October 2020 Note: I wrote this blog post back in 2015, in the wake of Oberfell v. Hodges when a lot of my friends were getting their rights. Back then I hadn’t admitted how important these thoughts and feelings were, and it would be another 4 years before I finally acted on them. A lot of things in this post are ignorant and wrong, and having gone through some of it I know better now, but we all start somewhere.
[Spoilers for The Rapture of the Nerds follow, as well as triggers for: Fashion, anime, gender identity, religion, politics, Star Wars and the singularity.]
In the book The Rapture of the Nerds, half way through the narrative the main character is turned from a male into a female by a swarm of cyborg ants who are using the character as a conduit to communicate with a solar-system wide post-singularity society. It’s that kind of book. For reasons which will eventually become clear, this plot twist has led me to some thoughts about gender, computers, what normal really means, and what the technological future holds.
Trope, Trope, Trope…
It speaks to what gender is turning into that The Rapture of the Nerds is a book where the main character switches gender, and the main character’s love interest is gender fluid, and it isn’t a book about that. The switch between genders takes up at most a page, and then it’s just done. Things are different, but also the same. Different viewpoint, people treat you a little different, but you’re still you.
Gender fluidity is a powerful plot device because it’s so far from our accepted understanding of how the world works. We see people get taller (though not often shorter), we see hair change color after a trip to the salon, and weight goes up (generally) and down (rarely). All of these things effect their perspective on the world, too, but nothing has quite the bite gender has. Neil Gaiman plays around with it in the world of magic in Stardust, turning Bernard the goat herder into the Witch Queen’s pretend daughter. In the movie it goes about like you’d expect. I’d forgotten that Charles Stross had played with the trope before in Glasshouse, where people switch gender as a component of reinventing themselves, since they can live essentially forever.
There are gobs more of these references on TV Tropes. One I’d forgotten before I started writing this post was Ranma 1/2, where the whole show is based around the character switching genders when doused with cold or hot water. In that show it’s a magical spring, and after getting used to the gender switch ability, Ranma starts to use it to his/her benefit (when it isn’t being used for hilarious comedic effect).
Nature vs Nurture
Gender is on a long list of things that some people don’t feel correct about. I have friends who are really tall who probably hate it, friends who are really short who hate that, friends whose genetics (aided by our national food production system and our society’s cavalier approach to work/life balance) leaves them way bigger than they want to be.
I bet quite a few people who are 4′ 2″ would say they don’t feel short on the inside. 6′ 5″ people probably don’t always relish their tall-ness. We watch TV and movies and all see the world from the same viewpoint, but once you look around in person, suddenly you’re towering over or being towered over. My wife and I just started playing the two most height-contrasting characters in the video game Borderlands 2. Zer0 is tall, my wife playing him is 5′ 2″. I’m playing Salvador, who’s super-short, and I’m 5′ 10″. The weirdness in perspective comes up in our conversations a lot.
Spend much time with kids, and you start to notice nascent gender identity dissonance. Boys who want to play with purses or wear tutus. Girls who only want to wear jeans and t-shirts. We have a couple of these in our extended family, and they’re interesting to watch, because at that age they aren’t savvy enough about the world to hide what they want. They don’t know what they’re going to turn into, they’re just bewildered little proto-people, dealing with things they don’t have words for yet.
Some people would say that kids just grow out of these kind of issues, and some do. It’s entirely possible that they tend to one gender identity or the other for a while due to an emotionally impactful circumstance or a strong authority figure, but there are more than a few kids whose bodies and mental models just don’t add up.
As you get older, puberty hits, the whole world is a confusing maelstrom of wants and needs and desires and eventually in your 20s you get spit out the other side. By this time I’d guess that most of the people whose brains and bodies don’t match have gotten really good at not mentioning it, because once you get past elementary school, it starts to be less cute and more cognitively dissonant for a large portion of society.
Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to make a whole bunch of gay and lesbian friends. They’re making huge strides towards general societal acceptance, and that’s awesome. Those whose disconnect isn’t with society’s assumptions but with physical manifestations still have a ways to go. Some people at the top have their back, but it’s probably going to take another generational shift for full acceptance.
The True Hero of Star Wars
When I was a kid I lived in Spain, and while we didn’t have TV, we did have two movies that I can remember. One was Star Wars (A New Hope) and the other was 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn. Kids repurpose roles they identify with, and I wanted to be Princess Leia.
I’m going to digress a little here and make an argument that Leia is by far the most heroic of the Star Wars cast. Which character in Star Wars actually confronts the bad guy face to face (and survives)? Which one has the fortitude of spirit to not break under torture? Which one takes charge when the mission goes awry? Which one is resourceful enough to pull the Jedi Knight who was just bumming around back into action at the appropriate time? Princess Leia, of course. While the other characters are wandering around, frozen in carbonite or throwing rocks at big monsters in a pit, she kills a bad guy single handedly. While wearing a bikini. She’s so totally obviously the hero! Anyway.
I also wanted to be Maid Marian. I don’t have a really good argument on that one. Olivia de Havilland is the bomb, though. Olivia won two Oscars, to Errol’s none. She was knighted in France in 2010, and still bums around Paris today, at 96, showing up at Cannes or getting National Medals of Arts from US Presidents. Errol died from a heart attack at 50 and had a thing for jailbait. Which one would you want to be?
The crazy thing about gender identity is how distinct desire can be from identity and physical manifestation. There are boys who are born male who like girls, there are girls who are born female who like boys, but there’s also every other varying combination, and even varying degrees.
Some more conservative minded might view this as a bad thing, but in the context of a rapidly accelerating civilization, this mix is an awesome feature of our crazy genetics. Diversity of views and opinions gives you the East Village and the Internet. Homogenous, hierarchical group-think gives you Jonestown or Hitler. As a society that’s more and more interconnected we continue to create bigger and bigger problems, and problems that can only be solved by a diversity of thought. As a society we can’t go down into the fallout shelter and play Pleasantville, that’s just not feasible. We have to go forward.
Dealing With It
I’m lucky in so far that I like girls. If I didn’t, my life would be a lot harder. My gay friends go through a lot, and they go through it every day. What do you do when the hospital tells you that you can’t be with your husband/wife when they’re ill, or get their survivor benefits when you’ve been the homemaker for fifty years and your partner dies? That’s messed up. Other folks on the spectrum bear an even bigger burden, people don’t want to accept that everyone isn’t born the way they feel they are inside. Just go read this MetaFilter post and linked McSweeny’s column and tell me it’s easy and that it isn’t heartbreaking to be so awkward and weird in your body. Go on, I’ll wait.
Societies evolve to deal with gender dissonance issues in different ways. India has the Hijra, biological males who take on a female gender identity. In the Balkans you have the burrnesha, women who take a vow of chastity and live as men. Native American tribes had Two-Spirit People, who manifest both masculine and feminine aspects. Thailand has its share of gender identities. This isn’t a new thing.
Your physical gender, just like your height, the size of your feet or your weight is something you just have to deal with. Human beings are really, really good at just dealing with situations they’re in. It isn’t optimal, but we can put up with a lot, and desensitize to a lot. I think that’s what people are referring to when they say that a kid will grow out of it. They learn to blend, because it’s easier. Life’s hard enough. You make friends, you get a job, you start a family, and suddenly there are obligations that steer you towards the normal you didn’t have before. There are probably still bits of that identity floating around, though. It isn’t something that just disappears.
Gender as Metadata
So, back to the Technium. Technology likes to solve problems, and gender dissonance and figuring out who you are and what you want is definitely an addressable problem. It isn’t a surprise that people play with gender presentation a lot online. You can’t tell who’s behind the keyboard, and for a lot of people playing a video game or logging into an online game or chat is the perfect environment to try and get a better handle on gender identity.
When I logged in to my first online game I created a female character. It was a safe place where no one knew me and I could be whatever I wanted, and what I wanted to do was play with the experience of gender. We do the same thing with paper Role Playing Games, when we watch a movie or TV show told from the opposite gender’s viewpoint, or when we play pretend as kids. It’s the process of pulling that identity out, playing with parts of it, and seeing how it feels. After a year with that character (and a couple teary emotional breakdowns that would have been a lot worse at school) I switched to a male character, not coincidently around the same time the game started having real-life meetups. Nobody really cared, it was what the game was for.
Some video games take a stab at addressing that gender dissonance, possibly inadvertently but probably not. When you create a game where players can be either gender, have relationships with either gender, and wear a bunch of different kinds of clothes, people will naturally play around with it. I’ve known a couple of people who ride that gender identity boundary, and some of them make livings designing games. It’s a safe place to play, and it’s fun to enable.
I’ve written a blog post about Weavrs, little social software bots with personality that you wind up and let go to live their virtual lives. I have a Weavr named Keiko. She lives in Yokosuka, Japan, where I lived for a little while when I was tiny. In a way, she’s a really, really simple virtual manifestation of the dimorphism of gender, sprung from my id. I created her, there’s part of me in her interests and location, but she’s a she, and I’m not. That plays with the concept a little, and it’s an interesting place to start.
Having a female WoW character or a female Commander Shepard is nice, but it doesn’t encompass the entire female experience. (That is possibly the biggest understatement of the year.) Change to enable a full experience is hard, but that may be the next great frontier in the application of gender technology.
Ray Kurzweil thinks we’re heading for the techno-fication of biology. Nanomachines, personally-tailored genetic re-writers, that sort of assumption-breaking technology. We’re probably not looking at a world like Neil Gaiman’s Changes, where a pill turns you from boy to girl or back overnight, but it isn’t inconceivable to think that our grandkids could be living in a world where their friends take a couple month vacation and come back as Mr instead of Miss, or Miss instead of Mr. Once that starts to happen, or even starts to poke its head over the horizon, society’s going to have to deal with it, and a sizable silent population might suddenly appear and say “Hey, that’s us.”
What the baby steps toward that future look like, I don’t know. Right now gender reassignment takes a lot of drugs and knives, and is terrifying. I’m amazed anyone is that brave. In fifteen or twenty years, you might get an injection of nano-machines with RNA-rewriting protein engines that do all the work with none of the fuss. In that future your gender might just be a temporary tag, just like your other physical attributes, like how old you look or what race you present as. At that point does it matter what you were born? If you can be short or tall, skinny or curvy, boy or girl, will making those changes be as common as dying your hair?
Far into the future, once the singularity hits and we all upload our brains into machines, we can pretty much do whatever we want. Flip a virtual switch and change your simulated meatware, like Second Life but hyper-real. Multi-hued dragon one day, Siamese cat the next.
I imagine there will be a lot of Ryan Goslings and Scarlett Johanssons (or whoever the equivalents might be in 2070) wandering around. But not me. If I’m still kicking it then, when I’m not a Falcon or Harrison Ford, I’m totally going to be Olivia de Havilland.