Gender Segregation

I’m a member of a church which primarily serves the LGBTQ community. PMCC is an important community for me, the first place I was ever around a lot of other queer people, and though I don’t identify as Christian, it is a spiritual home for me. I’m very involved in PMCC’s life as a choir member, the volunteer adminsitrative assistant to the pastor, and just, you know, one of the “church people” who helps keep things running. But there’s one aspect of church life that troubles me: gender-based groups.

This is from an email I received from our sister church in San Francisco, which I visit often enough to merit being on their email list, but it’s typical of the type of gender-based group mail I might see from PMCC as well.

All who identify as women: please join us in the MCCSF sanctuary for the first 2011 gathering of WomenSpirit!

On the surface it’s trans-inclusive, which is great. There are similar emails and announcements at church for “men and those who identify as men” for men’s group activities.

transgender symbol combining the symbols for male and female

Here’s my dilemma: what if you don’t identify as either? I’m pretty sure I’d cause awkwardness and discomfort if I attended the men’s group, so I never try. I’ve been to the women’s group activities a few times, and while it’s great to be part of a community, I feel a bit like an imposter.

I had a similar feeling of awkward outsiderness when I was part of a women’s spirituality circle a friend of mine organized. A friend who very definitely identifies as a woman, as femme, in fact, and borders on being a feminist-separatist in her ideology. When I expressed my hesitation, she hastened to reassure me that of course I was welcome, and that my way of being a woman was a valid way.

Problem being that to her eyes I’m first and foremost a woman.

To my own eyes, I’m kind of not.

I look at that announcement and I feel awkward and wrong, like I just don’t fit in, even in a community that is trans-inclusive. I mean, it’s not like I’d be turned away from either group; I’d just feel awkward. I suppose this says as much about me, and my discomfort with the gender binary as it says about the church. Still, it upsets me. Every time. And I don’t quite know what to do with my feelings.

At least bisexuality is a quantifiable option, as far as orientation goes. Most of the people at my church would identify as gay, but I know I’m not the only one who claims a bisexual identity. But a trans identity that is neither male nor female, a genderqueer identity, that’s not an option. There is no group for those who can’t or won’t pick a gender. And it leaves me with that same discomfort that no matter how much I say I accept myself as I am, I just can’t shake.

Who am I? What am I?

I turn the thought over and over until it’s as smooth and polished as a river stone, but the more I think about it, the slipperier it gets.

I had a mammogram recently, and was told there was something vaguely suspicious about a lymph node so I need to go in for additional ultrasound tests. It’s probably nothing, they said, and there’s no reason to worry. But you know, when I told my trans friend DK about it, and he joked, “well, if it is something, there’s your excuse for top surgery,” I didn’t just laugh. I thought, “whoah, seriously! I almost hope it is something.”

That’s pretty telling, right? But I’m not a guy. I’m a nothing. A nothing with breasts I wish I didn’t have, and no facial hair I wish I did have, and a fondness for children and animals I’m happy to have, a facility with emotion and interpersonal connection that I couldn’t imagine living without.

So this little ramble here, it’s not really getting anywhere. It’s just more tumbling the stone around, getting no closer to an answer than I ever was. I wish I could feel something other than awkward about those gender-based groups. I wish I had a group of my own to belong to.

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~ by Nezu on 5 February 2011.

14 Responses to “Gender Segregation”

  1. Man, do I know what that’s like. But how’s this for a thought: if there’s no place for you in your church, why not make one?

    There must be other genderqueer, genderweird, genderdifferent, genderWTF people at your church — especially if it’s a trans friendly place. Why not make a ‘no gender needed’ group, and invite folks to come along? Then you’ll have your own space.

    Or you could take this post, jig it a bit, and slap it up in your church. ‘Here’s my dilemma, folks. Who’s got suggestions?” They’re might be other people feeling the same.

    • I think genderWTF is my new favorite term. I also like genderwerid. And yeah, I think maybe if I created a group, there would be at least a few people who’d join it. I guess I need to figure out what the group would do, if I created it.

  2. Interestingly, Huz had a (sort of) similar reaction when I received a mailing from some women’s group at my church. He felt that it was quite discriminatory to have a group that separated itself thusly. And you know, there’s definitely some validity to that.

    I second the idea of starting a genderWTF group at your church.

    • I think there can be valid reasons for gender-segregated groups, especially since sexism is so deeply ingrained in our culture as to be invisible, especially to those who are on the privileged side of the discrimination. But yes, I’m thinking a genderWTF group might be a really good thing. It would raise awareness of the issue, if nothing else, if the announcements ran something like: Womens’ group is going to the Art Museum on the 19th, see C for details, Men’s group is having a barbecue on Saturday, talk to J, Genderqueer group is meeting after church for a hike on the beach, see Nezu. 😀

  3. Start one – a genderqueer group would be awesome! Now that I’ve read the rest of the comments it seems I’m not the first one to say it.

    • Thanks RevT,

      I’m considering it. In fact the more I think about it the more I’m drawn to the idea. We’ll talk. 😀

      I can say this for sure: I know I’m in the right place at PMCC.

  4. I see no problems with having groups that separate based on identity (unlike, I suppose, Amethyst’s huz); sometimes there are things you just want to do or feel more comfortable doing with women, or alternatively with men. This is particularly true with women coming into a church/group of strangers for the first time; although some women can be the evilest, backstabbing people ever, in general one tends to feel safer with women you don’t know. I’ve known men (who identify as male and are straight) that often feel the same way.

    As for the identity thing, I’ve never really identified as being female except for the briefly intense period where I was dating a guy. The rest of the time…. I dunno, I’m too feminine to be male, but far too masculine to be female. Physically, I identify as female, and except for my periods don’t feel much need or want to change, but in my head? I’m both, I’m neither, I’m ‘who even cares?’ I’d be comfortable in both groups, depending on what’s going on, but I could certainly empathize with the awkwardness of being in a group that demands you are and/or identify with one or the other.

    DK’s suggestion of ‘no gender needed’ makes sense. I mean, it’s a church, aren’t there already ‘no gender needed’ groups and activities? Why not groups based on a thing you have in common outside gender – like crafts or knitting? Gardening? Quilting? Writing prose/poetry? Bowling? Separating people by something as fluid as gender just won’t work in this sort of environment. But the great thing is that if it doesn’t already exist, go out and make it! :3

    • We do have several gender-free groups: a games group, a stewardship group, a publicity group, a helping the homeless group, etc. I’m involved with some of them, and glad of it. I don’t know that the thing troubling e is a lack of options outside of the gender-based groups, but the feeling that neither of the gender-based groups is really a place I belong, while the expectation is clearly that everyone in the church belongs to one or the other.

      I think I envy you your comfort with identifying as outwardly female and inwardly “who cares”. When I look in the mirror and see my breasts, it always gives me a moment of “that’s not right”.

  5. I agree with DK, especially since I’ve been to your church and there are quite a few butch types. Maybe you could organize a walk-on-the-beach-day-for-butches or something (walk-etc-for-genderqueer?), by emailing both churches? It’d end up being a small group, granted, but at least it’d be a start.

    J

    • Yeah, I like the beach idea. I think I was struggling with the notion of what exactly I’d want to do with such a group, but something like that could be a good, low-key, easy thing.

  6. This is a wonderful post – thank you. Your dilemma sounds a lot like the anxiety I feel every time I am asked to check off a race/ethnicity box on a survey. I wonder if the way I self-identify (biracial/multiracial) is the “acceptable” answer, or do they want to know how others may identify me by appearance (usually African-American)? It is a real frustration.

    I also look fairly feminine and feel very gender blended. People don’t always get that. I do go to some lengths to try to create comfortable situations in places where I work, travel, worship, etc. All the best to you in carving out a comfortable place in your church.

    • Hi Robin. Thanks for your really thought-provoking insight. I hadn’t thought about the similarities for biracial/multiracial people, but clearly the parallels are there. I have several cousins who are biracial, two who appear and are treated as African-American, and three who are perceived as anything from Latino to Asian to Middle-Eastern. I should ask them how they feel about the issue of having a “hidden” racial identity.

      I totally understand your dilemma about the “acceptable” answer and trying to make social situations comfortable for others. I hope you have a place and people with whom you feel completely comfortable being your honest, multiracial, gender-blended self.

  7. While gender specific groups can be nice at times, I agree that there should be a gender-neutral option. I think it’s funny how, particularly in churches, groupings tend to follow gender lines, rather than, say, things you might be interested, causes you may be concerned about. It sounds like your church would be open to starting up a gender neutral group though – you should check.

    • Thanks, Grasshopper. Yes, it’s clear my church would be open to that. I can think of a few people that would even be likely to join such a group if I started it. I guess the thing is, I’m not sure that’s really what I want, either. I want the option more than I want the actual group. Although maybe wanting the option is sufficient to start the group.

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