Vacant Rooms & Stagnation in the Process of Assembly

When questioning depends on pulling together a basis of comparison, and when stories to compare against are few and far between, it’s hard to really get anywhere. That’s what this post is about, essentially: gender questioning that remains patchy and inconclusive in part because of a culture of definitions over stories.

[A submission for the Gender Exploration Carnival. Preview image by Terry Alexander, CC BY 2.0.]

As I’ve talked about a few times before, for people like me, questioning cannot function as a purely introspective process. For me, “questioning” also means a process of assembly. To “question” is both to ask and to search for an answer to what is asked; it means comparing reflections on personal experience against a patchwork of impressions, and in order to get anywhere with that process, that calls for assembling a patchwork in the first place.

Assembling that patchwork can be a problem, though, depending on what you’re provided to work with. Even if you’re tipped off to the existence of an identity or a community or a concept, that alone provides very little information. A real depth of understanding has to come from personal narratives — stories — and introspective writing or reflections more generally. These things are shared in varying different amounts by various different communities, and some more than others make an effort to round them up, to organize them, to make them easy to find.

For me, these discrepancies are a part of why my gender/orientation questioning process has crystalized around orientation labels even as it’s stagnated on gender. It’s not that it’s hard to find people talking about gender, of course, since there’s certainly a lot of that. In my case, the difficulty lies more in finding enough talk gender identity in a way that’s helpful enough in delineating specific gender identities from each other. What are people even talking about when they talk about “having” a gender? The picture is murky.

To make that picture any clearer, I’d need to process a large quantity of stories, to piece together a collage that gives me a more solid sense of what an identity “looks like,” so to speak, or is lived like. I’d need to be able to compare how various different people navigate these things, to trace what the commonalities are, to bring the bigger picture into focus. That calls for personal narratives (not just general definitions) — a lot of them — and for them to be easily tracked down in the first place, not just dumped into a roving feed cluttered up with noise in the form of other, less substantive stuff like a million flag designs.

So, as I said. Stagnated. Whenever I’ve looked, it’s often been too difficult for me to find where people are talking — actually, substantively talking — and so I just give up. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. I wouldn’t know. More recently, I have occasionally used “quoigender” as a way to categorize posts like this one, but is that how most people use it? How does that compare? I wouldn’t know.

In this post, I am essentially lamenting a lack of access to stories, and so I have contemplated what stories of my own to share here. There were a few different ones I considered. For now, though, I’ll just keep it at this.

This is a general outline of how these things tend to go: I stumble across some term or concept online. I think, oh hey, here’s a promising lead. I wonder what else I can find out about it. And so I look it up, and the answer is nothing. There’s nothing. There’s a definition (and probably an unnecessary flag design), and that’s it. So I leave empty-handed, and once again I’m left exactly where I started.

The specifics here don’t matter, because the overall shape of the thing is what affects me. All these little lures feel like false promises to me, suggesting more to be uncovered, but ultimately opening the door on an empty room.

It’s lonely. I want people to know that. For every act of chucking an undercooked notion out there without follow-up or discussion “in case it helps someone,” there is the risk of baiting some poor wanderer with a mirage, and it feels lonely. Doing the wordsmithing part up front doesn’t help me. I want to find connections, not vacancy.

In the past, when I have tried to express a kind of neologism fatigue, I’ve run the risk of people misunderstanding me. It’s easy to mistake that kind of thing for just general opposition to labelsmithing, after all. I understand why, but that’s not actually what I’m getting at here.

What I’m getting at is that this is exhausting, even for someone who does earnestly consider many neolabels in the process of questioning. How am I supposed to differentiate between any of these things when — going by definition alone — it would seem like there’s so much potential for overlap between them? How am I supposed to figure out what to go with? It’s simultaneously too much and not enough information. Dozens upon dozens of these little splinters that create the false impression of leading somewhere, with not a single indication of why any of the people involved thought what we already had wasn’t enough.

Being kept in the dark about these things is disappointing because considering what identification means, if I identify with any given word, how am I supposed to know what exactly I’m invoking beyond the superficial level of aesthetics? How am I supposed to know what/who it is I’m describing myself in relation to? Where do I find the stories?

As I said, maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. I wouldn’t know. All I know is I want to piece together more of an understanding than I have here and now. I want better than a maze of dead ends.


8 responses to “Vacant Rooms & Stagnation in the Process of Assembly

  • KaeS

    This echoes a lot of my frustrations with how gender and sexuality are playing out in social media spaces. An alternative paradigm (from a cranky old radical queer view informed by Bornstein and Feinberg) is that attempts to categorize gender are tools of social control. So Feinberg (Transgender Warriors) talks about trans as identities and practices that violate the Western binary that historically have been criminalized, medicalized, or stigmatized. While Bornstein (Gender Outlaw) describes all gender as inherently fluid and self-negotiated, we just have a cultural system that treats some forms of identity and expression as a violation of norms. Rothblatt rejects categories entirely in favor of a color wheel defined by three dimensions. (I don’t fully agree with any of the above, just citing them as examples of people who reject strict categorization.)

    It’s the age-old battle of lumpers vs. splitters, qualitative vs. quantitative, autobiographical vs. categorical, humanities vs. sciences. (To be clear, “lumpers” reject the view that human diversity can be described in taxionomic terms, not the view that people are distinct.) I feel in many cases people are struggling to create a pseudo-science classification for language choices that are largely a matter of personal preference and emphasis.

    Some neolabels are a response to actual or perceived LGB gatekeeping. Debates over butch identity have spawned at least a a dozen terms, including terms for AMAB people based on the misconception that twink and bear are fundamentally about gender identity/presentation. Many others, I feel, are largely aesthetic.

    If it helps, the annual gender census ( https://gendercensus.com/results/2020-worldwide/ ) finds that most nonbinary participants tend to cluster around the big terms like “nonbinary,” “enby,” “trans,” “genderqueer,” and “queer.” My personal and political labels are “genderqueer” (because I experience both gender and sexuality oppression, often combined), and “nonbinary” (because that’s how I’m most often described). But those are held lightly.

    • Coyote

      Thanks for the comment. I hear what you’re saying about there being more than one way to conceptualize these things, and I do try to hold onto that thought. It’s just tough when gender categorization is so pervasive, I feel like I’m socially obligated to sort myself one way or another sometimes.

      Unfortunately the Big Terms do not help, because my question is less “What type of nonbinary am I?” and more “Am I cis or nonbinary or binary trans? How much do I actually relate to gender, in what ways, and what Big Category does that essentially round up to?” …Which I’ve found nigh impossible to answer, when put like that.

    • opisaheretic

      I love this reply– such solid analysis here. I agree that in many cases, self-labeling stems from “personal preference and emphasis” rather than placing oneself within a taxonomy.

  • Roundup: February 2021 – Here There Be Genders: A Gender Exploration Carnival

    […] Coy – “Vacant Rooms & Stagnation in the Process of Assembly” […]

  • opisaheretic

    Thanks for this interesting post! I’m curious if you’ve seen the video “Millions of Dead Genders: A MOGAI Retrospective”, which I think makes some similar points. Some people might object to the characterization of MOGAI as “over”, but I found the video a fairly nuanced and constructive exploration (that also discusses transmedicalist backlash to “weird” trans or nb expressions). Let me know what you think.

    • Coyote

      …I have not. Where do I find that?

        • Coyote

          Thoughts:

          huh. I actually recognize one of the flags there in the thumbnail.

          Lessee what else I recognize in the video itself here… The layer cake? That’s not even about gender, but I guess it– Hey why is the aro compass in this compilation? They’re just throwing anything in there? C’mon.

          This “lost to history” segment does connect to some related thoughts I have about preservation, though.

          Anyway, like you said, I think the past-tense framing here is questionable at best. I’m also not on board with using “mogai” to mean specific identity constructs, given that technically it’s broader than and includes all of LGBT stuff as well, and I’m really suspicious of how some people like to use it to mean something divorcable from “LGBT.” Even something as simple as “neolabel tumblr” would be more precise than this.

          Kudos on not counting flag design proposals as “use,” lol.

          Looks like 9:30 is about where the video starts actually getting into some theories on why so many of these labels don’t gain traction. Theory one is that they’re “super abstract,” which… hm, I’m ambivalent about as an explanation. On the one hand, yeah. Some of them are very vague and metaphorical in a way that makes it hard to understand what a person is actually getting at. On the other hand, arguably you could say the same for “gray-asexual,” which I prefer to define in a way that’s very vague (a gray area under the asexual umbrella, relating to asexuality without considering “asexual” itself a perfect fit). The difference, I would argue, is that “gray-asexual” emerged in the context of an existing asexual community and has helped serve an immediate purpose within that context, as opposed to something brand new and bald as a baby, with no particular roots, context, or heritage to situate its relevance.

          9:50 Ah, so this is also covering some of that reinvention treadmill idea.

          11:00 “It’s normal for online communities to be decentralized, but rarely have I come across one that’s so… disorganized.” Lol, that’s because it’s Tumblr.

          13:00 See, with an example like this, I don’t think it’s enough to just talk about how the person in question is confused or that the recipient’s answer is limiting. I mean, yes, obviously — but to take it a step further, the thing I’d also want to point to about this example is the format of ask-advice blogging itself and how that contributes to why it matters that the first answer is like this.

          13:50 “To slap a label on your confusion and resolve not to dig deeper.” Yeah no I don’t like this analysis.

          18:00 She uses the word “discourse” correctly one moment and then immediately turns around and uses it to mean controversy…

          18:10 “No progress is ever made, no consensus is ever reached.” It’s Tumblr. Yain’t got no mods to come in and lock the thread. What did you expect?

          20:37 “Thanks to a new generation of YouTube grifters, it is now socially acceptable to point and laugh whenever a young person is proudly queer online.” …Only just now? Why are you phrasing that like that doesn’t predate YouTube?

          24:30 “Transmedicalism isn’t one of those frivolous online discourse terms. It predates social media.” Oh it does? Then what was that remark just four minutes ago? C’mon.

          Final thoughts: I gotta say, the reiteration of youth and childhood as the explanatory narrative kinda grinds my gears. It’s hard to gauge how this person would perceive younger identity terms getting used by grown adults considering she just… does not acknowledge the possibility of people identifying with these things in adulthood at all.

          In any case, youth/childhood is certainly relevant to how these things unfolded, but I’m disappointed that this analysis just stops there, instead of…. dare I say it…. digging any deeper.

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