Wednesday, July 24, 2019

“They” and “Cis/Trans” origins

The singular gender-neutral ‘they’ first starts appearing in the 14th century, which makes it a fairly recent innovation in the English language.  It is commonly used when the gender of a person being referred to is unknown or irrelevant, as an indefinite pronoun.

Example:  Three people are seated In a restaurant.  One person leaves momentarily to tidy up.  The waiter comes over to collect drink orders; “What will you have?”, and to the second person, “and you?”, and then, gesturing to the third seat, “and do you know what they would like?”

Modern style guides discourage the use of the masculine ‘default’ in pronouns, the old assumption that a generic ‘he’ could be interpreted to refer to any person, masculine to feminine.  “Dude” or “guys” often is excused as a slang masculine default applicable to all genders, but it fails a simple test; Try to imagine a couple of dudes sitting in a restaurant.  In your minds eye do you see two masculine persons, two feminine persons, or some other combination? The odds are very good that you would imagine two masculine persons.

The use of “they” as a singular definite pronoun, as for non-binary identities, is fairly new, with the recognition of the existence of nonbinary identities.  It is a useful tool, however, in acknowledging and affirming nonbinary identities.  There isn’t a formal point of introduction that I can identify, just gradual adaptation until it has been recognized as a normal usage by the maintainers of dictionaries.  The  New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Cis and Trans are Latinate prefixes, used occasionally as slang forms of cisgender and transgender when discussing gender.

Cis and Trans prefixes originated as Latin prepositions. Cis means “before/within”, “on the near side of”, or “to this side of”.  Trans means “across/through”, “on the other side of”, or “other side of”.  (Definitions from a dusty old Oxford Latin Dictionary...)

As a prefix Cis and Trans are used similarly; Cistiber, “on this side of the Tiber”, and Transtiber, “on the other side of the Tiber”. They are not exactly opposites, but do often point to opposite sides of some division.

Transgender broadly refers to persons who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, crossing over one or more of the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender.

Cisgender refers to persons not considered to be transgender, persons who have not crossed over any of the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain their gender.

Cisgender is not a defamatory term, simply a useful way to identify persons who are not transgender.

Cis and Trans are commonly used colloquially as equivalent adjectives for Cisgender and Transgender.

Caution: I will note that gender critical activists and some others have recently decided to take umbrage at the terms “cis” and “cisgender.”  They instead insist on being referred to as “women” and “men”, with transgender women and men relegated to “transwomen” and “transmen” in a nice bit of othering and subtle denial that trans folks are “real”.  Some go further and refer to transgender women as “Trans Identified Men”, or TIMs, and transgender men as “Trans Identified Females” or TIFs.    

These are deliberately constructed as insults, and derive from some of the hateful content in the book by Janice Raymond, “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male”(1979, Beacon Press).

Femme and Queer - A bit of a personal manifesto

I stubbornly refuse to meet the expectations of others.

“Ah! Sorry… totally forgot to re-arrange my aesthetic markers today so you wouldn’t be confused about my personal desires and identity. Maybe you should just go on ahead and rearrange your faulty assumptions and leave me the hell alone.”
 - Tiffany Lee

I’m a woman.  I am queer.  I am attracted to other women.  I am a demisexual who needs that fundamental human connection before anything else, and I am a transgender person.

I am femme.  That many be the biggest offense of all.  I don't meet expectations.

I am not femme in that tired femme/butch dynamic that was so rigidly enforced.  I am not femme to please men.  I am not femme to become invisible.  I refer to the more current use of femme, which includes trans women, bi and pansexual women, non-binary folks, and many others who intentionally play with femininity and feminine presentation.

I am femme because it pleases me, feels right, and fits my identity and sense of aesthetics.  I consider it a bonus that my femme presentation annoys the patriarchy, the social structure that insists I can only be safe if I wear shapeless garb that covers and conceals, that protects the most privileged from their apparent lack of self control.  The idea of wearing baggy painter’s pants and flannel shirts just so someone else can be comfortable and smugly think that they know who I am, which box to file me in, is something I reject.

Trained hundreds of
nuclear power plant
operators and crossed
the North Pole
in a submarine.
My feminine presentation is a part of who I am.  I enjoy wearing skirts, simply cut draped tops and colorful wraps.  I love the feel of a nicely structured dress, and feeling a cooling breeze on my legs on a hot day.  I love the swish and snug warmth of a woolen maxi in midwinter.  I enjoy a little makeup to help define my best features, and occasionally a bit more for a fun evening out.  I am unapologetic about my choosing and enjoying these sensory experiences.

My feminine presentation does not totally define me. I have skills and talents I have developed that this patriarchal culture does not consider feminine, and that’s a little box I am delighted to kick my high heels through.

Are my femme practices merely reinforcing heteronormative gender stereotypes?  Well, what this culture demands is that I wear Dockers and polo shirts, dredging up tired old tropes of birth sex and karyotype.  I insist on being a woman, and my gender identity informs my gender presentation.  

So, am I then a stereotypical heteronormative woman?  Perhaps at first glance, first thought, but approach me, talk with me for a minute, and I will happily, thoughtlessly stand those stereotypes on their head.  Femme, yes.  But meeting the cultural standards for being girly or feminine?  Not so much.  That fine womanly subordination or weakness so encouraged by this culture seems to be missing in action!  

Madeleine Blum of the band “Unstraight” puts it: “The queer world is about breaking away from stereotypical gender roles. Anyone who is girly/feminine is not necessarily femme. Femme is an identity; feminine and girly are descriptors.”

I do hope that my femme practices make the patriarchal heteronormative gender police nervous.   Yes, gender police.  The folks who try to enforce cultural norms, telling me that I’m being myself incorrectly, making the laughable assumption that they know who my authentic self is better than I.  

"We live in a culture that celebrates masculinity and demonizes and shames femininity’s and those habits don't go away in the queer community."
 - Anna Bongiovanni

Holds nineteen patents and has
rebuilt a Triumph engine and
manual transmission.
Being queer and femme fails to meet cultural expectations, with the interesting result that folks tend to interpret my appearance as meaning that I am straight.  It doesn’t matter if these are straight, queer, or even queer femmes doing the interpretation. My appearance gets plugged straight into a cultural stereotype, and assumptions built on that stereotype are applied to me.

The cultural expectation is that a woman attracted to women will automatically reject gender roles, including appearance, as a part of rejecting the heterosexual role the culture assigns.   The cultural expectation is that women attracted to women will adopt a butch presentation, and men attracted to men will adopt a more feminine presentation.  Yes, that’s right, the cultural expectation is that we will continue to apply the broken gender binary model even when queer.

The cultural expectation is that we will sustain that gender binary in the roles we take, with those roles tightly bound to our sexuality.

I am not going to fulfill these cultural expectations.   I am going to do as I please.  I am a femme queer woman with a transgender history, attracted to other women who can take the time to forge that emotional connection with me.

Should you be prone to committing acts of assumption, know that your cultural stereotypes do not interest me, and if you make the mistake of assuming that I fit some stereotype, know that at some point I will happily, joyfully shock you.

I ran across the Tiffany Lee and Madeleine Blum quotes while researching another topic, and the ideas they stimulated caught fire with me, resulting in this little article.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Resilience - Sermon to Mt Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church


Recently, I saw a hillside in the forest that had just endured a windstorm.  The direction the wind had blown was obvious, from how the mighty trees that once dotted the hillside now lay.  Even though strong, that strength failed in the gusts of wind that they had to endure, and these giants had fallen.

At the same time, I noticed that the open spaces on the hillside were covered with tall grasses, now gently waving in the wind and brushing against one another, supported by one another as they continued to stand, taking in the sunlight, the air and water, and continuing to grow.   It didn’t seem fair somehow, that those beautiful trees had fallen, yet the grasses remained.  At the same time, I was grateful that the winds had not been able to strip the hillside of life, that the grasses would persist, holding the soil so that other life could continue or re-establish itself.

I’d have to describe that biological community of the hillside as being resilient, even if some of the trees were lost.  We individual humans can also be resilient, learning how to move about in spite of strong prevailing winds, learning strategies to maintain ourselves even as time and experience bring wear and tear.

We also find this resilience in communities.  Studies of the responses of communities to natural disasters show this in action. We can see how our communities respond with  civil engineering such as flood control, better bridges, improved communications, and adapting new practices to improve how the next disaster can be handled.

There are also spiritual and psychological components.  The fortunate community will also develop stronger neighborhood ties, built from elements such as sidewalk chats, corner coffee shops, and other elements of the social infrastructure.  That social infrastructure can be every bit as important as the physical one.
We each have our innate resilience as human beings.  We each have some degree of social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose or belief in a future.  These are not some magical properties gifted to only a few, but traits we all have in common to varying degrees, with varying levels of skill in wielding them.

We may not be aware of these skill and abilities, of course.  We might have been raised in environments that did not let us exercise all of these traits, or even discouraged them.   We may have been raised to encourage one or more of these traits, or in our life experience wandered into environments that encouraged us to stretch and develop these traits further.

That development may have been what’s called ‘stress-hardiness’, developing resilient traits in response to an adverse environment.  A benign or supportive environment can also encourage resilient traits, through various challenges raised to individuals to encourage them to ‘stretch’ a bit, discover new capabilities and operate at the edges of their comfort zone.

Resilience in individuals seems to arise from the interactions of individuals with their community, whether adverse, supportive, or a mixture of both.

Longer ago than I care to think, I was in the military service.  Recruit training was a classic example of an adverse environment, tailored to break down old behaviors and habits, and build new ones that would be supportive of the community of fellow service members.  It was definitely a shock to my system, but I learned I had far more capacity for resilience in the face of adversity than I had ever conceived of prior to my service.

While assigned to a training command in Idaho, I happened to have a long weekend, almost 5 days, turn up in my schedule.  It seemed like a great opportunity to return to the Bay Area to visit family.  My partner and I hopped into our mighty AMC Hornet, and taking turns driving, took on the 13 hour journey.  We made it, enjoyed our visits, and then were back in the car for the return trip.

Somewhere about 30 miles west of Elko, Nevada, billowing white clouds started appearing behind the car.  Warning lights popped on the dashboard, and the engine temperature gauge (remember those?) pegged high.  None of these were good signs.

We pulled over, and I got out and flagged down a truck to get a lift into Elko. (This was before cellphones.)  We found a shop and got the vehicle towed.  After a new water pump, several hundred dollars, and several hours, we were on the road again.  Well... For a little while.

The Hornet’s engine is a delicate thing.  It turns out that it does not respond well to overheating.  About 20 miles east of Elko, the engine started running rough, and those billowing white clouds were back. Another thumbed ride, another tow, and the vehicle was back in Elko, parked on a side street besides the now closed garage.

My resilience was clearly being tested.  I was an inch from breaking down in tears when I called my command from a pay phone to explain that I was not going to be present in time for my shift.  They were surprisingly understanding, and found a volunteer to take over my class.  Even more surprising, an instructor took their day off to drive to Elko, pick us and our luggage up, and take us back to Pocatello.  A week later, on my next days off, another instructor asked about the vehicle, and suggested that we take his truck to Elko, and tow the Hornet back to my place!

I hadn’t recognized it at the time, but I was not a lone individual, but part of a fairly tight-knit community of folks who looked out for each other, supported one another, and exercised their problem-solving skills, autonomy, and sense of purpose for the benefit of all in the community, bound together by our common oath.  That was a remarkably eye-opening experience for me.  Even though my resilience was taxed, the community, with an abundance of resilience, took the difficulties in stride, and supported me, lifted me up, and quite literally got me on the road again.

Oh, and I also became far too familiar with that car’s engine, although I did get it running again.

Here at Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, we have a community, holding common interests in faith, in our desire for social justice, and in many ways, by the support we give one another, and bound by our covenant.  While we are not living our lives under one roof, or forming a commune, I still have a strong feeling of being part of an intentional community here.  

Many of the same elements of resilience I mentioned earlier are present within this community.  Within the membership and our committees, we have teams that demonstrate and teach social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose or belief in a future.  We have a benign and supportive environment that encourages us to stretch a bit, knowing that others may catch us should we fall.

We have the shared wisdom of our “Doctors of Durability”, our elders with their collected life experience.  We have caregivers, tending to our needs both physical and spiritual.   We have the energy and enthusiasm of our youth.  We have friends.

This is a remarkable place.  I think I am prone to taking this for granted far too often, and considering the impact that this community has had on my ability to rebound from adverse circumstances, my resilience, I have to pause and thank you all.

Carol Sue Cain recently wrote something that resonates with me:
Humans are wired for connection and it takes intention and awareness to prevent the effortless connections with people "like" me,  from hindering or harming the  more difficult connections I need to create with the people not "like" me.

The hope of those more difficult connections, not with people like me, but with people like those I had admired in my past who happened to be Unitarian Universalists, with people who have different insights into life, is what drew me here, and what keeps me here.

Well, what do I find, but that I have managed to become part of another community of folks who look out for each other, support one another, and exercise their problem-solving skills, autonomy, and sense of purpose for the benefit of all in the community.  I’ve found myself in community, with a found family and a band of generous and amazing people.

It is these more difficult connections, with people not like ourselves, but sharing common goals and community that give us our resilience as a community.  There are many people gathered here, many backgrounds, many paths through life, many unique sets of skills, many beliefs, yet bound together by our common covenant.

Daniel Lerch of the Post Carbon Institute says the key to resilience is understanding that every life and every community is comprised of a system of relationships and the resilience of any one system is influenced by the resilience of every system around it.

Key to our system of relationships is our covenant, which governs how we interact with one another, and defines how the right relationships that tie us together should function.

“We, the members of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, covenant with one another to act in the following ways in our interactions and in all forms of communication:
We speak and write directly, openly, and respectfully with each other.
We support and encourage diversity within our congregation.
We trust each other’s best intentions.
We respect healthy boundaries.
We honor community decisions.”

Our covenant is our social ‘glue’, defining the ways we interact, and encouraging flexibility, adaptability, and trust over rigid, brittle structure.  This covenant eases our making connections with those different from ourselves, which I need in developing my own resilience.

It is through these connections that I am able to explore different viewpoints, different approaches to living life and coping with things I have not been able to do on my own.

I know that when I am near my limits, that often all it takes to bounce back is to chat with a friend, catch a kind smile or complement, an offer to share a burden, somehow touching that web of connections, and I may feel renewed.  

That mutual respect and trust weaves us together.  It is this web of connection that provides us with resilience, both individually and as a community.  This is something we may all practice, and with this, gain resilience for both ourselves and our community.

Remember that hillside.  Rather than stand alone against the wind, hoping that we won’t be broken like those fallen trees, let us be more like the grasses waving in the breeze, touching and supporting one another and rebounding as the storm passes.

Let us, together, be the ones to make it so!