Naming It

“I love it when I hear someone say ‘She’s a man,'” TBB told me.  “The important part of that sentence is ‘she’ and it feels great.”

What I’d like to hear them say is “She’s born male.”

Now, that’s not going to happen soon, because it demands that they understand the difference between biological reproductive sex (male/female) and gender role (man/woman).  This isn’t a widespread concept in the world, even for people who claim to be trans advocates and use the word masculine, male and man interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing.

One of the key principles of improvisational theatre is “Name It.”   The experience is that both the scene and the audiences engagement with the scene is enhanced when things, feelings, ideas, intentions and the like are made explicit, are named.  How can everyone be on the same page if we all have a different idea of what we are talking about?

The problem with gender, though, is that much of its power lies in not being explicit.   We don’t have words for how we feel about gender, words for how we experience ourselves and others.

To use an old metaphor, gender is like wine.  It’s easy to tell the difference between red wine and white wine, and maybe even to tell a rose.  But beyond that, discussing wine requires words for experienced characteristics that most people have never even tried to separate, let alone quantify or name.    I may be a gender sommelier, but  I know most of the with whom people I try to share my understanding  don’t have a vocabulary for the range I sense and delight in everyday.

This lack of names makes things invisible and undiscussable in the culture.   For example, the difference between normative and normal is an important distinction to me.

Normal engages a range of possible options; it’s normal, for example, for some humans to be little and short.  This just happens.  But it’s not conventional, not in the mainstream for people to be that height.   The normal range for humans may be wide, but the normative, average heights are much smaller.   It is the space between the normative and the normal that are the margins, and that’s where many of us live, not abnormal, but not normative either.

When I make that distinction, one that has been really vital to my understanding of the world, many people’s heads just swim.  They want to “keep things simple,” and my “overcomplication” just seems like so much bullshit to them.    They see no need for words and underlying concepts that name things that aren’t important to them.

Everyone works with their own specializations.   “A screwdriver” isn’t good enough for an engineer; slotted, phillips, torx or specialty?  What size, what handle?  Should it be magnetized or not, have a ratchet or be offset?    In some worlds, all these distinctions which require words are vital to understanding the process.

For women, one of the first challenges to owning their own style is to be able to name fashion.   Until you can describe an outfit, you can’t claim it.   I know a crossdresser whose wife used to make him describe the clothes of women they passed in the mall, knowing that the more he owned both the understanding of clothes and the symbols to store & share that understanding — the words for them — the more he could engage style.

In many ways, this blog and all the writing I have done is an attempt to create language to describe the range of experience around gender.  My language here is rich, layered and nuanced.

But my language here is also not shared, not even by other people in the interlocking communities around trans let alone the wider world.

And that leaves us with phrases like “She’s a man,” which assigns a gender role that I know I failed at, not being nearly cocky enough.

And leaves me speechless.

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