2012-09-28

Thanks to Dee for her review of, and feedback on, this post!

i often see 'gender' defined by various people as being about sociocultural expectations regarding presentation and roles/behaviours. Which is to say: rather than being about whether or not one is, for example, a 'woman', it's about presenting as 'a woman', behaving as 'a woman', and so on. Furthermore, this definition is then contrasted with 'sex', which the same people then define as being purely about biology.

i've previously written a critique of the notion of sex-as-purely-biological; here, i'd like to critique the conflating of 'gender' itself with "socioculturally expected gender roles/behaviours and presentation". Unsurprisingly, given the definition of 'gender' outlined above, many people go on to argue that we need to work towards a "gender-free society". With 'gender' defined as necessarily involving (relatively) rigid notions about presentation and roles, that desire seems to me to be a reasonable conclusion. The problem is, this definition is fundamentally hostile to trans people1.

One of the accusations often levelled by radfems2 against trans women such as myself is that we are reinforcing gender stereotypes, via:

  • "changing genders" (an oft-used phrase which i feel is usually inappropriate – we are not changing genders per se, we are changing which gender we publicly assert ourselves to be); and

  • adopting certain socioculturally expected physical presentations (regardless of the reasons for doing so).

As part of the process of transitioning, many trans women adopt an 'ultrafeminine' look, where what's considered 'feminine' is based on sociocultural ideas – in Western society, for example, predominantly wearing dresses and not pants, removing body hair, wearing jewellery, using facial makeup etc. There are at least two pressures for trans women to adopt this presentation, however:

  • 'Gatekeepers' - people such as psychiatrists and doctors – often require 'demonstrations' from trans women, to 'prove' we are serious about our sense of gender, before giving us the go-ahead to use hormones, have surgery, etc. That said, many gatekeepers often have *cough* 'traditional' ideas about what such demonstrations will look like. They don't find it sufficient for trans women to merely be suicidal about not being able to live as the gender we know ourselves to be; they require us to demonstrate to them that we're willing to conform to their stereotypes about the presentation and behaviours involved with being a 'woman'.

  • More generally, cisnormative society is constantly seeking any 'flaws' in how trans women live as women, to thus 'prove' that we're 'really' not women. A cis woman who prefers to wear pants, or who enjoys watching the footy, is nowadays only criticised by the more conservative conservatives, and doesn't seriously3 have her womanhood fundamentally questioned. This is not the case for an equivalent trans woman. So there is immense pressure on us to adopt 'ultrafeminine' presentations and behaviours.

In this context, defining 'gender' as inherently being about presentation and behaviours further reinforces the notion that trans people must present and behave like stereotypes in order to be accepted as the gender we know ourselves to be. Further, when one then uses this definition to argue for a "gender-free society", it's further reinforcing to trans people that we have no right to experience gender outside of that 'permitted' to us by society.

The argument might then be made: "Oh, but what we need to do is expand the definition of 'gender' so that it's not so limited in terms of presentation and behaviours!" There are at least two issues with this:

  • Assuming that one can expand the definition of 'gender' in such a way seems to me to imply that the essence of gender is in fact not about presentations and behaviours. So why include presentations and behaviours in the definition of gender in the first place? Why not distinguish 'gender' from "sociocultural expectations regarding presentation and behaviours for a given gender"?

  • In any case, who gets to decide which presentations and behaviours will be included in the expanded definition? If no-one or anyone does, surely that means that any presentations and behaviours can be included, which then renders presentation and behaviour irrelevant to the notion of 'gender' itself?

Here's something to consider. The word 'gay' - in the sense of 'homosexual' - has particular associations for many people: they often think of a guy who is flamboyant / camp. And though there are many people who realise that this is a stereotype – that although there are indeed some gay men like that, not all gay men are – it's still a common, pervasive stereotype in Western society. So should we then say we need to start working towards a "sexual-orientation-free society", simply because many people insist on linking sexual orientation with certain presentations and behaviours? Should we in fact define 'sexual orientation' as inherently involving particular sets of presentations and behaviours? Should we then state that a person is "not really 'gay'" unless they exhibit flamboyant, camp behaviours? If your answers to these questions are "no", why do your answers change to "yes" when discussing gender rather than sexual orientation?

i have to fight for my gender to be recognised every day. Every day i am involved with situations where people will regard me as "really just a guy" for one or more of many reasons: because i have a cock (and want to keep it)4, because i enjoy studying maths, because i top, because i have a goatee, because i watch porn .... the list goes on. And in the face of all that, i declare: "i am a woman. Whether or not you feel my presentation and behaviours fit your idea of the gender 'woman' is irrelevant. i am a woman. And don't try to tell me that i have to abandon this gender identity i have had to fight for just so that we can work towards your idea of a 'gender-free' utopia."

What i want is a society free of nonconsensual gendering. i refuse to demand that people not feel a sense of gender, or to claim that people wouldn't feel a sense of gender in some theoretical utopia. i want a society which doesn't assume people's gender based on presentation and/or behaviours – just as i want a society which doesn't assume someone's sexual orientation/preferences simply by looking at them – and which respects a person's sense of gender, or lack thereof. i will not support any theories or notions of gender which fly in the face of my experiences and struggles as a trans woman.

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1. And, i believe, genderqueer people too. (i myself identify as 'transgenderqueer' - i am both a trans woman and genderqueer.) But for the purpose of this essay, i'm going to focus on the impact on trans people.

2. A contraction of the phrase 'radical feminists'. A brief summary of my perspective on "radical feminism" can be found in this old blog post.

3. As distinct from jokes about "being one of the boys" etc.

4. i explore the particular form my body dysmorphia takes in more detail in this post.

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