I have been wondering for a little while (read: thirty plus years) what gender is, how one becomes gendered,whether gender is a social construct or an aspect of physiology, and how someone who is transgressively gendered can move through and interact with a traditionally (perhaps coercively) gendered world?
Part of the difficulty in addressing these questions and with talking about gender is a lack of common language. I think those who are traditionally gendered do not spend much time contemplating their genderedness. Like having two excellent eyes or ten flexing fingers, being traditionally gendered is taken for granted. When you are not traditionally gendered, however, you spend every moment of every day thinking about gender, not just your gender, but everyone’s.
“I wish I could stop thinking about my gender.”
—TotallyAmelia via Tumblr
I am able to remember a time in my life where I was not concerned with this thing called gender, I was four. The idea of gender had not been introduced to me yet. I simply knew my personality and that was all I needed to know. Honestly, I think that is all any of us needs to know. This raises another batch of questions for me. Why do we not interact with others based on their personalities? We do we feel the need to know a person’s gender? How are we determining their gender? Why do we try so hard to determine the gender of androgynous people or, worse, disbelieve those whose identified gender does not match what we perceive it as?
I have come to see gender not as a letter on a driver’s license or even a word on a birth certificate but as a multifaceted spectrum that incorporates physiological and cultural components. The arguments that it is merely a biological classification or that it is strictly a set of cultural norms fail to capture the complexity of the concept. Let’s be honest, if it were as simple as what parts you are born with or which conventions you follow, would I and so many others like me have spent so much of our lives obsessing over our gender, where it came from, and why it doesn’t seem to align with what society expects?
Gender is a way of thinking about one’s own personality and the personalities of those one interacts with and it satisfies the cultural need to classify those personalities into tidy little packages. It is a philosophy designed to bring order to our world, but like all philosophies it mutates into rigid dogma in the hands of those attempting to maintain power and those who are afraid of anything outside of their individual experience.
Gender as individual personality is, perhaps, the easiest concept for a transgressively gendered person to understand and the hardest for traditionally gendered people to understand. When your personality runs fairly close to what society expects of you in your role as woman, man, girl, or boy, it does not occur to you that the personality you have is expresses your gender, that it is a method of categorising you with like personalities. Instead, the traditionally gendered see gender categories as being the domain of biology, in particular genitals and secondary sex characteristics. But gender is far more complex than that. When I was four and in kindergarten I got a damaging lesson in personality as gender.
It was a week or so into the first quarter of kindergarten and the children were just getting used to each other. Small groups of friends were forming and my instructor must have decided that not all of those groups were appropriately holding up the gender classification system. ‘Today,’ she said (or said something very much like,) ‘we are going to be in groups according to if we are boys or girls.’ We were all fine with this; after all weren’t we already with those like us? ‘Girls on this side and boys on that side.’ I had not really thought about whether I was a girl or a boy, but I knew I liked what the kids on the girls’ side liked and I played with them. The kids on the boys’ side were different from me. They played different games, they were louder, they were rougher (more aggressive), and I did not understand them or why they acted the way they did. Based on the logic of personality and perception I clearly belonged on the girls’ side and moved to join them.
‘Where are you going?’ the teacher asked me. I’m a girl, I told her. And she smiled at me. It was a smile that I would grow too familiar with. It lacked warmth or humour; it was reserved and hid her true emotions, a lot of disapproval and a little disgust. It was a frightening smile that told me not to question anything she said next, not to ever say what I had said again, and, more than anything else, that smile told me to never, ever reveal who I was (what I was) to anyone, ever. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You are boy and belong with the boys. Go to the boy side.’ I did not know what would happen if I didn’t do as she said, and that smile told me I did not want to find out. I shut my moth, crammed my personality into a deep dark corner, and joined the boys. I stayed there for thirty years.
And for thirty years I questioned my personality, I questioned how I was gendered and why my feminine personality did not align with what society classified me as. It never occurred to me to reverse the question, why did society believe I was male in spite of my evidence to the contrary? Everyone from school, to parents, to the mainstream media, to erotic fiction and porn confirmed that body trumped personality, so, clearly, I was broken mentally. I was a freak. And I knew I was freak because my personality was female.
“She gives me that look. And I know I’ll have to pretend to be a little boy from then on.”
—Kate Bornstein, Hidden: A Gender
Far easier for traditionally gendered people to understand is how other people’s personalities reflect their gender. Their personalities allow us to place individuals in the proper gender categories: girl, boy, straight woman, straight man, gay man, lesbian. Determining someone else’s gender category is more difficult than determining our own. For ourselves we ask one question: do I have a penis? If I have a penis then I am a member of the dominate gender, man. If I do not have a penis (because this is a phallocentric culture where a person cannot even use the word vagina in mainstream politics without drawing harsh rebuke), then I am not a man, but a member of the subordinate gender, woman. But with others the odds of our seeing their genitals to determine their gender are quite slim, so we find other ways. Of primary importance are secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair, voice, and breasts. Of almost equal importance are behavioural cues, or personality. The way a person moves, speaks, and takes up space. What a person enjoys doing, the type of career they pursued, how they pursued it, the kinds of people they hang around. All of these are aspects of personality. As a society we default everyone to a male gender and then change that perception based on how the person’s looks and personality align with it.
According to research done by Kessler and McKenna it takes four female cues to outweigh one male cue. That’s how phallocentric our culture is and why women get sirred far more often than men get ma’amed.
Because our society cannot abide ambiguity we have created this nifty little classification system called gender to tell us who is what and, once we know what they are, how much of our respect they deserve. That is the ultimate purpose of the gender classification system. It is more than just the need for tidy little categories. It is what those categories help us determine, the thing we are most desperate to know, who is above who on the hierarchy. This is why transsexuals and other transgressively gendered people are such a threat to the gender classification system. They are jumping gender categories and changing the amount of power and respect they are entitled to, thus exposing the ridiculousness of the system. My personality is little altered from when I was socially male to my being socially female, but I receive less respect, my opinions are devalued, and I make less money (despite doing the same job). Conversely, I know some female to male transsexuals who have stepped not just into a different socially perceived gender but also more respect, more opportunities, and higher wages. Their personalities have not changed either. Our actual genders have remained consistent, but our perceived genders have changed and we suffer the penalties or reap the benefits according to our new position. Personality as gender exposes cultural perception as gender for the misogynistic system it is.