Gender Expression Is Not Gender Identity

This is sort of turning into a bit of a “covering the basics” sort of week here- mixed with a little “dealing with stuff I’ve been meaning to address for awhile”. So it seems appropriate that I should also take a moment to handle one of my biggest personal pet peeves regarding how people talk about gender, and transgenderism in particular.

Honestly, I think I could feel pretty satisfied with my entire “career” (I know) if I could just manage to put this one thing to rest.

Gender expression and gender identity are two different things.

One of the chief confusions about transsexuality and the decision we make to transition is how, from an outside perspective, with limited or superficial understanding, it can seem that the reason we transition is because we’ve determined ourselves to be female or male on the basis of our personalities fitting better into a female or male identity than into the gender that we’d been assigned, and that therefore we “ought” to be the sex that matches our personality.

That is not how it works, how we came to realize our gender identity, or why we transition.

From this basic misunderstanding a whole host of common confusions and misconceptions arise. This is what motivates people to say that we ought to simply learn to accept ourselves instead, or that if we lived in some kind of post-gender utopia without rigid binaries there would cease to be any need for transition, or that trans people are buying into or enforcing gender binaries and stereotypes, or that trans women are “appropriating” female stereotypes and trans men are simply experiencing “internalized misogyny”, or that we ought to learn to simply be happy with being feminine men or masculine women.

But in actuality, all of those concepts are based on a faulty premise, that is easily undercut by looking at the actual complex (and diverse) realities of lived trans experience. All too often, people will discuss transgenderism as an abstract, thinking that having some basic grasp of the concept (often hastily, lazily or shoddily assembled from clunky and simplistic metaphors like “women trapped in men’s bodies”) is a sufficient basis on which to work through the theoretical implications and develop firm opinions or political positions on us (as though we’re an “issue”, not people), and totally neglect to acquaint themselves with the actual living, breathing reality of trans people, and our community.

Doing so -bothering to learn about who we are- is completely essential to not glossing over certain key details. One of these is the fact that not all trans women are feminine; many identify, or express themselves, as butch, tomboy, masculine, androgynous, or otherwise not strictly femme (and it is a relatively small minority for whom their femininity couldn’t have been safely expressed within a male identity if they were male). Likewise, not all trans men are masculine. Many identify, express or present within a femme spectrum.  This reality collapses the abstracted, simplified concept of what transgenderism is and means that most cis people carry around. It is only by discussing the abstraction as divorced from the realities that one is able to maintain the faulty premises required for the misconceptions I mentioned above. It’s sort of like physicists who think that with the right models they could understand or solve everyone else’s fields. The basic concepts aren’t enough, and lead only to misunderstandings. You need to consider the nuances and complexities of the actual reality in order to get anything even resembling an accurate idea of what’s actually going on, and you need to know what’s actually going on before you can start throwing out theories about it.

The abstract concept of The Transsexual™ is someone who is wholly normative within the assumed role, sexuality, disposition and all other culturally gendered whatevers of the identified sex but was “trapped in the wrong body” of the assigned sex. This keeps things simple. “She’s feminine, she’s attracted to men, she’s passive, she likes wearing dresses… yep, give her the surgery and she’s a woman!”. But in reality a trans person is no more likely to be the perfect normative model of her identified sex than is a cis person. All the normal variations are in play. Sexual orientation can be androphilic, gynophilic, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, demisexual, kinky, vanilla, whatever. “Masculinity” and “femininity”, cobbled together as they are from innumerable individual traits, can be as diverse and complex as in anyone.

By recognizing the existence of such diversity within trans identities, the theory that we concluded our gender identity after the fact by buying into binaries and stereotypes just doesn’t make sense. It’s logically inconsistent with the observed reality. Like saying “the earth is flat” while observing a ship’s mast rise above the ocean horizon before her hull. If transsexuality were simply the result of thinking “I’m feminine, therefore I’m female” or “I’m masculine, therefore I’m male” there would be butch trans women or femme trans men. If transsexuality were simply an exaggerated form of homosexuality, we’d see no trans lesbians or gay trans men.

Gender identity is not something that is concluded. It does not have reasons. There is never a “my gender identity is female, because X, Y and Z”. There is only the identification, that precedes the reasoning. There is only “my gender identity is female”.


(other than a conflict between assigned sex and gender identity, and wanting to feel comfortable and happy, anyway)

Cis readers, how did you determine your gender identity? Did it take until you were old enough to ask what the difference was between boys and girls? And then when your parents said, “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina”, you checked your genitals, and arrived at the conclusion of your identity? Or did your sense of yourself as male or female precede anything even resembling a precise understanding of what those terms really mean? Didn’t you know which you were before even knowing there were anatomical differences between the sexes? How did you know not to object to your gender assignment?

You didn’t object, and felt comfortable with the assignment, for the same reasons we did object (or wanted to), and felt uncomfortable. Something deep, that precedes its articulation, precedes the understanding of the social mores of “masculine”/”feminine”, and long precedes any received or theorized definition of what constitutes gender or sex.

In order to understand what gender identity is, we’d need to eliminate everything it isn’t. If gender identity is not determined by relative masculinity or femininity (as indicated by the fact that these traits can exist in any combination with gender identity and assigned sex) then those are separate variables. If a person of any gender identity can have any sexual orientation, then that’s a separate variable. If gender can be presented or expressed in any number of ways across gender identities, then that’s a separate variable too. The only thing that is consistent across all individuals with a given gender identity (such as “man”, or “woman”, amongst others), is the deep-seated sense of identification with that concept. The term rings true. It holds meaning. Something inside of us says “yes, that’s right. That makes sense. That feels like home. That is what I am.”

“I am a woman.”

That is what gender identity is. This can often be misunderstood by cis people because they don’t need to ask the question, or consider the dimensions and location of their gender identity. For someone whose gender identity fits with what they’ve been assigned and told, it can feel like simply a given, and in fact be confused with sex, gender role, or gender assignment, or even sexual orientation. When all those things line up tidily, it becomes very difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Instead one has the sense that they all form a continuous whole, the one flowing from the other. “I’m attracted to women because I’m masculine because I’m a man because I have a penis because I’m a man because I’m masculine because I’m attracted to women”. It can all be taken at face value, and taken for granted, which can even give cis people the impression that they don’t even have a gender identity (or at least not a gender identity that’s distinct from either their physiological sex or expressed role). It also becomes profoundly difficult for a cis person to understand what, exactly, gender identity is at all if it is distinct from gender expression, gender role, physiological sex, or sexual orientation.

Adding to the confusion is how much gender expression is used as a tool for comprehending or, well, expressing gender identity. Let’s say your gender identity is female, and “girl” is what feels right, feels like you. But people keep saying you’re a boy (and you’ve been assigned as such, because that’s what your body looks like), and they keep expecting you to behave as such. Meanwhile, though, they’re sending the message that dolls are “for girls”. In the absence of any other means to explore your sense of yourself as female, even if you don’t yet have the words to describe that feeling, you may indeed reach for the dolls, and play with them. This doesn’t mean you’re “naturally” inclined to be “feminine” on account of your gender identity, or that girls “naturally” play with dolls, or that playing with the dolls is what “makes you” female or “proves it”, or that the gender identity (sense of self as female) is definitively connected to the gender expression (playing with the dolls) at all. It simply means that you needed some kind of outlet for the gender identity, some way of actualizing that for yourself, and within the cultural context you were provided, and with what little tools you had, you found a way to explore the concept of yourself as female.

This can happen in all kinds of ways. Sometimes women who at the beginning of their transitions express as very femme may gradually gravitate towards an increasingly tomboyish presentation as they become more comfortable with themselves as female, and no longer require any extraneous means of identifying, expressing or asserting that femaleness. Likewise, many trans women had “cross dresser” phases before coming out to themselves as trans, where they wore extremely feminine, frilly clothing that they wouldn’t be caught dead in once they actually began transition and presenting as female in real life. Because once transition begins, the symbols of femininity (feminine, as always, simply meaning “culturally related to femaleness”) no longer have that same degree of power and appeal as a means of asserting one’s gender identity. The exaggerated, symbolic totems of womanhood stop being necessary once one’s actual womanhood begins to be accepted and made real.

Gender identity is who we are. Gender expression is how we choose, or how we need, to express that. An individual’s gender expression may vary considerably from context to context (and is highly culturally mediated), but the underlying gender identity is a solid constant. Even a gender-fluid identity remains stable in its fluidity, constant in its variability. That is an identity that is solid in its capacity to feel at home in a variety of conceptual locations.

I did not come to the conclusion that I am a woman because I like men, jewelry, make-up, dresses and My Little Pony. I was a woman first. The jewelry, make-up, dresses and (to a lesser extent) My Little Pony are simply the means through which I express my being a woman. Another woman may express her womanhood through a spikey colourful pixie cut, torn jeans, and a Smiths “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt. Another woman may express her womanhood through a flannel shirt, blue jeans and a pair of work-boots. We’re all women. How we choose to go about being women is irrelevant.

And the men are just who I happen to like to fuck. That’s irrelevant to being a woman too.

So please do bear this in mind. Although for a cis person, particularly one who fits nice and comfy into the assumed role and sexuality of their gender, gender identity may seem like some vague, mysterious, incomprehensible and impossible-to-pin-down concept, it’s important not to try pinning it down by forcing untenable associations with unrelated things like our gender expression, our personalities, how we present ourselves or dress, who we’re attracted to, or whether we prefer chocolate to nachos.

I’ll give you a hand, though:

Sexual orientation is with whom, whether and how you like to have sex.

Gender expression is how you express yourself in relation to gendered concepts (your relative “masculinity” and “femininity”, as well as whether you dress “like a boy” or “like a girl”, that kind of thing)

Physiological sex is how your body is configured in relation to gendered anatomy (like your chromosomes, your hormones, your breasts or lack thereof, your body and facial hair or lack thereof, and whether you have an innie or an outie).

Gender identity is the part of your gender that’s not any of that, and would stay the same even if that stuff changed.


Well, at least it generally makes sense for us. Because our struggle, our identity, our trans-ness itself, is defined by the conflicts along the edges of these things.

Just trust us, I guess?

Or at least learn a bit about the diverse reality before forming theories on the basis of an abstraction.


  1. says

    If transsexuality were simply the result of thinking “I’m feminine, therefore I’m female” or “I’m masculine, therefore I’m male” there would be no butch trans women or femme trans men.

    FTFY, I think? There’s a few other minor problems but none as major as this.

  2. Anders says

    How stable is gender identity?

    Do you think all trans people were born that way, can you be cis for part of your life and turn trans (or the other way around)? And what about the genderfluid (who, if I understand correctly, switch gender identity on short timescales – say shorter than a year). There has been cases of brain damage turning straight people homosexual and homosexual people straight – do you know if something similar is true of the cis/trans axis?

    Or do we not yet have the data to answer these questions?

    • Happiestsadist says

      Well, you could ask the person here who previously was a cis woman and is now a genderqueer androgyne. 😛

      What do you want to know?

      • Anders says

        Merely if people change their sexual identity over time. That has major consequences down the line – if I understand things correctly the two year waiting period before SRS is performed is because the doctors want to be certain you won’t change your mind. Is that, in fact, a problem? Are there any studies on this?

        • Happiestsadist says

          Well, I’m the only one I’ve met, so bear in mind we’re dealing with a sample group of one. As such, I’m getting the impression that if there are others, we’re pretty big outliers, and shouldn’t be taken as representative for the rest of trans* spectrum people. And it’s really fucked up that the way transition access is set up is with the presumption that people like me are the norm and have to e accounted for in that gatekeepery, paternalistic way.

          As far as it went for me, I’ve pretty much accepted because of the off chance things change yet again, I won’t be seeking any medical alterations. Which means sporadic bouts of extreme body/gender unhappiness, but is for me the safest plan overall.

        • Emily says

          In my experience, I haven’t noticed my gender identity change, just become more defined over time. For instance, I don’t recall any discomfort or anything with my gender back in elementary school when I still played with girls at least somewhat regularly ( I did, however, own a little tykes kitchen set and a cabbage patch doll 🙂 ). In middle school, I can recall small things, but it’s hard to say since I was bullied that that muddies the waters a bit. In high school, I not only got away from the bullying, but I discovered role playing ( I didn’t know anyone who played D&D, so instead of tabletop RPGs, I got into freeform RPs that you see on internet forums ) online and pretty quickly switched over to a female alias. I used that as an outlet as my gender issues became more pronounced ( I can get into that another time, as I’ve rambled slightly off-topic long enough ).

          So, long rambling story short, I feel like I didn’t really go from male to female identified, I just fit the pieces of the puzzle together as time went on. So, here’s one data point on the side of fixed.

    • says

      I think this was answered in the post:

      Gender identity is who we are. Gender expression is how we choose, or how we need, to express that. An individual’s gender expression may vary considerably from context to context (and is highly culturally mediated), but the underlying gender identity is a solid constant. Even a gender-fluid identity remains stable in its fluidity, constant in its variability. That is an identity that is solid in its capacity to feel at home in a variety of conceptual locations.

      So yeah, pretty stable. For myself, I’ve had my female identity since quite early childhood (like 7 years old, or something), prior to which I don’t believe I really comprehended gender difference, and so it was sort of irrelevant (or, you could interpret it as me thinking everyone had the same gender as me, if you prefer). It hasn’t wavered since then, at all, no matter how vehemently I denied it to myself.

      As for brain damage, well, it would be hard to gather evidence on trans people for this, due to the small numbers… But, are you aware of any examples of cis people’s gender identity changing due to this same reason? (it would be the same thing, since it’s fairly assumed that gender identity, for trans people or cis, has the same source, and would be equally subject to change, if this is possible).

    • Louis says

      In my experience it can be confusing to figure out where you fit on the gender spectrum. The distinction’s not necessarily clear cut even for a trans person, especially when you factor in all the cultural assumptions we’re taught to make about gender and the pressure to identify as your assigned gender. When you don’t fit your identified gender’s stereotypes you can start to second guess yourself and wonder if you really are that gender – at least I did for a long time. So I went through my teenage years and early twenties either not thinking about my gender at all, or feeling that the whole concept of gender just didn’t apply to me.

      I’ve always thought of myself as a male and that identity has been extremely stable over time, I’ve just had a bit of trouble working out what that means for me and have tended to deal with the issue by ignoring it in favour of “just being myself”.

  3. says

    My brother articulated the general cis view of gender quite clearly a few weeks (or more, I can’t remember) ago, while I was talking to him about the issues trans people face. He basically said that to him, his gender is not something he ever considers, cares about, or even notices. It’s not something he feels a passionate connection towards, or any strong feeling for that matter. It’s just something that is, but only barely, a simple fact that he had never had cause to consider at all.

    To him, my apparent obsession with my gender, its recognition by society, and my need for physical congruence are completely alien to him. It seems strange to be so fixated on something so small and insignificant, something that just is, without need for thought or consideration.

    Given this, it’s quite obvious why we are largely incomprehensible to cis society.

    Which of course, in light of the rest of your post, is frustrating… I’m not super femme, although I do have a streak of very femme traits, my presentation isn’t so much. My default outfit is t-shirt + cardigan + jeans + chucks. I rarely vary this (and even then it’s mainly to add something, like a scarf, or a hat). I have been questioned on this, by family and friends, about “are you going to wear dresses and makeup?”, and then “why not?” when I say “no” (I really can’t see myself ever wearing a dress, and I really dislike makeup…)… It’s almost like they think that my preferred attire (every item of which, incidentally, was designed and intended to be worn by women) is not female enough, and this somehow makes my claim to be female less convincing or valid…

    So yeah, great post. Another must read for anyone with trans friends or family, or who considers themselves an ally.

    • Dalillama says

      I’m always amazed by how dense my fellow cis people can be that way. I’ve always had a similar view of my gender to your brother’s. Despite my rather femme presentation (it was a running joke in my family that my little sister was much more ‘manly’ than me), there’s never been the slightest doubt in my mind that I am male, and I consider that to be something that requires no explanation or justification. Therefore, when I first encountered an openly trans person, I decided that her gender also was something that required neither explanation or justification, and was therefore whatever she said it was. This attitude has worked pretty well for me, and didn’t really require any mental heavy lifting to acquire, so I don’t see why it’s so bloody hard for other cis people to grasp.

      • says

        Unfortunately, it’s so hard for most cis people to grasp because cis society views gender identity as being determined by physical sex. Or, rather, the distinction is generally not recognised at all, and they are just seen as the same thing, with two freely interchangeable words to describe it. With this viewpoint ingrained, simply taking a trans person at their word that they are a particular gender, irrespective of their physical form, is an extremely difficult proposition.

      • Anders says

        Dalilla, are you also amazed at how dense congenitally blind people are when you try to explain what the color blue is like?

        Maybe it’s like pain. You only notice your pain receptors when something is wrong. Otherwise they do very little. In the same way the sense for gender identity would only be noticeable when it detects that something is wrong. Something is not as it should be. For cis people, that has never been an issue, and so we have never noticed it.

        Does that make sense?

        • says

          (totally off topic) A Swedish friend of mine told me that in Swedish sign language, the sign for “blue” is pointing to one’s eye. (Because of course one’s eye is blue!). 🙂

          • Anders says

            I had to look that up.

            “The index finger, upward and inward-looking, repeated contacts under the eye”


        • Dalillama says

          Anders, I am a cis person. I always have been, and my gender identity has never once been an issue for me. I just don’t see what that has to do with anyone else’s gender identity. My gender is mine, your gender is yours and Natalie’s gender is hers, and as far as I can see, that about concludes the matter.

          • Anders says

            It matters to me because I want to understand this. I want to get it. And I’m hoping that if I make enough metaphors and similes I might get there.

            But of course you are right. No one owes me an explanation of their gender identity or anything else for that matter.

          • Dalillama says

            I guess that for me, I just file it under ‘you’ve got to be who you are,’ and consider that to be sufficient understanding in terms of motivations. In terms of deeper understanding of why it is that some people are trans while most are not, I consider that to be a question that’s best answered through the power of science, and I haven’t got any greater curiosity about it than I have about scientific research in general, that of an interested dabbler.

    • paul says

      One sure-fire way for us cis people to become aware of their gender identity is to be misgendered.

      This has started happening to me occasionally in the last few months. I think my hair length has reached a certain threshold of femininity, such that looking from the back I can sortakinda pass as a woman.

    • Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM says

      I feel like this might be a male-privilege/cis-privilege intersection thing. Can’t imagine too many cis women thinking their gender is insignificant either. Could be wrong though.

      • HFM says

        I’m a cis woman, and the “it just is” factor is powerful. I don’t have any particular attachment to being female; I didn’t choose it, I was just born this way, and now it’s part of my identity. I could imagine accepting a male body if that was mine instead, because then I’d identify as male.

        Except I’m a data-driven sort, and I know too many people who just never identified with the body they grew up in. If someone’s willing to get her beard zapped off one hair at a time in order to present as female, I’m willing to believe that “it just is” doesn’t always work.

        • says

          And the zapping REALLY, REALLY HURTS. :p

          It’s worse than a tattoo needle, and it’s on your face. For hours afterwards your face still smells like scorched flesh. *shiver*

          • Anders says

            Was it worth it?

            Did you post a picture of yourself on the SGU boards for like an hour or so? I seem to remember it. You had a Lorax moustache.

          • says

            Yes, worth it. Beard shadow is by far one of the most important issues in terms of being able to read as female.

            After all, one’s face is what people tend to look at and focus on the most when “reading” a person (not just in terms of gender, but identity in general).

            And yes, I did post a “before” pic, relatively early in my stay there. It was because I’d posted a current pic of myself, in a rather snugly-fitting spaghetti strap-dress, and then someone made an obnoxious “I’d hit that” comment, and then this silly debate got triggered (in my absence) about how that was a pretty creepy and sexist thing to say to a new member, and then I mulled it over for a bit, and decided the best way to (humorously) defuse the situation would be to disclose that I’m trans.

            So I posted the mustache pic (which is by far the most ridiculously masculine-looking picture of me ever) and then said “so… would you still hit that?”

            It worked, and DID defuse the situation. Everybody had a little laugh. And it made a point about how sexualized comments can make people feel uncomfortable.

            Unfortunately, the long-term consequences were that I, well… disclosed. Which led to all the tremendous amount of bullshit, harassment and bigotry that followed (and all the QUESTIONS… so many. Especially the hypotheticals and “thought experiments”. Like when I got asked the “pill that cures dysphoria” question three times in one week, and Eternally Learning got angry that I didn’t want to have that conversation, and he held a grudge for so long that he challenged me about it when I first set up this blog). I ultimately came to regret it, thinking my time there would have been much nicer if I hadn’t let anyone know I was trans.

            But lesson learned. Next time I join an online community, I’m going to go stealth for at least a couple months (to get a feel for the place) before deciding to disclose.

        • says

          actually, before I accidentally trigger someone with my last comment, I should explain:

          SN does seem to still use “she” for herself, that first. and secondly, SN actually did “conclude” the agendered thing, in exactly the way Natalie just said trans people don’t conclude it. her description of that is here, and this is the most relevant paragraph from her explanation:

          Now that I see they are talking about gender roles in regards to identity, I consider myself to be agendered. I’d have been perfectly happy no matter which sex organs I’d been born with (I don’t ‘identify’ as one set or the other) and as for the set I was born with (female) I simply don’t recognize most of what’s assigned to me based on my sex as sensible. I don’t even understand why what should go where on that scale.”

          anyway, that’s the reason I’m sort of comfortable thinking SN isn’t really agendered, just unclear on the concept.

          • David Marjanović says

            It’s of course possible that not everyone is equally strongly gendered, and that (she thinks) the people around her all take their gender identities much more seriously than she does, so she concludes she’s (by comparison) not gendered at all.

            That still wouldn’t mean she’s clear on the concept! I hope she finds a way to take the test of being mistaken as male by others.

        • says

          oh yeah, and before that thread, she got into an argument with us because she insisted that “gender” can only be used in two ways (gender = sex; or gender = gender role/expression), and was insisting that we pick one of them when discussing transgenderism. I tried to explain that it’s a third definition, but she didn’t like that explanation. so i guess she stuck with the gender = gender expression “definition” when she decided that she’s agendered.

          ANYway, my point was that some cis women react the same way as cis men do and think that their gender identity is not significant; to the point of thinking it doesn’t exist at all, apparently.

          so yeah, sorry again for rambling. bad habit.

      • says

        I partly agree with this – as a cis woman, I am very aware of my gender, and am used to cis men asking me why I make a big deal of gender when it’s really not a big deal to them. But for me – even as a feminist who had done quite a lot of reading on gender theory – I conflated gender identity and gender expression. For a long time I never knew the difference because cis privilege meant I didn’t need to.

        Once I had it explained to me, it wasn’t hard to grasp (at least, I think I grasped it!), but it just never occurred to me to give it any thought before because, as others have said above, if your assigned gender and gender identity match, then you’re likely to just think of them as the same thing.

  4. embertine says

    It’s like race. If I were to earnestly say to a black friend that I didn’t see race or ever think about it, he would be fully justified in replying, “Well, of course you don’t. You have the luxury of not having to think about it every bloody day of your life.”

    (I wouldn’t say such an imbecilic thing, as very few people genuinely don’t notice what race someone is, but I have heard a lot of clueless white folks thinking they’re being so PC by saying this)

  5. says

    As a cis woman, I find it kind of frustrating that it’s so hard for me to grasp the concept of gender identity. I keep looking for that sense of “I am a woman” and can’t find anything that resonates. I feel comfortable in my physical body, and I’m not sure I’d be as comfortable if my body had masculine traits instead, but that’s as close as I can get. I don’t know if this is because being cis blinds me to it, or if I happen to have an androgynous gender identity.

    I wish it were possible for me to have an experience that would make the exact “gender identity” feeling clear to me. But in the absence of that, I will continue to take my transgendered friends’ word for it.

    • says

      Well you can try figuring out the boundaries and definitions of your gender identity as it relates to gender presentation. Crossdressing for example, learning how to walk like a guy (this can be useful for personal safety, unfortunately), anything that might get you to feel different about your presented gender or to be treated differently in public. A pride parade could be a safe time to try this. I’m not suggesting that will make you transgender, it certainly didn’t me, but I now have a dim idea of where things stand for me. I am also not suggesting doing this in a way that is insensitive of transgender people; just experimenting.

      • amhovgaard says

        I’m not sure that would change anything. I feel like Ginny, and I’ve tried cross dressing, I’ve been mistaken for male a bunch of times even when not consciously crossdressing (I don’t think I’m all that masculine in physical appearance, but my body language tends to be). I’ve been asked by small children “are you a man or a woman?” when I had really short hair and dressed in straight-cut jeans and a big sweater – my answer was usually along the lines of “yes; look, I have tits!” (pulling the sweater a bit tighter over my chest and pointedly ignoring the embarrassed parent). None of that bothered me in the slightest. I feel “at home” in the body I have in the sense that I feel no need to change it (at least not the female-ness of it), but the thought of waking up tomorrow with a male body does in no way fill me with horror – no strong feelings either way, really. My first thought is that it might be interesting – if some amazingly advanced aliens suddenly showed up with technology to magically transform people from female to male/male to female, I’d love to try it. I think what makes me feel most aware of being a woman is 1. prejudice: every time people assume something that is not the case, because they can see that I am a woman, and 2. every time I notice how different I am from most women (in terms of attitudes, behavior in social situations and so on).

        • amhovgaard says

          To clarify: the “answer to small children” was meant to suggest that they make up their own mind, if they felt the need 😉

    • says

      I’m in the same boat as you, Ginny. I can’t tell if I’m truly agender (or some other type of nonbinary) or just so thoroughly cis that I can’t even define my gender. (Add autism to the mix, and the fact that we commonly have trouble conforming to and understanding gender norms, along with other social cues, and it’s even more complicated.) I’ve never felt strongly like a boy or a girl, but I’m always been a girl so for convenience’s sake I will probably keep being one. I present as androgynous, I don’t mind being read as “butch”, but I’m not keen on being mistaken for male.

      • Enezenn says

        Here another cis woman who is actually quite aware of the whole gender issue…though surely not as aware as a trans person. I do have doubted my gender some time, like many I read over here, because I do discern certain ‘masculine’ traits in myself. Being sexually attracted to women is one of them, but not the most important maybe. It’s more that, sometimes, I feel very male. Can’t explain it. Most of the time, however, I am perfectly happy with being a woman and I wouldn’t want to be a man if one would offer me a million for it, so I think it is safe to say that I am cis beyond doubt. *
        But still, since early childood I have had probleems with ‘feminity’, not with my female body, which I am okay with, but with the perceptions of others about wath feminity is, how a woman ‘should’ think or act, what she should like or not… I never identified with ‘classic’ feminity and always felt incomfortable with it. As a child this resultet in a flat refuse to wear dresses, for example, which worried my christian mother quite a bit…I just felt instinctively prisoned by the common perceptions of what a girl or woman is, and how she is.
        I am still not a very ‘femme’ type of lady, but I am a woman. It is not I who should change, but people should maybe just get used too less cliché expressions of womanhood. How ‘female’ I express depends a bit on my humours. Sometimes I walk around in dresses and chat with the girls, sometimes I dress quite masculine and go have a beer with the boys, so to say. Variations and combiantions are possible. Personally I’ve always felt that gender isn’t set in stone. But as I read here, for some people it really is a great issue and it IS something unchangeable. I know I speak from a privileged position, so I hope you’ll excuse me, but to me gender isn’t a great issue, internally; I’m fine with who I am. It’s just when others come in that I sometimes feel quite uncomfortable with the subject, and would wish, at times, that gender just wouldn’t be an issue…that no one would care. Would make it easier to flirt with girls, too ;)(sorry, is that sexist? I mean it!)

  6. Alex says

    While I understand and agree with what you’re trying to express, I think that, for attempting to convey what transsexual folks feel and what motivates transition, “gender identity” might still fall short/confuse matters.

    If gender identity is man/woman/third gender/etc [and “gender expression” is butch, femme, etc, etc], I feel like that still leaves the male=man/female=woman conflation unresolved. My tentative solution to this has been to try to use “sex identity”.

    For example, my sex identity – what my brain is, and what my brain wants my body to be/look like – is male. I needed to transition to make my body acceptably* male. This identity and the course of action it has informed does not, for me, necessarily have much to do with my gender identity [I don’t strongly identify as a man, though I am reasonably masculine], just like it doesn’t really drive my gender expression.

    While I can offer empirical proof that there are not-men people who need to have/view their bodies as male bodies, I cannot personally verify that there are, for example, people who identify as women and as having male bodies – it may be that gender identity implies sex identity, but sex identity does not necessarily imply gender identity [all squares are rectangles, not all rectangles are squares].

    Obviously, I respect your [and everyone else’s] ability to use whatever combination of words feels most meaningful/accurate, I just wanted to put this out there as a concept that I have found useful in expressing my identity/experience.

    *acceptable to my own standards, not anyone else.

    • Alex says

      It occurred to me after posting… while I have only really used/applied this idea to myself and other trans people, Ginny’s comment made me think about it’s potential applicability to cis people…

      I wonder how many people [if any] have a sex identity that corresponds to their assigned sex, a gender identity of “meh… whatever”, and a gender expression largely informed by/congruent with societal gender/sex expectations…

      • Dalillama says

        I can certainly see where such a model might be useful, and by that standard, I think that I might qualify for your hypothetical. My sex identity is definitely male, and I don’t really concern myself with gender identity other than that. My gender expression is broadly masculine, but as I noted previously, I have a number of mannerisms that are perceived as feminine, to the point that before my hairline receded significantly, I was regularly misgendered, and even still it can occur if I’m wearing some kind of head covering. I don’t really care though, nor can I be bothered to change any of the traits that are considered gender-signifying. While I don’t usually wear skirts, a good deal of my clothing is cut for women, simply because it’s easy to find in my size. I don’t really think of any of that as relating to my personal gender, though, and the main reasons I don’t wear skirts are habit and convenience (skirts hardly ever have pockets).

      • amhovgaard says

        Not sure what sex my brain is, but I get much higher scores on verbal fluency tests than mental rotation – that’s stereotypically female. My brain “knows” my body is female, but feels kind of “meh” about it 😉 I have no real clue what a gender identity is, or if I have one. Gender presentation varies a bit – if you include sexuality I’m mostly-but-not-exclusively lesbian, and sufficiently androgynous that gay people almost always can tell, straight people almost never. I feel most at home in jeans & T-shirt (which makes me look somewhat butch), but wear either a skirt or jeans + more feminine top for work and will sometimes dress up for parties in a dress, high heels, heavy make-up – something I love the way I love dressing up as a vampire, alien or sadistic nurse 😉 Body language varies w/how I’m dressed, but is rarely particularly feminine. A lot of stereotypical ideas about “how men vs. women think/talk” etc. leave me thinking that I must be a man. I have feminine hobbies (crocheting) and more masculine ones (WoW), a mostly-masculine (in terms of norms more than reality) taste in books and movies (SF, nonfiction)… I guess that makes me kind of androgynous?

    • JA says


      I know this is more than half a year after you made that comment and you’ll probably never read this, but thank you.

      This is exactly how I feel (well, in the other direction) and with all the talk of identifying one way or the other in trans circles I’d probably have talked myself out of transitioning (again). It’s not that I particularly feel the need to identify as X or Y but rather I’ve always had a sense that the masculine aspects of my body were wrong and I’ve even felt profound sadness, to the point of contemplating suicide once, because I wanted to be female but I never knew why. Maybe I just convinced myself I was happier as my physical gender than I actually was because by all evidence my young self recognized that I was “supposed” to be a boy and that it was wrong of me to think to the contrary… yet whenever the idea of being a girl/woman came up I would feel a twinge in the back of my mind and I doubted whether I really should be male, and I felt that if I had a perfect opportunity I’d cross over in a heartbeat. Maybe it’s not as perfect as the fantasy I built up, but I’m at the point where I’d rather pursue medical assistance than let these feelings continue to fester unaddressed.

      That feeling of confusion and emotional pain is… really hard to get across to people who don’t experience it. I’m not sure that Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression even properly covers what it’s like. It must be something completely alien to cis people.

  7. Aubergine says

    speaking as one of those trans women who cross-dressed in rather frilly things, I recognized that that was a strategy for trying to find some comfort. It was a palliative. I never was able to do that in public because it wasn’t *me*; it was more as if I were taking my medicine while hiding in the bedroom.

    These days I’m just your average Seattle lumberjackette outdoorsy woman, as well as father and husband. Works for me, as well as for my family, thankfully.

  8. Dalillama says

    Natalie, thank you from my husband and I for this post as well. It’s a discussion that he’s had a lot, and I’ve had a fair degree on his behalf. There was a particularly frustrating series of discussions with a now former friend of mine, who was quite annoyingly insistent on the idea that trans men didn’t really exist, but were just women who wanted a piece of that sweet, sweet patriarchal privilege.

    • Anders says

      Which just makes the existence trans women utterly incomprehensible. Why would they give up all that sweet, sweet patriarchal privilege? Who knows? Maybe they are aliens from the planet Zeist? Or maybe they just transition because they want to have a pair of boobs always available to play with?

      Don’t laugh. I’ve caricatured it, but that last one has actually been advanced. *headdesk*

      • Dalillama says

        That was one of the things that made her position so annoying. She didn’t have a problem with the idea of trans women being legitimately trans, just trans men.

        • Lena says

          But… what?
          I’m curious now what her reasoning besides “grabbing patriarchal privilege” was if she believes trans women are genuine.

          • Dalillama says

            I have to say that I don’t fully understand her position myself. It seems to derive from the fact that she’s very butch/tomboyish, and had an idea when she was a teenager that that meant she was trans, but she wasn’t, therefore all female bodied people who claim to be trans are really just like her, and need to come to terms with being strong butch women. It never did make a whole lot of sense to me.

  9. donnamccrimmon says

    Oh, I’m so totally confused. OK, not really, but I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding what actual transpeople are going through or what they went through on the road to discovering they identified as the gender they were not raised as.

    I get that sexual orientation does not determine gender (I never questioned that). I get that preferences in clothing or interests do not determine gender. I get the biology does not determine what gender someone identifies with. And I get that gender expression and gender identification are different. But I read this post and I’m reminded of the story where a woman asks a jazz musician (I always hear it as being Louis Armstrong) what jazz is, and he replies “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

    If it’s a case of “You know what being trans is if you know what being trans is,” then OK, I guess I get that. I won’t say I fully understand where a transperson is coming from, partly because I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about every transperson’s history/experience. And also partly because I’ve long dealt with questioning of my own, and I’m not even sure if I’m doing it “right.”

    I guess I’ll explain: Biologically I am of one, distinct gender. I am not intersexed or a hermaphrodite. In orientation I am heterosexual; I am only attracted to people of the gender opposite mine. I was raised as my biological gender, though I don’t think this was ever forced upon me. It was just the typical thing to do.

    I have always been aware of gender disparity in society and many of the ways this is maintained, both overt and subtle, and I want to say that growing up I never bought into it too closely. I can’t recall ever explicitly saying “This is just for boys” or “This is just for girls,” though I guess I did ascribe to the roles of my gender just because that’s what is done. I didn’t fight back against a lot of the binary distinctions I today consider to be ridiculous, but neither did I accept it all without thinking. It was more apathy than anything, I think.

    Then from when I was a teenager on I would occasionally imagine what it would be like if I had been born the other gender. And it’s continued for over a decade now, though my desire/curiosity has grown in intensity and frequency as time has passed.

    I don’t consider myself to be trans, though, for a couple reasons.

    1) I don’t feel uncomfortable in my own skin, which I always assumed was a common thread among transpeople. I don’t feel attached to my gender/genitalia, I don’t derive any true sense of identity from it, but neither do I feel it’s ‘wrong’ for me or that the other gender is ‘right.’

    2) As I said, my imagining being the other gender is not constant. I don’t wake up every day thinking ‘I wish I was X.’ It’s been going on long enough that I know this isn’t just a phase or a passing fancy, but just as I don’t associate as ‘Y’ too strongly I don’t have the greatest urge to become ‘X.’

    3) I think a major reason I like to imagine being ‘X’ is just the escapist factor of wanting to be someone else. I often think if I was ‘X’ I would be a lot happier, more contented, but I have no real basis to believe that. I just assume that being ‘X’ would open some doors for me that are currently closed, and maybe part of who I am is on the other side of them. If that makes sense.

    I think my ‘problem’ may just be that not only does our society divide along gender lines, but it is so set on maintaining that division for the stupidest of reasons. If the gender lines were more blurred, if people didn’t care so much about things like clothing, or hobbies, or acting masculine or feminine, maybe I could just loosen up and try to find my total self.

    • says

      “I just assume that being ‘X’ would open some doors for me that are currently closed, and maybe part of who I am is on the other side of them. If that makes sense.”

      Actually I totally agree with that. So does feminism–in both directions–but in particular, I can actually see how a social feedback loop has shaped my personality to more feminine (in specific ways; I’m still pretty androgynous in personality though not presentation), and it’d be nice to know what I’d be like without that.

      You *can* understand trans people to some extent, even if it’s not your experience; but since trans people hear cis stories all the time, and we don’t get trans people’s stories and perspectives all the time, it’s way easier (and expected, demanded) for most trans people to empathize with cis people than vice versa. Keywords to look up are “privilege” and especially “Othering”.

    • says

      I am reasonably sure that the attitudes you’re expressing here are merely healthy intellectual and emotional curiosity about other genders (and other ways of life generally). There’s nothing particularly odd or exceptional about it; it’s just keeping an open mind. I’ve had similar thoughts myself, and consider it a privilege.

      Exactly where the development line into transgender and gender queer identities forms is very fuzzy, but this is no different than many other issues of identity. It’s safe to say that asking different individuals will surely get you different answers.

      The main point I take away from this is that identity is not merely self-defined, but also developed in a seamless and impossible-to-extract manner. No matter how hard you try to go hunting for the exact moment or exact influences, the when and where and why of identity, you won’t find a completely satisfactory answer. It’s that intrinsic.

    • says

      I guess I’ll explain: Biologically I am of one, distinct gender.

      sex, not gender. basically, sex is your phenotype, while gender is your psychology (and AFAICT, bio-psychology in the case of gender identity, socio-psychology in the case of gender expression)

      I was raised as my biological gender, though I don’t think this was ever forced upon me.

      this might be just privilege. “forced” is usually only noticeable when you say “no”, not when you go along with it.

      • says

        Exactly. We’re ALL coercively assigned our genders, without consent. But unless we actually experience the dissonance, we never have reason to oppose the assignment. And unless we oppose the assignment, the fact that it’s coercive and we weren’t given a choice doesn’t became apparent. It’s only when you try to act contrary to the expectations of your assigned sex that it becomes apparent that you’re not “allowed” to do so, and that deviation from the script will be met with harsh consequences.

        But the privilege is even more complex that that. Someone who only slightly deviates from their gender role, like a girl not wanting to wear dresses, or a boy who hates sports, will only notice slight pushback, and may assume that’s as bad as it gets. Someone who deviates significantly, such as a butch lesbian or gay man who dislikes “acting straight”, will notice much more significant pushback, and may even experience violence, or alienation from their families, but may STILL underestimate the degree to which gender is enforced. But if someone seeks to transition, one is exposed to the mocking and ridicule AND the violence AND the alienation from family AND the open hatred and intolerance AND instiutionalized discrimination AND the “gatekeeping” model where you’re forced to jump through dozens and dozens of ridiculous hoops in order to “prove” you’re “really” trans and “sure” about your choice AND the degree to which our entire culture is geared around forcing us into our boxes AND all the thousands and thousands of tiny little subtle messages about gender-conformity that exist beneath the threshhold of significance for cis people and thus go unnoticed but for trans people make the whole world look like a minefield of painful reminders that we’re “wrong” or “unnatural” or “disgusting” or “insane” or “delusional” or a joke or that we simply cannot or should not or must not exist (and we HAVE to exist, if we selfishly insist upon not just quietly dying, we should live our horrible, miserably, impossible lives as quietly and invisibly as possible, so that no one else is inconvenienced, disturbed or made uncomfortable by having to deal with the fact that we exist).

        But yeah… it is only through the degree to which we defy the system of cisnormativity that we become aware of how deep and entrenched parameters are.

        “You’re totally free to be yourself! As long as whatever that is is okay with us!”

  10. buggi says

    “not all trans women are feminine”

    YES! Oh Hell yah. That was a major stumbling block for me personally during my life. It kept me wondering if I was really trans like I felt I was. It finally clicked together. I’ll never be a feminine flouncy woman and that’s fine by me. My counselor helped me realize that inadvertently, when she said that the way I looked wouldn’t be that different from what you see in real life. That I wouldn’t be this slim waif of a lady who was dainty and from the “proper families”. No offence to those whom you know that are this way, but it certainly wasn’t what I would be. I would be what I termed, from what my counselor described as seeing in the store, as the “Wal-Mart Woman”. The typical customer you’d see there, wearing jeans and a shirt. She’s no less a woman just because she’s not a model on a magazine or in heals and makeup all the time. She’s a woman because that’s who she is. How she dresses is beside the point. I’m a woman and that’s who I am and how I am.

  11. Svirfneblin says

    This lovely article has raised some thoughts I feel the need to go over, as they relate rather closely to my gender identity – I am unsure if my struggling with these concepts are because of the relevantly short amount of time I have spent seriously and deeply exploring my own identity (around a year now), or because my view on this matter meshes slightly off with the article in a way that unnerves me.

    I have questioned in the past, but growing up in a liberal environment where I was actually aware of the concept of transexuals (I explicitly say transexuals here, and not trans* people, as I was only aware of the very specific slice that is a femme trans woman or a masculine trans man), it never extended much beyond a general sense of unease. As soon as I was able to question my identity, I considered for quite a while the possibility that I might be transexual, concluded that I did not wish to be a woman, and that I therefore must be cis.
    Not wanting to undergo expensive treatment, identifying as male seemed the better option when neither of the presented options quite seemed right.

    I have since determined that my identity, while still uncertain if I wanted to define it in words, can most concretely be describes as not wanting anything to do with the concept of gender, either socially, internally, or culturally. This led to a lot of experimentation with overtly culturally feminine things, a sort of explosion of repressed urges and tendencies that led to a kickback further past what I actually am trying to settle on – essentially the same phenomenon described in this article, though coded through gender neutrality.

    The other result of this self-exploration was a level of personal anguish I hadn’t experienced before. Suddenly pulling away from cultural norms into a realm of those who ‘don’t exist’ was a giant blow to every aspect of myself – exposing a giant Truth which was then espoused as nonexistant by nearly everything and everyone around me. There were those who were sympathetic, and even rarer, those who understood. But stepping outside of that group I would crumble in an instant. Sometimes I would inadvertantly apply male pronouns to myself, a reflex from nearly two decades of pretending – that was the worst. Even I, apparently, did not believe that I existed.

    I also knew that anyone who used they/them/their to refer to me was humoring me.
    It may have been good-natured, and they may have been legitimately trying (I am certain most were, as I have wonderful friends), but I was aware that it was a filter they applied to themselves – they saw me as male and then transformed that to my requested pronoun, as a show of caring and respect.
    I appreciated it so much, but that they still thought of me as male was difficult to deal with.

    Then I heard of Andrej Pejic.
    Andrej’s way of viewing things seemed so simple; so beautiful and elegant and perfect. It just sort of fit: I have no identity for myself – that’s my identity. If that’s the case, why do the pronouns others use for me matter? I know I live in a gendered culture, and that people are identifying me as a gender whether I want them to or not.
    To speak in coding terms for a minute, I identify most strongly with null. Null does not have a value of nothing – it has no value whatsoever. If you were to try to match something with null, you would return no results – but if you were to try to match everything that wasn’t null, you would return no results as well. I simply use no pronouns to refer to myself at all. If others want to use pronouns to describe me, it has no meaning at all. I raise no objection to they, zie, she, he, or anything else you can think of. None of them apply to me, but none of them don’t. I do what I want with no regard to gender, but I see the ‘gender’ of all these things clearly, because that is the culture I was raised in.

    I state all this simply to say that, wide and varied as we are, there does exist a person who has anguished over their gender identity, spent countless nights crying over it, thinking themselves either a freak or a liar, where the current resting point is a state of unquestioning. Where I can draw parallels between myself and cis people.
    It makes me more uncomfortable than it should – finding these parallels and acknowledging them brings me close to questioning my trans* status again. But they are important parallels to draw, as I don’t believe any of us truly understands the many ways gender can work.

    • Alex says

      You didn’t use either of the terms I’m about to suggest, and if that’s because you’ve decided they don’t work for you, my apologies, but…

      If you haven’t looked up “agender” and “neutrois”, it sounds like they may be useful concepts for you.

      • Svirfneblin says

        I have looked them both up and heard of both of them, but thank you for taking the time to respond (and for reading my massive wall of text, haha)!
        I have taken quite a while looking around at different identities, and I do feel closer to things like neutrois, but I haven’t really found anything that ‘fits,’ per se.

        I don’t really think it’s a problem, just makes it difficult to relate exactly what my identity is. I generally go for ‘androgynous’ when trying to explain.

    • William Burns says

      “I simply use no pronouns to refer to myself at all.”

      This sentence contains two pronouns, both of which refer to you. Not all pronouns are gendered pronouns.

      • Svirfneblin says

        Fair enough – I really should change that to ‘no third-person pronouns.’
        Which I guess sounds silly, but I find situations where I would be using third-person pronouns quite a bit more than you’d expect. I more meant to say that I do not use pronouns like ‘they’ nor do I have any particular attachment to whatever pronouns people use for me.

    • Pen says

      Suddenly pulling away from cultural norms into a realm of those who ‘don’t exist’ was a giant blow to every aspect of myself…

      I can totally relate to everything you say. Only right now, it’s Nathalie who’s explicitly giving me the ‘don’t exist’ feeling for the first time (through I expect it’s good for me). Before that it was just ‘nobody’s taking any notice’ and I could slip under the radar, well sort of…

      I also just discovered the existence of Andrej Pejic and thought good for err? Actually, I have long thought that the existence of gender specific pronouns was totally idiotic and wondered why people couldn’t get their brains round the concept of using ‘it’. So, all this he/she business really does mean something to a lot of people out there??!

      • says

        Wait… what do you mean I’m giving a “don’t exist” feeling? I’m sorry if I haven’t been responding to comments much, but I’ve been very busy and frazzled the last 48 hours or so.

        • Svirfneblin says

          While I can’t speak for Pen, I at least made the post I did because this subject is exclusive by its very nature (no way to account for every variation) and I felt like your post didn’t address this particular experience.
          I also felt it relevant to mention because, taking your post at face value, a lot of people would probably consider me cis, since I don’t object to male pronouns.
          Your post is wonderful; I’m just trying to add another perspective that I think highlights an interesting/overlooked dynamic in your illustration of cis people not feeling their identity and trans* people feeling it.

  12. Emily Somers says

    I’ve noticed a tendency for many trans women, who initially identify in the femme spectrum, to gradually shift more toward gender neutral. This could be a comfort thing — as you quite rightly note, once the identity of womanhood is actualized, the symbolic correlatives once used to awaken expression (the dresses, etc) no longer seem as important. In short, the realness of the identity awakens, grows, and matures — and thus puts away childish things. (This is not to say that those ‘childish things’ were not crucial in the act of self-articulation as an initial step . . . I know more than one trans women who began her process of materialization through virtual worlds, including some pretty femmey World of Warcraft characters that looked like cover of a Sandman comic.)

    But — and your article on femmephobia is very pertinent here — there’s a lot of internalized concerns in the MtF community from all of the 2nd wave feminist critiques we’ve heard: reinforcing the gender binary, even in transition, means assimilating the most cliched of female caricatures. This line of thinking of course, deep down, believes that *expression* precedes *identity* — they drawn on a kind of De Beauvoir existentialism about ‘making women’ and take it to mean that the expression — as learned behaviour — misleads one into thinking they have a gender identity, when in fact they don’t.

    Of course, as you also point out, the paradigm for diagnosis early on was fitting exactly as possible into the most banal of cispectations of what a woman should be. Once upon a time, “real life experience” meant being %100 stealth. One of the most positive changes in the attitude towards trans health is the “as you understand it” clause when thinking of the target gender identity, which is always correlated to an expression.

    Clearly, this is problematic for trans people, who assert an internal identity that precedes any latent articulation of it (expression), But, concerned to ensure that they’re not simply playing out a pantomime of gender rehearsal, eschew anything that seems too femmey or pretty. At its worst, this can lead to a certain skepticism of femme expressed MtF: “She’s new in transition, still going through a girly phase . . .” as if this were the simplistic, pre-puberty kind of reality that needs to be grown out of to achieve a mature, theoretical understanding. I find that problematic, really. I don’t like the creeping system that, to some extent, is in place that turns the spectrum of gender expression into a kind of hierarchy.

  13. Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM says

    Thank you so much for this post, Natalie!
    I’m cis, I have absolutely no identification with maleness, but I have had an increasingly strong desire to gender-express in a more androgynous way. I have a specific self-image that is androgynous and which bears absolutely no resemblance to how I look in meatspace. To the extent that it prevents me gender-expressing in that way, I have been increasingly frustrated with my body, which is very identifiably female. And I was wondering with great frustration if that meant I was trans, but I find the concept of being male-bodied disturbing, and I don’t identify as male. So now I guess you’ve kind of cleared that question up for me, and also now I better understand a thing about trans people that has always kinda confused me! Thanks.

    • lrah says

      Oh dear, this fits me almost to a T, especially the “I wish I had a more androgynous-looking body”. Face-wise, it works fine, but I wish I could just real-life-photoshop away all my “womanly” curves. I was in DEEP denial when I grew boobs in puberty, and I’d get rid of them in an instant if the boobs-and-hips-minimising fairy came along and made me an offer.
      I still often go for androgynous clothes (almost all of them made for women, though – men’s clothes really don’t work with my body :().

      I feel with you.
      Funnily enough, while I’m fine with my assigned sex, the idea of having a male body doesn’t really shock or disturb me, either. I could see it working out just fine. Not in a way that would spur me to actually undergo sex change, but I don’t think I’d be terribly freaked out if I woke up in a man’s body tomorrow morning (apart from the “WTF happened”, of course ;)).

  14. Chirico says

    Good article as always. These issues have really caused me a lot of suffering…
    Throughout my teen years I hated my body for not being masculine enough, being short, skinny and weak, having what I assume is gynecomastia, longish hair, and below average sexual characteristics. Coupled with my general social anxiety and phobia, I didn’t even feel comfortable wearing t-shirts because my tits would stick out and everyone could see my scrawny arms. I felt worthless as a man to the point where eventually, I started to wish that I could pass as female. If I couldn’t be attractive as a male, I thought, maybe I could be attractive as a female. Even though I don’t particularly “feel” like a woman, I don’t particularly “feel” like a man either. The general identity doesn’t really fit in either case.
    Over the years I’ve realized that despite not having “masculine” physical attributes I don’t really have “feminine” ones either, and I don’t have the confidence or the motivation to change my gender expression, nor can I accept myself as is. My current approach tends towards androgyny by keeping my hair long, wearing tighter clothes, but staying out of the view of others as much as possible.

  15. Brynn says


    Love this article. I know I disagree sometimes on the grounds of what is vs. what should be, but this is a great summation of a concept I have wrestled with for a long time.

    I lived a very male life, and have had very stereotypically male life. Sometimes it was forced on me by family, other times it was forced on me by my career. Most of the time it was simply that I simply wouldn’t let myself.

    Why was it that every time I looked in a mirror I was surprised and deeply disappointed by the man I saw, instead of the woman I expected? Why was it that in most dreams I had where anatomy came into play, I was female anatomically? Why was it that when I realized at the age of 17 that my body was irrevocably changed to being unmistakably male that I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss?

    But then, there were all the “male” traits I had. I loved watching basketball. Math. Foreign policy. Military technology. Sci-fi and fantasy genres in movies and literature. History. I wanted to be a military pilot so badly (although the military culture proved a bad fit for me). I have a serious and practical streak a mile wide. I still love all these things, and reconciling how I could have such male traits and a feminine body map was really hard.

    It took marrying a very “butch” woman who shared a lot of my interests to realize (but not as elegantly as Natalie wrote) that clothes, and interests don’t make a woman. It’s how you see yourself. She had a double major in college (biology and gender studies), and never for an instant saw herself as anything other than female, despite being a jeans and flannel wearing, sci-fi and fantasy loving, science geek. How she saw herself, and how she expressed herself did not need to cause internal conflict.

    I have been lucky enough through transition to have her as an example that having gender identity and gender expression that doesn’t fall the same number of standard deviations on either side of the spectrum isn’t just something that cis women have, it is something they can have and be great, unconflicted people in the process.

    • says

      Hey, I love basketball too! It’s my favourite sport, and probably THE most stereotypically
      “masculine” interest I have. I was so so happy when Duke got eliminated last week. 🙂

  16. Pen says

    Cis readers, how did you determine your gender identity?

    “yes, that’s right. That makes sense. That feels like home. That is what I am.”
    “I am a woman.”

    I don’t have that, and if there are more people around like me, it may play in to some our misunderstandings as a society of trans people and gender. Now, before you tell me that I do have that and I just never noticed because it was never a problem…

    a) Actually, it was a problem, though nothing like the problem of being trans. I’ve been in a state of open and conscious incomprehension from an early age (5 or 6?) over the disjunction between what I feel and what I was apparently supposed to feel. As a child, I couldn’t understand how a whole society could spin this yarn of what to me was meaningless fantasy without anyone protesting. OK, now I get it, not everyone is like me. I very much welcome people explaining what gender identity is like for them because instead of this big mystery, it makes that sense of disjunction clearer. But “I am genderless” (in a body that happens to be female though I find that a very secondary issue) is and remains true for me.

    b) I’m very aware that gender identity varies in this respect because I am now bringing up a daughter who is not like me. Oh, she’s about as feminine or otherwise as me, it seems very likely she is heterosexual like me, but it has been obvious from a very early age that “I am female, that is what I am” is very meaningful to her. I was surprised when I first saw it, also it exposes her to every self-image trap society throws at females and which I was largely able to bypass. But dealing with that is all part of parenting. My daughter and I are just different kinds of people, and I can’t tell you if it’s genetic, developmental or what…

    P.S. This isn’t meant to imply anything about how I respond to other people in the outside world, how I may be influenced by whether they are male or female, or how I think people respond to me. It’s about my relationship to myself. Is there room in your theories for people like me?

    • Pen says

      Apparently, I exist, but I’m too rare to be talked about very often. I do wonder about that. Gender neutral? or psychological androgyne?, with a brain that tends to the male, though only a bit (not sure that I trust the test, but I can easily believe the result). That would explain why ‘androphilic’ totally resonates with me, so, so, much better than the word ‘heterosexual’, which implies something about me that I consider irrelevant. Whereas, as I was saying in an earlier thread, my reaction to ‘cis-female’ is something like “who, me?”

      I must look into this more. Thanks for existing, Nathalie.

  17. Hope_WA says

    Trans people are not men trapped in women’s bodies or women trapped in men’s bodies. What seems much more likely, and is currently supported by science more than any other theory, is that brains are sexually dimorphic, in other words there are men’s brains and women’s brains, and as with most biological examples people who have brains that fit in neither or both of the “simple” categories. There are two aspects of having a gendered brain which are specifically relative. One is that gender identity has a biological basis and is, for lack of a better term, hardwired in the brain. The other is that people have an internal body map, also hardwired into one’s brain, which helps people with spatial awareness. What has not been studied is how closely linked those two aspects of brain development are.

    A brain-based and hardwired, rather than socially learned, gender identity goes a long way towards explaining the existence of trans people. Someone who has a brain that is gendered differently than their genitals is most likely going to be trans. The situation gets more difficult at the onset of puberty when secondary sexual characteristics develop.

    The theory of a brain-based, hard-wired body map was developed to explain the phenomenon of phantom limbs, the feelings that many amputees experience that there missing limb is still there. Research done comparing trans to cis people showed that a majority cis people who lose a penis to amputation feel a phantom penis but that a very small minority of trans people who no longer have a penis feel a phantom limb. What is truly interesting is that more than half of the trans men surveyed reported feeling a phantom penis, often since early childhood. Having an innate body map which does not match one’s actual anatomy would go a long way towards explaining the body dysphoria that many trans people feel.

    One last note, I don’t believe there is any type of hierarchy, that some people are more genuinely trans than others if they are able to check more items off a list of trans traits than someone else. Someone can be trans or not and IMHO the only person capable of making that decision is one’s self.

    • says

      Of course, the funny part is even that theory, even though it is far more substantive and supported-by-the-evidence than the dumbed down “Y trapped in an X” metaphor, is STILL a simplification that doesn’t account for all iterations of gender or all trans experiences.

      But I, for one, enjoy complexity. 🙂

      Also: Hi Hope! Long time no see. Did Kathy ban you from TS or am I misremembering that? She has gotten rather trigger-happy lately.

      • Hope_WA says

        I agree that my post still shows a simplified version of a more complex and complete answer but I thought it was already fairly long. In biology there are few black and white situations and I tried to address that point in a limited way.


        Hi! I did get bannned by KG a while ago. I may have been the person that gave her the hair-trigger on the ban-hammer but it’s a long story and one that really isn’t all that interesting. I stop by here and read your writing on a semi-regular basis though because it really is interesting.

        • says

          Oh, I know, I wasn’t criticizing your response. Just remarking on how this stuff is not only way more complicated than the silly “X trapped in Y” metaphor, but even more complicated than the nuanced clarifications one can provide!

          And thanks. I’m glad you enjoy my blog, and it’s nice to see you again. I was Robyn on TS, in case you don’t remember.

    • amhovgaard says

      This is a very interesting view, but there are a few major problems so far, mainly because the differences between male and female brains are very far from being clear-cut, they are just statistical differences between groups. And the “hard-wired body map” stuff has pretty much been demonstrated to be wrong. You learn that map through experience. Unless you are missing a part of your brain (stroke), teaching people a new body map is fairly easy – and is now being used as a treatment for phantom pain.

    • David Marjanović says

      What is truly interesting is that more than half of the trans men surveyed reported feeling a phantom penis, often since early childhood.

      …Wow. That’s extremely interesting for several reasons!

  18. says

    This used to trip me up, too. I said if it isn’t about surgery and people can dress however they want, couldn’t I just declare myself a non-op trans lesbian without changing anything? I had taken the idea that gender is just a label and a social construct from various feminist authors. Later on, I took to reading research instead of theory and realized that didn’t fit with how gender works in the real world.

  19. Sinéad says

    I am completely confident in my gender presentation regardless of my gender identity. I wasn’t at first. But I went off hormones for a while because I was thinking that maybe it’s just being free to present as femme was all I needed. It wasn’t. I’m actually far more dysphoric when I have to wear pants or less makeup because I feel like no one sees me as a woman. I’d love to be able to just throw on pants and leave the house without ever eyeliner on, but I am too scared to correct people who misgender me because I have a deep voice and am looking like a tomboy. It’s a problem I have to work on. But needless to say, I don’t have to identify as a woman to dress the way I do. Somedays it would make it better if I didn’t care how someone genders me…but the actual clothing that I wear is what I like to wear regardless. (And, yes, I am just as attracted to male identified “crossdressers” as I am to femme cis and trans women.)

  20. daenyx says

    I thought about this post for a while, and it made me remember something I wanted to share (though I think I may have missed the comment train – oh well). I’ve attempted (and soundly failed) to imagine, in the past, what gender dysphoria actually feels like (I’m a cis woman), because I was curious and wanted to try to understand. But for some reason, I never made a connection to what is at least probably a lot closer to the answer.

    I spent most of my childhood being misgendered by strangers constantly, because I had short hair, was a tomboy, and I suppose acted ‘male’ in the sense that I was outspoken and assertive. I would have boys yelling after me as I went into the women’s restroom “that’s the GIRLS’ room, stupid!” (“I AM a girl!” “No you’re not!”)… people would tell my parents what a nice son they had… and the crowning moment of all of it was competing in a state-level martial arts tournament and being called up to receive a silver medal – in the boys’ division. This never failed to infuriate me, and for a long time later (I started growing my hair out when I was eleven, and it’s waist-length to this day), I wondered why it had mattered so much. But it had mattered, a great deal. I used to have dreams where I was a boy, and I’d wake up feeling strange and upset until I remembered I was a girl.

    I’m sure none of this was nearly as bad as a transperson’s experience, because at least my family and friends gendered me correctly (and my body – at least when I was awake – matched my gender identity), but the misgendering from others was pervasive and consistently upsetting. Remembering that, I can at least directly empathize with the social dissonance of having to verbally assert my gender identity over and over and over again, and it ultimately directly affected my expression (growing my hair out as soon as my mother would let me, which I only did because I was tired of being misgendered).

  21. Rilian says

    I have no idea what gender is. When I was 14, I had a sense that I “might want to be a boy”… but I never decided for sure, because I figured it was impossible and I just tried to not think about it. I think if a fairy godparent had come along and offered to transform me, I would have taken it, but now…. I don’t know. I don’t know! I think part of the problem is that I want to be a BOY, not a man. I don’t want facial hair and I don’t want to go bald. Blah.

    • Enezenn says

      Yeah, I’m confused as well. Not with ‘what’ gender is, because I think I have fair enough a grasp of it as an intellectual concept (but I might be mistaken, in my ignorance!). But I rather doubt ‘whether’ it is, at all. WAIT, don’t yell at me!
      I know my argument is going to be invalidated immediately (and with right) by the lived experience of all trans people over here who are very much aware of gender as an objective reality.
      But from a cis perspective, it just doesn’t make sense to me, and it feels more like a prison than like a liberating concept. The problems I have are not with gender as such, but with the sexism that is more or less validated by aknowledging of the existence of gender. As soon as one says that there ARE differences between male and female, that these categories do objectively exist apart from their biological context where this is of course the case, one opens the door to stereotypes about this or that gender. ‘(Wo)men do’…'(wo)men like’…and the next step, ‘(wo)men should’…
      It’s not because I am a woman I do share a certain mindset with other women, or that I do have preferences that are seen as typically ‘female’. I feel the expectiations society set has in my respect, just because I am woman, as oppressing. Just banning out the whole concept of gender would be the best way to get rid of sexism altogether.
      But then. Many posts on this blog are testimony to the fact that at least for some of us, gender is a lived reality.
      So….I’ù confused.
      Sorry for the off topic, but I want to calrify this for myself and maybe other have thoughts on this subject as well.

      • Miri says

        I think that your objection is not to gender itself, but to the preconceived notions based upon it. This phenomenon is an outgrowth of societies conflation of gender identity and expression, and restrictive roles (which are merely social constructs) tied to this. Gender identity itself it’s real: I can vouch for that from the experience of every day of my life. But those other things are largely societies arbitrary ideas about what varieties of expression and behaviour are appropriate to those identities…

        • Rilian says

          Do you think that someone can legitimately identify as no gender or mixed gender or third/fourth/whatever gender?

          And what about how you want your body to be? Is that different from gender identity? Can someone identify as female and want to have male genitals?

          • says

            I know you didn’t address those four questions to me, but here goes:
            1) Yes
            2) My body *isn’t* how I’d like it to be, and I’ve known that for a very long time.
            3) For me it’s different, but certainly related. This is not to deny that the intensity of the linkage between the two will vary for other trans people – it’s a spectrum.
            4) I don’t see a problem with this at all. Woman is a giddy thing, as Benedick (Shakespeare) should have said.

          • says

            Do you think that someone can legitimately identify as no gender or mixed gender or third/fourth/whatever gender?

            Definitely. It’s not for me, my identity is clearly female, but I see no reason why anyone could not identify as strongly with a non-binary gender as I do with my own binary one… Of course, this identity leads to a difficult place for people who identify this way, as there are no social expectations for these genders, and so various inappropriate binary assumptions are placed on them…

            And what about how you want your body to be?

            I have felt my body as being wrong from my earliest memories that I am certain are truly memories (as opposed to constructed “memories” based on photos and accounts of events). I knew it was wrong and should be a girl’s body, even before I knew exactly what it was that differentiated a girl’s body from a boy’s.

            Is that different from gender identity

            As Xanthe mentioned, this can very between individuals. Some people have a particular gender identity, but are comfortable to some degree with their body. Or, they have varying levels of discomfort. My level of discomfort is probably at the quite extreme level of intensity. There have been times where I have wanted to cut off my hands, I was so repulsed by them, because they are far larger than is normal for a woman of my size (as an example of something outside of genitalia, or the other obvious things, to illustrate how all encompassing this is for me). I don’t even want to go into how appalled I am by the more “defining” body features that are still currently “male”…

            Can someone identify as female and want to have male genitals?

            Definitely. Non-op trans women are an example of this. They are women, identify as female, and yet experience little to no discomfort over their genitalia. I imagine, given this, that it’s at least possible that a FAAB woman could have a preference for having male genitalia, and still identify as female, or vice versa (although, given how our society regards genitalia as determining gender, this kind of desire would be very confusing for that person)…

  22. says

    OK, I’m beginning to understand that as a cis woman, I’ve simply been a fish in water up til now. Natalie, you’ve clarified for me what was puzzling about the need for Sexual Reassignment Surgery–that it’s not about masculine or feminine traits expressed as a desire for a conforming body but something far deeper and more subtle. Thank you.

    As far as genetics goes, I attended one lecture where it was pointed out that there are twice as many trans men as trans women. Those kinds of integer ratios imply a genetic component. The lecturer suggested there may be a genetic variant that occurs twice as often in men or that there may be two different ways of varying in men and one in women.

    • says

      a) Are you sure you’re using the terms “trans men” and “trans women” correctly? I’m a trans woman, for instance.

      b) I have never seen any substantial evidence for such a disparity. Everything I’ve ever seen has indicated that the numbers of trans women and trans men are relatively equal- whatever discrepancy exists is minor, and is nonetheless more easily accounted for by sociocultural factors. The number of trans people we know about is not the actual incidence.

      c) Whatever genetic component exists would likely be present in cis people too. Trans just a variation in normal processes of human gender/sex determination. All in all, this is fairly clearly an epigenetic issue.

  23. Cluisanna says

    Cis readers, how did you determine your gender identity? Did it take until you were old enough to ask what the difference was between boys and girls? And then when your parents said, “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina”, you checked your genitals, and arrived at the conclusion of your identity? Or did your sense of yourself as male or female precede anything even resembling a precise understanding of what those terms really mean? Didn’t you know which you were before even knowing there were anatomical differences between the sexes? How did you know not to object to your gender assignment?

    I (cis, female) understand that the point you are trying to make here is that you “just know” your gender identity, but for me the answer to all of those questions is “people think/tell me I’m female, so I go along with it”. I don’t remember that I knew I was female before I knew what it meant. I didn’t object to my gender assignment because I was raised pretty gender neutral, so when my parents told me “you’re a girl” my reaction was basically “oh. good to know, I guess.”

    Something deep, that precedes its articulation, precedes the understanding of the social mores of “masculine”/”feminine”, and long precedes any received or theorized definition of what constitutes gender or sex.

    I’m not saying I think this isn’t absolutely true for you, but it is really hard for me to understand, because my mind doesn’t feel female at all – only my body looks female.

    The only thing that is consistent across all individuals with a given gender identity (such as “man”, or “woman”, amongst others), is the deep-seated sense of identification with that concept. The term rings true. It holds meaning. Something inside of us says “yes, that’s right. That makes sense. That feels like home. That is what I am.”

    But I for instance have this feeling too, but when I ask myself “why are you a woman? How do you know?”, my answer is ‘well, look at my body’ and ‘my parents and other people told me so’.
    It’s basically like with my name. My name is part of my identity, I recognize it as mine, I associate myself with it when I see other people who have the same name, but it is still something my parents assigned me, and I didn’t object to that assignment because when I was able to realize what names meant I was already identifying with it (and that is true for my first names and my surname).

    All of this is not to say that I doubt in any way that even when people told you you were male, you knew you weren’t. I think, however, that it illustrates how hard it is for at least some cis people to understand this issue, maybe even that it is impossible, like how I can’t understand how people without synesthesia see the world.

    Also, if I get this correctly, you are basically saying that trans* people prove there actually is such a thing as the gender binary? Did you write about that before? If not, that would be imho a very interesting topic for a post (or, as I think it is more correctly referred to, article (: ).

    • Megi says

      I agree absolutely. I see no difference. “This deep something” tells me nothing and everything. Once it tells me that I am obviously a woman, and then it tells me that I’m not. I think it’s just comparing my behaviour to others’ or to man/woman concepts.
      Well, I, for example, identify as human, because I see it. And as a science minded person, because I’m good at it. And as white woman, because I look in the mirror and see a white woman. Feelings tell me nothing about myself. I identify with my name, because everyone calls me so. These are just labels. Our way of thinking. How do we know that a table is a table? There are some “table criteria”. The object passes them or not. But it can be another thing for a different cultue. But it “is” not a table. We percieve it as a table. Just we percieve that “tableness”. What is true are actions. And objective, dry facts about the molecular structure of it.
      I don’t want to offend anybody, but maybe not everybody has a built-in gender identity. Transition is good – if it helps feel right. Everything that helps people is good. But I find it quite a bad conviction that the two sexes’ brains differ. It produces some implications that are offensive and produce prejudice, glass cieling and so on. Of course, statistics are different, but not every case.
      But finally it’s a thing to think about. Just to take into consideration. What is the real difference? Does it exist physically?

      And I have a question. Can someone be trans and not know about it in whole life? And be happy of his/her body?

  24. says

    That was very well written, and helped me address my own confusion over a few things, as a trans man. I’ve been asked many times, by jerks, “Well what if there was no gender roles? Then you wouldn’t need to transition. So why can’t you just be who you are without transition?” I never had an answer that felt powerful, and that bothered me for a long time. Thanks for breaking it all down.

  25. DJMankiwictz says

    So I read most of that and was thinking “yeah I get it, it’s what body you feel more comfortable in, not the rest!” and then in the very last bit, I find out I’m wrong, re-read it, and realized you never even said that. I was just plain misinterpreting the whole lot of it! I’ve got a lot to learn.

    So it’s a completely separate variable that connects to but is distinct from the rest. It could just be “hidden” from me, in the same way a program could be designed to set multiple variables relating to one expression (perhaps shoddy design where one variable would do, but the brain is a complicated mess that never promised us neat and clean lines). In that way, overlap literally would never manifest in any way whatsoever in the conscious mind, in the same way a desktop background color that had a secondary stat that also simply told the internal programming what color it was but didn’t actually chance the color would never once expose itself to a user.

    Sorry if this is dry and technical, but being outside my experience, this is the closest analogy I can come up with and it’s fully possibly I’ve still missed the mark completely.

    As it stands, I have no recollection of thinking about whether my assigned gender fit (which does align with what you’re saying). I remember being told what I was very young and that no, there was ANOTHER, and just accepting that as a fact as is often the case with children and parents. I didn’t even notice it feeling “right” or “wrong” so much as being what it was, so if there was such a hidden variable, it never surfaced at that time.

    • DJMankiwictz says

      And now rereading that I realize I’ve spent too much time talking about myself. I also made it almost sound too alien, and for that I’m sorry. Frankly I’m terrible at understanding sexuality and gender identity and all those things anyway, so I’ve got no business trying to form any opinion on this matter other than one of support of basic humanity.

      Thank you for posting this.

      • Jacob says

        What I said is not idiotic shit, and I am not “the people who say this idiotic shit.” Are you “the people who say the idiotic shit” you say? No. You’re you, and you don’t speak for anyone else unless you’re repeating their words for them.

        The concept of gender arose because of observed differences between males and females. The root of these assessments is based on biology, but society has derived stereotypes and expectations from it. We may have different organs and hormones and perhaps differences in our brains, but these have been reduced to “this-or-that” personalities that extend way beyond what they are in reality. They are not real.

        I was born biologically male, and I have faced adversity due to gender nonconformity. I *don’t* have the luxury of ignoring these expectations. They are prevalent everywhere, the problem with them is that they are pretend. Being born within American borders, turning 18, having whatever skin color, and dressing the way we do all have false connotations.

        I’m not happy with the state of affairs at all. For some of us the battle IS expression. I don’t like being told to “be a man” or having people find it unacceptable for me to cry or be emotional. I feel alienated. Does that make me transgendered? It certainly revokes a few cisgender-male privileges. I don’t ignore the pervasiveness of sexism. It’s evident, and I don’t forget it when I see Hollywood or a traditional family.

        Maybe I am gender-queer, but everyone in the world is queer. They just think they fit some sort of normalcy. Its no nuisance for me to use the men’s restroom. I’ve experienced very little homophobia. The division itself, however, is stupid. Hell, sharing the restroom with other people makes me uncomfortable in the first place. My expressions are my expressions. They don’t belong to a gender.

        Gender identity encompasses sex. It is the root. Once the realization that it isn’t real occurs, it discredits every “truth” it supposedly grants.

    • Hope_WA says

      Gender roles are “pretend”, or created by societal expectations in a fairly arbitrary way.

      Gender identity on the other hand is quite real, biologically based, and hard-wired into our brains.

      I don’t know if it’s idiotic, but it is uneducated to confuse the two.

      • says

        I’m actually thinking hear that even Gender Identity isn’t “hard-wired”. Gender identity is how something hard-wired (those aspects of self that relate to sex or sexuality) ultimately ends up being understood in our conception of ourselves when confronted with having to understand that self in relation to others and to our culture. Therefore it’s both “arbitrary” and “social” AS WELL as innate, inherent, immutable.

        Also, something being social or arbitrary NEVER necessarily means something isn’t real.

        • Hope_WA says

          We disagree on this point Ntalie, but that’s o.k.

          Besides the research done on the BSTc and INAH regions of the brain, rCBF differences in cis women and trans men, and white matter microstructure comparing trans men to both cis men and cis women, there is a seemingly endless supply of anecdotal material from trans women who report a decrease in depression and clarity of thought when beginning hrt despite no changes in outward appearance or social perception. The most frequent analogy I’ve seen describing the situation compares the brain to an engine; running poorly on diesel fuel (testosterone) but functioning smoothly on gasoline (estrogen).

          You can say that a person would have no idea that structures in the brain or differences in nueral tissue makes them female were they not exposed to a society that differentiated between males and females, or men and women, but that doesn’t change the fact that the differences are biological and hard-wired. A person not exposed to even the most rudimentary ‘modern’ medicine wouldn’t know what was wrong with them if they had appendicitis but that doesn’t mean that inflammation of the appendix is socially constructed and not biologically based.

          • says

            I think you’re probably misunderstanding me, because none of what I said is actually contradicted by what you just said? All of that is true, but I don’t think those neurological phenomena can manifest independently of the socio-cultural contexts in which they occur.

          • Hope_WA says

            I do think we disagree. Regardless of social norms, a person can feel body dysphoria or suffer from depression because of a mismatch between their anatomy and endocrine system. That was why I used the appendicitis analogy. A person raised by wolves could suffer from it although they would have no idea what they were suffering from.

            Would it help clarify my position if I mentioned that a person can be trans and never suffer from GID or be cis and suffer from it? In order for a person to suffer from GID they have to be perceived as other than their actual gender identity. A young trans person who has enlightened parents that allow them to transition socially at a young age would probably not suffer from GID but would experience body dysphoria. An example if a cis person suffering from GID would be Norah Vincent at the end of the expereince she wrote about in “Self-Made Man”.

          • says

            Again, I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying there isn’t an underlying phenomenological reality. A person could suffer from mismatched brain and body in the absence of social existence, but that’s something that a) probably would never happen. Humans are inherently social. And b) wouldn’t manifest as gender. Couldn’t manifest as anything, really. There’d be, for instance, no OTHER body to provide the basis of comparison or represent their desires back to them.

        • says

          Yeah, I imagine such a person would still feel that there is something wrong with their body, but they likely wouldn’t know what that wrongness is exactly, or rather, what would be necessary to fix it. They wouldn’t have knowledge of the existence of a body that is arranged differently to theirs, as theirs would be the only body they know. They would wouldn’t comprehend gender, since to them gender (like everything else) would be unitary: theirs would be the only gender (when there is only one person, there cannot be a binary, or trinary, to so on). Gender, like every other category of difference, only has meaning within a social context, since, being a category of difference, it necessitates the existence of something to be compare oneself to.

          • says

            This was meant as a reply to Natalie’s July 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm reply (I clicked the wrong “reply”), though it’s still in a relevant place…

          • Hope_WA says

            If you sprain your ankle but it doesn’t swell do you need another person as a frame of reference to know it doesn’t feel the way it should? A person with no frame of reference might not be able to describe their pain and certainly wouldn’t be able to alleviate it but that doesn’t mean they would not feel it.

          • says

            I didn’t say they wouldn’t feel it. It’s highly likely they would. But they wouldn’t know how to fix it, or what configuration the offending parts should take. They’d just feel wrong.

            The ankle comparison isn’t much good, because you’d have your previously healthy ankle to compare with. When I was little, I knew there was something amiss with my genitals, but I had no idea what form it should have taken until I had seen an example of typical female genitalia. Then I was able to say that this is what I should have as opposed to what I had. Without the external input, I had no way to conceive of how the wrongness I felt was manifested.

            Other, non-physical aspects of gender only have relevance in interaction with other people. You cannot be thought of as a woman, even by yourself, if you are the only person known to you. The concept of other people would be foreign in itself. The whole notion of men and women and the differences between them, socially constructed or innate, would make no sense at all, because gender is a category of difference. If there is only one person in the world, there is no need for such categories, because there is nothing to differentiate against.

  26. kayjay says

    Thanks, Natalie, for this really informative post. I’m a cis woman, and I find the concept of gender identity really hard to get my head around. I also find the concept of sex identity a bit hard to get my head around, for different reasons. I’d like to ask about this, but just to be totally clear I’d like to state two things which really ought to go without saying but it seems, sadly, do not.
    1.I recognise that what trans people say about their own experience, goes, full stop.
    2.I don’t think that trans people are obliged to explain their experiences to me or to justify themselves in any way.
    That said, if anyone can help me making sense of the questions I have, I’ll be very grateful.

    So, I get what gender identity is not (sexual assignment, gender presentation, alignment with masculine or feminine stereotypes, physical sexed characteristics) but I am left without knowing what it is. I just can’t make anything of the idea that ‘The only thing that is consistent across all individuals with a given gender identity (such as “man”, or “woman”, amongst others), is the deep-seated sense of identification with that concept.’ My understanding of myself as being a woman is (1) that I am physiologically female (i.e. that I have a vagina, uterus, ovaries, breasts, a feminine hormone balance/cycle, and that I’m assuming, on the basis of all this, that I have XX chromosomes), (2) that other people believe that I am female (i.e. I have all or most of those characteristics), (3) that I am fine with that, and (4) that other people treat me a certain way on the basis of that belief together with expectations of what females are/should be like, i.e. gender stereotypes, which I am not fine with (because the content of the gender stereotypes is nasty). I can’t find anything in that which I can think of as a gender identity: the sense I have of identifying with the concept ‘woman’ is not separate from the mere belief I have that I am physiologically female. I feel that if I was physiologically male, then I would be a man. But as things are, there’s nothing about being a woman (apart from sexism!) that I feel any particular ambivalence about, so I’d be reluctant to say that I had a gender identity but that it was somehow other than female. I do think about my gender a lot, but only in the sense of thinking about how I am affected by gender stereotypes. Thinking about being mis-gendered doesn’t help me with this either: if other people mistook me for a man, I would understand this as a case of them having a false belief about the way my body is, which would be unsettling and weird (I know my body is this way, but that person obviously think it looks like it is another way! That’s really weird! Do I look like I think I look?). Still, thinking about that scenario doesn’t throw up a sense of ‘but I’m a woman!’ that is distinct from the thought ‘but I am physiologically female’. And I don’t think I am particularly atypical in this respect. So although I totally respect that some people find gender identity a useful concept for describing their experiences, I am sceptical of the idea that gender identity is something that pretty much everyone can be said to have in some form or other.

    Maybe the idea of sex identity will be more useful. Alex says that sex identity is ‘what my brain is, and what my brain wants my body to look like’. I don’t accept that brains have a sex. So that leaves me with ‘what my brain wants my body to look like’. I don’t really like the idea of my brain having opinions of its own that aren’t mine, so let’s translate that to ‘what I want my body to look like’. Now, given a totally free choice I would prefer to have a male body, because I think female-bodied people get a raw deal in this society. But given what changing my body to be male would involve in practice, I prefer to remain female (not that I normally think about it that much, but if I think about it then that’s what I think, if you get me!). So I do have a view on how I want my body to be, which is that I prefer to be female. In that sense it makes sense to say that my sex identity is female (and that since I am physiologically female, that makes me cis). The problem is that this ‘desire’ I have to be female is totally intellectual (I had to think really hard to find it). It feels to me like I have no kind of opinion about whether I want my body to be male or female that is in any way comparable to the desire that a trans person experiences to have his or her body be the the way he or she wants it to be. In this sense, I find ‘sex identity’, although easier to understand than ‘gender identity’, ultimately a bit unsatisfactory, as it seems very artificial to say that I ‘have’ a sex identity (which is female). It seems to me that a more natural way of expressing the idea behind the concept of ‘sex identity’ is simply this: a trans person is someone who deeply wishes to alter the physiological sex of their body, or who did deeply wish to alter the physiological sex of their body in the past prior to actually doing so; a cis person is someone who experiences no such deep desire. To me, this statement seems clear and accurate, with sex identity being a ‘shorthand’ way of expressing this that doesn’t really add anything conceptually.

    So my question now is, is that an OK way to think about sex identity? Is it acceptable from the perspectives of trans people if I think about it that way, or would thinking about things that way be objectionable/problematic/offensive/missing the point? Especially, I am wondering whether the idea of ‘sex identity’ adds something to the ‘longhand’ description (in terms of deeply held desires) that I’ve failed to pick up on. I’ll emphasize again that this is about my ability to personally make sense of the issue, and not an attempt to suggest to trans people that they change the way they talk about being trans. Thanks again for the excellent article and the many interesting comments.

    (p.s. Apologies for long post, wanted to be clear exactly what I meant!)

    • Rasmus says

      I can’t speak for trans people, but your description of what gender identity (or whatever you wish to call it) means agrees with my understanding.

      I don’t know what the underlying causes are and I think it would be unwise to think that all trans people are trans for the same reason, but it think that biology probably plays a role.

      I think the most convincing evidence is the trail of ruined lives left behind by the practice of performing sexual assignment on intersex infants. It seems to me that the easiest way to explain these personal catastrophes is to postulate that many (if not most) humans have a biological inborn feature in our brain that tells the brain something about how the body that the brain inhabits ought to look like and feel like.

      • kayjay says

        Thanks Rasmus, that’s illuminating – especially the connection to sex assignment performed on intersex babies, that had never occurred to me. (and thanks for reading my mammoth comment, too!)

  27. says

    I read the post three times.

    “Cis readers, how did you determine your gender identity? Did it take until you were old enough to ask what the difference was between boys and girls?”

    You mean sex, not gender.

    “Or did your sense of yourself as male or female precede anything even resembling a precise understanding of what those terms really mean? Didn’t you know which you were before even knowing there were anatomical differences between the sexes? How did you know not to object to your gender assignment?”

    You’re again talking about sex, not gender.

    “You didn’t object, and felt comfortable with the assignment, for the same reasons we did object (or wanted to), and felt uncomfortable. Something deep, that precedes its articulation, precedes the understanding of the social mores of “masculine”/”feminine”, and long precedes any received or theorized definition of what constitutes gender or sex.”

    And then you talk about ‘masculine/feminine’, which are social constructs. This is what we call ‘gender’.

    Question: what’s the definition of ‘biological sex’? And why are you not using this phrase? Why use ‘gender identity’?

    • says

      I’m not saying “biological sex” because that’s NOT what I’m talking about.

      Read the glossary (found in the righthand menus) then reread the sentences you posted. Because, to be honest, I don’t even know what you mean in thinking I’m talking about “sex” in those statements. Sex is biology. Gender is everything else. And I’m NOT talking about biology.

      Some of the answers to what you’re asking are right there in the quotes. For instance, that your sense of comfort with your gender assignment can PRECEDE knowing what, if any, biological differences exist.

      And seriously… don’t talk down to me like you think you’ve got all the proper definitions worked out while I just don’t “get it” when you’re the one who thinks gender is simply “social constructs” of “masculine and feminine”. Dunning Kruger for real.

    • Hope_WA says

      Joy – good luck trying to create a bulletproof definition of biological sex. It is far more complex than most people believe it is. XX and XY are inadequate to describe the situation. The presence or absence or a functioning SRY gene is better, but still doesn’t work in 100% of cases. A person’s genitals are dtermined by the interplay of numerous genes, SRY, SOX-9, FOXL2, and DAX are important but a host of others play a role as well, and then environmental factors also need to be considered. Since there is a growing body ofscientific evidence that not only are certain areas of the brain sexually dimorphic but that the sex of the brain does not always match a person’s sex as determined by their genitals, in cases where sex can be determined by a person’s genitals (which isn’t always possible) then the problem of defining biological sex becomes next to impossible.

      Please do us all a favor and realize that you lack the background necessary to contribute to this discussion, especially if you are going to attempt to argue that Natalie’s point is incorrrect.

  28. says

    “Cis readers, how did you determine your gender identity? Did it take until you were old enough to ask what the difference was between boys and girls? And then when your parents said, “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina”, you checked your genitals, and arrived at the conclusion of your identity? Or did your sense of yourself as male or female precede anything even resembling a precise understanding of what those terms really mean? Didn’t you know which you were before even knowing there were anatomical differences between the sexes? How did you know not to object to your gender assignment?

    You didn’t object, and felt comfortable with the assignment, for the same reasons we did object (or wanted to), and felt uncomfortable. Something deep, that precedes its articulation, precedes the understanding of the social mores of “masculine”/”feminine”, and long precedes any received or theorized definition of what constitutes gender or sex.”

    This is not true for me. I don’t remember exactly, but I have the feeling I just decided I was a girl because everyone said I was a girl. I don’t really feel like my gender matters much to my identity at all. I don’t have some deep inner feeling telling me I’m a girl (or a boy, for that matter). I like my body, and would rather have a female body, but it’s not a big deal to me. If I was magically transformed into a guy, I’d be annoyed but not really upset.

    • Hope_WA says

      @Ettina “If I was magically transformed into a guy, I’d be annoyed but not really upset.”

      The phrase, “That’s unimaginable” gets overused which is a shame because there are some timese that it really does apply. If you were, as you put it, magically transformed into a guy you probably wouldn’t even be annoyed, as long as you had both a male brain and a male body. If, on the other hand, you were given a male body with a your current brain, one that is used to the sensory data it receives from a female body, one that functions properly with an endrocrine system that provides it with far more estrogen than testosterone, you’d be more than simply annoyed. You’d experience two distinct, distressing phenomena. You would have body dysphoria, the mismatch between the actual sensory data your body is transmitting and the data that the brain expects to receive but doesn’t. You would also experience a form of depression as the brain struggled to adjust to a nuerochemical environment that it is unaccoustomed to and not as efficient when exposed to it. The same situation would be true, but would manifest slightly differently, if your were magically given a male brain but kept your current female body.

      • says

        Pretty much.

        Personally, lately I try not to lean too hard into the “female brain” / “male brain” theory, as I feel it’s overstating things and making pretty big leaps from the relatively minor amount of science and evidence we presently have, but nonetheless few things frustrate me as much as cis people “imagining” that they wouldn’t experience dysphoria and it wouldn’t be a “big deal”.

        Transsexual people don’t have to imagine because we HAVE experienced anatomical gender dysphoria and endocrine gender dysphoria, and they definitely ARE Big. Fucking. Deals. They’re the reason we go through all this. Because it’s a nightmare having a body that feels wrong, and being pumped full of hormones that feel like poison. That’s what the medical intervention and HRT and SRS and everything else we might get are about, and really the only thing they’re consistently about: the fact that our bodies and hormones felt awful the way they were (btw, I am speaking of transsexuality here, specifically, not all kinds of transgender experience). Maybe this is because of “female brains”, or maybe because of specifically developmentally different parts of the brain, or maybe both of those things but mixed with epigenetic, environmental or psychological factors, or maybe none of these things at all, but that doesn’t matter: it’s fucking ridiculous for a cis person to sit there and say “I don’t think I’d be bothered, really”, when every actual trans person, everyone who has actually dealt with the non-hypothetical version, are all saying “YEAH YOU WOULD”. Imagine a cis man saying “you know, if I were told to just sit around the house cooking and cleaning all day, while my wife went out and worked, I don’t think I’d mine, really”. Insulting. Imagine a currently able-bodied person saying “I imagine that I wouldn’t really mind not having to work, getting disability checks, having better parking spots, and getting to ride around on a scooter all day”. Insulting. Or imagine a white person saying, “you know, if I were black, I don’t think I’d really mind the fact that my ancestors were slaves. It’d be nice, you know, getting to access all those scholarships and affirmative action things”. INSULTING.

        • Hope_WA says

          Natalie, my post was along the line of “Dysphoria For Dummies”. I agree that “male brain” and “female brain” are oversimplifications but feel that there has been enough research and anecdotal evidence to support the idea that the brain is gendered. As I’ve written before, I do not think gender is a simple binary system as much as it is a bimodal distribution.


  29. Megi says

    Hm, I don’t agree with this fragment:
    “is readers, how did you determine your gender identity? Did it take until you were old enough to ask what the difference was between boys and girls? And then when your parents said, “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina”, you checked your genitals, and arrived at the conclusion of your identity? Or did your sense of yourself as male or female precede anything even resembling a precise understanding of what those terms really mean? Didn’t you know which you were before even knowing there were anatomical differences between the sexes? How did you know not to object to your gender assignment?”
    I my case it was like that: girls have long hair, boys short, so I’m a girl. I can remember it clearly. And I can remember very well that when I was about 4 years old, I thought that I’m a girl o n l y due to hair, and that if my parents decided to cut my hair, I’d be a boy. Objections? Logic is my land, so don’t fight it. (My behaviour was and is rather girl-boy neutral.) How do you reply to that?


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