Over the past couple of years, I’ve witnessed the surge in awareness in mainstream culture regarding the struggles of transgender people, what has been popularly referred to as the “transgender tipping point”. I’ve had friends, family, colleagues, and classmates ask me to help them understand new terms, new ways of thinking about gender, and much more. While I usually try to make explanations as clear and relevant as possible, it is remarkably challenging to do so when discussing a category as naturalized as gender.
What do I mean when I say “naturalized”? To put it clearly, gender is a category of personhood that common knowledge tells us is innate and often connected to biology (anatomy, hormones, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, etc, abilities, personality, etc.). Some go as far as to distinguish between sex and gender, claiming that the former has to do strictly with biology and the latter to do with socialization or individual identity. While it is outside of the scope of a short blog to go into the decades-long debates about the relationship between sex and gender, it will suffice to say that the distinctions between sex and gender are contested, complex, and culturally specific.
Very quickly we see how challenging discussions about transgender people can become, as immediately we are confronted with decades of overt and covert messages about gender, some of them affirming gender self-determination and other messages denying it, or supporting it up to a certain point. We can also see just how entrenched within a binary we are, that even when given avenues of resistance, we still operate within a two-choice model (male/female or masculine/feminine), regardless of how people actually live their lives and make sense of themselves.
Through work and community involvement, I meet a lot of people who want to learn more about how to support gender diversity and gender self-determination, yet a lot of the mainstream information is confusing, incomplete, and heavily skewed towards representing people who have a consistent claim to one clear, ‘true’, binary gender identity. Are these the only people out there placed under the category of transgender? The word itself (transgender) is often used as an umbrella term to include those who may not even use it, or who may make use of it for momentary or strategic reasons. In thinking about all those who may appreciate a more nuanced approach to the discussion – those both outside of and within feminist, queer and trans communities – I will offer some questions further below to bring to light some ideas that deserve attention.
I firmly believe that people should have the right to gender self-determination. I also believe just as firmly that we should question the very terms of that self-determination, not to limit people’s options, but rather, to expand them. This is the difference between my critical questions and questions that seek to reinforce binary gender norms, or to deny people the right to gender self-determination. This self-determination may appear as a desire to access medical transition, to socially transition genders, to change one’s clothing and affect, to engage in study and reflection, to resist relational expectations in day-to-day interactions, or it may not even be recognizable to others at all.
It is also very difficult to write about my own sense-making of gender, as I know that so many who may be reading this have had to struggle, fighting for the right to exist or to make choices to mold themselves into an image that fits them, that they love to see and feel, that they want others to acknowledge and respect. Simply put, we seek a sense-of-self that feels like home, even if only in fleeting moments. Sometimes it feels impossible to write about gender and not offend, upset, or disrupt; yet disruptions are often necessary in a world that constantly demands obedience to official narratives. I anticipate there are others who do not identify as transgender or gender non-conforming who may also resonate with some elements of the struggles illustrated in today’s post. I write remembering how challenging it has been made to be and become.
Are gender norms the same everywhere and for everyone?
I’ve lived in a number of different places, presenting gender in a number of different ways. From this individual, lived experience, I can certainly say that gender norms shift from place to place, as well as over time. Having been exposed to social change work around the world, I’ve also come to realize that many feminist projects that seek to address gendered violence also fall into the logic of assuming universal gender categories and universal gender struggles. What it means to be a man, a woman, gender non-conforming, intersex (people who cannot be easily categorized as male or female), third gender, and more is so particular from place to place. Given these diverse realities, we also have to see how resistance to gender norms are particular as well, meaning that transgender identities in the U.S. are unique to gender regulation here – which doesn’t mean that trans people don’t exist elsewhere, it only means that they may relate to gender differently than we do. This means that depending on class, race, ability, sexuality, age, language, region, nationality, spiritual practices and beliefs, how a person practices gender and how that gender is recognized and regulated will look different. Our analyses of transgender issues should reflect this reality and we should not universalize transgender, gender non-conforming, third gender, or intersex experiences, and not only across location, but through history as well.
What is gender identity?
The common response to this question usually illustrates a continuous and clear sense of one’s internal gendered self as either male or female that coheres by age four. While many people may experience this, many others do not. Additionally, the way we use the term “gender identity” is relatively new and dates back to the mid-1900s. Confronted with the failure of the medical establishment to develop meaningful guidelines for deciding how to surgically or hormonally alter the bodies of intersex infants, a few medical professionals decided to rely on people’s own sense of gender, which came to be referred to as gender role or gender identity. After the idea of a stable gender identity became more widely accepted among physicians, alongside the technological advancements in aesthetic surgery and endocrinology, more people began to strategically make use of this narrative in order to pursue medical gender self-determination. People choose to medically transition for a number of reasons: to externally affirm an internal feeling of gender, to achieve increased safety in public because of a history of violence against androgynous people, to seriously experiment with new ways of being, to personally and politically resist gender norms, and much more.
Gender identity also relies on the idea of a mind-body split; a person can have a mental sense of gender that is not consonant with the appearance of their body to themselves and others. This idea has been debated through the centuries within Western cultures, with few conclusions. From my own research into these debates, as well as from exposure to other cultural ways of being and knowing, I’m not convinced that the mind and body are split. Given my own immense psychosomatic connections, I just cannot believe that minds and bodies are not intimately interconnected. Furthermore, I also know that the logic of body-mind consonance may not resonate with everyone – why is there not ideological space to experiment with body-mind dissonance that refuses resolution, and to have those practices and senses-of-self supported as well? New research also shows that the notion of “male brains” and “female brains” creates a false divide, and that no single brain is fully male or female, but that everyone’s mind has a diversity of functions and features, making each person cognitively androgynous to one degree or another.
Where do gender non-conforming, third gender, and intersex youth and adults fit into the picture?
Increased awareness about transgender people has been important for those who have a clear and continuous expression of binary gender, but it has not served those whose sense of gender is not clear (within a binary framework), who are androgynous by choice or not, who live in third and fourth gender categories within their cultural beliefs and practices, or those who have not been given the right to sex or gender ambiguity or self-determination by medical professionals, parents, and communities. Many cultures, both presently and historically, have had gender categories that were neither male nor female, that were seen as in flux, and that had particular social or spiritual importance. Systems of binary gender do not recognize fluidity and androgyny as legitimate ways of being and thinking, and this has had devastating effects on many youth and adults.
During this time of increased awareness about transgender rights, it is also important that we think about the impact these rigid ideas of transgender and gender identity may have on young people. Childcare professionals can attest to the ways that infants, toddlers, and young children have complex ideas about gender and gender categories. While historically, many have believed the idea that gender identity develops by age four, I have trouble believing that a four year old’s ideas about gender are the same as adult’s – not to place them within a hierarchy, but to recognize that children’s cultures are distinct from our own as adults. One concern I have is that young people will be coerced into not only accepting, but expressing desire for medical interventions on their bodies without being given other options, similar to how intersex infants and children were operated upon without their knowledge or consent. While it is quite complicated to question a person’s claim to gender identity – especially because they are young – it is also essential that young people are given a fuller range of perspectives on gender so that they are not left with either-or decisions that frighten them into claiming a clear sense of gender to assuage adult and community concerns regarding androgyny or experimental gender. Children do have a right to self-determination, but we cannot always take claims to identity to be the final say, especially when translating across age, experience, and biases towards gender normativity. Youth, families, and communities need support when standards of gender are questioned or made unstable.
Are transgender people the only ones with “gender dysphoria”?
Gender dysphoria is a term in psychology and psychiatry used to pathologize a person’s experience of discomfort or uncertainty in relation to expectations of binary gender norms of appearance and behavior. From what I have observed, many people experience gender dysphoria; the difference is that transgender people are given specific medical and psychological language and solutions for these experiences, though non-transgender people – also called “cisgender” – may seek aesthetic surgery or hormonal treatment as well, for reasons not explicitly named as gender dysphoria. Transgender and gender non-conforming people hold the cultural responsibility to explicitly deal with gender dysphoria, which is a very heavy burden to carry, given how many rigid and contradictory expectations many of us hold about binary gender. Working with middle school students has also given me a particular perspective, as I see many similar struggles between middle school-aged youth and adults in transition; I say this not to infantilize adults, but to draw connections between groups of people who are in various states of social and bodily shift and how little support there is to make sense of these experiences and shifts of gender. I’ve been witness, as well, to adult male bodybuilders who similarly obsess over their gender presentation, seeking to portray the ultimate manifestations of Western masculinity. Seeking a sense of gender security seems to be a never-ending battle for so many, and more explicitly so for trans and gender non-conforming people. While the consequences are very different across genders for not fulfilling the expectations of a given gender role (and these are important to learn about), consequences nevertheless exist for us all.
If I’m a feminist, shouldn’t I find out which people are most vulnerable to anti-transgender violence and support them?
For decades, some feminists have heavily invested in splicing up marginalized groups to decide which ones to support and which ones to silence, ignore, or demonize; simultaneously, other feminists have invested themselves in expanding their approach and methods to solidarity work, leading to important and impactful shifts in politics and practice. Some of these harmful divides have occurred along lines of race, nationality, class, spiritual belief and practice, and even gender. For a long time, many cisgender feminists have discriminated against transgender and gender non-conforming people because they believed some of them to have “masculine energy” that was contaminating their pure feminist spaces. While there are many cultural and spiritual practices that foreground elements of divine femininity, it is also important to problematize these ideas as they are put to use by Western, U.S. feminist communities. Who gets to decide who and what is masculine or feminine? How do our ideas of masculinity and femininity reproduce binary thinking and ignore the complexity of gender for so many?
Cisgender feminists have a long and complicated history of wanting to support groups of people because they claim to identify with the oppression of those groups. This has resulted in the collapse of the struggles of women of color in the U.S., queer women, Third World women’s issues, and many others – including transgender people – into cisgender women’s narratives of oppression, which can often defer to norms of binary gender and heteronormativity. Past and current generations of feminists excluded trans women because they said they were not real women; past and current feminists also accuse trans men of betrayal and of becoming oppressors. We need to learn to distinguish between transgender people asking for resources and attention to address issues their communities face and cisgender people deciding which of these groups are more deserving and more authentic, or even worse, deciding which groups to silence or not based on how much they claim to resonate with a marginal group’s experience. The ground of ‘sameness’ is treacherous and violating; claims of difference can also lead to their own violent ends. Creating divisions between transmasculine and transfeminine people may make some feel included, and yet it is far more likely to exclude many more others, including androgynous, third gender, and intersex people. We need to “queer” our perspectives on gender, even in feminist, queer, and transgender spaces.
It is crucial that we come to acknowledge the many complicated reasons people present gender in the ways they do, and to resist the cultural compulsion to splice diverse groups into simplistic, binary categories that ignore forms of gender self-determination. Additionally, because it is incredibly difficult to use traditional social science and statistical methods to gain accurate information about different groups of transgender and gender non-conforming people, we should be vigilant and careful as we attempt to distribute attention and resources in ways that do not perpetuate oppression-olympics politics. Learning about a diversity of ways people are harmed by binary gender norms can only help us to better address both urgent and long-term needs.
Confronting androgyny with hospitality is not our strong suit; culturally, we are made very uncomfortable by ambiguities of many kinds in the United States. I can see that when people are confronted with androgyny or gender ambiguity, all the unconscious messages of gender flood into our conscious thought and many of us are made uncomfortable as we struggle to acknowledge just how immensely our perceptions of gender shape our thoughts and interactions with another person. Additionally, because gender is constructed in social and relational settings, how we interact with others based on assumptions of gender also shapes how we see ourselves. Policing gender ambiguity in others is also about policing gender ambiguity in ourselves.
It is my sincere hope that the questions above can come closer to the fore of our increased awareness of gender diversity and self-determination. I say this as someone whose life has been so immensely shaped by gendered expectations and my resistance to them; it can be challenging to discuss because these issues are charged and because people have had to struggle through so much adversity just to be able to stake a claim to a sense-of-self that will be recognized and respected. It is with this in mind that I ask that we all make space to delve a bit deeper into these questions, so that practices of being and becoming do not have to be so constricted or policed by those who benefit most from the imposition of binary gender norms.