I still don’t understand gender

Some time ago, I foolishly wrote a blog post trying to understand how I felt about gender.

I ended up somewhere I didn’t expect.

This is something like those react videos the kids are doing these days, except in text form.

Here we go.

I don’t understand gender

17 MAY 2014

It feels longer ago than this.

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.

This is a good start.

Recently, while listening to the very excellent GCN Radio,…

I just went looking for this. It’s since gone offline. I’d really like to hear it again.

…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,…

Be honest Dana, there was a bit of ‘how could you!’ in there too.

…more that she completely invalidated my entire concept of gender as being socially constructed, mostly negative, and ultimately transcendable.

Gender is mostly negative? Ultimately transcendable? Why did it take you 3 more years to figure out you’re trans?

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.

This I mostly still agree with.

Lurking on /r/AskTransgender helped me to point my distrust and it’s-all-just-a-social-fiction in more of the right direction…

Stop blaming transgender people for society’s regressive ideas about gender!

…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…

I have way more to say on this over-simplistic frequently-repeated idea but maybe that’s another post.

…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.

Like, I clearly knew enough to know sex-is-between-your-legs gender-between-your-ears is simplified to the point of being harmfully wrong, but not at all how or why, thus tortured metaphors about colour-blindness.

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.

I don’t understand this metaphor today, and the convoluted writing implies I didn’t understand it then either. BTW girl, if your experience of your gender is a continuous grey mush, maybe think about that.

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’ bin.1

You’re getting your causation a bit backward here. You’re not nearly as goody-socially-conscious as you think you are, you’re just really aware the unfairness of gendered expectations for “some” “reason”.

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.

Yes I agree well done good work 5 stars.

I frequently feel like I’m being made to feel like I’m doing being-a-man wrong.2

This is still one of my favourite sentences that I ever wrote.

Almost everything that I hear about manhood, or masculinity, or Wild at Heart

I really hated Wild at Heart.

…or whatever guns-cars-booze-yay that gets posted to Facebook just makes me angry.

I might’ve had a fairly dim view of masculinity. I mean, I still do, but it’s not quite as stark as it used to be.

Because I’m know I’m a man, and can’t respond with ‘I am not a man’,…

You totally can though :)

…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 important.3

I still couldn’t possibly define what it means to ‘be a man’ or ‘be a woman’. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Gender presentation/expression

This is the part that’s always thrown me about discussions of gender (and the tiniest bit of sexuality questioning)…

The “Tiniest Bit” huh. Miss “I can’t be gay I like girls” because gay is the only word you ever had for anything different. Even at 26 you still had this hopelessly tangled.

…because the idea of wearing women’s clothing or clothing styles doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable.

Red flag!

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.

You’ll get over it.

Dresses just seem like a cool thing to wear and women’s fashion is so much more interesting than men’s.

RED FLAG! Also, I’m still kind of amazed that I posted this admission publicly. I was so far in the closet I was out the other side chatting with Tumnus, I don’t think I realised what I was admitting.

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.

I’m pretty sure this is racist somehow.

Sex-distinctive build characteristics in very skinny, very fat, and very muscular people can also misleading or missing.

Just stop. this is not something you understand enough. I think a better way of expressing the ideas I was grasping for is something like: Gendered phenotypes are deeply connected to systems of power and oppression, and don’t represent the full range of humanity.

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.

This at least is true.

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.

Still don’t. In fact, I think it’s important to not.

Gender identity

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

You’re really not selling it, girl.

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 events.4

I hadn’t articulated to myself the different ways they were each uncomfortable though.

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.

I mean, even if I was a man this would probably be a fair response.

Shortly before I wrote that post some clown literally told all the men in the church to “stand up and be men” or similar, and I stayed sitting down and cried a lot (mostly, but not solely about the events around my post on masculinity).

Being a man is not something I’m uncertain about; I know I’m not a transgender woman.


The lady doth protest too much.

Also this “knowledge” is because of a series of myths, like “born in the wrong body” or “trans people know from a young age” (though I know young trans people get “you’re too young to know that at your age”. We can’t win).

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 woman.5

It’s pretty great.

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.

I feel like this sentence conveys my confusion at the time pretty well, and some of why it’s common for some trans people to realise they’re trans later on. It’s difficult to see your own gender from inside yourself.

In summary I don’t understand gender, and what I thought I understood I now understand even less.

This was the start of a long, inevitable tumble down the rabbit hole.

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.

Everyone experiences gender differently. Some feel their gender strongly, some weakly, some not at all. Sometimes it fluctuates. And sometimes this matches that which they were assigned at birth. Sometimes not. Sometimes it fluctuates. Let everyone do their own gender thing. Be like Vi. We can all not understand each other’s genders together.

  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.

    Note that only manliness and masculinity is getting called out here. Anything you want to tell the class Dana? no? carry on 

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

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

    Which I should also write a reflection on at some point. 

  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.

    There’s not nearly as many difficult conversations as you’d think