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Saturday, 29 March 2008

Socialization and Narratives

Socialization is the name for a training process in which the subject is taught their place in the world and how to get along within it. I had to socialize my dog. Now she knows not to run over to children and sniff them enthusiastically and not to panic when a loud motorcycle goes by and to stay quiet and inconspicuous at cafés. She's a good dog.

We also do this to kids. The effects on kids is a bit more subtle than the effects on dogs. My dog has internalized her training to the point where I don't need to pay too much attention to her, I can trust that she's doing the right thing. I've given her a bunch of commands and corrections and now she just knows the drill. But I don't think she puts these in a lager context of categorization. She doesn't think about how there might be different sets of rules for people and dogs, she just knows what she's supposed to do. This is a fundamental difference between dogs and people, I think.

Because when people are getting socialized, a big part of it is teaching the categories. This is how girls sit properly. This is how boys sit properly. You are a girl. He is a boy. You sit like this. He sits like that. And that's how we learn manners, by which I mean limitations. And since girls are generally given more limitations than boys, we call that "female socialization," something which can be considered extremely important in gender theory.

Everybody learns that girls have more limitations. There's a question as to how it's internalized. If you believe yourself not to be a girl, this will be something that applies to other people. If you believe yourself to be a girl, then you lower your expectations and diminish your horizons. This sucks, by the way. We should get rid of it.

It's also very external, though. Even if you know in your heart that you're meant to go do boy things and these rules were not made for you, if other people see you as a girl, then you're going to run into limitations. When patriarchy tells you that you can’t possibly succeed in math or technology (because you’re a girl), they don’t both to first find out if you really ID as a girl, they just say you suck.

When patriarchy gives encouragement to the schemes and dreams of boys, they don’t bother trying to figure out which girls might turn out to be boys, they just tell everyone they think is a girl to dream smaller.

When patriarchy constructs gender as a binary of winner/loser, good/bad, male/female (to paraphrase Helène Cixous), they don’t excuse people who don’t fit on their assigned side. Hell, they batter them down harder. Butch girls and women actually face increased sexism, not decreased, according to study data. And oh my god, do femme boys face abuse.

This was my childhood experience of being perceived as female: being told that I'm weaker and more feminine and therefore less. So I tried harder, which, alas, did not help.

This is not why I'm transitioning. This is why I held off for so many years. If all of femininity is weakness and limitation, then obviously, I must not really be trans, I must just want to escape smaller horizons. That's what I told myself.

It occurred to me a few days ago that there's got to be more to it than that. If that's all there is to womanhood, why would anybody do it? Mtfs fight to be women. Compared to the population of cisgender women, there aren't very many ftms. There must be something positive about womanhood. Cisgender women must find something fulfilling in it or they would quit. Socialization is subtle and powerful, but it's not magic.

And I remember Sara telling me how she was confused by my wanting to be a boy because it's so great to be a girl. Huh. Really? So I posted a question on the internets. What's so great about it? There must be something good. I drew strength from solidarity with other dykes and women (well, the women who weren't normative at me). But that's not very much positive in the face of a whole lot of negative. What did I miss?

It's a tough question, but I got answers. Many of them were about solidarity and talked about relationships, but not specific to the gender of the subject, only the object. But some, like "not shaving or shaving one’s legs \ skipping the make-up or wearing it \ wearing jeans or a skirt or nothing at all" all hint at a freedom to optionally express femininity. And "breasts" which indicates a physical state of secondary sex characteristics. And, I’m going to guess that the major positives are these: socially allowable femininity and a body that conforms to your identity. Which is logical. What else could it possibly be?

This femininity is socially allowable because it's inhabited by female bodies. Feminine men face even more reprimand then masculine women. And of course, there's the body - which is what transition changes. The mind stays the same. And this is part of what makes my friends' sense of loss confusing. Because we profess to care more about what's in people's minds than their body. And we do, probably. So it's losing somebody from your team who is going to play for a different team.

But even the body isn't all that changed. Small differences in muscles and weight. Hair growing. Squarer chin. Lower voice. It's all very subtle. A UK glossy magazine was trying to do a story on ftms, including me, but it's going to die, I think. The editor wants before and after shots - something dramatic. But there's nothing to give her. I was masculine before and I'm masculine now. But there's a narrative she wants to confirm: one of a rigid binary. It can't possible be safe and easy to slip across a porous border to inhabit a more livable side. Transition must be medically dangerous and a last resort, preceded by uncontrollable sobbing. Changes must be dramatic and reinforce the idea of a high fence.

But the real story is so much more subtle. One of my friends, who is sad about this told me that I had been the most androgynous person she'd ever met. But in the present, I'm just masculine and male and not androgynous at all. I haven't changed. Only these subtle tings with square jaws,muscles and vocal pitch have changed. I was never androgynous. My body was suffused with social baggage. It whispered lies about me. The only thing androgynous was my deafness to it's imperatives. I'm tall and slender. There's some irony that women are conditioned to long for what I had and didn't want. Skinny limbs. Long eyelashes. My grandmother always said I could have been a model. All I would have needed was a whole new personality.

It's easier now, when I look in the mirror and the image reflected back at me doesn't call me a liar. I've always been masculine, but now it's easier to inhabit and embody. I don't have to fight for my identity and the superficial tokens to represent it, like hair and clothes. I don't have to fight the social message me body transmits. I don't have to compensate and hide. All of this and some facial hair too. It feels like everything has changed. But on the other hand, it feels like nothing has changed. On a real level, nothing has. I write music. I go to school. I walk my dog. My life is the same except that it's not.

When I was a youth, I asked the scout leader if I could join the Cub Scouts. I know they didn't have any girls, but the boy scout activities seemed more like what I was looking for than did the girl scouts. The scout leader laughed. When I was a couple years older, my church youth group sent two representatives to ask if girls could be altar servers. The priest laughed at them and they came back and shared the news with the rest of us. When I was 14, I asked the football coach if I could try out for the team. It seemed like fun and I knew that girls could sometimes be kickers or in other non-tackled positions. He laughed.

And now I'm a part of this group that spent so much time laughing at me. I don't know how much I internalized female socialization. I was always convinced that these limitations should not apply to me because I didn't want them. But they did limit me. I got hairdryers for gifts when my brother got tools.

I'm going the end of next month to something called ETC in Amsterdam. It's a gathering for women and gender minorities. I feel kind of awkward about going to be in a women's space, even as I insist that I'm basically unchanged from when I went last year. I think the point of these kinds of spaces is solidarity. Everybody there has been on the losing side of Cixous' binary. We've all all been perceived as the other. The non-man, non-default, alien - the losing side of the binary. That's what we're combatting and that experience itself is what qualifies people for membership. To me it seems obvious that these kinds of spaces would be open to transgender people.

If I don't feel like I fit in, well, there's the dramatic change that the glossy magazine wants and the loss for my old friends grieve and part of the awesomeness of being girl slipped away. And maybe then I'll see that the binary is as hard to cross as they say. But I think it will be ok. I don't want to dream smaller.

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