Trans 101: Sex and Gender

(reposted from Facebook, originally posted January 14, 2017)

If you’ve never questioned your gender, it can be hard to understand how such a thing is even possible. I mean, if you’re male, you’re male! And if you’re female, you’re female! What’s there to question?

It turns out that the answer is: a lot.

The first thing is understanding what we even mean by “male” and “female.” There are two very different, very basic ways of understanding it. One is sex, and the other is gender.

When we talk about sex, we’re talking about “biological” sex; the sex you were assigned at birth, when the doctor or midwife took a look between your legs and saw a penis or a vagina, and then ticked the appropriate box. If you were born with a penis, it’s extremely likely that you also have XY sex chromosomes, and your body produces sperm. If you were born with a vagina, there’s a pretty good chance that you have XX sex chromosomes, and your body makes eggs. Your biological sex comprises all of those things.

That’s pretty straightforward, right?

Well… no. There are a multitude of “intersex” outcomes that blur this line considerably. Things like Klinefelter Syndrom (XXY chromosomes), or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, can cause variations on the sexed parts of the body. And of course, people can have surgeries and take hormones to alter some of these biological elements. But in the vast majority of cases, there are two pretty distinct biological sexes, and they are male and female. If this weren’t the case, we would be doomed as a species, so it’s worth sticking to for the most part.

Okay, that’s biological sex. Then what’s gender, and how is it different?

When we talk about gender, we’re talking about all of the interpersonal, social, and cultural aspects of maleness and femaleness. We’re talking about what it’s like to be male or female in the world. Biological sex traits are essentially the same everywhere at all times, but gender traits vary wildly from one place to another, and at different times. Gender almost certainly came about as an outgrowth of biological sex, and gender is correlated to biological sex, but they aren’t the same thing.

There are two big facets of gender that you need to understand: gender identity and gender expression. Gender expression is the set of behaviors that you engage in that signal your gender to other people. It’s the things you do to tell other people, “Hey, I’m a girl!” or “Hey, I’m a boy!” Gender identity, on the other hand, is the internal experience of being male or female (or some combination of the two, or neither). Your gender identity exists even when you’re alone, but it informs almost every interaction you have with others, and you could argue that without those interactions, your gender identity would be meaningless.

Gender expression is pretty easy to understand. In Western culture, we often express “female” using dresses, long hair, jewelry, cosmetics, certain types of shoes, a manner of speaking, ways of moving, standing, sitting, and interacting with others. We often express “male” with certain types of shirts and pants, shorter hair, less and different jewelry, no cosmetics, different types of shoes, a different manner of speaking, ways of moving, and interacting with others. These gendered expressions enhance and are enhanced by our bodies’ secondary sex characteristics: beards and body hair for men, hips and breasts for women. Gender expression plays with and off of those characteristics. Crossdressers use gender expression in order to feel good; drag queens and drag kings use gender expression as a form of entertainment. Pretty much everybody else just does it as an expression of self, and expression of our identity.

Gender expression is easy to understand, but gender identity is sometimes very difficult to conceptualize for cisgender people (people whose biological sex and gender identity match). You may not even be aware that you have a gender identity at all. What does it even mean to identify as a gender anyway?

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that due to some kind of Freaky Friday situation, you woke up one morning in a body of the opposite sex. If you are a woman, you’re in a man’s body. If you’re a man, you’re in a woman’s body now. Once in that body, would you suddenly become a member of the opposite gender? If you were a woman before, would you now feel like you were a man? If you started out as a man, would being inside a woman’s body make you feel like a woman? Would you feel comfortable? I imagine that the answer is probably no. (If the answer is yes, you might be transgender!)

A transgender person would feel much more comfortable in that situation. If I had Freaky Friday situation with, say, Rachel Weisz, I would probably do my best to make sure that she and I never resolved our differences, and I would burn down the Chinese restaurant just to be safe. That’s because I strongly identify as female. To me, having a female body would make a great deal of sense. Having a female body would feel CORRECT. (If that also seems like a good deal to you, you are probably transgender!)

When you are transgender, the body that you are in feels wrong. Trans women don’t feel like women “trapped in men’s bodies.” Our bodies belong to us, and we are women, so they are women’s bodies. But the secondary sex characteristics of our bodies feel wrong. It feels like our bodies went down the wrong conveyor belt in the body factory and parts were installed in ways that they shouldn’t have been. And when your body feels wrong, it really messes with your head.

It really, really messes with your head. A lot.

Another thought experiment. Imagine that you woke up tomorrow and your feet were reversed. Your left foot was now your right foot and your right foot was now the left. You could probably still walk, but it would feel wrong. It would feel so wrong that it would be difficult not to think about it. It would mess with you so hard that every time you looked at your feet, it might even make you feel kind of ill. It would just be so wrong! That feeling is called “dysphoria.” And when you feel it about gendered parts of your body, it’s called “gender dysphoria.”

That feeling you’re imagining about your feet, is how I feel about the parts of my body that register as male. My shoulders, the body hair, my lack of hips, my masculine face. I spent a crapload of money getting rid of my facial hair, because I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror anymore or deal with feeling the scratchiness of my face. That beard just felt so wrong. Ladies, imagine if you started growing a beard. Think of how squicked out you would be. Pretty squicked, right? That’s precisely how squicked out I was, for a very very long time.

For me, doing what I can to bring my body more in line with a female body helps me not feel that sense of wrongness, helps me to feel less dysphoric. The closer my body gets to feeling like a woman’s, the more comfortable I am in it.

Remember how I said that gender expression is how we signal our gender to others? If there’s one thing that most transgender people want, it’s to be gendered properly. Trans people on the whole really despise being misgendered. In order to counter that, we usually alter our gender expression to match our gender identity. All of those behaviors, external features, mannerisms, etc. that signal a male versus female gender are things that we use to express our gender. For some of us, those that can’t pass or have difficulty passing as our identified, a strong gender presentation lets people know how to gender us.

I have as girly a gender presentation as I can muster. First, because it’s fun; I’m a girly girl and I like girl things. But I also push my female expression as far as possible so that people will understand that I want to be seen as female. Otherwise, they would just see a dude with nice eyebrows. When I attempt to present as male these days, I look kind of like a member of a 90’s boy band twenty years past his prime but still trying real hard.

The effort it can take to express gender can actually be a big problem for some trans women who aren’t particularly girly. They don’t really care to get all dolled up just to go to the grocery store, but often feel like they have to because getting misgendered feels so lousy. (I got misgendered at the grocery store the other day and I went and sat in my car and cried for five minutes. I was wearing a DRESS!)

There are other aspects of gender; I’m kind of simplifying. And gender expression is rather trickier than I’m letting on. And it’s important to understand that a lot of people identify as nonbinary, meaning they don’t particularly feel like one or the other, or as bigender (identifying as different genders at different times, or both at once), or agender or gendervoid (experiencing no clear gender) or genderfluid (moving back and forth through genderspace), or genderqueer (being unable or unwilling to adhere to binary ideas about gender). And probably some other stuff that I’ve never even heard of.

And that leads us into my final point about gender: the gender binary. We are taught that there are two distinct genders, just as we’re taught that there are two distinct sexes. That strong social need to enforce that everyone “make up their mind” has enormous implications in law, medicine, and lots of other aspects of life, but lately it’s most important when we talk about who has access to which spaces. I’m talking about bathrooms and locker rooms and changing rooms. We usually only make two kinds of each of those things.

But there is no solid grounds to insist that there are only two genders. or that those genders line up with biological sex 100% of the time. The gender binary, in which every single person is sorted into either male or female is a purely social construction; culture creates it and maintains it in order to keep everyone in line. It enforces the binary in order to make sure that everyone knows their place in society; and it polices the binary harshly, because if people make that boundary fuzzy, all of those binary aspects of society stop working properly.

You can see this now in two big ways. The first is the so-called “bathroom bills.” Those are designed with the sole intent of maintaining gendered spaces as discrete, binary settings. Bathrooms are the kings and queens of gendered spaces. When people think about the binariness of gendered spaces being torn down, it makes them feel as though they are being assaulted. In my opinion, that’s why bathroom bills focus so much on nonexistent sexual assault. The people who want the bills are afraid of an assault on their worldviews, and they project this as a physical assault.

The other gender policing comes from the other end of the political spectrum. If you’re a cisgender person, you probably have no idea what a TERF is, but every trans person does. TERF is an acronym for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist” (some say it’s “Trans Exterminating Radical Feminist”). They come at it from a different direction. They believe that trans women (they don’t seem to care much about trans men) are men who are attempting to appropriate, invade, and colonize women’s spaces. They are just as dedicated to the gender binary, just for different reasons.

Meanwhile, trans people are just doing their best to get on with their lives, identifying as the gender or genders or lack of gender that feels right to them. I know what it feels like to be me, and everything about the way I understand gender in my world tells me that I am female. You know what it feels like to be you, and nobody can tell you different. Shouldn’t we give everyone the benefit of the doubt to know what it feels like to be them? Because if they’re not hurting anyone, it doesn’t matter, and it’s really none of our business. You may not have any idea what it’s like to have your body and your gender mismatched, but you don’t need to understand it in order to respect it.

Ultimately, sex and gender are just ideas that we have about the world. They are useful categories, but they are not actual things. In the real word, every body is different. Every mind is different. Every heart beats in its own unique rhythm.

Everyone deserves respect, and to truly respect someone is to believe them when they tell you who they are.

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