I’ve recently been told by folks in the transgender community that I am not a Real Woman, but a third gender. Um, I live in a culture that operates two gender clubs, and really doesn’t tolerate anyone that doesn’t fit in either club. Lots of official paperwork only accepts “Man/Male” or “Woman/Female”, and nothing else. If I am supposed to identify as something else, about all that happens is that I lose access to almost everything from medical care to police protection. (Try telling a cop you aren’t a man or a woman. Go ahead. See how well respected your are in that officer’s eyes.)
I apparently cause offense to some should I identify as ‘Woman’, invading and co-opting cisheteronormative womanhood, appropriating their identity and culture. Darn.
OK, what am I?
Then there is my orientation. I am a very femme person, from anatomy to presentation. (Don’t co-opt ‘Woman’ from the cisheteronormative culture, and appropriate their identity or culture!). I am attracted to other persons with a femme presentation. I do not insist on knowing their karyotype, or what they might have in their briefs. I do not know what they might have on their birth certificate. They might identify as a ‘Woman’. They might not.
I am told by gender specialists that this orientation is essentially ‘lesbian’, as a gender binary orientation. Naturally, this fine old gender orientation word has acquired additional layers of meaning over time, and has been adopted by some groups to denote not merely a gender binary orientation, but a unique identity denoting a subculture of ‘real women’, and using this gender binary orientation label is an appropriation of lesbian identity and culture.
Worse, I am not attracted to all women! That odd haircut with one side shaved close, that tendency of some women to wear baggy jeans and sleeveless heavy outdoor vests, all are highly unattractive to me. The whole ‘butch’ thing is somewhat offputting. (Yes, this is a sarcastic jab at yet another stereotype. Stereotypes are bad, whether aimed at lesbians, trans folks, gay men, or motorcyclists.)
I am attracted to femme presentation, though, and that certainly includes some women.
I can’t say I am a ‘Woman’ without offending some folks. I cannot say I am a ‘lesbian’ without offending some folks. In a culture that demands adherence to binary labels, this makes me what?
“Transgenderized Heterosexual Man” with breasts, vulva with the usual accoutrements, high Estradiol and low Testosterone?
That’s really messed up. No, thank you!
Culture and the Biological Essentialism Rathole
If one looks up ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in the dictionary, there are definitions like this:
woman: noun;adult human beings who are biologically female, that is, capable of bearing offspring.
1. An adult male human.
2. A human regardless of sex or age; a person.
3. A human or an adult male human belonging to a specific occupation, group, nationality, or other category. Often used in combination: a milkman; a congressman; a freeman.
4. The human race; mankind: man's quest for peace.
5. A male human endowed with qualities, such as strength, considered characteristic of manhood.
A woman is apparently defined by the capability of bearing offspring. Men, on the other hand, appear to be exemplified by a variety of traits, none of which are linked to reproductive capabilities.
So, what do we call a person who doesn’t possess these male traits or qualities, yet is not capable of bearing offspring? Are women really nothing more than baby makers on legs?
When a person who is considered to be a woman loses that capability of bearing offspring, through age or medical mishap, do they cease to be women? Are they now men?
When a person considered to be a woman, based on gross anatomy, presentation, and perhaps social role, determines that they do not want or are not capable of bearing offspring, do they cease to be women?
These conundrums regarding women’s identity all emerge from oppositional sexism,a belief in male and female as rigid and mutually exclusive categories with no overlapping characteristics, skills, capabilities, and desires. This cultural belief system tries to dismiss all who fall outside the two categories of gender or sexual normative values, as they are perceived as threats to the maintenance of oppositional sexism and the resulting gender binary. The entire set of LGBTQ+ communities are composed of outcasts from the culture supporting oppositional sexism.
More directly to the point, how is it that we so quickly and compulsively try to identify the gender of other persons in daily life? We do not appear to have a sense that can instantly determine the capability of bearing offspring in another person, nor can we instantly evaluate the karyotype, the chromosomes of another person.
We do have a set of acculturated stereotypes that we carry in our heads, and we apply those at a subconscious level as we encounter others, quickly trying to classify them into accepted cultural sexist categories. My appearance, with facial structure, breasts, waist and hips, limbs, appearance of extremities, usually puts me in the ‘woman’ category, even though the last vestiges of reproductive organs were lost to surgery years ago.
In general, in a culture that is as strictly policing of gender presentation and roles as our Western culture is, this subconscious classification process usually is fairly accurate at guessing gender identity. Oh, it is not always accurate, as many folks in the LGBTQ+ communities can attest, and the incorrect guesses can produce very unpleasant consequences.
Biological essentialism tries to reduce social and cultural factors to being the effects of biological causes. The anatomical and physical differences, particularly reproductive differences, characteristic of human males and females supposedly determine the meanings of femininity and masculinity, and therefor the different positions of women and men in our society!
The biological essentialist asserts that biology constructs an unalterable definition of identity, constructing from biology a fixed, rigid social containment for women. Presumably this encodes the position of women as walking reproductive systems.
We can see variations of this biological essentialist view in naturalism, where a fixed nature is again postulated for women, through theological or ontological construction, although these constructs have visible biological essentialist underpinnings. The assignment of social role and status based on genitalia is the same in either case.
What biological essentialism does not do is account for the vast range of biological development, the variations that can occur in fetal development between the initiation of genital formation early in gestation and the initiation of brain structure formation much later, under environmental, chemical, epigenetic, and other influences, the variations in brain development, and the incredible plasticity of the human brain’s cognitive regions. It oversimplifies all humans into a rigid binary model, IF NOT A THEN B, as though this could contain the infinite diversity that biology can actually achieve.
There is in fact no reason that biological differences between the sexes must lead to specific sets of male and female behavior, roles, or status. Behavior, appearance, status, and gender roles are culturally constructed artifices, learned behaviors laid atop genitalia by cultural rules encoded as biological essentialism or natural law.
There is a fascinating dualism at work here, between the physical sex assigned at birth, and one’s inner experience, mental state and perception of gender identity. Western culture places great value on the physical sex assigned at birth, and at the same time is dismissive of one’s inner experience and sense of gender identity. This places cisgender people as the de-facto experts on all things gender, and allows them to state that any gender variance is a result of faulty minds.
This discounting of one’s inner experience likely lies with the philosophy of dualism, a belief that the mind is somehow separate from the body. The body has physical properties, subject to direct measurement, while the mind is seen as a distinct, immaterial thing, a seat of consciousness and thought, which cannot be directly measured.
This dualism splitting of body and mind is handy for Western culture and its insistence on rigid gender identity aligned with the body. The body can be readily measured, it’s physical appearance considered, and an appropriate gender meeting culturally accepted standards can be assigned.
On the other hand, if someone insists that their inner experience, their self-perception, fails to match the measured physical properties of the body, then under a dualistic belief system they clearly have a flawed mind, a defect of some form. The consideration of the mind as immaterial, not bound to matter, somehow implies that it is a malleable thing that can be subjugated, beaten into shape, and made to conform with the body.
This corrective process, when applied to a difference in gender between mind and body, is called conversion therapy. We know this does not work, but simply causes great anxiety, damage, and discomfort.
Modern biological science has repeatedly demonstrated that life begins as entirely physical or material entities, and nothing outside the domain of the physical is added during the development process. There is no stage of fetal development or childhood that we can point to and definitively state that hereis where the non-physical mind is added.
Further, regarding gender, there is an increasing body of knowledge that points to gender identity being seated in specific regions of the brain that show variations between males and females, largely in the region of the hypothalamus, and that these regions correspond to the gender identity expressed by a person rather than their genitalia.
The dualism argument for an immaterial mind linked to a material body would not correlate a mental phenomenon such as gender identity to a sex-linked physical trait in neuroanatomy. I contend that the Western philosophy of dualism, the belief that the mind is somehow separate from the body, is not supported by the current state of scientific research, and persists primarily as a crutch for current Western religious beliefs and ideologies.
So now what?
[T]he Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic Womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine.
– Trans academic and historian, Susan Stryker from My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage, 1994
What am I? I am not a disembodied mind, trying to conceptualize my gender identity in the absence of physicality. Nor am I a construct of my genitalia, my identity and concept of self driven by the morphology of a bit of tissue between my legs. Indeed, modern medical technology can readily shift that morphology!
“One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.”
- Simone de Beauvoir
From my earliest memories, I have held a feminine mindset. When I recognized at an early age that my body was not female, and worse, when I realized that it would not somehow change, I became uncomfortable with myself. I had to live with this form, no matter how inappropriate it seemed, and I slowly learned to mask my femme self with a masculine false front.
I was fairly inept at this, barely passing as male, and tagged as a sissy through elementary and high school. This led to my being caught and subject to medically supervised conversion therapy in my teens. Since I didn’t want to be seen as a pervert or sissy, I tried to cooperate with the drug injections and counseling, the conditioning to avoid temptation, and I paid attention to the warnings about what would happen should I relapse. The threat of psychosurgery and rounds of electroconvulsive and faradic aversion therapy terrified me into compliance.
Yes, I was acculturated as male, barely, low in the pecking order as an anxiety-ridden, introverted nerd. My inner femme self was still there, looking out through my eyes, and pleading to be freed.
Gender dysphoria is real, and terribly corrosive over time. Eventually, after decades, the masculine false front cracked and failed, and I was faced with that archetypical chestnut, “Change or Die!” After botching the attempt to end myself, I found myself in therapy.
The diagnosis was indeed gender dysphoria, and my therapist and I agreed that medical transition was appropriate and necessary. This would allow me to live as my authentic self, and meet the demands of civilization as a whole, in bringing my physicality and femininity into alignment. This came with a terrible price, but it is paid now.
I have confronted my feminine nature. I have rejected gender essentialism and gender critical theory. I deny that mind/body duality that claims I can magically be fixed by conversion therapy.
Simone de Beauvoir stated, “One is not born, but becomes a woman”.
I have become a woman.
I have become a woman.