What is Gender…?

I want to discuss gender. I want to discuss this from a place of questioning and experience, rather than a place of oppression and theory. While both theory and oppression are important to the discussion of gender, too often gendered experiences are dismissed (particularly when the experience comes from a trans person). Before I can properly discuss “gender” I have to define what I mean as “gender”, because there really isn’t a consensus. Language fails us here.

One thing I’d like to talk about are some of my earliest understandings. It is important to understand how children learn about the world. Children learn through instruction, but mostly it is through observation. Most children will pay close attention to adults who closely match their sex. Boy children will learn how to be a man by watching the men in their life – thus you have generational abusers who may have been instructed not to hit women, but observed men hitting women.

As far back as I can remember, my observations have always been of the women in my life. The men were simply not that important or interesting. If a book, movie, or TV show didn’t have a compelling female character, I was not interested. I watched and learned how to be an adult by watching my mother, grandmothers, aunts, and to a lesser extent books, movies, and television.

I was aware of inequality in the work my mother performed (she was a stay-at-home parent) and my father (construction). Unequal as far as how their individual contributions were regarded. I was, and have always been, very aware of sexist comments, because those comments didn’t reflect ME or the women I knew – not because “mamma raised me right” (although she didn’t do a bad job either).

When I say “I always knew I was a girl”. I am NOT saying “I liked to play with dolls” or “I wore momma’s heals when she wasn’t looking.” What I am saying is for SOME reason, I took all my social cues from the women around me, even when cues by males were equally available. MEN were the “other” in my life as a child before elementary school. I had a close relationship with my father until I came out (first as gay, then trans) so it isn’t like we had a strained relationship, or he was absent from my life. I just didn’t relate to him as a model for who I was to become as an adult.

For some reason, my awareness was always directed towards females in a way that was not true for my brothers. Men were “other” and while I received conditioning and socialization as a male, It was the socialization of women that I paid attention to and learned and internalized. Someone would say “All women are manipulative” and my reaction was “No I’m not!” rather than “Yeah!” or “Really?”

It is that understanding that I think of when discussing “gender”. It isn’t the social affectations like hair and make-up or the social rules that make women avoid conflict, talking loudly, and taking up as little space as possible.  It is that thing that heard “girls play with dolls and boys climb trees” and told me to play with dolls and wish I could climb trees. (For example. I neither played with dolls nor climbed trees)

In adulthood, my housemates were always women, mostly Lesbian women, and always Feminists. We were all very politically active, centering on GLBT, Women’s, and Anti-Racist issues. I bring this up to offer another example of that something- that understanding, that thing that hasn’t a name yet (other than the problematic “gender”). I GOT sexism, I saw it, I understood it, I could feel it. It was that way that boys and men acted that made me feel like I didn’t belong. It was those comments they made and the way they looked at women that made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t a political theory, or a social critique – it was the name of a very real part of my internal conflict and sense of self.

This was in marked contrast with how I came to understand race and class issues. Coming from a place of relative race/class privilege, I wasn’t aware of how I contributed to racism or classism. Thankfully, I usually had the sense to shut up and listen when POCs would talk about Race. I accepted what they said as, at the very least, their truth. However there was a (probably common) period where I just really didn’t “get it”. I had to unlearn and examine myself in light of race and class oppression.

I’m not saying I didn’t have male privilege or use it. I’m also not saying that I had a childhood exactly like a  like a girl of my peer group has a childhood. What I am saying is I saw my childhood and processed all the information I was given in a way that made “woman” the normal and “man” the other thing that wasn’t safe and wasn’t particularly important (except for being cute). Unlike my racism, which was the invisible, unseen, unchallenged “way things are”.

My use of race and racism isn’t intended to compare oppressions. Rather, I hope to show how a Trans identity can filter social messages by using an example of social messages about race/class that were (unfortunately) more traditionally filtered and processed and challenged.

I have no idea if other Trans* people have anything like this. I am simply stating how I understand my childhood. Any comments or observations on this are welcome.

I found this very helpful.


~ by laughriotgirl on November 11, 2009.

30 Responses to “What is Gender…?”

  1. Gender is just another term to categorize things of our world and the associations with the word are an attempt to grasp and identify that which is different. I think that you are spot on with your assertation that such identifications are learned though instruction rather than observational. You have summed up what alot of trans individuals have explained to me about how they knew who they were.

    • Thanks. I’m curious if you, as (I assume) a cis-man, can relate to what I have said about your own childhood? I’m still working through this, and it may be helpful to compare vs. the other side of the equation.

      • Actually, yes I can relate. When I was but a wee child, I took alot of cues from women rather than men. I did have some very femenine traits growing up and I had the same thoughts and reactions about gender that you just mentioned. Had I not been so sheltered early in life, I probably would have dabbled alot more into it.

        But since I wasn’t allowed to do much other than stay at home and watch TV or take shit apart, my focus on such things faded and I now focus on expanding my knowledge on mechanics and whatnot. :/

  2. This is really interesting, thank you!

    Btw, I was going to show this to my partner, a cis man, anyway, but I will make sure to ask him if/how he relates.

  3. I believe that one’s gender is what is in one’s mind. One’s genitals do not necessarily reflect the sex that we know that we are. We know as we are growing up what gender we really are despite what others may say.

    I can best explain this with my own understanding as I was growing up. I was born male and always knew that I was male. I identified with the males in my life and took my cues from them. I was very close to my father. He died when I was young and I lived for several years after that in a house full of females (mother, sisters, and grandmother). Despite being around females most of the time I never related to them in the way that another female would; nor did I try to emulate them or even want to be like them. The females were always the “other.” I didn’t have to cling to my maleness or have to try to assert it. I knew that I was male and the people around me treated me as male.

    I can relate to what you have said about your childhood. I see our experiences in childhood as being similar in that we related to the gender that we know that we are. I would hazard a guess though that our childhood experiences differ in that I was treated as a male and I knew that I was a male whereas (and I’m only guessing here) you were treated as a male even though you know that you are female.

    • Jim,

      Yes, I think there is a significant difference in being a girl raised to be a boy than a boy raised to be a boy.

      Sorry about your father. I do think it is an interesting observation. I’ll have more after thinking about this.

  4. Laughriotgirl, I found this really interesting. I can completely relate to these ideas, particularly this:

    “For some reason, my awareness was always directed towards females in a way that was not true for my brothers. Men were “other” and while I received conditioning and socialization as a male, It was the socialization of women that I paid attention to and learned and internalized.”

    I’ve been looking for a way to express these ideas recently, and you’ve already done so quite thoroughly, thank you 🙂

    • Thanks Mattie!

      I’ve been trying to puzzle out why “I feel like a girl” and the various evidence provided (played with dolls, liked skirts, related better to girls) just missed my understanding, while at the same time describing some things that were true. So I poked about. It doesn’t hurt I have a really good memory and can recall events from way way back in my childhood.

      • I agree… although I also think what you are talking about here goes far beyond “I feel like” and really gets to it 🙂 By which I mean, it gets closer to “because at some basic level I understand myself to be this, I have been affected by that understanding subconciously, even when it wasn’t apparent.” and it takes it beyond things like toys and so forth… we can think about tomboy trans girls then too, all closeted but experiencing the same, taking in the same cues and pressures.

        I tend to descibe my experience of gender identity as knowing in my bones. This kind of thing – what you paid attention to subconciously when a child seems to me to derive from that… maybe…

  5. Mattie – yes exactly! I was trying to take apart “what does being a woman feel like?” that I would ask myself every time I’d read early accounts of trans women. Most of the things stated could really apply just as well to fey men who wouldn’t consider transitioning or “butch” women or any number of other folks. So, that couldn’t have been the root.

    The more I looked and talked and thought the more I became aware of a *feeling* a sensation an understanding and a complete lack of words to name it. I honestly think this is what we mean when we say “gender is between the ears”. Because we don’t have anything else.

    The toys and whatnot were used because they are so often thrown around as either evidence for us to transition/be taken seriously OR used to confirm the was just sit about and reify binary everythings. The reality is I don’t think being a “rough-n-tumble” child precludes a trans female understanding (or a sedate childhood precludes a trans male one).

    • I know what you mean. I think we all end up spending time doing that. And mainly seeing how we fail to live up to the trans female meta history we are all supposed to fit to be “real”!

      The whole bit about having to justify and explain, frankly, melts my brain. I’ve taken to countering with “How do you know you are your gender?” when ever I’m asked it. It tends at least to send the conversation into areas in which I can try for some understanding, since it faces a cis person with the conundrum that, unless they use their body as evidence or stereotypes of gendered behaviour, they have no way of proving their gender either. If they are intellectually honest about it at any rate.

      I really feel that, “because I am”, “it’s how I make the universe make sense” or “I know in my bones” are the best answers I can manage. It’s my best effort to describe something that isn’t behaviour, a thought or emotion, but.. built in sense of self? And that is the very point at which we differ from gender non conforming cis people, however vague and unsatisfactory (for everyone else apparently) that might seem to be!

  6. I’m a rather atypical trans woman : late gender shift and transitioning concomitant with major endocrinal changes and maintain a narrative of changing from male to female one day last May. Since starting transition, I’ve had about 3-500 serious conversations with a variety of people about gender and my relationship to it, not including the ones that helped me to understand my process.
    Usually the things I try to include are :-
    1. Starting off by saying that I know very clearly that I’m female now, and that I don’t see this as something like asserting I’m Napoleon because I can recognize a number of basic changes on cognitive, emotional and perceptual levels that I can relate to the gender identity change. And that my body is feminising in accord with the hormonal changes.
    2. I mention some of the small concrete changes, like a more acute sense of smell.
    3. I might talk about not feeling the constant dimension of challenge in my life.
    4. Depending on the gender of the other person, I’ll talk about how anger as a male and that falling apart PMS type thing as a female are closely tied in indirectly being used as purgative for dissonant feelings and perceptions, as well as mentioning how new the latter is for me.
    5. I could talk about the changed nature of statements I’ll make that I ascribe to unconscious processes ; they’re now far more linear and analytical compared to speculative notions of frame of reference.
    &. If I’m talking to someone with the right kind of literacy, I’ll talk about notions of figure and ground perception in old-style gestalt psychology or of focus in the act of consciousness as used by Husserl.
    7, And I’ll talk of changing so that women and women’s language suddenly made total sense to me, and men’s…not.
    8. In every conversation I’ll talk about how extremely lucky I am compared to the vast majority of trans people who have to try and work out their gender identities normally from birth and without this contrast.
    And if I’m talking to a reasonably open woman who won’t take it the wrong way, I have been known to express the total joy inherent in being now female.
    These are all things which generally make a certain amount of sense to people. For myself…’its how the universe makes sense’ is really good enough for me.

  7. I can relate to what you’re writing very much, it made me think about my own experience. I am young trans man, and growing up I never felt an internal pressure to be feminine, I felt a pressure on myself to be masculine,to be just like other boys around me, to be strong and not cry, to endure physically violent activities. They were the ones I compared myself with, girls wasn’t on my radar in the same way. I didn’t think of myself as either boy or girl exactly, I just subconsciously felt that masculinity was expected by me.

  8. I like this topic. There have been a lot of interesting comments made and I’m learning a lot. I think though that only the surface of this topic has been scratched.

    I have always known that I was male even from my earliest memories. As far as I know nobody ever told me I was male, it was just something that I knew. If I may, I would like to ask the ladies a couple of questions. Did you always know that you were female or was that a point in your life when you realized that you are female, but that your body didn’t match what your mind said you are? There is so much more that I would like to know and to understand. I don’t want to pry too deeply though as I don’t want to stir unpleasant memories for anyone.

    If my questions are too personal then please tell me.

    • I’ve thought about when I realized stuff was going on. It’s probably about the time I was 3 or 4. Most of the stuff was read by the adults around me (and later the kids) as me being gay. Liking boys didn’t really help clear that up either.

      Puberty was, for me, when the other shoe dropped. Specifically, the day my dad taught me to shave. I’d pluck my beard as it came in because on some level I just knew that was the end… shaving marked the point of no return. What should have been this bonding moment was painful and traumatic. At about 13-14 I began feeling like I was growing breasts, like I knew where they should be and how big they were. I figured every guy had the sensation and asked my doctor about it. The look I got let me know I should just not say anything else. Turns out, my breast development from HRT pretty squarely matches where my “psychic breasts” (term used by mt therapist) were.

    • Myself… I had a sense of somethig being not right and of feeling displaced, until puberty. Which is when I started to be aware of what exactly it was I was feeling displaced about, my gender. I very clearly understood that I wasn’t meant to feel such things so I hid it and variously went into denial or tried to supress it for quite some time.

  9. Super comments here. I’m actually liking this post enough that I’ll hold off on my next post for a few. I think, just for clarity, this should not be confused with being comfortable with gendered behaviors or affectations. While I’m perfectly comfortable being a woman, I’m not so comfortable with many of the expectations placed on me as a woman. That and decorative pockets on pants.

  10. PS.. not everyone here is female 😉

  11. If I did have childhood stuff it was relatively easily lost in a hothouse intellectual and relatively isolated upbringing. Gender was there, but comparatively lightly worn. I would say that I accepted being male, without particularly questioning it, but had no strong interior sense of it as an identifier. I’m not conscious of denial, but given the unconventionality of the rest of my life maybe I leant on the comparative normality of gender over much.
    Then 50 odd years later in May last year I awoke to the proverbial wtf, who put what in the Kool Aid situation. At the end of a day I knew I wasn’t male. At the end of a month I was reasonably sure I wasn’t suffering from brain damage. At the end of 4 months I put away the notion of being somehow intergendered, since everything active was simply female. And after giving myself another 2 months to be sure, starting transition.
    The main expectation problem I’ve got is that its better, in business and casual socialising, to present as a trans woman than as a man or a woman. That and the decorative pockets.

    • “The main expectation problem I’ve got is that its better, in business and casual socialising, to present as a trans woman than as a man or a woman.”

      That’s very interesting. I’ve not heard anyone say that before and it’s not my own experience either. If you feel comfy doing so (and laughriotgirl doesn’t feel we’re derailing?) would you elaborate?

      • I think this is a perfectly valid train of conversation, so chat away. I’m also pretty lax as far as what I’d consider derailing (ungendering/sexing and de-centering trans voices being primary)

  12. […] of laugh riot has a very interesting post up at the moment exploring how she feels and can express where exactly her sense of gender might […]

  13. The first post on my blog http://sophias-choices.blogspot.com/ basically says why its something of a problem, but check your mail for how my precise situation goes and why its so utterly cliched…

  14. Something really clicked for me when I read this–so thanks for articulating it so well! Definitely identifying with women in the ways you describe played a much bigger role for me than any particularly “feminine” behaviour that I engaged in.
    I’d have to say that even this kind of identification didn’t start until later, around the time I was 12 or so. Whenever there would be comparisons of typical male and female characteristics, I would always think about how superior women were, and felt guilty for not being enough like that. I’m really good at math and multiple-choice tests, but instead when I heard those things being associated with boys, I felt uncomfortable about my gender identity, instead of being smugly reassured.
    But then, part of me wondered if this identification with women was just an identification with the underdog, or just a wish to deviate from the norm, both of which I considered and still consider a big part of who I am.
    And it’s not just a question of role models for me or you either, I think (not that I’m implying that’s what you wrote, but some who haven’t gone through something similar might reduce it to that). I’m second-generation Chinese-Canadian, and when I was growing up, most of the people who were role models for me (and heck, it’s probably still true today) were European/Canadian/American. I have to admit as a child I did want to be white–but that’s definitely not true anymore!

    • Definitely, not just a question of role-models. But, if things (movies TV books) didn’t have strong female characters, I just didn’t care. I think this was part of a greater *thing* as far as gender goes and but one piece of the puzzle.

  15. Was wondering what kind of things, apart from obvious socialization and things springing from a different gender orientation, made you most feel alien to male values and emotions..where they made least sense ? One thing that causes me the most astonishment is language ; the way female communication is so rich in gesture. I’ve had many times in the last year of being totally amazed at the depth and precision of other women’s communications, as well as occasionally my own. Partly I can see that as symptomatic of a language of the oppressed but also as a difference in pre-cognitive capabilities of structuring perceptions of the world, between genders. Does this link up with ‘social cues’ at all?

  16. […] Posted on November 17, 2009 by Maddie Laughriotgirl of laugh riot has a very interesting post up at the moment exploring how she feels and can express where exactly her sense of gender might […]

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