Analysis (Services and Self)

Koan Bremner's view on life as a database and data warehouse professional / addict and non-genetic woman

Monday, February 28, 2005

Scent of a woman

To me, one of the most intriguing questions that can be asked of someone is "what are X words that describe you?" I see it over and over: for example, in magazine "pop psychology" quizzes, and in Sunday newspaper profile pieces. If *you* had to describe yourself in ten words, which words would you choose? What about if you only had five words?

What if you only had one word; which word would you use then, to capture the essence of how you see yourself?

I wouldn't have to think too hard before answering that one; "woman". The more words I'm allowed, the more of a picture of me I would be able to paint. Here's the thing, though; X would have to be pretty high (certainly more than thirty) before I'd use one on "transgendered". That might surprise you, especially if you've read a selection of my posts on this blog. But there's no discrepancy here; I'm a woman... at least, in *my* eyes! ;-) The fact that I am also transgendered is just that, a fact, and one which I don't dispute. But it's *not* how I define myself. The fact will always remain; the day-to-day consequences of that fact are that, right now, I have to deal with the minutiae of crossing the gap between physical masculinity and femininity (which is an ongoing, accelerating and, most crucially, finite process) as well as the *social* gap between masculinity and femininity. To me, the latter is by far the more important gap.

How will I know when I've crossed it? I don't think it's a finite process, unlike the physical transition. But part of my personal success criteria is "to what extent do *others* perceive me as a woman"? Which then raises the question, how do I test how well I'm doing against that criteria? I'll use a technology example to illustrate this.

At work, one of the developmental doctrines we try to adhere to is the spirit of Test-Driven Development. This says that you only develop a piece of software code when there is some objective, business test which your current software does not pass (i.e. there is a piece of functionality that your current software does not implement) and that, before writing the software, you write an appropriate test. You know that your current software will fail the test (as it should; your current software doesn't implement that functionality). Having written the test, you add just enough code to your software so that it now passes the test (at which point, you know that you've successfully implemented that specific business requirement); and so you move on to the next test case. It's an iterative process: define an area of functionality which is not currently implemented; define a test which will show when you've implemented that functionality (but which you currently fail); write just enough code to pass the test; move on to the next missing piece of functionality.

This approach strikes me as being just as applicable here. Define a situation in which I'm not currently accepted as a woman (or in which I might not be accepted as such, or haven't yet tried to determine one way or the other); define an objective test; take whatever actions are necessary to pass that test; move on to the next situation. In Test-Driven Development, it is not unusual to spend more time identifying and writing the tests than you do in writing the software to pass the tests; the pay-off comes when the total amount of time spent in development starts to decrease, *and* the quality of the software that is written increases, not least because you're developing a comprehensive suite of unit tests which will detect the nightmare scenario, where you break an existing piece of code by fixing a bug in another area, or by introducing a new piece of functionality.

With that in mind, what tests might I define for my social transition? One that's been in my mind for a while now is the extent to which informal (or formal) women's groups would accept me as a member. For example, one of the blogs I read is - which they describe as "a weblog about women and technology... a celebration of women's contributions to computing; a place to spotlight women's contributions as well point out new opportunities and challenges for women in the computing field" (yes, there's a missing "as" in there... maybe I should have been a sub-editor after all!). There's a core group of contributors (profiled under the section "misbehaving here") and a wider group of women in computing (linked to under the section "misbehaving elsewhere"). One simple test might be to get myself listed in the "misbehaving elsewhere" category, i.e. be demonstrably accepted as a *woman* in computing, with something worthwhile to say (note to self: write some more technology posts). Anyway, that's for the future; yesterday I read a post on that blog, "Women in podcasting", referring to Amy Gahran's growing list of women podcasters (and why such a list might be necessary). My podcast, VoiceOver is listed in the directory (under "music" > "alternative & rock"); shouldn't it also be on Amy's list? Well, *I* think so (obviously!)... but would Amy agree?

I emailed Amy with the suggestion; she quickly responded by adding me to her list (thanks, Amy!) One small unit test defined, written and passed; onto the next. ;-)

Which brings me back to the point of this post (yes, I do have a point, other than recording a fleeting moment of self-congratulation). If there was a list of "transgendered podcasters", I wouldn't be in the slightest bit interested in seeking admission to that list. I wouldn't object to being *on* such a list (it would be a statement of truth, after all) but I wouldn't actively seek inclusion to that list (in contrast to seeking inclusion on Amy's list). Why not? Because I don't self-identify as transgendered. Truthfully, I don't. I'm a woman; that's how I self-identify. The fact that I'm transgendered is just that; a fact. It's a temporary inconvenience and source of present physical discomfort (I've another session of electrolysis this morning, for example)... but there will come a point, probably early in 2006, when all the surgical and legal processes have been completed. At which point, I know, the only time that the term "transgendered" will cross my mind (in relation to myself) is if someone else raises it, e.g. in reference to a post of mine in this blog.

Is that an incongruity? How can I state, on the one hand, that I don't self-identify as transgendered, yet write about aspects of being transgendered on the other?

Personally, I don't think it's incongruous at all; I tried to explain why I mention the issue in one of the earliest posts I made on this blog, and expanded on it slightly when I described my motivation for participating in a TV documentary series. My primary reasons for writing about my experience of Gender Dysphoria *at this point in my life* are:

* Because so many people (friends, colleagues, family) kept suggesting that I should;

* Because my own memory is so full of holes these days that if I don't commit these thought to writing *now*, I'll probably never remember them in the future;

* Because I'm not ashamed of what I am, and cannot imagine ever denying the reality of my life's history, I've nothing to hide on this subject;

* Because I know that if I had read, ten or more years ago, the kind of factual perspective I try to project in these posts, my own path could have been so much less traumatic than it was. If I bemoan the fact that I couldn't find such accounts *then*, don't I have an obligation to put that right (and maybe, just maybe, ease someone else's burden with facing this condition) *now*?

But there is a definite time limit on the extent to which I'll write on this subject. Once the physical and legal formalities are completed, I very much doubt if I'll write on the subject of Gender Dysphoria again; at least, I don't intend to. I'll be too busy writing about the joys (and travails) of womanhood! :-) I'll leave these writings as a matter of record; but that's all they'll be, as far as I'm concerned. I do not intend to fall into the trap that I perceive so many transgendered folk seem to fall into; that they never completely move on from being transgendered. If that seems like a harsh assertion to make, well, I've read a lot of writings by transgendered people (in print, in blogs, in usenet newsgroups, on the web) and the sad reality is that many transgendered folks seem unable (or unwilling) to shake off the fact of their being transgendered and fully embrace the opportunity of being themselves. I'll set myself up for some flak here by stating my opinion (for what little *that's* worth) that if you *are* transgendered and permanently focus on *being* transgendered... indeed, if you self-identify as transgendered first, female (or male) second, if at all... then really, you've missed the point.

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  • At 1:26 pm, Blogger Amy said…

    Wow, what a brilliantly eloquent essay, Koan! Thanks so much for writing it.

    Aside from gender issues, I can think of many other situations in which people get "stuck" identifying themselves in a temporary or transitional identity, whether consciously or unconsciously: student, victim, youth, popular, powerful, etc.

    Thanks for making me think. I appreciate the quality and thoughtfulness of your writing. I've added this article to my page, by the way.

    - Amy Gahran

  • At 8:33 pm, Blogger Koan said…

    Amy, you're a professional writer; I'm not. I am humbled by your kind words, both in this comment and on your page. I don't know what else to say... and I'm not often at a loss for words (in writing, at least).

  • At 5:13 pm, Blogger susan smith nash said…

    I'm so thrilled to have had the chance to be introduced to your blog, and I am moved by your ability to see yourself simultaneously from two perspectives -- one, as you see yourself situated in the world at large; and two, as you look at yourself from outside yourself, seeing yourself as others probably see/ perceive you.

    I love the way you focus on perception -- the subtle shifts that are triggered by things like sound, voice, ambiguity...

    Thank you so much for making your thoughts available -- it is very inspiring.

    all best,
    susan smith nash


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