Monday, October 3, 2016

Guest Post: Understanding Gender Fluidity

Today's guest post is by Dr JJ Eldridge. Dr. Eldridge is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and prefers them/they pronouns. They study exploding binary stars and have also been trying to explode the myth of a gender binary. They also read and watch (almost) too much sci-fi.

I’m a person who when asked to specify my gender (when filling out a survey, for example) am frustrated that there are usually only male or female options. Trying to explain my gender is difficult as my own understanding has evolved with time. It is also something I’m still struggling with so there isn’t an easy answer. It hasn’t been until recently, when a friend pointed out to me that I’m not a woman but I’m not really a man either, I’ve begun to understand that I’m somewhere between the two and want to switch between how I want to present over time. I don’t want to be just one or the other all the time.

It is easier, and safer, just to present as male most of the time, or at least androgynous to some degree. It is difficult at the moment to wake up and decide how I will present each day. The primary concern is one of safety. Only recently have I allowed my gender fluidity to extend to my public and professional life. For example here are two colloquium talks both by me: One at a conference at STScI (about long-GRBs and SLSNe) and one at Monash University (about being a trans academic, sci-fi and gender diversity). It is challenging to present as my female-self at a conference or lecture but it does get slightly easier each time I do. In addition to the talks above as my female-self I’ve also lectured at a PhD summer school and gone about my normal working day at the University of Auckland attending meetings and lecturing. I’m still trying to work out the balance but I know I don’t want to chose only one gender.

With transgender persons (for a set of useful definitions, please see the bottom of this post) in the news and media a lot recently (e.g. Laverne Cox, Erika Ervin, Chaz Bono), the idea of someone transitioning (socially and/or medically) to their preferred gender (and sex but this is not necessary) is beginning to be accepted within society, although we know there is still a long way to go and the struggle for greater acceptance continues. Non-binary persons are not so much in the spotlight and this group includes people who are genderfluid, genderqueer and androgynous. There are high profile non-binary persons like Eddie Izzard and Ruby Rose for example.

Non-binary persons do complicate the issue, for example take bathrooms: exactly which one should I use? Legislation in countries varies, in the US current bathroom legislation allows people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, regardless of their biological sex. However, if you do not identify as one gender, then this legislation doesn't necessarily address your needs. This is why many trans advocates think the best practices would be for bathrooms to be all-gender. But remember they’re also really useful for other reasons, for example people with caregivers who are a different gender or for parents who need to take their child to the bathroom! Also if you’re worried what symbol to put on the door maybe the best one would be a picture of a toilet?

One downside of being trans which I think is worth noting is that before I was more open people used to make jokes or negative comments about people with diverse genders, sexes and sexualities in my presence. In those situations I felt I couldn’t say anything or challenge the comment, and it made me feel completely unwelcome and worthless. Those comments are now less frequent in my presence, but knowing you’re speaking to a trans person shouldn’t be the only reason not to make them. Remember you may know a trans person, even if you think you don’t. This is also all true for any marginalized non-visible identity, LGB people, people with non-visible disabilities and/or mental illnesses so you shouldn’t degrade anyone.

There are some positives I’ve found though. I’ve come to realise I think differently to other people and come up with different solutions to problems. I’m not sure why this is but it might be due to never really being part of the “old boy network” so I don’t really have people telling me why things won’t work before I try them. Colleagues and friends sometimes also interact with me differently since I’ve been more open. Depending on how I present, men still treat me as “one of the guys” although they have begun to be careful about what they say around me. Women tend to be more accepting. I’ve also been able to meet some awesome people who have diverse genders, sexes and/or sexualities via multiple university groups and networks. Working with them to help set up initiatives to ensure trans and gender diverse students’ safety has been great fun, if difficult at times (UoA LGBTI Network, Rainbow Science, Trans On Campus).

I can’t quite remember why I decided to become more open about who I am. After interacting with other trans people I had begun to realise that it was okay to be me and wasn’t something I should be ashamed of. Fortunately I have been given an enormous amount of support at work by my head-of-department Prof. Richard Easther as well as one of my long term collaborators Assoc. Prof. Elizabeth Stanway. My other work colleagues have also been supportive, although my greatest positive feedback has been from a large number awesome tweeps (twitter users). In fact I first came out on twitter (I can’t find the original but I’ve done it a few times which is why I changed my profile picture) and that’s been something that’s really increased my personal confidence about being me. Just realising it’s okay to be me. Only time will tell if it was a good decision, I am least happier in general knowing that I can be myself when I need to be. Also by using some of my academic privilege and by being more open I’ve hopefully allowed more people who hide who they are to realise they can be who they want to be.

It’s been interesting that I’ve also been more open with students about being gender fluid and haven’t had any negative responses yet, although I’ll see what happens when my student evaluations come back at the end of this semester! So far I’ve only been mentioning my preferred pronouns (i.e. saying I prefer the singular them/they pronouns) but this semester I’ve been explicitly stating I’m genderfluid. I know when I taught at an astro summer school and lectured an undergraduate class the students weren’t even concerned with how I was presenting. I know the trans and gender diverse students in my class really appreciate it. It allows them to see themselves in the course and help them know that, like everyone, they belong at University.

Anyway I’m not 100% sure what I was aiming for in this post, but I hope it gives a slight insight into someone outside the gender binary. There are a great number of similar stories and posts around on the web and this is just one viewpoint (e.g. an earlier WiA post). It’s also the narrative of a white trans person with a good deal of privilege. So in reading this remember that there are people who are trans and are in other marginalized groups who would experience much worse disadvantages.

Just to finish up I know it all sounds so confusing and you might think “oh so what can I do to be an ally to trans / non-binary people?” Well:
  • Be nice and treat us like anyone else.
  • Please call us by our preferred name, in my case I switched to a genderless name rather than asking for two names depending on my gender.
  • Please use the pronouns we ask you to, even if you don’t think it's right, we know it is. The singular genderless them/they pronouns bother some people but they are grammatically okay. How else do you respond to referee’s reports when you don’t know their gender? If you’re uncertain which pronouns to use, ask.
  • Realise that sometimes we’re not able to present as we’d like to, since our own safety has to take precedence.
  • It’s not okay for me to ask you personal questions about your body/medications/genitalia and so please don’t ask us about ours.
  • Don’t expect us to explain everything - often we’re tired of the endless repetition, or still struggling to understand and articulate things ourselves. Check the resources below as a start.
  • Do put us in contact with other trans people (the most important feeling is realising “you are not alone”), but don’t out someone unless you have their permission.
  • Be aware a trans or gender diverse person may be a part of another underrepresented or marginalized group.
  • Let us pee where we want to. We aren't in bathrooms to bother or harm other people, we are there to go to the bathroom.

Useful Definitions
Sex: The biological or physical role that people are assigned at birth, i.e. whether they are male, female or intersex (yes there are more than two sexes)
Gender: The biological and social construct that people would like to present as, i.e. either male, female, some mixture of these or as another gender. Note that sex and gender do not have to be equal (and yes there are also more than two genders).
Transgender: Individuals whose sex and gender are not aligned.
Cisgender: Individuals whose sex and gender are aligned.
Intersex: Persons who do not have a clear male or female sex and have some characteristics of both sexes in many variations of combinations.
Gender diverse / genderqueer / non-binary: Persons who are outside the male/female gender binary. Includes people who believe they are a mix of genders or who are gender fluid, where the gender they wish to present as varies with time.

See this post for more details