There’s a cardinal rule about blogging. Posts should never exceed more than 600 words. I’m about to break that rule, and break it big-time.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve started getting lots of messages across different platforms with questions people have about what it means to be transgender. After posting in the comment section of a video on Facebook, I was approached by a woman named Lauren who sent me a lovely email and asked me some very interesting questions. Among them was the following:
“I’ve heard many transgender people say things like, ‘this body isn’t me.’ or ‘I want to go on T so I can be myself.’ This is very confusing to me, maybe because I’ve always felt comfortable in my body. Being a cis-gendered woman who identifies as a woman, there are still many parts of myself that aren’t considered feminine in American society (e.g., body hair and certain ways of dressing); but I’ve never considered these things to not be a part of my gender, even though they may be considered masculine.
Of course I can’t know how I would feel if I wanted to be a different gender, but knowing myself, I think I would embrace all of my physicalities and outward expressions as the gender I identify with. For example, imagining that I wanted to identify as a man, I may present myself as a man, regardless of whether I have breasts or facial hair. I don’t think I would feel the need to change my body in any way, as I would feel like I was conforming to what society expects from my gender.”
While Lauren did explicitly pose a question here in a grammatical sense, I understood the implied question in her comments:
“Why isn’t it enough for a trans person to simply dress as the gender they identity with? Why do they feel the need to change their bodies?”
(Really quickly, I think it’s important to note that some trans people don’t change their bodies. Surgery and hormones are not an option for everyone, for a variety of possible reasons, but just because a person can’t or is choosing not to physically transition, that doesn’t mean they are any less trans. Transition is a personal journey, and each trans person will decide for themselves where they journey leads.)
I think the best way to address this question is to unpack the difference between inborn gender, and gender expression.
About Inborn Gender
Some people say that gender is social construct. I disagree. That notion is in direct conflict with not only my own experience, but with the scientific research that’s been done on the subject.
For example, there have been cases where baby boys have been born with ambiguous genitalia, or have suffered botched circumcisions after birth. When this occurs, the general practice of doctors is (horrifyingly), to use surgery to reform the genitals to appear female, and to raise the child as a girl. However, in a majority of instances, the child grows up confused, rejecting the gender they were assigned. Somehow, despite being raised from day one as female, they know that they are male.
Now, because nature loves variance, you occasionally have people who’s brains develop in a male fashion when their bodies are female, and vice versa. The current school of thought is that prenatal hormones play a major role in determining how the developing brain is gendered. The gender identity of a transgender person is just as innate as the gender identity of a person whose brain developed to match with the gender most commonly associated with their physical sex.
Obviously, I can attest to this from personal experience. Some of my earliest memories are centered on my gender. Even as young as three and four years old, I felt innately that I was a boy. When I was five or six, I even examined myself and told to my parents that my clitoris was where my penis was supposed to be. I was completely convinced that one might even grow there someday (now, if you’re wondering how a child of five or six knew this much about anatomy, it’s because my parents allowed me to mainline the Discovery Channel, NatGeo, and various doctor shows from the time I was two).
Then there was one day, after my grandmother picked me up from school, when I announced to her from the backseat of the car, “Nannee, sometimes, I feel like a boy trapped in a girl’s body.”
I was five.
Up until this point, my parents had done everything they could to both allow me to be myself and yet still encourage me to wear girl’s clothes and participate in traditionally girly activities. While it was obvious to me that my family didn’t understand my gender (they kept buying me dresses, which my young self found both perplexing and distressing), I hadn’t yet sensed any tension around how I identified. That changed when I managed to put together the words to describe, out loud to my grandmother, how I felt.
When I told my Nannee that I felt like a boy in a girl’s body, she went utterly silent. She never acknowledged that I’d said anything at all, and for the remainder of the ride home, we sat in a tense quiet. I was a sharp kid, and I remember the feeling the hot creep of embarrassment that you feel when you realize you’ve said something wrong, or revealed too much. That interaction is one of the most vivid memories of my life, and it defined how I saw myself from that day forward. It was the first time I realized that there was something wrong with how I felt inside.
I have dozens of other anecdotes about my childhood and experiences with my gender, but I think the instance I’ve just described does a good job of demonstrating how intrinsic my gender was, so early on in my life. I just came into the world that way.
About Gender Expression
The concept of gender expression relates to how each culture performs gender. For instance, in many cultures (certainly not all) dresses and make-up are worn by women to express their femininity, which is tied to the female gender. Suits and ties are worn by men as an expression of the masculinity, which in turn is tied to the male gender (in addition to gender identity and gender expression, I could talk for ages about masculinity and femininity—but that’s for another post). That doesn’t mean that people from either side of the gender binary can’t experiment with performing aspects of the opposite gender. As Lauren points out in her message, she sometimes expresses herself in a way that might traditionally be seen as more masculine, and that’s wonderful! As a society, we are freeing ourselves from the confines of rigid gender expression. After all, there was a time when women weren’t allowed to wear pants, and wearing the clothes of the opposite sex was punishable by law. We’ve come a long way since then.
I think it’s very important, though, to draw a distinction between expressing gender as a performance, and living gender as an identity.A man can wear a dress, but that doesn’t make him less of a man. A woman can wear a suit and tie, but still be very much a woman. Transvestites, for example, who are often confused with transwomen because they dress in women’s clothing and take on a female persona, are still men. They identify as men, and when show time is over, they go back to living male lives. They challenge traditional gender stereotypes, but they are not transgender. Their expression is simply a performance.
For a transperson, it’s different. Trying to live as your assigned gender is like walking through life wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes. It’s a constant discomfort. It has nothing to do with how gender is performed, but with who is performing what. For instance, I shudder at the idea of wearing a skirt, but I’d happily wear a kilt. I don’t have any problem wearing a shirt that’s bright pink, as long as that shirt is a men’s shirt. If I had been born into a culture where all the women wore bowls on their heads and all the men wore colanders, I would have wanted to wear a colander. I’m attracted to clothes and belongings that confirm my inborn gender.
This is very difficult to explain because if you are not trans, you can’t really understand what it feels like to be forced to perform the wrong gender. The best way to try and explain the feeling is through thought exercises like this one:
Image if you were to tell any dress-loving and make-up-wearing woman that she, from that day forward, could only wear plaid men’s shirts and men’s cargo shorts.
She would probably be uncomfortable with that.
Now imagine that in addition to making her wear clothes she isn’t attracted to and doesn’t identify with, you look her in the eye and tell her, “You’re a man. I see you as a man. It doesn’t matter what you feel like inside, you’re a man to me.”
She will probably try to tell you that even though she is wearing clothes usually worn by men that no, she’s still a woman.
But you insist.
“No, no. You’re a man. If you feel like a woman, then you need serious help. You’re just confused.”
Maybe you force her to go therapy for years and years. The therapist tries to teach her to be comfortable being a man. But she just can’t. She never wants to have a male body. She still doesn’t want to wear men’s clothes. Her brain is telling her that she’s a woman. Everything you’ve asked her to do directly conflicts with how she feels inside.
This is the closest I can bring you to what it feels like to be trans. It’s not about what you wear, it’s about how what you’re wearing confirms or denies your gender. It’s not about performance; it’s about the brain wanting to match the body. Even if we completely abolish gender roles and all dressed the same, men will still have deep voices and will still grow muscle more easily and will still grow facial hair, and because my brain is wired to identify as male, I will still wonder why I don’t look and sound like them, and will want to change so that others see me as I see myself.
The reality about being transgender is that explaining how it feels to be trans is about as easy as explaining how I know how to breathe. My gender is a natural thing. It’s been an aspect of my personality since my personality formed. Ask most little boys why they like cars and trucks and the color blue. They won’t know why—they just do. Ask most little girls why they like dollies and fairies and princesses. They don’t know—they just do!
Again, none of this is to say that the lines can’t blur and little boys can’t like fairies and still be boys and girls can’t like cars and still be girls, but the gender binary exists, even as a spectrum.
Sometimes, though, the brains of little boys who like cars, trucks and the color blue develop in a female body. They see other boys who like cars, trucks and the color blue grow up to be men who wear suits and have deep voices and big muscles and facial hair and wonder why they themselves are developing breasts and wide hips instead. Sure, they can cut their hair and wear men’s clothes and bind their breasts, but people can still tell they are biologically female.
Even if they say to friends and family, “But I’m a boy inside!” many times their declaration will be met with comments like, “Well, you aren’t a boy,” “You’re still a girl to me,” or, “You need help.” People will still call them “miss” or “ma’am,” and each time it will feel like petting a cat backwards with a wet hand. It’s just wrong, it doesn’t fit, and after a while, it hurts.
That’s why it’s so important to do your best to help confirm a transperson’s identity by using their chosen name and the correct pronouns. Each time you do, you acknowledge who they are. If you’re spiritual, you could describe it as acknowledging their soul. Through your actions, you are telling them, “I see you as you see you.” Most critically, you are expressing that you understand that their identity is not a performance.
Their gender is intrinsic and immutable, a fact that you are showing you both recognize, and respect.
Thank you so much for reading.
If you made it this far, that means you read more than 2,000 words on gender identity! Thank you so much for sticking it out—blog posts are not meant to be this long!