Category Archives: Trans & Intersex



This post is the fourth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


As I detailed in the last post, for many transsexuals the site of gender embattlement is their subconscious sex, which is often confused withgender identity. Subconscious sex is a person’s persistent embodied sense of belonging to one sex or another. It is not how one chooses to identify, but how one experiences oneself. For example, technically speaking I had a male gender identity for much of my life. I identified as a male because everyone told me I was male, and I more or less believed them. I at least believed them enough to consciously think of myself as “one of the guys,” even if I didn’t experience myself precisely in that way. However, despite actively choosing to identify as a male, a boy, a man, and a guy, I had a persistent subconscious sex: female.

At least for my early years, I determined my gender identity according to mygender grouping. This gender grouping was a complex interaction of myassigned sex, legal sex, and how people perceived me (my perceived gender). All these factors made people treat me like a guy, so for all social intents and purposes I was one.

In that sense I’ve changed genders. Since I usually think of gender in terms of my subconscious sex, I think of it as being constant throughout my life because my subconscious sex hasn’t budged an inch. But for people who see gender as the social group one “swims in,” after transitioning my gender changed from boy to girl. With that change came a difference in how I was treated, what was expected of me, and who related to me familiarly.

This particular definition of gender – social grouping – is where a lot of the tension comes between transgender women and so-called trans-exclusive radical feminists. Since many radical feminists define gender as an experience of being part of a social group, they define their own womanhood and feminism in terms of their experience of being perceived and (mis)treated as women in a sexist society. Since I spent many years of my life being perceived and treated as a man, those feminists want to exclude me because my social experience of gender differs from theirs.

This assumption is partly untrue. While I haven’t lived my entire life being perceived and treated as a woman, I’ve lived some of it in that capacity, and certainly enough to have experienced a broad, frightening range of misogyny. In some ways, as a transsexual woman the degree to which I experience misogyny is heightened: I’m held to more demanding stereotypes of femininity; threat of rape also becomes threat of homicide; and my body is questioned, objectified, judged, interpreted, and claimed by patriarchal forces to an outlandish degree. Also, while my childhood was not marked by abuse and propaganda aimed directly at me, because of my subconscious female sex I still internalized a great deal of it. Even being treated as a boy, I still flinched with a sense of personal affront when men objectified women’s bodies.

Even my male privilege was a two-edged sword. I imagine it’s a parallel experience to a butch lesbian who get mistaken as a man. While the social benefits were appealing, all it did was reinforce the idea that it’s better to be perceived as a man; it didn’t particularly glorify me.

For some transgender people, their gender identity is based on this social grouping. For example, a very feminine male who expresses herself flamboyantly might identify with women because she fits in – with their world, their oppression, their perceived place in society. An androgynous female might identify as neither a man nor a woman because they don’t fit in with typical femininity, but they also don’t fit into the world of male privilege. Heregender means a different kind of belonging – not what sex you belong to, but which social group.

Gender breakdown transgenderist

Conversations on gender, whether within philosophy, ethics, or sociology, need to take this perception of gender seriously. Gender identity is caricaturized as radical self-definition, just as willful and random as picking out a dress. Sometimes this is the case, but gender identity rarely happens in a void. Some people’s social reality simply lies outside the binary, and for them it’s meaningless to say “you’re a woman because you have a vagina,” if they haven’t experienced their social reality as a woman.

It’s sometimes remarked that “the experience of the sexes” is markedly different, and this is true. A female with regular menstruation has a different experience than a male with regular spontaneous erections. Even though I experience an emotional “period” from my hormones cycling and syncing to other women via pheromones, I do not bleed on a monthly basis. Similarly, the material fact that I have functioning mammary glands and a feminine center of gravity, as well as the possibility that my neurological wiring is transsexed, separates me out from males. These are material facts that can’t be overlooked.

However, “the experience of the genders” is much MORE markedly different. If you are perceived as a woman or treated as a man, regardless of your anatomical sex you are participating in a widely encompassing social experience. If you are a female who is perceived and treated as a man, the fact that you are anatomically female only means so much when it comes to your gender; your experience day in and day out of being perceived as a man is much more defining in some ways. Very few people ever “see” your “sex,” as in spot your genitals or chart your DNA. 99% of the time we rely only on perceived gender, from which we also assume anatomical sex.

This “social grouping” concept of gender affects a large array of people, both transgender and not. Bearded ladies, feminine men, butch lesbians, drag queens, transsexuals, tomboys, intersex persons… all may experience this distinction between the brute fact of one’s primary sex characteristics and where one fits into society. The fact that one’s perceived gender has such far-reaching effects can’t be overlooked. Most conversations about manhood, womanhood, and everything in between are meaningless without engaging the social grouping of gender.



This post is the third in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


For transsexual persons, their assigned and determined sex are more straightforward. The doctors see a majority of sexed characteristics lining up one way, and so they assign gender based on that sex. For a male-to-female transsexual like myself, a rigorous medical evaluation of my body would probably conclude that my primary sexual characteristics at birth  – chromosomes and genitals – are male-typical. So I am, by most definitions of determined sex, a male. The doctors assigned my sex (male) without any consternation, and consequently assigned my gender (boy) without missing a beat.

I was born into embattlement because the doctor’s biological designation assumes something about my gender trajectory. She assumes that since my body has male-typical characteristics, I will embody those characteristics in a male-typical way and will experience them as normative. In other words, unlike intersex people where the locus of conflict begins before we even talk about gender, for transsexual people the locus starts with and encompasses all of gender and reflects back on sex.

Gender breakdown transsexual

For many transsexual people, their fight with gender is not merely social; there’s a deep physical component to it. The embattlement isn’t just with “you have a penis so you’re male so you’re a boy so you should behave in xyz fashion.” The embattlement questions whether having a penis makes one a boy, and sometimes even whether it makes one male, or whether one ought to have a penis at all. So even though the facts of sex development are at least mostly unambiguous, the interpretation of these facts is almost as problematic as for an intersex person. A conflict exists right at the point at which you start making assumptions about a transsexual based on their genital morphology.

To be clear, I’m not talking about all transgender individuals, but specificallytranssexuals with serious body dysmorphia. I’m talking about people who feel and experience themselves very strongly as belonging to a particular sex, even when the physiological data of their sex characteristics would beg otherwise. I’m talking about transsexuality here as a phenomenon, not an identity. Some transsexed individuals identify as transsexuals, some as transgender, and others as gender non-conforming.

I use the word “belonging” very deliberately because I think it’s the most accurate word to describe the transsexual experience. Phrases like “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body” or  “I always knew I was a girl” are oversimplifications. Other phrases like “I want to be female” or “I desire to become a woman” are also oversimplifications. The reality is somewhere in the middle, with a feeling of belonging, of ought-ness, regarding the other sex. On one hand I grew up knowing full well what it meant to have a penis and be called a ‘boy,’ so I didn’t assert that I wasn’t male. But at the same time being female felt so right and proper to me that it wasn’t simply that I wanted “tobecome a girl,” but “to be as a girl.”

I’ll try to illustrate what I mean with a personal experience. Freshman year of high school I learned about intersex conditions. I heard that some girls are born with ambiguous genitalia, and that doctors surgically “fix” the genitals to be one way or another (see the previous post).  This caused an earthquake in my soul. I spent almost a full week completely convinced I was an intersex girl. I would do regular checks on my penis in an attempt to find evidence of a surgical intervention. I thought my penile raphe – a dark line extending along the penis shaft to the anus – must be a scar from when they surgically constructed my neo-phallus. I almost asked my parents if this was the case, but a quick google search told me that a penile raphe is male-typical. I almost cried. I’d finally found a word – intersex – that somehow fit the feelings I didn’t have words for. I was not happy to find out my genitals were “male-typical.”

I want you to reflect for a second on how visceral this experience was. The word “intersex” brought up feelings I couldn’t even begin to articulate. Not that I wanted to be a girl or express femininity, but that my body was a girl’s body that had been altered to look like a boy’s. That I was in fact a girl – a boyish intersex girl, but a girl nonetheless. The feeling wasn’t so much in my head as in my bones. When I heard about intersex conditions, it was like my whole body screamed YES at once.

The term gender identity is often used to describe this sense of belonging to the other sex. The problem is “gender identity” nowadays simply means what you “choose” to “identify” as, which does little justice to the transsexual experience. That’s why I’ve decided to distinguish gender identity fromsubconscious sex, a term coined by Julia Serano.

Serano unpacks this distinction in her book Whipping Girl:

Personally, I have always found the term “gender identity” to be rather misleading. After all, identifying as something, whether it be as a woman, a Democrat, a Christian, a feminist, a cat person, or a metalhead, seems to be a conscious, deliberate choice on our part, one that we make in order to better describe how we think we fit in the world. Thus, with regard to transsexuals, the phrase “gender identity” is problematic because it seems to describe two potentially different things: the gender we consciously choose to identify as, and the gender we subconsciously feel ourselves to be…

I am sure that some people will object to me referring to this aspect of my person as subconscious “sex” rather than “gender.” I prefer “sex” because I have experienced it as being rather exclusively about my physical sex, and because for me this subconscious desire to be female has existed independently of the social phenomena commonly associated with the word “gender.”As mentioned previously, my initial experience with my female subconscious sex was not accompanied by any corresponding desire to explore female gender roles or to express femininity… And my female subconscious sex was most certainly not the result of socialization or social gender constructs, as it defied everything I had been taught was true about gender, as well as the constant encouragement I received to think of myself as a boy and to act masculine. (78, 82)

There’s growing scientific evidence that this subconscious sex is hardwired in the brain – what I call brain sex. The evidence isn’t conclusive, and there are problems with how people approach the idea of brain sex. Most people think of it in terms of having a stereotypically feminine or masculine hard-wiring, like a ditzy cheerleader brain versus a dumb jock brain. Most of these stereotypes center on sexist, derogatory assumptions about men and women, but are notwhat we’re probably talking about with regards to brain sex. I don’t have a female brain because I’m bad at math. That begs the question why my many girl friends who are great at math aren’t transsexual or at least butch (or why this stereotype even exists when in high school many of the best math students were girls). When we talk about brain sex and subconscious sex, we’re talking about something that’s clearly there regardless of social norms of femininity or masculinity.

In 1965 a boy named David Reimer was born biologically male, but a botched circumcision left his penis horribly mutilated. A prominent sexologist John Money firmly believed that gender identity (and by extension, subconscious sex) was socially and environmentally created, and that any child could have any gender identity bestowed on them by upbringing and hormones alone. He performed a sex reassignment surgery on David to transform his mutilated penis into a neo-vagina. Money was certain that David would happily live as a girl. However, from ages 9-11 David clearly developed and identified with a male gender identity. The social experiment was a failure; David’s brain was hard-wired with a male subconscious sex that thwarted any effort to raise him as female. At age 13 he became suicidal and told his parents he’d end his life if he had to see Dr. Money again.

The typical transsexual embattlement with gender differs from that of an intersex person and is more similar to that of David Reimer because it’s mainly about the subconscious sex. I have a transsexual friend who has both xx and xy chromosomes, so she technically has a genetic intersex condition even though she doesn’t identify as intersex. Her experience is transsexual because she has a subconscious female sex but was assigned male because of her genitals; her chromosomes had nothing to do with how the doctors perceived her or how she perceives herself. Her embattlement isn’t between her genitals and chromosomes, but between her genitals and her subconscious sex. This is why even if subconscious sex is determined by an intersex condition in the brain (brain sex), it doesn’t really matter. Transsexual women aren’t embattled because a brain scan shows we have a female brain or a gene test shows we have female chromosomes – even if that turns out to be the case. We’re embattled because of how our brain identifies itself versus our sex characteristics and how society identifies us.

If brain sex determines whether one feels male or female, then it’s possible that just as one can be born with genitals that are a mix of feminine and masculine, a person could have a brain sex that is biologically undetermined. This means that in some cases, gender non-conforming people who experience themselves as a “third sex” could have an androgynous brain sex. This could also explain why some intersex people don’t experience an inherent subconscious “male” or “female” sex, but a third “bi-gender” or “undetermined” identity.

Regardless of whether subconscious sex flows from brain sex, or is determined by other factors, it’s a pervasive component of gender that affects everything from perception of oneself as sexed to perception of one’s proper social group. The notion of having a subconscious sex is foreign to cissexual (non-transsexual) people because they never notice they have one. If their subconscious sex perfectly aligns with their assigned sex, they have no reason to tease out the difference between the two, and the subconscious sex remains unconscious. However, if a cissexual person is asked if they would change genders (“No, then I wouldn’t be me anymore”), or if they’re questioned about what makes them a man or woman (“My penis”; “But what if your penis is amputated?”; “I’d still be a man”), their subconscious sex emerges at least into preconsciousness. They’ll still never be forced to notice subconscious sex in the same manner as transsexuals, for whom it’s a constant self-awareness if they don’t transition.

We can talk about gender identity broadly in a way that encompasses subconscious sex, just as we can talk about transsexuals as part of the transgender umbrella, but we also need to talk about these things on their own terms. When a transsexual talks about their gender, they’re often talking about this pervasive, all-encompassing experience of sexual embodiment.

Click here for Part 4, the conversation on “gender as a social grouping.”

annamagda4christ on “WHAT IS GENDER?” Part 1 (Reblogged)


This post is the first in a series on What is gender?


Probably the greatest challenge in writing a blog about gender is that no one – myself included – has any idea what the damn word means. I risk sounding unbearably flippant, I know, but it’s necessary to clear the air about that abominable word.

And I mean abominable. The problem with “gender” is that it encompasses altogether too many things, to the point where it’s almost meaningless. It’s kinda like the word “science,” which is really a fancy buzzword that could be expanded to include half the universe. When we say “science,” are we talking about the natural world, empirical exploration in general, natural philosophy, peer-reviewed studies, the scientific method(s), anything that’s falsifiable, anything-that’s-not-metaphysics, math?

Gender is even worse. It’s a nice fat term to throw into the fray, but what the hell does anyone mean by it? And yet we need such an all-encompassing word to communicate one of the core human experiences. With all the things that gender may or may not be, one thing that’s certainly true of it is that it’s something we experience.

For much of the history of the English language, “gender” just meant a grammatical designation. Was the word masculine or feminine? What pronouns did you use to refer to a person?

Some readers may ask: why must gender mean anything other than that? After all, the word “sex” is completely sufficient to talk about what we mean by “men” and “women.” The contemporary definition of “gender” is just a postmodern smoke grenade thrown into the mix to confuse people about the natural sexual binary.

On some very basic empirical level, people who throw out that objection are correct. In the animal kingdom, there’s no real need for the word “gender.” Animal bodies are coded as biologically male, female, both, neither, or mixed. It’s simple. It simply is what it is. If an animal is male, it’s male. The reality is purely reproductive – a mechanism of nature within evolution to create diversity and propagate the species.

Human beings are, to the chagrin of some, an entirely different animal (pun intended). While the basic reproductive coding remains the same, the physical reality of this coding is overlapped and transformed by mental, spiritual, interpersonal, and sociological dimensions. Animals are generally divided between male or female, but humans are divided much differently: as Men or Women. We aren’t just biological arrangements, but personalized creatureswho subjectively  experience and embody those biological arrangements. In the animal kingdom a creature simply has a masculine reproductive potential; in humans it is now a Man, a male person, who embodies that potential and swims in a sea of meaning stemming from his experience as that kind of person.

It is in light of this specifically human predicament that we need the word “gender,” because whenever we’re talking about the sex of a human person, we’re always talking about the massive world of meaning-structures attached to that sex.

Even the person’s sex is to some degree socially determined. Yes, a given person may have xy chromosomes and a penis. This is a brute biological fact. However, which of those discrete biological facts makes them (their whole person) male? Are they male because they have a penis? Or because they have xy chromosomes? This becomes an important question – or rather, we realize how important it has always been – when we’re confronted with intersex people, individuals with a mix of biological factors. If a person has xy chromosomes and a vagina, are they male or female? More importantly, are they a Man, Woman, both, or neither?

For more on the social construction of sex, I highly recommend Thomas Laqueur’s book “Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.” 

There’s little argument about the discrete biological factors, and this is why the word “sex” is needed. The intersex person mentioned above in fact has xy chromosomes. They also in fact have genitals with a morphology we’d label “vaginal” and “female-typical.” It’s a brute biological fact. But there’s plenty to argue about regarding which discrete biological fact is determinative of the entire person, and what that determination means for their place in society. And as long as there’s plenty to argue about, we need the word “gender.”


So we’ve established that sex – as opposed to gender – refers to biological factors that often exist on a binary. And gender – as opposed to sex – refers to how we interpret, embody, and personalize those biological factors, as well as all peripheral issues tied to them. The fact remains that we need that second word – gender – simply because humans do in fact interpret, embody, prioritize, and personalize their sex characteristics, and whenever we’re talking about sex, we’re inevitably talking about gender too. So the term is necessary, but it’s useless.

Why is it useless? Because gender means so many different things. When people argue about whether Caitlyn Jenner is a man or woman, more often than not they’re shouting past each other while wielding one particular facet of gender. When people from different parts of the transgender spectrum talk about their identities, they’re often pointing to completely different pieces of the gender puzzle. This is why the narratives of genderqueer and transsexual people often seem to contradict each other. The two groups are usually focusing on different aspects of gender.

So if we’re going to salvage the word, we need to break it down into its components. We need to realize that when the media soundbytes gender, it’s usually taking all these different substances and blending their most superficial aspects into a frankenjuice. Radical feminist gender theory, transsexual personal narratives, social commentaries, sex biology, and drag performance are smeared into one colorless conversation when really there’s about twenty different conversations we need to be having.

Here is a chart where I break down a few (only a few) of the major components of gender and their interactions with each other. As you can see, there’s a lot going on.

Gender breakdown 3Each and every one of these is its own conversation, its own conundrum, and its own locus of problems for people who don’t fit into a gender binary. It’s absolutely vital that we keep all these elements in mind when we talk about gender. If we’re going to talk candidly, we need to break away from the false debate between biological essentialism and gender ideology. Both sides want to reduce sex-gender complexity down to an easily-digestible single idea, but both sides in doing so cover up the factual complexity.

To biological fundamentalists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to what’s between your legs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that male-female sex id is complicated. The fact is that coding blue as “masculine” and pink as “feminine” is a recent historical construct. The fact is that some males are naturally feminine, and it has nothing to do with childhood trauma.

To gender ideologists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to oppressive social constructs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that human sex usually exists dichotomously and bears experiential meaning that goes beyond social groupings. The fact is that many cisgender men and women are naturally masculine and feminine irrespective of social pressure. The fact is that many transsexual people experience first-hand the reality of physiological and hormonal sex differences that go deeper than social conditioning.

In other words, both essentialists and deconstructionists are at once right and wrong. We need to stop parsing out the facts in an oppositional way and start looking at the big picture without taking a side in a cultural agenda. Ockham’s Razor needs to be as discerning as it is useful.

Instead of formally defining each term, I’m going to talk about how they each serve as sites of gender embattlement for people who don’t fit into a rigid binary. There’s an important intersectionality between all people who deal with gender, whether they’re female-to-male transsexual or bronies, and I don’t want to lose that sense of interconnectedness. But since all aspects of gender are so often conflated, I think it’s important to highlight different kinds of gender narratives.

I want to delve somewhat in depth into each of these gender conversations, so as a primer allow me to first outline why each one is its own conversation. Many different people identify as transgender or queer, but not all of them do so for the same reason. An intersex guy who was literally assigned a sex at random by doctors because they couldn’t figure out what he is might identify as transgender because the doctors guessed his biological sex wrong. A transsexual who feels like a woman even though her body is male-typical might identify as transgender because although the doctors perceived her body correctly, they made massive assumptions about her sense of embodiment and how she would experience her sex. A transgenderist who lives as a “male woman” or “female man” might identify as transgender because they don’t fit into the expectations of masculinity or femininity placed upon them and want to live according to the gender expectations placed on the other sex. Agenderqueer person might identify as transgender because they don’t feel like they fit in as a boy or girl and want an identity that will allow them to simply be themselves. Many other people might sympathize with the transgender movement because they have aspects of themselves that are stereotypically associated with the other sex, like sensitivity in men or tomboyishness in women. Each of these “types” of transgender people are headbutting against one aspect of gender, although it’s a different aspect for each of them.

End of Part 1. Proceed to Part 2



This post is the last in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


As a transgender woman who was raised as a boy and is a devout Catholic and devout feminist with a foot in both the gender essentialist and gender deconstructionist camps, I find myself hemmed in on all sides by quibbling voices that have no interest in doing anything but shout at each other. I’m not sure this makes me an expert in anything except the fruitlessness of shouting matches, although I like to believe I’ve gotten an accidental glimpse at a larger vista above and beyond these narrow entrenchments. I’m nervous to express this because in effect I’m disagreeing with everyone, but in another sense I’m finding agreement with everyone.

There’s a lot of liberation activism going on right now, for feminists, transgender, autism, Deaf, #BlackLivesMatter, and all manner of oppressed peoples. I first want to assert that as a follower of Christ, I feel it’s my duty to stand beside all those in pain, and my heart marches with you. Each and every person deserves unconditional respect in light of our dignity as human beings.

I also feel the need to cut some of the bullshit regarding gender. There’s a false cultural dichotomy being set up that creates oversimplified and often unnecessary tensions in discourse on gender liberation.

The previous posts are an elucidation of why I make claims of transsexual embodiment with a grain of salt, stand in solidarity with gender revolutionaries but also have reservations about the transgender ideological campaign, resist the invalidation of radical feminists while also feeling sympathy for the womyn-born-womyn mindset, and both distinguish myself from and relate to intersex individuals. Gender in its complexity is a site of massive intersectionality, and every person for which gender is a battleground is sharing in the same oppression. At the same time, gender is such a factually multi-faceted thing that we need to have more sensitivity, nuance, and room for complexity. Also, given the inescapable import that gender has on our lives, religious claims of gender essentialism need to be considered as more than “patriarchal prattle”; they need to be seen, at the very least, as a memory of humanity’s deep spiritual encounter with gender.

No matter what personal ideologies we hold or oppose, we need to dump less babies in the sewer with our smelly bathwater. There needs to be less “my experience versus yours,” and more collective imagining. Instead of cancelling out sex with gender, or cancelling out gender with sex, why can’t we consider both on their own terms? Instead of putting all the weight on nature or nurture, why can’t we consider both? Instead of using gender non-conforming people as deconstructive principles in academic textbooks, or as specimens of pathology in psychological freak-shows, why can’t we listen to their concerns and how they navigate their tensions?

So allow me a final moment of appeal, as a Catholic, transsexual, male, transgender, woman, feminist, gender idealist, gender anti-ideologue weirdo who finds herself caught very much in the middle of everything.

To fellow Catholics. When we talk about God’s created order, we need to actually talk about the order that was created. Yes, I know humanity is fallen and sin affects every physical and spiritual aspect of our life on Earth, but we really need to consider where our views of gender are coming from. A blind man may be blind because of the Fall, or because God made him that way, or (in Jesus’ words) “that the glory of God may be revealed,” but what’s certain is that he is blind, and his dignity is equal to the most far-seeing Tolkien elf. Steve may be a man like our forefather Adam, but he isn’t Adam; he’s Steve. So however Adam was created in the beginning, Steve was created different. Otherwise he wouldn’t be Steve; he’d be Adam. And yes, “all have sinned through Adam,” sure. But all have been redeemed individually, as themselves, and will stand before the throne of God in their own particular flesh. So before we start talking about “Biblical masculinity,” let’s actually read about the men in the Bible. Before we start talking about the metaphysics of gender, let’s consider (like good hylomorphic Catholics) the physics of sex. Before we start throwing around “natural law,” let’s deeply consider what’s in actual factnatural to man. If the design of the Creator is truly written in nature, then gender is a much more diverse thing than we give Him credit for.

To fellow feminists. Whether you’re a self-identified TERF, queer revolutionary, transfeminist, riot grrrl, or dyke, we need to recognize that these labels are sometimes distracting. Feminism isn’t first and foremost an ideology – it’s a community, or a set of intersecting communities.

It’s not enough that I identify as a woman. It’s not enough to argue about whether I really am or am not a woman. The more pressing matter is that I experience crippling gender oppression all the time. The fact remains that I’ve seen the face of misogyny. The fact remains that I need safe spaces, not to pet my own ego and validate my sense of identity, but to take shelter from the storm of gender oppression and share my experience of feminine embodiment.

We need greater unity. Feminism exists because our culture inherited a patriarchal view of gender that sees Man and Masculinity as the human ideal. This means that everyone who doesn’t conform to maleness, manliness, or masculinity is oppressed. Transsexual men, even though they identify as men, share in your oppression. Transsexual women, even though they were raised as boys, share in your oppression. Even gay men, with all the privilege they’ve gained in the last few decades, share some part in your oppression. The straight cisgender boy who likes My Little Pony and gets beaten up for it – he too experiences something of your oppression. Even the macho guy who makes sexist slurs like a foot soldier for the patriarchy because he’s so insecure in his own masculinity, and who can’t cry at night because he’s so emotionally repressed; even this bully needs a field hospital to dress his wound. These shared oppressions don’t need to invalidate your own, any more than they need to erase womanhood or crowd out woman voices. Intersectionality” isn’t just a PC buzzword – it’s an imperative. If we don’t see how these struggles interconnect, we won’t be able to make a dent in misogyny.

To womyn-born-womyn. I’m not going to nail ninety-five theses to the door of your enclosure. I’m not even going to demand a space in your gatherings. I’ll take shelter from the rain under the awning outside where you set up shop, and if any of you wish to stop by and chat, I’d be happy to have a cordial discussion. I hope that one day I’m afforded some unobtrusive corner in (or near) your community where we can value womanhood together without invalidating each other; in the meantime my door is always open to sisterhood. I recognize that as a transsexual, I’m something of a gender orphan. I hope for adoption, but I’m not about to demand it.

To gender ideologues. You can say “all gender is constructed” ’til the cows go home, but I have to wonder why we couldn’t construct a male gender for me no matter how hard we all collectively tried. You can say “all gender is performative” ’til the last trumpet sounds, but I have to wonder why it takes so much effort to perform the gender I was taught, and so little effort to express the gender I am. And if these experiences of mine mean nothing to you, try to make them something to you. At least chew on them for a second.

I recognize your catchy phrases are easy academic solutions to the gender problematic, but are they true ones? My fear is that in making gender easier for some to swallow, you’ll make it easier for others to choke. If you can’t stomach the full ten-course meal of gender – if you must make it pill-sized – at least put a stipulation on it:

To gender essentialists. Attacks on rigid essentialism aren’t necessarily a sign of neoliberal thought police, and believing so is discrediting to you. After all, one of the major red flags for pseudoscience is the belief that all opposition to your theory is a conspiracy.

At least in it’s blanket idealized form, gender essentialism has issues. If any male who isn’t 100% masculine or any female who isn’t 100% feminine is disordered, then every human being on the face of the Earth is disordered by dint of having a personality. I realize this is a bit of a straw man argument, but it gets at the overarching problem with most forms of gender essentialism. It’s one thing to value masculinity and femininity; it’s another thing entirely to devalue people because they miss your ideal. The idealism of gender doesn’t promote individual flourishing, and therefore promotes neither order nor virtue.

Instead of focusing on overarching roles, we need to study relationality and how persons dynamically and intentionally co-express love and identity.

To fellow transsexuals. In your online forums and private communities where you hide from oppression, don’t start forming your own oppressive systems. When I first came out as transgender, I was scared by the way some of you treated other transgender people. No, being transsexual isn’t the “true transgender experience.” No, you’re not necessarily “more woman” or “more man” than someone who is less vocal about their gender identity, or who didn’t experience gender dysphoria until puberty. No, a domestic, passive trans woman isn’t more womanly, and certainly isn’t more Woman, than a tomboyish, outspoken trans girl. Wearing gender-conforming clothes, or getting all the surgeries, or only falling in love with the opposite gender, doesn’t make you more transsexual or more transgender. Another transgender person’s battle with gender may be different than yours, and they may use language in different way, but their pain and struggle is just as valid. Don’t forget that. “Treat others as you would have done unto yourself.”

We need our own space for specifically transsexual issues, but that doesn’t mean we need to drive every other person off the face of the Earth.

To transsexual women. I think we need a little more humility when approaching women-only spaces. Yes, we need safety and basic accommodations. Sometimes we even need to pee. We’re battered, beaten, bruised, and constantly invalidated, so of course we want change. However, we’re not exactly “women just like other women.” We’re “women similar to other women.” Let’s slow down a bit and show more grace. We don’t need to be invalidated by acknowledging our difference. Our difference will only be accepted by other women if it enriches rather than poisons women-specific communities.

To transgender activists. I know the easiest way to win a culture war is to rewrite the language and give people a politically-correct script to read off. And I know that the easiest way to justify hard decisions is “it’s none of your business what I do with my own body.” And I furthermore know that the easiest way to win freedom for gender-diverse people is to say “gender is a social construct”; it’s a nice, simple, short thing to say to brush all debate under the rug. But please, let’s not erase different experiences of gender. Let’s not erase the cisgender woman’s very real experience of not only being raised a girl, but of having to put up with menstruation. Let’s not cover up the fact that even in Native American societies, which are glorified for their “radical” two-spirit “third gender”, some of those two-spirit people saw themselves similar to how modern transsexuals see themselves, and would perform intense rituals to simulate menstruation and pregnancy. The complete erasure of gender (or sex) is as invalidating to those who don’t have the luxury/privilege to bracket gender (0r sex), just as “color-blind” attitudes are invalidating to people of color.

If we really want long-lasting change, let’s discuss real personal narratives, not scrubbed-up soundbyted clichés. Society will buy the clichés for a hot minute, but not a second longer. That, or we’ll be stuck in stereotypes of our own making for generations to come.

To all of you, PLEEEEEEASE, stop the name-calling! Call a cease-fire and talk. You all have deep personal stakes in the “gender war,” but that gives you all the more reason to stop firing bullets and start encompassing gender experiences with your hearts. We need some sanity in these gender conversations so we can stop talking about disconnected ideologies and start talking about people. If our ideologies eclipse the concrete experiences of individual people, then what’s the purpose in believing them except to be deliberately exclusive, self-righteous, and cruel? My hope is that any discourse on gender is aimed at truth – namely, to actually get to the bottom of the issues we face, not to pet our own egos.

If you take anything from this series on What is Gender?, let it be how humble we need to be in the face of such complex diversity and diverse complexity.



 This post is the sixth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


So far my posts on gender have focused on various transgender or queer experiences to help bring to light the ways in which different aspects of gender can be problematic for different people. This last post has the most to do with cisgender (non-transgender) people.

Many cisgender people sympathize with the transgender movement because of small ways in which they don’t conform to stereotypical masculinity or femininity. Until recently, a man who wanted to be a nurse was berated because nursing is a “woman’s job,” despite the fact that he gravitated to that profession simply because he had a heart for nursing. Similarly, people might assume a woman is lesbian simply because she plays rugby.

This is the battle with gender expectations, and it’s the most universal site of gender conflict. I’d venture to say every single person fails to conform entirely to the gender expectations of their time. If everyone perfectly conformed to archetypes of men and women, there’d be no personality or individuality in the world. These roles are what people are most willing to question, and rightly so.

Gender breakdown common

Gender expectations are all the assumptions we make about an individual based on their assigned gender. If a child is pronounced a boy upon delivery, he’s often dressed in blue because the expectation is that boys and blue go together. This is the beginning of gender rearing, the socialization of the child based on who that child is assumed to be. A girl will often be given barbies because it’s assumed she wants to play with them instead of toy swords.

Gender expectation also plays into gender roles; what “part” the person is expected to play. The girl is given dolls to play a mother role, whereas the boy is given guns to play a warrior role. These become at once more exaggerated and more nuanced in adult life, where certain professions (like police officer) are considered male-typical, whereas others (like homestay nurse) are considered female-typical.

These strict gender roles aren’t just assumed; they’re enforced. This is wherepejorative gender comes in. A boy who cries is called a sissy – his non-“masculine” behavior is negatively compared with women. A girl with masculine features is mannish – her non-“feminine” physicality is negatively compared with men. Failure on a biological level is just as censored. A man or woman with reproductive issues is a “failed” version of their gender – sterile, impotent, barren, depleted, unfruitful, infecund. Slurs against queer people like fag, he-she, and freak serve the same purpose.

Some rigid conservatives may still believe a woman’s role is exclusively in the kitchen; the question they never seem to ask themselves is what if a particular woman is genuinely inclined toward working in the stock exchange? You can formulate as many opinions as you want about how “she’s denying her natural femininity because of ungodliness or bad female role models or feminist brainwashing,” but what if she’s really, actually, truly inclined and disposed toward a professional life outside the home? Similarly, if feminists rewrite the script for “true women” to only include a professional career, what if a woman is really, actually, truly inclined and disposed toward a domestic life with lots of kids? Either way, an abstracted ideal is taking the place of the individual’s personality.

This every-day experience of gender is more or less universal. Through this window every person, cisgender or not, can relate to the gender embattlement of gender non-conformers. We’re all gender non-conformers in some way; for some people it’s just more pronounced, physical, conscious, or problematic.

Since this is the most relatable aspect of gender that everyone can understand, it’s no suprise that often it’s the only gender paradigm through which people will consider transgender experiences. Clearly I must “want to become a woman” because I don’t like competitive sports as much as most guys, or because I’m emotional and empathetic, or because I value the role of motherhood. The truth is I value motherhood because I experience myself as a girl, not the other way around. Transgender allies need to use this role aspect of gender to sympathize with transgender people, but also need to be careful not to over-relate their own struggles to those of particular transgender persons. Otherwise, they risk weaponizing and appropriating transgender narratives toward ulterior agendas.

That being said, gender roles touch on what might be the most important aspect of gender: relationality. What sexual reproductivity, sexual orientation, subconscious sex, gender identity, masculinity, femininity, and social grouping all have in common is they mark how we relate to ourselves and others in the world. Gender essentialists are getting at this when they assert that people have a natural place in the world that situates them in biological relationship with others. (Religious gender essentialists are getting at this when they talk about the divinely-ordained orientation of the masculine to the feminine.) Gender deconstructionists are also getting at this when they point out the ways in which people are consigned to unjust, demeaned, and heavily policed situations of inequality because of gender norms. Both acknowledge this relational aspect: either where biological facts (or divine intent) situate us, or where social oppression warps those facts to demean certain individuals. We need both sides of the coin.

The truth is that apart from small conflicts with gender expectations, the majority of the population experiences gender and sex in incredible alignment. Most people designated “male” have a male genital, genetic, hormonal, sexual, and subconscious sex that is undisputed, masculine tendencies, and identify their gender as “boy” or “man.” Most people designated “female” have a female genital, genetic, hormonal, sexual, and subconscious sex that is undisputed, feminine tendencies, and identify their gender as “girl” or “woman.” The fact that this dichotomy exists isn’t in itself problematic. This statistical binary is present even in the animal kingdom where socialization is rudimentary and gender ideologies are non-existent, so it can’t only be a social construct. The problem isn’t with binary sex, but binary sexism.

Binary sexism is precisely the aforementioned universal experience of being bullied into rigid gender conformity regardless of a person’s natural mode of being. It’s the idea that the gender binary has to be enforced as a law, rather than enjoyed as an outgrowth of human relationality. In our current culture most binary sexism is related to misogyny; the standards that both men and women are held to praise masculinity and demean femininity, so the policing is often centered on protecting masculine superiority. This is why transsexual women are far more demeaned than transsexual men – transsexual women threaten masculinity, whereas transsexual men prove that masculinity is something to attain to. It’s also why boys are punished more severely for “devolving” into “effeminacy,” whereas tomboyish girls are given relatively little trouble.

The truth is the gender dichotomy doesn’t need to be enforced to exist, and doing so causes unnecessary damage to individuals.My little brother, for example, seems to be a naturally masculine child. Unattended, he would probably gravitate toward toy soldiers of his own free will. As he’s undergone puberty and his social group has gotten more demanding, and perhaps in part because he’s conscious of my own feminine expression, his demeanor has changed. I’ve noticed a stiffness in him that I never perceived when he was a kid. His masculinity, which was once free and expressive, seems that much more performative than before. He doesn’t act differently; he behaves the same, but with more self-conscious huff-huffing about his masculinity. I’d like him to live in a world where he can be a man because he’s a man, not because he needs to prove that he’s a man.

As far as I know, my brother is part of the statistical majority: he physically, psychologically, and socially fits within average male parameters. This is fine. What I don’t understand is why it’s not fine to exist on the fringe of these averages. Most people have untroubled sex-gender alignment; some do not. Most men are masculine; some are not. This shouldn’t be more troubling than the natural variation in peoples’ voices. On average, males have voices with a fundamental frequency of 125 Hz, and females have voices with a fundamental frequency of 200 Hz. In actual fact, the vocal ranges of males and females overlap, and outliers from both sexes can have voices that approach the fundamental frequency of the other sex. How tyrannical would it be if those outliers were forced to have vocal surgery to “correct” their voice? How barbaric would it be to lop off a woman’s legs because she’s on the tall end of what’s considered average for a female?

It’s ridiculous to claim that stereotypical males or females are the only “real” way to be human. It’s just as ridiculous when transgender activists want to make transgender the “new normal.” Any group that tries to remake the world in their own image is doing the world a disservice. Whether a cisgender woman treats every gender non-conformer as a freak, or a genderqueer person wants everyone to be completely androgynous, the gigantic world of gender – and with it, the entirety of humanity – is being crammed into a small, ego-sized hole in which it can’t possibly fit. The exceptions to gender norms don’t disprove the reality of gender any more than the gender dichotomy render gender non-conformers nonexistent. There’s an imperative to coexist just as there’s a reality to acknowledge: we already co-exist in the literal sense. The challenge is to coexist humanely and with attentiveness to each others’ unique existence.

Gender is a many-faced thing, so instead of proffering the word like a shotgun, we need to take the excruciating time and exhausting energy to actually differentiate peoplenb s’ experiences and hear their genuine concerns about gender enforcement. Different sides to an issue don’t make the issue contradictory; they just make it three-dimensional.

Click here to proceed to Part 7, a personal plea for gender sanity.




This post is the fifth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


In the last post I talked about gender groupings and how one is perceived/treated as a gendered individual. The gender one is perceived as is largely determined by two factors: secondary sexual characteristics, and gender behavior. The first, secondary sexual characteristics, is the physical amalgam of sex-typical characteristics (facial hair, breasts), which is largely determined by hormones and can change over time. The second, gender behavior, is the varied ways in which a person displays femininity, masculinity, or androgyny in the world.

In my chart I break gender behavior into several terms. The first one is gender expression (or gender expressiveness), and for my purposes it means thenatural outflowing of masculinity or femininity. Generally this is affected by subconscious sex, gender identity, hormones, and any inherent masculine or feminine tendencies. The gay boy who cannot stop himself from having limp wrists no matter how much his parents try to beat it out of him might very well be expressing natural femininity, just as a left-handed person expressesnatural lefthandedness even if they’re taught to be ambidextrous. When I came out of the closet, at least some of the femininity in my behavior arose from a subconscious place that was natural to me but that had been shut down by society. Certainly the more integrated I’ve become, the more natural expression has emerged from the deep.

Gender performance (or affected gender) is the side of gender expression that isn’t natural. Some feminists would say that all gender behavior is performative, but I disagree. There are too many people who act naturally feminine or masculine despite being socialized in the opposite direction. However, some of gender is definitely an act. The little boy who hates sports isperforming gender when he pretends to like sports. When I tried to suppress my subconscious sex and redefine myself based on forced masculine role models like Teddy Roosevelt, I was studying how to perform gender. On the other side of the coin, a female drag king who dresses as a guy to entertain a crowd is quite literally performing gender. For some gay guys (certainly not all), their particular culture of gay-specific flamboyancy (or effeminacy as it’s derogatorily called) is a performance to mark themselves as visibly gay.

Gender breakdown drag queent

Both natural gender and performed gender combine to create gender presentation, which mostly has to do with how one deliberately appears to the world. If gender performance is how one deliberately acts, gender presentation is how one deliberately wants to be perceived. It is how oneattempts to have their gender perceived (not necessarily how other people actually perceive it).

As a transsexual woman my gender expression is now feminine because my femininity is unrepressed. My gender performance is also usually feminine, but more because of social pressures to conform to cultural notions of femininity, as well as my desire to be affirmed as a woman. The sum total is a female gender presentation: I present myself as a woman, with the hopes that people will perceive me as female (my perceived gender) and will group me with other girls (my gender grouping). Tension exists when all these factors don’t align. Just the other day I had an experience in which my gender performance and perceived gender didn’t match my gender expression, and the result was incredible anxiety.

Unfortunately, gender behavior is the side of gender that the media leans all its weight on. A lot of public discussions about gender behavior become steeped in pejorative sexism. Gay men and transgender women are confused with each other because both are considered “feminine males.” For those who define being a man as being anatomically male, both gay men and transgender women are effeminate men; whereas for those who define being a woman as being feminine, both gay men and transgender women are “basically girls.” Misogyny turns this evaluation into an insult, since (after all) it’s bad to be feminine or a girl, especially if you’re male. Of course, confusing gay men and transgender women is ridiculous and defies actual experience.

A place where gender-as-expression creates tension within the trans community is the de-medicalization of trans issues by trans liberationists. For many transsexuals, the existence of transsexuality or gender dysphoria as a medical diagnosis is extremely comforting. It aligns with our own experience, that being trans is problematic not only because of how society views us, but because our body itself experiences an innate tension that can be crippling. Gender reassignment surgery really is life-saving for some. Other transgender people who conceive gender primarily as a presentation which ought to be queered or usurped view hormone therapy and surgeries as elective cosmetic procedures. This is why the transgender community is sometimes schizophrenic on this issue, one moment demanding health care coverage and the next demanding God-like autonomy over their own bodies. The community doesn’t know how to treat issues of problematic embodiment separately from issues of  gender performance.

These assumptions and conflations become crystal clear with the media hype around Caitlyn Jenner. During her interview with Diane Sawyer she had some vulnerable breathing room to talk about her gender as both subconscious sex and social grouping – she feels a sense of belonging both to the female sex and the “woman” social group. However, perhaps in no small part because of how she presents herself, since then the media has only latched onto the most superficial elements of her femininity. It’s not her lifelong subconscious transsexual experience that makes her a woman, but her new hairdo, name-brand cocktail dress, and plastic surgery.

Gender breakdown media

With Caitlyn Jenner we see the negative side of this view of gender. If gender is nothing but a set of superficial cosmetic stereotypes that mostly apply to women, then gender ideologists are right to tear it down because it’s essentially meaningless. There was no Christian Doir in the Garden of Eden, or even in the Bronze Age.

So much of gender is performance that it’s hard to see what’s genuineexpression. Expression is important because it points beyond the superficial to the subconscious and natural. The two are hard to parse out because they often coincide. When I wear a floral skirt, it’s predominantly expressive in that I just frickin’ love floral skirts, but it’s also performative in that I’m conforming to standards of femininity. We need to separate out these two elements so we can both talk about what this expressiveness says about my nature (are you listening, gender essentialists?), and what this pressure to perform says about our society (how about you, gender deconstructionists?).

The ways in which my gender behavior isn’t natural is only in the same way that some cisgender people unnaturally exaggerate their own gender behavior to fit in. Would I feel compelled to wear makeup as often as I do if the world was more accepting of frumpy women? Probably not. However, for transgender people there’s an added dimension to behavior concerns: namely the need to feel safe and validated. Transgender women in particular get a lot of flack for practicing their feminine voice or obsessing over “passing” as women, and cisgender people use this as proof that trans women are “performing” in order to “deceive” others or “play” at being women. They fail to empathize with the social ramifications of being a tall woman with a deep voice. This kind of “practicing gender” isn’t usually about “transforming into a woman,” but about having the luxury to live as oneself without being constantly accosted. The end goal is free expression – creating safe space in the world to allow oneself to be oneself.

A lot of conservative rhetoric against me assumes that in acting as a woman in society, I’m putting on an elaborate ruse to fool the outside world. They miss the fact that much of my female persona is a natural expression flowing from my inner self.

It’s this expression that forms the core of some peoples’ gender identity. An anatomical female may, for example, be naturally masculine but not have a subconscious male sex. They identify as transgender not because they feel an inescapable male identity at their core, but because their natural gender expression is so masculine that it puts them outside any recognizable female gender expectation. There’s nothing about “girlhood” or “womanhood” that resonates with them.

Gender breakdown expression

In this case, as is partially the case for a transsexual woman with a subconscious female sex, the issue is authenticity. However, it’s authenicity of expression, expectations, social grouping, and role rather than subconscious sex. This distinction is lost on most people, even some transgender people, but that’s why we need to have these more nuanced discussions about gender. The transgender person above has just as valid a complaint against gender oppression as a transsexual like me, but their complaint is entirely different. They quite naturally don’t fit into the binary, and in asserting themselves as transgender, they’re refusing to be shoved like a square peg into a circle hole.

If we can’t create a society that tolerates exceptions to the gender “norm” such as this, then we’re heartless. You can kick and scream all you want about how “it’s only natural that males be masculine and females be feminine,” but you need to read what’s actually natural to real people, just as you have to simply acknowledge the existence of intersex people. You can formulate a lofty notion of gender essentialism to define “what a woman is essentially,” but be careful not to ignore the individual woman whose essence doesn’t quite reflect the characteristics you thought it would.

Part 6, the conversation on “gender as role,” is coming soon.


Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

– Galatians 3:28
In the context of religion, we are familiar with the quotation from Galatians, even if in the Catholic Church we are unwilling to take the words literally, and apply them to ordination. From the world of science though, it is becoming clear that there is a truth in the words that goes way beyond a theological concept, and is instead, a substantial measure of quite literal truth. It may well be that there really is “neither male nor female”, at least not in the absolute binary sense that modern Western culture assumes. This has major implications for Christian sexual and gender theology.”
Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” was a seminal work in the early development of feminism and queer theory, and later of queer theology. Butler’s central achievement was to demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which she described as “performance”. The fluidity of gender however, also extends to biology. Far from a simple binary world composed of biological males and females, with perhaps a smattering of people with indeterminate gender (once described as hermaphrodites), modern science has shown that there are a far greater range of conditions that may be loosely described as “intersex” than previously realized – and that there are a surprising number of these people, some of whom will not even know of their true sex until they meet a need for some kind of medical testing (as with the case of the South African athlete Caster Semenya, who had no idea she was not fully female until she won a medal at the Beijing Olympics, competing as a woman). The same problems beset Sally Gross, who was raised as a male and ordained a Catholic priest, until the discovery that biologically she was in fact primarily female.
What is a Male?
To illustrate some of the complexities around biological sex, I want to share with you some extracts from two books that I have found helpful in extending my own understanding, Brian McNaught’s “Sex Camp”“, and Virginia Mollenkott’s Omnigender.
-read the full article at Queering the Church