My Submission to TomGirl #3
What’s in a Gender?
I grew up in LA, one of the most “plastic” places on the planet. Just about everyone strives to attain the preconceived notions of beauty, status, and what it means to be male of female. It’s at Muscle Beach, on the lap-band billboards, in the plastic surgery clinics, gang life, and the numerous malls peppered across the city. Image is everything, and everyone does their best to look sharp and get done up to be the best guy or girl they can be. I was raised to value these ideals through capital and culture. Growing up in a black family, being a man or woman has even more heat attached to it, because the opinion of the entire race is on the line. Everyone in the United States internalizes what it means to be a strong black sister or brother versus someone who is “hood” or “ratchet”. If you exist any other way, you are ostracized as “acting white” and betraying everyone. And some black folks seem to think that gender and sexual diversity is just something “those crazy white people invented” to confuse and ruin our culture. I fell short of these expectations very early on, which forced me to take a critical look at it all.
I don’t think gender is an objective phenomenon. The more I grow into my queer identity, the less it seems like a mere fact of nature. That’s the way I’ve felt on many fronts really – government, religion and the supernatural, institutionalized education, capitalism. These are all systems that rose out of the idea that there is only one true or natural way to exist. To venture outside of these normative worlds and live differently is viewed as being “out of touch with reality”. But in a global society that is heavily codified, oppressed, and surveilled all for the sake of maintaining its dominance, accusations of losing reality should be reversed. This “nature” that status quo systems claim to have supreme knowledge of is diverse. It’s murky territory, with multitudes of outcomes. Through my gender and goals, I aim to grow within those outcomes. The only alternative is to stamp out my existence.
With that being said, I am still a result of the reigning society and its values. In the call for submissions I remember reading about a desire to talk about gender that goes “beyond traditional ‘female’ and ‘male’, trans*, gender fluid, etc.”. However, I don’t know how else to discuss gender other than through the binary and its offshoots. And while I think that the categories of male and female as separate states of being is a farce, I do think there is validity in the argument of biology affecting gender development. I am not versed in gender studies, but I’ve read that gender development is a balance of “nature and nurture” – biology and sociology. Gender is very nuanced, and is influenced by cultural values, but also by hormones. This is because hormones – estrogen, testosterone, and their precursors – affect mood. Mood in turn influences temperament and behavior. It’s the responses to these moods and behaviors, within yourself or from others, that determines whether someone maintains a binary gender or goes a different path. It’s all about interpretation, and that’s where I think sociology enters the issue. Although it barely skims the top of trans identity, an article worth checking out is “The Sex Hormome Secrets” by Sherry Baker in Psychology Today.
In the index of a new book out called “The Genderbook”, I noticed a grouping of topics that can help clarify what I mean. In the upper right of the index are bubbles reading , “Identity, Perception, Expression”.
I’m sure the full book has more information to offer, but these bubbles can interact in many ways. The way one expresses gender, in relation to biological characteristics, sparks internal or external perceptions of what that expression means. The balance between perception and expression (how you feel versus what others think) determines gender identity. This is more or less a cyclical process.
(push pull of expression vs. biology) affects–> (perception; yours others) affects–> (identity) affects–> expression
Perhaps for binary trans folks, the push and pull between expression and biology affects internal perception alone. So despite external perceptions and forces, their identity remains opposite of what they were assigned at birth. I assume that cisgender people go through a cycle of identity informants as well. Otherwise there wouldn’t be such an insane focus on different toys, perfumes, fashion, and body modification through exercise, dieting, and surgery. There may be less of a disconnect between expression and biological characteristics, but still enough to change the way they carry themselves and how they look. It’s a case by case situation. All that I can confirm is that my gender identity as a non-binary trans person is in constant revolution, which may change depending on if I can get medical transition.
Now, I’ve noticed the next graphic to be held in high esteem in some trans circles, which is opposite to what I just shared.
I understand and share the sentiment behind this anti-venn diagram. It’s a response to a claim most cis people make that the only factors involved in gender are genitalia, chromosomes, and sexual preference. The claim goes on further to assert that these factors can only naturally lead to a straight/gay cisgender identity.
It’s a horrible argument that gets widespread support from science, medicine, and most of society because of the invisibility and erasure of numerous identities, primarily that of trans folks. The argument of what is “natural”, but really just normative, additionally denies the existence of intersex, bi/polysexual, and asexual individuals. It completely disregards the gender and sexual diversity that has existed throughout cultures, especially indigenous ones, throughout human history. Do you see what I mean about who’s really out of touch with reality? All of this exists, it’s real, and there are millions of people who deviate from the “norm” and yet we get attacked and targeted as freaks.
But to posit the idea that gender, sexuality, and biological sex exist in vacuums all to themselves is likewise harmful and confusing. True, gender isn’t solely about “what’s in between your legs”, but for some people it plays a hand in figuring out identity. None of us are static individuals, no matter how solid certain parts of our identity feel. Sexual preference can also play a role in gender development. The way sexual behavior is expressed, and how it is reconciled in relation or opposition to biological sex affects how you feel about what your gender means. There are trans folks who transition because they are attracted to “the opposite sex”, but in a way that doesn’t conform to heteronormative sexual desire or behavior. If sex characteristics and sexuality didn’t matter, then there also wouldn’t be such things as butch lesbians, sissies, studs and so on. They may have begun as slurs, but these are legitimate identities that are cherished by the people who carry them.
There are so many possibilities when it comes to gender identity, so many theories. But what matters most is lived experience and exploration. I think that the problem with this debate again goes back to the structure of most societies; of westernism and its rigid expectations, often held to the point of violence and criminalization for those who don’t comply. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on any of us. Because that’s what these conversations end up coming to – a collective “what’s going on?” with our bodies and desires, since there is no talk of these possibilities growing up and in the culture as whole. Due to the coporatization of our lives and identities, telling us that there are only a few “normal” ways to exist, panic and pathologization ensues for everyone on the fringes. If our lives weren’t so restricted to begin with, gender development would be no different than height or eye color. But then again, it was just last century that the government was pushed into recognizing that differences in skin color and ethnicity are part of what it is to be human. Even today we all still struggle with European beauty standards and the rise of guilt and shame for being anything other than straight, thin, white, and “well adjusted”. It is just barely acceptable to be gay, but that too is dominated by white heteronormativity and a desire to be just as vanilla as the neighbors next door.
Without the segregated bathrooms and stores, girls or boys only sleepovers and schools, these discussions on gender wouldn’t be as necessary. Without the gendered toy commercials, school uniforms, workforce positions, and the nuclear family, this gender thing wouldn’t be a big deal. Until that changes, that’s what gender will be about for people who aren’t cis. Biology, sexuality, and all that I mentioned before holds sway with the gender you grow into. But unfortunately, gender for the “others” in society is mores about the perception piece – reconconciling personal identity in the face of an onslaught of normative ideals.