cultural norm?

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online. Read my essays on the writing life and how to survive reviews in Brewing Fine Fiction.

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Gender, Sex, Identity and A Bunch of Other Fascinating Issues — 10 Comments

  1. I’m fascinated by questions of how we know who and what we are from the inside, rather than what others tell us we must be. The whole nature-nurture debate goes back and forth, but meanwhile, we struggle with identity, wholeness, and honesty. Not to mention acceptance of ourselves and others.

  2. “Can you describe your character in non-gendered terms?”

    I wish – but not in ordinary English, at any rate. It’s steeped in gender (though some other languages are even worse!).

  3. Here are some non-gendered terms I might use to describe myself, if that’s any help: I’m a writer, I play Chopin piano preludes, I have two grown children; I prefer cotton to polyester, my kids are more comfortable on the computer than I am, I’m happier in a forest than in a city, I vividly remember the face of my English teacher on the day JFK was shot. All of these things could apply to either a man or a woman, and all give you some sense of what I’m like as a person (I hope). Other things I could say — I dance, I knit, I cook, I don’t wear a lot of jewelry — could be gender-neutral but in our society have a stronger feminine connotation.

  4. Thanks – yes, I see what you mean. I suppose I was thinking of your question in terms of describing a fictional character rather than myself. In the third person, at least, pronouns are an immediate and ubiquitous stumbling block, and one that generally requires some adaptation of the standard language to circumvent.

    It’s certainly possible to find items, like those in your list, that aren’t strongly gendered in our society, although it is easy enough to think of societies not distant in space or time in which many of them would be – where, for example, a woman might be more likely to have learnt the piano as an accomplishment, or a man to have had a formal education and thus a teacher. I suspect it may not be possible to find items that are “immune” to gendering, in fact. If maleness is associated with technology and femaleness with nature (as is often the case), for example, then it’s not a big extrapolation to see cotton as a more female fabric than polyester, the forest as more a more female environment than the city, and so on.

    Unfortunately (in my view) gendered language is inescapable because human beings are obsessed with gender and gendering. Even if you don’t intend it, your readers will find it. (This is why, in the trans community, it’s becoming more common to talk not of “passing”, as if that were an act of the trans person, but of “being passed” – i.e. of something that bystanders do to trans people whether they want it or not.)

  5. As a P.S., and an illustration of that last point, I was talking earlier about this question with someone who pointed out the existence of books in which the gender of the narrator is not known until the end, or possibly not at all. (Gene Kemp’s *The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler* and Susan Cooper’s *Green Boy* are two examples from children’s literature, Rose Macaulay’s *The Towers of Trebizond* from adult lit.) It’s true that such books exist, but I don’t believe that readers refrain from gendering the narrator – rightly, wrongly or superfluously – anyway. (You will find many reviews of *Towers of Trebizond* that describe the narrator as a young woman, for example, despite the reticence of the text; while the “surprise twist” at the end of Kemp’s book wouldn’t be a surprise if we hadn’t already come to a conclusion.)

    It’s the first question people ask about a newborn baby, and it’s one of the very first things people notice about a person seen in the street. As an experiment, try *not* to notice – it’s not easy! As long as your readers live in such a gender-drenched society, I fear that any author’s efforts to write free of gender, no matter how scrupulous, will be undone in the reading.

  6. Regarding the gendering of characters, one of the most interesting and surprising books I’ve read was Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. The POV character begins the story as very non-gendered, not without a biological sex, all the clues of which sex the character is are there even when the gender remains utterly mysterious. As the book progresses the character begins to develop a gendered identity and that development creates conflict in the plot.
    And the book was written in 1958 and very much not sci-fi, but it really brings home the way gendering, both internal and external, complicates the world.

    If you just assume that all language is gendered, like a cage you cannot escape, you are denying one of the main principles of language, which is that it can be made to express anything that it is possible to think.

    And of course the most important pronoun is naturally genderless. You really have to make a conscious decision to gender ‘I’.

  7. You really have to make a conscious decision to gender ‘I’.

    I don’t think so – as the examples I gave above from Kemp, Macaulay and Cooper illustrate. Most people feel very uncomfortable unless they are able to assign a gender to other people (including first-person narrators), and will do so on the flimsiest of (non-)evidence rather than be left in that uncomfortable place. It doesn’t require a conscious decision.

  8. I wasn’t talking about readers. It really is important to consciously gender the character when writing. I’ve read too much poor fiction where the author (maybe because s/he’s writing a perspective s/he’s uncomfortable with) completely fails to gender the character convincingly.

    I think actually what happens with reading is that if the reader identifies with the character, and the character’s sex is not explicitly named, the reader will assume the character’s gender matches their own, and if the character is slightly puzzling or acts in a way that is unfamiliar the reader will assign the opposite gender.

    From the way you described it, it seems like the surprise in Kemp is based on the potential conflict between gender and biological sex. And what you’ve described is perfectly true. Gender is something that we do to other people, automatically and unconsciously, and usually, but not always, based on the information the other people give to us through style choices, speech patterning, likes and dislikes, and context.

    Because gender is such an important part of the way we conceptualize our society, it is important to be aware of the way certain things are interpreted. If male pronoun + teacher = something different from female pronoun + teacher, the writer has to work harder to distinguish their character from the default. But defaults change through experience, and reading is one of those experiences.