How do you know your gender?

I was thinking about various issues around transsexuality a few months back, and a question occurred to me. This is a question that I suspect most trans people have been asked, so although those of you who are trans are welcome to respond, my asking here isn't aimed at y'all; it's aimed at my non-trans readers.

The question is:

If you consider yourself to be a man, how do you personally know you're a man? If you consider yourself to be a woman, how do you personally know you're a woman?

To put it another way, how do you know your own gender?

I suspect some of you will be inclined to say "well, I can look at my body and it's obvious" or "once a month it becomes pretty damn clear." If that's really the entire and true answer for you, I definitely want to hear that. But I suspect there's more to it than that for most people. I suspect most of us have a deeply ingrained sense of gender identity--that we believe ourselves to belong to a particular gender--and I'm very interested in hearing what, if anything (or things) in particular, causes us to believe that. And for those who don't have a strong sense of being gendered, or who have multiple or varying senses of being gendered, I of course want to hear about that as well.

I can think of a variety of possible general theoretical answers; I'm most interested in hearing people's specific personal answers. (But y'all can also give theoretical or general answers if you want to.)

This question is not meant to attack anyone; it's meant to provoke thought and (civil) discussion, and to help me think about it, because for me it's a tough question.

92 Responses to “How do you know your gender?”

  1. Jay Lake

    I have this partially-baked notion that gender has as much to do with the object of desire as with the centering of self. I’m not nearly prepared to explain that with anything like intellectual rigor, but it niggles at me.

    As for me, I am male because I am male. An utterly tautological answer, but it seems foundational to me.

  2. Maximum of Indolence

    Wow, Jed, that is a neat question.

    I think I know that I’m female because I’ve always been told that I am. Because my community sees me as female, and because the shape of my body says to my community: this is a woman-shape.

    On the inside, I’ve never felt strongly female or strongly male. In dreams, when I’m aware of gender at all, I’m as often male as female.

    I used to assume that everyone else felt neutrally-gendered on the inside, and that if we just changed society’s association of body-shape to gender, then we could be free of all that nonsense. But I think I was wrong: some people clearly feel as strongly about their intrinsic gender as I do about my lack of one.

  3. kellyfaboo

    Before I remember understanding my own gender, I remember how people perceived my gender and the expectations of me because of that gender. Depending on the expectation, I either betrayed them or lived up to them.

    Now, I understand my gender identity to be congruous with my biological sex characteristics. Even when I don’t live up to gender expectations, I still consider myself to be a member of a gender which is identified by outward sex characteristics. However, there is so much about human biology that we don’t understand fully, it very well could be that being my gender is formed by much more than just possessing certain outward sex characteristics.

  4. Matthew

    This is a strangely well-timed question, as I just had a vasectomy the other day.

    As a young man, I was not particularly strong or handsome or tough or good with tools or any of the things that mainstream media defined as male at the time. But I never questioned my gender identity. I had known from a young age that I was male and nothing really shook that sense of myself. Perhaps it was growing up in the age of “Free to Be, You and Me,” where boys could be boys in a variety of new ways.

    When I think about what formed my male self-image so early and so unshakeably, I would say first and foremost it was a strong, clear, and terribly embarassing and distracting attraction to women from a young age. I did not really know about homosexuality at the time – it was not part of my awareness or vocabulary – so there was no implicit comparison. It wasn’t “I am a man because I am not attracted to other men.” It was more like, “I am a man because I like women a WHOLE LOT, not just a little.” In strongly lusting for women, I clearly identified myself as male. I’m sure this is a fairly common path to gender identity for heterosexual men. I was probably ten or eleven at the time.

    But there were other factors involved as well, more subtle perhaps but just as basic. I have three brothers, no sisters, and throughout school always had my cadre of other boys who shared my odd interests and skills, so I had this continually feeling of belonging with other boys and men. I may have often felt isolated and alienated in school and in the world at large, but always for reasons that had nothing to do with gender identity. I had my brothers and male friends to fall back upon, to support me in their awkward, teasing, but welcoming ways.

    I also did a lot of things that, at the time, I unconsciously thought of as male, possibly because the women in my life did not seem interested in those activities. This would include the general razzing and knocking down a peg of each other, the geeky interest in mathematics and fantasy role playing, the hours spent wrestling or climbing or generally showing off my physical strength and agility, as limited as it was at the time.

    This is all to say how my identity was formed. What informs my gender today is not the same. I am a husband and a father, and no matter how enlightened I am, no matter how much equality I bring to my marriage, these roles are heavy with gender identity. I am the one who gives the bristly kisses (because of my beard) to the children. I am the one who maintains a level of reason and detachment when emotions rage about the house – which may be stereotypical, but which also appear to fluctuate with the hormonal cycles of my wife. I am called Papa ten times more often than my own name.

    One bit of irony. My voice is rather in the high range, so that I am often mistaken for a woman on the phone. This used to bother me a lot, until I learned I could turn it to my advantage. “Is this Mrs. Katinsky?” “No this is Mr. Katinsky.” “Oh, I’m so sorry, sir!” Once they’ve blundered your sex, bureaucrats and airline ticket agents are a lot more accomodating and will bend over backwards to make exceptions for you.

  5. Jackie M.

    A combination of identification and desire, I think.

    Whether through cultural training or hard-wiring, I have always identified with women as my primary role models: I have early memories of forcing my poor mother to comb through toy stores searching for Wonder Woman comic books and Princess Leia action figures. And I remember a real sense of dissatifaction when they proved nigh impossible to acquire. I’ll settle for a male substitute if there’s no really viable female alternative… and I like Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan just fine… but you should’ve seen me perk up the first time somebody mentioned Marie Curie. Or Mileva Maric. What’s more, I feel a strange sort of despair whenever I hear stories of successful women researchers taken down at the height of their careers by breast cancer or mental illness. As if someone is attacking me, personally, taking away any possibility of true success or happiness. There will always be an unknown disease waiting in the wings.

    And, well, I want to be a woman. I want to be the girl who beats all the boys at math; I want to be a woman who plays with model rockets. I want to play dress-up. I want to be prettier than I am. I want women and men both to notice me as a woman.

    But… while I would say that this is all “deeply ingrained,” I would NOT say that it is “rigid.” Which is something that actually changed with attending WisCon and reading about Ben Barres‘ experience–after I came back from WisCon this summer, I did catch myself thinking things like: You know, if somebody granted me an extra hundred years of life, I think I’d like to spend a decade or two as a man. Just to see what it’s like, you know… being allowed into the “old boy’s club,” not having to work so hard to keep people from assuming I’m the junior partner in everything. Though I never put in the time proving myself on the playground… I wonder if that wouldn’t be an advantage, actually?

    So. Not as rigid as I would have guessed even just a few years ago.

  6. bram452

    For those of us in the middle of the bell curve, the difference between gender and sex (and of course I’m speaking for myself here) is largely intuitive. Much like my esteemed colleague Mr. Lake, I am male because I am. Likewise I’m a mammal. I think that if I weren’t near the center of the culturally expected norm, I might have a more nuanced opinion. Even in those instances when I have fastasized about being a woman, it has been a fantasy more than a serious consideration of identity.

    What I mean by “being a man” — that is to say what the *content* of that idenity is — has varied throuout my life, as my comfort/discomfort with identifying with men-in-general, but my essential identity as a man is axiomatic and comfortable to me. My Kinsey rating is much the same.

    I do believe that the structures of the body can be a different “gender” from the structures in the brain. In my case, they match up. Another way of saying this is that, in my experience, my gender is discovered and then rationalized, not invented.

  7. Anonymous

    I hope this makes sense (to someone other than me), but I think I know I’m female simply because I know that I could never be male and still have the same soul, for lack of a better word. I mean, I just absolutely cannot begin to imagine being male.

    It has nothing to do with sexual orientation, as far as I can tell. Falling back on Clarke’s idea of a scale, because nobody is truly 100% hetero or homosexual, I’d say that I’m about 60/40 hetero/homo — very strong physical attraction to women as well as men, but not a lot of inclination to act upon it.

  8. Amy Sisson

    Shoot, that last comment was me — I didn’t mean it to be anonymous. Sorry!

  9. Anonymous

    Boobies. ๐Ÿ™‚ Seriously, though, how do I know I’m female–there’s a couple of things. 1) I’m female ’cause I’m in this body–take me out of this body and I’m not sure how I’d define what’s left of me. But 2) “this body” includes a certain level of estrogen/testosterone, and I am VERY sure I have never experienced the male levels of those hormones. That, I know from talking to guys. Testosterone is a truly funky thing. I was never an adolescent male. 3) And there’s all sorts of feedback from the community that says I’m female. ๐Ÿ™‚ (i.e., I’m comfortable with a female role in society.) Of course, that community feedback might reflect the decision I’ve made and that I project, that I’m female, so this may be a chicken and egg problem (heh).

  10. Anonymous

    That is…a really interesting question.

    I don’t know. It’s just this inherent part of my identity, that I am a woman, even though my ideas of gender are a little less rigid because of my upbringing (with a father who worked from home and a mother who was a professional engineer, read Asimov, and taught me how to wield power tools). I don’t consider myself a feminine woman — I don’t fit the social roles of “girl” a lot — but womanness is rooted in my gut.

    …y’know, I might have to think about this and report back.

  11. Leah Bobet

    Oh, oops, that was me. I don’t know why it posted anonymous. :/

  12. Jed

    These are fascinating comments; thanks for posting them, and please keep them coming. (And btw, in case anyone wants to respond but doesn’t want to post their name, posting anonymously is totally fine, as usual.)

    A few responses follow. These are meant in the spirit of exploration and questioning, not meant to attack or deny anyone’s comments or gut feelings or self-identifications.

    Jay and a couple of others mentioned objects of desire. I’ve run into this notion before–the idea that one’s gender is partly defined by who one is attracted to–but I still don’t understand it. I know people who have all sorts of genders and all sorts of sexual interests, and I don’t see any particular connection between the two. I imagine in the population at large there are bell curves, but (for example) I know a fair number of women who are mostly or exclusively interested in other women, but who don’t in any way (even socially) consider themselves to be male. So … any of you who talked about desire as a component of gender, would you be willing to elaborate further?

    MoI and a couple of others mentioned the way society/community treats us. At Kriti, I heard a fascinating piece read aloud (from Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith and Sexuality) by and about a woman who looks fairly androgynous, discussing people’s reactions to her appearance, their confusion and sometimes distress about thinking she looks like a boy even though she says she’s a woman. (I gather that she’s biologically female, but of course I don’t know that for sure.) So societal expectations and pressures certainly relate to how we’re treated–but those of you who feel that societal treatment is a component of gender, would you feel like your gender had changed if people started treating you differently? That’s an honest question, not sarcastic; it may be unanswerable, but I’d be interested in hearing your speculations.

    (Of course, a lot of who we are may be shaped by how people treat us when we’re young–insert reference to Jed’s favorite infant-gender experiment, in which adults gave “gender-appropriate” toys to infants dressed in colors associated with a given gender–so this societal-treatment thing may start so early that it wouldn’t make much difference if it were to change later. On the other hand, some people (such as some/most trans people) do feel themselves to be a gender other than the one that society assigns to them.)

    Matthew: Your vasectomy story is great–thanks for posting that. Interesting about attraction to girls helping shape your gender identity before you knew about homosexuality. Thanks, too, for the detailed further discussion–lots of food for thought, and sparks several things I want to say about my own gender identity later.

    …Everyone else: great comments; thank you.

    I think I’ll post about my own gender identity as a separate comment.

  13. Jackie M.

    but those of you who feel that societal treatment is a component of gender, would you feel like your gender had changed if people started treating you differently?

    I certainly would feel that my gender had… shifted. Unless, perhaps, there were some obvious additional cues suggesting that the societal expectations for my gender overall were themselves shifting, and I was just being pulled along with the flow.

    I would feel different if I were in some way singled out.

  14. Jed

    I don’t conform to standard societal notions of maleness in a variety of ways. For example:

    I’m generally not very aggressive or competitive or violent.

    I’m not at all athletic, and I don’t generally enjoy exercise.

    I like talking about feelings. I like watching romantic comedies. I cry easily. The majority of my close friends are women.

    Various friends and lovers regularly teasingly tell me “You’re such a girl!” when (for example) I comb my hair and then immediately brush it.

    I’m attracted to men as well as to women.

    I suspect that I’ve never experienced the very high “male” levels of testosterone that (for example) Anonymous mentioned; for another example, I’ve talked with male friends who’ve said they were essentially unable to think of anything other than sex for a year or two during high school. Whereas I had sexual interests in high school, but they never really got in the way.

    I often play female characters in roleplaying games, and write female protagonists in stories.

    I’m usually more willing to ask for directions than my female friends are.

    And it bothers me a little (and used to bother me quite a lot) when I notice myself conforming to various male stereotypes, such as taking an unemotional/problem-solving approach to being told about someone’s troubles, or holding forth on topics I don’t know much about, or avoiding commitment in relationships, or avoiding cleaning up messes. When I engage in those “male” behaviors, I don’t have a sense that it’s because I’m male; I feel like it’s because I’m me, and that it’s an unfortunate coincidence that they happen to be stereotypically male behaviors. It bugged me to be told that I was doing those things because I was male. (But in fact, it seems likely to me that many of those behaviors are socialized-male behaviors that I picked up while I was being socialized; I am certainly far from immune to the influence of my society. What really bugs me is when I get a sense that people are making gender-essentialist judgments, saying that all men behave that way as an unalterable matter of course.)

    (Aside: I’m fascinated that Matthew saw geeky behaviors and interests as male–it makes total sense when you say it like that, but I think that to some extent our society tends to put geeky or sissy males into a special “not fully male” category. It’s definitely not femaleness, but I think there’s often a sense that if they were real boys, they would be out shooting squirrels and playing football instead of playing D&D and doing math problems. …I suppose that most of my above comments could be summarized by saying that I’m a Sensitive New-Age Guy; that’s another kind of maleness that I think society at large considers suboptimal.)

    And yet, despite all that, I am quite certain, at a gut level, of my own maleness. I think that for me, part of what’s going on is that I’m very definition-bound; I’m less rigid in my definitions than I used to be, but at the time when I learned “the definition” of maleness, it was a simple and uncomplicated one, having to do with primary and secondary physical sexual characteristics. I’ve never done a good job of meeting society’s expectations of what a man is like, but I learned a definition of what a man (or boy) “is” so early that it’s hard to shake, even after learning a lot more about how complicated gender really is. (I don’t generally have so much trouble identifying trans friends as the gender they want to be identified as; I’m talking about these definitions mostly specifically as they apply to me.)

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say things like “raising boys is harder than raising girls, because boys are naturally so violent and active.” That could have the effect of making me feel like I’m insufficiently male; but my sense of my own maleness is so strong that instead it makes me feel like those people’s definitions are inadequate.

    Regarding something Jackie said: I’ve been fascinated by the idea of simply and easily changing physical sex since I first encountered it in science fiction long ago–probably first in a Varley book. (Maybe even ever since my mother told me, when I was a kid, that if I kissed my elbow I would turn into a girl.) If I could change my body to be female and then (at some later time) change back, quickly and inexpensively and completely and without any hassles, I would do it in a minute. I would enjoy being a girl, as they say–but I would want to be able to switch back later, because I think I would probably think of myself as a male person putting on/roleplaying a temporary female identity.

    I hope to post more about all this later, after more people have a chance to comment.

  15. Maximum of Indolence

    If I could change my body to be female and then (at some later time) change back, quickly and inexpensively and completely and without any hassles, I would do it in a minute.

    Me too. In fact, I’d happily swap, and we could have all kinds of adventures ๐Ÿ™‚ I so wish swapping gender were as easy as changing shoes.

  16. Jackie M.

    See, I wouldn’t be interested in switching genders except as an actual identity switch.

  17. David Moles

    What I want to know is, how do you know what the choices are?

  18. Ted

    I’ll ditto what Daniel (bram452) said.

    As for how we know what the choices are, I think we learn them from adults when we’re young. For many people, there’s never a reason to question that classification or our place in it, similar to the way that there isn’t a reason to question where we fall in the mammal/reptile/etc. taxonomy.

  19. Vardibidian

    A couple of things, if I may…

    I have always felt myself to be male, without question. On the other hand, the occasions I have worn women’s clothes (about half-a-dozen, all performance-related in one way or another), I have felt quite comfortable (except for the shoes). I like to hang around with women, much more than with men, and in fact was somewhat miffed, recently, when I wasn’t invited to a “girl’s night out”, before realizing that, you know, penis. I am straight, mostly; I find about 80% of women in my age group attractive, and only around 10% of men. I’ve never had any significant sexual contact with a man. I have lots of “man” attributes: I like to argue and win arguments, I am goal-oriented, I am a poor housekeeper, I like watching sports, etc, etc. I have a handful of “woman” attributes: I am fussy about clothes, I gossip, I giggle,

    Another thing: I am now raising a boy and a girl. The boy is a baby, and the girl is five years old. After chatting with the parents of the children in my little girl’s kindergarten, I have decided to follow the usual pattern: every difference between my two children I will attribute to fundamental, inherent differences between the sexes, and further will assume that those differences are universal. Therefore, girls don’t spit up as much as boys. Boys grunt a lot more than girls do. Girls like to be held close, and boys like to have room to wiggle. Boys like to lie on their backs, girls like to ride in swings. Girls don’t like to wear hats, but boys will put up with them.

    Oh, one more thing: you may not have heard about Christine Penner, the the LA Times sportswriter who was until recently Mike Penner. I don’t know if this story made the rounds of people-interested-in-gender, but it sure made the rounds of people-interested-in-sports-journalism. Oddly enough, most of the response I saw ranged from “cool” to “enh”, expressed in a range from sensitive to vulgar. Very, very few vituperative and nasty responses. Which, I suppose, says more about where I go to read about sports than it does about sports fans, but still.


  20. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    It all feels very tied to the body for me. Because my upper body is weaker than the average guy’s, I end up asking men to help me lift things, or open jars. Because I’m shorter, I ask them to reach stuff down from tall places. Because society has conditioned us to believe women are beautiful and worth gazing upon, I am aware of the effect my clothing and appearance can have on those around me, and sometimes dress to accentuate it. Because my skin is softer than most men’s, some men desire it. Because I can easily be overpowered during sex, it feels easy and natural to slide into a more submissive/receptive role at times. Because I can be raped, I am more cautious about walking alone at night than I would otherwise be.

    Because I can get pregnant, I have been far more careful about contraception than I would be otherwise. Because I am currently very pregnant, I feel more fragile in my body and at the same time fiercely protective of the baby.

    I think if I were a more athletic, taller, stronger person, I would feel at least somewhat less ‘female’ than I currently do. Which would be just fine with me, and even something to be desired, but sadly, laziness apparently trumps that desire most of the time.

    If I had no body (uploaded to the machine), I don’t think I would feel gendered for very long at all, except in memory of my embodied days. Which is interesting, since most of the time I do feel very female.

  21. Bard Bloom

    I’m physically male, but I identify as neuter whenever I possibly can. I don’t much like being male, and I don’t want to be female either. Hmph.

  22. Matthew

    I love this discussion! A few follow up comments.

    My wife worked in early childhood development and one of the things I have learned from her is that the current research clearly shows that 95% of the differences we attribute to boys and girls are societal, not biological. (See Jed’s comments about the studies done with infants dressed in gender-signaling colors). This socialization begins before a child is even born, and plays out in posture, language, and a hundred nuanced ways. Few people knowingly hold a baby boy and call him a “Pretty little lady” or a baby girl and call her a “strapping young lad.” Even the way babies are held is different based on perceived gender. It isn’t about testosterone or estrogen. Boys may have more muscle mass – that’s a biological trait – but they are not necessarily more aggressive. Most of that is learned. So say the researchers who study this sort of thing. What amazes me is how people who consider themselves educated and accepting of modern science have a VERY difficult time believing this. Another fascinating thing is the few biological sex-based traits for which is evidence – boys develop musical rhythm at a younger age, girls tend to have a stronger constitution as babies, etc.

    The other thing I wanted to point out is that having a male or female body might seem like a an arbitrary and objective standard for gender, but it is not. My identity as a male is based very much on my assumptions and patterns of thinking, on what I believe it means to be male, but which may have nothing to do with my body per se. Those assumptions and patterns are my own and can be very different from anyone else’s.

    By way of analogy, normative Judaism has a clear standard for who is and who isn’t a Jew. If your mother was Jewish or if you convert, you are a Jew. That’s it. This is an external, objective litmus test, but even this is not accepted by everyone. Many Jews refuse to accept it. If you’re conversion was performed by a Reform rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi will not consider you to be Jewish, but that same rabbi would consider the son of a Jewish mother to be Jewish even if he ate pork, drove on Saturdays, and had a Christmas tree in his house.

    Likewise, there are external definitions of gender, but everyone accepts, inculcates, or choses (consciously or not) their own definition and measures themself against it. Thus I can say that adolescent geekiness is part of my male identity even though this isn’t a traditional male trait in our society and even though there are adolescent female geeks.

  23. Nao

    The more I think about it, the more I think that I don’t often think of myself in a gendered way. I had thought that I think of my self as female, but (at least at the moment) I’m not sure that’s true. There are ways that I behave that are socially conditioned by my physical sex (caution about walking around at night by myself and so on), but the traits that I think of as being me are not ones that I specifically think of as feminine. This may have a lot to do with my tendency to not think of most (if not all?) personality traits as being gendered–I’ve known aggressive women and shy men, and so on.

    I tend to think that the differences between men and women (as physically defined) are slight compared to the similarities. I actually wonder sometimes if this attitude is related to my sexuality; I’m bisexual, and I tend to think of myself, not as being attracted to both men and women, but as being attracted to specific people.

    As an aside, I do have a little extra interest in the question of gender at the moment from watching my 2 1/2 year old son and the way people interact with him. I can’t count the number of times people have explicitly used his fascination with trucks and other machinery as a validation of their ideas about gender roles. He really is fascinated by machinery (there’s a fairly strong strain of that in my family, and not just for boys).

    I’m getting more and more irritated by the people who smugly tell me that Theo’s proof that trucks really are a boy thing. I’m quite prone to remarking that I liked trucks when I was little and that my son is also of flowers, butterflies, and wearing purple. He particularly likes purple dump trucks. He also likes cooking (pretend and real) and having tea parties. Furthermore, none of the boys in Stephen’s family have ever been particularly interested in trucks. (Theo’s interest has rather bemused them, I think.)

  24. Jed

    A trans friend asked me to post a comment anonymously on their behalf, which I did, and then asked me to take it down, which I also did. I mention this because I try not to make changes to publicly posted pages without mentioning that I’ve made those changes.

    …I have more to say about all of these topics, but it’ll take me a little time to put together a coherent posting. More later.

  25. Karindira

    Hi, I came over here from Jay’s LJ.

    I think I have a biological sex (female) and a gender (female), and they happen to match.

    I don’t feel that gender is societally assigned. If it were, biology and gender would always match, as society expends enormous, unspoken and unrelenting pressure on children to assume the correct gender, based on their sexual organs. The existence of transgendered individuals seems to mean that that biology, not society, is responsible for the assignment of both sex and gender.

    I’m not sure why the acceptance of transgender so hard in our society. Maybe the societal reaction is based on biology, as well. The first visual information we take in about another human being is “male or female,” and people who confuse us make most of us uncomfortable to one degree or another. We stare until we “know,” and then and only then can we turn away.

    What is my gender? It’s the sexed part of my identity. How do I know my gender? I have no idea. It’s permeated me since the beginning of my days. I have always known I was a girl, and what a girl was, and what a boy was, and that we were different. I knew this long before I had a clue about the anatomical differences between male and female. For me, gender simply “is.”

  26. elizabeth bear

    My gender is geek. And I’m happy with it.

    I wouldn’t mind smaller breasts, though.

  27. muneraven

    What a complicated question. Well, lol, at least for me.

    I don’t think who one is attracted to is any clear indication of gender. That’s preference, and it is a different issue.

    I don’t think one’s physical parts is a clear indicator of gender either because lots of people identify as one gender physically but believe mightily they are the opposite gender in their heads.

    I wonder if one’s gender might be most clearly indicated by what goes on in your head while having a sexual experience? Let’s say a sexual experience either alone or with someone you really trust completely, because otherwise I think your thoughts can be changed by concerns about what someone else might think of you. SO: when you are experiencing sexual pleasure free of immediate pressure to be anything but what you ARE . . .what do you see and feel? What do you think about? I wonder if that isn’t the clearest indicator of one’s gender.

    It’s a slippery concept, isn’t it. I wonder how biologically pure anyone’s gender really is. Surely it is influenced by so many things . . .I wonder if one’s gender can change over time thanks to experiences and influences?

  28. Kameron Hurley

    I knew that my parts made me a “girl,” but not knowing what that was until I was four or five, or how that made me different, it was totally fine with me. Girl, boy, whatever, can I go out and play?

    Once I *did* start to understand what “being a woman” was, once I started watching television and playing with Barbie dolls, I remember immediately internalizing the misogyny. I started to look at women with disgust. I wasn’t one of those frail, girly people who only cared about make-up and shoes! I was BETTER than that! That wasn’t *me.*

    So the actual physical parts of me – the whole breasts and vagina thing – I never felt odd about that or had a disconnect between parts and self. People said certain parts made me a girl, and I was fine with that, so long as everybody was clear I wasn’t one of those girls that everyone on tv looked down on and hated. Because who wants to be treated like a silly person?

    On the one hand, I feircely did not *want* to be smaller and weaker, and on the other hand, I was getting all of these messages than unless I was thin and pretty and wore small shoes that no one would love me. And who doesn’t want to be loved?

    It wasn’t until after high school that I stopped trying to meet those impossible expections. And, to be dead honest, the only way I was able to stop trying to squeeze myself into the gender mold was to say that I was OK if that meant nobody was every going to love me or be attracted to me. I figured I’d rather be lonely and happy than coupled and miserable.

    The self-hate I went through as far as my physical body goes was (and is, I’m not perfect) directly linked to expected gender norms of how I am “supposed” to look and act because I have these parts, not to the actual parts. Whenever I fantasized about being a man, it was generally because I felt I would be able to have more freedom, more power, more confidence than I did in a woman’s body, not because I really hated having breasts (also, I think, the idea of being a man made my occasional girl-crushes more socially acceptable, in my head).

    So, I felt comfortable in my skin and identified as a woman because I had womanly parts, and I was OK with that. “Women have vaginas. Men have penies. The sky is blue. The grass is green (except when it isn’t).” I could deal with those general categories, growing up (not so much, now…).

    What I was uncomfortable about was what having those parts *actually* meant. The label, by itself, didn’t mean anything to me. It was the culture that made it mean something.

  29. El

    I’m female, and I very much consider myself to be female, and I get quite disgruntled that because I have no interest in clothes, am into SF and math and such, know how to use a screwdriver, would rather talk about cool stuff I saw on the web than feelings, I’m sometimes perceived as, well, not entirely female.

    As to *why* I feel so strongly I’m female, I suspect it’s early socialization, but it might be biological/neurological. I don’t assert much unless I’m *very* comfortable. I assume that I’m not supposed to do/be all sorts of things that women aren’t supposed to do/be, even when feminism did a lot to turn that around years ago. (Feminism hit big when I was in high school.)

    For me, the stereotypically male interests are trumped by my expected role in social/interactive contexts. (Physically, I’m unmistakably female.) Because I *feel* female, I want to be able to define all those male interests as being just as validly female rather than define myself as somewhat male.

    A coworker once said she liked getting her period because it reminds her that she’s a woman. I told her I KNOW I’m a woman, and that’s a reminder I’d just as soon do without!


  30. juliabk

    Stumbled in here courtesy of Jay Lake’s LJ.

    Absolutely fascinating topic!

    There has never been any doubt in my mind that I’m female. I don’t think pregnancy or breastfeeding made me feel any *more* female than I do anyway, though I could do without this whole menopause thing very nicely, thank you very much. Even though I’m hardly stereotypical, I’m very definitely a woman through and through. I tend to reject society’s definitions of femininity. I am female. Anything I am, do, like, feel, whatever is feminine. I’m aggressive (and assertive, which are two different things ;-), I used to be physically strong and was always one of the furniture movers in the office. I’m decisive. I’m independent and detest having to ask anyone for help, but the arthritis has kinda impacted that. (I won’t attempt to change the water bottle in the water cooler again – dropping one was quite enough.) I love to argue, but find fighting counter-productive most of the time. I value reason over emotion, but don’t *de-value* emotion, if that makes any sense at all. Detest romance novels with a passion as most of the female protags are too stupid to live. I have no trouble identifying with a male character, but that’s likely as much a matter of long practice as any underlying gender issues. Is the character intelligent? A good person? Prone to picking partners/lovers/friends who are also intelligent and good people? Does the right things for the right reasons? I’m there! ๐Ÿ™‚ For movies I prefer adventure, SF, thrillers and some romantic comedies. I have no problem with porn, except that het porn focuses far too much on women who do pretty much nothing for me sexually. I much prefer images of men. Yes, wow, a woman who’s visually stimulated, that’s like, impossible! *sigh* I get *so* *very* *tired* of being told what I do and don’t like simply because I’m female.

    I’m a lousy housekeeper and a good cook. I’ve never had the patience for fiber work outside a brief time when I did some basic knitting. I used to work on my car before A. my hands gave out and B. they got more complex under the hood than I wanted to mess with. I’m technically and mechanically inclined, but not mathematically so (according to my grades). Though I do get the answers fairly intuitively from time to time – and I can reason my way through some basic stats without the actual formulas. I’ve got excellent communications skills and used to have some decent athletic skills, but nothing outstanding. I’ve been told I have a sexy singing voice. I dress for comfort over looks, detest shopping and wearing makeup and only wear the usual female accouterments (well, aside from a bra – too painful to even contemplate going without at my size unless I’m just sitting at home) when costuming is necessary (weddings, funerals, meetings with muckety-mucks, the occasional fancy occasion). I enjoy a good gossip as well as the next person. I like to paint my nails bright colors when they’re “long enough”. I don’t dye my hair and often describe my hair color as ‘tabby’ these days. I keep getting hit on by lesbians (who, so far, have always taken ‘no thanks, I’m straight’ for an answer) and the last few times I’ve made a pass at a man he’s turned out to be gay. (Yes, the universe *IS* laughing at me, why do you ask? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Lucky for me, I’m happy being single. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  31. Rose Fox

    Jed wrote:

    Jay and a couple of others mentioned objects of desire. I’ve run into this notion before–the idea that one’s gender is partly defined by who one is attracted to–but I still don’t understand it. I know people who have all sorts of genders and all sorts of sexual interests, and I don’t see any particular connection between the two. I imagine in the population at large there are bell curves, but (for example) I know a fair number of women who are mostly or exclusively interested in other women, but who don’t in any way (even socially) consider themselves to be male. So … any of you who talked about desire as a component of gender, would you be willing to elaborate further?

    I’m not one of the people who mentioned this, but let me see if I can put my particular spin on it.

    I’m a genetic female with obvious secondary sex characteristics and no desire to change them. My gender and my orientation are both entirely fluid. My awareness of both of them is reactive. I become aware of being in a woman-oriented phase when I see a woman and think “Gosh, she’s hot”. I become aware of being in a male/masculine phase when I try on a skirt and it feels wrong, or I look in the mirror and think it looks entirely out of place on me. (I’m quite aware, at such moments, that my body is pretty much static and only my perception is changing.)

    Often, I will take gender cues from orientation awareness. I’ll see a woman and not only think “Gosh, she’s hot” but “Gosh, I’d like to [do xyz to her/do xyz with her/have her do xyz to me]”. That adds nuance to the gynophilia. Being attracted to a woman from a female perspective feels very, very different from being attracted to a woman from a male perspective. Dominant and submissive perspectives feel different. Masculine and feminine perspectives feel different. The desire to be penetrated and the desire to penetrate feel different, and there are further nuances depending on whether I’m physically equipped to do what I want to do. For me, gender is a mix of all of those things and more.

    Some days I pull on a skirt and realize that I feel female and feminine. Some days I feel male and feminine. Today I’m wearing a dress and leggings and I feel very much like I’m in drag. It doesn’t hurt that my haircut can look either very “professional woman” or very “teenage boy”, depending on how I style it. It’s teenage boy today, to emphasize the contrast I feel between what’s in my head and the clothes that I’m wearing. I don’t feel particularly male today, but I certainly don’t feel particularly female either. That’s pretty common for me. I would feel different and perhaps be more comfortable in gender-neutral clothes (like a turtleneck and jeans, which I wear quite often), but today I felt like emphasizing the contrast a bit. I note that the point there is to mess with my own head, not with anyone else’s. I’m sure I would register as female to anyone who looked at me, with very little hint of any sort of gender oddness.

    Although I tend to spend a lot of time in the middle of the gender spectrum, there are times when I swing so hard to one side or the other that it strongly affects my sense of my physical self. It’s uncommon for me to feel womanly, but it does happen (and is usually accompanied by either strong gynophilia, which contributes to my appreciation of my femaleness, or strong phallophilia, which makes me want to find five or six willing men and spend the day in bed with them). More often, though still quite rarely overall, I feel so male that it is downright disconcerting to realize that my equipment doesn’t match up. Imagine waking up from a very vivid dream where you were in a body of a different sex, and that moment of disorientation where you adjust to being in your own body again. I get that for a day or two at a time. It doesn’t even have anything to do with sexual arousal or function, though that can get very difficult; I experience it when standing or sitting, when taking a shower, when glancing down and being shocked to see breasts attached to my chest (and they do feel sort of tacked on at those times, or like odd benign growths).

    It’s worth noting somewhere in here that awareness of my body is not my default state. I tend to live in my head, and my libido is on the low to moderate end. My orientation shifts have to be fairly strong for me to notice them. I notice gender more, because I’m aware of how I feel when I get dressed every morning, but I don’t pay much attention to it most of the time.

    I wonder sometimes whether my experience of all of this would be very different if my “this feels weird” sense weren’t so finely attuned, or if I didn’t pay so much attention to it. If that sense were muted, I might wear skirts every day and think nothing of it. Gender fascinates me, though, and I enjoy playing with it enough that I’m willing to put up with the times when it plays with me.

    I hope that sheds some light on at least one way that gender and orientation interact. I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

  32. Joy

    (I too wandered here from Jay’s LJ) This is really interesting. I am physically female, and pretty comfortable with that; if I lived in Iain M. Banks’ Culture I’d probably give being physically male a try, but I like having my genitalia on the inside for the most part.
    Conversely, I feel like my internal mental dialog isn’t terribly strongly gendered. It’s very easy for me to identify (maybe over-identify) with male viewpoint characters in books – until something occurs in-story to shake me out of it. For example, in Hesse’s _Glass Bead Game_ I was merrily reading along, loving the description of the academy the main character is attending, and picturing how wonderful it would be to study there, when the assertion is made that no women are allowed there. Not only was my participation in the novel broken, but it was a week or so before I could go back and finish reading it, thinking ‘Oh yeah, not about me after all’ with a certain sadness the whole rest of the endeavor.
    To try and sum up, I’m female because I’m in what I’ve been told is a female body; absent that physical constraint I think I’d be pretty androgynous.

  33. deangc

    [also here via Jay Lake]

    Fascinating discussion, at least in part because of the participants.

    Like someone who commented above me, I don’t think that you can define gender by who you are attracted to. We have all kinds of evidence that people are attracted to a wide (!) range of bodies.

    I believe that gender is societally imposed. I believe that it is imposed based on sexual characteristics: penis = rough play, no sympathy, blue. Vulva = frilly clothes, discussion of emotions, pink. That secondary sex characteristics (testosterone, thick skin, muscle vs estrogen, soft skin, beautiful beautiful curves) reinforce many of these societally imposed behaviours is to be expected, I think. After all, it seems likely to me that these imposed behaviours grew in part from secondary sex characteristics.

    For me, I am male because I have a penis. I am very attracted to females, not at all to males, but if I were, I’d describe myself as male and homosexual or male and bisexual. In other words, in my mind, gender and preference are almost entirely independent. I can imagine being a woman, but I can’t imagine not being strongly attracted to women: therefore, when I imagine myself as a woman, I must imagine myself as homosexual.

    I can understand the frustration of transgendered people who don’t like being confused with homosexual people. The two are not the same.

    Have I mentioned that this is a fascinating discussion?

  34. Cranefly

    (ducking into pseudonymity)

    So many interesting ways people have answered this question, and so many interesting ways to think about how I could answer it.

    I identify pretty strongly with the sense of Jed’s own narrative, plus or minus some significant bits of personal variation. When pushed on it, though, I just don’t feel that sense of certainty he describes.

    Sometimes I feel like gender is an argument, one that I not only always lose but never really wanted to pursue in the first place. On the surface, that statement is funny for me to make because I have serious problems with the “all identity is performance” school of argument. The basis on which I lose, though, is not a performative point but when the interpellator points at my hairy shoulders and my squared-off frame and my testosterone-molded face and all the other things that mean I will never be able to pull off drag — but not my genitals, because I could have a tentacled cloaca under my jeans for all you know — and says, “see? Masculine. ‘He.'” Like Anonymous-possibly-Leah said above, “Boobies.”

    I appreciate the distinction that the trans community has made between gender and sex, and the distinctions between the different ways of defining sex (genital, chromosomal, psychological…). I think they insinuate ways to talk about one’s relationship to one’s gender and one’s sex beyond mere identification of. I may have gotten stuck with the masculine gender, but it always seemed like a club that would rather not have me; I might identify my gender as ‘(alienated) masculine’.

    As much as being uploaded to a machine would trump biological constraints on gender, I would very much miss being embodied.

    I started to get into the sex identification side of the question, too, but it got long and this is going to be far too long as it is. Suffice to say that I’ve heard the Varley-esque easy sex change referred to as “blowing the silver whistle” (possibly an Oz reference?). I would definitely blow the silver whistle, even if I didn’t know what sex(uality) I’d end up with each time (transwoman? completely straight man? tentacled cloaca?). When I was younger, I was sure I would have accepted a one-way trip to female. This feeling should be noted as something different, though, than being trans.

    Lastly (finally!), I think that this blog comment about gender presentation and sexual desire is an interesting point of reference for the link that some people here are tying between gender and sexual orientation.

  35. juliabk

    Interesting points, Cranefly. And you reminded me of a transgendered woman I know who is also a lesbian. She was attracted to women when she was in a male body and is still attracted to women now.

    I realized, too, there was something else I was going to add to my original tome. ๐Ÿ™‚ Someone (Amy?) mentioned the ‘if I could change sex at will and change back with no problem’ thing. Yeah, I think I’d love to see what it would be like to be male for a while. I might hate it within moments, but I still think it would be a worthwhile experience… but only if I could change back when I wanted. My male friends might appreciate me not bugging them constantly with research questions. ๐Ÿ˜‰ “But what does it *FEEL* like when you…” ๐Ÿ™‚

  36. russ

    Well, there’s physical/body plumbing maleness/femaleness, which is usually pretty obvious and not what you’re talking about. And then there’s the whole social identity/role stuff, which is murky and, for me, mostly about society’s assumptions and impositions upon us. I am male because that’s the role thrust upon me by society according to the dominant rules and stereotypes. Personally I don’t care much about following these prescribed rules, but if you round me off to the nearest gender, I seem to be male instead of female.

    Since I don’t fit a lot of the societal expectations for stereotypical maleness, I went through a period of wondering if I might be transsexual, then I noticed I don’t fit a lot of the societal expectations for stereotypical femaleness either. So whatever. I am therefore male since it makes life simpler and avoids bureaucratic hassles that would result if I wanted to say otherwise. ๐Ÿ™‚

    PS: Vasectomies were discussed in earlier comments; for me having a vasectomy had no relevance to my sexual identity. Many people seem to view reproduction as essential to their sexual identity, but I don’t.

  37. juliabk

    Many people seem to view reproduction as essential to their sexual identity, but I don’t.

    Me, either. (I’m seriously looking forward to my ovaries giving up the ghost. I’ve spoken sternly to them, but do they listen? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    There was an article in The New Scientist late last year about the potential for men to be able to bear children (IIRC, it’s an offshoot of the same research going into solving some women’s problems with carrying to term, apparently). This is a great SFnal idea, of course, but what I found *really* interesting was, when discussing with some folks who I’d’ve thought would’ve known better, how quickly the idea was linked to transexualism. It never even occurred to me that a man implanted with an artificial womb and an embryo would be considered female by anyone. Would that mean that a woman post-hysterectomy was no longer female?

  38. Anonymous

    What a great question! I’ve never consciously thought of myself as one gender or the other, even while pregnant, breast-feeding, etc. I can second Elizabeth Bear’s posting: my gender is geek.

  39. Jaipur

    Sorry, I was the one who made the (tongue-in-cheek, apologize for being crude) Boobies statement above. ๐Ÿ˜‰ This has definitely become a fascinating discussion.

    I think we’ve definitely proved the point that male/female is not a dichotomy but a continuum, and possibly a multi-dimensional one as well (including but not limited to self-perception, self-identification, actual physique, objects of desire and the self-interpretation of that desire, societal demands and feedback and reassurance. Etc.).

    I don’t understand identifying geek as a gender, but I wasn’t sure what that was intended to convey. Maybe that’s another facet of Jed’s (quite important) distinction between “what a man is LIKE” vs “what a man IS”? Geek is what someone is like? Juliabk and El seemed to hit on a similar distinction–they are female but hate being made to feel/told they are somehow less female because of their likes/dislikes/abilities/etc. On the flip side of that, I remembering thinking back in 4th grade or so that I was happy I was female, ’cause I could be smart and wear glasses and be awful in PE and still have friends, whereas boys’ social standing was pretty clearly set by how good they were in sports. I didn’t have the ability/likes/dislikes profile to be a boy, so it’s a good thing I was a girl. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I agree with Maryann that if you uploaded me (and gave me free rein), I would quickly morph into something not quite recognizably stereotypically female (though I’d try that out for a while). But I doubt it would be recognizably male either. There are so many options and parameters to play with! (and we haven’t even gotten into trying out 100 years as a tree… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  40. Anonymous

    What I mean by gender=geek is something like this. Society imposes certain expectations and demands on you depending on whether they perceive you as male or female. But sometimes you don’t conform to either. My predominantly male colleagues see me as female. Other people see a ‘geek’ who doesn’t conform to their expectations or demands.

  41. Rparvaaz

    Gender doesn’t play mmuch of a role in how I see myself. The only exceptions are when I am having sex, when I’m heavily pregnant, or when I’m giving birth. Then the fact of my feminity seems rather obvious. Rest of the time I’m not sure what feminity actually *means* and am anyway more interested in other facets of me.

    If that is any help…

  42. Rachel Brown

    I have always had a strong sense of gender identity, from when I was old enough to know that I was female, despite the fact that I have never behaved in a stereotypically female manner, and I grew up in a place and time when I was constantly reproved for “acting like a boy” and being unfeminine.

    The result, however, was not to make me question my identity as female, or to make me want to conform to ideas about feminity, but rather to make me think that everyone else was wrong about what femininity was: I was definitely a girl, and I liked climbing trees and catching lizards, therefore climbing trees and catching lizards could not possibly be the essentially masculine pursuits that everyone said they were.

    Since I believed this at the age of seven or so, and I recieved little or no social support for it, I think that my conviction of femininity, strong enough to override what everyone else told me, must have been innate– as much a part of my brain as my chromosomes.

  43. Cranefly

    elizabeth bear’s pithy comment (#26) came in while I was still wallowing in my own loquacity. I like the idea of the ‘geek’ gender.

    I do think that there’s an aspect of gender (or at least gender presentation) that’s about identifying yourself to the kind of people you want to attract. It serves sexual attraction at the core, but since (most of us) want to attract socially far more people than we want to sleep with, it would be a waste of a good signal system if it didn’t advertise something to potential associates as well as potential lovers.

    After all, it’s a pretty clear pattern for some men to use their macho gender presentation as a way to bond with other men. Why shouldn’t presenting as a geek have the same kind of multiple purposes?

    Or am I making the classic mistake of reading humor too literally?

  44. tacithydra

    I love this question. As a cisgendered female, I’ve thought about it a lot when I’m thinking about trans issues – where does that inherent sense of wrongness or rightness re: gender come from?

    Because I’ve never wanted to be a guy. When I was an adolescent, I wanted to be genderless for a while, but that’s because dating was sucking for me and sexlessness seemed like an easy way not to worry about it any more, not out of any inherent rejection of femaleness. I never went the distance and wanted to be male.

    And it’s interesting, because if the were quick and easy sex changes available, I too would try one in a New York second. But just imagining it seems weird to me – it feels like my periodic attempts at liking okra. Every five years or so, I have a go at it, thinking “This time I will like okra” and every time I am disappointed. I feel like I’d get in guy form and be all, “Okay, this feels really whacked out.”

    But how the hell do I know I’m female? Most meaning is assigned by society – I don’t like being female because I get to wear a dress (bleh), or dudes will pick stuff up for me (I lift weights!), or because I like men (because… no). None of that stuff applies to me. I sort of cringe at the idea of getting pregnant or having kids, and even though I’m fascinated by astrology and other symbol-systems, assigning women the role of the nurturer always rubbed me wrong. Anybody can be nurturing. My boobs do not make me more likely to nurture. Yet still I chirp merrily along, happy in my femaleness. It can’t be because of the meaning assigned to the role by society, because I spend a lot of my time ducking those meanings, not taking pleasure in them.

    For a long time I thought it was just because I’d been assigned that category and so glomped onto it from an early age, then just built my identity around it. But I read things written on the topic by transgendered folks, and they say they were in exactly the same situation, and felt like it was really wrong. So that can’t be it either.

    This ‘knowledge’ that I am the ‘right’ sex, and the concurrent certainty on the part of transgendered folks that they were born in the ‘wrong’ body, is the strongest argument I have yet seen for inherent gender differences.

  45. Rachel Brown

    One more thing: I have never felt that my sexual orientation had anything to do with my gender identity. That seems as completely separate a facet of my identity as a whole as does, say, my ethnicity.

  46. Anonymous

    Maybe what you folks need is another axis, or at least another term for things. Most of the conversation here has been about gendered behavior and gender presentation: do I climb trees, do I wear makeup, do I do these things to attract sexual partners? But that’s not, I think, what Rachel means when she talks about an innate sense of being female.

    Jed was very careful in his original post to use the term “transsexuality” rather than “transgenderism”, so he’s talking specifically about people who are convinced, despite all biological evidence to the contrary, that their “gender” and their bodily sex are different. And when I say “convinced” I’m talking about a group of people who, according to a recent UK survey, have a greater than 1 in 3 probability of attempting suicide at least once in their lives. People who, if they act on their convictions, face tremendous financial and social losses, and yet still come out of it saying that it was the best thing they ever did. So maybe what Jed was asking was, “how come they feel so strongly, where does it come from?”

  47. Pasquinade

    I always figured it was my parents and, to some extent, television that told me what a boy was and that, therefore, as a boy, I was this and not that.

    In high school, an idea that bounced around in my head was that I was actually a lesbian trapped in a man’s body. I was attracted to women, but I didn’t think that I felt it the same way that the guys in the locker room felt it when they talked about who they were “going to nail”. Maybe if I’d been more interested in posing, I’d have gone along with it, and maybe they were just posing as well. I don’t know. As it was, I liked the Indigo Girls more than I liked Aerosmith, which is really just a simple “sensitivity = feminine” mapping that I’d picked up from years of television or family life.

    Today, my wife and I have a funky little mix going on. She assembles more furniture, and I fix more dinners. She’s a rural-raised woman who’s great at starting campfires and drives a truck. I’m a suburban boy who knows a lot of show-tunes. It works for us, because we’re attracted to each other, unthreatened by each other, and complementary to each other’s skill-sets, I think. (And we can both flex, too. The Damsel glams up fantastically to go to the opera, and I can lug around heavy crap when she needs manual labor performed.)

  48. Anonymous

    I know others have said it, and I know it doesn’t sound particularly introspective, but my main gender identification as male comes from sexual interest in females — and I can remember being interested in girls from as early as 3.

    I’m certainly not in the least bit macho, or even particularly masculine. Gender tropes on both sides tend to bore me. Sport? Fashion? Fighting? Shopping? Meh. I almost always seem to test straight down the middle on those various net.cognitive gender bias tests. So really it’s a case of dangly bits, check; like girls, check; male, check. I suppose, as I think someone else said, that really it just feels like the right identification for this body.

  49. Cranefly

    (re: Anonymous, post #45)

    Ah. That’s embarrassing. I thought the question was specifically about gender (as opposed to sex), since the question was phrased as, “how do you know your gender,” not “how do you know your sex.” But, true, Jed uses the words ‘transsexual’ and ‘man’ and ‘woman’, not ‘transgender’ and ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Jed, would you mind clarifying the question?

    For me, part of knowing that I’m male was realizing that, as much ambivalence I felt about what I was born with, the underlying feeling was that of being stuck with it, not of strongly identifying with something different.

  50. juliabk

    So maybe what Jed was asking was, “how come they feel so strongly, where does it come from?”

    Actually, I think we’ve all be answering it fairly well. The sense I’m getting from most of these comments is that people have an innate sense of their own gender despite social programming or, in some cases, biological sex. It doesn’t matter that I don’t fit the social pattern for ‘female’, I *am* female. Rather than align male, and I do fall on the stereotypically ‘masculine’ side in a lot of ways – attitude, personality and interests, I’m not male. Those of us whose gender, sex and orientation align while our social aspects don’t would count as the first level (or whatever the correct term would be) control group in this. The heterosexual female who played with dolls, wears pink and gets men to do all her heavy lifting isn’t the right one to compare. She could simply be brainwashed by particularly overbearing parents and/or social group. Instead, take a look at the heterosexual females who don’t conform socially and you’ve removed one level of ‘interference’. If, in the face of bucking the social norms, we still identify as female (or male, for the men), it provides at least circumstantial evidence that gender identification is at least partially inborn. This is the kind of preliminary evidence (though I suspect it would need a larger group with more controls, but what do I know? ๐Ÿ™‚ that gets scientists grants to study this stuff in depth.

  51. Anonymous

    Cranefly: not your fault, its the terminology. Many people use “sex” in this context to specifically mean biological sex. “Gender”, then, means whether people see themselves as male or female. Gendered behavior is another matter entirely. It was a great leap forward for trans people when some psychologists started to accept that one could feel female without having to dress up and behave like a 1950s housewife.

  52. fjm

    My male or femaleness is mostly determined by the people around me. Their gender identity or presentation (not always the same thing) defines mine. So several of my female friends and colleagues make me feel very much not female, so do several of my male friends and colleagues. Several of my lovers (both male and female) have made me feel not female [by “made” I don’t mean coercion, I just mean what I feel in the head when I am around them]. Only three people in my life intensify my sense of being female.

    Mostly I feel rather neuter.

    I am not sure I ever felt very female, but I also never felt any body dysmorphia either which as I have an hourglass shape is interesting I suppose. I perform gender at times: I flirt, I do the hetero thing with some men, but I find it astonishing how fast I/we move to me as non-sexual and I suppose that is part of it too. I have a very weak sense of sexuality. What I do have is complex and has trans as well as bi elements.

    (over here from Jay Lake)

  53. Anonymous

    I classify myself as ‘switch’, on various axes: I’m attracted to both males and females, I like to take both roles in sex, and I think I would be fairly content living in either a male or female body. All of these vary greatly depending on how I’m feeling at the time, the phase of the moon, cosmic rays, et cetera.

    It just so happens that I was born into a male body, but I think my gender identity falls somewhere in the middle – I have some very stereotypically male traits, but also some feminine ones too. If there were a solution that allowed me to quickly and painlessly switch back and forth – and, critically, would give me the external appearance for that sex – I’d go for it in an instant. However, I don’t know whether I’d stay female – as much as there are times when I hate the sight and feel of my body, there are other times when I love that I’m six foot tall, broad shouldered, and look good in a trenchcoat.

    As it is, though, without such a solution I’m stuck in this body: I don’t feel consistently female enough to change, and even if I did I very much doubt I’d pass well (not to mention the medical and legal complications involved in switching), so I usually just pass my girly moments off as gay-man traits.

  54. Anonymous

    Juliabk: You’ve got it. I was thinking more of the people who are saying that sense of gender is socially determined, and those who are saying sense of gender is a result of who you want to sleep with. I’m wondering if the latter group think that gay men are “really” women and lesbians are “really” men.

  55. juliabk

    I’m wondering if the latter group think that gay men are “really” women and lesbians are “really” men.

    No clue about the folks here, though it’s a viewpoint I’ve heard expressed. On the other hand, the individuals I’ve heard express it were hardly sterling examples of humanity. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m fascinated by the folks who find their gender defined by external forces. It certainly points up, as someone mentioned, the possibility that gender isn’t as binary as we tend to believe. As a person firmly anchored in my own gender identity, it seems very odd, but I suppose it’s no odder than than the idea that orientation is a continuum rather than an either/or proposition. I wonder, though, if they’re really talking about their gender identity or just their personal expressions of gender. Once I realized it was the social definitions that were screwed up, I stopped stressing over not being ‘feminine’ enough. It was a life altering epiphany. Being female (for me, that is ๐Ÿ˜‰ is all that matters. If society doesn’t like everything that goes into my expression of femininity, society can go, well… do things to itself that I won’t say in a nice polite blog like this. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  56. lauriemann

    Fascinating topic – sent over here from tacithydra’s LJ.

    From a very young age, I thought boys were lucky. They were usually bigger than girls (and I was a pretty tall girl) and seemed to have a general edge in society. In about ’68 or ’69, I read about transexuality in Life magazine for the first time. For some people, learning about transexuality was a life-changing experience. It didn’t work that way for me, but I did find myself asking more questions.

    Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three facets of gender, that are really quite separate but that many people merge:

    biological gender
    sex role traits defined by society
    sexual orientation

    From a young age I always identified as a female biologically. I never really had an issue with that.

    During most of my life, I’ve tended to be aggressive, competitive, outspoken, interested in career, good at money managing… These traits have tended to be identified as “male traits,” but I came to the conclusion that they aren’t biological traits. So having these traits does not necessarily mean that I wanted to be a male biologically. As other women have mentioned, there are a few advantages with having your primary sexual characteristics stored in and very close to the body!

    But it did mean that I often chafed against the way society defines female traits. In Western culture, sex role traits have been changing (thank goodness!), so a woman who prefers pants most of the time or a man who prefers to engage in child care isn’t automatically assumed to be an oddity. At last year’s Hugo Ceremony, I joked about dressing in drag that night, because I so rarely wear dresses.

    Orientation is a third component, because even though homosexuality is more accepted, heterosexuality is still the “societal norm.” Some people view orientation as a part of their gender, and I just do see it that way. I see gender, society sex role traits and orientation to be three different factors.

  57. Anonymous

    I know others have said it, and I know it doesn’t sound particularly introspective, but my main gender identification as male comes from sexual interest in females…

    And, as other have said in different ways here, these two aren’t on the same axis. Imagine an XY grid. The X axis is gender — how you self-identify yourself as male, female, or somewhere in between. The Y axis is sexuality — what partners you’re attracted to. That’s still oversimplying things, but “attracted to females sexually” does not equal “must be male.”

  58. Anonymous

    Once I realized it was the social definitions that were screwed up, I stopped stressing over not being ‘feminine’ enough. It was a life altering epiphany. Being female (for me, that is ๐Ÿ˜‰ is all that matters.

    Spot on. I can find you trans women who are most at home in frilly pink dresses, and trans women who prefer to dress in greasy jeans and t-shirts with their heads stuffed under the bonnet of a car, not to mention some who will do both depending on how the mood takes them. All of them will say that they are “female”, even their their chromosomes disagree.

    Laurie: you might want to split that “biological gender” into two, because those people who Juliabk so charmingly calls hardly sterling examples of humanity will insist that biology is immutable tied to your chromosomes. What’s in your genes (or your jeans) is not necessarily the same as what’s in your head. And neither necessarily has much to do with what you wear, or who is in your bed.

  59. Seainni

    I feel comfortable in my (female) body, which makes me think it (and the gender I’m assigned because of it) at least aren’t wrong; I have no idea whether being male could feel right, too, if I lived in that body.

    The social stuff, to me, is just social: I actually don’t think men and women do inherently have very different personalities, though we’re often trained into different behaviors based on gender; but there’s really no behavior that’s inherently male or female, and I feel like whoever I was, I could act like myself in this body, so long as the body itself felt comfortable.

  60. Anonymous

    It seems like a lot of people here really haven’t actually thought about this, or still subscribe to a very binary and traditional way of thinking about sex and gender — people who say they’re male because they’re attracted to women, or because they have male plumbing, or because they enjoy traditionally male activities? Please.

    My gender identity is firmly female, though I’m one of the farthest toward the “100% gay” end of the Kinsey scale I know, I’m not feminine in the slightest, and I’ve spent all my life in male-dominated fields. By any of these narrow and traditional reckonings people put forth, they’d think I should self-identify as male, but I don’t, not in the slightest (though I will admit to being amused rather than upset when someone calls me “sir”; generally if they realize their mistake they’re far more embarassed than I am).

    So how do I know I’m female? Well, after scorning the ‘plumbing’, it’s going to come down to my comfort with that — when I look in the mirror, and see a female-shaped person, it feels right. It’s congruous with the image I have in my head of who I am, and seeing a male-shaped person would feel *wrong*. Some people, of course, have what they consider to be the ‘wrong’ plumbing and bodyshape; it’s not that their gender is determined by what they see in the mirror, but by how what they see fails to match up to their own self-image. I also know people who identify as ‘none of the above’, though not well enough to know exactly what they could see in the mirror that *would* ‘look right’.

    An interesting book (not really related, other than the part I’m about to mention) is _Self-Made Man_ by Norah Roberts. Ms. Roberts spends some time living as a man, despite her gender identity being firmly female, in an attempt to see what male-only environments are like. The relevant bit is how the very same traits that make her a relatively butch woman made her a relatively femme man; almost universally, people thought there was something ‘odd’ about her male persona, but nobody ever guessed what it really was — they all thought ‘he’ was gay. In short, the meaning of a gender trait isn’t universal, even within one society — what’s percieved as a ‘male’ trait when I do it is percieved as a ‘female’ one when a man does it.

  61. Anonymous

    57 Anonymous wrote:
    You might want to split that “biological gender” into two, because those people who Juliabk so charmingly calls hardly sterling examples of humanity will insist that biology is immutable tied to your chromosomes. What’s in your genes (or your jeans) is not necessarily the same as what’s in your head. And neither necessarily has much to do with what you wear, or who is in your bed.

    I probably should have explained that I think each of “three facets of gender” have a scale (like a Kinsey scale) and not a logical switch. So while orientation would match the Kinsey scale, gender scale would go from “gender is determined by chromosomes” to “gender is determined by brain” and several gradations in between. I’m on the side of the chromosomes (I’ve always been fascinated by genetics), I know many disagree.

  62. lauriemann

    Damn, I thought I was still logged in. Anyway, I wrote the response to “57 Anonymous.”

    Oh, and I forgot – while I found Elizabeth Bear’s comment on “gender – geek” very amusing, I have to disagree. I think the whole geek thing is gender independent. Granted, “geekiness” is still overly ascribed as a male gender trait.

  63. Anonymous

    what’s percieved as a ‘male’ trait when I do it is percieved as a ‘female’ one when a man does it

    That’s fascinating. And it ties in with something else I’ve been thinking of mentioning. One of the (many) reasons trans people tend not to be open about their status is that people tend to react very differently to them once they “know”. I suspect you could do a very interesting experiment by videoing someone who was born female and asking your unwitting subjects to tell you what aspects of that person’s behavior gave away the fact that she was a transsexual.

  64. juliabk

    I thought boys were lucky. They were usually bigger than girls

    This is interesting. Until late junior high, I was taller than most of the boys. I’m only average height now, but hit it early. My 13 year old daughter is in the same boat. I wonder if that has had any impact on either one of us in terms of our socialization. Was I treated in a more ‘boyish’ manner because through most of elementary school I ‘triggered’ “boy” to the adults around me (though you’d think the required dress would have made a difference ;-)? My girl is much girlier than I ever was, but she’s still not exactly typical. (No way anyone in their right minds would have thought ‘boy’ seeing my daughter or I from about sixth grade on. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  65. kyrademon

    I have never had any particular sense of gender identity. So much so that I used to assume that, aside from the obvious physical differences, all notions of male and female were social constructs (not that there were no differences; I simply thought they were all imposed externally rather than emerging internally.)

    I changed my mind when I became acquainted with trans and intersexed people. If they were so sure of what their gender was, even in spite of their physicality, then it was obvious that something internal had to be going on – they had to have some real sense of their actual gender in their heads. Although I still think some notions of gender are socially imposed, I now believe that most people have some internal sense of this – but I still do not. (I also now believe that how we perceive the gender of others is much more complicated than many assume, but that’s a different subject, really.)

    I considered gender reassignment surgery for a while when I was figuring things out, but ultimately decided that I wasn’t in the *wrong* body; it just didn’t matter to me what body I was in. If I woke up tomorrow with my plumbing rearranged, it really wouldn’t bother me.

    It may be related that I am a writer with an ambiguous name, and people often guess wrong when they try to figure out my gender from my writing. One magazine that published something I wrote gave me an incorrect gender and orientation in a bio they wrote about me without consulting me, corrected it the next month and still got it wrong, and corrected it a third time in the next issue. On another possibly related note, I’m bisexual, and usually end up dating other bisexuals (of either gender), which has at times made me wonder if my orientation is bisexual-sexual.

  66. Jed

    Thank you for the various close readings of my terminology (I appreciate them), but I’m embarrassed to confess that I am often not as careful as I should be about which terms I use, and I didn’t give terminology as much thought as I should have when writing this entry. So to partly atone for that, here are some notes about terminology.

    Wikipedia and various other sources indicate that “transgender” (or sometimes “transgendered”) is an umbrella term that, in its broadest sense, can be used to describe anyone who doesn’t fit gender norms. More specifically, it usually refers to people whose gender identity and/or gender expression don’t match their assigned birth sex. (“Assigned” because birth sex is not necessarily obvious or unambiguous; see the Intersex Society of North America for more info.) The term “transgender”–sometimes abbreviated “TG” or “trans”–includes a lot of subcategories, and the term means different things to different people in different contexts.

    One such subcategory is transsexuals. The term has a variety of definitions and shades of meaning (GLAAD, for example, appears to consider it old-fashioned), but I’ve most often seen it used to refer specifically to people whose gender identity is opposite to the gender assigned to them at birth. Sometimes abbreviated “TS.”

    The term “cisgendered” means “non-transgendered.” I like the term, but sometimes I say “non-transgendered” just to remind people that “non-” is often used to specify a norm that’s being deviated from. So I sometimes think it’s fun to mess with that by saying things like “non-queer.”

    The GLAAD Transgender Glossary of Terms contains a bunch of useful information about terminology. Sadly, they have ignored the note I sent them six months ago objecting to their weird claim that the term “transgendered” (with -ed at the end) is grammatically incorrect. It may well be frowned upon or even considered derogatory, but it’s not grammatically incorrect, no more than the term “left-handed” is.

    Another good source of terminology info is the Transgendered Glossary at the Transsexual Road Map site. That glossary has no problem with the term “transgendered,” btw, so clearly (and not surprisingly) different people disagree about details of terminology. As that glossary page says, “You will find very strong opinions any time there’s a discussion of definitions.”

    Another good source is the transProud glossary.

  67. Jed

    Thanks for all the comments and discussion. There’s been way more than I can keep up with responding to (I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that this entry has gotten far more comments than any other entry I’ve ever posted), and I’ve been having a hard time finding the combination of time, awakeness, and focus to put together a coherent post. Fortunately, some of y’all’s recent comments have said some of what I wanted to say, so for now I’m going to focus on my reasons for posting this entry and for posing this question, rather than directly responding to y’all’s comments. I hope to come back soon to respond to some of the things various people have said here.

    Although a lot of what I’m getting at could apply to any transgendered person, I’m going to mostly specifically focus on transsexuals in the following.

    It seems to me that fairly often, when a transsexual states that their gender identity doesn’t match the body parts and/or chromosomes they were born with, cisgendered people (I’ll abbreviate this “CG”) tend to insist that the TS person justify their claim in some way. CG people often simply don’t believe that someone could have a gender identity that doesn’t match their assigned-at-birth physical or genetic sex, and so they say things like “You say that you’re really female, but what makes you think that? How do you know that you’re female?”

    When I was in college, at one point the campus queer group put up signs in the dining hall saying things like “How do you know you’re straight?” and “Don’t you think being straight is just a phase you’re going through?” and so on — reversing some of the common dumb things some straight people ask about being queer. So I figured it might be useful to do something similar here, helping some cisgendered people think about what, if anything, makes them so sure of their own genders — with the conclusion being, of course, that if I (as a basically cisgendered person) can’t justify or explain my own sense of my gender identity to others, I have no business asking transsexuals (or other transgendered people) to justify or explain theirs.

    I expected that most commenters would say some variation of “I don’t know, I just am.” I’ve been surprised and intrigued to see so many of you say that you don’t have all that strong a sense of gender identity; I think that’s kinda cool and interesting, and I’m glad to have my own assumptions about this stuff challenged–it’s a good reminder to me that not everyone sees things the way I do. But I think there’s nonetheless been enough “I just am” comments (including from me) to make the point I wanted to make.

    I should note that my point in posting this comment is not to say “Ha ha, y’all cisgendered people fell right into my trap” — this entry wasn’t meant to be a trap, and I suspect that most of you CG folks would be perfectly happy to believe TS people’s self-reporting of their gender identities. But I nonetheless think it’s important to raise the profile of this kind of discussion, because I’ve been seeing a fair tad bit of prejudice against transgendered folks lately, coming from people who I normally like and respect. And I think it’s time to start examining that prejudice. And I think a lot of that prejudice comes from the belief that my judgment of someone else’s gender is somehow more important than their own judgment of their gender; in other words, from the notion that if I think someone’s female (for example), then it doesn’t matter what they consider themselves to be.

    One of the specific things that led to my posting this entry was a comment from Charlie A on a mailing list. (I’m quoting this, and mentioning her name, with her permission.) She wrote, among other things:

    […] how are you going to tell me what my gender is?

    What’s the external yardstick you’re going to use?

    There are all sorts of external yardsticks that someone might try to use, but they’re all deeply flawed in one way or another. And so, really, what it comes down to for me is this: Who is better-qualified than I to say what my gender is?

  68. Anonymous

    A few follow-ups to Jed’s comment on terminology.

    The term “transgender” is more commonly used these days for a number of reasons, including:
    – It is more inclusive, meaning that any campaign for civil rights can include people such as transvestites and the intersexed as well as transsexuals; and
    – It doesn’t contain the word “sex”, which hopefully helps disabuse people of the notion that everyone who is transgendered behaves the way they do for purposes of sexual gratification.

    As a simple test, try Googling for “transgender” and “transsexual”. The former will probably get you mainly support groups; the latter mainly escort agencies and porn sites. That alone is enough to make people nervous about self-identifying as transsexual.

    On the other hand, grouping all transgendered people together can cause a lot of confusion. As we’ve seen in the discussion, there are many different aspects to gender. Equally there are many aspects to being transgendered. Our umbrella now covers:
    – people who cross-dress for fun, or as entertainers;
    – people who cross-dress for purposes of sexual gratification; and
    – people who are so at odds with their biological gender that they often become depressed and are at risk of self-harm and suicide.

    With such a wide range of behaviors covered by a single term it is very easy for people to get the mistaken impression that the few examples they have met are typical of the whole group. Also you get loud people of one type or the other claiming to speak for the entire group. And all of this makes it harder to get political support, and harder to get psychological and medical help for those who need it.

    Those of you who are interested in finding out more might like to try this page from the US Human Rights Campaign, and this document (large PDF), produced by the British government’s Equalities Review which outlines the types of discrimination faced by trans people in British society.

    I could write a lot more, but it is probably better at this stage for you folks to ask questions.

  69. lotusice

    This is so fascinating. I’ve read some, and skimmed some, but thought I’d weigh in.

    I’m both.

    Most of the time I’m simply me, and think of myself in terms of “me” and not gender, but the more I think about it – and I have been over the last handful of years – I think I identify with, and feel a sense of myself as having, being both genders.

    I know I alternate back and forth, sometimes, both ways. I’m hyper masculine acting and hyper feminine acting, and I honestly feel in either case that I am feminine or masculine in *essence* at that moment and not just acting that way.

    That has benefits and downfalls. I’m good at both, and often responded to well in both ways. Treated with all the benefits of being ultra feminine, when I am, or ultra masculine, when I am.

    But sometimes feel like I’m truly neither.

    I wind up feeling like in terms of gender I don’t have a spot, a niche. A place.

  70. Calyx of the Heavens

    Genderwise, I identify as a geek butch dyke (thanks, Bear, for being another geek gender type). I find all these things inextricably linked with my gender performance.

    I know that my chromosomal sex, my gonadal sex, and my morphologic sex are all female. I like being female on a purely biological level. My body (as female) does not appall me and I feel comfortable in it.

    I spent many years trying to perform as a relatively femme bi or straight woman. It is a *very* different experience from performing as a butch dyke. The geek part figures in heavily in varying my performance as a butch dyke. Some (mostly straight) people do not perceive me as particularly butch because of the geek factor. Other butch dykes have been uncomfortable around me because of the geek aspect — I do not perform as a standard butch dyke.

    As a geek butch, I have what I’m learning to perceive as a certain amount of privilege in the corporate environment. I have more privilege than many of my femme colleagues because of the butch dyke, but I am perceived as less threatening than the usual butch dyke because of the geek.

    If people were to start treating me as more femme/less geek? Yes, indeed, I would feel like someone was trying to forcibly change my gender. As I get older, I refuse more and more of the femme tags and performance requirements that seem to be associated with a female sex because it’s very, very hard to get my head into that role.

    Gender, to me, is about performance.

  71. juliabk

    but I am perceived as less threatening than the usual butch dyke because of the geek.

    How stupid do you have to be to think “geek” isn’t potentially threatening? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Julia… who is also geek, just doesn’t slot it into the gender box. It’s just another part of me.

  72. Jay Hartman

    My Brother,

    Wow, I don’t check your journal for a couple days, and there’s an explosion of commentary! Facinating topic and comments. What can we infer from the following?

    1. My walnut brain is spinning from all of the interesting and thoughtful comments; mostly it’s stuff I have never considered before;

    2. I really enjoy being with a group of friends and sipping a single malt scotch and smoking a cigar–I don’t pretend to enjoy it because it seems manly;

    3. I will massively inconvenience myself or my wife or whoever I’m with, all in order to avoid asking directions;

    4. I have kept tabs on the Mike Penner/Christine Daniels story…I always thought Penner was a good writer, and Mike/Christine displayed an immense amount of courage and poise to write about the transformation so publicly. Gender doesn’t (well, shouldn’t) matter in sportswriting. If you can write, you can write.

    5. When you and I were little boys and our mother told us we would turn into girls by kissing our elbows, not only did I not believe her, but I wasn’t even remotely interested in trying.

  73. Anonymous

    Hi Jed,

    I appreciate your reasons for posting this question, but feel that for me personally, and probably for some other trans people too, the whole notion of gender identity can be a bit of a dangerous red herring. The fact that many people don’t have a strong sense of gender identity (as has been demonstrated in this thread) can and has been used as yet another reason to question trans people’s needs and desires to change their bodies.

    For me, I needed to transition because I could not function in the body I was born with, and had a strong feeling that I would function better if I could change my body. When I phrased that feeling in terms of gender identity (as the medical establishment encourage trans people to do) I got the following sorts of responses from several non-trans people: “Well I’m female/male but that doesn’t stop me from being masculine/feminine and sometimes even thinking of myself as a kind of a guy/girl, but you don’t see me going and getting surgery now do you? Why can’t you just be feminine/masculine without changing your body?” The fact that lots of people don’t identify particularly strongly as the gender that supposedly matches their sex means that when you try to explain the desire to transition in terms of one’s gender identity not matching one’s sex there’s very little force to that explanation. “Yeah, your gender identity doesn’t match your sex; so what? Mine doesn’t exactly either.”

    So I’m hesitant about using the notion of gender identity to describe my transgendered experience. I didn’t change my body because of my gender identity, but because I needed to change my body in order to function. My sense of gender identity probably isn’t any stronger than many of the people who’ve commented on this thread, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to transition.

  74. Cj

    Gender is a very hard theme for me to wrap my brain around, so usually I don’t. I don’t really feel either fish or foul or good red herring. When I read that in Madeleine L’Engle ‘s book I felt an instant affinity. I liked the characters that were being referred to and created a great deal of comfort: being a bit outside conventional (Ugh, that word) circles was okay. I am the average height for a man and tend to be extremely durable. I am an only child and accustom to being the center of attention and making decisions. I am use to taking mechanical devices apart and putting them back together. I have done plumbing, electrical, and roofing work, but I have also assembled a few dresses and crocheted a baby blanket or two. The jobs I have taken tend to be gender neutral. I was raised gender both– pink dresses and overalls, football and sewing. Barbie dolls were forbidden to enter my parents’ home. My Star Wars blaster and Princess Leia doll were allowed. My Nishki road bicycle was one of my favorite things in the world– it was sleek, blue and fast. Most of the bicycles made with bright colors seemed clumsy, so I liked my road bike, though I was mystified that it was a boys’ bike since the top bar seems like it could cause pain and suffering in either gender, but more so in males. I own a beautiful china doll that was my great aunt’s. I’m great with make-up, I don’t understand hair (blame Michelle), I love clothes.
    I like athletic bodies with just a touch of curve. I have found sexual experiences with my own gender confusing. I was willing to keep an open mind, but it seems there is very little ambiguity about my sexual preferences. I like to look good for both genders. There are elements of both genders that I find very beautiful, but because I am not easily aroused it is very hard to define my gender based on who I have the hots for. Someone will say something about someone being “easy on the eyes”– no problem. But when someone starts to describe sexual desires based on a fleeting glimpse I am usually a bit confused by their reaction to something entirely visual Unfortunately, it seems my sexuality is a bit more complicated than physical lust, and makes responding to gender concepts based on sexuality as complicated as figuring out my gender based on the types of activities I do or the way I look.
    So I just don’t think much about it. I have been accidentally addressed as “sir” any number of times, but yet women admire my breasts with envy wondering what it would be like to “have a chest” (damn nuisance without a sports bra when you run!). The few times I do consider the situation, the silliness over classification always seems to override any confusion I might feel. I am just me. It is easier that way. I know what I like to wear. I know how I like to look. I know what aesthetic I prefer. And I feel very lucky that I seem to be able to slip between the two categories with a certain degree of ease. Part of that might be that it is– sadly– easier for women to wear trousers than men to wear any skirt other than a kilt. Part of that might be that I am conventional about the gender of my sexual partners. Part of it might have been that when I was growing up my parents just had friends. My mom didn’t go off with the girls, my dad didn’t hang out with the guys; everyone just sat around playing cards and drinking wine. At Thanksgiving I was forced to help with dinner (as every child regardless of gender should be), but because I was the only child there I didn’t notice that I was being singled out because I was a girl. When I was older, and hanging around with my Mom’s family (her three older brothers tend to be very conventional– whatever that means) I noticed that the boys tended to get out of kitchen chores in favor of watching football with my uncles, and there was so many grandmothers and aunts in the kitchen that nobody seemed to mind if I watched football too. I didn’t really enjoy football, but it seemed a better option than doing dishes. Of course, best of all was when I could sneak off and watch cartoons with Tommy (the cousin that is my age) and my Dad (not big on football either). I was also safe from my cousin Michelle and her curling iron. She always was trying to get at my hair! She became a hair stylist, so I guess it kind of makes sense. It seems that there are always people that don’t enjoy being with this group or that group and end up doing their own thing. I got use to it at an early age. And I’m okay with that. I’m not sure if I consider myself male or female, probably because I like the flexibility of not having to be all one thing or another. Why choose if I don’t have too?
    So to sum things up: I’m not sure I really have a clear idea– other than pure biology– what my gender is, and gender seems so much more complicated than if you came with tab A or slot B. Perhaps it is odd, but I like the fact that I have choices (and feel very grateful to have that flexibility). I like being kind of gender neutral; that how people preceive me kind of depends on what I wear and what I am doing.

  75. Megan

    For me, thereโ€™s obvious biology. I have a vagina, not a penis, therefore I am female. That obvious biology has also meant that every single social cue Iโ€™ve ever received has said โ€œYou are female.โ€ Itโ€™s sufficiently fundamental for me that itโ€™s almost an irrelevant fact. I have brown hair; I am myopic; I am female.

    Less obvious biology doesnโ€™t really enter into it. If I found out tomorrow that I had a Y chromosome or for some other reason am โ€œreallyโ€ male, I donโ€™t think it would make me feel male. (Surprised? Definitely. Disturbed? Yes, because I always am when my body throws me a curve ball.) On a related note, actual reproductive ability is less important than the perceived biology. I was female before I got my first period, and Iโ€™ll still be female after menopause. If society suddenly started treating me as male (and therefore upending my thirty years worth of experience), Iโ€™d think โ€œtheyโ€™re acting weirdโ€ rather than question my gender identity. If I was sexually attracted to women, I donโ€™t think Iโ€™d feel any less female myself.

    Perversity also enters into the equation. Every time I enjoy a book or movie drenched in testosterone, sigh impatiently during a cutsey rom com, play D&D, write from a male POV, or display my ignorance of basic girly primping or homemaker tasks, I somehow feel more female. Like Jay said early on, Iโ€™m female because Iโ€™m female, and the interaction of โ€œMeganโ€ and โ€œfemaleโ€ includes a set of traditionally masculine traits.

  76. Cranefly

    To Anonymous at #72,

    Would you be able (and willing) to help us out with ways to use words that would feel less dangerous to you to describe the disconnect you felt/feel with your pre-transition body?

    I’ve read through the resources linked above, and it seems as if they, in trying to be inclusive, end up lumping a lot of different things together under the category of gender, making it easier for a bunch of cisgendered folks like us to be talking about things like social expectations of femininity while you’re talking about things like fundamental body awareness. Do you see useful ways to avoid blurring them?

    I know that it’s usual for a majority to make the minority to all the work of educating them, so feel free to point me elsewhere or just ignore the question entirely — but since this *is* a thread about expanding cisgendered people’s awareness, I thought it was worth asking.

  77. Seahorse

    Still going after the weekend, I see. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’ve adopted a handle here because there appear to be at least two trans people posting here and it would help to distinguish us because we are likely to have our own variation in how we see the world. I’m not the #72 that Cranefly refers to above. (Where do people see these numbers?)

    Personally I’m finding this discussion quite useful, and a lot more so than I expected. I don’t think it is possible to discuss transsexuals without talking about gender, because I don’t think it is possible to understand us without first understanding that gender means very different things to different people, just as we have seen above.

    The trouble is that many people’s understanding of gender defines away the possibility for transsexuals to exist. On the one hand we have people who believe that gender is biologically determined, or God-given, and therefore no one can be a different gender to that of their body. On the other hand we have people who believe that gender is socially determined, or a fashion statement, in which case it should be impossible for anyone to feel as strongly at odds with their body as transsexuals claim.

    So I guess that the value of this thread is to help people understand that my experience of gender is not the same as your experience of gender, is not the same is Jed’s experience of gender, and so on.

    I’m tempted to make a more empirical argument. There exists a small number of people (probably less than 1% of the population) who find it very difficult, if not impossible, to function properly in a gender role that matches their body. Attempts to “cure” these people have generally ended in failure. On the other hand, if allowed to go ahead and live in their preferred gender (mostly, but not always, with the help of surgery and hormone treatment) then over 95% of these people report being much happier with their lives, even though they have often made enormous sacrifices to get where they are and face an enormous amount of discrimination if their trans status is known. It seems to me sensible to accept that what these people say about themselves is genuine and let them get on with their lives, rather than argue over the political or moral correctness of their actions.

  78. TEd

    (Where do people see these numbers?)

    If you click on the links in the “Latest Comments” sidebar (as opposed to clicking on the post itself), you’ll get a pop-up window displaying just the comments. Here the comments are numbered.

  79. Seahorse

    Ah, thanks TEd. Those of who read the site through Bloglines never get to see those numbers.

  80. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    I remember, as a kid — particularly just before puberty — being very clear that the whole world of gender and sexuality was a screwed-up adult conspiracy (I felt much the way that my character Suze does in “Start the Clock”, though I was somehwat less articulate about it). I dreaded the upcoming hormone-triggered social transformation, bemoaned it in my peers, and referred to it as “going over to the Other Side”. (The other side like the other team, like kids vs grownups.)

    I feel like I showed up here and was instructed — subtly but universally — that there were two roles, “boy” and “girl”. They’re like parts in a play, or teams on a field. There is plenty of leeway and overlap, but even the fact that folks were so keen to assure me that “it’s okay for boys to play with dolls” was clear evidence that it was, you know, at least *different* for boys to play with dolls.

    I have never had any trouble performing my gender. Of the available options, being male works fine. I would have to do an unimaginable amount of work to learn how to be female. But if, you know, they were rounding up all the men into camps and I had to go underground and pass as female, and after a great deal of practice I got really good at it, I wouldn’t feel that that was somehow false, whereas being male was true.

    I don’t mean to say that hormones and such have no reality. I am clearly a person under the influence of a lot of testosterone and vasopressin, and if I were under the influence of a lot of progesterone and estrogen instead I expect my emotional states would be profoundly different. But that seems like only a small piece of the puzzle. A far bigger piece is all the things I am comfortable doing, or uncomfortable doing, because of the praise and censure I have continually, from all corners, trhoughout my life, received for performing my assigned role well or poorly.

    I don’t feel I am “really” male, “beneath” the performance. (This feeling, of course, is partly male privilege — society is somewhat less keen on constantly enforcing my consciousness of gender than it would be were I female). I don’t feel I’m really some other gender either. I feel like I have this particular body, and male is the complex game I am allowed to play with it. Without that game, of course, I would have no idea how to function at all.

    I am thankful to be cisgendered. I’m glad and relieved I could pull off the act. But I have some grief about it too.

    My son likes to turn into a girl. He does this by putting his hair up in colorful pigtails. I feel like one of the things I most miss, having to be male all the time, is the opportunity to be pretty — to be pampered, glittering, ravishing, languid, etc. My inner diva languishes!

  81. Thida

    I’m female. I have an English father and a Burmese mother. I have a disability. These are just facts of who I am. I have never felt anything other than female. And I have discovered that I am a typical female — a Burmese female. In Burma females are considered more sensible and money minded while caring deeply about their family and males are more flighty and prone to be ruled by their emotions.

    I’ve been accused of being unfeminine at times and I have hated some things that are supposedly female but I have never wished to be male. I fundamentally don’t grok what it means to want to be another gender. Perhaps it’s because being female is more fluid than male. I can wear pants or dresses but a man can’t wear dresses. My daughter can play with cars and sometimes she wears some clothes that were originally intended for Little T when he gets older but when one of her male friends went around wearing dresses other mothers whispered. I just shrugged. I think this boy is bi or gay and it’s not because but how he wore dresses and how he relates to others. The rest would take too long to explain in the comments.

    I agree gender is societally enforced but I think it’s biology also brings innate characteristics like some people are naturally more shy than others. You can learn to overcome your biology but it is still there. I didn’t believe in biology as much before I gave birth to a girl and a boy. And C is certainly not a typical male. However I can see that testerone is a powerful hormone. Sometimes Little T just gets really physically aggressive and spars with other males. Special K certainly gets into physical fights too but it’s an argument. It’s not this physical sparring to see who’s stronger. I also find that in myself maternal hormones are very powerful. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I cried before I had kids. Now crying about my kids is a regular part of my life. It took some getting used to but at least for me it’s part of being a mom.

  82. m corbett

    i know i am male because i have a male body otherwise i would be pretty sure i was female.

  83. Orange Lettuce

    I have a female body, and I have no idea what gender I really am. It’s strange for me, simply because I have moments of switching back and forth – times when I dress and act and feel utterly male, and times when I dress and act and feel extremely female. I never feel gender NEUTRAL, it’s as though I have both genders inside of me, and each takes dominance at different times. I am bisexual, and my preference for each gender tends to wax and wane. My view of women, however, is often extremely misogynistic, and I have a lot of fantasies about using people for sex, which would be the primary goal of MINE for having a penis. Societally, a woman cannot USE a man for sex, and I guess I have some issues for control which make that a little weird for me. In general, I’m an EXTREMELY masculine woman, which I like. I don’t think I would make the switch to male if I was given the option, but I do wish I could switch back and forth at will to suit how I feel. Additionally, I have an extremely feminine body – DD chest, small waist, and decent hips and an ass – and a pretty face, which means even when I dress masculine my femininity is still obvious. I like that, too. I don’t want to be gender NEUTRAL, I want to be BOTH.

    I know whether I am male or female because I associate fem/mas with subordinate or dominant roles, modes of seduction, and whether I am the female showing off my body so the men will be attracted to me, or the male aggressive pursuant, and how I feel in my body – I walk differently, depending on my gender. Female, I walk swing my hips and making my breasts as obvious as possible, and sitting is turned inward, almost. Male, I walk with a swagger, and when I sit-male My legs are arms are thrown outward, taking up as much space as possible almost, casual.

    Haha, hella later that this was actually posted. Oh well.

  84. Anonymous

    I identify as female because I prefer to fit the social constructions of the female role. I enjoy wearing long flowing skirts and having long hair. I like to dance, I’m a very emotional person, and I want to be beautiful.

    I am not female in my distaste for makeup and fancy hair products, in my almost anti-social tendencies (I love talking to people, but only when there’s really some purpose to being together, not just to establish social hierarchies or to gossip), and I don’t dress in the normal female fashions, either.

    Yet I also exhibit stereotypically male characteristics. I’m athletic, I love math and science and inventing things, I tend to move my hips a lot less than most girls (rather than walking with one foot in front of the other, I generally walk along two separate lines, though they are not as close as most males’ paths), I tend to be direct (most of the time) in conversation rather than using lots of phaddic expressions, and I’m extremely macho.

    I’m un-masculine in that I don’t focus so singularly in mathematical (or scientific) things, in that I appreciate aesthetics instead of just function, and in that I find it basically impossible to live life simply (this is poorly phrased, I know….I can’t think of a better way to say it, but I need a lot of stuff, and at least to me it’s a female characteristic: Think about females carrying purses).

    I don’t believe that sexual orientation has anything to do with gender. I spent most of the first part of my life being straight (if a bit bi-curious). Now I’m basically lesbian (I think around 85/15 homo/hetero, maybe as high as 95). I see absolutely no difference in what gender I identify as.

    I am female partially because of biological urges, and partially because of social constructions and the relationship between my individual personality and those constructions. I identify as female because I am much more at home with the female social construction. Like some people have commented, I associate with both, but unlike OL, I do not find myself switching gender at all. We had drag ball last night, and I went as a male. I felt strange, largely because I am not male in how I see myself. If I were male sex-wise, then I still expect that I would associate much more with the female (though probably less than I do right now, because of social pressures).

  85. pimsleur

    Whenever I fantasized about being a man, it was generally because I felt I would be able to have more freedom, more power, more confidence than I did in a woman’s body, not because I really hated having breasts (also, I think, the idea of being a man made my occasional girl-crushes more socially acceptable, in my head).

    I entirely agree with Kameron Hurley with that point entirely. I used to think there was something entirely wrong with me for liking women. I used to curse myself and wish I could die, because what God would make me be attracted to women if I didn’t have the parts for it? I knew that there were gay women in the world, but I thought they must have been different from me in some way. I still have only had a brief lesbian encounter and quite a few straight ones even though I am mostly attracted to the female gender. Then again, if given the chance I would have taken the lesbian encounter hands-down, but since guys are more readily available (i.e. I have a chance with), I go with it, but at the same time, I do not feel connected with my female parts in any way possible. Ever since I was born I never wanted to physically be a girl. I liked boys up until middle school, but then I didn’t. I didn’t even realize after a while that girls could be attractive, but once I did, it definitely stuck. After middle school I only liked women for a long time, but now I’ve come to the point where I just see individual people. It’s weird though, because once I established myself as a lesbian to the people around me, it was hard for them to accept the fact that I also liked men. So once I finally entirely broke out of my shell sexually and basically said that I didn’t need labels and that gender was overrated and only makes me depressed, people didn’t believe me. Ideas of gender and having to say “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” or “I’m a woman” or “I’m a man” just all seem so arbitrary and hurtful.

    As for the “Nature or Nurture?” argument, I have absolutely no clue. With the way I was raised, I seriously think I should have been straight. And what now? Who knows! Do away with gender! Who needs social pressures?! Why define these things if nobody knows what they are? I hate having female parts and male desires, there’s no need to differentiate!

  86. Demonesse

    Interesting question.

    I’m a biological female, and quite happy with my genital anatomy, and am sexually attracted to men, however I don’t identify as female. I never realised there were any real differences between the sexes – bar the physical ones – until in my early twenties (I’m now mid twenties.) I was pretty much oblivious to the idea of gender existing. As a child, I saw “girliness” almost as a hobby which some girls chose to participate in, perhaps as collecting and using makeup and dolls in the same way someone might collect stamps or model cars.

    My desire to pay attention to my appearance as a woman coincided with my desire to attract men, and attempt to “get laid”, lol which I assumed was the reason other young girls also wore makeup and dressed in a gender-appropriate way. (apparently not always true.) I have now come to understand the value of “good sex”, rather than simply “lots of sex”.

    Cognitively I’ve been told I’m more male than female, excelling on tasks men tend to far more often than those considered gender-typical to a female gender, and have never been naturally touchy-feely or in tune with people’s emotions. (For example my emotional IQ is apparently 107, although my spatial awareness IQ is around 180.) I don’t really engage with TV soaps and “chick flicks” and show more interest in everything from science and computer programming through to painting and writing music and working on a novel, so I am also aesthetically inclined, but more of a “things person” than a “people person.”

    Someone recently suggested to me that they think I have asperger’s syndrome (lol) – I personally don’t believe in people being defective in relation to habits, preferences or cognitive style, but the general consensus would place that laymanโ€™s diagnosis on the autistic spectrum which it is often speculated is “extreme maleness”, explaining why I feel uncomfortable with a female gender identity.

    For a period of time I decided I’d just relax and do whatever the hell I wanted, so I stopped wearing makeup and trying to act feminine. Although I felt more comfortable and confident this way, sadly, everyone else seemed to grossly misinterpret it and began to treat me as though I was low in confidence instead of happy in my own skin and just not all that feminine. Perhaps because I wasn’t making an effort to be feminine, they assumed I didn’t consider myself attractive, and was therefore low in confidence, when the situation was quite the opposite.

    I’m pretty neutral about my body. I’d like to be fitter and stronger and lay down body fat less easily, but am pretty lucky as women go as I tend to put on strength very easily. I have no complaints about my genitals, although breasts get in the way a certain amount, they seem to attract the opposite sex. I don’t like being smaller or weaker than some of the men around me, and I don’t feel comfortable when they treat me differently because I’m female, though I seem to be sexually attractive, which is always a plus.

    When faced with a social situation, I now tend to dress myself up femininely – not in the extra-girly sense, but in a classy, presentable sort of way. To me, makeup and clothing is whatever is appropriate to the occasion, and more of a social obligation; pretty much like your average household chore if your single, as a favour to your bloke if you’re not, which is not so bad. I envy the fact that men can take less time to get ready though!

    I hate being seen as female-gendered, as I don’t identify with it at all, and it does influence the way in which people interact with me. My upbringing was mixed, with both male and female influences, and I can see ways in which I was actively socialised to both male and female expectations (I had open-minded parents who often just allowed me to by myself.) though typical gender stereotyping was less reinforced far less than I imagine it is for the average woman.

    None the less, there is some social conditioning there, and I often find I cannot act like myself in public and find my words and actions coming out like some sort of pre-programmed sales girl, smiling when I don’t mean it and feeling I’m supposed to appear to be trying to please everyone despite the reality of the situation or my own opinion. When my male friends are disagreeable or aggressive, people don’t hold it against them, however, I find people tend to turn a critical eye to me when I don’t meet social norms.

    I’m 100% heterosexual, and in my sex life enjoy intercourse as a female. Despite not identifying as particularly feminine outside of a sexual context, I enjoy sex from a perspective socially perceived as more traditionally female. I enjoy feeling overpowered by a partner in bed, and being in a more submissive/receptive role, although when I say submissive, I mean I prefer my partner to have the upper hand, not that I don’t ever initiate sex or take the lead. – it’s more of a physical thing. My sexual tastes hold interesting similarities to some more acceptable in the gay male scene than most standard heterosexual interactions.

    However, taking a full half-second to analyse myself here, perhaps my desire to be overpowered in the bedroom is relative to the conflict between my non-feminine identity and the desired feminine sexual role… come and sit on my couch… lol. Societal expectations make for screwy people…

    In short, I have no desire to have a sex change, 1. I have a healthy body, and have no wish to do anything to it which involves altering it’s correct workings, and 2. I’m 5’4″ with an hourglass figure, being a petite woman is a little pesky but has it’s plus points when it comes to attracting a mate, being a tiny, scrawny little guy? No thanks! (I don’t judge the adequacy of men by their size, I’m just a competitive sort of person.)

    To tell the truth, although my personality is sometimes more male than female, my female sexual identity balances with that in a way which really adds the question; do I really have a gender? Is gender something anyone naturally has in the same way in which biological sex is, or is gender merely a social construct we develop, and which I lacked any awareness of until it was brought to my attention?

    But in short, I hate everything about being expected to identify as female-gendered except my sexuality, and the ability to attract the opposite sex.

    And having written all that, I’m now quite shy to leave my details, but what the hell, why should I care, I am who I am. I hope you find some interesting parallels to other people’s comments there.

  87. Anonymous

    Im still unsure if I am supposed to be female or male.
    I am searching for answers and those are hard to find.
    Whenever I dress like a female because I am a female people see me as
    a male still, though the breasts are a giveaway and the long hair.
    But if I was to wear something that did not show them or put my hair up, people say “Excuse me sir”

    I hate wearing make up, I hate wearing dress’s or skirts, jeans, t-shirt and sweater it is for me. I hate wearing tank tops and all those girl clothes that show off the breasts. I’ve been told my body is attractive , but never believed it.

    I often dream of being a male. And wake up and wish it was real.
    And then theres one thing I left out. I am attracted to girls just as much as I am men.

  88. Hunter Bailey

    WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!You have really inspired me i always dream I was a boy!I have always really wished I was a male.For some reason I always felt out of place…like i was suposto be a male …but it will never happen to me!My mother said that she dislikes me because i am BI!People say i am a DYKE but i love boys and girls!I think other GIRLS are fun to touch!!!but i am never ever always about SEX!!!

  89. sweetblood13

    I can only tell you that although i was born a boy for my entire life i have never felt like one. On the inside i feel like a girl and i have even been told upon occasion that i think like one too. I’m still confused about this even though i came to grips with it years ago, but one thing scares me about it and that thing is that sometimes i forget i am physically a boy. It’s terrifying because my appearance is that of a boy but every other aspect of myself is a girl. I might only be 15 years old which many people think gives me time to figure it out but i’m still scared crapless some days when someone else reminds me that i’m a boy or when i have to remind myself that i’m boy.

  90. Krys

    I have always seen myself as a girl… Ive always just thought well im a girl i have a nice body so why complain? …
    Is it wrong to feel confused about what you want to be?
    I halfway believe that it wouldnt be much different
    since im Bisexual… but i find myself thinking sometimes about… what it would belike to be a boy.. even though i really enjoy being a girl.. im just very confused about things ….. im not exactly sure how to answer this question because i myself dont have a logical way to explain my wanderings of thought either…
    hope ive said something you like…. but… im not even sure anymore..

  91. Ryan

    I’m in the middle of gender identity crisis right now.. i feel so dumb when i think i more likely men rather than girls. I’m only 20 and experiencing this kind of stuff. I wish any from this page would help me to this problem.

  92. meu.morgan

    (I realize that this post is very old and my reply is very late but I felt the personal need to write it for myself anyway)
    I’ve come to see gender as a social construct, but found myself baffled when my friend asked how a person (or myself specifically) defines their gender. I began to say that your gender is based on your personality and how you view yourself, but how is this true if personality traits are only assigned to genders by society? Do I consider myself female because I’m “passive and emotional”? I’m inclined to say no– but what does make me female then?
    After some internal debate and reading these comments I concluded that at least for myself, I base gender on the points of society that I like. Basically I pick and choose, and other people do the same. I hate the idea of becoming a stay at home mom or perhaps even a mother at all. But this is a key part of women’s perceived roles in society, and many people identify as women because of their desire to fulfill this role. One thing I easily realized is that I love dressing like a girl. I adore pretty dresses and hair bows and earrings. While males can certainly dress in a “feminine” manner and still be men, this is a trait usually assigned to females. Honestly I just love girl fashion so much more– it is comfortable to me, and I have worn clothing “appropriate” for both genders. I suppose that I have also found myself happy in a community of mostly female friends, so I identify as female to fit in.
    This is all difficult for me to type because I know how petty it may sound. Still, it is the best reasoning I can come up with at the moment. No doubt I will be considering this for a while now and maybe I’ll reach a better conclusion. But for now I do believe that while gender is a social construct, we do tend to follow it’s rules and find our little niche within a gender that we feel comfortable identifying as.


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