One of the first things a gender studies student typically contends with is, well, gender. And there’s a lot to contend with! Luckily, there are also a few basics that don’t take years to learn or a PhD to read but did occupy three months of my entire life in two different classes that I took at the same time with overlapping course content and focus in college! So let’s go ahead and skim the surface of gender by breaking down some of the main terms used in gender theory, talking social constructs, and putting ourselves on the spectrums of our own identities. Sounds fun, right? I promise you get an A for participation.
Gender vs. Sex
Language is immensely important in women’s studies, as it is in any academic field and especially any research-based field. In fact, theorists like Judith Butler would argue that language is also important in the social sciences because it’s kind of how we make up things and pretend they’re real. But moving on!
Gender is not sex, and sex is not gender, although explanations of both will vary. And gender identity is not gender expression, although they might play into each other. And a sandwich is not a wrap, although you can convert it into one. You following? Of course not! Nothing makes sense!
The following terms will come up in conversations and theories about gender, so you’ll want to know them.
Gender refers to the cultural categories of “masculine” and “feminine” and the stuff in between, and how our cultures apply those concepts and meanings typically along the lines of sex, defined below. It’s a “social construct,” meaning it’s something cultures collectively create, uphold, and enforce based around their own understandings of the world. (Seriously, it’s all in our heads.) (Although that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or that it doesn’t affect our lives every day.)
Sex refers to the biological categories of “male” and “female” and the stuff in-between. It’s seen as medically and scientifically “provable,” although that’s murky and sex policing and testing rarely makes anyone feel that the science is sound. Sex is based on the body, but biology is a branch of science and science is also a social construct and really what I’m saying is that your sex is essentially a label a very educated person slapped on you at birth using as many contextual clues as they could garner at the time about your DNA. Sex is not immutable or unchangeable or somehow “intrinsically” defined by our bodies; it’s more that science and medicine have put words in place to define sex and thrust it upon us – and that they’re often inadequate at capturing the full spectrum of diversity swimming around in the big ol’ sea:
Since “biological sex” is actually a social construct, those who say that it is not often have to argue about what it entails. Some say it’s based on chromosomes (of which there are many non-XX/XY combinations, as well as diversity among people with XY chromosomes), others say it’s genitals or gonads (either at birth or at the moment you’re talking about), others say it’s hormone levels (which vary widely and can be manipulated), still others say it’s secondary sex characteristics like the appearance of breasts, body hair and muscle mass (which vary even more). Some say that it’s a combination of all of them. Now, this creates a huge problem, as sex organs, secondary sex characteristics and hormone levels aren’t anywhere close to being universal to all men or women, males or females.
Those who claim that sex is determined by chromosomes must not realize that sex is assigned at birth not by chromosomes, not even by gonads, but by genitals. In fact, the vast majority of us never learn what our sex chromosomes are. Sex isn’t something we’re actually born with, it’s something that doctors or our parents assign us at birth. So if sex is determined by genitals, they must be clearly binary and unchangable, right? Wrong. Genitals can be ambiguous at birth and many trans people get gender confirmation surgery to change them. Neither chromosomes nor genitals are binary in the way that “biological sex” defenders claim they are, and the vast majority of measures by which we judge sex are very much changeable.
When I’m referring to the gender of someone or the genders of people in a group, I’ll use terms like “women” and “men.” When I’m referring to something based upon sex, I’ll use phrases like “female,” “male,” or “male-bodied” to express what I’m going for. Not everyone does this, but it sure does make for a world where people call me “female” less in the course of a day, so.
Gender identity refers to a human’s inner experience with and sense of their gender, culture be damned. Some folks wake up in the morning feeling like women, some wake up in the morning feeling like they’re not women or men, some wake up in the morning feelin’ like P. Diddy. I’ve found that actually pinpointing a gender identity is difficult when you release yourself from the binary of “masculine” or “feminine,” “man” or “woman.” That’s why Facebook gave us all those categories, right. The difference between gender and gender identity is that gender identity is based in our own self-definition, whereas gender encompasses and specifically refers to the cultural definitions of ourselves thrust upon us.
Gender expression refers to how someone, well, expresses their gender identity. This doesn’t mean that gender expression and gender identity are the same thing, or have to “match” according to what one might assume; just because someone dresses super-femme doesn’t mean they identify as “woman” or even as “feminine.” But gender expression is about how we want people to read us, and how we’re manifesting our gender to the outside world.
Sexuality is probably something you don’t need a solid definition for at this stage in your queer journey, but here goes. When I use this term, it has nothing to do with actual sex; it’s about attraction, desire, and sexual behavior. Sexuality can be rooted in our own sex, gender identity, or gender expression; it can also be rooted in the sex, gender identities, or gender expressions of our desired partners. It can also have nothing to do with anything. You Do You, love.
Got it? Get it? Good.
Spectrums and Binaries
When things like “gender” and “sex” first came under analysis by feminists, the world was a very different place. It was a dark time, many eons ago, when a dark force ruled the land. That dark force was binarism.
Binaries dictate that humans must — and should — fit into easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy either/or fucking boxes with no airholes or escape routes. Binarism is a concept that supports gender essentialism, in which sex and gender are seen as predetermined and inescapable and also fitting in those fucking boxes. A binary world is one that demands we see ourselves as men or women, straight or gay — and tells us exactly what that has to look like and mean to us. A binary world sees us as a virgin or a whore, good or bad, with no room to simply be neither.
A binary world does little to capture the complexities of the natural universe, in which multitudes exist in not only humans but all animals (and even insects). We’re not a binary planet over here, no matter what Fox News wants you to believe. Essentialism and binarism deprive us of our individuality and self-definition. They are unacceptable, tired concepts. And gender studies has, for the large part, moved on from relying on them.
Instead, modern gender and queer theory has asserted that human behaviors and qualities are more accurately defined through spectrums, where seeming opposites are connected to one another by other qualities that fit in-between them. A spectrum of sexuality, for example, allows for us to really pinpoint whether we’re attracted to the same sex, different sexes, or a little bit of both (and how much). A spectrum of gender can fit every man, woman, androgynous hottie, and person in-between.
One illustration of how these spectrums can play off of and into one another is The Gender Unicorn, which was created to “illustrate the flaws” of the plagiarized Genderbread Person. (The original idea was created by trans activists Cristina González, Vanessa Prell, Jack Rivas, and Jarrod Schwartz.)
This completely un-sexed, un-gendered unicorn in front of you helps us do a few things. It helps us see ourselves as parts of various spectrums; clarifies that sex, gender identity, and gender expression are completely separate parts of who we are that may or may not play off of or into each other; and really exhibits how unique every single human being on Earth really is. I mean, think about it! You’re just a few dots on these spectrums, and even someone who puts their dot in the same spot as yours under “attraction” could wildly differ from you when it comes to identifying their sex assigned at birth. The gender unicorn, and the spectrums it is letting us mess around with, shows us as we really are before we’re told by the state, the media, and our culture that we have to “choose” from predetermined gender roles and rules for the rest of our lives.
That being said, it’s not always this simple. But the gender unicorn really does drive home how different these different things are, and the spectrums within each one.
Second-wave feminists had a saying: “gender is not destiny.” And they were right. In fact, nothing is fucking destiny. You could be anywhere along the spectrums of gender, gender identity, gender expression, sex, and sexuality, and for whatever reasons make sense to you. The limit never exists.
Gender as a Social Construct
When I was in college, I used to hide out at the LGBTQ Resource Center because I was totally straight. In my time there, I picked up a lot of free chapstick, mardi gras beads, and tiny pins, my favorite of which was yellow and exclaimed “GENDER IS A MYTH!” I’ve learned now that it’s not that simple, but there’s a lot to learn from those four words.
Gender is one of the first things I studied in women’s studies that really opened my eyes to how we’re socialized, as people, to become cogs in the big machine that is our society. Once you realize the truth about gender, you start to see the truth in a lot of other things. (Coincidentally, a lot of other things are related to the concept of gender, like, ummm, patriarchy, heterosexism, and misogyny.) And the truth about gender is that it’s pretty much a fairytale our culture has made up over time in order to sleep well at night thinking it understands the world.
As I referenced prior, gender is a social construct. What that means is that it’s determined and shaped culturally, and not by individuals. It isn’t up to one little girl whether or not pink is seen as feminine or sports or seen as ladylike — it’s her entire culture that collectively enforces gender stereotyping and gender roles, and she actually has little to no say in the matter. (Don’t ask me. Ask the Gender Schema Theory that proved it.) There are no universal, scientifically or mathematically rational, or ultimate “truths” about gender, and we can see that simply by looking around the world for proof. Some cultures see women as subservient, and others see the feminine as truly powerful and dominant; some societies might see “Hello Kitty” as something “for girls,” but in Japan men wear Hello Kitty gear around the cities.
Think about some of the bullshit you’ve internalized on the basis of your “gender,” and typically the one you were assigned at birth. The messages are everywhere: Men are breadwinners, caretakers, and saviors; women are deceitful sluts; girls like dolls and boys like trucks; pink is for sissies; women belong in the kitchen; men like science and women are better at communicating. Some things are obvious, but some are even more insidious: it’s gender that tells us women are sexual objects put here to please men’s desires, it’s gender that tells us men are inherently violent and must be allowed their untempered aggression, and it’s gender norms which place an abundance of pressure on young women to appear a certain way in order to be deserving of, well, pretty much anything in this life. Gender norms, and the enforcement by cultures or states of those norms, are bad for all of us.
I want to be clear, before we move forward, that just because there are no universal truths about gender and it’s a bunch of malarkey doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to us as individuals, or a real part of who we are. Gender means something to everyone, and no matter how invested you are or not in your own gender identity, it’s something you feel in yourself as you move through life. Recognizing that what gender means to our culture is bullshit doesn’t make it less of a reality in our lives; instead, it empowers us to see things like gender roles, gender stereotypes, and gender discrimination as consequences of those aforementioned bullshit interpretations. Indeed, that’s what theorists like Foucault and Judith Butler were trying to say all along: that gender, when wielded and shaped by the state, is an oppressive force, and that we each should have the right to define ourselves for ourselves. It’s not that gender simply isn’t there, but that many feminists and queer theorists take issue with the idea that anyone should speak to how we live or act based on the gender we identify with.
Julia Serano, a trans feminist theorist, has countered conversations about both gender constructivism and essentialism with a new model, which she described at length in Whipping Girl. The theory, called Intrinsic Inclination, meets either of those two viewpoints relatively in the middle. The Intrinsic Inclination identifies three major inclinations independent of one another at play in all of us: subconscious sex, gender expression, and orientation. Those inclinations are intrinsic to who we are for a variety of factors: genetics, anatomy, hormones, environment, or psychology, for example. According to Serano, these incliniations are roughly correlated with sex. And while Serano does not disavow the idea of socialization, she interprets it not as a constructing force for gender, but as an exaggerating one. Gender, in this model, is socially exaggerated, not culturally created.
Serano questioned constructivism because, too often, the concept has been used — or, I should say, misused — in order to invalidate trans experiences. TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) have wielded constructivism theory in order to say that all gender — and thus, the transgender experience — isn’t real. But that’s a total misread of the concept, and Butler herself went on the record to clarify that she doesn’t agree with that interpretation of her work:
I have never agreed with Sheila Jeffreys or Janice Raymond, and for many years have been on quite the contrasting side of feminist debates. She appoints herself to the position of judge, and she offers a kind of feminist policing of trans lives and trans choices. I oppose this kind of prescriptivism, which seems me to aspire to a kind of feminist tyranny.
If she makes use of social construction as a theory to support her view, she very badly misunderstands its terms. In her view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct. But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us. We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones. For instance, gender assignment is a “construction” and yet many genderqueer and trans people refuse those assignments in part or in full. That refusal opens the way for a more radical form of self-determination, one that happens in solidarity with others who are undergoing a similar struggle.
One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself “constructed” and, therefore, not real. And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality. I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory.
Serano and Butler’s models vary, but they are united by a few common threads, and they’re worth mentioning. Namely, Butler and Serano are both white women in academia in the western world, and that undoubtedly influences their understanding of gender. For example, Serano’s Whipping Girl has been criticized for racist interpretations and discussions of indigenous and non-Western gender by QTPOC writers. A lot of academic research on gender, especially that I am familiar with, are derived from similarly problematic — even if well-intentioned — spaces and minds. That being said, the idea of gender as a construct to varying degrees has been in play in American feminism for eons, and it has evolved and will continue to evolve along with all discourse on gender as our worlds open up and our eyes open wider as human beings and academics. I view constructivist theory as worth noting because of its ability to liberate women in the western world from the gender roles we’re forced into, as well as its ubiquitous nature in most prominent gender theory in that academic world.
My gender studies classes were the final step in setting myself free. Once I saw that the gendered expectations being put on me by the world were works of fiction, I came to treasure my gender for simply being a part of who I was, and I began to accept its flexibility, its uniqueness, and my own inability to really put it into words. I’m a woman, and it’s not gonna stop me from being outspoken, or cutting my hair short. It’s not gonna make me paint my nails. It’s not why I hate math. (Seriously.)
I don’t feel right ascribing to culturally normative ideals for my own gender, and once I was allowed to set fire to the rain that poured them down on me, I was finally able to live as myself. Obviously, we’re not done talking about gender. This conversation is really never done, and we’ll build more on it in coming weeks as well as explore some ways to really dig deep – if you’re into that. ‘Til then, get a little free with your gender unicorn self.
Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!
would it be rude to post this and every other rebel girls column to facebook with the caption “read this you fuckwits”
i thoroughly approve of this plan
I want to pin this whole delightful, insightful piece to doors, Martin Luther-style.
also an idea i support
Whenever I hear anyone say “gender is a social construct” or “gender is instinctual” I get a sick feeling in my stomach. Gender, used as a single word, is wholly incapable of encompassing all its aspects.
-gender assignment (the post-birth assignment of gender) is one thing;
-gender identity (an internal experience of one’s own gender, including the body mapping of one’s physical self to that gender) is another;
-gender role (how society proscribes gendered behavior);
-gender expression (how a person expresses that society’s gender role), and
-gender attribute (how others in society assign gender to you based on your body, gender expression, voice, etc.).
These are in a complex dance with one another and have a profound impact on how you experience gender. To make any statement about gender using the word by itself is cherry-picking concepts
For anyone to say “gender is a social construct” tells me (a) they’re a cis person; (b) they’ve never experienced what people like myself have (c) their Gender Studies teachers are all cis or FAAB transmasculine persons (like Judith Jack Halberstam… an academic for whom I have little respect). Yes, I really do get how the concept of “gender is A or B” has absolutely been used to oppress women throughout history and continues to this day, yet as you mentioned (but I’m still not sure really acknowledged) the concept of “destroying gender” or “destroying the social concept of gender” is regularly used against trans women to marginalize and delegitimize us, not to mention assigning us that we’re somehow ‘guardians’ of binary gender… yes, I hear versions of these statements even today). I was glad to finally see Judith Butler recently clarify some of her vaguer, more obscure statements, but way too many Gender Studies Departments are still dripping with Second Wave trans hatred and, so often, the only trans person’s writing who’s allowed is Kate Bornstein (because she insists she’s not a woman… which affirms these instructor’s assumptions) or trans masculine writers like Halberstam.
This is exactly my reaction. 99% of the time that someone says “gender is a myth” or “gender is a construct” or that they advocate “the end of gender” — without explaining what aspect of gender they’re talking about — their intention is to invalidate trans women’s identities and experiences.
I mean, I feel like a lot of what you’re saying is what this article is saying. It explains the differences between gender identity and gender expression and talks about the complexity of the term and how “gender” isn’t just one thing.
Also, I know I’ve heard Laverne Cox say “gender is a social construct” and I know I’ve heard other twoc say it as well, especially with regards to the Western Gender Binary.
Yes, I agree that a lot of terfs and others use the idea of “destroying gender” or “gender as a social construct” to attack trans women, but I think this article does a good job of refuting their claims while also teaching about the idea of “Gender is a Social Construct”
I agree that gender roles, gender expression, etc., are all culture-dependent and, as such, constructed. I just think it would be more useful, and less antagonizing to trans people (especially trans women), if cis people were more consistent about being specific about what they mean, instead of just using the unqualified term “gender” without further explanation.
I also think that sometimes some people exaggerate and mythicize the extent to which the “gender binary” is an invention of “Western” culture, and supposedly didn’t exist in non-Western cultures. It has existed to varying degrees in many cultures throughout the world and throughout history, and was hardly invented by the “West” alone even if you limit the discussion to the overlapping ancient cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece.
“And the truth about gender is that it’s pretty much a fairytale our culture has made up over time in order to sleep well at night thinking it understands the world.
As I referenced prior, gender is a social construct. What that means is that it’s determined and shaped culturally, and not by individuals. It isn’t up to one little girl whether or not pink is seen as feminine or sports or seen as ladylike — it’s her entire culture that collectively enforces gender stereotyping and gender roles, and she actually has little to no say in the matter.”
Believe me, what she’s saying here is in NO WAY what I’m saying. Not even kind of. The term “gender” is being used in a very sloppy and simplistic way and it’s exactly a lot of this reductionism which has been used as fodder against trans people, most particularly trans women.
While I hugely respect Laverne Cox, she’s primarily an actress. I don’t put her on a pedestal to speak for all the trans women nor do I expect her to. I’ve heard her speak in a variety of ways around this topic and that’s her way of categorizing it.
Gina, thank you for breaking down the ways that you see ‘gender’ being used as simple lid on a complicated box of related but disparate issues. (If, indeed, that is a good way to express what you were saying.) I have always squirmed when constructivism comes up and I have picked fights with other feminists, typically cis, about the ways in which Judith Butler is inadequate. For me, her theories have never encompassed the complex, lived reality that I see, and I am very grateful for having more language to discuss why ‘gender is a social construct’ is not adequate and is invalidating in my view.
I should clarify that I meant ‘Judith Butler AS READ IN MY COLLEGE is inadequate.’ Like you said, I’m gratified to see her distance herself from TERFs.
I can’t comment on the state of academic gender studies but I completely agree with everything else, and figure the concept of gender (and sex) in the same fashion.
Do you know of any trans women theorists whose work could be included in a Gender Studies course? I’m genuinely interested in looking to expand my university’s current offerings, which are a little thin.
Whipping Girl By Julia Serano is like the go to book, although some of it is not so relevant to certain generational issues, it does one of the best jobs at exploring the societal relationship to gender from a (white) trans woman’s perspective.
Nah, Julia Serano’s shit, and Whipping Girl especially. TWOC have talked a lot about this, most recently B. Binaohan.
I felt so conflicted reading Julia Serano. It felt like she was trying really hard to not speak for other people…but then she would just go ahead and do it anyway. Her book Excluded was even more problematic than Whipping Girl in this regard.
B. Binaohan is amazing. The recent piece “Listening to the Living and the Dead: Ruminations on #justiceforLeelahAlcorn (Tw: Suicide)” said so many things I was feeling, but couldn’t articulate.
I haven’t read Whipping Girl(yet), but have read Excluded. What was exactly more problematic about her latest book?
Good places to start:
A book about a trans woman in India (who we might categorize as a Hijra)
It’s the only book by someone from that large community actually writing about her own life and not pre-digested by gender theorists or anthropologists.
Not all exactly theory, but a lot of links to good writing is referenced here:
Writings by Sandy Stone (mostly from the 1980s-90s but still worthwhile)
Invisible Lives by Viviane Namaste (I don’t agree with everything she writes or her dense academic writing style, but she’s a provocative author with a lot of powerful ideas in her writing).
Thanks for these links.
if gender isn’t a social construct, what is it, then? is it inherent? if it’s inherent, what is it based off of? and how do you explain genderfluid people?
Some aspects of gender are inherent. Some are a social construct. Some are a mix of both. Some are none of the above.
Or at least, that’s how I’m reading Gina’s comment/how I see it.
I tend to leave gender theory to overintellectualized cis women and spend my time trying not to die
The part about sex is really quite murky in what it’s trying to say, so I’ll say this as a trans woman: If you refer to me as “biologically male” or “male-bodied” then we can’t be friends.
In fact, if you ever feel the need to refer to the gender a trans person was assigned at birth, then you need to ask yourself why. Rarely if ever has someone needed to refer to the gender I was assigned at birth and they weren’t trying to raise questions about whether or not I am a “real woman.”
I thought it was pretty clear that sex is just something assigned at birth that isn’t as scientific as people think. It even says “Sex is not immutable or unchangeable or somehow “intrinsically” defined by our bodies; it’s more that science and medicine have put words in place to define sex and thrust it upon us” before it uses a long quote from an article I wrote about the fallacy of calling trans women “biologically male.”
I agree completely. Anyone who wants to refer to me in either of those ways is my enemy. They are attempting to erase my validity or redefine me in a way that suits their philosophy.
I’m a big fan of this column, and thank you for tackling the topic of gender.
Personally I like distinguishing between gender identity, which is inherent in each individual, and gender markers, which are arbitrary cultural designations like pink and blue. So then, gender markers are a social construct, but gender identity is not.
I’d be interested to hear what ppl think.
My efforts at brevity led to unintentional ambiguity. I want to add that I think this article is a terrific public resource that’s really well written and will help make gender theory accessible to a much wider audience, which is so important. Thanks again Carmen.
I may be being very naive, but why on earth would you want to disagree with anyone’s gender expression/identity or experience? What’s the point??
Because of institutional sexism/transphobia/the kyriarchy/etc
Yes, absolutely. Thank you for your answer.
I guess my brain understands the theory of people behaving this way, but my heart doesn’t understand how you can be face to face with someone and deliberately deny their reality.
Empathy seems like a very underrated quality.
Also because people really don’t like their learned norms disrupted. It apparently keeps them awake or something.
Read “whatifiguredout,” “Silvana” and “Pip’s” comments in this thread and you’ll see it in ugly action. Evidently women are just vulvas used to assign them at birth, vaginas and reproductive organs … and are totally defined by how others victimize them. Oh yes, and their karyotype (which most people don’t even know).
it’s a lot easier for people to see a few boxes than an infinite series of them. it’s a lot easier to insist that others put themselves in boxes we understand than to challenge ourselves to understand what people truly are and feel.
coincidentally, i was reading this article during the first class of ‘women in the law’ this semester. in response to the profs question of ‘what is a woman’, one person said: ‘well, usually they are littler and softer than males, and also they are oppressed, maybe not here in canada but like, in… the east’. :| :| :|
am i allowed to hand out this article next class
Has Canada achieved the feminist utopia? Shouldn’t that be in the news?
please print this article out for your class, yes, i think a lot of people will enjoy the unicorn, soft or not
I would be interested in hearing more about critiques of Butler as a white woman – what are they?
i wasn’t so much referring to specific critiques as noting that because gender theory is dominated by white folks, it thus can often exclude or dismiss ideas and experiences from the non-western world or by people of color. academia is fraught with this problem, and even the most noted feminists and gender theorists aren’t free from it.
Yes, absolutely agree. Thanks for your reply!
“Some folks wake up in the morning feeling like women, some wake up in the morning feeling like they’re not women or men”
Honest question here. What could it possibly mean to “feel” like a woman? What does being a woman feel like?
THIS QUESTION. I have always wondered this. It makes it sound like it’s reinforcing binarism if anything. At this point, it seems like “being a woman” means that you “feel” like you’re a woman…but what does that feeling entail? Having certain preferences? Because that’s binary, to me. If someone asked me why I’m a woman, I really wouldn’t have an answer.
What it feels like to be a woman (or a man for that matter) is dependent on each individual. That is part of why enforcing gender roles and such is so devastating. Have you ever just felt something in your bones, but maybe it wasn’t exactly the same way someone else felt it? That is what it’s like to feel like a woman (or man or whatever you feel like).
this this this. honestly, i think if you asked every single woman in the world “how it feels to be a woman,” you’d get a multitude of responses that – despite their common identity – wouldn’t be parallel to or even similar to one another’s. but that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t there, or real.
Honestly, I’m trans and ever I don’t know what it means to “feel” like a woman (except in the literal sense of actually feeling the presence breasts and stuff as part of your body). I think it’s an issue of poor communication with different people using different meanings of “feel” and “woman”. For me anyway, being trans isn’t about feeling like anything in particular. It’s about the fact that experiencing life through the lens of a female body (plus the cost of transition, medical risks, and social stigmatisation) ranks higher in my preference ordering than experiencing life through the lens of a male body.
see, that makes perfect sense – but I always thought that meant “transsexual,” which I think is not the acceptable term anymore? because I totally get when people say they want different body parts. that is very clear. but saying you “feel” like a woman or man, not because of your body parts, but because of your attitudes or preferences? I don’t understand that.
We don’t need to fully understand things in order for them to be valid.
I think “transsexual” fell out of favor in response to the stereotype of it being a sexual fetish, and people getting sex and sex mixed up. Also “transgender” was a useful umbrella term for including all kinds of gender nonconforming people who faced a similar oppression. In other words, despite “transsexual” being a useful concept, politics ruined everything.
For me, the feeling of being a girl was clearest when I was excluded from my friends:
Lining up boy/girl/boy/girl/etc in elementary school.
Going to a birthday party and a boy my friend barely knew was invited so I wouldn’t be the “only boy”. Then for the whole party I’d be embarrassed constantly by the boy’s behavior, since it was my fault he was there and I was viewed as being like him.
My best friend not being allowed to come to my b-day party because her parents figured she’d be the only girl. Her handing me my present at the front door and then leaving is a feeling I will never forget.
Sitting with friends playing MASH games on the blackboard (an 80s thing, you can look it up if you are bored) and not being on the future husbands list, but also not playing.
Being made to take off my hat when entering a church.
Sneaking outside with some other kids at a wedding, all of us getting caught by a parent climbing a tree and having the parent chew out the two girls I was with for getting their clothes dirty…but having nothing said to me. Being jealous of punishment is a weird feeling.
The list feels endless, but I think that was enough examples.
Yes but all this is due to society’s expectations of what girls and boys are supposed to be like. Being uncomfortable with the norms and rules that our society attaches to one’s sex doesn’t mean one has to identify as the opposite gender. It only proves that the norms and rules are the problem.
No. I didn’t think of myself as a boy hanging out with girls. I was surprised every time I was reprimanded/corrected. And sometimes my friends were surprised as well.
You seem to be defining my sex as male. Am I correct?
Yes I assume your sex is male because you were lumped in with other male children but you didn’t “feel like a boy” which totally makes sense because I never “felt like a girl” either, I just felt like a kid but I learned that society has boxes and that these boxes come with rules of what the kids in them are allowed to do and who they are allowed to do it with. And that’s the root of all the problems.
Pip, I know you mean no harm by saying that I am male…but it is a hurtful and disrespectful statement.
Please consider the possibility that your experience of having not “felt like a girl” is not necessarily the same type of experience as my certainty that I am female.
There are numerous reasons why someone could resist or resent societal norms. I just wanted to be treated like other girls I knew. That is not the same thing as being an effeminate boy. And neither of those are the same as someone who feels bi-gendered or gender fluid.
As someone who some days wakes up feeling like a woman and other days wakes up feeling like something different, it’s really, really, extremely difficult to explain.
Like, to the point that I literally cannot explain it.
“Some folks wake up in the morning feeling like women, some wake up in the morning feeling like they’re not women or men”
Not a single cis or trans person has been able to explain to me what “feeling like a man/woman” feels like without referring to stereotypes of what men or women are supposedly like. So far it’s either been this or… nothing. I understand that trans folks get upset when they feel that their gender identity is being questioned more than that of cis people but personally I make no difference between cis- and trans people. If a person tells me they “feel like” a certain gender I’m always skeptical.
I think gender identity has to go because I honestly don’t see any benefit in it except for creating boxes (it doesn’t matter if it’s two or two dozen) to stick people in. I realize that it is still a long way to go, especially since so many cis-people have never had to question or analyze their gender identity, but it’s still something I would like to see happening somewhere in the distant future. I hope that, at some point, people will realize that their child can be anything or anyone regardless of their physical characteristics and that, eventually, the categories of women/men will become obsolete.
Like I said, I don’t think this is going to happen anytime soon but I think it’s something to keep in mind.
I totally agree with you. As much as gender studies supposedly try to fight against binaries, it’s stuff like this that creates it. Stereotypes don’t describe everyone. This is an incredibly simplistic example, but if someone said they knew they were a woman because they liked dresses, that seems like making the statement that people who don’t like dresses aren’t women. I once saw a post about a children’s book based on being transgender, where a little trans boy said he knew he was trans because he liked climbing trees and playing sports. WTF? girls can like that stuff too. just like boys should be able to play with dolls.
I’ve been thinking A LOT about this question, ever since I came into contact with gender studies and personally I don’t think that the terminological switch from transsexual to transgender was a very good move, because when you call it “not identifying with the gender one was assigned” implies that there is such a thing as an inherent gender identity and, like I said, I don’t believe it exists (and this goes for cis people as much as trans people!!)
The way I see it, a person can be unhappy with their physical aspects or they can be unhappy with the expectation society ties to these aspects or both, but it’s important to realize that these are two very different issues and that gender identity always always always has to do with social gender stereotypes. Regardless of whether you embrace or reject them, but you can’t really have one without the other.
So my personal “utopian” solution would be to reach a social level where people (especially parents) have realized and really internalized that physical features have zero relevance for a person’s character or behavior and thus have stopped attaching any kind of significance to them. So there would no longer be any of this “It’s a boy/girl!!” nonsense but it would instead be more like “okay so my child has brown hair, blue eyes and a vulva – cool!”
As for people who’d feel unhappy with the physical characteristics of their body (because yeah of course that could still be possibly… like nah I don’t want to have boobs, or hey I’d really like to have a beard or whatever) I’d suggest the term “othersexual” because you’d like to change your sexual characteristics but I’d prefer “other” to “trans” because “trans” for me implies a “here” vs. “there” in terms of a binary whereas “other” sounds more like one of many possibilities in a spectrum.
So yeah, these are the day dreams of a gender atheist (which I call myself because I don’t believe gender exists) but like I said, I’m aware that this scenario is still very far away. And I also realize that our gendered society puts pressure on people to find their right box. I’d just rather have a world without boxes.
Precisely. I know that this argument is considered anti-trans*, but I wish that there were no societal definitions of man and woman. When it comes to someone wanting to dress a certain way, be called a different name, whatever – I don’t care. No one should. It’s their life. However, trying to say I’m a wo/man because I like/do these things that wo/men do – it seems like we are still putting people in a box. Honestly I’ve thought about why I’m a woman…and I feel that it is due to my body parts. I don’t “feel” like a woman or a man, because I don’t think my attitudes, preferences, etc. define that aspect of myself. I know I’m cisgender, but if I were to wake up tomorrow with a penis, no breasts, etc. (after initially flipping out because whoa wtf?) I think I would just roll with it. I could be wrong, obviously. But there’s nothing about me that I find inherently “female” or “male,” I hope to one day have a society where men can wear dresses and makeup without being mocked. Women can already dress in “men’s clothes” without being mocked, because men are seen as superior. So really we just have to work on allowing men to wear whatever they’d like and it wouldn’t be an issue. And on the basis of sexuality, when including all people and genders, I am technically not a lesbian because I’m not sexually attracted to “women,” the gender, I’m attracted to people with vulvas. So I feel like that means there should be a term for that, but obviously there isn’t.
There’s almost nothing about stereotypical womanhood that appeals to me or speaks to me, but I still feel proud to identify as a woman and use female pronouns. So does my girlfriend, who is more stereotypically “masculine” and often passes as male. I think sometimes gender neutrality or an abolition of the gender binary seems like it should be the best, most inclusive choice, but it’s not for everybody. I guess I look at it backwards: whatever I’m doing is what women do, because I’m a woman and I’m doing it. I have no instincts about makeup, jewelry or being demure, but that’s okay, it doesn’t make me less of a woman, being a tomboy femme is what women do because I’m doing it. My girlfriend wearing men’s clothing and keeping her hair short is what women do, because she’s a woman and she’s doing it. I feel an affiliation with so many women throughout history who have ventured outside of what was expected from them by the “box” of gender, and I identify with a feminist movement that pushes for a broader expansion of what it means to be a woman. I’ve always found it interesting though that it’s mostly women, not men, who push for an abolition of the gender binary and want a wider application of gender-neutral pronouns. Why do women want a world without boxes but so many men don’t? If women were the class with more power, would men be the ones pushing for a world without “boxes”? I don’t have the answers (and I apologize if putting any of them forth is offensive to anybody — i’m really just thinking out loud) but it’s a lot to think about!
I would like to ask Silvana, Pip and whatifiguredout if you would even be bringing up these concerns if it weren’t for the presence of trans women in this thread? Have you actively brought up your discomfort about the phrase: “girl on girl culture?” Have you openly questioned the concept of “women’s spaces” or “women’s issues?” or even the very concept of lesbianism? But these discussions are always curiously around whenever something touches the issue of trans women. Is that just a coincidence? Does it happen to bring the radical gender abolitionists out of the woodwork or can you imagine how some of your “theories” could also be from a lack of certain life experiences (such as not having to grow up trans)?
In response to some of your points, people have difficulty in describing complex multi-faceted phenomena (which I would argue gender is… which is why I resist even using that word by itself). And, as Emma mentioned, just because someone can’t give you a crystal clear satisfying-to-you explanation of their experience or relies on cliches (“woman trapped in a man’s body” “I played with Barbies” “I like to climb trees” “I liked the color pink”) does not mean they’re attempting to reinforce a binary or to oppress your rebellion against gender. Often they’re goaded into saying such things by cis media and gatekeepers in an attempt to justify more complex feelings they’ve had since childhood. Sometimes they just feel threatened by cis people’s theories and assumptions about who they are.
As to gender identity, I would argue it falls into the same category of lots of experiences you likely can’t explain… right/left handedness, preferences/revulsion for certain tastes, sounds and smells, what certain body parts look like or their function or even how you identify as a human being. And it’s made all the more complex that, to question one’s birth gender assignment in 2015 remains a profound taboo. It’s worth asking yourself, can I muse over these questions from a place of relative safety or do I risk immediate marginalization and even danger by doing so?
Hi ginapdx, this comment here is the reply to your comment below. There was no “reply to this comment” button at the end of your comment (I guess comment-inception only works so many times?) so I hope you see this comment :)
Yes, as a matter of fact I have had these same concerns regarding cis women. I used to have a circle of friends who always wanted to have “girls’ nights” and always made a big deal out of “hanging out with the girls” which I never understood and which always irritated me. I told them that I didn’t feel some magic bond that “us girls” shared and that made a girls night any more special than a mixed crowd. I like hanging out with relaxed, easy-going, friendly people and I don’t care whether they are women or men.
As far as lesbianism is concerned, this concept makes sense to me because I enjoy sex with people whose bodies “are like mine” in the sense that I really dig vulvas and breasts. I understand that different people have different definitions of lesbianism but for me the body parts matter for good sex so it makes sense to have gathering spaces for people with these body parts who also enjoy this. For me, this is what being a lesbian means but I realize that definitions of what defines “lesbianism” varies among people.
As for not growing up trans… No I guess I didn’t but as a kid I always wanted to be a boy, identified with “boy things”, wanted to be treated as a boy, and growing up I became very uncomfortable with the label “woman” because, well, I didn’t feel like one. Eventually I realized that my discomfort was not so much with the category of “women” as a biological category (although the binary concept is, of course flawed) but with the ideas and roles and stereotypes that were attached to it. Did I like my body the way it was? Hell yeah. But did I “feel like a woman”? Nope because I just felt like me and I don’t think there’s any “inner quality” to feeling like a woman or a man. So no I didn’t grow up trans but I understand what struggling with one’s gender identity feels like when, for all you know and see as a kid, a lot doesn’t seem to make sense.
I really think that it’s important to differentiate between a human’s discomfort with their body and their discomfort with the social norms that are attached to it. A person can feel one of these or both but they are two separate issues and need to be addressed as such. Like I said, I don’t think there is any “inner quality” of being a man or a woman and yes I also get into a lot of debates with cis women who claim that there is.
Hey ginapdx I though my comment would be posted above yours, that’s why I wrote “reply to your comment below” but it showed up below like it should. Sorry about this confusion :P
@Riese: Okay but then I think it’s important to know how you define “woman”. Does it have to do with bodies? Biological sex is not binary but society pretends that it is, calls certain types of bodies “women” and confronts them with certain forms of suppression and discrimination. The problems and conflicts I find myself in are a result of my body and the way society views it. And these problems and conflicts are something that I share with other humans who also have this type of body and who often experience similar forms of discrimination. So as long as society makes bodies such a huge deal and continues to suppress some of them it makes sense to feel affiliation with people who share your struggle.
Personally I don’t have a problem with the label “woman” for my body. I like my body, wouldn’t change any of its parts but don’t “feel like” much of anything. I don’t “feel like” a woman and I agree that anything a woman does or wears or likes is “womanly” because a woman does it. I used to struggle with the label “woman” because I rejected so many of the stereotypes and expectations that came along with it, but eventually realized that my problem was with society and not with my body.
Having said all this, I still think that it would be great to eventually abolish the terms “man” and “woman” entirely and instead describe people by their physical features in situations where it matters (which it very often doesn’t, but for instance in medical contexts) in order to get unstuck from the concept of a biological sexual binary.
This is in response to Pip.
“I don’t think there is any “inner quality” of being a man or a woman”
This is a very confrontational statement. You many not have an inner sense of being male or female, but to claim that no one else can have such a sense is disrespectful at best.
You mention not feeling a special bond when hanging out with only girls or women. Well, I do feel that special bond. Whether it was when I was little, or in college with roommates and other close friends, or the times I spent the day with my mom, my aunt and my grandma, or me and another field biologist taking two thirteen year old girls camping for the first time. I have had cis friends who never felt that bond and others who feel it so deeply that it defines a great deal of their identity. Neither is wrong, and both feelings are valid.
Why am I bringing this up? Because for most of my life that bond was the clearest affirmation I had of being female. Having friends who would do anything to defend the reality of our shared experience meant the world to me.
The range of possibilities of how people feel about their bodies and about the gender they act out in the world…well they are amazingly varied. I hope that you consider the possibility that your experience is just that, one experience. Other people may feel differently.
“I really think that it’s important to differentiate between a human’s discomfort with their body and their discomfort with the social norms that are attached to it. A person can feel one of these or both but they are two separate issues and need to be addressed as such.”
They are differing aspects of gender but, in this society and for countless thousands of years, they have been entirely intertwined to the point where I find your statement unrealistic. The trans community is an extremely diverse one… largely for political expediency. Many do’t personally connect with others’ experiences but that’s not what activism is about. Some trans people have extreme body issues while others have more to do with living in a social role. Others just have to do with situational expression. Most are some form of combinations of the issues (which other aspects thrown in as well). Don’t try to dumb down who we are, it won’t be appreciated.
It seems as if you want things squeaky clean and absolute which, honestly, sounds more like binary thinking. Maybe you’ve had some little taste of gender dysphoria but I don’t believe you’re coming clean about how often you’ve identified as a woman and weren’t distressed by it. Nor is gender identity, on any level, a binary experience. How you or others in this thread constructed that is beyond me. You don’t seem to understand how, in a complex model of gender, its different aspects and parameters interact with one another to impact one’s ultimate experience of it.
@Emma: As a child I felt a closer bond to boys because the way I perceived myself, the things I liked, the role-models I identified with were all presented to me as “boy things” which is why I hated to be considered a girl and later a woman for a very long time until I realized that my discomfort was not with my body but with the social standards that were attached to it.
I don’t feel any special sex-based bonds nowadays because it’s the individual that matters to me, not what category they belong to, and the thing that irritates me about notions of “bonds of womanhood” and such is that, for me, it seems to suggest that there’s some universal connection that women share because of some special “woman energy” (that nobody can describe) which simply seems very biologically essentialist to me.
@ginapdx: I realize that at the point where our society is right now it’s not possible to divide these issues squeaky clean and I also realize that for real people living real lives and the challenges they face it may also be pretty irrelevant. Because our society is still flawed in this regard (and in so many others) that contemplating things like the essence of gender or a genderless society doesn’t do much to help an individual here and now.
However, I think that in an academic setting and context, where all kinds of ideas can be pursued and explored just for the sake of getting to the bottom of things, it is relevant to ask the question what gender identity is and if there really is such a thing, or if the things that people experience as “gender identity” isn’t simply their personality and the way it sometimes matches and sometimes rubs against the social expectations and norms.
Also, I never said that gender identity is a binary experience. I’m honestly surprised that you got the impression that I think it is, because the exact opposite is the case. Because I definitely don’t think that gender identity is binary. I think that “gender identity” is just all kinds of aspects of a person’s individual personality that get the “gender” label slapped on them in our current society and are thus extremely multi-faceted. That’s my whole point, to eventually abolish gender identity in favor of just seeing people as people with their individual preferences.
I don’t think the clothes I like to wear are any more “gender” than the music or the food I like, but the way a person dresses is considered “gender” in our society and results in some people being irritated by people like me “wearing boy clothes”. The way I experience it, gender identity draws lines where there shouldn’t be any and it doesn’t matter whether these lines create two binary boxes or two dozen boxes. You still end up with boxes.
@ginapdx: Also I would like to add that I think it’s unfair of you to judge the extent of my comfort or discomfort with the label woman or girl, respectively. As a child it didn’t feel right at all because the concepts of girlhood I was presented hardly ever fit for me and growing up I felt very strongly about not feeling like a woman. This struggle only resolved itself for me when I learned about the “coat rack” theory of gender, where I learned to perceive my body as a blank piece of paper that society writes stuff upon. And realized the problem was not the paper but the writing. Some discomfort remained because, well, it was my body that seemed to cause it, but it’s really not my body’s fault but society’s. I made piece with my body because I realized my it’s pretty fucking awesome and I want to write on it whatever I please.
Does that mean I identify as a woman? If we use “woman” as a category of biological sex then yes, I have become comfortable with it, but only because I reject any connotations of gender that anyone would attach to it. I like my body, but beyond the physical I just identify as myself.
“Also I would like to add that I think it’s unfair of you to judge the extent of my comfort or discomfort with the label woman or girl, respectively.”
You know what Pip, you’ve suggested I call myself an “othersexual” (guess what, a LOT of us don’t appreciate being othered against our will) and totally dismissed one of the persistent core experiences in my life, repeated much of the same-old TERFs use to attack trans people (I’m not saying you’re a TERF just that your ‘explorations’ in thought match up with them) and I’m supposed to feel warm fuzzies for you?
I hope you actually know what you’re proposing in the academic realm isn’t anything new… that trans haters have talked about “the complete abolition of gender” for years and how trans women are enforcing a binary, basing their identities on a delusion… blah, blah. You think you’re saying something incredibly revolutionary and I’m hearing 1983 at its most tired. That one is right up there with “being trans is a mental illness” and both have been taught under the veil of academic freedom as ways of oppressing and dismissing us.
And yes, I will continue to suggest how while you’re sharing your “genderless” theories with us, there are countless situations you don’t even bother to notice where you benefit by NOT being trans (and I’m not dismissing the oppression women go through). You just refuse to acknowledge them. I wish you the non-gendered experience you hope for but kindly leave me and others like me the f*ck alone. My respect for your arguments left long ago in the cold reality of what my community goes through. |:(
@ginadpx “I would like to ask Silvana, Pip and whatifiguredout if you would even be bringing up these concerns if it weren’t for the presence of trans women in this thread? Have you actively brought up your discomfort about the phrase: “girl on girl culture?” Have you openly questioned the concept of “women’s spaces” or “women’s issues?” or even the very concept of lesbianism?”
I don’t have discomfort with the phrase “girl on girl culture,” nor do I have discomfort with the phrase “women’s issues.” Some people would like to label me a bigot if I said that I didn’t want to date a pre-op trans* person, because a large majority of the reason that I like women is because of vulvas and breasts, which trans* women don’t always have. I don’t like women because of what clothes they wear, or their hair, or their gender identity. I am attracted to them for their physical body. I have been attracted to both masculine and feminine presenting women, because they all have vulvas and breasts. That’s why I said I guess I’m not technically a lesbian, because I’m not attracted to the “gender” woman, I am attracted to females.
“the role-models I identified with were all presented to me as “boy things” which is why I hated to be considered a girl and later a woman for a very long time until I realized that my discomfort was not with my body but with the social standards that were attached to it.”
It is wonderful that you were able to figure out that it was the social standards that were oppressing you. All I am asking is that you consider the possibility that for other people social standard were not the only problem they faced.
I was raised with “Free to Be You and Me” and other feminist ideas of child raising. I was happily able to express myself before entering public schools. Unfortunately the ideologies of feminism in those days believed that though men and women were societally created notions, male and female were accepted as biological facts with no gray, no overlap and definitely no concept of self-determination.
Being seen as a nice, caring feminist boy did not work for me. I could learn sewing from my grandmother and it meant the world to me, but it still hurt every time I was reminded I was her grandson. I knew it was against everything my mother believed, but I knew I could not live unless she could acknowledge me as her daughter. I tried to not express this, just be seen as a good boy: I went to NOW meetings at the local library; went on pro-choice marches in Washington at 14; I would go on long rants at school about how no one had to follow gender roles.
But it felt as if I didn’t exist. I could carry a purse or grow my hair out, but everyone thought I was just a hippie. No matter what I said or did, I did not exist.
But being a girl was different. From the moment I transitioned people saw me. I could be shopping at the mall or climbing to the top of trees in the rainforest, no matter what I did, starting from the perception of me as female, people saw Emma. I existed.
“the thing that irritates me about notions of “bonds of womanhood” and such is that, for me, it seems to suggest that there’s some universal connection that women share because of some special “woman energy” (that nobody can describe) which simply seems very biologically essentialist to me.”
I find it strange that you reject the possibility of a biologically essentialist sense of group identity among some women, yet you feel entitled to label whoever you choose as male or female. Please consider the possibility that some female individuals feel a sense of kinship, while others do not.
I can see this is going nowhere. The terms women and men, respectively, are no longer being used to describe certain types of bodies (because obviously male and female bodies don’t exist) but when you try to figure out what it means instead, and if indeed a non-body based concept is very useful, it automatically means you’re attacking trans-people, even though I repeatedly said that I find some vague, internal notion of “womanhood” equally problematic in cis-women.
Once again, nobody has been able to describe to me what feeling like a woman is supposed to feel like. The argument “I am a woman because I say so” is supposed to trump all and silence any further investigations into the nature of gender identity.
Just because TERFs have been using some of the same arguments doesn’t mean these aren’t questions worth asking and exploring. I never said that being trans is a mental illness. The way I see it, asking these questions is the logical consequence of really tackling gender theoretical issues. However, I also feel that in this investigation there comes a point beyond which one is not allowed to venture because the questions that inevitable come up are considered transphobic.
“I’ve always found it interesting though that it’s mostly women, not men, who push for an abolition of the gender binary and want a wider application of gender-neutral pronouns. Why do women want a world without boxes but so many men don’t?”
just wanna let you know i have literally been pondering this for days, riese
“Not a single cis or trans person has been able to explain to me what “feeling like a man/woman” feels like without referring to stereotypes of what men or women are supposedly like.”
I am curious what you think of my response to the previous comment by whatifiguredout. I hadn’t read your comment yet, so my list was just my attempt to answer them.
Yeah I found that comment interesting as well, Emma, that “Not a single cis or trans person has been able to explain to me what “feeling like a man/woman” feels like without referring to stereotypes of what men or women are supposedly like.”
I feel like a woman because I am one. That’s it, that’s the beginning and the end of it. I can’t describe it in words, it’s just something I know, and it has nothing to do with any stereotypical feminine traits. The stereotypically feminine parts of my personality I do believe are a result of socialization (insecurity, self-doubt, hesitance to own my opinions/beliefs), but the knowledge that i am female is in my heart/soul, not my brain or personality. I assume many or all trans women feel the same way about their womanhood —it just is. It’s unfair to ask trans women to come up with some tangible example of why they are women, as gina mentioned. It’s also unfair for people to ask masculine-of-center lesbians to explain why they identify as women and not as genderqueer or trans men, which I notice happening more and more. We can expand what it means to be female or male — and make room for non-binary folks — without discounting the subconscious attachment to the binary for everybody or requiring proof that it exists.
Thank you. Nobody ever expects cis women to be able to engage in a graduate-level analysis of why they’re women or feel like women. Only trans women. So I agree with your comment “I feel like a woman because I am one.”
And in response to the question, how can trans women know they “feel” like other women who aren’t trans, all I can say is that nobody really knows how any other human being feels. All one can do is recognize certain commonalities with other people as they express their thoughts about themselves and their experiences, which is exactly what I do with respect to other women, both cis and trans — much more than I ever have with men. Put another way, I feel like a woman because I have felt much more like “myself” living as a woman in the world for the last ten years, being perceived and treated as a woman by others, and living in a female-coded body, than I ever did trying to live as a man in a male-coded body. No more cognitive dissonance (call it dysphoria if you like!), no more feeling out of alignment, as if I always see the world and myself through some kind of off-center filter, no more feeling “wrong” all the time. What more do I have to say to justify my existence as myself in the world?
Finally, I have no patience whatsoever for those who insist that transness in childhood is nothing more than (for those assigned male at birth) a preference with wearing dresses or playing with dolls. Did it ever occur to people that that’s the only way that some children have to express a complicated feeling in a way that adults will conceivably recognize and acknowledge? Nobody’s going to acknowledge a trans girl who would have been a tomboy had she been assigned female at birth. When I was a small child I liked stuffed animals, not dolls. Partly because I just did, and partly because I knew that stereotypical “girl” interests were seen as inappropriate for me. (Particularly after my father brought home when I was 6 a big button I was supposed to wear that said “It’s a Man’s World,” which I refused to wear but got the message!) I couldn’t have remotely articulated why I felt I should have been and wanted to be a girl at that age; I just knew it. As it turned out, despite many years trying to deny and suppress those feelings, I was right.
As cis allies, I think we have to stop talking about it as “feeling like a ____.” If people choose to define their own experience that way, that is fine. However, as a cis person often explaining these concepts to other cis people, I tend to not talk about “feeling like a woman/man” or “being in the wrong body,” because people ARE who they ARE. Someone who is a woman, is a woman. Someone who is a man, is a man. Someone who is genderfluid or genderqueer, is genderfluid or genderqueer. Talking about “feelings” makes it sounds as though someone is having emotions, not the innate sense of being that we all have about gender, however we identify or if we don’t identify at all.
I understand the argument for a genderless society, but let’s situate that idea for a second. In this genderless society, I assume there would be no patriarchy, no kyriarchy. So trans people would not face wildly disproportionate discrimination in all areas of life, nor would trans people be frequent targets of hate crimes and murder and rape, nor would trans people be legally denied basic human rights like housing and public assistance. Trans women of color would not be erased from our cultural history, even within the “LGBT” (emphasis on L & G) communities. I could go on and on.
We don’t live in that world. We just don’t. So pretending that we are anywhere near there is silly. Maybe a genderless society can be your ultimate idealistic goal. I’ll buy that. But if you aren’t also fighting for the living, breathing, amazing trans people in our world right now, who deserve to be respected for who they are, I don’t understand YOU. We need to be amplifying the voices of trans people, especially trans women of color. We need to be the ones saying that yes, trans people exist and have fucking humanity. You know? That’s where we need to be, as cis people, not questioning people about who they are.
I like cooked onions, but not raw ones. I just don’t. Why? I don’t know. It just is. I am a woman. That just is. I am bi/queer/not het. That just is, as well. I don’t have any way to prove it, nor do I know what would be enough to prove it. It is an impossible task, you ask of trans women, to prove they exist, that they are who they say they are. My 2 cents.
Thank you. I so much wish more cis people — especially feminists, to be honest — would understand what you’re saying and follow your advice. I get so tired of trying to answer these questions that effectively challenge me to justify my existence. I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not even sure why I keep doing it, since I don’t know if a single person has ever been remotely persuaded by anything I say.
Nobody ever asks me to prove that I’m left-handed or explain why it “feels” better for me that way, and always has. It just does.
I guess my whole thing is that my reason for saying I’m a woman is not because I “know” or “it just is,” but because of my body. There’s nothing about me that makes me feel like a woman or a man, I don’t identify with stereotypes or the opposite of these stereotypes. I literally go by my body to choose pronouns. It just boils down to me not having the experience of using another metric to define my gender. Clearly, others do have some sort of metric past their physical bodies. It’s confusing for me as a person who bases their womanhood off of their body. I think that’s why it’s hard for me to understand, but I’m still trying to learn.
This comment/entire thread made me really upset, as in I had to close the window for a couple hours and do some other stuff. I was trying to understand why when it hit me – I used to have these exact same thought processes before I started identifying as genderqueer, and thatwas really harmful for me.
Pip, I won’t presume to know your gender any better than you do, but I recommend looking at non-binary genders, especially agender and neutrois. You might be surprised.
And whatever your gender identity happens to be, understand that your experience is not universal. It’s totally valid, of course, but it’s not everyone’s truth.
that’s a really interesting point Dina, and after some consideration, I’ve realized that this may apply to me. the reason I get offended at the idea of trans* people or gender identities is because when people use gender stereotypes to describe “man” or “woman,” I get pissed off because in my head, I’m thinking “hey! just because I have a vulva doesn’t mean that I like that woman thing” or “Hey! just because I have a vulva doesn’t mean I can’t be interested in that man thing.” This whole time I’ve been describing “woman” as “person with vulva” and “man” as “person with penis.” So in that regard, I really don’t identify with men or women. I’ve just been using woman as the term because of my body. And I really wouldn’t mind if I woke up tomorrow with a penis. I don’t have a preference for either kind of body. It doesn’t matter much to me. It’s just what I have. So thanks for mentioning that. It’s an interesting line of thought.
No worries! It took me a very long time to realize that those vague sensations I had of shame and feeling like some kind of weirdo alien were down to my gender…
If you think you might be non-binary identified or are just interested in learning more, you might find these resources helpful:
All the best!
I’m currently embroiled in an essay for my Gender Studies MA and I just wanna submit this and be like ‘SHE KNOWS.’
yet another plan i support
I feel like being a unicorn all the time.
Here’s a thought …if ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ were taken out of the equation – if we were some version of hermaphrodites – what would be the next thing we would use to construct the them-us, me- not-me divisions? Would we need to?
Maybe its just because I’m aging, and I’ve given up trying to (and caring about) not look or seem too out of place anywhere I go, but frankly, ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ … not as important as say, compassion and integrity. Male, female, L G B T Q … are you actually a nice person? punkt.
Yeah, not going to happen is it?
Besides which I don’t think there are any dangly bits on a human which can be used as evidence of, say, compassion. We’re not going to discover ‘integrity’ in the human (or any other) genome.
This is not to say that gender and sex are not important to many people – clearly they are. And clearly, gender dysphoria is something no-one should have to suffer. But this is kind of my point, if ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ were divested of their social prominence and importance, if you could express that aspect of your person in any way you wish, then I wonder if we would tend to latch on to another way of dividing the world into them-us, me – not-me. Or would we be able to focus on those shadowy, intangible,internal aspects which encourage us to be a little less horrible to each other (to draw on Ellen Page).
Ultimately, why did gender and sex become the battle grounds, and not, say, compassion-cruelty?
Just a note, please don’t use the term hermaphrodite. It’s archaic and is found offensive by lots of intersex people.
In this context the term is not actually being applied to an intersex person, and may even reference an imaginary state. On behalf of such intersex persons, ‘thank you for the reminder’.- Tupungato (Intersex/we are still trying to figure out how much HERmaphrodite).
I wasn’t referring to ‘intersex’ people as hermaphrodites – obviously the terms are not even related, unless you go back to 1920’s fiction or dodgy psychology. My reference to hermaphrodites was to take the point out of the current biology ball park. But that said, I find the term ‘intersex’ to be misleading too. ‘inter’ suggests between two or more ‘poles’, where being at one end or the other is somehow the point (intermission, intermediate, interruption)- neither sex, sexuality or gender, as far as I can see, should have a position (or multiple positions) which are prioritized or in some way preferenced over any other. I’m not a fan of the continuum metaphor. Clearly people will continue to label me, and others, which ever way the current winds blow them. The point was, label me whichever way you want viz sex, sexuality, gender, it won’t tell you very little about the kind of person I am. Which is why I find it increasingly odd that those discourses consume so much of everybody’s intellectual time. They’re interesting, and certainly worth debating and considering, but they’re only a small slice of the richness.
I don’t know if this is my place to say this as a cis woman, but I really want to reinforce what I think some people (especially Ginapdx, although I’m very sorry if I’m mistaking what you’re saying) are saying above about the ways gender identity being called a social construct can be hurtful and awful. In addition, I simply can’t believe that its true. Personally, I feel my gender extremely strongly, and while it may originate only from social constructs that are forced upon me, I find that very unlikely. When I try to pin point what it means to feel like a woman, it ultimately comes down to a deep feeling of connection to a mother earth goddess archetype that I feel reflected within me (but I’m hippie dippie, this kind of thing definitely doesn’t work for everyone). Other people may have other connections to their gender identity, such as through their bodies, social roles, relationships, internal feelings, or tons of other things. I’m totally not trying to imply that I know for sure that gender is more than a social construction (I really don’t feel like I can prove anything about this), but I also think that by saying its (just) a social construction we really degrade the experiences of people who feel their gender very strongly. This may effect many trans people especially, who may be put in constant danger for expressing their internal gender identity.
A metaphor that I sometimes think about is that we can’t really prove that love (familial, romantic, whatever) exists as more than a social construct, but I feel pretty strongly that it exists as an internal state. I only have my feelings to prove this, and its very hard to say exactly what love is, or how I have it, or what its like. I don’t want to invalidate the experiences of people who don’t have feel a sense of internal gender identity, but my experiences of gender do not feel like a construct that is forced upon (at least not completely).
The stipulation I make in my own understanding of social constructs is that yes, gender (for example) is a social construct but that doesn’t make it unreal. The things we make aren’t pretend, just constructed. And can change. For me at least, dealing within that framework makes more sense and feels more like the kind of messy gender is. I don’t really understand why gender can’t be constructed, real, spectral, and bimodal all at once or why any narrow conceptualization of it should be used to hurt or dismiss people. It is, of course, and we have to interrogate those power relationships which is in no way trivial but gender as pretend or as a rigid binary both seem like less than useful fundamental models to work from.
By way of grains of salt/caveats: I am a cis woman and (as is probably patently obvious) not an academic. And I’m probably wrong in part or in whole, it’s just the best I’ve come up with so far.
I want to add that I also don’t know what it’s like to feel like a woman..the way society wants to define it anyway.. even though I identify with SHE/HER pronouns. When i look back at what my life was like before knowing things from Autostraddle (YES AS makes you see the light….it’s a rainbowwww) like gender and identity and sexuality and pronouns and sexual fluidity etc..I did feel like society had it’s way of pushing onto me to be what you call a woman. I was hardly comfortable looking at men’s clothing and getting my body hair did 5 years ago. Growing up I wanted model cars to collect and it was pretty much frowned upon by people. I guess a thing to keep in mind is to stop putting one another in a box.
Obviously not all models of gender are valid, but this isn’t the only valid way to conceptualize gender, and I’m a little annoyed that it seems to be presented as The Way Gender Is rather than one possible model.
Personally, I don’t think it does a very good job of explaining LGBT people who feel they would have chosen to be straight/cis if they could have, or even who actively tried and failed to become straight/cis.
A construct can be valid. If it is inspired by nature, it can also be natural (redundant?). A house is also a construct (or construction). At least in the past, most children would grow up in a single house, accepting it as theirs, happy, without questioning how they were assigned to it. The comments I am reading here describe a construction work force of laborers who are designing constructions for those children who are not happy with the house they were assigned, and probably did not even have a room of their own. Every time one of you slashes-and-burns a space for yourself from the forest, you also make it easier for two or three weaker persons to do the same. Over forty years ago I lived next to two siblings, so profoundly intersex that their parents (poorly educated Bible-thumpers) were actually allowing them to choose their gender. They were encouraged to participate in activities of both cis-genders. Their surgeons were anxious that gender assignment begin by age ten and be completed by age twelve. One would choose M while the other would choose F. Everyone seemed to know, and nobody seemed to mind. The boy’s role-model was Gomer Pyle. One could do worse. I had my last gender-assignment surgery at about the same time (age ten). We would compare scars. My intersex status was kept from me for 17 more years, frustrating gender acculturation and medical treatment. They were allowed to construct their own gender – a home to be happy in.I have good reason to believe they turned out healthier and happier as a result of truth and autonomy. – Tupungato.
Carmen this is so helpful and clear and awesome. Thanks. This is my new handbook.
thank you thank you thank you <3
I think the biggest flaw in conceptions of sex and gender such as this one is using genital sex “assigned at birth” as the ONLY measure of sex and attributing ALL deviation as purely gender-related. But really for me, my transition had just as much to do if not MORE with biological sex than with social conceptions of gender norms. Honestly, for me it was never that I was uncomfortable with a male body because of social constructions about sex & gender and more that my body’s reaction to testosterone was to have CHRONIC pain, stiffness, lack of energy, chemical sensitivity, headaches, depression, anxiety, irritability, doctors could NEVER figure out what was wrong with me, and estrogen just happened to either completely cure or greatly lessen all of those symptoms. It was basically like I had a severe allergy to testosterone. So if it’s not the sexual/reproductive organs or society that’s causing it, that leaves the neurological development of the brain. I feel like just because of patriarchal biases and binary oversimplifications of male neurological researchers (can you name a field of science that DOESN’T have a patriarchal bias?), it’s somehow un-PC to even admit that it’s a factor, but what’s of importance to my experiences isn’t how it affects gender, but how it affects sexual and reproductive instincts. It’s hard to explain this part without it being TMI, but for me I was NEVER able to enjoy sex with the parts I had and trying was painful and panic attack-inducing, and the only times I was able to orgasm was either (a) once I’d been HRT for a couple years, my estrogen was peaking and I was meditating on tricking my brain into thinking the configuration was right, and (b) after surgery. Basically, my sexual instincts ONLY work if I have female parts REGARDLESS of how much “acceptance” anyone else gave me or how much anyone says it’s OK for a woman to have a penis. Also, I’ve had so many paralyzing panic attacks and phantom pains relating to my infertility, which can be triggered by topics relating to motherhood and pregnancy/childbirth, and even abstract representations of my missing organs or poetic descriptions of their functions. When I was pre-HRT, whenever I tried to do anything core-focused like yoga or meditation, I’d feel all the pain in my body flow to where my uterus should be but it would be trapped and I’d basically have a giant cramp and panic from the reminder of the emptiness within. I’ve gotten phantom cycles from getting new roommates, and was even able to induce a major chakra opening using menstrual regulation tincture which led to an extended state of heightened consciousness and intuition. I swear, the things I’ve been through are just SO deep and there’s things I haven’t even mentioned because I think most people wouldn’t believe me, but CLEARLY it’s to do with my body’s instincts and NOT gender socialization.
This is so offensive.
The bilious conflation of sex with gender and Trans with intersex is simply insulting.
To be clear Trans people are born unambiguously male or female. No gender can be assigned because does know their identity /gender when they are born.
Trans people are not subjected to surgery when they are born or in early infancy . Indeed Trans people cannot get access to surgery until they reach the age of eighteen worldwide. This is a condition of the WPATH standards of care.
Intersex people are in fact subjected to such surgery and campaign hard against it. Such surgery is conducted without the consent of the child and often includes forced sterilisation . Se oiiaustralia.org.au https://oii.org.au/24058/statement-senate-report-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-intersex-people/
Just so you know, the sex/gender distinction is super transmisogynistic. No way in hell any trans women I know is “male-bodied” or “biologically male.” Ew ew gross. You cis ladies really need to stop pushing that crap. And also you need to get over your obsession your genitals and chromosomes and the weird fantasies you project on to them. You seem to share that obsession with cis men.
Not talking about the difference between sex and gender is a surefire way of ignoring sex-based oppression e.g sex-selective abortion, female genital mutilation, forced pregnancies, lack of access to abortion, the shame that is associated with menstruation, e.t.c
The problem I see with many discussions of sex and gender is that like all category systems, the delineations change over time. And as people sketch out their category system they label others as they see fit, no matter how much harm this causes.
I see no one anywhere in the discussion on this page suggesting that any of the things you listed are not important. However, I do see many people in this discussion misgendering people and belittling their identities.
its neato seeing how overt/covert terfiness has to be to get a pass from the autostraddle mods
I’m constantly trying to get my friends to read up on this stuff, and I shared this article on facebook. It’s a good read, I was not expecting it to get into such advanced issues on the topic.
But woah, these comments. Alrighty. I’m a trans woman. How do I know I’m a woman? Reise is right when she says that’s a loaded question.
It’s not because I liked to play with dolls as a kid (because um, I didn’t. I liked toying with my huge collection of legos, playing chess with my grandfather, and card games.)
It’s not because of clothes. I actually don’t like dresses. or heels. And I only wear makeup because I dress so tomboyish that I need SOMETHING for others to identify me as a woman, just so I don’t go insane from all the people calling me “sir”. This might not bother androgynous cis women, but it’s a sensitive point for many trans women, So I hope you understand where I’m coming from.
I had gender reassignment surgery 3 months ago. For me this was the most important part of my transition. I used to deal with a lot of depression and even thoughts of suicide, but I don’t anymore. I’ve never been happier. Things are still healing, and my girlfriend constantly bothers me about when we can mess around again, (high libido? haha) but right now I feel so complete it’s euphoric.
Of course, wanting or getting this surgery isn’t what makes me a woman. I’m really not good at putting into words what DOES make me a woman. I just know I am. I mentioned the surgery to explain the tangible difference it made for me. Because nothing gives me greater pleasure than proving TERFs and other people like Ray Blanchard wrong.
i’m really glad you liked the piece! also, thank you for sharing your gender feels and for proving TERFs wrong, that is truly goddess’ work <3
The problem is…you can never prove TERFs wrong. Hate based belief systems are inherently impossible to disprove.
When someone feels a category of people is evil or inferior they start with their emotions and then look for evidence to support this conclusion. It is hard to overstate the tendency for people to disregard evidence that is contrary to strongly held emotions.
It is possible to discuss these topics with people on the fence, but arguing with a bigot is futile.
So I read some comments where folks were upset that, so far, all the articulations of ~being a woman~ were rooted in cultural stereotypes. That is not evidence that these stereotypes should be abolished and then gender can go with it. It’s evidence that we don’t have a good language or way of talking about gender. You can see something, know something, experience something and not have words for it. Language is in a constant state of flux & growth as humanity finds itself. As people, we are always experiencing life at the intersection of the mind and the body (well, actually that’s a boiled down binary but it’ll work for now), so deleting the language for how we experience our bodies [and that intersection] would severely limit our means of connecting and communicating–another essential part of being a person.
This comment has been removed as it is in violation of Autostraddle’s Comment Policy. Repeat or egregious offenders will be banned.
@alarae Delete please