Gender and Lies-To-Children

Handily illustrated by Penny Arcade

For those who want it: warning for transphobia, subtle and unsubtle, from Gabe, myself, and others (although in a critical context).

This post was prompted by some transphobic stuff Gabe from Penny Arcade said on Twitter, a few weeks ago now. I’m not going to discuss that incident directly (if you’re interested, you can find a storify here and more context and detail here) but I am going to use his tweets as illustrations of what I’m talking about. They were extremely upsetting for me to read at the time, for all kinds of reasons. But one of the things that I found particularly horrible and frustrating as I watched this all unfold was that I remembered thinking most of the things he was saying myself, at one point or another. It was a long time ago (and feels longer than it was), but it definitely did happen.

What I want to do is try to examine what I’ve learned about gender in my life so far, from childhood basics onwards, and from thinking somewhat along the lines Gabe did to… really not. The best description I have, looking back over it, is that it’s felt like a series of lies-to-children that got further and further away from my starting point, ending up somewhere that I think is both emotionally healthier and more intellectually defensible. I’ve recently been hearing a lot of people saythat having a more nuanced understanding of gender is a difficult burden to ‘be PC’, ‘use silly made up words’ or even, worst of all, ‘ignore basic factual truths in deference to people’s feelings’ - I’ve had exactly the opposite experience. Hopefully I can explain how and why.

To be clear, this essay is very much about me personally. I’ve spoken to other people about how their thoughts about gender developed, and none had the exact same sequence as I did, although quite often a lot of themes are familiar.

I also want to write this because I think it’s relatively rare to see examinations of cissexism from the inside, so to speak. It’s a strange and probably only temporary place to be, with enough distance to see where you went wrong with the benefit of new knowledge, but not so far away that you’ve lost the insider’s perspective. I hope I’ve succeeded in illuminating both, and the route I took between.

(If you don’t know what ‘cissexism’ is, don’t worry. The only thing you really need to know is that ‘cis’ is a word used to describe someone who isn’t trans. You can work out the rest from there).

This post owes a huge debt to an vast number of people. Over the years I’ve read a total of many hundreds of blog posts and comments and tweets about these topics, and had many conversations both online and in person, all of which have shaped my thinking. I wish I could thank everyone involved individually for those conversations, but since it’s more or less impossible to follow the trail of breadcrumbs back today, I instead want to thank everyone who is out there making themselves heard. You are having a profound effect.

OK, let’s go. Note I’ve tried to describe each step in the language that I would have used at the time, not the way I think about it now. So transphobia ahoy. Brace yourselves, as we start our journey with… Step 1.

1. Boys are boys and girls are girls. They have different body parts and that is how babies are made.

Once upon a time, it really was that fundamentally obvious to me that there were two kinds of people in the world.

I was lucky enough that as a kid I was never made to feel like anatomy was a shameful mystery. As a child, I read a picture book which explained the differences between boys and girls, illustrating and naming them all very clearly, and went on to explain how pregnancy and giving birth worked. We had an educational video along similar lines, which I didn’t think of as much different from the ones on kidneys or white blood cells. At school, biology lessons and textbooks explained the same thing yet again, old news to me by that point although it wasn’t to everyone in the room. Labelled diagrams that the class giggled awkwardly over. Cell division and gamete production, X and Y chromosomes in little probability tables. That’s what makes you a boy or a girl. OK.

2. Some people want to be the other sex.

I did at some point as a child encounter the concept that some people were not happy with being the sex they were born as, and changed their names, appearances, and even got surgery to change sex. Actually, it wasn’t remotely that gender neutral, it was entirely about ‘men wanting to become women’ - I specifically remember a comment in a newspaper article that I barely understood which said something about how ‘all experts are surprised at how little traffic there is going the other way’, or something like that, which I immediately filed away as fact. I was also left with the impression that trans women looked like (or were?) flamboyant drag queens, but I’m not really sure from where exactly.

It was a long time ago so my memory is undoubtedly inaccurate, but I don’t remember having a particularly strong reaction. Hey, it takes all sorts, right? I remember being really indignant when some friends not-so-subtly pointed out a MAN wearing a SKIRT in the supermarket, because why on earth would you care what someone is wearing?

But despite being easy-going about people doing whatever they want, my idea of gender hadn’t been particularly disturbed by this information. My discomfort with the scenario above wasn’t much different to when people would point out strangers wearing clothes they thought were ugly, something I’ve always hated.

When I was in my mid teens, I also remember having a conversation with a dude who thought he understood all about the subject on the basis of having read a thing once, who explained that you should use the pronoun ‘he’ until he got medical treatment, specifically surgery, to become female. Oh okay! Good to know how it works. This came up in the Penny Arcade argument, from someone who I suspect also thinks of himself as pretty well informed on the topic:

@B33J 7:28 PM - 20 Jun 13 @cwgabriel @bobbieluvsya You’re still technically a female even if you don’t want to be labeled as one. Until a full gender swap operation.

I didn’t watch TV or films at that age, so I (luckily in this case) missed a lot of the trans misogyny and general gender policing that people encounter in those mediums.

3a. Gender identity and biological sex are separate. (No seriously, this is, like, an actual thing. There are all concepts and words for it and stuff).

While hanging around on the internet as a teenager, especially in spaces that were specifically feminist or queer, I gradually picked up some more concepts and terminology. I ran across terms like ‘trans woman’ and ‘trans man’ (first without the space between the words, then with), MTF, FTM, transgender, transsexual. Pre op, post op. Trans, cis. Biological gender, gender identity. ‘Genetic’ female/male. Born as, identifies as. Assigned male/female at birth. Passing, not passing, being read as male or female. ‘Sex is what’s between your legs, gender is what’s between your ears’. In retrospect, I find it interesting that it was all so dualistic.

Over time, these terms solidified into concepts I felt reasonably fluent with. It took a while for it to really sink in though, especially to fully get my head around which ‘way around’ all those terms were. Take it away, Gabe:

@cwgabriel 3:30 AM - 8 Jun 13 @q0rt I’m not trying to be a jerk. if a person with a penis presents themselves as a woman are they a transgendered man or are they a woman?

This felt so confusing at the time! Like, is a trans man a man (who was born male) but is trans, and therefore a woman? Or is a trans man actually a woman who wants to be a man? I had to work it out each time. Did the ‘man’ in trans man refer to their biological sex or gender identity? I’d check and remind myself, but with all these little pairs of words floating around (and with of course an innate bias towards seeing the ‘biological sex’ as the more important/real one of the two), it’s actually counter-intuitive to connect them all up correctly at first.

Still, there is no denying that this separation between the two concepts was a genuine development in how I thought about gender, and not one that I got immediately. I remember reading a lot of 101 posts and resources by people who described being trans as like ‘being trapped in the wrong body’, who asked how the reader would feel if overnight their body was switched out for one of the ‘opposite’ sex, and everyone they knew responded to those new cues with matching pronouns and social expectations. I wasn’t someone who was massively attached to the idea that I was female and everything that came with it, so my own emotional reaction to that thought experiment wasn’t very intense, but I did understand what they were trying to say.

I came to understand ‘gender identity’ as being like a bit of your brain that tells it whether you’re male or female, socially and physically. Most people get the right one that matches neatly with their body, while some unlucky souls get the one that doesn’t match. The resulting ‘dysphoria’ is treated by hormones, surgery and so on to bring the two back in line with each other, since there’s no known way to affect the other half of the equation.

It was an improvement, but it wasn’t a complete overhaul. Far from it. I absolutely thought people had a right to do whatever they wanted with their dress and bodies and social selves, but I found the appropriate pronouns jarring when they conflicted with my idea of what that person’s ‘biological’ gender really was, under their ‘preferred’ one. For example, if I knew someone in, say, a newspaper photograph was trans, my brain automatically looked for any hints in their appearance of their ‘original’, ‘genetic’ gender. Not to like, be mean or anything! Just out of curiosity! Just to see! I always saw something, of course, and then had to try really hard to consciously ignore it in an attempt to be respectful. And I’d feel privately a bit cheated if I didn’t realise someone I interacted with was trans, as though I should have been able to tell.

I’m not proud of any of that, and I hope no one was able to notice. Even at the time, I hoped that. Because at the same time, I had also learned:

3b. Showing any sign that you don’t think of someone’s identified gender as real is hurtful to trans people. And they already have a hard enough time of it.

I was very much operating in the framework of ‘So and so was born female, but now identifies as male’. BUT I also understood that this gender identity was there for respecting, not questioning, and that implying that someone’s gender was not as valid because they were trans instead of cis was something that was incredibly personally painful to the people affected. I had learned more and more horrifying things about the treatment of trans people in society, including barriers to appropriate medical care, the lack of legal protections, to the high risk of discrimination and violence. The last thing I wanted to do was to add to that burden, or make anyone feel uncomfortable.

So even though I might have to spend a second mentally calculating what pronoun you’re supposed to use for someone who describes themselves as ‘FTM’, or run a double check script in my head before the words came out to make sure they were the right ones… I bloody well did those things. It didn’t really occur to me to do otherwise.

I’m fairly sure this is what Gabe thinks he’s doing when he says:

@cwgabriel 6:38 PM - 20 Jun 13 I don’t ask people what genitals they have. I treat people however they present themselves to me.
@cwgabriel 7:15 PM - 20 Jun 13 . @bobbieluvsya what you are physically has 0 bearing on what I treat you like.If you want to be treated like a lady I’ll treat you that way

How kind! But no. What’s missing here is an understanding that it’s all very well not to misgender individual people to their faces, but when you also say stuff like the tweets in this storify then it’s clear to everyone that what you’re actually thinking is along the lines of ‘I should treat this dude like a lady because that’s their personal preference’. And that undermines the whole effort of acknowledging someone’s gender as genuine.

I remember thinking something much like that - that trans people were, in some respects, technically speaking not really the gender they wanted to live as. I would have had a sneaking sympathy with Gabe’s statement in his first apology that

‘I am happy to treat someone however they want to be treated. Wanna be a guy or a girl or a fox or whatever and I will be happy to treat you that way. But I think that is very different from the physical reality of your human body.’

I had the good sense to STFU and not actually say stuff like that, understanding that it’s hurtful, but that’s more due to my personality than anything else. I certainly thought it at times.

Moving on.

4. Gender isn’t binary. Try that one on for size!

OK, OK, so. Understanding that your ‘gender identity’ is not necessarily the same as your sex, so, like, couldn’t someone’s gender identity be, like, Option C? Or D E F G? Do you have any evidence that they couldn’t be? What if someone just genuinely truly feels that neither M nor F describes them adequately? Or what if their perception of their gender is fluid and varies a lot over time, so neither side feels like a description of their full self?

Yeah, that was a bit of a stretch for me when I first heard it. Not because it was alien, precisely the opposite. I’m a woman who as I mentioned before doesn’t always feel a very strong connection to the idea of being female, and often feels stifled by that role. I won’t list all my experiences and alienations here, but basically, I was hearing a lot of descriptions that sounded exactly like stuff I felt being stated as reasons for why some people very much like me weren’t female at all. But isn’t it maybe sexist to say that liking some boy stuff/not being ‘girly’ makes you not female (or vice versa)? How can you untangle that from just discomfort with societal gender roles? What exactly is the difference between being ‘genderqueer’ and just not conforming to gender stereotypes? Do you need to be androgynous to ‘pass’ as genderqueer?

Again, I was personally respectful of any stated preferences, even the ones I had to look up, but, but. I did also feel like, in my feminist utopia where gender roles stop being a Thing, then maybe, I mean… would anyone even need to be trans, let alone genderqueer, if gender roles weren’t oppressive? We would all just be people, right?

I was far from alone in that line of thought. Plenty of feminists and queer folk who I looked up to as far more knowledgeable than me were asking those same questions. Some outright stated that transitioning actually reinforced the gender binary, as you were picking whatever gender felt most comfortable to you rather than just doing away with gender norms and expectations. Hmm.

So that’s where I was when…

5. Sex isn’t binary. Uh oh…

This bit of information pretty much blew my mind in some kind of slow motion implosion. Once I started down this rabbit hole, that was it for my whole understanding of sex and gender. I realised the whole thing was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, in a way that I could not brush under the carpet while maintaining any intellectual integrity.

I’m not remotely an expert on the topic, but at some point I lost a day to reading this website, and the most memorable revelations were:

  • Not all people’s genitals are classifiable as distinctly male or female.
  • Combinations of chromosomes other than XX and XY are possible. And some people have chromosome combinations which are unexpected given how their bodies look - so unexpected that they might not even be aware of it. (This dude doesn’t appear to have heard of that little piece of science, as well as being personally horrible).
  • People can have all kinds of varieties of organs, tissues, hormone levels and other things that you can physically ‘test’ for, and those won’t necessarily all indicate the same sex as each other. You cannot always make a neat, 100% defensibly ‘correct’ decision on what someone’s sex is - that judgment really depends on what standard you choose to use and that can be very contextual. (This is a fascinating and informative page on this topic in the context of gender testing athletes).

And, crucially…


Our belief that there are two sexes (and genders) is so strong that we actually actively warp the world to fit it, not the other way around.

Sex is just NOT that simple.

This was like the last piece of the puzzle for a completely new way to think about gender, not just of intersex people but of everyone.

6: Binaries are inadequate. There is no ‘normal’ to reliably compare against. HELP.

If ‘biological sex’ is made up of a constellation of different factors which don’t necessarily all point the same way, then the idea that I’m female is also, fundamentally, a simplification, a category which we have made for ease of use.

If my sex is ultimately only a location on a spectrum, or a guess based on only the most easily observable traits which could potentially be complicated by further information (I’ve never had my chromosomes actually tested, have you?) then there is nothing that makes my cis gender more ‘normal’ than someone who is trans. I mean, more statistically common, sure. Far easier and safer state in which to navigate society, absolutely. But more real or normal? No, not really.

If I no longer think about gender as being a variety of ways (cis, trans, non binary) to relate to two distinct sexes and their accompanying societal stuff, then I’m freer to think about everyone’s gender in a way that is more honest and comfortable, including myself.

In my case, I don’t have to feel like I’m failing at being a proper woman by not being very feminine in various ways (something I used to feel a lot - like maybe one day I’d grow up to understand how to do it like you’re supposed to. It never happened). But equally, feeling like I can’t fully live up to being a Proper Woman doesn’t mean I have to find some other way to describe my gender. I can be exactly the kind of woman that I am: far from androgynous, but not particularly feminine either. Or masculine. Or butch, or femme. I can be occasionally playful with gender in any direction if the whim strikes, and that’s cool too, and doesn’t make me either less of a woman or a really inadequate genderqueer person. Those aren’t my only options.

It’s really a weight off my shoulders to understand that that is as valid a way for me to do gender as any other conceivable one, if it is true to myself and not harming anyone else. And even though I haven’t heard one single other person describe themselves this way. It’s just what I am, it’s me.

I mean, part of this has probably just been growing older and more secure in myself. But a lot of it has been understanding what ‘gender’ means in a new way intellectually and emotionally. And truly, I’m not sure that I know a single person who doesn’t have some complications in their relationship with gender. I think we can all benefit from a more flexible way to look at it.

I wish I could communicate just how different a mindset it is over here. It’s like living in a completely different universe, so separate from the one that Gabe’s statements come from that it’s hard to even know how to effectively communicate across the gap sometimes.

Some other interesting effects of internalising this information have been:

  • I (gradually) lost that instant of mental effort to see trans people as the gender that I was ‘supposed’ to. I realised that a lot of my creeping, subtle perception of someone’s ‘realer’, ‘biological’ gender was actually due to my knowing or suspecting that they were trans and seeing them, correspondingly, as a ‘trans woman’ first and foremost, while I looked at people I assumed to be cis with total unquestioning acceptance of their gender regardless of their appearance. When my mindframe switched to more ‘a woman who, amongst other things, is trans’, the nagging feeling in the back of my head that the pronouns weren’t quite right (and the conscious effort not to hurt people by fucking up) was lessened by an immense degree.
  • In general, my mental male/female pattern-matching instincts somehow expanded to cover a lot more ground, and overlap a lot more. When I see random people on the street, I don’t gender them quite as automatically or comprehensively as I used to.
  • Language like ‘the opposite sex’ or ‘both sexes’ became weirdly jarring - along with a vast swathe of genitals-based jokes and insults.
  • ‘Identifies as’ stopped being a polite way of signalling ‘but isn’t really’.
  • All kinds of sexist tropes started to appear more obviously nonsensical, now that the whole idea of sex being a genuine way to accurately divide up the world into two distinct kinds of people was wibbly.

And some of the things that I’d known were classed as ‘transphobic’ from seeing the debates, but had seemed to me to be somewhat understandable things to think (if unkind to say because they are hurtful), came into focus in a new way, with the transphobia so immensely obvious I couldn’t believe I’d missed it before.

  • The obsession with surgery died down. The idea that someone could be trans but not have yet had (or ever want) surgery stopped being a challenge to their identity, or marking them as only part way there. Men, women and everyone else can be all sorts of different shapes and don’t need to be (or more crucially: genuinely, scientifically, cannot usefully be) assessed against a set standard. I realised that previously, on some level, the closer a trans person was to seeming cis, even in invisible-to-me aspects like the contents of their underwear, the less challenging their gender had been for me to accept. But oops, there isn’t actually any good intellectual basis for that, it’s just cissexism.
  • I stopped worrying that stories about any kind of regrets about gender transition would in some way reflect badly on the concept of trans people as a whole. Previously, while I’d absolutely understood that the current barriers to medical care are cruel and dangerous, I had had some sympathy for where I thought they were coming from, i.e. to make sure that only people who really needed treatment got it. The problem was that the barriers were too ridiculously high, not that they were there. But… if being cis is no more ‘natural’/’normal’ than anything else, then why the investment in keeping people cis if at all possible? This goes far beyond genuine health concerns at the moment. Why shouldn’t people be able to do what they like with their bodies and gender, including things they could potentially regret if it comes to that? And why would distress experienced by people regretting transitioning be considered weightier than the distress experienced by people regretting not transitioning? This idea comes directly from thinking of being trans as being an aberration from the more ‘correct’ state of being cis, only acceptable in the most dire of circumstances.
  • Similarly, the idea that trans people having ‘always known’ proved that they were ‘really’ trans and not just overthinking it as an adult disappeared. ‘I’ve always known’/’Born This Way’ does accurately describe some people’s experiences of being trans, but not all, and the idea that that is a standard you must meet in order to be ‘legitimately’ trans is indefensible if you stop and think about it. It’s a way to reassure ourselves that gender is innate and unchanging, because the alternative is a little bit scary.
  • The ‘but if I’m supposed to respect your gender identification and treat you accordingly, how is that different from respecting that you identify as batman?’ line (thanks Gabe) started sounding like an argument from outer space, not a valid intellectual exercise to find out the exact limits of ‘identification’. I mean, you can have that argument about what responsibilities you have towards people who say they want to be treated like batman or foxes if you like, but for the most part, it doesn’t have anything at all to do with gender and trans people. That line of thinking only makes sense if you see cis people as being a gender while trans people identify with one.

I’m sure there’s more to come as all these new ways of thinking develop and settle over the years. Gender is something so fundamental to the way we’re taught to think about the world, from the minute we’re born, that there’s no way this list will be the end of it.

Welcome to the world of possibilities - I hope you find it as exciting as I do.