Signifying Gender is a post by Natalie Reed that Mx. Punk links in their article that I recently reblogged. Its an intriguing post in which she aptly defines gender as a semiotic system a “language” or as Mx. Punk put it in their own words, a “communicative function”. I really enjoyed reading the post and appreciated this conception of gender for both its uniqueness and they way it allows for a very nuanced understanding of gender expression. Though, while I loved reading it and definitely would encourage others to do the same (especially before reading this post), there were definitely some things presented in the post that don’t really jive with my own continually evolving gender theory or my personal experiences.
I think the description of gender as a semiotic system is correct(and also fucking brilliant and amazing). However, I do not believe that means that its abolition or the existence of a gender-free society is impossible*. Gender (or gender expression) is but one of the many semiotic systems employed by humans, ceasing to use it would not destroy society because gender is not our only means of communicating with each other about ourselves. Abolishing gender means an end to assigned genders, gender roles, and trafficking in stereotypes, it means the opportunity for everyone to be themselves without anything being assumed.
I also reject the idea that gender is inherently tied to/ a means of communicating about sex and sexuality. The dominant culture’s cisnormative, heteronormative, binary rubric of gender assumes an intrinsic connection between a person’s gender and sexuality, but I would hope that, by now at least, queerness has thoroughly trampled that notion into the ground. People who share a common gender do not necessarily share a common sexuality and people who share a common sexual attraction or desire do not necessarily share a gender. Even people who do share a gender and a sexuality in common may express their gender in very different ways (femme lesbians in contrast to butch lesbians for example). In fact, amongst queer folx, genders and sexualities often wildly miss-matched (from the perspective of the dominant culture, of course) in one individual.
There is no “cultural code” for communicating a correctly gendered (or perhaps genderless) expression of my “self”. My gender is non-binary. It is not male and it is not female, there are no signs, no symbols in our cultural code to signify or express this. Right now I can only define my gender through negation, by pointing out what it, what I, am not. For me, this “definition-through-the-absence-of” is not enough. Its limiting, and it means that my gender can only ever be relative; its right there in the term “non-binary” the negation of binary, forever reliant on the existence of that binary system I’m trying to escape for its very definition. True escape, true freedom from that system exists in those places and interactions where I am not gendered. It also exists in being able to signify/express/define my gender through the presence of attributes. When someone asks me about my gender I want to be able to tell them what it is, instead of rattling off the list of things its not.
Its also implied in that post that gendering one another is an inherent part of human interaction. Speaking from experience, I can honestly say that gendering other people and oneself is NOT an inescapable part of human interaction. I think binary folks struggle with this because their understanding of self isn’t desperately dependent on an ability to conceive of gender as being broader than man and woman and the cultural signifiers associated with those genders.**
I want to end by saying that this post is in no way intended to be an attack on Natalie Reed’s post. I greatly appreciate both Mx. Punk and Natalie Reed for their writing. This post is intended as an intellectual exercise to help me articulate my own thoughts and hone my theory by assimilating ideas or concepts that I agree with and dissecting my reasons for disagreeing with the ones I reject.
*Hell, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a whole book about a society in which there is no gender and its a really good book too, if a little dated.
**I’m going to write more about this in another post.