Sep 8, 2013

[Technicolor Musings] Are We Over-Complicating The LGBT Identity Discussion?

It is always a bit of a challenge to explain gender identity to other people, more so straight people, at least in my experience. After all, we need to get away from the notion of the gender binary - that the world is divided only into men and women. People tend to use the terms "sex" and "gender" loosely and interchangeably when the two actually mean two different things.

But as one goes down the rabbit hole of explaining gender identity, I fear that we've reached a point when the discussion is way too complicated to be practical. This is all the more evident when you consider the Philippine context where even basic education is inconsistent and religion has significant influence. We have people struggling to come to terms with who they are but still trying to follow the "traditional" molds of male and female. Trying to explain the wide range of gender identity possibilities may just overwhelm the person and make it even harder to figure out their path in life.

So are we over doing things? In our desire to be more accurate about how we discuss gender, have we found a new way to to alienate those that we wish to help and educate?

Gender Binary by Jess Five
Take for example the very term "gender binary", which is a bit of a favorite in activist discussion circles. It's a term that is indeed accurate, but also seemingly scientific. It's the kind of phrase that makes us feel smarter when we say it but it may not register with the person we are speaking to. And this isn't even factoring in the language barrier - how does one translate "gender binary" into Filipino? Should we even bother? At its most basic, all we want to say here is that there is more to like than male and female. Just because you realize you're gay doesn't mean that you're fated to become a woman. Nor are lesbians necessarily men trapped in women's bodies - this is overly simplistic thinking and what we need to dispel.

This is my big concern with SOGIE - something which isn't even clear among the "more advanced" Western LGBT advocates. Just running a Google search for "SOGIE" will lead you to one under construction website about the actual subject and the rest refer to people with Sogie as a name. It took me a while to figure out what this acronym means as well - apparently it stands for Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression. And this is the new buzzword among LGBT advocates to further refine and make more precise our discussions about gender identity. But the typical reaction that I get from people involves confused looks and scratching of heads.

SOGIE ties to another concept that's also going around known as the Genderbread Person (instead of Gingerbread Man). This model tries to stress the four aspects of individual identity, as it were. We have our biological sex (typically male or female, not counting hermaphrodites and such), gender identity (how male or female we think ourselves to be), gender expression (how male or female we behave or express ourselves) and attraction (whether you like men, women, masculine behaving types or feminine behaving types). It's a good model in itself and when you really sit down with someone and take the time to draw all the diagrams and cite the proper examples, things will make sense.

But in order to address the lack of LGBT education in the country, can we really go to this extent? Are things like SOGIE and the Genderbread Person the best first steps for LGBT education in the country? Just looking at our still-rising rates of HIV infection in the country and one can't help but feel that we're more like early 1980's America in terms of both HIV awareness and perhaps the state of LGBT rights and understanding. Is it arguable that concepts like SOGIE are too advanced? Or are we thinking too little of people?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, which is a bit of a cop-out statement, I know. But it's no worse than starting any conversation about LGBT gender identity with "It's very complicated..." and going on a roller coaster right through the madness of definitions, examples and trying to provide as many possible combinations as possible. And don't get me started with that camp of people who is against all forms of "labels" for who we are and just want to be who they are without thinking about it and defining it.

There is a need to educate in order to raise awareness. But I'll always subscribe to the line of thinking that simpler is better. Communication is about finding common ground and perhaps more effort should be exerted into properly defining local terms and making positive associations with current insults. The term bakla is used both in a positive and a negative sense and there may be a greater opportunity to reclaim such terms and present a better view of things.

There's a lot to be done to get more people involved in the fight for LGBT rights in the country. I just don't think SOGIE is crucial to the fight at this point.
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