WHAT IS GENDER? PART 4:
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.
THE CONVERSATION ON GENDER GROUPING.
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.
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.