Lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual – the increasingly familiar acronym LGBT is also increasingly out of date. It contains a built-in fracture anyway. LGB is about sexual preference and T is about gender, altogether different things although people casually use them synonymously frequently, along with ‘sex’. An LGB or H(etero) person can also be transgender. Gender and sexuality are more complicated than they were and the large cracks in traditional labeling are getting wider. Some LGB people don’t like being lumped in the same rights war with T. There’s even a lesbian/gay separatist movement. Now in some regions and circles, a Q is added for queer/questioning. I was somewhat surprised when that happened because here in the UK, I think many would find the term ‘queer’ offensive and would prefer not to use it. ‘Questioning’ obviously is another dimension of variability so surely it should be QQ in any case?
But as they say, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. We probably need a fresh start for additional words, not to just put lipstick on a pig (I’m an engineer, so I have a license to mix metaphors and to confuse metaphors with other literary constructions when I can’t remember the right term.)
More importantly, lots of people don’t want to be assigned a label and lots don’t want to be ‘outed’. They’re perfectly happy to feel how they do and appear to others how they do without being forced to come out of some imaginary closet to satisfy someone else’s agenda. LGBT people are not all identical, they have different personalities and face different personal battles, so there are tensions within and between gender groups as well as between individuals – tensions over nomenclature, tensions over who should be entitled to what protections, and who can still claim victim-hood, or who ‘represents’ their interests.
Now that important more or less equal rights have been won in most civilized countries, many people in these groups just want to enjoy their freedom, not to be told how to exist by LGBT pressure groups, which just replaces one set of oppression for another. As overall rights are leveled and wars are won, those whose egos and status were defined by that wars potentially lose identity and status so have to be louder and more aggressive to keep attention or move to other countries and cultures. So as equal rights battles close on one front, they open on another. The big battles over gay rights suddenly seem so yesterday. Activists are still fighting old battles that have already been won, while ignoring attacks from other directions.
The primary new battlefront of concern here is privacy and anonymity and it seems to be being ignored so far by LGBT groups, possibly because in some ways it runs against the ethos of forcing people to leave closets whether they want to or not. Without protection, there is a strong danger that in spite of many victories by LGBT campaigners, many people will start to suffer gender identity repression, oppression, identity and self-worth damage who are so far free from it. That would be sad.
While LGBT pressure groups have been fighting for gay and transsexual rights, technology has enabled new dimensions for gender. Even with social networking sites’ new gender options, these so far have not been absorbed into everyday vocabulary for most of us, yet are already inadequate. As people spend more and more of their lives in different roles in the many dimensions of social and virtual interactions, gender has taken on new dimensions that are so far undefended.
I don’t like using contrived terms like cybergender because they can only ever includes a few aspects of the new dimensions. Dimensions by normal definition are orthogonal, so you really need a group of words for each one and therefore many words altogether to fully describe your sexuality and gender identity, and why should you have to describe it anyway, why can’t you just enjoy life as best you can? You shouldn’t have to answer to gender busybodies. Furthermore, finding new names isn’t the point. Most of us won’t remember most of them anyway, and really names only appeal to those who want to keep gender warrior status because they can then fight for a named community. Shakespeare observed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It is the actuality of gender and mind and personality and individuality and personal existential experience that matters, not what we call it. It is gender/sexuality freedom itself that we now need to defend, no longer just LGBT rights, but I suspect some activists can’t tell the difference.
This new phase of gender flexibility creates issues that are far outside the domain of traditional gay rights – the opportunities and problems are different and the new ‘victims’ are often outside the traditional LGBT community. There is certainly a lot of scope for new psychology study but also possibility of new psychiatric issues. For most people though, gender identity fluidity in social networks or virtual worlds is a painless even a rewarding and enjoyable everyday experience, but that makes it no less important to defend. If we don’t defend it, it will be lost. Definitely.
Terms like cis and trans are used to identify whether someone is physically in their birth gender. I hated those terms in chemistry, I think they are equally annoying in gender discussion. They seem to have been created solely to add a pseudo-intellectual layer to ordinary everyday words to create an elite whose only extra skill is knowing the latest terminology. What is wrong with plain english? Look:
Cisgender: denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.
So, to those of us not out fighting a gender rights campaign: a man who feels male inside. Or a woman who feels a woman inside. I don’t actually find that very informative, with or without the pseudo-intellectual crap. It only tells me 10% of what matters.
Also check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisgender, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender. Wikipedia is supposed by naive users to be up to date but these articles presumably kept up to date by activists appear to me to be about 20 years out of date based on a scan of topic titles – a long list of everyday gender experiences and identity is not covered. That is a big problem that is being obscured by excessive continuing focus on yesterday’s issues and determination to keep any others from sharing the same pedestals.
If a man feels male inside but wears a dress, we may traditionally call him a transvestite just so we have a convenient label, but how he actually feels gender-wise inside may be highly variable and not covered by overly simplistic static names. He might cross-dress for a short-lived sexual thrill, or simply to feel feminine and explore what he consider to be his feminine emotions, or for a stag party game, or as a full everyday lifestyle choice, or a security blanket, or a fashion statement, or political activism, or any number of other things. The essence of how it feels might vary from minute to minute. Internal feelings of identity can all vary as well as the cis and trans prefixes, and as well as sexual preference. But all the multi-dimensional variation seems to be thrown together in transsexuality, however inappropriate it might be. We might as well write LGBeverythingelse!
Let’s stop all the focus on names, and especially stop making changing lists of names and reassigning old-fashioned ones as offensive terms to maintain victim-hood. Let’s focus instead on pursuing true freedom of gender identity, expression, feeling, appearance, behavior, perception, on preserving true fluidity and dynamism, whether a permanent state or in gender play. Gender play freedom is important just as LGB freedom is important. Play makes us human, it is a major factor in making it worth being alive. Gender play often demands anonymity for some people. If a website enforces true identity, then someone cannot go there in their everyday business identity and also use it to explore their gender identity or for gender play. Even if it only insists on gender verification, that will exclude a lot of wannabe members from being how they want to be. If a man wants to pass himself off as a woman in the workplace, he is protected by law. Why can he not also have the same freedom on any website? He may only want to do it on Tuesday evenings, he won’t want that to govern all the rest of his online or everyday life identity.
In a computer game, social network site, virtual world, or in future interactions with various classes of AI and hybrids, gender is dynamic, it is fluid, it is asymmetric, it is asynchronous, it is virtual. It may be disconnected from normal everyday real life gender identity. Some gender play cannot exist without a virtual ‘closet’ because the relationship might depend totally on other people not knowing their identity, let alone their physical sex. The closet of network anonymity is being eroded very quickly though, and that’s why I think it is important that gender activists start focusing their attention on an important pillar of gender identity that has already been attacked and damaged severely, and is in imminent danger of collapsing.
Importance varies tremendously too. Let’s take a few examples in everyday 2015 life to expose some issues or varying importance.
If a woman is into playing a computer games, it is almost inevitable that she will have had no choice but to play as a male character sometimes, because some games only have a male player character. She may have zero interest in gender play and it is no more than a triviality to her to have to play a male character yet again, she just enjoys pulling the trigger and killing everything that moves like everyone else. Suppose she is then playing online. Her username will be exposed to the other players. The username could be her real name or a made-up string of characters. In the first case, her name gives away her female status so she might find it irritating that she now gets nuisance interactions from male players, and if so, she might have to create a new identity with a male-sounding name to avoid being pestered every time she goes online. That is an extremely common everyday experience for millions of women. If the system changes to enforce true identity, she won’t be able to do that and she will then have to deal with lots of nuisances pestering her and trying to chat her up. She might have to avoid using that game network, and thus loses out on all the fun she had. On the other side of the same network, a man might play a game that only has female playable character. With his identity exposed, he might be teased by his mates or family or colleagues for doing so so he also might avoid playing games that don’t use male characters for fear of teasing over his possible sexuality.
So we haven’t even considered anyone who wants to do any gender play yet, but already see gender-related problems resulting from loss of privacy and anonymity.
Let’s move on. Another man might enjoy playing female characters and deliberately pick a female playable character when it is an option. That does not make it a transsexual issue yet. Many men play female characters if the outfits look good. On Mass Effect for example, very many men (including me I have to say) play as Femshep (a female ship captain, called Shepard) because ‘if you’re going to spend 35 hours or more looking at someone’s ass, it might as well be a cute one’. That justification is perfectly believable, it is the one I use, and is the most trivial example of actual gender play. It has no consequence outside of the game. The conversation and interactions in the game are also affected by the character gender, not just the ass in question, so it is slightly immersive and it is a trivially deliberate choice, not enforced by the game so it does qualify as gender play nonetheless. Again, if identity is broadcast along with gender choice, some teasing might result – hardly comparable to the problems which many LGBT people have suffered, but on the other hand, still a small problem that is unnecessary and easily avoidable.
A third man might make exactly the same decision because he enjoys feeling he is female. He is in a totally fantasy environment with fantasy characters, but he extracts a feeling of perceived femininity from playing Femshep. That is the next level of gender play – using it to experience, however slightly, the feeling of being a woman, even if it is just a perception from a male point of view of how a woman might feel.
A fourth might go up another level by taking that online, and choose a female-sounding name so that other players might assume he is a woman. Most wouldn’t make that assumption since gender hopping in social environments is already widespread, but some users take people at face value so it would have some effect, some reward. He could experience other actual people interacting with him as if he was a woman. He might like it and do it regularly. His gender play might never go any further than that. He might still be otherwise 100% male and heterosexual and not harbor any inner thoughts of being a woman, cross-dressing or anything. No lives are changed, but losing anonymity would prevent a lot of such men from doing this. Should they be allowed to? Yes of course would be my answer. Real identity disclosure prevents it if they would be embarrassed if they were found out.
But others might go further. From experiencing real interactions, some men might get very used to being accepted as a woman in virtual environments (ditto for women, though women posing as men is allegedly less common than men posing as women). They may make the same decisions with other networks, other social sites, other shared virtual worlds. They might spend a large part of their free time projecting their perception of a feminine personality, and it might be convincing to others. At this level, rights start to clash.
We might think that a man wanting to be accepted as a woman in such an environment should be able to use a female name and avatar and try to project himself as female. He could in theory do so as a transvestite in real life without fear of legal discrimination, but then he might find it impossible to hide from friends and family and colleagues and might feel ashamed or embarrassed so might not want to go down that road.
Meeting other people inevitably cause friendships and romantic relationships. If a man in a virtual world presents as a woman and someone accepts him as a woman and they become romantically involved, the second person might be emotionally distressed if he later discovers he has been having a relationship with another man. Of course, he might not care, in which case no harm is done. Sometimes two men might each think they are with a woman, both of them acting out a lesbian fling in a virtual world. We start to see where forced identity diclosure would solve some problems, and create others. Should full real identity be enforced? Or just real gender? Or neither? Should it simply be ‘buyer beware’?
Even with this conflict of rights, I believe we should side with privacy and anonymity. Without it, a lot of this experimentation is blocked, because of the danger of embarrassment or shame given the personal situations of the parties involved. This kind of gender play via games or online socializing or virtual worlds is very common. A lot of men and women are able to explore and enjoy aspects of their personality, gender and sexuality that they otherwise couldn’t. A lot of people have low social skills that make it hard to interact face to face. Others are not sufficiently physically attractive to find it easy to get real dates. They are no less valuable or important than anyone else. Who has the right to say they shouldn’t be able to use a virtual world or social network site to find dates that would otherwise be out of their league, or interact via typing in ways they could never do in real-time speech?
I don’t have any figures. I have looked for them, but can’t find them. That to me says this whole field needs proper study. But my own experience in early chat rooms in the late 1990s says that a lot of people do gender-hopping online who would never dare in real life. And that was even before we had visual avatars or online worlds like second life or sex sites. Lots of perfectly normal people with perfectly normal lives and even perfectly normal sex lives still gender hop secretly.
Back to names. What if someone is talking as one gender on the phone at the same time as interacting as another gender in a virtual world? Their virtual gender might change frequently too. They may enjoy hopping between male and female in that virtual world, they may even enjoy being ‘forced’ to. People can vary their gender from second to second, it might depend on any aspect of location, time or context, they can run mutliple genders and sexualities in parallel at the same time in different domains or even in the same domain. Gender has already become very multidimensional, and it will become increasingly so as we progress further into this century. Take the gender-hopping activity in virtual worlds and then add direct nervous system links, shared experience, shared bodies, robot avatars, direct brain links, remote control, electronic personality mods, the ability to swap bodies or to switch people’s consciousness on and off. And then keep going, the technology will never stop developing.
Bisexual, tri-sexual, try-sexual, die-sexual, lie-sexual, why-sexual, my-sexual, even pie-sexual, the list of potential variations of gender identity and sexual practices and preferences is expanding fast towards infinity. Some people are happy to do things in the real world in full exposure. Others can only do so behind a wall of privacy and anonymity for any number of reasons. We should protect their right to do so, because the joy and fulfillment and identity they may get from their gender play is no less important than anyone else’s.
LGBT rights activism is just so yesterday! Let’s protect the new front line where anonymity, freedom of identity, and privacy are all being attacked daily. Only then can we keep gender freedom and gender identity freedom.
Meanwhile, the activists we need are still fighting at the back.