What Is Gender? Trans Inclusion & Asking Good Questions

A good question is a thing of tremendous value and use. Continuing the conversation on nonbinary people and the trans umbrella, genderneutral offers a great question:

Perhaps the question ought not be “what is trans” or “who belongs under the trans umbrella” but “what is gender, and what changes in our understanding of gender need to occur so that all trans people are included in the equation and are understood as part f the whole”.

This question is much deeper and much more difficult to answer. I think genderneutral is right that this line of inquiry is essential to the acceptance and inclusion of diverse trans people, so I’d like to offer an answer of my own. I would love to hear other answers, so please feel free to share. This post is part 1 of my answer; look for part 2 later this week.

Let’s take a closer look at genderneutral’s question. I see a few queries here (I hope genderneutral will let us all know if I’ve misunderstood):

  • What is gender?
  • How can we understand gender in a way that includes all trans people?
  • How can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?

These are some heavyduty questions with far-reaching implications. It would probably take a book–nay, a bookshelf–to offer a complete treatment of these issues. But if you think I’d let that little detail stop me from giving a bunch of sweeping answers in a couple of blog posts, then you, my friend, have probably not read many blog posts.

What is gender?

Gender is a culture’s set of norms and roles associated with sex–the state of being male, female or something else. Gender is highly variable across cultures and times. Cultures have different conceptions of masculinity, femininity and androgyny. Not only that, cultures recognize different numbers of sexes and genders, and have different ways of determining the sex and gender of an individual. And yet, as far as I know, all cultures seem to have there own set of norms and roles that we could call gender.

Why is that? My guess is that since it is so widespread, gender probably serves some important functions in our communities. Some of those functions are downright awful–for example, in many cases, as is well known, a primary result of the gender system is to consolidate power in the hands of some people at the expense of others. The gender system also intersects with all manner of other systems–including religion, racism, colonialism, economics, etc.–often producing horrible violence and inequality.

At the same time, human beings seem to have deep longings to express ourselves through gender. We have strong feelings about our genders (or lack thereof), and we cannot change the way we feel for any reason. We want others to honor that and to see us how we see ourselves. For some reason, from a young age, for the vast majority of people, it seems we just are some gender (whether we can say so or not). To me, this suggests that gender is just part of what it means to be human. We bring intrinsic inclinations to the table, which get filtered and expressed through our particular culture and context.

This is not to imply that we are all alike, that gender is some variable we can simply measure for each person. I see gender as similar to spoken language–a way of communicating that varies across cultures and is fundamental to what it means to be human. Just like some people have an unusual voice or are deaf, some people have atypical genders or just don’t “hear” gender the way most other people do. That doesn’t make those people inferior in any way, just a bit unusual. It also doesn’t make gender or spoken language less central to the human story overall. Trans people of all varieties have always been part of that story, whether our communities have recognized us or not.

Another way to think about it is to view gender in terms of archetypes–themes that reverberate through human consciousness like recurring dreams. Themes of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny, as well as personas like the warrior, wise woman and gender-variant healer, come up over and over in the human experience. For this reason they often carry great import for individuals and communities. Like other deeply rooted themes such as love and home, they have an aspect of universality (or how would we even talk about them?) and an aspect of extreme specificity (or we would all be the same, which we most certainly are not).

We could think of these themes like melodies we find ourselves humming. We would then be free to allude, borrow, experiment, improvise. We sing in voices that are all our own–yet we also sing in the musical traditions in which we’ve been steeped. Our compositions are therefore never total mimicry, nor are they totally new creations ex nihilo. We sing to create within limitations, as much to follow rules as to break them. Most importantly, we sing to hear, and to be heard.


For more of my views on what gender is, check out this post on femininity and masculinity. I also address the issue in this post on what it means to be transgender.

Coming up: I tackle the rest of genderneutral’s question. How can we include all trans people in our understanding of gender? How can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?

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4 comments

  1. scenedesigns

    “I see gender as similar to spoken language–a way of communicating that varies across cultures and is fundamental to what it means to be human.” – Love this analogy. I think that gender is absolutely one of the very first forms of communication. However as we have evolved as a species, so too has the meaning of gender. It’s crucial for an accepted understanding of this in order for the inclusive of trans people in society.

  2. Pingback: Sunday links, 7/27/14 | Tutus And Tiny Hats
  3. brianpansky

    A few bits here seem to fit with a hypothesis I have about gender perception:

    “Just like some people have an unusual voice or are deaf, some people have atypical genders or just don’t “hear” gender the way most other people do.”

    Indeed. This reminds me of another thing I was going to use to explain my hypothesis, some people can’t hear the difference between an L and an R sound, and some can:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/20/science/old-brains-can-learn-new-language-tricks.html

    I think not everyone’s perception of gender matches, and we might need to treat it similarly to situations where two people both view a third person yet one perceives the third person to be “cute” or “sexy” or “beautiful” and the other person does not.

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