Friday 3 June 2011

My Gender Identity

Sally Outen
Posted by Sally Outen

“I totally accept that very young children can feel constrained in terms of their gender roles, and feel that the way they are expected to behave (dependent on being male or female) does not match how they would prefer to be. I felt like that growing up. I hated the idea that I was supposed to be feminine.”

Guess the writer? Yes, it's self-identified radical feminist Julie Bindel, whose views on trans issues don't seem to have moved on very much since her first article on the subject was published, in 2003. This is a fresh quote, from the Guardian's online Comment is Free section a week ago; the article itself was a discussion concerning the parents who have decided not to announce the sex of their newborn baby – and hey, personally I agree with a lot of what Bindel had to say there. Sadly, in the comments (yes, I know... Rule 1: Never Read The Comments), she was led to repeat her standard transsexualism-is-just-a-cultural-construction theory. (If you'd like the full context, the quote I've chosen was in direct response to a question about how she'd explain gender dysphoria in very young children.)

Now, the thing I find so impressive about this particular quote is that it's so nearly an example of the But That Happens To Me Too! method of derailing. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it only fails to qualify for the reason that, for me at least, it spectacularly misinterprets what I actually feel in experiencing myself as trans.

In my first contribution to this blog, I made a case for why any one person's sexual or gender identity shouldn't be taken as an invalidation of any other person's sexual or gender identity. In this post, I'd like to talk about what my gender identity actually means to me, and why that doesn't have to stand in direct opposition to the aspiration that Bindel and many other radical feminists refer to as the abolition of gender.

Oh – quick disclaimer: when I'm talking about my gender identity, I'm talking about my gender identity. Other people's gender identities may not work like this.

Anyway, in this latest Guardian piece, Bindel points out that “[p]eople regularly confuse sex with gender. Sex is the biological and physiological characteristics that define male and female. Gender is learned behaviour that society considers appropriate – a set of rules laid down to benefit men and keep women in our place.

So, we're deconstructing gender. That's fine by me. I don't follow exactly the same definition of gender that Bindel does (and I believe that this semantic divergence is the primary reason for the apparent incompatibility between some forms of radical feminism and transfeminism). As our society constructs its view of gender around a cluster of definitions of biological sex*, I'd say that those definitions of biological sex are part of our society's gender construct. Clumped together with these biological cues, we have a number of social concepts as well – various ideas to do with performativity, traditional gender roles, sexuality... ideas that our construct of gender has accumulated like a giant katamari.

I think that we can agree that deconstructing gender doesn't necessitate destroying the concepts involved; instead, it's about freeing them from one another. Somebody still needs to do the washing-up – it's just that there's no reason why it should always be a woman.

Those who express suspicion towards transsexual people often try to characterise us as being unable or unwilling to accept that it's OK to be a mild-mannered man who wears skirts, or to be a woman who likes cars and other women – i.e. that we haven't deconstructed gender properly. Maybe I'd be able to see the funny side of that suggestion, if I didn't find it so very patronising. I have invested a great deal of thought into deconstructing gender (it's difficult not to, if you're trans), I understand that it would be perfectly legitimate (and, in fact, conveniently subversive) for me to be a feminine, feminist bisexual man – and I understand that my life might have been significantly easier if I had been. The problem is that I experience myself as being a woman.

And I'm going to say it. If you haven't made allowances for that possibility, I don't think *you've* deconstructed gender very well. And I'm not – quite – accusing you of not having thought about it properly – I'm just suggesting that there might be elements of gender that you've never needed to know about. Perhaps you don't experience a strong sense of what many trans people refer to as gender identity. Perhaps having gender identity is analogous to having kidneys, or privilege – you only notice it when something's wrong. Perhaps some people just don't experience gender identity full-stop.

It's difficult to articulate exactly how my gender identity actually feels, at least, for the benefit of people who aren't consciously experiencing anything like it. It's just there. It isn't about wanting to be traditionally feminine, or to be allowed to do things that society labels the preserve of women. It's more abstract than that. The closest approximation I can find within the constraints of cis-normalised language is that of a sense of belonging, or of group identity, perhaps. And I don't even believe that my
identification of those who make up *the group to which I belong* derives from socially constructed ideas about 'appropriate' gender roles – in fact, it's the biological cues that I find myself consciously having to override when I realize that someone identifies differently to how I'd assumed, and certainly my own sense of gender dysphoria was focussed around my body rather than my behaviour. However, it's definitely fair to say that my gender identity influenced my response to gender roles and socialisation as I grew up. *Influenced*, not *was influenced by*. So, while Bindel may be correct to identify an association between gender identity and traditional femininity in some trans women, I believe that she's got the cause and effect the wrong way round – we can be socialised into femininity just as other women are.

That's not to say that trans women are, as a group,
über-feminine in our behaviour, or – the issue that seems to get all the attention – in our appearance. If I can present myself as Exhibit A, these days I wear jeans for preference, and rarely bother with make-up. Unfortunately, most people are more likely to be familiar with transmisogynistic portrayals of trans women in the media than with actual trans women, so it's difficult to push aside the stereotypes here, but in my experience, there's a huge diversity in gender presentation between trans women. It may be true that many of us go through a phase of experimenting with femininity early in transition, just as many cis women do early in puberty. Some of us maintain traditionally feminine appearances for a longer period of time, and I can understand that too – if a person wishes to be identified as a member of a particular group, it isn't exactly unusual to provide cues to make it easier for the people who interact with them. Trans people are hardly to blame for the nature of those cues – or at least, we're no more culpable than the cis people who use them too – and, as a relatively small group within society, we have considerably less control over such cues than cis people do.

But that's getting into a whole new debate, which has been covered fairly comprehensively elsewhere.

No, my gender identity didn't come from some desire to be more feminine – that's not how it works. Nor have I failed to disassociate sex and sexuality. It's not about getting “tired of being stared at for snogging [my] same-sex partner in the street” – it would hardly have made sense for me to dump all my passing-as-male privilege and passing-as-cis privilege just to secure myself a bit of straight privilege – especially given that
I'm bi.

Then there's the issue of my having voluntarily undergone hormonal and surgical changes as part of my transition. Are such physical cues key to my gender identity? I don't think so. Although (as I mentioned earlier) I believe that I tend to use those cues in group identification, I don't feel that they're at the root of my identity in itself. I experienced discomfort at my body, but I didn't need to change my body in order to think of myself as a woman. I was a woman prior to transition, and I respect the gender identities of trans people who choose not to undergo any physical changes.

So, if my body-shape and physiology aren't core to my identity, and if I am able to deconstruct gender to the extent that I recognize my physicality and gender identity as being separate, then why did I bother to undergo any kind of physical change in the first place?

Because I felt hugely uncomfortable in my own skin? Because I felt seriously at risk? Because this stuff was causing a catastrophic deterioration in my mental health?

When we are excluded from safe spaces because our genitals apparently represent a risk to other women (our safety is, of course, of little concern), when the threat of being raped also includes a very serious threat of being killed as a result of so-called “trans panic” on the part of our attackers, when the apparent contradictions in our bodies inhibit our freedom to do a host of things that other people take for granted, when we're constantly encouraged to respond to our bodies with disgust and confusion, when the combined effects of these issues provoke a high risk of suicidality among trans people who are unable to undergo physical transition – at this point, when people are at risk, the question of whether a person's physicality is part of their core identity starts to feel a little irrelevant.

Maybe, in a better, safer, more tolerant world, so-called “sex change surgery” would be less common. Maybe nobody would require any such treatments, ever again. I don't know. I just know that I feel safer, happier, and far more comfortable with my body, these days; and I've never regretted any aspect of my transition. This is my body, and I claim the right to decide what happens to it. But you know what?
Whatever happens to my body, whatever might be going on with my hormones or genitals or secondary sexual characteristics, whatever anyone thinks when they see me, nothing can alter the fact of my gender identity: I am a woman.

In this post, I've provided a theory about my own gender identity. I can speculate about how my identity might be innate rather than socially constructed; I even enjoy examining the evidence for how this stuff might work biologically. But, as I pointed out in my earlier post, that isn't so important, really. My gender identity is real, wherever it comes from. It's not to do with conforming to traditional views of gender, even if I experience certain pressures from society at large, just as cis people do. Trans people, like cis people, sometimes allow these pressures to affect the way we behave, and are likely to suffer serious consequences if we are perceived as breaking the rules.

But we
do break the rules. We're constantly reminded of that. In spite of all the socialisation that gets forced upon us, in spite of the stigma and risk attached to challenging other people's conceptions of gender, in spite of the appalling treatment that we receive from society at large, we transgress. We don't spend our lives pretending to be something we are not; we spend our lives striving to be recognised as who we are – even when our safety and conditional privileges are compromised as a result.

Maybe, one day, we'll abolish the
set of rules laid down to benefit men and keep women in our place- which is how Bindel defines gender. But gender identities won't go away at that point, because they aren't bound to any such system of oppression. When we pull apart the great katamari of concepts making up our society's understanding of sex and gender, we need to decide which concepts are real, which concepts are meaningful. And in some distant utopian future (when, hey, even the tyranny of biological sex might be a thing of the past), gender identity – personally experienced, consensually applied, and fundamentally unoppressive – may be the only thing we have left.

* In biology, there are various surrogate measures for what we call
sex, and those measures are not always congruent with one another.


  1. Many thanks for this thought-provoking post, Sally. I'd be really interested to hear the perspective of a genderqueer or otherwise non-binarily-gendered person on this; often certain kinds of radical feminists would accuse them of "playing with" concepts that they should be rejecting (ie gender), but I suspect it is a lot more complicated than that..

    The thing I'm struggling to conceptualise about this distant utopian future - and I'm aware that I have cis privilege in spades, when I say this, so I'm sorry if my arse is showing - is what we will hang gender identity on, in a world without biological sex or gendered behavioural expectations. What will distinguish our gender identity from just our plain, well, identity?

    Perhaps, though, it is my cis privilege - which means I experience my gender identity as a comfortable 'fit', rather than a dysphoria - which means I can't properly conceptualise the way that my being a woman is any different from my being a geek or a leftie.

  2. "The thing I'm struggling to conceptualise about this distant utopian future - and I'm aware that I have cis privilege in spades, when I say this, so I'm sorry if my arse is showing - is what we will hang gender identity on, in a world without biological sex or gendered behavioural expectations. What will distinguish our gender identity from just our plain, well, identity?"

    This is a good question, and I've intentionally framed my last paragraph in speculative terms because I don't know the answer.

    If, as I wonder might be the case, during a person's development, that person's gender identity spends its time looking for hooks to hold onto, then maybe, in a world without biological sex, gender identity would just find itself floating. Maybe, tenacious as I've found it to be, it would find *new* cues to attach itself to - maybe we'd develop a diversity of new, non-hierarchical groups with gender identity at their core; maybe it would attach itself to existing categories. Eek, maybe you'd still experience yourself as a geek, but inherently, inextricably so (if that isn't already the case, of course!).... :P

  3. Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed reading it. Although as a cis person I can never fully understand what it's like to be trans, I think this gets me a bit closer to understanding.

    This post about gay femme trans men is also a really powerful account of having a gender identity distinct from both assigned biological sex and performed femininity/masculinity.

    I'm curious as to how your idea of a gender-oppression-free utopia would compare to Dan's:

    "The end point, I wish, would be a body of ‘those who once were men’, free to express and identify as they choose, retaining or rejecting what is chosen, but feeling not pressured to any one thing or role, with a body of supporting literature, philosophy and an organisational infrastructure to disseminate ideas, to genuinely enable a movement neither for women or men, but ‘people’ (Which somehow does actualise the vision of a neutral ‘humanity’, which isn’t implicitly masculine)."

  4. Thank you Annalytica - I'm a fan of that Tranarchism post, and am very grateful to you for linking to it.

    I certainly don't feel that any of the issues I raise are likely to invalidate Dan's vision for the future. To be honest, I'm not really heavily invested in any particular "idea of a gender-oppression-free utopia" - my last paragraph was really just a suggestion that it's possible - and necessary, in fact - to factor the existence of gender identity into any vision of a future free from gendered oppression. This is in direct counterpoint to a certain trope I find rather problematic, which goes something like: "In a post-patriarchal future, all this gender identity stuff will be meaningless anyway...". Hmm....

    In retrospect, I'm a little unsatisfied with the way I ended this post, reflecting on speculative ideas rather than reiterating what my gender identity means to me, and how it helps shape my experiences in the world of *today*. But at some point in the future, I'll write a post on my interactions with privilege and oppression as a trans woman, which ought to focus on my experiences in greater detail :)

  5. Actually, this post does mostly focus on your experiences in the world today, and I've just chosen to zero in on the speculative part in my comment. Sorry about that - you're absolutely right that the theoretical questions about what gender would be in an imaginary utopia aren't nearly as important as the reality of living with your gender identity.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.