I don’t understand gender

This post is almost entirely from and about my own perspective. I hope it doesn’t mean I’m self absorbed, it’s meant to reflect I don’t feel I have the right or understanding to properly address anyone else’s perspective.

Recently, while listening to the very excellent GCN Radio, the episode Transparently transgender with Lisa Salazar gave me pause. Everything she was saying about how she felt about her gender identity as a trans woman made no sense to me. Not in a ‘how could you!’ way, more that she completely invalidated my entire concept of gender as being socially constructed, mostly negative, and ultimately transcendable.

I’ve previously assumed that people making bold statements about man vs woman or masculinity vs femininity or etc are completely missing the point; No we’re actually not all from either Mars or Venus, we’re from Earth and we’re pretty much the same, excepting (usually negative) societal expectations.

Lurking on /r/AskTransgender helped me to point my distrust and it’s-all-just-a-social-fiction in more of the right direction, though I still can’t truly understand the experience being transgender the same way colour-blind person can’t experience redness as distinct from greenness.

You could say ‘gender is social and sex is intrinsic’ as I learned in my design theory class, but in this analogy that’s basically saying ‘the lighter colour is green and the darker colour is red’. It is a simplification that often works (based on my talking to colour-blind people), but it’s nowhere close to being correct all the time.

I don’t and can’t know what it would be like to be able to experience the green of a male-gender distinct from the red of a female-assigned-at-birth-body or vice versa, it’s all the same continuous grey mush to me.

Gender roles/norms

This is the part my that makes the justice-fairness-anger burn and caused me to throw any description or prescription of any gender in the ‘dangerous and unhelpful’ bin1. Which I’m beginning to understand is dangerous and unhelpful in itself. I don’t think gender roles or norms should be prescriptive or restrictive, or something one should measure themselves against. at all. ever.

I frequently feel like I’m being made to feel like I’m doing being-a-man wrong2. Almost everything that I hear about manhood, or masculinity, or Wild at Heart, or whatever guns-cars-booze-yay that gets posted to Facebook just makes me angry. Because I’m know I’m a man, and can’t respond with ‘I am not a man’, all I can say is: I reject your definition of man and substitute nothing in particular of my own because I have no idea and don’t think it’s important3.

Gender presentation/expression

This is the part that’s always thrown me about discussions of gender (and the tiniest bit of sexuality questioning) because the idea of wearing women’s clothing or clothing styles doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t mean to say I cross-dress - for all my anti-authority anti-tradition ideologies I pretty much live colouring inside the lines. Dresses just seem like a cool thing to wear and women’s fashion is so much more interesting than men’s.

As for the physical body and gender: If you look for sex-distinctive facial characteristics of other races than your own then it’s easy to be misled. Sex-distinctive build characteristics in very skinny, very fat, and very muscular people can also misleading or missing. That there is some archetypal male and female figure is an unhelpful fiction and can’t be good for those more distant from that fictional archetype.

I don’t think it’s that important to have hard distinctions in men’s appearance vs. women’s appearance ether for myself or in the ways I find people attractive.

Gender identity

This is the part where I am reduced to tautology. I am a man because I am a man.

I don’t feel strongly aligned to men as a category. I don’t feel any more comfortable or welcome at men-only church than women-only church events4. Whenever there’s a cry for men to “stand up and be men” I shrink back because I don’t want to be part of standing up and being man because I don’t like what that looks like.

Being a man is not something I’m uncertain about; I know I’m not a transgender woman. However, I don’t think I’d be distraught or have my whole sense of who I am turned upside down if I woke up tomorrow and I was suddenly magically a woman5.

I don’t know how much of that is a strange kind of empathy, how much is genuinely having only a weak identification with my own gender, and whether my identification with my own gender is actually much stronger than I think it is because it’s invisible and indistinct to me.


In summary I don’t understand gender, and what I thought I understood I now understand even less. Rereading, I realise I concluded every section with some variant of ‘It’s not important’, however I want to stress that the distinctions are not important to me rather than unimportant universally.

  1. I approach anyone talking about manliness, masculinity, or whatever with a great deal of suspicion and prejudice. Possibly unwarranted in some cases, and that definitely hurts me trying to understand gender and transgender people and so I’m trying to keep that prejudice confined to the places where it’s useful. 

  2. This sentence must remain as awkwardly constructed as it is. 

  3. For an example see the second half of my post on masculinity 

  4. I’ve been to a couple of women-only events when there were zero women who volunteered to run the sound desk. 

  5. Excepting difficult conversations.