G is for Gender (of humans and deities)


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter G.
I’ve announced this post a few times already, and now I’m finally sitting down to write it. Parts of my thoughts about gender have already been included in these previous posts:

D is for Dualities (and why so many of them aren’t very useful)
F is for Female. Feminine. Feminism. Femme. … Fertility?

Despite (or maybe because?) having a Master’s degree in Gender Studies, I still don’t get the idea of gender as a duality, let alone a binary. Sure, I experience (and categorize) some people as more masculine or more feminine than others, and I myself feel more masculine or feminine in certain situations, but that really doesn’t mean much for anyone outside my head.

Franklin Roosevelt in gender-neutral children's clothes of the time (1884)

Because gender isn’t at all a simple thing about two kinds of bodies or even two kinds of energies. What is considered masculine or feminine is so different throughout history and cultures that I can only laugh at anyone’s claims that anything about gender is “natural.” Even if we stick to one culture and one time in history, what is considered feminine or masculine still isn’t the same all over the board, and class and race/ethnicity are just two things that influence gender. To give you just a few examples: Pink used to be a boys’ color in Europe/Northern America up until the 1940s (because it was a pastel version of red, which was considered a masculine color). The most manly thing for an stereotypically Jewish man to do wasn’t (and probably isn’t) to go and prove his physical strength but to become a scholar. Anatomy is pretty much irrelevant in some Native American nations which assigned gender by way of the social role and skill sets (sorry, but you need to log in to view the link) someone took up.

Even if we limit our understanding of a “natural” gender difference to our physical bodies, things are a lot more complicated than bathroom doors suggest. Physical gender (aka physical sex) is made up from a combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics like the amount and placement of body hair or the presence or absence of breasts. Not to mention brain chemistry that has become so popular recently for pinpointing gender differences to somewhere within our bodies. And yes, any of these parts may or may not conform to a certain human-made standard of “normalcy” for someone “male” or “female.” Actual humans are born with widely varied combinations of the factors contributing to physical gender. And we all develop from an embryonal state that is the same for each of us. (I strongly recommend Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body for a potentially mind-blowing biological perspective and lots more details.) Our gender is assigned to us at birth, usually by the judgment of the midwife, doctor, or nurse of what they see between the newborn’s legs. If that seems too ambiguous to them, further tests may be made to look for chromosomes or other biological “evidence” for the gender of this person. And let’s not forget the variance that occurs even among people who are genetically female (or male). Not every woman has breasts of a size that would fill even the smallest bra available (and I’m not just talking about women who’ve had mastectomies as part of their cancer treatment). Not every man has a penis of a size that would fill even the smallest condom available (and I’m not just talking about men who’ve had accidents that reduced the size of their genitalia). Not every woman is able to get pregnant and give birth, and not every man is able to sire a child. Few people would seriously argue that either of them wasn’t a “real” woman or man.

And we haven’t even talked about people of any anatomy who enjoy wearing skirts and nail polish and wielding power tools and discussing astrophysics and still fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Or those who enjoy wearing flannel shirts and big boots and cooking five-course meals for their loved ones and needlecrafts who also embrace what their birth certificate always said about their gender. Nor have we talked about those who were assigned one of the two commonly acknowledged genders at birth and have eventually come to the conclusion that the other of those two commonly acknowledged genders would actually be a better fit for them socially, and/or in the way their body looks, and who then go on to legally change the gender on their official documents and/or and physically change their bodies to fit better with the gender they identify with. This includes but isn’t limited to transsexual/transgender people (male-to-female or transwomen, female-to-male or transmen), some third-gender folk, some Two-Spirit individuals, and some genderqueer people.

It should be obvious by now why I would argue that gender is one of those dualities that don’t make much sense because there aren’t any clear ways to accurately and usefully measure it or to even agree on what actually belongs to “gender.” And that’s without even getting into the “nature vs. nurture” debate.

"Thomas Beatie" by Marc Quinn, 2008

All of this has been the reality of my experience of gender within and around me for the majority of my life. The first intersex individual among my friends came out to us fifteen years ago. Many of my friends and some of my lovers/partners have been (are) transgender and I’ve witnessed their social, legal, and/or physical transitions first hand. And they are just the most obvious examples of the gender variety I’ve seen, felt, and lived for at least half of my life. This is what’s normal to me (and I haven’t even started on people’s sexual variations that intersect with all this gender variety!). It’s normal to me that people are able change aspects of their gender presentation, including their bodies, more or less drastically (and with more or less legal/medical support). It’s normal to me that no human interest or capability is inherently masculine or feminine, let alone male or female (ever since Thomas Beatie the point should have been made even to the greater public that sometimes men do in fact get pregnant and give birth). I should probably also say that it is normal to me that I can also clearly see differences in individual capabilities or interests, and that I also see the influence of larger forces like education, society, and media onto how accessible some of these interests/skills are to specific individuals or groups of individuals (aka sexism et al.).

Of course, I carry over this experience and understanding of gender into my search for a spiritual tradition (or non-tradition) that makes enough sense to me to claim it as my own. And that is where I get stuck all the time. I just can’t seem to find a tradition that sees gender like I do.

Wicca (which I encountered first because it’s so omnipresent in neo-Pagan writing) has its binary God and Goddess. It was pretty clear from the beginning that I wasn’t even going there, because I certainly won’t stick a knife into a cup to symbolize the union of gender energies by way of alluding to penis-in-vagina intercourse. Not even for me as a butch-loving femme did this seem like a good representation of gender because my femininity/femmeness can be just as active and penetrative as anyone’s masculinity and/or butchness, both on a literal and a symbolical level. Besides that, the whole two-gender system of it all didn’t make much sense to me.

Other polytheistic pantheons have a larger amount male and female deities, but none of them quite fit in with a femaleness like mine that wasn’t defined by the presence or absence of fertility/physical children. But at least there were several men and women to spread characteristics around a bit. There were even “virgin” goddesses like Athena or Artemis who weren’t mainly concerned with housekeeping and bearing children. There also were “monstrous” female deities like Kali. But still. I never quite found what I was looking for. I still felt left out. I also never quite found the same kind of masculinity I saw in my butch partners in any deity (male or female), but I’ll admit I didn’t spend all too much time on male deities to begin with.

I already described my experience with looking for queerness and gender variance among deities by way of reading Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities. Let’s sum it up with: it wasn’t helpful at all.

So what’s a person to do who seems to have a pretty androgynous mind, a queer-feminist consciousness, and a female/feminine body that she likes equally well when bellydancing as when assembling furniture and wh experiences only society dysphoria when it comes to gender?

For a long time I thought I needed just get used to the necessity of putting everything Pagan through my ever-present culture filter that translates things into queerspeak for me until I could at least accept a little corner of it. Or, if that wasn’t enough, that I needed to invent my very own non-tradition and mix up a queerly Pagan worldview of my own.

However, recently I’ve felt given in to explore Heathenry/Asatru/Northern Tradition Paganism a little more in-depth. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found myself to be especially interested in the female jötnar (giants) and their not-quite-so domestic femaleness. I don’t have any conclusions to make about this, however, as this exploration is still very much in its ongoing early phases.

And then I read something in another blog a few days ago, not much more than a remark in passing, that almost made me smack my head in sudden understanding.

The gender of Gods, I believe, is part of the metaphor, the story that we humans create to fit them into our worldview.

Duh! Of course! You should think I forgot my entire Gender Studies education the way I apparently haven’t been able to realize this for myself: the way humans have talked and portrayed the gender of deities is of course heavily influenced by what we even have words for. Why would we think and speak differently about divine genders than we would about human ones? And why would our perception of deities and their gender not be subject to change the same way that our understanding and perception of human gender changes?

Zeus giving birth to Athena

Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss all deities that are reported to have had heterosexual relationships when there are also so many stories of the exact same deities changing gender, shapeshifting into animals or humans, and giving birth to children out of bodyparts like their armpits or foreheads?! Maybe I shouldn’t take the surviving lore as “all that there is” and at least accept the possibility that deities may look different in reality (that is, in my own eyes, if I should ever be able to look at them directly) than the pictures other humans have created of them, and that they may end up being a lot more varied in their gender expressions as well? Why on earth did I ever buy into mainstream Pagan illustrations like that and simply accepted them as objective truth?! Why, oh why, did I ever think that deities couldn’t be as varied in the ways they embodied their gender as us humans (and probably more so)?! Honestly, this is all a rather embarrassing realization for me, not because I finally have it but because it took me so long to get to this point. Haven’t I read enough about “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis) and “PCPG” (peer-corroborated personal gnosis) to know there’s more to deities (especially Heathen ones) than the surviving lore? But for some reason, the connection never clicked with my thoughts about gender. Until now.

I’m not quite sure where that leaves me, but I already sense an interest to look at mythology again, this time with a queer eye for any traces of gender “normalization” (I can’t quite explain right now how that works, but it’s not as simple as nodding wisely at the point where Loki changes into a mare…). And I definitely want to examine my own assumptions about divine gender some more to see where I did my own “normalizing.” And maybe I can even try and see what happens to my thinking about deities when I don’t take their gender as one of their main defining characteristics and instead look for personalities. I think I now have some very interesting reading (and writing?) ahead of me!


Bonus link list:

Other people have also written about gender during the Pagan Blog Project. Here are some links to articles I liked so far, to sort of conclude the topic of gender (for now).

Pixiecraft: “Gods, Goddess, and Gender from one’s Grrrl’s Perspective
Per Sebek: “G is for Gender, Queerness, and the Gods
Adventures on the Dusken Path: “Fertility (And how it’s kinda exclusive)”
Walk Softly, Witch: “D is for Duality. Or: Fuck you, Aristotle”
Máris Pai: “D… is for Debacle”
Armed Venus: “Pagan Blog Project D is for Diversity (edited)”


Edited to add (14 April 2012):
The spelling of “Thomas Beatie” has been corrected and a link to his homepage added within the text.


3 responses »

  1. I wanted to say yes!! to your interest in the Jutar. Angrboda births destruction, death and chaos. She chose Loki as her consort, not the other way round. Hel neither mothers nor births but “serves” and “provides” for the dead the way a soupkitchen does for the poor. The unusual examples of gender are there. There are more but I am tired and must sleep. :)

  2. I seem to have been busy reading your recent post on Angrboda when you were reading mine here…
    Thanks for confirming my hunch – I’m getting more and more curious about what else is there to (re)discover for me!

  3. Pingback: PBP Fridays: G is for being a GLBTQ Pagan

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