In a better world, no one would be transgender.
Let me back up a little here. What makes a person transgender? I recently wrote a simple definition:
Does your gender identity and/or expression fall outside the bounds prescribed by your society? You are transgender.
This is a commonsense and widely accepted definition. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality writes (pdf):
Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.
So transgender does not describe the state of having a particular combination of physical and psychological traits (e.g., being a woman with XY chromosomes). Nor does it describe a particular gender identity (e.g., a person who is neither a man nor a woman). Transgender describes a sociopolitical location. Transgender people are those whose genders are taboo.
In a better world, all people would be free to inhabit their bodies with dignity. No one would be ridiculed, assaulted or killed for being too feminine, too masculine or too androgynous. No one would be the target of interpersonal and institutional violence because they have an atypical body or gender expression. Therefore: no one would be transgender.
Now, so long as there are men and women, there would still be men born with ovaries and women born with testes. There would still be androgynous, agender and other nonbinary people. There would still be statistically rare combinations of physical sex, subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation, including those people we now call transgender, intersex, genderqueer, gay/lesbian/bisexual and asexual.
But transgender is a state of systemic marginalization. To be different and not marginalized is an experience almost unimaginable today. If we were not targeted for our difference, it might mean very little, and certainly something very different. Maybe being transgender would be a bit like being left-handed, having an allergy or having perfect pitch.
Are people who inhabit 3rd, 4th and other genders, in societies that honor them, “transgender”? Would we be “transgender” if the wrong gender had never been imposed on us? If we were never exiled, there would be no journey to make, no border to cross, nothing to transgress, transition or transform. Some people would still utilize hormones and surgery. But without cissexism, that might be a bit like, well, utilizing hormones and surgery is for cisgender people (hormonal birth control, surgery for gynecomastia, etc).
In other words, we would probably still have genders. But we wouldn’t be trans anymore.
A reader writes,
How do people know what gender they really are? What does gender feel like?
Thanks for the interesting questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.
How do people know what gender they really are? The short answer is, it depends. Most people never wonder–they’re raised as a girl or boy and never give it much thought. The trouble arises when a person senses some kind of mismatch from the gender they were assigned. This opens up a lot of questions: Am I trans? Am I the “opposite” gender? Am I a nonbinary gender? Am I uncomfortable with my assigned gender for some other reason?
There is no formula for finding an answer. Each person has to walk their own journey. There are some things one can do to facilitate that journey.
- Be curious. There is a great deal of stigma against gender variance, so just asking these questions can be terrifying and laden with shame. On the other hand, when you ask the questions, you are opening up the possibility of new kinds of happiness, peace and self-knowledge. That is pretty awesome! Can you get in touch with the part of you that is curious about your true gender?
- Experiment. Try on elements of different roles. Describe yourself with different words. Change your clothing or your haircut. As you experiment, listen carefully to the feedback you get from yourself. Notice thoughts, emotions, sensations, the way your body feels, the way you behave. When do you feel the worst? The best? When do you feel most like yourself? By trying things out and observing how you feel, you can find what is right for you.
- Be pragmatic. Find what works and do it. You don’t have to know why, have the perfect label, or fall inside a certain box. You don’t have to have all the answers. All you have to do is be good to yourself and others.
- Have hope. This may be the most important thing. Believing that things can get better, even a little bit better, is essential. Figuring out your gender issues is possible. Living a life you love is possible. You can do this.
I turned a corner in my gender journey when I was able to approach it with curiosity, pragmatism, and a willingness to experiment. I knew I was unhappy in a female role. I had a sense that I wanted to express masculinity. But I had no idea what that would mean in real terms. I was able to acknowledge this to myself and feel hopeful. I thought I might never be really comfortable, but there had to be something I could do to make things better. I thought to myself, I am going to hack the gender system.
Then, I tried things, and I noticed how they made me feel. I slowly cultivated a more and more masculine presentation. The more I expressed my masculinity, the better I felt. I felt happier, more comfortable, more confident, more myself. I continued to follow that thread. I eventually made the choice to transition to male.
What does gender feel like? This is a much trickier question. Gender is social–I know I’m a man because it feels right when I interact with others as a man. Gender is spiritual–I perceive that I have masculine essence, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Gender is psychological–my sense of myself as male is deeply rooted in my mind.
But maybe those answers obscure more than they reveal. The truth is, I don’t really know what gender feels like, in and of itself. It’s an experience and a mystery, shifting across times, places, situations.
I do know what authenticity feels like. I know what health feels like. I know what peace feels like. I know, through trial and error, I feel authentic, healthy and peaceful living my life as a man.
I hope this answers your questions.
Someone is going to try to talk you out of transition. They will probably be someone very close to you, who claims to love you. More than likely, they will not be the only one.
They may be your partner or parent, a relative or close friend. Whoever they are, they will surely come.
This person is going to tell you that you are not really trans. They may tell you that trasngender people are delusional and/or imaginary, or they may compare you to a “really trans” Other, You’re not one of those people. They will marshal whatever demons they can to frighten and paralyze you.
I make no guess as to content of the hearts and minds of these naysayers. Maybe they’re deeply sincere, maybe they’re full of shit. It doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that you are ready for them. This is a question of when, not if.
They can come in any form, and they can use any line of reasoning against your transition. Perhaps they will call on your politics, your commitments, your religion. They may insult you, or they may claim to defend you from insults. They may scream, cry, or whisper. They know you, and they will twist what you love against you. They may even come to you as yourself.
This person has no idea what they are talking about. They have never been you. They are probably moderately to profoundly ignorant about transgender issues. They do not know what is best for you. Do not listen to them.
A useful analogy is the attempt to talk a person out of being gay, lesbian or bisexual. It would never work, and it would be completely contrary to the wellbeing of that person. Many LGB people face this. Sadly, many who would never do this to a LGB person will try to do it to you. In my case, for example, out-and-proud lesbian and bisexual women were the fiercest opponents of my transition.
There are some signs by which you can know them. The surer you get about transition, the more dead-set they are against it. They claim to know what is best for you, to know you better than you know yourself. They argue with you, throwing your own memories in your face. Things you’ve said and done, your likes and dislikes, your personal qualities, all become proof and fodder, indications you cannot be trans. They deny that your experiences even exist. They dismiss and demonize other transgender people. The things they say are extremely painful. Your stomach twists and then turns over. There is a dissonant murmur in your bones when they speak. Yet your own mind turns against you. You seriously suspect that they are right.
They may even convince you, for awhile. But hours, weeks, or years later, the truth will come back, over and over. Do not argue with them. This is their game. You cannot win. But you can transition.
Note that this is a different beast from someone merely sharing their reactions to your transition. I am not talking about when someone expresses fear, confusion, shame, guilt, anger or grief–or pride, happiness, love or relief. I am talking about when someone denies your gender identity, questions your judgement, downplays your dysphoria, remarks that many people dislike their body, slanders trans people as a group, imposes a religious or political purity test, scours your life for evidence that you really are your assigned gender, wields whatever leverage they have to try to control you, mocks you, rejects you, implores you, ignores you. They may claim to be just sharing their feelings, of course. It can be subtle or overt, dressed as a sheep or plainly a wolf.
Nothing they say means that you are not trans. On the contrary, that you find yourself here, that someone is telling you these things, is a strong indication that you are trans. If they have to say you’re not, you probably are; if you weren’t, they would never mention it.
Don’t me wrong–it is entirely possible to be confused about your gender and/or trans status. Transition may or may not be right for you. I have no way of knowing. That’s the whole point: only you can know.
If you are trans, then transition–in whatever form that takes for you–is an irreplaceable part of your self-actualization. How can you know? Do not listen to the voices. Do not listen to the voices of the naysayers or the advocates of any variety. Do not listen to the voices in your head, those that berate you or those that long for better futures. Do not listen to my voice.
Listen to the voice that is not a voice. Obey that impulse alone.
Skye83 expresses frustration as a genderless person in the trans* community, which is often dominated by trans men and women. (The way they explain this might be bothersome for some trans folks.) They also describe themself as nonbeliever in gender who would like to see gender eradicated. They ask,
What do femininity and masculinity mean? I wish someone would give me an answer to that question… but no one does!!
I have actually said this myself, numerous times, verbatim. Reading it in skye83’s words made me realize I now have an answer. Below is an improved and expanded version of the answer I gave in the linked thread.
Femininity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with women in a given cultural and historical context. Masculinity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with men in a given cultural and historical context. Androgyny refers to a blending of these culturally specific feminine and masculine behaviors and attributes. It is also possible for behaviors and attributes to be neutral or associated with some other gender.
Masculinity and femininity are social constructs that vary across place and time. The categories of “men” and “women”–and any other genders recognized in a given society–are also social constructs that vary a great deal. Looking at the historical and anthropological records, I notice that the vast majority of human communities (all, as far as I know) make use of these constructs in some way.
The content of the constructs varies widely. What is considered “feminine” or “masculine” may be very different, even opposite, from one society to another. We can also see changes in gender norms and roles in the same society across generations.
What doesn’t vary so much is that gender exists in some form. People make meanings from the human body, sexuality, personality, reproduction, work, and related social roles. I would call this combination gender.
I see gender as similar to language. It’s a tool for meaning, communication and social organization that is part of the expressive repertoire of our species. Just like languages vary tremendously among groups, so does gender. People from different communities may be as confused by one another’s gender norms as they are by one another’s speech. Nonetheless, each is likely to have and use an idiom. Perhaps we are born prepared to learn gender norms, just like we’re born prepared to acquire language. The fact that it is so widespread suggest that, like language, gender is probably doing something pretty important for us. People seem to have strong intrinsic inclinations that pull them toward particular ways of being in the world, which they express through these culturally specific channels.
This view of gender has several implications. One is that gender is probably not going anywhere. Another is that, while we may be stuck with gender, we’re not stuck with the status quo. It follows that we are obliged to seek a gender system that is as egalitarian and nonviolent as possible.
If gender is part of how we communicate as humans, I think this suggests that everyone has a right to use this language. Therefore, we should seek a gender system that maximizes expressive opportunity. A good gender system doesn’t just avoid singling out some people for oppression, marginalization and punishment. Violence is a huge, terrifying problem with most gender systems, and it’s still the most pressing issue we face. But it’s not the only one. A good gender system gives as many people as possible the chance to truly express ourselves–to inhabit our bodies, relationships, and communities in an authentic way, to live in alignment with our deepest selves.
What do femininity and masculinity mean to you?
Thanks to Ieshia for my first reader question! Ieshia asks what it means to be transgender. I think that this is really more about what it means to have a gender at all. Ieshia writes,
I never understood what being transgender actually means and it’s my own fault because I have not tried hard enough to learn. […] I recently saw this comment under a male v. female brain article and it seemed to help more than anything I have learned, is this true though,
“Transgenderism as a phenomenon does not seem to correlate with societal notions of gender performance. In other words, for most transgender people experiencing body dysphoria (or, indeed, dysmorphia) the condition is a physical one: Their brain expects a certain anatomy. It does not seem to be a question of looking or acting a specific way.
An example of this is the fact that trans-men (men born with biologically female bodies) experience a ‘phantom penis’ in a large number of instances — they have the experience of their brain expecting a penis to be there, but not finding one, which any male-bodied man should appreciate would be cause for distress.
So, in summary, transgenderism is orthogonal to gender performance, even if many transgender individuals find it a relief to bring their social, performed gender in line with their expected gender.” […]
[Edited for length. Ieshia’s comment here. Unable to locate the comment she quotes.]
Great question! The short answer is, yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. One’s internal sense of being male, female or otherwise is separate from one’s outward expression of masculinity, femininity or androgyny. Many transgender people experience dysphoria–the pain caused from a mismatch between a person’s physical sex and subconscious sex. At the same time, “transgender” is an umbrella term, and there is a lot of diversity in transgender experiences.
The better we understand how gender really works, the better we can understand why some people are trans. The best model for gender I have seen is the intrinsic inclinations model, created by Julia Serano, who among other things is a feminist activist, biologist and transsexual woman. She describes the model in her book Whipping Girl, a must-read for anyone learning about trans issues.
Serano suggests we think of subconscious sex (AKA gender identity), gender expression and sexual orientation as intrinsic inclinations–deep, persistent parts of who we are, likely created by a complex interaction of many factors. Each of these shows a continuous range in the population–for example, we observe masculine, androgynous and feminine gender expressions. Each correlates with physical sex–for example, most people assigned male at birth have a male subconscious sex, a masculine gender expression and a sexual attraction to women. Correlation is not causation, however, so people can have any combination of traits. Serano offers this model as a more accurate account of human diversity than either biological essentialist or social constructionist models. (Serano, 2007, 99-100)
Here’s the takeaway: We all have a body, including hormones, chromosomes, primary and secondary sex traits, and so on. We were all assigned a sex at birth based on our appearance (the “It’s a girl!” moment). We all have a subconscious sex–a kind of map in our brains that expects a male, female or androgynous body. We all have a gender expression–ways of moving through social roles that are most comfortable for us. And we all have a sexual orientation–attraction to men, women, and/or non-binary people, or to no one at all.
Most people fall into one of two categories: female assigned at birth, female-typical body, feminine, and attracted to men, or male assigned at birth, male-typical body, masculine and attracted to women.
At the same time, all possible exceptions occur. We have gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual people, who all have uncommon sexual orientations. We have masculine women and feminine men. Edited to add: Another important group to note is intersex people, whose bodies differ from the standard male and female categories. Apologies for not including this on first writing.
And we have transgender folks. “Transgender” is an umbrella that includes people whose subconscious sex and/or gender expression are exceptional. Many trans folks are like those in Ieshia’s comment–people whose subconscious sex differs (or once differed, before transition) from their physical body, causing dysphoria. Some trans people do not experience body dysphoria, but are exceptional in terms of gender expression in ways that go beyond being a tomboyish woman or flamboyant man. For example, someone may have no dysphoria but may consider themselves a member of a third gender.
Just like the general population, trans* people span the full range of possibilities. To take trans men, for example: what we have in common is that we were assigned the sex female at birth and have a male subconscious sex. Trans men may be gay (attracted to men), straight (attracted to women), bi or queer, and masculine, feminine, or androgynous, and may or may not have taken a wide variety of transition steps. The same goes for trans women. This is explains why some trans women are butch lesbians, for example, which can be a bit confusing to some people. If you understand the relationships of physical sex, subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation, it makes perfect sense.
Does that clear things up? Anyone have anything to add?