If Gender’s a Social Construct, Is Being Trans Just a Construct Too?
Question: I think I might be trans, but does gender even exist? Like, if gender is a social construct, is being trans even real? I think I might be trans, but how does that fit into society?
That’s a big question with a big answer. Lots of different answers, in fact, but here’s mine.
Saying that “gender is a social construct” has somehow become a thing that sometimes people say to imply that gender doesn’t exist, that gender isn’t real. But as many of us trans folks can tell you, gender impacts our lives in very real ways.
How can we reconcile those ideas? Let’s break it down.
Gender refers to your innate sense of being — whether that matches what you were assigned at birth or not. It refers to any combination of how you express yourself, the roles you take on in society, and most importantly how you identify yourself.
A social construct is something that was shaped by society, by cultural norms — as opposed to having been shaped by biology.
So what “gender is a social construct” truly means is that the idea of being a man, woman or another gender is not innately biological. Rather, the idea of gender was created by society.
I don’t think anyone can deny that parts of gender are socially constructed. It’s society that prevents women from having equal rights in many respects. It’s society that lets women wear pants, but not men wear dresses. And it’s society that largely ignores nonbinary genders and intersex conditions that challenge our simple two box categorizing system.
But some people would argue: is it really society that has made men feel less free to express their emotions or are men biologically less emotional?
Did society create the idea that women are less sexual beings or do they really en masse have less of a biological sex drive than men?
And where do trans people fit into all of this?
In those ways gender is a social construct, but being a social construct doesn’t preclude it from having very real impacts on our lives — like impacting what people call you, how you’re treated, what you’re supposed to wear, what kind of future you’re expected to have, and more. Those are societally-created elements of gender.
Let’s imagine some utopian alternate universe where gender distinctions never became a thing. No one is assigned anything based on their external genitalia when they’re born. There are no girl names or boy names. There are no gendered pronouns. We don’t distinguish people in those ways. Everyone just is.
The problem is that it’s never going to happen in our lifetimes or maybe ever on planet Earth. We have spent far too much time as humans categorizing ourselves based on gender. That’s not the world we live in or probably ever will, no matter how gender-defiant and fluid post-millennials are.
So in the world we do live in now, these distinctions are real. As socially-constructed as they are, they are real experiences and pressures that we all face.
Trans people face these pressures to an extreme degree. The gender dysphoria we experience is often tied to the social constructs of gender. It’s tied to the ways that different genders get treated in society, the ways that different genders are typically expected to look and behave — and even for people who philosophically believe in completely smashing the gender binary, parts of their dysphoria are probably going to manifest in ways that conform to that binary.
As a trans guy, I used to get super dysphoric when I was made to wear dresses as a kid. And nowadays, I feel super affirmed in my identity when I get to wear suits and when someone calls me sir or mister.
Am I perpetuating the gender binary by engaging in those distinctions? Yeah, a little bit. But they’re also very important elements of affirming my gender. And hey, I can also kick back on the binary by saying that I’m a dude who likes Downton Abbey and glitter and really sucks at sports.
There’s something else beyond all the constructs of gender, something that we don’t quite understand from science yet, which determines that innate sense of gender. It’s gotta be something biological that makes us trans to begin with, but many of the feelings we experience in the day-to-day, especially with regard to gender attribution — or, how people perceive our gender — does have to do with social constructs.
So yes, being trans is a real thing even if gender is completely socially-constructed because those social constructs are part of what causes you to feel out of place in the gender you were assigned. Or, if not cause, at least exemplify the pressure.
And if all of that is still in doubt, the one thing that is not is that your feelings are always valid. Just be the best you that you can be.