Sunday, June 15, 2008

Second Life is a Post-Gender environment

I've actually spent some of my life in some very progressive spaces, and I must say that some communities - extremely liberal college campuses (Antioch and Evergreen spring to mind), the Vancouver BC and San Francisco queer and "fetish" communities, and a few odd pockets here and there, have made the jump to what I would call "Post-Gender".
It's not to say that Gender isn't important in these spaces, it clearly is, mostly because we're sexual people, and because we have preferences about what genders we're attracted to and which we "associate" with. The big difference is that these environments run (mostly - we ARE made of individuals after all, and no utopia is universally perfect) without the assumptions of gender based on birth/physical characteristics. This is harder than you'd imagine in RL, but it is possible to take the time to talk, and listen, and pick up on the cues of someone's current Gender Identity rather than simply scanning some physical characteristics.
It's not unlike joining a roleplay community in SL, where the rules of exchange dictate that your RP character cannot automatically know anything about people whom you meet - including the person's name that's floating in glowing characters over their head. You have to engage and learn based on how they interchange with you.
In fact, it's a *lot* like SL RP in that way, because a person's identity can be just as fluid in RL, and you might be talking to Fae as Femme one day, and Butchy Fae the next day, even though it's the same person, or an Angel one day, and a Demon the next.

So the really interesting jump, to me, is that SL imposes a direct filter in your interactions - you're facing an Avatar, and not seeing the person's RL Gender, Race, Age, (dis)Ability, or other factors that normally in RL society provide the cues as to how we're "supposed" to treat them.

The beautiful thing about this filter is that it removes the tools of prejudice in immediate 1st-time interactions. If you cannot see someone's gender, race, age, or other factor during your 1st meeting, you must evaluate them based on the core person that they present, that is to say, the core person as that person defines it, not you the viewer. I call this core person their Identity, the one that they own and define as they choose, to differentiate from your preconceptions of it.

Some people find this filter, or even the concept of it, to be deeply offensive, because they're not "seeing the real person" - and precisely for this reason I point out that they don't need to know these preconcepts, they're striving to reach for their RL prejudices, and they need to learn to rise above them. Even though we politically and socially agree that prejudice in housing, employment, social organizations, healthcare is abhorrent, it clearly still happens constantly. This is because it's near-impossible for our society to overcome these assumptions we have about women, and racial minorities, and our older members, and "put them in their place". Feminism has been a strong and active force for half a century, but yet we've made no significant progress in salary equality in the past 20 years. Racism has too many clear examples to even begin the list.

Second Life pushes us past these filters, and allows people to meet and talk, on truly level ground, for the first time in many ways. Let's not let our prejudices creep back into the equation. Hold firm that we are all strong people, regardless of our RL bodies, and let's show what new types of open, richly diverse, and stronger societies we can build if we truly are listening to each other's True Identity rather than the physical masks we're forced to wear.


A. Starostin said...

Great post about gender and leaving our pre(mis)conceptions behind and seeing the core persona inside the avatar/individual! Also, wonderful to see you blogging again after such a long abscence!

Caitlyn said...

Probably why there was such an uproar at the concept of identity verification in SL. In the first blog post they referred to verifying everything: age, gender, and so on. They even referred to it as needed so you could trust people.


It is interesting to look at the situation with child avatars. Often the reflex reaction is not good and that we belong on the teen grid. Of course, it does not take a huge leap of logic that child AVs are actually adults who wish to be seen as children.

Dale Innis said...

Very nice post! I agree that being post-gender in this sense (not to mention post-race, post-physical-ability, post-baldness) is a great things about Second Life. I'd love to think of some wise thing to add, but mostly I'm just nodding my head. :)

Anonymous said...

Tom Boellstorf gave an interesting lecture at SL5B the other day where he observed that often when you meet someone in Second Life you learn who they are "from the inside out" as opposed to when you meet someone in First Life where you learn who they are "from the outside in". I thought that was a very clear way of putting it and jives a lot with the observations in your blog post. I still haven't managed to read his book yet (Coming of Age in Second Life) but it's on my nightstand! :-) -Jani

Gwen said...

So true: there are people I know in SL who present in all sorts of gender forms, and who shift their forms -- either via alts or just using different avatars on thier main. The presentation of identity -- and the moments where we go beyond an identity framework -- are one of the wonderful things of SL.

Octobriana (Oz) said...

And yet I know of so many times where I've seen those RL assumptions transferred to SL. Furries (which are impossible in RL) sometimes get fairly racist responses in some quarters. I remember being at the Transgender Lounge in SL after a dance and some tourist appeared - their first question was "So are you really a girl or what?"

Somethings don't change (sigh).

Particleion said...

Our view our video series on postgendersim

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