“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
— Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!, Published August 12th 1959
One: Lexical Flux
We mere humans tend to think of the definitions we use as more or less the right ones, that we hold the same definitions more or less our whole lives once we’ve learned the words for things, and that we have the same names for things that other people do.
It saves us from having to delve too often into some weird edges revealed in epistemology and inconvenient conversations that result from the fact that there are some… working assumptions… in there. Most people, offered a cup of coffee, do not go into an extended discussion about consensus reality and trying to ensure the person offering and the person accepting the coffee do, in fact, differ on what a cup of coffee is, how greatly, and whether or not it’s significant enough to warrant further verification of other terms that might have been or will be used in the course of the conversation and whether or not ontology ought now be dragged in. Yes or no answers tend to work just fine for most of us in that moment.
We’re not going to talk about coffee. I’m not offering you a cup. If you enjoy coffee, now might be a great time to get a cup, though!
I hope to provide a fun, slightly nerdy tour.
(I promise to not even bring up that whole pre-coffee discussion about whether or not we share the same reality again except once, later, and briefly.)
Color names make a great first example to start with.
In contrast to the way we like to think about names for things, it’s been relatively easy to study how much people differ in their active color vocabulary and what “objective” colors they will map to that vocabulary. I put objective in quotes, because we also tend to think about color as an absolute, but some easy experiments in color theory will illustrate to show you how colors interact to fool a human perceiver into thinking different colors are identical, how the same color can be perceived as different, even in the same still image. Josef Albers’s “Interaction of Color” contains a good set of those experiments to perform, on your own, as exercises. But it is, at least, quite possible to put together a standard set of color “chips” that are, themselves, identical across manufacture and reflect visible light in the same reflective spectrum. They’re objective enough. Think of them like paint chips — but only one color each rather than several shades of the same hue and minus some possibly very questionable marketing names. Simple.
Give people who’ve sight these color chips and ask them to name what color they are. Usually, unless those people are artists intent on using a highly specific technical vocabulary for color, they’re going to name those many, many color chips a far more limited number of names than the total number of chips used. And even artists with a pretty large color vocabulary will still simplify somewhat.
You can easily start to see that there are some chips that people using much the same vocabulary disagree on what color name applies.
In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay published a linguistics work, titled “Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.” Their conjecture was that our color names proceed from a very small list to an increasingly large vocabular over time, as technology affords the ability to reproduce and use more color and also allows a language’s culture to specialize in research. And in a specific order. It’s a conjecture that’s actually been contested with some interesting results, with Berlin and Kay and others on a side known as universalist and Barbara Saunders and others on a side known as relativist. Berlin and Kay’s work was an attempt to challenge the idea of linguistic relativity — a hypothesis developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf — that asserted an individuals’ worldview and cognition are influenced by the structure of the language(s) they speak and their vocabulary within that language. The original “strong hypothesis” — that the influence imposes hard limits on what may be conceptualized — has been proven to be largely false. The “weak hypothesis” — influence but not limits — has some empirical evidence behind it. Saunders argues that the color chips and the methods used to try to see what a core color vocabulary are too artificial a circumstance. Honestly that’s probably something supported by Albers’s exercises for his students, especially when we get around to observing colors at different times of day.
Here’s the thing, though. In all that debate? One thing everyone agrees on is that new color names emerge over time. That people disagree on certain colors’ names despite having places where most of them generally agree within the same language. That different languages often have different sets of colors that are commonly in the collection. Even over a period as short as thirty years, the universalist end of trying to measure what colors are the core color vocabulary of a language and how people define them observe measurable shift. You can thank a study looking at Japanese color names over a thirty year gap for that observation. There’s some interesting evidence to sift through if you go looking through the US government’s National Institute of Health’s PubMed research catalog for “color lexicon” and related searches. Enough of it with the text available for free — a bit of a rarity in academic publishing these days — to get a good feel for what’s out there.
Color vocabulary changes. And more than anything, it tends to grow over time.
Lexical flux is a real thing. Especially lexical growth in areas that people are beginning to focus on more.
And even if the color chips are just a little too artificial a method of gathering information about color, they do indicate a couple things. Many of the color charts used for the chips lay them out in two dimensions, but at root (without color blindness, presence of both OPN1MW and OPN1MW2 photopsin genes expressed in different cone cells, or low-light rod cells coming into play) we each have three different variable signals coming in, and we use those three signals to map to a vocabulary we have.
You could think of those three different signals as three separate values. A coordinate system. We already often do this in electronic technology for the purpose of reproducing images on screens and other devices.
Our color vocabulary is our cartography within that three dimensional space. For those of us with a technical need to describe more, it’s like having continents and oceans within that space which themselves have named regions for smaller spaces within those three dimensions.
One thing to take special note of for later: if you see something in that three dimensional color space, and describe it using your lexicon, the specificity of the word you use helps another person at least envision another point in that region. They almost certainly won’t be able to recover that same exact point using just the word. But you can help them get closer by using a richer vocabulary. We have specific systems for replicating colors using precise values. There are a lot of lexical domains for which we don’t have access to precise coordinate values. Those values might well exist, but we really only communicate using lexicons appropriate to that domain.
Two: Hyperspatial Stellar Cartography
Human brains are highly evolved to recognize and categorize. When doing so concerning people, we’re even more specialized in order to do so reflexively. One of the reasons is probably that we have a history full of both mutual aid and mutual antagonism. We might share a meal with one another, have families, or we might get territorial with other groups and fight them. That’s a lot of evolutionary selection pressure early on, so it really isn’t surprising that by now we have good evidence we’ve some specialized systems for this remembering and recognizing people, particularly their faces and voices.
For sight, there are some signals in that system that seem to be stronger than others. Like the shape of a person’s eyebrows across their eyes. We remember the shape of a person’s face in what seems to be a kind of caricaturized version. When we can’t see that shape directly, we’re really good at making inferences about the shape based on shading. If we’re familiar with one face in particular, we can recognize it using very little information, such as a small and blurry thumbnail photo.
For sound, we don’t exactly have any sort of caricaturized map of a person’s resonant airways and the internal shape of their voice box with its air-powered vibrating tone generator. But we do have a lot of other information. Voices have very different timbres, and individual speakers, moreover, might have some distinctive patterns of speech we can remember. A person’s accent (everyone who speaks has an accent, it’s just going to be a common accent or a rare accent in an area) and other aspects of their speech are, also, something many can quickly map to an individual. And while we don’t model in our heads the relative size of everything used to speak, the number of times people mimicking one another for humor have audiences characterize a caricaturized version as “spot on” I frankly wouldn’t be surprised that our internal memory of a person’s voice, like their face, is probably an exaggeration that makes it easier to pick out.
Each of these paths? They rely on a lot of variables. We’re not talking about just three signals, anymore. I don’t know how many, but ten sounds like an extraordinarily conservative estimate for either of them. (There’s a first step for these systems that I’m not mentioning, but I’ll mention it before I go further. We have a sort of pre-filter to pick out faces and voices out of other things we see and hear. That’s the first specialized bit that kicks it all off, it tends to do so a little over-generously.)
And those are the fast recognition systems in us. If we’re both seeing and hearing, we’ve got redundancy, but either tend to work fine on their own. They’re nothing, though, like a full description of what makes us look and sound unique. The visual fast-recognition system seems to rely on a static visual model, but it’s a common thing to recognize some of the people we know by how they move.
We haven’t even added how a person’s wardrobe yet, and already we know that full descriptions of people can be lengthy — we haven’t even begun to discuss internal mental and emotional attributes, yet.
Almost all of those very small attributes have their own sort of mini-measure. You can think of it as a range from one number to another that might be open-ended at one end of the range or not, and some very (very) few might be answers with just a few discrete options.
In geometry, a measure in one dimension is a line. A value on that line is a coordinate along that dimension. Easy-peasy.
Two measures, two dimensions, and you’ve a plane. A coordinate consists of just two values which uniquely locate a point on that plane.
Three measures is a space, just like we use for color, with a coordinate of three values used.
Four or more measures, and it’s become what’s called a hyperspace.
When you don’t know how many dimensions? We might call that an N-dimensional hyperspace.
Using what I think is the small end of an estimate for recognizing faces or voices, that’s already a ten-dimensional hyperspace. It’s fairly hard to envision for mere mortals like you and I. Even physicists engaging in debating advanced cosmological and subatomic models that involve that many dimensions or more get headaches from it.
We have techniques for helping visualize. They’re called projections.
Let me get you started with one of the simplest models of projection you can make on your own: shadow puppets. You use a bright light source and one or more of your hands, and put your hand in-between the bright light and a flat surface. Without doing a lot of convolution, it’s pretty recognizable as a hand. There are some edge cases people have worked on over the years to create the illusion of not one or two hands being shown in two dimensions, but creatures or objects, often in motion. The angle matters, too. Take it from one surface to three, and one light to three, with your hands at the intersection of the three spotlights and your hand puppetry against three angled walls. The shapes against each wall will be very different. Illusions of creatures aside, one thing that’s far easier to notice without even any practice is that the three dimensional space within your hand is separate from the three dimensional space outside of it. The points inside are one set of coordinates in space, the points outside are another.
Holding your hand flat with your fingers separated, it’s fairly easy to find an angle to present your hand such that those spaces between your fingers aren’t visible in the shadow. There’s no way to tell by looking at the shadow itself without changing the angle of projection or moving your hand around and — necessarily — changing what the set of coordinates in three dimensional space are inside and outside of your hand consist of. There’s a region inside the shadow that is mapped in three-dimensional space to the gaps between your fingers, but all you see in the shadow is your hand. This is information lost in projection. It’s not the exception but rather the rule that we lose information in projections. When we start to simplify, we lose information.
Sometimes we look at a projection and we see more than is there. Not an illusion, per se, but we embellish because we know more. The simplest kind of projection is one in which we simply remove one of the dimensions entirely rather than use any sort of complicated mathematics. (It’s not super complicated mathematics — as far as mathematics goes. There’s worse. But mention matrix multiplication to most non-mathematicians and people start running. Simply omit one number of a series of numbers when it’s at the same position in the series every time? Most people can do that, no problem.) An example of just losing one dimension, usefully, is a floor plan. Nothing about the height of things (unless annotated in writing) is present directly in the floor plan. But people viewing a floor plan often make inferences about heights. For example, if you see a wall sconce and a bookshelf occupying the same position against a wall on a floor plan, you don’t assume there’s some violation of physics going on and the objects having merged somehow — you assume the bookshelf is shorter than the sconce. You probably even assume there’s enough distance between the two objects so that it doesn’t feel “crowded”. None of that information is actually on the floor plan, though. But if you know the kinds of symbols being used on the floor plan and what they represent, you can reconstruct a lot from that two dimensional image.
Actually, talking about floor-plans brings me to another concept that will be useful shortly: fuzzy sets. A wall sconce contains within it all the points in space that are exactly within that wall sconce. There’s another sense of the phrase “in the space of” that we often mean when designing a living or working space. Different people have different tolerances for crowding of objects, but we all have some sense of that (unless we’ve dulled it due to hoarding issues). But what points are in the space of an object in a way that the object becomes too close to another object? What kind of clearance does it need? Unless you’re working on maintaining a set distance of the sort that safety regulations require, the boundary is sort of nebulous. There’s a point at which it’s obviously not in that object’s space, a point at which it definitely is, and a kind of gradient in-between. So the membership of the set of all points that are in the space of an object in the room in the sense of crowding it is fuzzy. Like a kind of blurry region, or a cloud that becomes increasingly opaque as you look at points closer and closer to the object. Fuzzy set membership is usually expressed as a value from zero to one, inclusive of both. Zero? Not a member at all. One? completely a member. In-between? It’s fractionally a member of that set. Sort of describes it, sort of doesn’t. Remember the lexicon of colors? It’s easy to see color names that we say entirely are that color. It’s also easy to find examples of colors that are what we think of as that color but move — steadily — further and further away from that color until we don’t think it really is that color name any longer. Somewhere before we can’t agree that it fits that name any longer but after we don’t think of it as completely that color any longer, either, is a liminal space in which — according to our personal lexicon — that specific color is partially a member of the set of all specific colors that are that color name.
When we use different lexicons to describe qualities about a person, we’re building up a picture from recollection and sometimes sensory data that we’re receiving at that moment to augment that memory. We have many arsenals of micro-domains of lexicons we use to describe people. Almost all of them rely not on single aspects but multiple aspects about a person. The selection of which aspects are relevant to that micro-domain is sometimes widely agreed upon and sometimes culturally dependent.
The adjectives we use to describe people in the plethora of different micro-domains that we do are literally the names of different regions within an N-dimensional hyperspaces.
The lexicons are often, themselves both relative and fuzzy and have regions that overlap. The best way to describe all this might be “usefully messy.” It often just works for us, and we’re not stopping to actually make spreadsheets to make these distinctions, we’re just using a lot of little snap judgements based on our recalled and maybe present sensory information. It’s an oversimplification to say that every individual is just one coordinate within each of these spaces, too. Depending on what kind of dimension is being described, a person might not be best described a a single coordinate on that dimension but sort of a fuzzy set, or even in motion along that dimension based on some kind of internal or external context. So their own location within that domain might itself be a fuzzy set and might be in motion along a path over time. Picking the most descriptive word out of a lexicon of adjectives in any specific microdomain can end up like taking the intersection of two fuzzy sets, one of which might be moving, deciding if the motion of the one set is significant enough to warrant creating a kind of mental scratch-set that represents historical past positions and projected future positions, finding the coordinate of greatest intersection between those two sets, and then remembering what the name of that region is.
All this, and…
You’re doing the functional equivalent of some pretty heavy math without even having to work particularly hard at it or even being conscious of it. Your brain does this for you just by virtue of the way in which it is constructed. These signals aren’t literal, per se, as in you don’t have one neuron has grown a bunch of different dendrites that get input from a bunch of other axons that then fires for a specific adjective. It’s more the case that you have a group of neurons that pick up a lot of related signals and have grown in a way that’s hopefully efficient to do the work of activating in patterns that then imply information that’ll be used by other groups of neurons. In other words, it’s pretty messy and indirect. And yet at that level, there’s a kind of symmetry with this same input-or-recollection-to-descriptive-language logic that’s hard to ignore. It’s like this sort of ad-hoc system really closely resembles the literal physical system inside of which it develops. Go figure, that.
All that complicating things by describing so many, many complicated aspects and the headaches it entails? “Poof!” Well, mostly vanished, anyhow. It’s less important for this discussion that you be able to visualize any of that than you have a rough feel for the kinds of complexity that can be involved and an appreciation for the degree of complexity that is often involved. Much of the time it’s so simple and reflexive for us that we actually have next to no appreciation of how much is going on beneath the surface, let alone moments of mindfulness about it.
Let’s take something that’s both visible and invisible, for a moment, though to make this concrete. Extroversion and introversion is both a personality attribute and it leads to some visible behavioral differences that people experience of other people over time. It’s also got a lot of research data confirming that it’s not really an illusory category. This personality attribute is often projected down to just a line which is expressed as a percentile within the human population, but itself constitutes many observations and individual impulses and decisions over time. What’s considered a display of introverted or extroverted behavior also varies by region and culture, to a degree, because there may well be local biases that diverge from the world’s overall percentile scales, as well as local customs that change how certain actions might be intended or interpreted. How we might describe an individual person’s behaviors (say, how vocally they express interest in or aversion to going out to a large party) in dimensions that we might have used to figure out how to best describe them in the domain of introversion and extroversion is even — quite often — something that has a bit of motion. So we don’t merely take how they acted most recently as a snapshot but look to see if that’s a large motion or a small motion and what we think will happen in the future. There’s even contextual modifiers that can drastically change answers (for example, will there or won’t there be many new people to meet there, and will there be plentiful snacks at the party and/or will there be a friendly dog or cat there to sit down with). Finally, regardless of what personality trait is rewarded by your culture, many and even most people have an innate sense of where they fall in this domain. It’s a projection down to what’s been decided is a useful simplification and appears to have some empirical validity.
Three: Pale Red and Blue Shifts
Another way we categorize people is by gender.
Up until the colonial era, many of our world’s cultures had more than two genders. Maybe not most cultures, maybe not even half, but definitely so many that it was pretty frequently observed. European colonialism sought to impose what the colonial empires felt was the correct moral model for so many, many things — including prescribed ideas about gender and sexuality. It’s true that male and female genders are ubiquitous in every culture. We get that from the fact that most people aren’t born intersex and relate to their culture in pretty much the gender that matches what their sexual phenotype is. And of those folks, the vast majority are sexually and romantically attracted to not the same gender and sex as their own but the other highly populous gender and sex — male to female and female to male. For everyone that fits that majority pattern, we have a single word that’s used to describe it, “straight”. Those who are not straight have often repeatedly appealed to historical, anthropological, and self-reports from living members of other cultures that the existence of other genders is evidence for validating that their own existence is a completely natural phenomenon that has existed since, well, as long as there have been humans. And, really, it’s actually pretty good evidence on its own. With one important caveat, though. It gets a bit muddled, because the traditional genders of other cultures where there are more than two genders typically prescribe gender roles that themselves conflate gender and what’s an acceptable model of sexual and romantic attraction into one idea, and probably lumped intersex folk in there for good measure. It’s a bit like saying, “You’re not straight, but… We have one — maybe two or three — other ideas that you may or may not hate for you to try on. Better stick with that.” At least those other roles weren’t automatically inherently devalued and despised. Most of the time, anyhow.
It also gets particularly interesting when we get into how varied gender roles are across cultures, and over time. Many of these are prescribed styles and mannerisms that are deemed acceptable or at least typical examples of that gender. Others are limitations on what activities that gender may or may not perform. It’s from describing all of the human-created artifacts of gender like this that the assertion “gender is a construct” was borne.
Cultures do have their constructed ideas. They’re part of what makes a culture uniquely that culture. And by “construct” we just mean an idea or set of ideas that aren’t immediately a result of objective causes (like physics) — and they’re usually part of a working system of ideas. They’re also not static. Changes inside a culture might be fast or slow, and this creates some friction among its members, but as a whole there’s a sort of moving assemblage of interrelated constructs. Even the fault-lines along which people agitate for changes and people resist changes and how those are described are, themselves, constructs that may or may not make sense to another culture without some serious work at attempting to describe that conflict. Anyone who asserts a cultural construct to be universal in time probably hasn’t done a great deal of research into the history of that construct, and anyone who asserts a cultural construct to be universal across the globe hasn’t done a lot of comparing different cultures. There are a few exceptions. The idea of what constitutes murder is pretty universal and goes back pretty far. It does generate some extremely arguments in the form of what really is and isn’t really murder in the form of carving out situational contexts some cultures are willing to make, though. The point being you have to get pretty extreme to find an exceptional cultural construct that has any kind of universality, and even then once you really get into it it starts to look not nearly so universal.
The assertion “gender is a construct” was widely popularized because of the need to have deeper conversations about the unequal treatment of women and girls in most every culture (something also made more rigid by colonial empires) and examine the flagrantly unnecessary underpinnings of that unequal, poorer treatment. It’s incompatible with another view of gender known as “gender essentialism” in which gender and almost all of the features we regard as aspects of it are based in subtle or not-so-subtle biological differences between the two most populous sexual phenotypes. It’s a little disconcerting to hear people assert that gender is a construct, mean it and assure the audience it is meant in a wholly unqualified way, and then hear the same speakers make gender essentialist assertions. But, yeah, that can and does happen. Because so very much of what we regard as visible or behavioral markers of gender are visibly only cultural constructs — because we can see other cultures that flatly have a very different idea about that — it’s easy to strip away a lot of gender essentialist assertions. Judith Butler has asserted, instead, that gender is a performance. That we spend part of our time alive behaving in ways that align with and become that gender. The culture around us gives us the cues about what a gender is, and then we sort of map ourselves into that over time by acting in ways that comply with our cultures ideas of what that gender is.
How on Earth, then, do we get folk that aren’t straight out of all of that?
The easiest thing to start with is to just flat out observe that we do. There’s a kind of evidence that’s much stronger than historical or cross-cultural evidence. It’s the corroboration of millions and millions of people, currently and historically, reporting their own inner experience.
We like to relegate subjective experience to second-class or worse. Mostly because it’s hard to verify in any sort of way that’s falsifiable. Meaning: someone else can’t really prove or disprove it. We can’t even get to the headache about whether we share the same objective reality, perseverating over our conceptual definition of coffee, if I say something such as, “I feel I should give you a cup of coffee.” Are you sure about what I said? Why am I not just offering you a cup of coffee outright? Maybe you take me for genuine in that but you find the obliqueness irritating, and say, “I imagine you do feel you should give me a cup of coffee.” Or, you might doubt me entirely and reply a little snarkily, “I imagine you do feel you should give me a cup of coffee.” Now I’m in a real bind, because you took my statement and I have very little way to parse the same statement which has become very ambiguous. I don’t know whether you genuinely imagine the feeling I stated. And we’re both suffering from a little conversational vertigo because it got weird fast. Probably the only way I can politely resolve that is to produce a cup of coffee that you can actually accept or refuse. Throughout that whole conversation, however, our subjective experiences were themselves objective facts. Not in any kind of real world way we can point to, but we know for a fact that we had an experience and can attempt to describe it to one another. The language we use to describe that experience will quite likely rely on a specific linguistic micro-domain called “feelings”. Different people are more and less aware of their own feelings, but there’s at least an experience there to describe. And we know when we’re describing that experience in a way we feel is faithful to it, or when we’re trying to say something else or conceal a portion of it or even all of it. In other words, someone else can’t take our reported experience as falsifiable, but to an extent we can.
Scientifically, this is tricky, since it’s actually pretty easy to demonstrate through a number of experiments that humans are lousy at self-reporting experiences and consistently think ourselves more objective in reporting them than we are (often in spite of even when we’re acutely aware of this fact — it’s a pretty durable cognitive bias). When we’re the one with the experience and both subject and observer, it’s a sample of only one, and that’s usually not good enough for any science at all.
Superficially, that’s how a lot of non-straight folk get dismissed outright. Self-reported experience is simply dismissed as made-up. Doesn’t matter what’s reported, variations of “that’s not a real thing” and its very close cousin “you could change that if you really wanted to” repeatedly are deployed by straight folk who would rather not believe non-straight folk genuinely exist.
That’s not terribly good practice, though, even if straight folk are a supermajority. Because the same rules apply the other way around. “No one is really straight, they’re just straight-acting” and “if you really wanted to you could give up being straight” could equally be deployed on the same grounds. Why should anyone assume they’re straight like they say they are?
Because their experience has been repeated and corroborated on a massive scale, that’s why. The aggregate of that many people having a shared experience reported — despite incredible variation — with great similarity lends credibility to the idea that that experience isn’t a deception or an invention.
Funny thing, though!
The frequency of corroboration among folks who aren’t straight, though far from the majority, has also been mutually corroborated on a massive scale. It took a while to get there, but after enough folks came out it’s really gotten to the point where we can describe it as foolish to deny.
At the risk of a pun, here’s a handy analogy:
Manual dominance is the phenomenon almost everyone, except the ambidextrous, experience to either a small or great degree. One of our hands is just easier to control. There are numerous ways to test for it. One of the ways I just saw recently demonstrated is to take one of your hands, either will do to start with , and hold it in the air in front of you, palm open towards you, maybe with your elbow relaxed to a slight angle so it isn’t right in your face. Fingers together rather than spread is probably more comfortable for this exercise. Now, take your other hand, and place it in the same position, with the back of your fingers touching the palm of the first hand you raised. For two minutes, your goal is to — as rapidly and accurately as you can — lightly slap the back of the second hand you just placed, then the front of the same second hand you just placed, alternating between back and front, against the palm of the first hand you raised. You got all that? Try it. Done? Now switch the roles of each of your hands and repeat the same experiment. Almost everyone will be able to quickly observe that it was easier with one hand than the other. That’s manual dominance.
There’s no data that we have that explains an individual’s manual dominance. Humans aren’t fiddler crabs, with our two forelimbs visibly specialized to different tasks. There are exceptions, like injuries that force a person to retrain which hand is dominant, but those tell us about the injury, not why the original trait was there in the first place. There’s merely some internal differences within our bodies — most of which is probably in our brain, spine, and the rest of our nervous system — that emerges as manual dominance.
Manual dominance is, obviously, as you just demonstrated for yourself, something that can be externally verified in a way that’s difficult to fake.
We also went through a period where left-handedness was taboo. In some cultures there are still taboos about which hand to use when. Coerced right-handedness in writing was, until relatively recently in human history, standard practice. Design of tools in ways that favor right-handedness — rather than being usable by either hand — is still relatively common with left-handed versions being “specialty” orders.
It is just as difficult for folk who not straight to present themselves — ourselves — as such.
We might be able to mask it, but it’s a pain, and it has some far-flung personal consequences in our lives. I’m a bi trans woman. I’m completely out, multiple times, but I held off on using first-person plural pronouns for non-straight folk until just now because I wanted to get past some initial hurdles in this conversation before I did.
I’m going to refer to non-straight folk here on out as queer folk. The word, before it was used as a slur in earlier decades, meant “strange or odd” as an adjective or “spoil or ruin” as a verb. Not everyone of us agrees on using that word, some of us still regard it as a slur, some of us take it as the only word that describes us as all, still others feel a whole number of other words describe us well but feel that one has specific political activist connotations when we use it and we like that fine. Queer culture is our culture, as a kind of culture-within-a culture. We aren’t the first subculture, we won’t be the last.
Before I really dive in much further, I want to take a step back into gender and explain something.
Let’s start with just two overall categories that pertain. Cisgender and transgender. People whose gender is congruent with their sexual phenotype are cisgender. People whose gender is not congruent with their sexual phenotype are transgender. The cis/trans dichotomy is, as a pair of prefixes, ancient — both are directly borrowed from Latin. In Latin, trans- means “across, over, to the farther side of” while cis- means “on this side”. Being cisgender or transgender — often shortened to simply cis and trans in queer circles. The first trans folk who coined the use of “cis-” in relation to gender went completely out of their way to come up with a neutral, language appropriate way that matched “trans-“. (I wasn’t involved in that search, but I have a deep appreciation for the first of us trans folk that dug that up and started popularizing it.)
So we were diving into gender earlier and got through gender as a construct, gender essentialism, and gender as a performance. The mere existence of trans folk has some implications for all three vantage points. But how do we even exist? Especially noticing that trans folks’ gender expression often either references or is performed in relief against one’s culture’s dominant constructs of male and female genders, and all the incongruencies that results in across different cultures… How’s that?
A compass might make a good analogy to start with. You use it to reference a direction — one tip towards Magnetic North and one tip towards Magnetic South. It’s not towards the Geographic North Pole or the Geographic South Pole, but through much of the world it’s good enough. The local terrain you need to navigate might vary substantially, and what you have to navigate as a result is going to differ, but you can at least start with knowing those two directions, make some inferences about East and West as perpendicular to them, and eventually learn your way around well enough you don’t need the compass any longer to tell you which direction you’re facing. Some people are much better at adapting to these directions than others, internalizing a sense of direction over time.
It is most trans folks’ experience that we have something akin to a compass, or handedness, informing us. For some of us it’s as blindingly obvious as handedness (the compass was always there), for others of us we don’t get a clue until much later and in discovering experiences we hadn’t expected to encounter (wait… I thought that old thing was demagnetized, but I just saw it actually move).
Unlike a real world compass, this is probably one of those details about humans that is using an internal fast-recognition system that we have. And if that one’s not particularly strong in us there seems to be a slower equivalent based on many further details. I’m going to guess that the fast version relies on information we’ve started to obtain when we’re learning how to categorize faces and voices as male and female. And once we have enough data, part of us orients hidden, internal experiences to those categories. Failing that, if that signal itself isn’t strong enough, we get gobs more information later on once we see the pervading displays of male and female genders around us later on. That there are noticeable peaks at self-realization one is trans at certain cognitive and physical developmental stages and yet persistent, non-negligible frequencies of at individual self-discovery at other times in our lives. I believe that the many other trans folk I’ve listened to and read, and the data concerning those periods of self-discovery, as well as evidence for other similar such neural systems support this conjecture.
There was, briefly, a time when cis male, trans male, cis female, and trans female was thought to cover gender sufficiently — and that heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual was sufficient to describe all romantic and sexual attractions.
It didn’t last long.
It was doomed to not last long.
Because it focused peoples’ attention more closely on trying to figure out what gender actually is, and because our sexual and romantic attractions are deeply tied into our conversations about gender, those quickly got yet more attention, as well.
Very much like… No… Exactly like color words. The more you work with colors and pay closer attention to them, the more discover you have need of a larger lexicon. The first of the new words was “genderqueer,” and for a time after that there was a pause. But the coining of the term “genderqueer” was the lighting of the fuse that became fireworks going off in new directions.
Four: Hyperspatial Rainbow Toponymy
There are three domains we describe in daily life, now, that consist of aspects in the domain of self-knowledge. They relate to physical attributes of ourselves in that how we first learned of these domains was physical, and culture then overlaid (and continues to overlay) a lot of additional constructs on top of that: Gender Identity, and Identities of Sexual and Romantic Attraction.
Here’s a small exercise.
Pick out a piece of paper and get two gender-related attributes in mind. They can be behavioral or innate or cultural. Whatever. Just two of them. Draw two lines that represent the dimensions of those attributes crossing one another perpendicularly on the page. Then try to take male, female, and a handful of the other gender names you know of and draw where they are on that map. Map their borders, however distinct or fuzzy. (If you don’t personally know of more than just the genders male and female, start with only those two for now. But I’m going to suggest you come back to this exercise later after you’ve learned more.)
Do that again, pick out two more attributes that are different from the first two. Use male and female and the same or a different set of gender identities. Map those. Get about five of these drawings. Maybe more. If you’ve picked out some interesting attributes, you might get some more interesting shapes on these maps. Rarely, in reality, do they look like a gradient from one corner to the other. If your maps do, think again about the ranges those attributes represent, but then think about the real range they could represent, further out. And try “zooming out” and redrawing your map.
Now get a ruler, or something like it. If you take a point roughly in the center of where “female” is and another point roughly in the center where male is, you can draw a line through the two of them. Do that for each of those maps you’ve drawn. THAT is the line you were seeing, from two dimensions down to one. Any dot you make on that sheet of paper, you can find the point on that line that’s closest to it. THAT where we assume a person on that map to be in the continuum along that line. Now… next part…
Hold them up one at a time in front of yourself with the line vertical, to make this easier to see. Many of your maps might, but it’s actually unusual in reality, to find a pair of attributes for which the region that is “male” and the region that is “female” to both be symmetrical across that line — a mirror image. More often what will happen is that you’ll see overhangs and strange biases. When comparing the two regions, and observing an individual to be “more male” or “more female”, that’s information loss. Especially in the case of overhangs, where you see a point that’s not on a set, but because of how the set is shadowed onto the line, it’s implied to be part of that set. Moreover, since you’ve drawn some other regions onto your maps, you can see how — yeah, you can project them onto the line, but there’s a good many that just don’t intersect with that line at all. Some won’t intersect with male and female at all. Trying to somehow place those other names on that line loses even more information.
Now it’s time to remember that there aren’t just two or even three dimensions and freak out just a little. If it’s roughly on par with our other fast-recognition networks, let’s say it’s a guess of around ten. If it needs to rely on much slower recognition networks, though, because our self-examination requires it and we don’t get that quick recognition, it could be hundreds of signals. And this is why I don’t want you to be particularly shy or picky about what you describe as an attribute other than you want to know that there’s some significant human variation to it.
We often get a sense of it just as solid as whether one is using one’s dominant hand or not, but for those folks that find their compass starts to perk up in certain contexts and they might well in hindsight realize a lot of other signals they’d ignored but now collectively start to make more sense. Some of those dimensions, based on many people’s reports, sometimes even vanish into being null values or imaginary numbers or something else entirely, and they’ve found themselves in a different flip-side of gender-dimensional-hyperspace. Ready for the freak-out? Try to visualize all that. Have fun with that. It’s mind-splitting. Probably the closest most of us will come is some kind of three-dimensional shadow. Even for the kinds of adjacent space that’s part of this space but not part of this space that some of us need to describe ourselves.
So what about identities of sexual and romantic attraction? This is special stuff to work through. Because it starts with gender and physical preferences and then? The simplest way is to think of it a bit like a heat map, to start with. In two dimensions, you can picture your existing maps and overlaying that with a temperature map. Just repeat all that. Only sexual and romantic attractions are … ALSO almost certainly not reducible to just one value. So this is fun. How will we handle that?! Find yourself a wind map. That’s a simple simulation to look at. At each point in the map, rather than there just being a single temperature there’s two values. Normally we think of them as wind speed and direction, and that works, but you can also think of them as how fast North or South that wind is going, and how fast East or West that wind is going, simultaneously. Only on the map of genders, rather than the two existing dimensions that would be analogous to the cardinal directions, you’re probably looking at two different dimensions to attraction. There might be several. Depends on the individual, some might realize it only as attracted or not, but others might feel different kinds of attraction based on where on the map they’re relating to.
So, that’s an N-dimensional hyperspace map with M-dimensional vectors throughout. There’s an “easy” way to handle that and sort-of conceptually simplify it. It’s a different kind of projection! That would be the (N+M)-dimensional hyperspace map. So, that’s the space inside of which sexual and romantic attractions probably exist. Using all sorts of smaller, contributory observations.
I’m sorry, but it’s glorious this way, once you see just how varied it can truly be. Individuals can be stars or nebulas in these hyperspatial galaxies, they can exist in a fixed place and some few even wander along cyclic or acyclic paths in that space.
Collectively, I’ve taken to naming the whole, sometimes overwhelming, often liberating perspective “the Constellations Theory [of Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Identities]”. Because how we often visualize deep space in our galaxy and how we name large and small regions, or refer to constellations, is strikingly similar and often breathtaking to look at. Trying to visualize how the linguistics of this actually works in practice and over time very much reminds me of people deciding to map the deep heavens.
Bisexual, once taken as being attracted to all genders, and through some history, has come to mean attracted to all, or at least two or more of all, genders. Pansexual as attracted to people regardless of their gender. Omnisexual as attracted to all genders via their gender. Neptunic and Uranic. What was once merely “bisexual” has become a cluster of “m-spec” or multiromantic and multisexual romantic and sexual attractions.
Agender, people whose gender was best described as “not applicable” (or sometimes amusedly described as “none for me, please”). Eventually subtleties emerged that gave rise to neutrois and aporagender (strongly gendered but neither male, female, nor anything in-between), apogender (not only genderless but have a feeling of removal from the concept of gender entirely), uingender (gender is unexplainable, undetermined in nature, unidentifiable, or somehow unknowable), and cassgender (an individual might experience extreme indifference to their own gender or lack thereof).
Asexual and aromantic folk started coming to the fore and describing their own experiences, and the nuances of those experiences — categorized — gave rise to names like aroace, angled-aroace, greysexual and greyromantic, demisexual, and more — and now we have collective terms such as ace-spec and aro-spec.
Non-binary gender identities exploding from what was once just described as genderqueer, with demigender, hypergender, genderfluid, and xenogender. Xenogender itself, as a mere mention, represents possibly dozens or even dozens of dozens of genders and among the most misunderstood of all genders — often described by people on the autistic spectrum who develop a unique relationship to and perception of their gender. The descriptions of xenogenders can verge on seeming like poetic metaphor for something more familiar to those not of that gender, but often instead of metaphor are perhaps best thought of as a collection of feelings that, collectively, best fit the individual’s gender — some are incredibly textured descriptions.
No one is compelled to adopt for themselves any of the many and increasingly specific identity names for themselves. I mentioned above, I’m a bi trans woman. That suits me incredibly well as it is. But I have a deep appreciation for those who have gone out of their way to explore their relationship to their own identities and found some details they feel are worth mentioning to the rest of us.
If anyone ever complains about the explosion of vocabulary queer folk have developed for ourselves and our culture over the recent decades?
You can tell them two things.
One is that they just don’t realize how good they’ve got it compared to the real complexity in human variation within these domains. It’s gorgeous. But at times also daunting to describe. They don’t have to be like us artists and learn all the technical names, but if someone’s made their home in a particular place and you’re talking to them often, it’s kinda rude to tell them they’re living in red when they’ve had to repeatedly tell you they’re living in summer-noon sky blue. At least remember the sky blue part. For the rest of the time, there are places with reference charts for more and more specific colors. Remember that those are there instead of fussing like we’re expecting everyone to memorize the whole pantone book. We’re just asking you to remember where we are in the stars.
The other is that these names, especially the rarest of them, are offerings. So that you can learn where they are in this vast and wild map we’re charting. You can live in the vastly populated areas without having to exist in some remote island in some sparsely populated young nebula and understand what it’s like to live there to at least appreciate the fact that there is someone, maybe a few handfuls, living out on some of the frontier spaces — and they realized that their home deserves a name, just like any other place in the galaxy that’s much less remote. And by telling you where they live and what it’s like? It’s a little bit of a gift to the rest of us. Often the rarest of these names is a reminder of how vast this kind of a space really is.