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7 min

Beyond the gender binary

Envisioning a pronoun-free future

BLURRING THE GENDER LINES: 'The reality of society is so gendered,' says Out on Screen director Drew Dennis. 'I think of gender as being more fluid and elastic...' Credit: (Sarah Race photo)

In a UBC lecture hall, professor Bobby Noble cues a scene from The Butch Mystique.

It’s a 2004 documentary that examines the lives of African-American butch lesbians and the gender and sexual identity stereotypes they bump up against in a society challenged by their self-presentation and uncomfortable venturing beyond the neat binary of male and female, or even heterosexual and homosexual.

Noble clicks the computer mouse, and one of the film’s interviewees comes up on screen, throwing out a list of self-descriptors: “I’m a lesbian, dyke, dad, top… and you can throw in fag, too.”

It’s tempting to say welcome to the future of queer. But in some respects, what we see as the future of queer has always been present, manifested in the past in both subtle and overt ways.

University of Victoria sociologist Aaron Devor notes there are several historical periods where what he calls “gender transgressions” have been trendy. One such period was the 1920s, where women wore flapper outfits featuring “a very boyish, physical look” and bisexual experimentation was de rigueur.

“There was a big push towards gender transgression and gender play in the context of its time,” says Devor.

“There seems to be something of a cycle that comes around again every 100 or so years where we see real concern, anxiety if you will, about gender, the meaning of gender, where is it going, what’s happening,” he continues, “and I put what we see today in that context.”

Performance artist and author Michael V Smith points to the more recent 1980s, and even the 1970s, as periods where gender and sexual plurality were very visible — times when it was okay to be “outrageous, flamboyant and celebratory” of diversity.

“We had Boy George, and people talked about what he was like, but they also let him be Boy George,” Smith says. “A lot more mixed-up gender stuff was going on. It was hard to tell, in new wave bands, who the women and who the men were, and it was great. Annie Lennox wore suits and short hair, and looked really masculine. Grace Jones. We didn’t mind that. Same with the ’70s and the hippies. Men were a lot more emotional and effusive.

“They’ve become more invisible” today, he laments. “In the straight community, hippy is a dirty word and androgyny is not used anymore.”

Devor, who describes himself as differently gendered, maintains that today’s gender-benders are expressing themselves more publicly. The consequences are not as severe as they once were and in some environments, he claims, there are even rewards as opposed to consequences.

What’s unique about this particular gender cycle, he says, is that 50 years of feminism and gay and lesbian activism have “fostered significant changes on societal attitudes about the importance and meaning of gender,” not to mention sexuality and sexual orientation. “I think there’s a climate of increased diversity in those particular areas.”

There may be a climate of increased diversity, but carving out a gender-fluid or even gender-neutral spot for oneself is still a challenge.

For Out on Screen executive director Drew Dennis, living a gender-bent life is a constant struggle to “ride and blur those lines” of gender and sexuality — lines which do not conform to rigid notions of maleness and femaleness and how they should be expressed.

“The reality of society is so gendered,” says Dennis, who does not use pronouns as self-descriptors. “Everything, [including] internet subscriptions.

“I think of gender as being more fluid and elastic, and a lot of people who I’ve spoken with feel similarly,” Dennis continues. “[Like] a lot of trans people, I came out first around sexuality and very quickly realized there was a lot more going on than who I was attracted to. Something that more and more didn’t fit between how I felt in the body I was given and that disconnect between body and perception and others’ perceptions.”

Dennis acknowledges that eradicating gender is a “lofty goal” but cites Out on Screen’s work with schools as an eye-opener in terms of young people’s greater awareness and acceptance of how fluid gender and sexuality can be.

“When we first came out, you had to decide if you were femme or butch. All these little boxes were created, and they served a purpose. The community needed them, and still does in some ways. [But] when you look at the younger generation, it’s different, and that’s promising. There’s hope in that.”

Devor feels there are “very real limits” on how feasible it is to negotiate a pronoun-less existence, despite its desirability in some segments of the queer community.

It’s one thing to be among a group of like-minded people who can agree on and embrace certain understandings about how they’re going to relate to each other in terms of gender and the changeability of gender. It’s quite another, he argues, to lead a life that takes you out of your community, and requires you to deal with the general public and its social, economic and political structures.

“There’s not a very big world of people who are at this moment prepared to do without pronouns. I have seen and known people who are able to live in that in-between space, but usually they are people who are fairly young and who have not yet been required, for the purpose of making a living, to fully engage with society at large. So they’re able to keep themselves within a relatively contained environment of people who understand where they’re coming from and are prepared to cooperate with it. The public is just not there.”

Devor admits that he too would like to see a no-pronoun world, but says it’s a long way in the future.

“I think [a pronoun-free world] would permit a lot more freedom than we see today and I think it would undermine some structures that are built on the rigid division of genders which some people call sexism,” he says. “It would be considerably harder to structure your society around giving more privilege to one sex or gender than the other, if you have trouble knowing who is who.”

Sex positivity activist Kona, who does not use a last name, says she understands the motivation and advantages behind using gender-neutral language and welcomes the challenge it poses for a world that is organized around identities that privilege gender, sex and sexuality binaries. She does not, however, think it’s “reasonable, advisable or desirable” to have a genderless society — even as she acknowledges being comfortable with the idea and experience of people who identify other than how they may present themselves.

Still, she says, a society without identification labels makes no sense to her.

“That texture is really, really important. To have language to understand that we are different from one another is really important. To be clear about what we are seeing, and not neutralize it and therefore render it powerless. I am a black, self-identified dominant femme dyke. I don’t want there to be a generic word for my orientation that doesn’t allow me to say that I am kinky, or that I’m dominant. Because then what I can’t do is describe my edges. I need language to describe my edges.”

York University’s Noble, who presents as “he” in his social life but whose legal documents still have checkmarks in the “F” box, says it’s not necessarily his goal to get rid of pronouns, but sees it as a trans-positive strategy. He’d like to leave the choice to use or discard traditional pronouns up to each individual.

For Kona, the key is for those who have access, through whatever means there is access, to be persistent in putting queer images and language out to both queer communities and the broader society. A big problem, she says, is people are taught how not to think, and how not to widen their vision.

“So you get some nice girl graduating from high school saying, ‘I’m gonna get married’ and they get married to the boy of their dreams and they find out he crossdresses and likes to wear the pantyhose. She has not been provided with the language that lets her know that was even a possibility. She didn’t have a chance to advocate for herself or for him and to do any kind of exploration in their relationship — because she did not have the language or knowledge that there could be something else.”

Michael V Smith suggests that language about what gender-queer is and how queer politics works has not yet entered into the straight public’s imagination.

“They don’t get gender identity. They don’t get the difference between gender and sex, which is very basic knowledge you should have learned before you graduated high school. They don’t understand how a woman can have a dick, or how a man can have a vagina,” he says.

“Considering all the work feminism’s done, why do we still not understand the way that gender dictates our codes of behavior? Why do we still have women in the high heels, not men? Why do we still have a large cultural imbalance between what men are allowed to do and what women are allowed to do? There’s still the giggle factor.”

Casting another eye back to the 1980s and the conservative Reagan/Thatcher years, Smith suggests that era was very challenging to people’s sense of cultural power — “except in how we defined ourselves.” We celebrated ourselves then, he says, because it was necessary.

Ironically, he continues, we are now living in a period where queer people have more cultural power, but are increasingly allowing the mainstream media to dictate who we are.

“We have become consumers of queer culture, rather than creators of it,” he says. “[With] cultural recognition and acceptance, our individuality has diminished. We celebrate ourselves now by watching Will & Grace, and laughing at Ellen. We don’t celebrate ourselves on a day-to-day basis.

“There are more of us and we don’t feel the need to be as visible,” Smith continues. “The screaming queen was really helpful in the ’80s at a party. He made room for you to be queer and visible.”

For Smith, the ideal future is one where young people, less invested in the binary of heterosexual and homosexual, embrace the right to choose how they are going to express themselves, even as they make room for others to be different.

“I think that’s what gender-queer does. It gives people the opportunity to define themselves in more complicated ways that speak to them as individuals, rather than as cultural products. It’s about plurality and multiplicity so that [we’re not just] engaging in dualistic experiences where it’s either/or. You are giving people the gift of ‘and.'”