a little east of reality

Saturday, February 25, 2006

gender & the physical

Waiterrant featured a post yesterday about people who have, or want to have, sexual reassignment surgery. Basically they were chatting in the restaurant about a show that told how people were using Craigslist to find dates with pre-operative transsexual escorts. They were joking a little about how specialised a request it was and how few people out there could answer an ad like that. As it happens, that very night a couple walked in who were possibly both transsexuals - the uncanny timing led to the post.

A very tolerant and civilised discussion immediately took place in the comments, with pretty much every commenter expressing support for those who chose to have reassignment surgery, and for those who live as the other gender but choose not to have surgery, even if the commenter themself didn't really understand the reasons why someone would make that choice. There was a lot of sympathy expressed for people who feel they are one gender trapped in the body of the other.

What immediately struck me was how every commenter seemed to accept without question that gender was something seperate from the body you were in, and that it was something inherently definable - that what it meant to be a man, a woman, male, female could be sufficiently defined that a person could declare without doubt that they were or were not one of those things without any reference to appearance or body parts. For most, it seems, the concept that a man allowing a surgeon to turn his penis into a vagina and taking hormones in order to change his voice and develop breasts was simply "making the outside match the inside" was not something they felt to question or contradict: they all accepted that that man could have enough understanding of what it meant to "be a woman" that he could know he was one long before he physically resembled one.

It set me thinking about the whole subject of whether gender really is tied to the physical body you are in, or should be; or even just what 'gender' really is. For me its always been extremely clear cut. My body is female, therefore my gender is female. But then, I don't equate gender with gender stereotypes or roles, so I don't expect being 'female' to feel any particular way. Basically for me identifying my gender is no different to identifying my sex. I'm female. And the scope of that definition stretches no further than the biological differences between my body and a male body. Anything else, for me, can only be defined in context. I have some idea what it means to be a woman in a male dominated corporate environment, in a hierarchical and sexist foreign culture, in a group of female colleagues, at a family gathering, walking to my car in a night club car park at 2am. What it means to "be a woman" in these contexts is so wrapped up in social and cultural constructs that objectively defining what a woman is immediately seems an impossible task.

Consider these excerpts from the website of The Looking Glass Society, a UK-based non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting understanding and acceptance of transsexual people (italics added):
Most people never have to ask themselves the question "Am I male or female?". They only have to look at their body and the answer is obvious. For transsexuals, the sex of their body feels totally wrong, because the way that they see the world is that of the opposite physical sex.

Sometimes they are not very attracted to members of either sex, since the role that they would have to perform in any sexual relationship would feel wrong. The idea of being a member of the opposite physical sex may become the only way in which they can express their own sexuality...

There is no way that a genuine transsexual can ever be content living in the wrong gender role, and attempts to make a transsexual 'normal' always fail.

[to those who think they may be transsexual] It is important to realise that there is far more to a successful transition than hormones and surgery. If your GP can arrange speech therapy then this will help you to develop the characteristics and social skills appropriate to your new gender role.
In this sense I really can't understand the trans-sexual mindset at all. There is no one particular way that the opposite sex sees the world, no set role that either sex must play in sexual relationships, no one set of characteristics and social skills that either sex is bound to follow. Sure, there are expectations. Yes, there are societal norms and culturally assigned gender roles. But the notion that these are inescapable is centuries out-of-date.

Transsexuals can't be content living in the wrong gender role (a role they can't relate to that happens to be expected of their sex). What I don't understand is why they choose to adopt another clearly defined (the role, not what it actually means to be of that gender) arbitrary role. Why not ditch gender roles altogether and just be who you are? What's 'normal' anyway? And what does it really matter? When I see interviews and some (now) woman will talk about how even when he was little he always played with dolls or liked make-up, I always think, 'yeah, so? boys can play with dolls and wear makeup and lots of girls hate that stuff...it doesn't make you a girl (even inside) to like or want or relate to those things. Just be who you are.'

And that's the crucial point here. I want to understand what is going on with these people ~ and maybe I simply never will ~ but what I hear when they speak about gender is a group of people who feel compelled to fit into what they believe is just one of two "ways to be". Not fitting the one to which has been 'assigned' to their sex by their culture and society, they become convinced that they have somehow been 'born in the wrong body'.

Obviously there is more to it that that, but never once in one of these interviews has any transsexual, when trying to describe what they mean when they say that they "feel like a woman", "think like a woman", ever said anything that made me nod and think, "yes, that's right. That's something only a woman feels." Everything they describe can be felt and experienced equally by a man. So all that's left IS the physical. It's sad that a male can look in the mirror and think, I need breasts to be who I really am; this penis, this body, disgusts me, seems wrong and alien (other things I've heard in interviews). But sad or not, at least that's concrete. But when someone believes they can't be soft or nurturing (or some other trait they've determined to be a female and not a male trait) without having a major operation, I feel like protesting, "but that isn't what makes someone a woman. A woman can't be defined so simply!"

I understand gender roles as constructs. At best they are a way to acknowledge how physical differences between the sexes create natural roles. For example, a couple who want a child (who is physically their own) must rely on the biology of the female body to carry and nurture that child. Only a woman's body has those internal organs; only a woman's body produces milk. It should not be surprising to us that women became seen as the primary caregiver of young children - biologically they were the logical choice. While some women (and men) would balk at the idea of a woman needing to be protected by a man, biologically it is a role that makes sense, because pregnancy and even for some women the pain and nausea of her monthly cycle make her more physically vulnerable than a male. Even in this modern age, a heavily pregnant woman (without weaponry :) ) is as vulnerable a target as an elderly one. (Sadly males throughout history have often used the idea of a "weaker sex" to exercise unrighteous dominion rather than to protect, but that's another post...). But still, these are understandings, constructs, norms: they do not define what it means to be female. Not all women bear children or even want to. Not all women breast feed. And some women are far too kick-ass to seek protection, from anyone.

At worst gender roles are a horrible mind control experiment gone awry, using social and cultural gender role constructs to dictate to a person how they should feel and act, based on which body parts they happen to have been born with. This paragraph is about to become the rantiest in the whole rant, but where is the REBELLION?? Why does no atypical male ever think "I'm a man, and I just don't fit this idea my family and friends have of what that means, and that is perfectly okay. There's no way I'm going to ruin my life meeting their expectations." I think the world would be a much better and happier place if people stopped trying to conform to gender roles that make no sense to them and instead fought to redefine those roles in a realistic and much more flexible way. I find it ironic that transsexuals of all people are so determined to sustain and conform to gender stereotypes.