Being transsexual means that it’s pretty hard for me not to believe that gender (as something that goes beyond just physical features) exists, and that I have a gender. In fact, I often have to fight for my gender to be recognised, so I rather don’t appreciate people who object to the idea of gender on purely philosophical grounds. For them, it’s philosophy, but for me, it’s reality, and a difficult reality at that.
But people who object to the idea of gender do have a point. They don’t want to feel limited, I think. They don’t want to feel that as a man they can’t be caring, or as a woman they can’t be strong.
Well, I agree that concepts of gender which limit you in that way are just plain wrong. In fact, as I transitioned my physical and social gender to female, I had to confront these concepts. Suddenly it felt like in order to be me I couldn’t be strong, or aggressive when need be — and that felt disempowering and wrong. I had to learn that there were no such limits to being a woman.
Most people seem to think that gender is like this:
Whereas I think gender is like this:
In the second diagram, women and men both encompass the entire Universe of possibilities.
And yet, notice too that I haven’t just gone and made a single circle for women and men. They are still distinct entities. That’s what I wanted to illustrate here. They are distinct, but still equally limitless.
But if neither male nor female have limits, how are they distinct?
I thought up my original image of this dreamily, in a half asleep state. The best way I could make a visual representation of it was in the Venn diagram above. But what I was seeing in my head was that men and women were both sitting in the sea of possibilities. The centre of their identities was each in a different place, but they still both encompassed the WHOLE sea.
To get less abstract, I’d say that there are some things which (e.g.) women almost always are, some things which women usually are, some things which women frequently are, and so on. There are no absolutes here, but there are tendencies.
When I was discovering my own identity, I found out that I had so many qualities of my personality which women almost always, usually, and frequently have. In isolation, I could have had one or two of those qualities and still felt that calling myself a man made sense. But combining them all together, it started to seem less and less likely I was a man.
I had better get into some examples. For instance, the fact that I loved wearing female and feminine clothes, and felt uncomfortable in male clothes, doesn’t necessarily mean I was not a man. And the fact that I naturally made extremely feminine gestures when I wasn’t rigidly controlling myself, more feminine than anything I’ve ever seen a gay man do… that doesn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t a man. Or the fact that I was extremely emotive in my speech, elongating vowels as in “That is soooo cooooool!!”. Or the fact that I when I was talking about an occurrence, I’d be more likely to talk about my emotions relating to it than my vision of the objective reality. Or how I loved flowers. How I hated aggressive sports. And so on.
All of these things can be found in men, and I’d get totally offended by anyone trying to say that men aren’t allowed to be like that. But it’s rare for ALL of these things to be together in any one man, and relatively common for all of these things to be together in a particular woman. While no single combination of traits will ever define someone as a man or a woman, they can at least make it seem much more likely that someone is a man or a woman.
All that said, it’s also the case that there are some physical differences between the brains of men and women – and transsexual people such as I have the brains of our identified gender, not of our assigned gender/the apparent gender of our genitals/the apparent gender of the genitals we used to have.
We can’t really know exactly what these physical differences mean for us in a practical sense, except that of course transsexuals do tend to have combinations of masculine/feminine traits that suggest an overall male/female identity in contrast to their body at birth.
Beyond that, though, I know that I feel an incredible sense of discord when confronting parts of my body that are “wrong” for my identified gender, and feel incredibly pleased as hormone therapy reshapes my body more according to how I want it to be. I also feel pain at being perceived and treated as a man, and pleasure at being perceived and treated as a woman. (Perhaps someday this pleasure will wear off; I see it as being a contrast to all the pain I have known). Finally, it feels right to IDENTIFY as a woman, and CALL myself a woman, and AFFIRM myself as a woman with whatever symbolism and statements feel appropriate.
I suspect that those things originate from my female brain. Just as someone who loses a limb often has phantom feelings, which I interpret as their brain saying the limb “should” be there, I think my brain has a lot of ideas about how my body (and other things) “should” be, and gives me sensations of harmony and discord to let me know.
These things are perhaps the most unarguable parts of my gender identity. I wanted to leave them till last, though, because it’s still the case that alongside body feelings there are groupings of the many traits that don’t always go with one’s gender, but of which some almost always do, some usually do, and some frequently do. I think this is an important point to take in. While male and female are limitless and can be absolutely anything, in general they do mean certain probable traits.
That’s the distinction which the debate has, thus far, I think missed. There is perhaps nothing which can really completely define gender. And as such, gender is limitless. But gender can be identified by a correlation of traits.
Incidentally, the physical gender or sex* works in the same way. There is actually pretty much not a single physical trait which men and women always have. There are cis women born with XY chromosomes who are fertile. There are women born without a womb; people born without genitals, or with ambiguous genitals. Some men have breasts, some women have deep, male sounding voices, some men have such feminine faces they would be taken for women if they didn’t affirm their gender in other ways.
So no single physical trait defines the physical gender or sex. But when there are enough of particular traits together, it can make sense to generalise someone as male- or female-bodied. Just like non-physical gender, physical gender is limitless, but can be identified by a correlation of traits.
*Some use the word “sex” for what I call the physical or external gender, and “gender” for what I call the non-physical or internal gender. I don’t like this distinction between the words, because most people don’t make it, and if I use them in that way, many will get confused. I also would never say my sex is or was male, because most people would take that to mean a statement about my inner gender as well.
I can’t leave this article without mentioning, though, that while no tendency of any gender is absolute, there is one thing which IS absolute: self-identification. If someone says that they are a man or a woman, then I recommend you take their word for it. They are the people who are best equipped to know, and besides that, they are asking to be treated and seen in a certain way, and the respectful thing to do is to treat them and see them that way.
Overall, it may seem that things are not as simple and easy to define as one would like. I suggest you stop trying to make everything simple and easy to define, then. Be more open to the Universe of possibilities. Don’t try to force reality to fit in a cramped little box that doesn’t really fit. It’s not worth it just for the sake of theoretical elegance.
I hope this has been helpful.