Gender assumptions and the definition of self, beyond compliance
By all accounts and observations, I present as a woman biologically, and I am attracted to males, mostly.
I am, in theory, cisgender. That is, I feel no dissonance in my identity from the fact that my physical body presents as female in its physiology. I really don’t care, and just go with what I have.
I am also, in theory and consequently, heterosexual.
These facts all mesh. The standard, socially normative model is present on the surface. I also have full cisgender privilege, because I look like a woman and I function mainly as a woman, for practical purposes.
But this is all circumstantial.
Beyond pragmatics about bodily functions, there is this thing: socially-defined gender. And this binary template means nothing to me as relates to identity, outside of a subjective, semantic designation. Indeed, it has been a lifelong enigma for me that one must be defined according to binary gender groups.
Judging from the power divides between males and females, which I’ve come to learn and battle, gender seems to be an artificial construct that does far more harm than good.
I have repeatedly expressed, when I was younger, that I was a man in a woman’s body. Now, I see things differently – I am me, in a female body. Neither man or woman, perhaps both, and especially all in between and outside of that.
Let me remember, before…
As a child, I did not identify with one gender or another.
My mother was a modern feminist, but obsessed with social image – I now believe she may have been autistic like me, and stuck in compensating with the overarching obligation of femininity and attractiveness for self-worth, as many women are. Whatever the reasons behind it, she had a very rigid and well-defined idea of what I should look like as a kid, and she applied it, stuffing me into cute and respectable girl clothes and shoes, and pulling my hair into submission and ponytails. But this was only relevant to social situations – school, family events, and so on. When we were at home or I went out to play, I wore my brothers’ old polyester pants and cotton t-shirts, and my hair was wild.
So, as a child, I existed in two realms, the public and the private. In public, I was a girl, which was whatever my mother saw as appropriate. I played along by accepting the clothes and the hair, and thought nothing of it, because she was the boss. In private, I was genderless – I did not have an opinion or indeed a conscious idea of gender. I preferred to play with boys because they made sense, toy cars, the woods, action. I liked to play with some girls because they were fascinating, with all their pinks and cutenesses and fuzzy things. But I didn’t identify with them, quite the opposite, they seemed other. With boys, and non-binary girls that I met later on, we just were. Action was the goal, not identity.
Growing up and as puberty was coming along, discovering binary sexual gender interactions was another story entirely. Pop culture was rife with sexual freedom and affirmation, and I gobbled it up. The Love Boat and Grease, The Blue Lagoon and Fantasy Island, Endless Love and Star Wars. Being a woman was portrayed as joyful and empowering. Being a woman meant being pursued and beautiful. Being a woman meant sexual attractiveness. I wanted to be attractive, and pursued, and loved. So it was awesome that I was a woman. Lucky for me.
It also meant that social interactions became a whole lot easier. As I discovered sexual attraction, words became supercilious, glances and proximity and touch were clear and significant communication, and kissing and groping a realization of human connection, in a pleasurable and easy way. The body was leading.
I had always felt more comfortable around males, so there was no clear gap for me between childhood and puberty; sexuality was added on and meant more self-realization, significant connection, intensity.
In early adolescence, I started to feel out preferences for body adornment.* The New Wave and Disco trends were fun! Much color, and sexiness with leggings, tight pants and shiny fabrics. But fashion had its limits, and I started to copy less and imitate more to create my own style, with masculine clothes that were also sensual and sexy: a man’s dress shirt with top buttons undone, rough checkered hunting jacket, oversize t-shirts, and cutoff jeans quickly became my favorites. I borrowed my father’s clothes far more often than I did my mother’s… and those only when they were masculine or gender-neutral, like her man’s fishing hat worn tipped backward (hello, Boy George) or a pale yellow jacket that felt like I had become a soft baby chicken.
Clothes were about functionality, sensuality, and expression. When I entered high school and my new best friend introduced me to the world of punk, I was taken. More digging into my father’s closet brought out vintage items from the 50’s and 60’s. I tie-dyed and snugged the bottom of my jeans, wore a kilt over them, cut off the sleeves of my t-shirts and wore my hair short. Gender wasn’t a factor for my choices. Whatever was streamlined, looked good and felt right was the way to go. I started borrowing my mom’s jewelry because she had some metal chokers and kilt pins in there…
Eventually, I gave up wearing punk attire because one boyfriend told me this: “You’re a nice person, but the way you dress keeps people from wanting to get to know you, it scares them.” I thought that made a lot of sense.
And then there was late adolescence, and the Relationship thing. I did not fit the model image of what a Girlfriend should be like. I was not kept around for the long term. And this jarred me, because to me, a relationship was a given; it existed because it was already happening, it was not a work-in-progress that had to fit into a specific social template. To me we were, already, in a relationship. But for most people, the need to fit into the template is very strong.
We were kissing in a tent. It was a big party, his birthday. We were all sleeping over. The kiss was passionate. We had been friends for a long time. It was wonderful. And then he pulled away and said “What am I doing?” and stormed out. Dawn was breaking, and it was cold.
I remember many instances like this. I was not Girlfriend material, I know that now. Back then, I didn’t understand what this meant. I did have boyfriends. But they didn’t know what love was, or commitment. A relationship to them was a pastime. Yet to me each encounter of closeness meant full commitment, there was no gap between what the relationship was and what the relationship should be according to these social templates.
So, I present as cisgender, and I am heteroromantic as far as I know, and all-out heterosexual.
But I don’t know what gender means, from the inside. The body loves heterosexual sex. It meshes with hormones and stuff, and hetero love ensues. But somehow this feels circumstantial, and that somehow, I am a slave to the body.
Does this make sense? The gender binary means nothing to me personally. I can’t relate with people who actively and purposely identify with one specific, socially-delimited binary gender, either biologically given or the one they were not born into. Gender is not a binary variable in my cognition. And so I just gape in wonder, and cannot connect.
It feels like we don’t speak the same language, or think in the same way.
My friends and lovers have always been fluid across the gender divide. When they didn’t know or accept it, and the divide hit them, because of social circumstances or the social pressure to fit the expected template, this often pulled us apart. My lack of gender boundaries was not welcome. For that matter, the fact that I don’t adhere to superficial social templates, whatever they may be, was always a factor in relationships.
Gender is often said to be a social thing, in its binary form. On the inside, I am neither man nor woman, I am both, and thrive in this. I do now.
But for a dozen years or so, from my late twenties to my early thirties, I tried desperately to fit the “woman” social template. The body called me to motherhood, and it was a sweet call. I wanted a life-long relationship, and was tired of being the outcast. So I tried.
I enjoyed my new interest in being feminine, and part of it was that I felt I could be pretty, which was nice. I discovered I could be gentle, and graceful. I think the female body is beautiful, so I enjoyed making mine pleasing in dress and gestures. It was a creative process, and my body was the canvas where I could practice this art. I took dancing lessons, I groomed my hair. I accepted the standard courtship rituals, which had always seemed senseless to me. I played along and followed the template. I was conciliatory. I accepted the feminine traits society said I should have, within reason. I molded myself as best I could to fit into this template, as I understood it, and for the first time in my life, accepted outside influence without truly owning it. I wanted to own it. It seemed the right path to follow. I would try.
But then, I also started to be subjected to the oppression and social violence that the patriarchal model involves. I was berated for “not being nice, after all” by controlling, dominating males. I was gaslighted because I expressed my disagreement when subjected to demeaning or humiliating behaviors, including by my family. I fought back, but I wanted to be nice. I asked why, and pleaded, but I wanted to be loved as I thought society defined it. I thought if I complied, I would find collaboration, and support, and self-realization. But no. Instead I became self-conscious, started to doubt myself, and lost self-esteem.
Little by little, by wanting to play along, and as I gradually tolerated being treated as inferior and inadequate, I was crushed. And then I crashed. I found myself lost in this empty, made-up shell, not knowing who I was. It took a long time to figure it out.
Now I am back where I started, a genderless being in a body that is a tool, an object of interface with the world, and that happens to present as female, which is just fine, but means nothing more to me than a female-identified appearance, female organs, and the hormones and cycles that go with them. These just are, and mean nothing to me outside their factual form, function and semantics.
I also now actively reject stereotyped models of gender identification, because through them I experienced oppression, and trauma; because of knowing the evil that lurks in being forced into templates by self or others.
And still as ever, I like sex, in the form that my body prefers. In fact, being liberated from expectations of compliance means more bodily freedom, and more fulfillment. I respect the body, and mostly, though it is a nuisance sometimes, it respects me back.
To this day, I still have that one pair of high heels I ever owned, that I keep because they’re pretty, and who knows, I might want to play with them, for fun. The thongs and other restrictive and uncomfortable clothes I threw out and gave away. I keep the makeup to hide blemishes and the bras to keep my appendages from swinging. Because it feels right. I dress as a woman, because the clothes suit me (I cannot rave enough about the blessings of wearing dresses and skirts), and because it’s easy, and for aesthetics.
But anytime someone points to me and says woman, I flinch. It’s not me they are referring to. And their assumption always comes with oppression about what and how a woman should be.
*Footnote: About clothes
The original version of this text didn’t contain a section about exploring clothing and adornment in adolescence. Since to me as a youth, this felt entirely unrelated to gender identity, it didn’t come to mind during the first draft.
Aside from illustrating the development of self-image outside of gender, which is rather relevant after all, the reason I added the section on clothes is this: a male friend, after reading the original version, told me he related strongly, and that he never understood all those “Act like a man” or “That stuff is for girls” comments he received as a boy.
He also wrote:
“I select my clothes according to several essential criteria: color, comfort, and tactile qualities. As for the rest… As a boy, I put on my sister’s clothes, and went for a stroll. The reaction from many people, including my aunt, was to say that I was deranged, and should see a specialist…”
The injustice and stigma in this experience made me realize how lucky I was to grow up in my family, where my identity as a youth wasn’t forced into gender stereotypes. I never had to think twice about wearing men’s clothes – and this is privilege.
If I had been a boy in my liberal, human-rights-loving family, and wanted to wear feminine-looking clothes, would I have been free to make my own choices? Would I have been coached out of the “habit” and into proper dress?
What is it about our societies that pathologizes gender identification when it falls outside the normative construct?
While enforced stereotypes relating to gender impact on the well-being, self-worth and self-determination of all children and adults, youth exploring gender identity face injustice, judgment and social violence generally. And this needs to stop.