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2006-05-18

Noms de blog and gender-spectrum etiquette

Yesterday I rang up Sydney ABC talk-radio (that's our national public radio for the foreign readers), as I do once or twice a month when I'm on my way to pick up the kids from school (using the hands-free, and I pull over when I'm talking, honest!). But for the first time, I gave my name as tigtog rather than Viv or Vivienne.

You know what? I felt different when I was talking. Somehow tigtog appeared to make her points more pithily and assertively than Viv does. Viv goes "um" on air distressingly often, tigtog banters fluently. Weird. I managed to make a recommendation, stick to my guns assertively but good-humouredly when challenged, and also get in a quick reference to a topical tangent I could "rant" about if only he had the time (that made the radio host laugh).

See, James Valentine was doing his Form Guide modern etiquette spot, and yesterday was posing a question from a waitress as to the how-to of addressing trans-folk (simplistically, those who dress as the opposite gender to their sex) - should she say sir/madam according to the genderised clothes being worn or the birth-sex she can discern? My first thought was that if the restaurant has a lot of trans-folk patrons and wish to keep their lucrative custom, then why on earth hasn't the management discussed this matter with their staff?

What prompted my call was that the waitress' question, and Valentine (whom, I must emphasise, is one of the good guys generally as far as liberal social tolerance virtues go), kept on referring to the cross-dressing restaurant patrons as "wearing drag". The restaurant in question is apparently close to Oxford Street, so perhaps those transgendered customers are in fact all drag queens, but as the question also referenced a medical secretary wondering whether to call transgendered patients by the sex she knew from the records or by their gender presentation in the waiting room, I bet that in fact at least some of those transgendered customers are routine cross-dressers.

This confusion between drag and broader cross-dressing wasn't helped by Valentine having as his "expert" guest an Oxford Street drag queen, who gender-presented for this programme as male, and who easily made the (surely?) obvious point that proper etiquette is to address people "wearing drag" as their gender presentation (although he professed to find burly blokes addressing a fully-stage-costumed drag queen as "mate/dude" merely amusing).

It was interesting that he also confessed to finding it difficult to refer to his drag king friends as he/him, even though in the dressing room all the drag queens call each other she/her. This drag queen was perfectly happy to describe all cross-dressers as "wearing drag", presumably because that's his habit, and he's perhaps never thought particularly about the implications of referring to all cross-dressing as "wearing drag", and also those words also have a different weight used between trans-folk than when used about trans-folk.

Now, I've worked on stage with drag queens and drag kings, and I've also worked with transgendered people in hospitals as both colleagues and patients. There's a huge difference between people making a performance which is all about laughing at exaggerated gender-stereotype reversal and people who are making a journey from cisgendered to transgendered (for brevity's sake I won't go into the challenges to the binary masculine/feminine gender construct presented by folks who are intergendered or intersexed). "Drag" is performance-art gender presentation, routine cross-dressing is gender-identity gender presentation. Referring to all trans-folk as being "in drag" not only trivialises the gender identity of transgender and intergender folks by equivalencing it with the unreality of performance art, but also reinforces stereotypes of histrionic queens and hostile bull-dykes and buys back into the whole binary gender construct all over again.

So, I got past the producer and got on air. I gave my opinion to Valentine that referring to all cross-dressing as "wearing drag" is insensitive, insisted that he should address this in a discussion on transfolk etiquette (he mildly objected that he didn't want to "get into all that" and just wanted to discuss correct modes of address with respect to gender presentation) and I then made a crack about how he was only touching the surface of what could be discussed regarding the limitations of binary gender constructs but I bet that he didn't want to get into all that either. He laughed at the last, saying that maybe discussing binary constructs of gender could wait for another day, and to his credit stopped referring to routine cross-dressing as "wearing drag" from then on. Result.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to give him some better queer studies jargon to use, so he struggled a bit after that with labels, but that's probably actually a good thing in terms of challenging preconceptions and stereotypes. I'm far from a queer studies expert anyway, just someone who's done some reading because of my interest in binary cisgender constructs from a feminist perspective, and the language being used (admittedly on a fairly fluffy light entertainment talkback show) just seemed so archaic, quaint and downright politically incorrect. I had to leave the car for a while to run an errand, and when I came back he seemed to be better informed jargon-wise and coping with labels a bit more easily, so that was good.

But I was still surprised that in Sydney, on the national broadcaster, the default was to talk about "people wearing drag" rather than "transgendered" and "gender presentation". The trans/inter-gender people in our community obviously are coping with a much higher level of general ignorance than I would have thought.

Some resources for those who want to know more:
Piny at Feministe writes a lot about his experiences transitioning and about challenging heteronormativity and binary gender roles generally, although I'm having some trouble navigating the archive to find articles I remember him writing.
An excellent glossary of intersex/transgender jargon at ITPeople.
Another glossary at Transexual Roadmap.

11 comments:

Zoe said...

Tigtog, there's also been some interesting writing from Zoe Brain, a RWDB in transition to femaleness after a spontaneous mid life weird hormonal event. That's not a technical term, that last part ;)

Her politics are very different to mine, but her writing on TG stuff is very interesting.

tigtog said...

Ooh, ta. I was only aware of her as a RWDB commentor.

My current fascination is probably more with intergender as intergender challenges the binary gender construct more IMO, and that's fun to get the head around.

I'm trying to track down some of Phranc's music from late 80s/early 90s. Sie was very interesting indeed. I love reading the confusion of the press abour hir at the time.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I'm very late commenting here but I just want to say what a great post this is. I once broke my brain trying to think logically through some of these issues for an article I was writing about The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but that's (horror) ten years ago now. 'Cisgendered' is a word I'd not encountered before but I like the rationale a lot.

morgan said...

Zoe Brain is fun, despite the RWDB bits. She's a friend, too. We can swap endocrinology stories.

I've been shoved into the 'intersex' box by a range of medical professionals and, while it's more appropriate than one of the binaries, it's still not fun. And I'm still not keen on disclosing that on my own blog - not explicitly, anyway.

What to wear is the least of the issues that concern me about it. Surgical 'normalization' is by far the most serious.

tigtog said...

PC: the discovery of the word 'cisgendered' has been immensely valuable to me in framing gender issues.

Morgan: I find the response by the adult intersexed to 'normalisation' surgery, and the way in which large portions of the med/psych community ignore that negative response, to be very revealing and troubling with regard to imposed gender-binary presentations.

Why is the first question asked about a newborn baby its sex, before the question about maternal/infant health postpartum?

morgan said...

Viv, you by revealing and troubling you mean it exposes the weaknesses of arguments based on a gender binary? Sure. That doesn't mean that myself - or anyone else with an intersex condition - wants to be identify as a third sex or gender. Nor does it mean that ts, drag or any othe gender transgressive behaviour, or sexual orientation, is related to intersex, Fear that it might be, though, is at the root of the childhood surgery compulsion.

A better site on intersex issues, btw, is the ISNA website.

tigtog said...

Yep, that weakness of the binary is what I meant.

From what I read it's more likely to be people that are considered medically cisgendered who want to present as intergendered and often have no interest at all in trans-ing.

Good point about the fear of gender transgression at the root of intersex normalisation surgery. I hadn't thought about it in quite that way before.

morgan said...

I've come across that a fair bit online, but not really in reality. I'm not sure it's actually possible to "present" as intergendered. It's possible to be androgynous, and it's possible to send mixed messages, but neither of those are particuarly comfortable places to be. Maybe I mean it's not practicable.

Personally, I had 'normative' surgery as an adult - around 2.5 years ago. It wasn't meant to be 'normative', but the surgeon had other ideas. And it was deeply damaging, to say the least.

tigtog said...

Wow - that surgeon sounds like a poster-child for paternalistic entitlement. What a shit.

I'm still getting my head around what intergendered means in real life. It seems to be largely a conceptual space, a theoretical playground, as certainly most androgynous people I've met have been at some pains to clarify their gender ASAP.

There appears to be more women than men interested in non-trans genderqueering in what I've read so far.

morgan said...

What do you mean by genderqueering? Women play around with gender presentation a lot more than men anyway - it's acceptable for a woman to wear almost anything in the male warderobe, for example.

I guess that's to be expected given that men are more politically and economically dominant.

I'd be concerned that too many distinct issues are conflated if you add together intersex, genderqueer, TS, drag, and sexual orientation. Apart from being transgressive of historical norms, they have little in common.

tigtog said...

The wikipedia entry on genderqueer aligns reasonably well with my understanding.

It's an evolving and controversial term, involving a rejection of the gender-binary, but is meant to be distinct from trans-ing, where individuals still mostly adhere to the gender binary, but they want to be the other.

I agree that it is important to have distinguishing terms as well as grouping terms. The reclamation of "queer" has been important so that people can have a general social descriptor which doesn't necessitate an immediate detailed explication of one's sex life/organs. "Genderqueer" by contrast seems almost a term designed to get people asking questions to explore details further, exactly as it provoked your question.

'Genderqueer' may well be a term which raises more problems than it solves, but as it arises mostly from the intersection of radical feminism with queer studies that's quite possibly inevitable.