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How are we defining gender, if not by feeling?

November 28, 2015

I keep coming across this notion that transwomen can’t be women because they don’t experience the world of What It Is To Be Female. I had to have a think about that; I realised, I don’t have a clue what it is to be female. To “prove” that being a woman is something different, people who claim it give specific examples of womanhood. Here I look at them all critically.

Women have periods, and have to deal with everything that brings.

Some people don’t start periods until very late in life. People avoid them using the pill. Others even argue that women should be allowed to avoid them using the pill, in order to free them from the shackles of oppression. Others are unfortunate enough to start at a very young age indeed. In which case, a period is not making a woman at all – that person is a child and therefore not a woman. In other words, the fundamental process of menstruation is not generalisable, but rather highly personal.

The process of having periods is personal, too. Some experience pain, others mood swings, some very little change. Some people experience embarrassment or difficulties in purchasing sanitary products, others don’t. That last point is a cultural factor. To suggest that biological womanhood itself is dependant on culture and society doesn’t, to my mind, sound likely. If we’re going to be stripped about what defines a female person, we’ll have to do better than that.

Women have two X chromosomes. Men have an X and a Y chromosome.

I have two X chromosomes. No one can tell on the street, because I also have a boatload of testosterone coursing through me. It makes me look male, enough to be treated male. I don’t have to have a prostate exam and I never will (what a shame) but in my day to day life, it makes no difference at all. If I want to talk about cervical screening, I obviously don’t talk to men because they know nothing about it. But I wouldn’t talk to women, either, because our gender identity makes our experience different. I will only ever discuss it with transmen – they are the only people who could ever really understand.

So, yes, parts of our identity are bound up in our physical bodies. Yet, it’s hard for me to see how my incredibly specific experience differs any from all the people with rare conditions who can only speak about them frankly with other sufferers. We do not say that these people are not people, because they don’t function physically the way we are accustomed to seeing. We certainly don’t suggest that they’re very existence is an affront to the able-bodied, the way some women declare transgenderism an affront to the concept of womanhood.

In any case, chromosomes are irrelevant to all of that. Since they don’t even define the way that we look – the most shallow thing there is to know about a fellow human being – they are utterly and completely irrelevant 99% of the time. Physical differences are situational; in the hospital, I expect to be treated differently because I must be, for my health, but these physical differences are irrelevant on the street. And what’s irrelevant on the street is generally irrelevant.

In conversation, I expect people to use their eyes, see that I’m male, and move from there. In fact, they would, regardless. Wanting to redefine me as Something Different doesn’t work in the world that sees sex as binary and something that can be observed at a glance. I simply look male. People assume I’m male. I let them. It’s what I want and it’s what’s convenient for them, so the idea that trans people should all leap out of stealth mode and declare themselves in the interests of feminism is absurd. It simply won’t happen, and all the ideology in the world won’t make a difference.

You can try to create an agendered world, and if you do, these conversations about gender identity will become easier, more accepted, and then we will admit to being trans.

Women have pregnancy worries. They have the panic of not having taken the pill.

There go all the people who don’t take the pill and who don’t have sex with men; goodbye to all the people who can’t get pregnant. Goodbye anyone who had a hysterectomy to deal with a severe and painful condition. Goodbye to people who use IUDs. The point I’m trying to make is that our modern technology does for old ideas about sex and gender. As certain worries fade because they are better dealt the and catered for, these ideas about what makes a woman become old fashioned.

Younger generations don’t understand how worrying about pregnancy, or not worrying about it, can possibly define your gender. So as well as being culture dependant, it is time dependant, too. What happens when people don’t need daily contraceptives any more? It might look like I’m interpreting this over-literally, but that’s because overly specific examples invite you to be over literal. Using ultra specific examples of womanhood can’t work as definitions of womanhood, even as a set; one by one they will drop off the end, and we’ll be left with no workable definition at all.

Women have vaginas. They don’t have penises. Penises are not clitorises. You can’t pee out of them.

… Vaginas which sometimes don’t work properly. They can be closed over, or unusual in some way. In our binary-sexed world, there is no room for the intersexed – commonly called hermaphrodites. They are forced to pick a gender, since knowing one’s sex is complicated. When sex is the only measure of gender, intersexed people suddenly become no one. They just don’t count.

Technically, clitorises and penises are both counted as phalluses, are derived from the same root and work similarly. And what’s all this about pee? I don’t want to live in a society that defines identity by urination. If I did, I would consider those people who piss on the floor to be a different species, before I worried about which pipe it came out of.

These intensely practical concerns shape some of the issues that face women, versus men – such as not-being-able-to-pee-standing-up. But it’s a strange political movement that makes this one of the founding principles of its politics. I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, it just doesn’t matter that much. Buy a she-wee.

Women can engage in penetrative sex. The type of which male people will never experience.

Two types of heteronormitivism! Delightful. Many lesbians don’t have penetrative sex, many gay men (and some straight men) do. Who is to say how the experience differs, without knowing the experience from every possible angle? No one is ever a cisgendered straight woman and a transgendered gay man in the same lifetime, the cis and trans being mutually exclusive. That makes understanding the experiences of both sides impossible. Some straight and bi women don’t bother with penetrative sex, either; sometimes it’s painful, sometimes psychologically off-putting, sometimes there is a political objection – there’s a strand of feminism that suggests penis-in-vagina sex is inherently violent and subjugating. Are they not women?

Women suffer the consequences of male pressure on women.

That, in large part, is to do with perception. If someone perceives you as a woman, they may catcall you on the street. Now, I’m seen some very convincing crossdressers. The moment someone is identified as a woman, whether they are or not, that pressure, harassment or abuse starts. Your chromosomes are irrelevant to that process, because they cannot be seen. It is the perception that a female person is able to be subjected to that attitude that is the problem. The identity of the victim matters less than the identity of the perpetrator. That is what tells you who’s doing what, and why – that is what tells you how to tackle it, how to stop it happening. That tells you where the social problems lie. This particular problem isn’t about women at all, it’s about men.

Woman know the experience of male violence on women. It’s uniquely oppressive.

My sympathy, but I find the idea that male-to-female violence is uniquely awful a bit presumptuous. I say again, without the ability to experience all types of identity and its expression there is no way to know what every kind of abuse feels like, physically or emotionally. Abuse is abuse – it may occur more frequently under patriarchy, but I doubt that for the individual sufferer, that suffering is in any way worsened by the fact that it stems from patriarchy. This argument makes it sound like male-to-male violence or sexual violence matters less than male-to-female. Or, for that matter, female-to-female or female-to-male.

This is no improvement on society; it negates the experience of the sufferer and makes them a figure, not an individual. Only the victim may decide the intensity of the experience. It’s a backward society that assumes that everything that happens to female people is automatically worse. It also assumes women are inherent victims – nothing in the world sounds less like feminism to me.

Women have lived their entire lives as female.

Hmm. So says the 30 year old cisgendered woman. What about the transgendered woman who’s lived as one for 31 years? Does her experience not count, because she lacks a womb? Everyone perceives her as female, treats her as one – many people don’t even know she isn’t. Her sexual partners might not even know, such is the success of transwoman surgery. If being a woman is something which society forces on us, it is forced upon the transwoman too, when she decides to become female. Or as close to female as she can, if we’re going to get technical.

If you did not grow up as a girl, you’re not a woman.

I thought we were agreed that girlhood and womanhood are not the same thing. The challenges a girl faces are child-specific. It’s hard to say for sure which problems are male and female, when children have a less strong sense of their gender than adults. That is the argument – if gender is all a construction, it must happen around childhood. We’re all subject to pressures in childhood that shape our adult life – but ultimately, do not make our adult lives or identities. I have a paper star somewhere with all my positive attributes written on it. Oddly enough, “good at rounders” made the mix. No doubt, that was a different person to the one I am today.

When childhood is so profoundly different to adulthood, it seems neither fair nor logical to judge people’s adult identities based on what they used to be. Few people really want this, even cisgendered people. Perhaps we all fought against and struggled with gender growing up. Some of us succeeded. In my opinion, both the gender fluid and the transgendered people succeeded – they threw off adult ideas about the world and made up their own minds. They merely made up their minds differently.

By the way, if you really think that gender is a construction and counts for no part of your identity, you ought to consider yourself “gender queer”. But few people assert that they are – because they don’t feel that they are. They feel that they are women, or men. This certainly includes self-identified Women who refuse to lend the label to anyone who is not also an adult biological female. I see possessiveness of the term at play; proud to be women, they Reclaim the Word. Gender queer people don’t bother reclaiming it. They don’t want it. Why do these anti-trans Women want it? Because being a woman is more that their mere biology. It’s identity.

There would be no trans people if we recognised that gender is a construct.

Simply wrong. This lot are fond of drawing comparisons to race, so let’s go there. If you removed the concept of Black culture, you would not cease to have black people. Black is a colour, decreed by melanin, just as sex is a thing defined by chromosomes. There are cultural differences that come about as a convoluted result of the colour, i.e., racism and sexism. You could remove most parts of racism and sexism by removing cultural perceptions of both, I’m sure. But you couldn’t remove race itself, or sex. That’s a biological process, not a sociological one.

There is not yet any proof that gender identity is not the same. It could be defined by neurology (some evidence suggests it is), and thus as set in your body as the nervous system. You can remove all the gender stereotypes, and get rid of this idea about raising boys as boys and treating women as women. It remains to be seen if that will stop people from being transsexual. I expect not; I expect the desire to be male, or as close to male as possible, is innate in both cisgendered and transsexual people.

If you think about it, it makes sense; with no gender roles, we still have biological breeding roles. Human brains interpret this illogically, and lead us to seek practises that do not give us the biological, fertile functionality of the opposite sex to the one we were born. Similarly, homosexuality is not biologically sensible for the continuation of the species; but there is a great drive towards it anyway. Humans just don’ make no sense.

If your change how we perceive gender, you might reduce the number of people who have sex reassignment surgery; I have no doubt that it is occasionally misinterpreted and misdiagnosed. But I don’t think it will go completely. I was raised with fewer gender hang-ups than most. I wore whatever, did whatever and played with whatever toys I liked. Yet I ‘m still transsexual, suggesting there’s a little more to it than that.

Incidentally, if you are passionate about removing the idea of fixed gender, aim at the top – at other cisgendered people. Don’t come scrabbling around down here with us lowly transgendered people, making our lives harder. Figuring out your identity is hard enough without foolish people trying to tell you that you don’t exist, that your very existence is Impossible. Change the system, and see if we follow. If we don’t, you’re wrong. If we do, you get what you want and you get proved right. And we don’t have to go through major surgery. Wins all around.

Sharing the definition of womanhood with non-women disrespects us and our struggle.

“Oh, my. I wouldn’t want to disrespect the struggle of a cisgendered woman. Let me kiss it better…” … is my initial reaction to that. But the rational part of me recognises that in reality, we all have struggles. I even believe that white, middle class, cisgendered, heterosexual men have societal problems. Thus, I know that ranking ourselves against each other is pointless bickering. “My suffering is greater than yours! Ner, ner! No rights for you!” Instead, we should just acknowledge that X group is not the only group that struggles, and that opposing groups have needs as well. That’s the basic, bottom line of respect for others.

I don’t need to assert my gender – I look it. Therefore, my gender interferes with no one. Looking male is a privilege I have, but trans people who don’t “pass” are no different to me. Therefore, whatever accidental courtesy I am extended, I’d like to see generously given to people who don’t look the part, too. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – not letting politics or gut reactions get in the way of common courtesy. I might think you’re fat, but rolling up and calling you Fat for the rest of the evening because that’s what you technically are is supremely, unnecessarily rude and unforgivable. Calling a known trans person the wrong pronoun is akin to that.

Should other people respect that behaviour, because it’s Your Opinion? I may have the opinion that fat people are scum, forever taking up too much space on the train [I don’t]. Some people might agree with me, others will not. In the interests of not causing a tempest over terminology and personal hang-ups disguised as principles, it would be better not to stubbornly do things your way, regardless of the context. At the office Christmas party, no one gives a toss for your incredibly specific, technical distinction between womanhood and manhood that only your obstetrician needs to acknowledge. In life, you’re supposed to respect choices, identities and sensitivities.

Gender is not innate. It is constructed.

This is the most inconsistent argument of the bunch. If it’s constructed and forced upon women, that suggests women don’t want it. If women don’t want it, why defend it to the death against its appropriation by transwoman? One would think that, if you really thought gender was a meaningless construct, you would say: “Fine, take the label. I don’t want it. On your own head be it. See where it gets you.”

But that isn’t what’s happening. Instead, transwomen willingly choose to enter a new life as victims to the social view of gender, and oddly cisgendered women defend their right to be the only victims of it. I guess that means that gender must be so important, that you wouldn’t throw it away just because you might be subject to prejudice. Biological women wouldn’t generally choose not to be women to avoid prejudice. Transgendered women have the exact same mentality about gender; it belongs to you, no one else. Changing other people’s perceptions about it doesn’t change you.

To use an analogy, telling people that there’s nothing wrong with being left handed doesn’t mean that everyone is ambidextrous, and there’s no such thing as being right or left handed. Saying that there’s nothing wrong with being a woman does not include saying that womanhood and manhood don’t exist and are merely constructs to be overcome. People may not want to overcome them; they may think, I like my left-handedness, and the fact that my brain is different because of it. No right-handed brain could belong to me. If I were right-handed, I would be someone else.

Some people are trying to make themselves differently handed because they think their lives will be better. Others dabble with the other hand, find it doesn’t work, and go back. Some people are genuinely ambidextrous, and use both hands, either equally or unequally. Acknowledging all this, we still know that some people are genuinely, unalterably left handed. I say that there is no reason, given the evidence of people’s lives, to claim that gender is any different. Just because it is harder to locate in the brain because it shows less directly obvious evidence, it does not mean it isn’t there.

The anecdotal evidence for the existence of genuine transgenderism is substantial; the evidence of people’s entire lives, living happily in their new skin. To say that transgenderism is not located in the brain is to suggest that people’s whole lives and constant behaviour count for nothing. You might as well say that homosexuality is not innate, because the only evidence is the large number of homosexual people having relationships exclusively with members of the same sex. As for myself, I would call that good evidence. Better than much we find in other areas of science.

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