Not This, Not That

by Raphael Carter

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A Meditation on Labels

When I wrote the first version of this RAQ, I thought androgyne was the right term to describe my gender. Later, when I updated the Angel's Dictionary, I was listing toward epicene. Nowadays I make a point of surrounding my gender with a chaos of terms, like a journalist searching for synonyms: androgyne, epicene, transgender, neuter.

This upsets some people. People are usually upset at being given a choice, at least where gender is concerned; nothing stops a conversation cold like explaining that I don't care whether people call me he or she. A few people enjoy the idea, but most would much rather I laid down the law for them. And it's even more distressing when I refuse to fix one term for what, if I am not a man or a woman, I am.

It's not that I want to upset these people, although, as anyone who's gotten this far in the RAQ must realize, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it either. But I feel it would be bad for me to get too attached to any one term.

Part of the problem is that I have an objection to each of those words. Androgyne is too frequently confused with hermaphrodite; transgender is too broad; neuter too narrow. Epicene is the one I like best--it's obscure enough to have few existing connotations, and I'm charmed by its spurious paleontological air, like the predinosaurian tooth-marks in celadon. But even epicene would, I think, become too constricting if I used it exclusively.

I could, of course, coin my own word. The trouble is that new words, like new businesses, generally fail in their first year. Either they fall into disuse, like "homophile," or they are adopted by others to mean something different, like "hacker." I don't have the energy to defend a new coinage against the inevitable corruptions.

Why does it matter so much? Why not just choose the least objectionable term and go on?

The trouble is that we humans, strange beasts that we are, use the same language for taxonomy and identity. By describing ourselves we shape ourselves. All too easily, we become slaves to our self-definitions, so that we cannot tell when they have ceased to be true.

This has happened to me at least three times, one of which I do not care to talk about. The first time was when I came to believe that I could only love people of one sex, male. Many people have believed this and been right. I believed it and was wrong; I was wrong for quite a long time; and I damn near lost the love of my life by being wrong. No wonder that, when I feel myself pulled toward the gravity well of a self-definition, I tack back into clear space.

The second, subtler error came from clinging too tight to the term androgyne. This portmanteau term -- andro plus gyne, male plus female -- implies a combination of two opposites, in equal proportions. While I took it seriously, I found myself thinking that I should strike some ideal balance between male and female. What a stupid thing to worry about! It's a gender, not a recipe. But I found that I could discard this mode of thinking only by distancing myself from the word that had inspired it.

I fear this power of words. I want to escape labels. But how can you? After all, if you don't choose a word to describe what you are, others will choose one for you. We all have to work with roles, labels, ideas derived from others; we define ourselves from the inside, but we use tools that come from without.

How can you define something when no term is adequate? It turns out that there is a technology for this, invented by Indian teachers who believe that the Self is unknowable. You use a "neti, neti" meditation, in which you entertain thoughts about what the Self might be, but then, for each one, you say "neti, neti" -- not this, not that.

Even for the more mundane self-knowledge I am looking for, I think this approach can work. You have to try on all the shoes and feel where each one binds or pinches. And so I call myself an androgyne, or epicene, or neuter, in order to discover how I'm not -- and so pull myself up by my bootstraps.

It's only logical that I should come up with this negative approach. My gender identity was formed negatively in the first place. I am the product of years of androgyny. It was by being seen alternately as male and female that I came to see myself as neither -- as if each person I met shone a searchlight on me in a different primary color, and when combined they cast a pure white light. It was when I realized that those who thought of me as a man and those who thought of me as a woman were both wrong that I began to be what I am.

I conclude that no one term is going to be completely adequate. No matter what word I use for myself, I will have to follow it with an essay of two hundred words or less explaining what I mean by it. Lately I have been trying the experiment of omitting the word and just giving the essay, which, at the moment, would go something like this:

I want to eliminate gender as a category from my thinking about myself, and put all the disparate traits that have been part of it back in their rightful places. Bravery is not a gendered trait, it is a virtue; vanity is not a gendered trait, it is a sin. I don't try to act "like a man," or "like a woman," or to balance the two; rather, I try to act decently and ethically, and don't care -- sometimes don't even notice -- what gender that makes people see in me.

That is what I think right now, Sunday, July 14, at 5:15 in the afternoon, with Stewart/Gaskin on the stereo and my cat in my lap and my beloved in the next room reading an Anthony Price novel. Name it or not, as you like.

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Last modified: 14 July 1996

Copyright 1994-2000 Raphael Carter

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