In 1996, i got my first insight into trans identity and experience when i read Leslie Feinberg’s amazing Stone Butch Blues, which remains one of the best books i’ve ever run across. It was, to say the least, a mind-opening experience, after which i quickly picked up Kate Bornstein’s great Gender Outlaw.
Suddenly, i found myself questioning the sex of everyone i met on the Metro, passed on the street, or saw walking outside my window. “How do i know,” i wondered, “If that person sitting next to me in a dress has a clitoris or a penis? Does it matter? Do i care?” It was a totally new way of looking at things, and it definitely rocked my world — but in a very exciting way.
In the ensuing fifteen-plus years, i immersed myself in trans writings, literature, theory, and politics. I was fortunate to meet many incredible trans people. And i encountered a lot of postmodern and queer theory in my graduate Women’s Studies courses. All of that opened up to me an entirely new way of seeing gender.
I learned not only that gender identity (how we experience ourselves as men, women, masculine, feminine, a combination thereof, or something else entirely) and sex (what’s between our legs, how our bodies develop at puberty, and the “shape” of our chromosomes) are completely independent of each other but also that there are as many genders as there are human beings. This whole “man/woman” binary limits who/what we can be and keeps us segregated into strict, heterosexist/cissexist social roles.
(None of which, of course, negates the many individuals who experience themselves as belonging comfortably to a binary gender category.)
Look around you. Not all men look, act, or feel the same. Nor do all women. No matter what gender label we were given at birth, humans are an incredibly diverse group of beings.
We have, of course, cultural ideals for what men and women should be — men are supposed to be macho, hyper(hetero)sexual, unfeeling, physically strong, and aggressive; women are supposed to be emotional, sensitive, physically weak, skinny to the point of starvation, scared of bugs and mice, and less intelligent than men. Not many of us fit all of those ideals (and thank goodness, too). Chances are that each of us has some combination of characteristics that our society deems “masculine” and “feminine.”
Our cultural ideals of who men and women are supposed to be are also affected by our…
- race (African American women are stereotyped as strong no matter what the circumstances),
- sexual orientation (all gay men are stereotyped as nelly queens),
- class (working class men are stereotyped as brawny and stupid),
- ability (those who are visibly disabled are stereotyped as lacking any sexuality at all),
- nationality (men all over the world wear what we in the US would consider skirts or dresses),
- historical period (ever seen pictures of men in medieval Europe in flowing robes and wearing wigs?), and
- a host of other factors.
So there is no one way of being a man or a woman. Everything that we are is filtered through the culture(s) we grew up in. What we here in the US consider “manly” or “womanly” may well be seen in very different ways by billions of other people.
So the body you’re born with, in & of itself, doesn’t determine how you’ll act or what you’ll consider “appropriate;” if it did, we wouldn’t see the amazing cultural diversity that exists in this world.
No one forces you to dress or act “correctly” when you get up in the morning. No matter how you feel, you do have the choice to wear either a suit or a dress, suspenders or a slip — although there are certainly consequences for getting caught in the “wrong” clothing, particularly for people who were assigned male at birth. Consciously or unconsciously, each of us makes a choice about how we dress and act.
So what is “man” and “woman”? Good question. I don’t have an answer. What i do know is that we learn in our society that infants born with penises are boys (and will grow up to be men) and that infants without penises are girls (and will grow up to be women).
But what about those babies born with “ambiguous genitalia” — genitals that doctors can’t easily identify as either a clitoris or a penis? Despite the inhumane treatment many of them receive from the Western medical establishment, the existence of intersexed people proves that, like gender, genitalia go well beyond a simple binary. Human bodies do not fall into two distinct categories; our genitals come in all shapes and sizes, just like height and hair color and skin tone. And that genital diversity is a wonderful thing, not a “birth defect” that needs to be fixed on infants or others who cannot give consent to their bodies being altered (see my intersex resources for more on that human rights violation).
So if our bodies don’t determine our gender, if cultural definitions of genders are so vastly different, and if sex exists on a spectrum and gender is a three-dimensional entity, why do we insist that everyone is either a man or a woman? We certainly wouldn’t want to tell everyone that ze must choose to be either tall or short, Black or white, to have blonde hair or brown. That would be pretty unfair to those people who have a medium-sized height, light brown skin, or red hair. Why would we want to force those people to deny part of who they are just to conform to a misinformed idea that there are only two heights, two skin tones, or two hair colors?
Exactly the same with gender. We live in a culture that insists each of us be either “man” or “woman”. If you stop and think about it along the lines of the analogies above, it seems kind of…well…stupid. As a society, we are missing a lot of richness and diversity by forcing folks to be either one or the other. And doesn’t it seem rather ridiculous that we expect all seven billion, incredibly diverse people on earth to fit into one of just two gender/sex boxes?
Once i started thinking about these things, i just didn’t get traditional views on sex and gender anymore. And that eventually lead to me question my own gender identity, based in part on my gender expression and in part on my politics.
Linked below are posts i’ve written about my gender identity for various iterations of my website over the years. While my identity itself has remained pretty constant, how i’ve integrated it into my life and how easily i’ve navigated society has certainly shifted over time – and i expect that that will continue to be the case as the years march on.