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”.
THERE IS NEVER A “WHY” SOMEONE TRANSITIONS.
(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.