Our Voices The Orinam Blog

Rethinking gender and language in the face of privilege

For over two years now, the idea of privilege, especially my own privilege, has occupied my mind. I stayed clear of writing about identity; let me figure out the thin line between speaking with and speaking for, I thought, and only then will I be equipped to say anything meaningful. Some of this tentativeness also, possibly, stemmed from the fact that my own description of myself was in flux; I need to sort myself out first, I thought. Of course, life must torpedo the most carefully laid plans.

A week ago, I uploaded a picture of my provisional transcript on Facebook, excited that I finally had written proof of the fact that I was graduating (after half a decade spent in law school) and that the university had acceded to my request to have a gender-neutral honorific before my name (Mx, instead of Ms). The move to upload the image was political, in that I wanted others in the university to know that this was possible, and they could ask for it too, but I did not expect too many people outside the university to hear of it. Instead, the story ended up published in practically every leading daily, and I, who had been too uncertain of my views to write definitive conclusions to essays, found my opinion on gender identity plastered across websites and newspapers ranging from The Hindu to Buzzfeed India. It was, and still is, both unnerving and bewildering.

The first interview I did, which formed the source of the media frenzy that followed, was with Legally India. In my statement there, I mentioned that I did not see any reason why my certificate needed to carry markers of my gender identity, especially since I am still uncertain as to how I wish to be identified. That statement, apart from causing my parents mild consternation, led several people to presume I identify as trans*, because, well, why else would anyone want a gender-neutral honorific, right? I was asked, in due course, whether Mx ought to be only for those who check the ‘other’ box; why I stayed in the ‘women’s hostel’ in the university; whether the request had anything to do with my sexual preferences; and so on.

That people were making this very linear connection between my request for a gender-neutral certificate and trans* identity alarmed me. To lay claim to trans* identity, in today’s world, is to lay claim to certain narratives and lived experiences that are not mine. If I was being attributed that identity, was I also being attributed the voice that comes associated with it? Was I unwittingly speaking for others, just because the media chose to pick up and amplify this light and fluffy story? This essay is a consequence of that alarm.

I was raised without many gendered cues at home. My parents brought me up as their child, not as their daughter. I did not have gendered toys, I sported a ‘boy-cut’ most of my childhood (and then, through most of college) and I was never told to do things because that’s what women are meant to do. A lot of my clothing is from the men’s section of stores. When I go out, sometimes people call me ‘sir’. I shrug it off, most of the times, but it has brought home to me the idea that gender is perceived through many symbols and my short hair and baggy clothes were powerful ones. Nonetheless, gendered cues are all around us, and I absorbed my fair share of them. I have faced the everyday harassment (and the fear of it) that women come to see as inevitable. I have internalised norms relating to women’s bodies to the extent that, despite interrogating every one of them in theory, I still cannot bring myself to wear sleeveless clothing unless my underarms are waxed. All this is to say that, despite the relatively unorthodox upbringing I had, if I were to characterise my experiences, I would say that I lived the life of a woman. A middle-class, brahmin, urban woman. [With short hair; always with short hair. Even cat-calls directed at me tend to be of this variety: “Oi, BOYCUT!”]

In time, though, I read and found language for what I had often instinctively felt: that my experiences were such because of the manner in which I was perceived, not because of something innately ‘womanly’ in me. Or to use academic language, I came to understand gender as being socially constructed and, essentially, performed. One is a woman only insofar as one does the things women are supposed to do in society, and look the way women are expected to look. But I did not fully comprehend what that understanding of gender implied, until an incident a couple of years ago. While speaking to a colleague, I said, “I self-identify as a woman…” and she retorted with, “Why? Tell me, what makes you a woman?” And there I stood, opening and shutting my mouth like a guppy-fish, completely astounded by the idea that I could no longer self-identify as a woman, if I believed there is nothing essential to ‘womanhood’. I could be identified by others as a woman, yes. But could I call myself a woman again?

At the same time, I found myself strongly allied with the trans* movement. Insofar as persons who identify as agendered are concerned, the idea of constructed gender identity makes perfect sense. But what of those who transition from one gender to another? How does the notion that our gender is defined by the ways in which we are socialised explain the lived reality of an intersex person assigned one gender identity at birth and raised with that identity, but who grows up to transition to another? I find it useful to think of biology and society weighing in together to determine our gender identities, in different measure for different people. If that is the case, then, to what extent does my sex define my gender identity?

These were the questions plaguing me when I said that I am still uncertain as to how I’d wish to be identified. In addition, there was the concern that the trans* movement itself does not speak in one voice. There are those who seek to dismantle the gender binary and do away with these categories altogether, and there are others who seek only the inclusion of a third category. While the latter has begun happening at some level (though I think the language still is problematic; imagine checking a box describing yourself as the ‘other!), I find myself allied with the former politics. Does allying with one adversely impact the other? These questions continue to bother me, but being thrust headlong into a media circus seems to have forced a certain sort of clarity (whether temporary or not, we shall see) in my thinking.

Theoretically, I’d love to see all of us as radical singularities, bound together in communities of choice (my primary identity would be as a non-erudite, GoogleTranslate-reliant lover of Faiz, in that ideal world). In that world, we would all be genderqueer, because categories would no longer withstand scrutiny, so being identified as trans* would be no big deal.

But if I were to quit dreaming for a moment, I am forced to reckon with the fact that identifying as trans* today, comes gratis with a side of structural violence that I have not experienced. It comes associated with exclusions that I have never had to struggle against. It would give me a voice and an identity, especially in an age of identity politics, that I have no right to claim.

Politically, therefore, the gender identity I can lay claim to is that of a woman. I can only try, in whatever way I can, to be an ally to the trans* movement. Was my request for a gender-neutral certificate foolhardy, then? Of course, it is for the broader movement to engage with, critique and possibly rip apart the request and its politics. But I would argue that was not foolhardy, but essential, on the basis of what Chomsky calls the ‘responsibility of privilege’.

I have had the privilege of arriving at the same theoretical position on gender identity as the trans* movement (or parts of it), without having to bear the brunt of the exclusions faced by trans* persons. I was studying in a university with no trans* students who could have made the request. For me, the stakes were low: if the request was denied, I was ready to pitch battle on the principled point, but even if all efforts failed I would still graduate. If the request was allowed, it would open a tiny window (I thought) into institutional conversations about gender fluidity and the need for more inclusive policies. It has the potential to force harder questions: if we recognise gender fluidity, then how do we rework the 30% horizontal reservation for women? How do we put in place affirmative action that would correct the historic exclusion of trans* persons from higher education?

On account of the sheer arbitrariness of Indian news-houses, that window became much larger than I expected, though very few hard questions were asked. I was then faced up with another quandary: should I speak at all? As it became evident that the story was going to be picked up regardless of my participation in the process, I was convinced by those I sought advice from, that it was far better that I tried to make a point or two, instead of letting the opportunity slip merely in order to stay clear of allegations of seeking undue publicity. But when it came to TV and radio shows, I tried my best to put those who called me in touch with persons who have fought the bigger battles on self-identification and respect, asking that the moment be used to open up a broader conversation and give space to those who really have far more meaningful things to say. Whether these shows will happen, I do not know, though I certainly hope they do.

I have been asked, incessantly over the past few days, what pronouns I prefer, and this question is what I would like to close with. In many ways it is symbolic of the dilemmas I have highlighted above. I firmly believe that if gender-neutral language is used only by trans* persons who do not conform to the gender binary, then we will have only created a third category, not undone the existing two. Personally, therefore, I would prefer to use gender-neutral honorifics and pronouns. But politically, as I just said, my experiences only allow me to identify as a woman. Is this a contradiction? Can I identify as a woman and yet insist on gender-neutral language? I would obviously say yes (my whole understanding of my situation is at stake), yet I doubt we have developed language enough to make sense of these questions. Unless we experiment though, I doubt we ever will. For me, this is the beginning of that experiment. It is also the moment at which I recognise that the agonising and experimentation cannot be private. This essay, then, is my (somewhat confused) attempt at making sense of the intersections between gender, language and privilege, as I find them playing out in my life at this moment.

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  1. You write beautifully. And it is so relateable! Especially the waxing under arm hair part. Force of habit is not always in correspondence with choice of identity. But is there a fine line? Or is it ambiguous and contradictory? Is there a possibility of the existence of a coherent distinction in the real world?
    Interestingly, even you face this confusion. But maybe that’s the point. Confusion won’t arise if you aren’t agendered. It doesn’t matter if you act like a “man”, “woman” or a “trans*”. Your choice needs to be recognised. But how will such a choice gain any recognition, leave aside legal recognition? If you don’t “behave” agendered”, society won’t consider you agendered. The irony obviously lies in the fact that the “society” as a whole is unaware of a how an “agendered” is supposed to behave. But will it change? It can, if more people raise their voice. But one can raise their voice only if they completely comprehend the situation. And that involves uncomfortable questions humans try to evade, and not confront.
    Can’t really deal with society. But I can’t make myself shun it completely because I want to change it. Nobody will pay attention to a voice who shunned it all when it became a little hard to understand. Extremely hard. But still.

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