Labels are for bottles


How to understand your gender

Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker

Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd, London



ISBN 9781785927461


Labels are for bottles, not for people: so runs a recent marketing campaign by a leading drinks manufacturer.  The message seems clear: let’s stop boxing ourselves in with words, let’s unleash our many and various sexualities (and let’s buy more vodka).

But is it so clear?  Are labels the problem?  Can we escape words?  Can sexuality blossom outside of language?  Is this what people along the LGBTQ (not to mention cis) spectrum are trying to do?

This question of words and labels is very much alive in How to understand your gender, by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker.  Iantaffi and Barker are both therapists, academics and activists – in 2017, Barker co-wrote a book with the marvellous title Enjoy sex (how, when and if you want to) – and so it is apt that How to understand your gender sits somewhere between manifesto, treatise and self-help manual. 

Perhaps aware of queer theory’s obscure reputation, Iantaffi and Barker emphasise the practical.  Each chapter begins with a mindfulness exercise, before launching into activities, reflection points, and most of all, questions.

“One important thing to say upfront,” declare the authors early in the Introduction, “is that in this book we’re not saying that some ways of living our genders are better than others.” (p.24)  This is somewhat disingenuous – they bluntly state that “rigid gender stereotypes are bad for men, they’re bad for women” (p. 79) – but their concern is that fixed binary notions of gender erase and exclude those who do not fit into them.

They quote, in the subjects’ own words, experiences of how gender persistently fails to fit the subject: the male nurse who is thoughtlessly assumed to be a doctor; a woman’s anger at the glass ceiling in her workplace; the parents bringing up their child as gender neutral; the many people suffering deeply at the wrongness of their sex assignation at birth; the woman for whom racial and gender identity provides affirmation, belonging, and power; the person who is fed up with the politics of the trans community and just wants to know where to go for a swim and how to talk to their son.

And since the authors will be asking us, the readers, a whole lot of questions about the ways we live our genders, they also begin by telling us something about themselves.  Both are trans-identified: Iantaffi is trans masculine (“people thought I was a girl when I was born, and I identify as being somewhere in the masculine territory of gender” (p.22)), Barker is non-binary/genderqueer – and oh, how I love their description of gender as “an ongoing journey,” (p.23) rather than a fixed destination. 

So what kind of cartography does this book give to help us navigate this ongoing journey? 

Our first map, presented in Chapter 1, is linguistic.  Iantaffi and Barker explore the words which describe gender, including the word “gender” itself (a close cousin of the word “genre”).  A common critique of theories which deconstruct gender and sexuality is that they become elaborate word games, and the inexperienced gender wanderer may quickly find themselves baffled by an extraordinary vocabulary. 

Great care is therefore taken by Barker and Iantaffi to define accurately “intersex,” “trans,” “cis,” “non-binary” or “NB” (or even “enby”!), “genderqueer,” “agender,” “bigender,” “third-gender,” “pangender”.  Each word describes a different experience or history, each word tries to get a little nearer to the thing it is signifying.  “Agender,” incidentally, is the word that a person for whom all gender labels mishit might use – although one person also says that “even the label agender doesn’t fit me” (p.163).

Doesn’t this get to the heart of the matter?  No matter how sophisticated and diverse our dictionaries, words will always miss their target, since they always define the universal rather than the particular. 

Barker and Iantaffi write: “Given that everyone’s biological make-up, psychological experiences, and social context connect up in unique and complex ways, our gender really is something like a snowflake: no two of us are quite the same” (p.46).  This passage, appearing in the midst of a discussion about language, is fascinating and ambiguous.  Like the snowflake, my gender experience is a unique construction.  But each snowflake does not have a different name; we call each of these exceptional structures by the same word: “snowflake”. 

So why the need for so many different words to describe gender?  Then again, it is well-known that people who dwell in snowy environments have many more words for snow.  Our experience of the world shapes our language, our language shapes our encounters with the world.  Language both describes and creates.  Perhaps as we dwell in more gendered environments, we will need a richer vocabulary, or perhaps a person who has 50 words for sex will have a richer experience of sex.

Chapters 3 and 4 – the centerpieces of the book – provide historical, cultural and personal compasses for our journey.  They ask each of us to think deeply about how the gender we were given at birth has shaped us, how it developed as we got older, which bits stayed fixed and which bits changed, how we feel about it now and how it intersects with other aspects of our being, where on the spectrums we might fit – not just the old masculine/feminine or gay/straight spectrums, but those of soft/hard, passive/active, femme/butch.

Chapter 5 gets really practical: how might you wear your identity?  What impact does your gender have on your appearance, your clothes, your body?  What might you call your gender?  How would you like others to address you?  And what pronouns will you use?  (One of the most remarkable things about the often fierce contemporary debate about sex and gender is how much emphasis is given to this previously innocuous grammatical sub-category.)

Finally, in Chapter 7, Iantaffi and Barker offer us some of their gender pioneers and warriors: Irigaray, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Kate Bornstein, Pema Chödrön – all beacons to guide us down new, unexplored paths.

A word about the tone of the book.  To continue the analogy of the journey with Barker and Iantaffi as our guides and this book as our manual: occasionally, their care to alert us to any obstacles which might trip us up and their diligence in making sure we are comfortable, wearing suitable clothing, replete with fresh water and Kendal mint cake etc, robbed me slightly of the thrill of discovery.  An example, from page 45:

“Now that we’ve defined the terms gender, sex and sexuality a bit more, how would you describe your own sex, gender and sexuality?  You can write about it here or use a notebook if you prefer.” (p.45)

That “…or use a notebook if you prefer” feels overprotective, and at times my feeling of safety comes at the expense of the excitement and wonder I might feel in more imprudent hands.  But there’s no doubt that sex, gender and sexuality are dangerous things, liable to slip from our fingers or spin out of control if we don’t pin them down. 

Perhaps my frustration is petty.  I certainly admire Barker and Iantaffi for being such responsible Sherpas; readers who feel wary, vulnerable and/or isolated in this wild terrain will feel a little safer, a little less alone, reading this book.  That is surely a good thing.  And for those who want a more daredevil ride, the authors recommend zines, blogs, and art resources galore at the back of the book.

A great strength of this book is that its authors recognise the mutual impact of the historical and the personal.  They provide a rich account of how gender is described, proscribed and promoted at different times and places.  In case we think binary definitions are “natural” or timeless, we are reminded of the Galli, Roman priestesses who are born male but present themselves as feminine; of the hijra of India, the bissu, calalai and calabai of the Bugi people in Indonesia (where five distinct genders are recognized), Toms and Dees in Thailand; and the fact that in the early 20th century in the UK and US, pink was for boys and blue was for girls.  None of this stuff is set in stone, they argue, all of it can be subverted and molded by individual and social forces. 

Which might lead us to ask, what is about our society now which has enabled us to open up this debate?  What in 2017 allows us to do away with dualisms and binaries?  Is it a coincidence that at the same time Jordan Peterson has shot to fame by asking very different questions, championing gender identities which are the polar opposite to those championed in this book?  Is there a clue in that advertising slogan – are conversations about gender and sex, hinging as they do on enjoyment, particularly amenable to late capitalism?

So many questions.  Perhaps that’s what it is to be a gendered subject: to ask questions, to seek the words that do justice to complex, ineffable feelings.  If that’s the case, this book is a deeply democratic encouragement to all of us to ask such questions.