Experiencing Gender Variation

Last week, J. Sumerau discussed the development and ongoing recruitment for the Transgender Religion Survey. In this post, J. discusses zir own gender experience, and the importance of amplifying the voices and experiences of gender variant people.  

It has been over two decades since I first heard the terms crossdresser and transsexual. I still feel a smile creep across my face anytime I hear or see these words today even though I rarely use them anymore because once upon a time they gave voice to something I did not yet know how to talk about or make sense of about myself.

As part of an ongoing effort to amplify and document gender variant experiences and voices in scholarly and public discourse, I will use this post to briefly discuss some ways I experience my own gender variation. In so doing, however, it is important to note that my experience is only one of a vast multitude of diverse ways gender variant people experience themselves, sex, gender, and other aspects of this world (for more examples readers may want to start by checking out a new book called Trans/Portraits or other posts wherein people discuss gender variant experiences and options online). In other words, the voices and experiences of gender variant people are as broad and diverse as any other broadly labeled population I have come across to date, and my own experience is only one possibility within this much broader population. I thus offer my own experience as a compliment to ongoing efforts to more broadly disseminate the variety of gender experience throughout our contemporary social world.

Recognizing the diversity and variation within and between gender variant populations is especially important in my case because my own experience fluctuates regularly between various ways people experience gender. For example, there are people who experience more permanent forms of biological and / or social transition as imperative, necessary, and essential to their health, happiness, and well being. As medical research continues to demonstrate, these people need and deserve access, support, and resources for transition, and should be encouraged and affirmed in their transition endeavors at all levels of society. Across the spectrum of gender possibilities, there are people who experience more permanent forms of biological and / or social transition as unnecessary or optional for their health, happiness, and well being in this world. In such cases, the ability to safely transform their appearance, demeanor, or other facets from day to day or within any other time frame, in given circumstances, or in varied ways across the life course represents the gender experience in need of encouragement and affirmation. There are also many variations and nuances people experience between and beyond these two options. Whether one exists on either end of the spectrum I utilize above or somewhere in between or beyond this spectrum in terms of gender, (to me) the core of these experiences lies in the pursuit of autonomy for all people regardless of how they identify with, experience, and make sense of sex and gender in their own lives.

This vast spectrum of gender possibilities is something I confront every day because I tend to fluctuate back and forth between the two options I elaborated above. On some days, I am certain that I will fully transition biologically and socially at some point, and I will spend time looking over the options, researching doctors and procedures, and drawing inspiration from emerging narratives shared by people who transitioned at various points of the life course. At such times, I am certain that I need to transition to be fully satisfied in myself and my life, and I am incredibly grateful that I am lucky enough to have a life partner and close friends I can talk to about how I am feeling, transition plans, and how we will collectively navigate transition processes. On other days, however, I am equally certain that I will never fully transition biologically or socially, and I feel very happy about my ongoing back and forth between masculine and feminine appearances, dressing or otherwise appearing as various gender when I go out at varied times, and my efforts to blend varied elements of myself on any given day. At such times, I am certain that I should not biologically or socially transition in full because fluidity is the road to my own satisfaction, and I am equally grateful that I am lucky enough to have a life partner and close friends I can talk to about and show my fluidity without any pressure to “be only one thing” at any given time.

While the two aforementioned types of days allow me to recognize and appreciate the experiences of people who experience gender in each of these ways, there is unfortunately a third type of day. On this third type of day, I feel torn apart and lost within competing desires to be fluid and to fully transition at the same time. On such days, someone will call me mam or sir depending on my appearance and how they interpret that appearance, and I will want to scream, cry, or disappear because such moments remind me that I do not exist for many people in our world at present. On most such days, I hide in my home to the extent that I can or only go out at night when there are less people around to misgender and / or cisgender me by trying to fit me into their own assumptions and expectations. When I have to go out on such days, I find myself shaking inside and frightened every moment I encounter another person. At such times, I am certain that I need to transition and I am certain that I should not transition at the same time, and I realize all too clearly that I am only free and safe when I am alone or with my life partner and close friends who do not expect me to be a certain type of thing all the time or at any time, but rather help me to manage this type of day anyway they can.

These three types of days repeat throughout my life, and have for a long time now. In the midst of the first type, I see myself in others who seek to and / or accomplish transition in a world that has set numerous unnecessary barriers in their path, and attempts to erase, negatively mark or define, and punish our existence in this world. In the midst of the second type, I see myself in others in search of the freedom and safety to vary who they are in a world that seeks to box everyone into one static option, and often only offers fear, shame, and other forms of punishment for those who refuse to conform. In the midst of the third type, I just try to remember the few experiences I have had in explicitly gender neutral spaces where static, fluid and everywhere in between are welcomed and affirmed, and imagine what our world might be like if such spaces were much more common while I try to feel better about the ongoing battle inside me. In all such cases, however, I am confronted by just how much gender matters to one’s experiences in every facet of our current social world.

This observation especially hits home every time I notice just how differently I am treated when I appear feminine to someone and / or appear to not quite fit “feminine or masculine only” to someone else. In my case, the latter is a much more common experience whereas the former typically happens in darker environments and / or when people approach me from behind while interpreting my long hair, clothing, and / or body language as indicative of a feminine self. The difference in treatment when one is interpreted as masculine and when one is interpreted as feminine is dramatic and obvious. Further, the ways one is treated when they are identified as “possibly assigned male” while wearing or acting in a fashion typically assigned feminine are often terrifying and dangerous. Especially as someone who often can be interpreted as assigned male (intentionally or not), I see the disparities long outlined and opposed by gender scholars and activists everywhere I go because I regularly experience privilege and marginalization in varied aspects of my interactions with others depending upon the ways others interpret and assign meaning to my body, my appearance, and my selfhood.

In fact, how I decide to dress or walk or talk on a given day, how people interpret these endeavors, and what type of day from those listed above I am having in a given moment all collectively shape what the world looks like to me from day to day, situation to situation, and person to person. As I noted above, I am actually quite lucky in that I have a supportive network of people who embrace and affirm me in the midst of any of these experiences, and I further have symbolic and instrumental resources due to other aspects of my appearance and current circumstances that also provide strategies for mitigating such experiences. For me, a large part of the push to amplify the voices of gender variant people (as well as people in other marginalized social positions whether they are also gender variant or not) lies in doing what small part I can in the ongoing pursuit of such support and affirmation for the many people who do not have access to such networks or other important resources at present. As we have learned in relation to many marginalized communities over time, broader recognition of the existence and experiences of diverse groups often helps facilitate better understanding and acceptance of such populations over time. As someone who remembers learning that neither sciences nor religions appeared to either know I existed or have anything positive to say about my existence not so long ago, I think an important step in moving forward involves documenting and amplifying gender variant existence, and the multitude of ways people identify with, experience, and make sense of sex and gender throughout our world.

In my own case, the above offers a snapshot of my experience. I typically identify as a transgender and / or non-binary genderqueer depending on what type of day I am having at the time. In some ways, the use of both terms to capture the variation in my experience is comforting to me. In fact, I adopt a similar strategy when seeking to explain to others my sexuality (i.e., bisexual and pansexual Queer as a recognition of being on the bi spectrum in ways commonly described as pansexual and Queer) and my religion / spirituality (i.e., agnostic and / or skeptical non-believer as a recognition of my acknowledgement that I don’t know or care if there is a higher power or not in ways commonly described as being skeptical of unverified secular and religious claims). In the same way I exist and experience the world between common assumptions about gay/lesbian and hetero/straight sexualities and between common assumptions about religion and nonreligion, my existence and experience of gender lies somewhere between trans and cis gender with an appreciation for and recognition of people who exist and experience this world in relation to other locations within the broad spectrum of gender possibilities.

As a result, I want to close this post with two invitations for other gender variant people regardless of their sex, sexual, religious, or other social locations. First, as an editor of this blog and on behalf of my co-editors, I want to invite any gender variant person in search of an outlet for sharing their voice and experience to submit – anonymously or named – their stories to Write Where It Hurts. We welcome your experiences and perspectives, and will be happy to provide a space for sharing them for those who wish to do so. Second, as noted in last week’s post, I want to invite any gender variant person who is interested to participate in the Transgender Religion Survey. Recruitment continues on the survey itself, and we welcome your voices and experiences with and / or about religion and nonreligion.

For questions or to submit a post to Write Where It Hurts, readers may contact us at wewritewhereithurts@gmail.com

For more information, official survey documentation, and / or to participate in the Transgender Religion Survey, please visit: http://researchsurveyor.com/surveys/index.php?r=survey%2Findex&sid=568681&lang=en

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The Transgender Religion Survey

In this post, J. Sumerau discusses the motivations, contents, and goals of a survey effort seeking to document and amplify the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from social scientific surveys about religion and nonreligion in American society.

In the past few years, contemporary religious and nonreligious commentators have begun to issue formal and informal statements concerning sex and gender diversity. As transgender women and men, intersex people, non-binary people, agender people, genderqueer people, and other groups of people who do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “woman/man” sex and gender binaries gain more recognition in American society and continue to fight for equal rights and representation in this country, some of the largest religious traditions in the country – including but not limited to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Catholic Church – have started issuing official statements about these groups of people. While some of these statements have been positive (such as the recent changes occurring within Reform Judaism to incorporate greater recognition of sex and gender diversity), many of them have been negative (such as the Southern Baptist Convention denouncing transgender, intersex, and non-binary existence).

At the same time, debates have emerged (especially online) within nonreligious communities about these populations and their place in American society. Like their religious counterparts, some of these examples have included positive depictions of such communities and calls for greater recognition, inclusion, and support of sex and gender diversity in America. However, some other nonreligious leaders and lay people have taken the opposite side while adopting and repeating negative stereotypes and condemnations of these communities. If the historical experiences of various marginalized people and communities offer any clues to these patterns, one may assume that religious and nonreligious statements about sex and gender diversity will only increase, that such statements may have far ranging effects on policy, politics, and the everyday experiences of many people, and that politicians (as presidential candidate Marco Rubio did earlier this week) may seize on these statements to justify opposition to equal rights for all people regardless of sex and gender status, identification, and experience.

As we watched these patterns unfold over the last couple of years while doing research and teaching concerning sex and gender groups and statuses often missing from traditional research agendas, measurement strategies, and protocols, some supportive colleagues and I became interested in what sex and gender groups typically missing from existing surveys might say about these patterns, the statements religious and nonreligious people made about sex and gender diversity, and their own religious and nonreligious experiences. To begin exploring this question, I began explicitly asking transgender, intersex, and non-binary people I encountered at various events for their opinions on these topics, for advice about incorporating these opinions and experiences into scholarship, and for advice concerning the best way to create a questionnaire or survey capable of capturing such opinions for scholarly dissemination and publication. While I initially only went to events and meetings I already attended occasionally or was already acquainted with, I gradually began to find and attend other meetings and events in hopes of gathering the most diverse array of advice, opinions, and suggestions I could. Specifically, I sought out people in each of these groups who experienced life in varied racial, class, regional, community, and political contexts in hopes of developing a study that could be as inclusive as possible of the immense variation contained within any common sex and gender status, group, or community categories.

Overall, the lesson I learned from all these informal inquiries was that if anything characterized the groups experiences of and opinions about religion and nonreligion it was diversity. People in each group agreed about many things, disagreed about many other things, and accomplished both of these options from question to question at times. As a result, I decided to fashion a survey that would allow people to self-identify and self-define their selves, experiences, and attitudes concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of American society. With this goal in mind, I turned to a supportive colleague with extensive experience designing surveys, and we further recruited another colleague who did their master’s work on sex and gender diversity and worked with us on other pieces on these issues related to religion. The three of us developed survey questions that allowed for a lot of variation in terms of responses, and then I took these questions back to people I had consulted previously to evaluate our efforts.

Over time, this process of construction and revision led to a survey instrument wherein respondents who choose to participate may define themselves (via multiple options or written in their own words; for example the gender identification question has 17 multiple choice options and an open-ended other response respondents may write in) in varied ways on every single variable, discuss their experiences and attitudes in their own words via open-ended options tied to questions about religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions and categories (for example, rather than assuming an experience with sex status, there is an open-ended question where respondents can share and define such experience in their own words), and wherein respondents may answer questions commonly offered on other religion and nonreligion surveys that generally do not have sex and gender measurements or only allow male/female or man/woman options for sex and / or gender.

Recently, we launched this survey online, and we are currently in the process of recruiting and gathering respondents through social media, conversations with national organizations, and through word of mouth in various communities. With recruitment under way, I wanted to use this space to discuss the details of the survey for anyone who may be considering participation. Simply put, the survey is a combination of multiple choice and open ended questions focused on religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions in contemporary America. Anyone who participates will have the opportunity to self define (either through the selection of one of many options provided in the survey or by writing in their own self identification in their own words) their own gender, sex, sexuality, race, education, income, religious or nonreligious affiliation, year of birth, state or region of residence, employment status, healthcare access, and political views. Respondents will also encounter a series of questions ascertaining religious, nonreligious, and other social experiences, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs (most of these also include open ended options for response and / or elaboration). Rather than assuming anything about the populations eligible for this study, we have specifically designed the survey itself to allow people to identify in their own ways, and discuss their own opinions, experiences, attitudes and beliefs.

Since our goal here is to document and amplify the experiences and opinions of sex and gender populations typically left out of surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions, anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries is eligible for participation in this study. As such, the focus of this survey rests upon comparing and contrasting the variation, diversity and complexity of sex and gender groups typically missing from previous surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other aspects of social life.

As part of contemporary institutional research processes, we developed a shorthand  label for describing and explaining the project to audiences and reviewers beyond the target population. After consulting with various members of different sex and / or gender groups, we decided to name the project the Transgender Religion Survey for official purposes because this option received the most support from members of these various social groups.

Especially considering that many sex and gender groups do not necessarily use or identify with the term “transgender” and many spiritual, nonreligious, and even some religious people do not necessarily use or identify with the term “religion,” we recognize that this name is not perfect and understand the perspectives of people who might prefer other names or not use or identify with these terms in daily life. However, for the purposes of this study and following the lead of some other large scale efforts to incorporate sex and gender groups often marginalized and erased in contemporary American society, we use transgender in the official survey documentation as a broad umbrella term for anyone who does not fit neatly into societal assumptions about binary sex and / or gender status, identification, expression, and / or display. Likewise, for the purposes of this study religion is defined as of or having to do with assumptions, beliefs, and practices regarding the supernatural.

While many people who fit within the broad definitions noted above identify in a wide variety of ways, shift and change language and identification terms and definitions over time in varied ways, and have very distinct experiences, beliefs and characteristics, we selected these terms as broad descriptors for the overall effort. Within the survey itself, respondents will define themselves in terms of sex, gender, and religion, and our analyses and use of this data will be built upon the ways people self identify and describe themselves, the variations and distinct experiences shared by the varied populations, and the representations respondents select for their distinct lives, groups, and experiences with religion, nonreligion, and other social phenomena. Rather than attempting to pick a definition for this or that group, we thus allow people to define themselves, and we will utilize their self definitions to compare and contrast variation among sex and gender groups concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of contemporary American society.

As a result, this project does not seek to define the characteristics of specific groups (i.e., what is transgender, what is Christian, what is atheist, what is intersex, etc.). There are many talented and capable activists and scholars engaged in such work at present, but in this case we will utilize the definitions and terms selected and discussed by the respondents themselves. Our goal is thus to compliment the work of sex and gender activists and scholars by incorporating the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from other surveys into other areas of contemporary scholarship.

In closing, I encourage all eligible people (i.e., anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries) to consider participating in this study. While I hope for the day when all sex and gender groups are regularly recognized, included, and represented in scholarly efforts, I am reminded of how far we have to go to reach this goal every year when I encounter students that learn of many sex and gender groups for the first time in my classes. With this survey effort, we seek to continue and compliment ongoing efforts to increase the awareness and recognition of sex and gender diversity in contemporary society by documenting some ways varied sex and gender groups experience and think about religion and nonreligion.

For more information, official survey documentation noted above, and / or to participate in the study, please visit: http://researchsurveyor.com/surveys/index.php?r=survey%2Findex&sid=568681&lang=en

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Ripped Pages, Erased words – lessons from the unintended audience

A writer across genres and disciplines, this anonymous contributor is playing the professional field. She is debating whether to continue tenure track pursuits or focus on a career that lets her write what she chooses while pursuing advocacy work. She is grateful for the conversation/reflection that inspired this essay. 

There were two times in my life – once as a child, another as a young adult – where I was asked to destroy my words. In both situations, men asked me to get rid of my words – a journal and a blog. As a survivor of sexual assault and a feminist scholar aware of gendered language and silence, it was important for my own journey as a writer to fully name and forgive how I had responded to write as a result of those moments. I write this to remind myself why I write, for whom I write and to face the fears that have emerged in what I could/want to write and publish.

First, the journal writing I was doing as a 10-11 year old was framed by divorce, moving, death of a childhood friend and grandparents’ return to Puerto Rico. In that time period, abstract thought developing in my brain along with a great deal of loss in my environment creo un sentido de rencor, angustia y resentimiento. I was angry at everyone before I was a teenager. I had been lost, confused and I felt worthless given how much consistency I had lost. That anger was private until an elder read it. After reading it, he demanded I throw my words away because of how disrespectful and hurtful they were to the people I was framing in a negative manner. My words, my private thoughts were not protected because the journal was neither locked nor stored in a secret place. As a child I internalized the idea that my words did not belong to me. Once I ripped out the pages, I started writing fiction. Fiction as escape, as release, as an optimism I would not allow myself to find in an environment until I grew to live comfortably as a lesbian in a city located in the Western United States.

Ten or eleven years later, I was still acting and writing ‘straight’. I was writing straight fantasies, very PG, I thought, and the object of my affection demanded I take down the blog. Written without ever thinking he’d see it, I grew mortified that someone would share it, especially given the greater social context in which my ‘feelings’ for him were shared with him and how long it took him to tell me that someone told him. The person I was writing about yelled at me for how I felt, for writing it down and for publicizing it the way I had. Again, my words no longer belonged to me and I had to get rid of them. I did. Within months, I stopped associating with all involved. The wounds of being uncovered, of leaving and all that neither of us understand of each other’s life lay as an ever-increasing gap between us. Not just for the manner in which something public-private had been shared, but, more specifically, for what I understood that to represent at the time.

In both of these instances, I took for granted where I was writing. As a child, I needed locks and I needed hiding to keep my words mine. The uninvited and unintended audiences wanted to alter/erase my words because of what those words meant to them. Those words were not direct weapons against them. For me, in either instance, the words attempted to explore hurt, frustration, loneliness. The losses and change were overwhelming with minimal outlets available compared to the extent so many were suffering. I wrote as a means to escape, to let go of feelings. To have that taken from me, literally ripped out, informed fantasy writing that would sustain me until high school gave me access to password protected writing.

As a college student teetering on living in truth/coming out and trying to find smaller ways to be different, blogging was a way to connect with a handful of friends who had online journals and remained as invisible as I intended to be. Like in my childhood, I wanted a way to have a journal go with me wherever I was, operating on the belief that I was insignificant enough not to be distributed. It served as a way to explore curiosities, questions, internalized hetero-romantic idealism and other ideas that are of little significance to me now. In those moments, they were growing pains on paper/on screen. Growing pains that were mine. A question emerged that I will address after explaining how I viewed those two moments.

Those writings were a necessary process in my journey. Tremendous loss shaped how I perceived family because of how little control we had over our lives and over the affects of others’ choices on my ability to have, what I thought, was a normative childhood. No one wants to lose so much so quickly. Divorce and death shake foundations. Those I grew to rely on dispersed, and, in that, the grief of various communities – blood and peer – overwhelmed me. Grief transformed to hate because I could not bring my friend back. I could not go back to the house I had lived in for ten years. I did not have childhood friends I played with living next to me. I had more than my uncle had at my age, but that more was not something I would understand or forgive until others’ affluence taught me the power and resilience I had gained in that year of intense loss and change.

As for the online journal I kept in undergrad, I wanted to rewrite ownership of my sexuality. I didn’t think I owned it because – whether a gender or a community – I had spent a lifetime internalizing that my sexuality was not my own. Women grapple with this as much as those who struggle with being queer. I only allowed myself to understand that I had to hide, negotiate and perform resistance to the factors that informed the lack of ownership regarding my sexuality. Because of how new I had been to that community, because of the struggle I had relating to and working with cismen (of color), I was terrified of sharing the complex emotions I had around my body. When I did, I felt I was giving up too much too quickly. It has taken me years of poetry, therapy, and journaling to forgive myself and those young men for how naive we were about bodies, power, sexuality and desire.

The ownership others take over words based on their age/gender internalized authority remains a struggle in many communities. As writers, we each contend with the implications of ownership and measurement exercised by those who use social media to factor into whether one will be hired, published in the future, or deemed socially appropriate because of how in/visible we hope to be and because there are members of our audience we do not know. Reflecting over reactions remains key because there is a great deal we learn from ourselves in the process. Those lessons can, when we allow them to, spur our creative, intellectual and spiritual growth. Neither silence nor censorship will control the audience that thieves itself into the words to which we do not invite them. Neither silence/self-censorship will adequately erase the effects of our experiences. Writing is a choice, a demand for those of us who have born witness to suffering brought on by silence.

The quality of our writing can improve with awareness of how we control what we choose. As scholars, we control that which we are most informed. I take this out of my journal to share on this blog out of a need to forgive myself for who I couldn’t be for myself in moments I needed to express myself while protecting the integrity of my right to feel. As I grow as a writer, protection remains key, which is why I choose for this to remain anonymous for now. I want to control where my writing goes next. I want it to go to a place where, in the future, attaching my names to these words will not cause me nor any of the people in this narrative harm.

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