Thursday, February 4, 2010

Traits vs Gender

"Once, power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact, power has no sex.” - Katharine Graham
"I think we're struggling with trying to redefine various positions at this point in history. To allow freedom for women, freedom for men, freedom from those sharply defined gender roles." - Fred Ward

One thing that seems to be a source of confusion and aggravation for cisgendered/sexual (aka- non-transgendered) people is traits vs gender. In other words, confusing masculine traits and being manly with being a Man and vice versa. And the transgendered community doesn't help one bit.

The stereotypical backstory for a transgendered woman generally involves always playing with girls when she was a child, wanting to play with dolls and wearing dresses, always wanting to be the mom/woman figure when playing house, etc etc etc. When a transgendered person first comes out, which is also when they're least likely to pass and most likely to be out about being transgendered, they tend to go a bit 'overboard' on the femininity/masculinity (for mtFs and ftMs, respectively), too.

I've seen a few cisgendered women get insulted by this. I know one who has a lot of 'masculine' traits- she could probably give a similar backstory as a trans guy- and the idea that this somehow makes her a man is insulting. Another saw an overly feminine trans girl who was early in transition and commented that she didn't act like that- was that really how the trans girl thought women acted? I haven't heard as much from cis men, the most I've seen was "I don't deal with feminism, so a woman shouldn't tell me what it's like to be a man" to a trans guy.

These feelings are completely understandable, although aggravating. It is hard to look at a person who's saying "I am a woman" and then seems to 'prove' this by listing feminine traits or acts on it by acting extremely feminine without thinking this person is saying "Anyone who's feminine is a woman, anyone who isn't is not a woman". Some people do think this, but it simply isn't true. And for people who know that they are women/men but aren't overly feminine/masculine, respectively, it can feel like transgendered people are attacking their identity or trying to define them with terms that aren't right. This is probably a source of some confusion and intolerance, as well, if you feel like you're being attacked- it's only natural to go on the defensive.

I think a big part of the problem is that when a person is most likely to be out as transgendered is also when they're most vulnerable in their identity and life.When a trans woman first comes out, she's coming from a lifetime of being seen and socialized as a man. Often, she's also spent so much time trying to be ultra manly in the hopes of destroying her gender and becoming 'normal'. She has to come from a male voice, walk, posture, body, etc and make all those things female. In doing so, the pendulum swings to the other extreme- she'll get gussied up just to go to the store to help her pass, make her voice and posture super feminine to try and get it at all female-like, and in general become the embodiment of all things feminine to try and erase the masculinity of her past.

She also has to prove her gender to loved ones who can only remember the masculine things she's done in her life. In the face of "You can't be a girl, you're too masculine" it's easy to feel the need to become feminine to prove yourself.

Most of the post- or late-transition people I've seen end up "mellowing out" in their presentation. They aren't desperately trying to pass or convince their loved ones so they don't need to go overboard with the femininity/masculinity to "prove" their gender. Although there are feminine trans girls just like there are feminine cis girls, there are also tomboys and people who vary all the way across the butch/femme spectrum.

From what I've seen, most people go stealth after they transition to some degree or another. Some will stay out to close friends and lovers, but overall don't broadcast it. While this is understandable, it also means that when people are in the best place to show that transgendered people are just normal, every day people like everyone else is when they're least likely to.

Therapists aren't helping us, either. I know a trans guy who enjoys doing drag shows (something that cis men can, or should, be able to do without worry)- and if his therapist found out about this, the plug would be pulled on his transition. If you don't pretend to be the most feminine/masculine thing, a lot of therapists won't acknowledge that you're really transgendered. Sometimes the transgendered community also contributes to it- when a guy gets bombarded with "I'm a guy and I hate wearing skirts and want to become he-man", he can feel like he has to be like that to be recognized as the man he is.

As you can probably tell- I fully understand the reasoning behind using traits to justify your gender. However, it annoys me to no end and I really wish we could do away with it. Saying "I'm a woman because I like wearing skirts" invalidates the gender of both women who despise skirts and men who love them. I have a few issues with the idea of validating your experience by invalidating someone else's.

It also confuses the issue. If you say "I'm a woman because I play with dolls", then people who don't cling to gender roles will say "Men can play with dolls, too, so why are you transitioning for something you can do now?". I acknowledge that we're in a world that doesn't accept transgendered people and who needs "proof", but we shouldn't and we shouldn't have to hold up this system to be accepted as who we are and allowed to get the right body.

A cis man doesn't have to justify his gender. If he has gynecomastia (developed breasts), he doesn't have to prove his gender to get rid a mastectomy. If he has naturally low testosterone, he doesn't have to man-it-up to be allowed to take hormones to get it to the right level. If he knows how to cook, he doesn't have to face people seriously using it as proof that he's actually a woman. So why should transgendered people? Having to justify our gender only shows that our gender isn't as accepted, and I don't like that we have to play into this system.

It shouldn't be "I should be treated as a man because I possess these traits which clearly make me a man"- it should be "I'm a man, and even if I'm the most feminine person on the planet and wear skirts you should respect me enough to treat me as I am". Now, obviously there's the risk of being misgendered by strangers- but both my father and male-bodied partner get 'ma'am'ed even though they present as male- so that's a risk for everyone. That doesn't justify people who know you misgendering you.

But to the point: traits are not gender. A person who's a man might be more likely to be masculine than a person who's a woman, but being masculine is not what defines someone as a man. I don't know what gender is. I can't explain how a masculine woman knows that she is a woman and not a man, I can't explain how a person who was brought up male knows that they're a woman, either. Gender should not be used to discriminate- a person who's a woman isn't better or worse than a person who is a man. Acknowledging that there is some unknown difference between men and women doesn't destroy gender equality, nor should it.

Look at it like this- Two people are artists. One is an expert at music, they're amazingly talented and can make you weep for joy or despair with just a few chords, but they can't write to save their life. The other is an amazing writer, they can bring fantasy worlds to life and make you feel like you've known a character you're whole life, but they can't play "twinkle twinkle little star" to save their life. Is either of them a better artist? Of course not- they have different talents, and acknowledging the musician's skills doesn't devalue the writer's ability. It also doesn't really determine anything else about their life- we don't know if the musician or writer will immediately be better at fixing cars or dealing with other people than the other.

Differences in gender should be more like this- a man isn't better or worse than a woman, and we shouldn't assume that just because someone is a man they'll immediately be better at something than a woman. Gender doesn't get rid of individuality, it doesn't define everything about a person, it's just one aspect of a person's identity.

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