Inborn Gender versus Gender Expression

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.

Conclusion

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.

Much love,

Oliver*

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!

 

Nip/Tuck

I recently received a message from a very kind, but opinionated young man who was wrestling with his conflicting feelings about transgender people. While obviously doing his best to be an open-minded, loving person, this young man (let’s call him Matt) was concerned that transgender people were just troubled individuals struggling with a mental illness, and that they should be discouraged from physically transitioning. When I asked him his main reason for thinking this, he told me:

“It just seems like if you want to cut yourself up or have parts of your body chopped off [then] you must have something wrong with you mentally.”

Now, to a lot of people, that might sound like a pretty brusque, insensitive statement, but let me just clarify—Matt was truly making an effort to understand why some people choose to have gender reassignment surgeries. He just didn’t know a lot about the subject, and when you don’t know much about the trans experience or aren’t trans yourself, the idea of having body-altering surgery can be pretty scary. So I helped Matt unpack the stigma a little bit, and put gender reassignment surgeries in a broader context.

First, I asked him a pretty straightforward question:

“Do you know anyone who has breast implants?”

Predictably, he said yes. He knew several women who’d had breast augmentations. I asked him if he had any problem with that kind of cosmetic surgery.

“Well, no,” he said, but then, already catching on to the direction I was headed, he added:

“But that’s different than what trans people do!”

But when I asked him why it was different, he didn’t have a complete answer.

He could say only:

“It just is.”

But why, though? Why are the surgeries that trans people undergo considered unhealthy and alarming when other types of body modification are glorified and commodified without a second thought? For instance, how is my having a breast reduction (a double mastectomy) to look more masculine any worse different than a woman wanting breast implants so she can look more feminine? I don’t think it’s fair to be okay with one surgery and not the other. After all, if the argument here is that anyone who wants to have cosmetic surgery in order to feel more comfortable with their body is mentally ill, then there are a whole lot of people out there who you think are in need of psychiatric help.

Let’s not forget, either, that human beings also do a wide variety of other odd, invasive, sometimes dangerous things to their bodies in order to achieve certain aesthetics. For instance, we tan, often until our skin is irreversibly damaged and we’re at risk for cancer. We pierce our ears, noses, lips, eyebrows, nipples, and genitals. We tattoo ourselves, sometimes extensively. We use wires and tension to rearrange our teeth into the perfect smile. We get hair plugs when we start to go bald. We get tummy-tucks and face-lifts and vaginal rejuvenations. In some communities, getting a nose job is considered a rite of passage.

We don’t think that doing any of these things is particularly strange because it’s just so commonplace to do them, but many of these procedures pose just as much risk to a person (or more!) as top surgery would pose to me.

If we re-frame gender reassignment surgeries as the means by which trans people can achieve the particular body aesthetic that makes them the happiest, the process doesn’t seem so strange anymore. Most of us, trans or not, modify our bodies to try an align them with the ideal conception we have of ourselves.

Now, the sad reality is that Matt’s argument about surgery isn’t really the root of the stigma against trans people choosing to change their bodies. The truth of the matter is that many people don’t like that trans folks challenge the notion that if you have a penis, you must be masculine, and if you have a vagina, you must be feminine. A woman having breast implants doesn’t seem unnatural because many people believe that a woman should want to have big breasts. But if you were born a female and want no breasts at all? Something must be intrinsically wrong with you.

In the end, Matt acknowledged that, on its face, FtM top surgery wasn’t that much different than a woman getting breast implants. However, I could tell he was still grappling with his deeply-held conviction that if you are biologically female, you should want breasts, and if you are biologically male, you shouldn’t. My wanting a flat, masculine chest was still difficult for him to understand.

“But,” he said, “if that’s what you want, I can respect that.”

So, while I didn’t quite bring Matt to a full understanding of physical transition, he did take a small step with me. I congratulate him for that. Anyone who sits down and takes a hard look at something they don’t fully comprehend deserves praise. If you’re not trans, it’s not easy to put yourself in a trans person’s shoes. I can be very difficult to relate to us. Some people never will. But if we can at least achieve mutual respect for one another, I, for one, would consider that a victory.

Much love,

Oliver*

What’s in a name?

I asked a friend to review my blog today. They read for a while and then stopped to ask me, “Hey, why do you write your name with an asterisk?”

Good question.

As you might be able to tell from looking at me, I’m still early on in the process of transition. While I am out as transgender to my family and some of my friends and coworkers, I still haven’t legally changed my name or gender markers.

Why?

Well, it isn’t because I’m not legally able to or don’t have the inclination. I haven’t changed my name yet because even though my family is aware of my identity, they are still coming to terms with it. They love me and support me, but this change has not been easy for them. The idea of me changing my name strikes them as especially difficult.

When a trans person transitions, their family members often feel a sense of personal loss or grief. Most parents report going through a period of mourning, even though their child isn’t actually dead. The person they knew is passing away and being replaced with someone else. This sensation often worsens when their trans child begins to go by their new name, so while I’ve discussed changing my name with my mother, and while she is receptive, there will be other conversations to come. She’s still feeling that sense of loss, and I want her to have time to process that emotion. When she’s ready, I will ask her and my father to choose my new name.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Hey, you’re a grown person, why not just go ahead and choose a name yourself?” Well, some trans people certainly go that route, but in my eyes, our names are gifts our parents give us. I know that my parents carefully crafted my birth name to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to give them the opportunity to do that again, with my male name. I feel that this is also a healthy way to involve my parents in the process of transitioning because it shows I value their opinions and are sensitive to their feelings.

So, until they decide on what they’d like to call me, I’m using a masculine form of my birth name, with an asterisk, to denote that eventually my name will change.

Thank you for reading.

Much love,

Oliver*

Compassion needs to go both ways.

When a person comes out as transgender, particularly if they come out after they’ve reached adulthood, it can be very difficult news for the family. Of course, their trans relative deserves their support, understanding, and compassion, but I think all too often the LGBT community forgets that those closest to a trans person need love and support, too.

I want to use my mother as an example.

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This is her and me from back in October of 2016.

About six years ago, I sat down with her and my father and admitted to them I was gay. At the time, I believed what I was saying. My understanding was that lesbians were woman who wanted to be men, and were attracted to women. I hadn’t had much exposure to the LGBT community, and didn’t understand that my feelings weren’t properly reflected by the label I’d assigned myself. However, my mother knew.

When I told her I was a lesbian, my mother took a pause and gave me an appraising look.

“I don’t really see you as a lesbian,” she said, “We always thought you’d come to us one day and say you wanted to be a boy.”

She was right, of course. Without going into the wealth of details about me as a person, all the signs were there. From the moment I developed a personality beyond infancy, it was clear I was different, and it was clear to her how.

Still, despite her knowing the likelihood of me being transgender, it was still difficult for her when I began to process of masculinizing myself in recent years. She resisted me cutting my hair, she grew frustrated and tearful when I began dressing in men’s clothing, and generally worried about me and how I was presenting myself.

I’ve come out to her, and my family, in fits and starts. I’ve taken it slowly and been very patient in allowing them to come to terms with who I am. I needed time, too. It’s not easy to accept that you’re trans. Doing so is freeing, true, but it also yolks you with a huge burden. So many important questions suddenly demand answers. How far do I take my transition? What affects will a transition have on me medically, professional, socially, emotionally? It’s difficult. But as much as I’m asking myself these questions, I never forget that my loving mother is agonizing over them.

She told me not too long ago that she could no longer imagine me any other way than I am now; my sort of elflish, androgynous self. She could never see me as a feminine person again.

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Here’s a picture of my sister and I, circa 2011, for comparison (I’ve come a long way since then, and so have SmartPhone cameras). This is how my mother had known me for 19 years. However, at some point, the switch flipped for her. She can’t point to when, she just knows it’s true. She said that if I tried to wear make-up or a dress now, it would be jarring for her.But as much as she loves me, accepts me, is open to this strange blend of a person that I represent, it’s still so difficult for her.

I asked her recently, “When you look at me, how do you see me?”

She told me, “Well, I see you as a boy.” But as much as she sees me that way, she isn’t sure she could ever see me as her son. I am her daughter. I have been for so long.

She told me it’s like her daughter is dying. “It’s like I’m mourning you, but you’re still here. It feels like one person disappeared and another took their place.

“I know that’s not true!” she assured me, “You’re here, you’re the same person, but you’re also…not. Do you understand?”

How lucky am I that my mother is the one worried about being understood in this situation? Usually, it’s the trans child struggling to explain their feelings to their family. My mother made a concerted effort to accomplish that feat of understanding early on, and now is worried that I might misinterpret her struggles with my identity as lack of acceptance.

Too often I think there are loving parents out there who just need their child to reach back at them from across the table and reassure them. Being trans is a burden that your family carries with you. It’s difficult. It’s scary. A good family won’t condemn you for who you are, but they might still worry and battle with themselves about it.

Some people claim that the family of a trans person needs to drop everything and support their relative, without question, without reservation. Many LGBT people I know demand it, and are hyper-critical of any parent that struggles to do so. The weight on the trans person’s shoulders is so heavy, they say, they shouldn’t be responsible for helping their family and friends sort out their “issues.” Those are personal problems their family members need to take care of on their own, and quickly, or they’re bad people.

I disagree.

If you’re trans, you’ve got a big struggle ahead of you, but so does your family. If, when you begin to transition, your father doesn’t know what to say, your mother is tearful, or your sibling is confused, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you or accept who you are. Just like you had to come to terms with who you are, they do, too, and they are at the disadvantage of not being inside your head. You’ve lived with you your whole life. Transition might just seem like the next logical step for you, but for your family, they are watching a person they knew turn to ash and be reborn again. They are mourning the death of a certain set of expectations they made when their little son or daughter (brother, sister, grandson, granddaughter, etc) comes into the world. I’ve heard trans people say, “Well they need to just get over it, this is me!” I think that’s damaging. Try to put yourself in their position. This isn’t an easy process.

If you’re the immediate family member of someone who is trans, I want you to know that you deserve their patience, compassion, and mutual support . If you are struggling, I understand. If you are confused, I understand. If you worry for their safety, or what your extended family might think of them or you, I understand. You deserve time to adjust. You deserve to be able to ask your child questions, even if they are awkward, and receive  patient, thoughtful responses. If you are not informed about what it means to be trans, certainly try and educate yourself, but you should engage your child in that process, and they should be receptive. Be each other’s guides. I promise, you will become so much closer as a family because of it.

That’s all (I say, 1,000 words later).

Thank you so much for reading.

Much love,

Oliver*

If you are transgender or the relative of a trans person and need to talk to someone, I’m happy to help. I am not an expert and I am only one voice, but I’m here for you.