Monday, May 25, 2009

Cisgendered Transgendered and VR

I am not a trans-sexual activist, nor is trans-sexuality an area of study of mine. However, the discipline, as it exists, is confused. So let me begin with something that is not the majority view, but which accords with what I see in second life.

A Matrix of Gender

Dr. Bushong posits that there are five semi-independent parts of gender: Genetic, Physical, Brain, Brain Sex, Identity.

Genetic gender is our chromosomal pattern, which is mostly XX or XY, though not always. 

Physical gender is how that pattern expresses in primary and secondary characteristics, which while it overwhelmingly falls into line with XX or XY, has a significant number of variations, including ambiguous genitalia, Turner's Syndrome, or individuals at the edges of what others are comfortable with identifying.

Brain Gender is the functional operation of the brain. While this might seem the same as physical gender, it is not, in that the brain has a function independent, and a development that is not exactly linked. This is because brain gender is influenced by androgens, the way genital development is, but can go in a different direction. There are genetic women who receive a strong dose of androgens in development, some develop typically male brain patterns, without being particularly male in physique. This is because there are two parts, the gonads have to produce androgens, but the rest of the body have to receive and react accordingly. Many people have different patterns of reception, and some small number of males have AIS, which means they have no ability to react to testosterone and other androgens. The look like women, later, including many secondary sex characteristics in some cases.

Brain Sex is a concept which is more specific to Bushong, in that it describes patterns of behavior that are expressed. There is a physical element, but also a developmental element.

The last is Gender Identity, that is the gender, or genders, that we feel inside ourselves. What he calls a "self-map." This is not related to activities, as this former college football player shows. People can be in any walk of life, including such male stereotyped ones as computer programmer. The most visible example is Lynn Conway, who lived as a woman for decades before being "outed."

To this I will add one more category: gender expression. This is how the individual deals with the totality of these gender pieces, and combines them with the other parts of their lives, and the society around them. There are limits to expression, and those limits vary with time, place, and purpose. Gender expression is the relationship then, between individual, and their perceptions of gender normativity. Normativism means that people are pushed to behave in bands of the bimodal distribution. Norms, while they leverage underlying statistical tendencies, and realities, for example, men can't have babies, therefore pair bonds that aim for reproduction can't be two men and monogamous, are not firmly fixed to them. High heels are not programmed genetically. Nor is watching football. Nor is Nordstrom, or particular brands of beer.

In Bushong's paradigm, because the parts of identity vary, few people are purely one gender or another, but have a matrix, or mixture. There are two large clusters which can be identified as "male" and "female" norms, but the number of people in these norms will vary with how strict they are. If a mother tells a son not to cry to "be a man," that establishing a range of "maleness." One which her genetic, physical, brain gendered,  brain sexed, and gender identity son is not conforming to at that moment.

He divides people who are not monogendered into "cross dressers," "transgenderists," and "transsexual." The first are generally heterosexual males who "wear women's clothing" and may even fantasize about becoming a woman, the second are people who present in both genders and even establish more than one identity. The third are defined by a hatred or antipathy to their physical gender, and want to transition that gender to more closely match their gender identity.

While not endorsing every element of what he presents, Second Life affirms that there are a larger number of people who do not fall within the duopoly, my new favorite word it seems, of male and female as defined by the society they live in. Societies have often created a third gender, in the form of castrati, or eunuchs. Men who have had their testicles removed, and are therefore, physically no longer functional males, and no longer have the influence of large doses of testosterone. They can function as males, including one Admiral of the Chinese navy who was a eunuch.

In Second Life, the ability to more totally present as another gender is an important sub-group of the population. While the more celebrated is the "physical men presenting as SL women," there are also physical women who present as sl men. Often for the simple reason that women are pervasively harassed in many contexts, such as combat games. In a world where someone will try and spam a vampire bite, and then ask for free cam sex, there are good reasons for not wanting to be women when participating in an activity that attracts that kind of male. The "middle" is much larger than irl. Now this is self-selection at work, since SL provides for it. Consciousness is visible here, as this transgender freebie from E! Eclectic Apparel shows.

The DSM and Transgender in the Real World, and the Clark-Northwestern Clique

However, one reason for this is the trouble that occurs in first life. The majority view is not as easy going or as detailed, but instead represents the underling normativism of society. There has been some notice of this in real life because of the impending revision of the DSM-IV, that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder or "bible" of the diagnosis of metal disorders. As Madeline H. Wyndzen talks about on her site:
Academic psychological perspectives on the psychology of transsexuality are represented by peer-reviewed journals such as the "Archives of Sexual Behavior" and are codified in the mental illness models of the DSM-IV-TR as Gender Identity Disorder (GID) and Transvestic Fetishism (TF). This psychopathology treats transsexuality, cross-dressing, and other mixed-up genders and sexualities (e.g., BDSM) as inherently bad things about us. They're not. Gender bending, gender queering, and transgenderism in society can expand our understanding of gender, sexuality, and other categories our cultures create. Can sexologists refrain from placing value judgements upon those with gender dysphoria and instead refine the way we understand the psychology of gender, atypical gender development, and gender role socialization? I hope that by bringing a personal and non-judgemental scientific approach to understanding transgenderism, I can help transsexuals, cross-dressers, and mental health professions grow and develop as persons.
The reason this has gotten notice in the real world, is that there is a major revision of the DSM coming, called DSM-V. This has caused controversy that ranges beyond this issue, because the DSM is a very powerful normative device. Despite petitions, this is still a cultural enterprise, rather than a scientific one strictly. It is also mostly involved with the mine details of terminology and diagnosis, not with particulars. However, this is not very much help, if you are one of the particulars that DSM-IV treats in an unjust or unhappy way. The people who are labelled as having GID, or Gender Identity Disorder, are one such group.

In the DSM-IV, Gender Identity Disorder is described, and this places a powerful normative stigma against it. GID is potentially "on the chopping block" in this revision. There have been protests in San Francisco to underline the opposition of a community to the way that the DSM-IV characterizes their state of being. Others have written about the politics of it, but placing Dr. Zucker, who is a proponent of training people not to express trans-gendered impulses, was a pretty sure way of getting a response similar to putting John Yoo on a panel to define torture. The Clarke-Northwester Clique, itself far from a majority view, dominates the panel. And this has flowered into a public contest, and may well yield change. But don't be too sure.

Second Life and Gender Normativism

Everyone is queer on Second Life, in that everyone must construct their identity. It is as hard for a physical male to construct a good male avatar with the correct anatomy, as a female avatar. Hard in some respects. And more costly. This queer reality reflects itself in the converse: people who want to engage in gender expression which violates their perceptions of gender normativity.

Gender expression is fluid in both directions, an individual in second life can express a different gender than rl, or they can express something which is not gendered, but which gender makes a useful stand in for. This can be seen by analogy. In past eras, men often retired to become monks. This was a way of renouncing interests in the world. A physical male, playing a female in second life, has renounced interest in finding an rl relationship with a female in much the same way. He might not feel female, but being female in second life allows him to express what he does feel. The same is true for men who play their ideal female in second life. They don't feel female, they feel something about women, and showing it as an example does that.

The tension here then is not merely people who feel, or want to express part time, a gender different from their rl gender, it is that expressing gender in second life or any VR, can serve other purposes as well.

A word I learned in searching for the material for this post, is "cissexism," which is a 1995 coinage, which defines people who have the same inner and outer gender as attempting to impose a norm against which "trans-" the opposite of cis in Latin, do not conform to. Thus Zucker and Blanchard are "cissexist" because the impose a normativity on individuals.  If this sounds like complication, realize that every word that describes a group should have an antonym. Since transgendered describes a group, the antonym is... what? Cisgendered has been proposed. Until this morning, I did not know the words cis-gendered or cis-sexism existed.

I don't think in this category for VR, because even the simple division proposed by cis/trans breaks down. In SL I see a monogendered/heterogendered reality. There are people who are one gender in their minds, and while they may not match this in their bodies, they think of themselves as "men" or "women." There are those who do not, and can happily log on to SL, have a Slesbian relationship and go back to being men in real life, or they can have a party going female alt, and a serious male alt, and no one really knows which one is their physical gender. The monogendered hate the heterogendered, because the monogendered still want a correspondance, one to one, with the physical. Your avatar, is you. 

This gets me back to normativism. 

Normativism is the belief that people should be forced to conform to ranges of behavior. Now human beings are norm seekers, we learn the norms of language and behavior, and we seek to express within, and against, those norms. Norms often imply transgression. It is not the norm to shout "fuck!" But there are times we do. Norms have many advantages, in that they reduce the time to find things out about people, and the frictions of mismatched purposes. If something is a serious meeting, norms prevent it from decaying to mere chatter.

Norms are open to change, as marriage norms have changed, as work norms have changed. Introducing a new word, is a way of changing norms. We change norms by challenging them, by behaving in ways that violate the norms, and still function. As other people see a functioning non-normative situation, acceptance grows. The most obvious example of this is equal marriage. The longer it goes on, the more same sex married couples are seen as just like all other married couples. The more they function as married, the more marriage, the norm, is expanded.

Normativism, is the belief that the advantages of norms so overwhelm all other things, that there should be no escape from them, and people who do not conform, are to be dealt with harshly. Normativism is not just in favor of norms, but in favor of preventing people from changing norms. Normativism is permission to violate norms, in pursuit of violating the people who violate norms. A normativist believes he or she is entitled to deal with people who violate norms.

We are all normativists in some circumstances, in that there are norms that we feel we cannot function without. My case: I am strongly normative about violations of respect for women, simply because I spent so much of my second life dealing with them, and because so many people enter second life in areas where the norms of not demanding cam sex on first IM, are violated routinely. 

The anti-trans normativists believe they cannot live, specifically, with men who present as women. Porky is, to note, a trans individual, she is physical female, and makes a big deal about it, and yet presents as male in second life. Yet she hates physical males presenting as second life females, to the point of obvious pathology.

Their reasons are varied. For many of the males it is obvious, they want the chance for rl hookups. They see every female they meet as a potential sex partner, and demand that the information they need to filter out unacceptable sex partners: age, sex, location, fuck hunger, as being more or less the first things that are exchanged. For them, imposing norms which put women in the appropriate fuck box save a great deal of time. If they have to spend time, they want to impose the costs of their search on others. For others, however, it is mere normativity itself: they can't see themselves as ever wanting to be another gender. The monogendered want their monotonicity to be a norm, because they do not understand any other norm.

That is, mostly, where I was when I came here. I learned otherwise.


Gender is a word that covers a matrix of inputs, and produces the output of gender expression. There are two major clusters of gender expression which we define as male and female. There are good reasons to have these two clusters based on ordinary desires and the physical need to reproduce, but the clusters as defined go far beyond those needs.

In the real world there is tremendous bigotry against both trans-gendered individuals, that is people whose preferred gender expression does not match what norms would require, and against hetero-gendered individuals, that is people who do not want to fit into either gender cluster all of the time. This is seen in the treatment by the APA of gender identity, and has come to a head as a narrow clique dominates the revision of the DSM-V. This has produced political conflict.

VRs, by allowing gender expression more fully than is possible in the analog world, allows people to both express a different gender than in the physical for its own sake, and to express other inner realities in gendered terms. 

Like sexism, fear of the transgendered, and the hetero-gendered, and self hatred by trans and hetero people exists. It is similar to stigmas against particular "race," word in quotes, and sexual orientations.

If I pick this up again, I will write on how trans and hetero gendered individuals are treated like homosexuals were before, say, the Stonewall riots, that is used, but kept closeted as a legal servant or slave class.


  1. One thing I've noticed is that the the people who have opposite gender or random gender avatars tend to view their avatars as agents, controlled by but completely distinct from them as opposed to the "Your avatar, is you" feeling. Almost like Charlie and his Angels (Charlies Avatars?) :)

  2. I am not sure, partially because my sample of people who I know have a different rl gender from sl is limited to the people who have confided in me. I think the process of entering an avatar, of the same or different gender, is difficult. There have been several men who have hit on me who called their avatar "a toon" and were quite clearly disconnected.

    It's a question worth exploring, because there hasn't really been anyone asking it.

  3. fwiw, I'm heterogendered in SL about half the time, and I don't view my AV as an agent (any more than I view my body as an agent); Boy Dale is me, and Girl Dale is me. Of course I'm just one datapoint. :)

    I also haven't experienced (or at least haven't noticed) any hatred or discrimination or anything because of it; people seem pretty easy with the idea.

    (The word "toon" for avatars seems to be a World of Warcraft thing, or at least it's used extensively in WoW. Again fwiw...)

  4. The paradigm you are attributing to Dr. Bushong (I assume Carl, in Tampa), was in fact developed in the Harvard laboratories of Dr. John Money in the 1950s.