Monday, 17 June 2013

Living in your gender, in SL

Here's my June column for AVENUE magazine.


A professional acquaintance of mine in RL recently transitioned from male to female identity. Involved as I have been only on the very periphery, this and a similar occurrence several years ago have both been very interesting events to reflect on. I am lucky to work in a tolerant, progressive organisation that prides itself on its self-perceived inclusivity. Hypothetical principles are all well and good when it comes to anti-discriminatory employment policy; when a concept stops becoming abstract and gets real, however, we discover all sorts of fine detail to conflict with our deeper, our less intellectual modes of being.

For example, an issue arose in the earlier of these two cases regarding use of the female toilets. A number of female employees who were okay in principle with the idea of – as they saw it – a man dressed as a woman doing office duties, voiced anger at this person being allowed to use their conveniences. What this illustrates is that ‘tolerance’ only goes so far when it comes to how people actually relate to someone going through a change in their identity. Interestingly, a recently-built high school near where I live did away with girls only, boys only, women only and men only toilets, opting instead for single toilet facilities with wide open entrances and cubicles with doors from ground to ceiling: a few people were similarly uncomfortable with this idea at first, but the end result of it is that toilet bullying – a long-standing problem in British schools – has been all but eradicated there. This new approach to gender division (or rather, lack of) has been accepted, ultimately, because people empathise with the idea of being bullied in out-of-sight, isolated places. We can adapt to significant changes when we are sufficiently motivated and when we are sufficiently personally connected to their rationale that they make sense.

About twenty years ago, my mother told me about a person in their early twenties who sat next to her on the train to work each morning. Having made the transition from male to female identity, this young woman wanted to talk to her about ‘women stuff’ like clothes and hair and make-up and shoes. A lot of her questions seemed at first to my mother to have a sort of clichéd superficiality about them – they were almost child-like in their complexity; the sort of questions, perhaps, a young girl might ask her mother. Although she ‘played along’ with the conversations, a part of her doubted the sincerity of the context. It felt incongruous. This was not, after all, a young person with learning difficulties. When we discussed this further, however, we realised that a recently transitioned female who’d spent most of her life being socialised as male would have few common points of cultural reference with women. Put simply, she’d had little experience of talking to women as a woman and needed a non-threatening, non-judgemental role model with whom she could learn some of these female socialisation ‘basics’ that life’s conditioning so far had denied her.

Perhaps more importantly, she also just needed to have conversations with someone where she was spoken to as a female – and what better way to do this than through female topics of conversation? In thinking now about the issue of the colleague using the female toilets, I’m struck by how essential to acceptance female ritual must be to someone recently transitioned to female (or how essential male ritual must be to someone recently transitioned to male). The complainants might have defended their proposed restrictions to toilets access (none were ultimately made, thankfully) as some sort of limitation that ensured one person’s ‘preferences’ didn’t impose on others, not realising the fundamental importance of such ritual and not sensing that this issue of identity begins way deeper than the surface layer of clothing and hair style and make-up.

But perhaps most important of all is how this case demonstrates that the supposedly ‘tolerant’ co-workers revealed through this complaint that they weren’t really thinking of this person as a female at all, but as a male, and thereby ultimately denying her her need to be spoken to as a woman for the sake of her own developing identity. To what extent is our identity influenced by that which others project upon us? Quite a bit, if you consider such theories as Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s hugely influential ‘Social Identity Theory’ as valid.

But even if you try harder than these women did to empathise, it’s still not easy to think about a person of one biology as the opposite gender when you’re face-to-face in conversation with them, particularly if you knew him or her before they started their transition. Ultimately, it’s the presence and absence of a hundred tiny little details which create the sense of incongruity we feel, much as we don’t want to feel it, far less acknowledge it. We do our very best to take manual control and override all these automatic associations, but we have a lifetime of conditioning to overcome in those moments. The end result can often be that we come away worrying we haven’t been natural with our friend or colleague and that they might have sensed our subtle disorientation – and we might be right. To a certain extent, there’s not a great deal that can be done about this in the short term other than maintain our very best efforts to think of transitioned or transitioning friends as belonging to their chosen gender: eventually, the societal associations concerning gender will weaken and become rewritten, and perhaps future generations will consider our mental inflexibility absurd.

In the meantime, though, where can transgender people experience being treated and spoken to as – or, perhaps more importantly, thought of as belonging to – their chosen gender? Where can they explore their identity unencumbered by the baggage of others who are at worst overtly prejudiced and discriminatory and at best struggling to overcome their own institutionalised conditioning? The Internet in its widest sense has, to some extent, provided this medium for some time now: there was internet chat before the web and social networking now allows us to build whatever personal profile we desire. The metaverse, however, takes this to a whole new level of interaction. Second Life® allows the anonymity that other forms of internet interaction provide, but it also allows us to adopt the visual appearance of our chosen gender and to exist in three dimensional spaces with others. As an opportunity to experience being treated by others in a chosen gender role on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis, it must be without historical precedent. Yes, it’s a reduced sensory environment and communicating in text is not the same as spoken interaction, but it is at least an equal playing field with everyone else.

Concealment of biological gender does, of course, carry with it the uncomfortable issue of deception. If a transgender person exploring a female identity chooses not to make known her male biology inworld in order to experience properly being regarded as female, is she then guilty of deceiving what could potentially become very important friends in her life? Even though SL’s terms and conditions are clear that no person is under any obligation to reveal their RL gender and that telling others the RL details of a resident – including their gender – is a serious breach, the perception continues that knowing such fundamental information about someone is some sort of human right. What we need to understand is that a transgender person is not ‘pretending’ to be the gender they adopt. They have always felt themselves to be this way, but that is not to say that they have had experience in living it. All too often, SL gets spoken of in the same breath as comments on sexual behaviour, with concealment of identity assumed to mean some sort of sexual misdemeanour; one of its most praiseworthy qualities, however, has to be the opportunity it gives people to just be in whatever way it is they want to be: through going shopping together, through irreverent chat, through looking at art together, through whatever.

And if a close SL friend should choose to reveal that they are transgender, we should look upon this as nothing less than a gift. For us, also, this is an opportunity. Those two hundred tiny details won’t be anything like as apparent in metaverse interaction as they are in RL and our own sense of incongruity will be greatly reduced. As it does in so many other ways, SL helps us to experience something abstract as something plain and ordinary; the absence of detail allows us to see through that which might normally distract and to connect at that level where we are all of us just everyday people. 

Perhaps it and the virtual worlds which will follow might even speed up in RL the weakening of our socially programmed associations. I, for one, won’t miss them.


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