“Gender confusion?” I hear you ask. “But I thought you’d worked out that you’re a trans woman?”
Well, I think it’s important to be honest and I’d be lying if I said that I never doubted or questioned and that my feelings about gender were always straightforward. I think in many ways we’re all a bit confused about gender. And I wanted to share the complicated thoughts I’ve had today about my feelings with regards to gender.
I’ve managed to break down those thoughts and feelings into six different things. Firstly there is what I like to call the big, horrible thing. It’s not necessarily anything to do with gender as such but it is something that has contributed to my pain and been a driving force behind my desire to question my gender identity. Then there are the three things that are definitely related to gender identity and that make a certain course of action (gender transition) seem like a sensible option for me. Then there’s the fun matter of clothing and make up, which is of course gender expression and not necessarily indicative of gender identity. Finally there is the matter of what-I-think-I-am, which although it is often lifted up as the be-all and end-all of gender identity is I believe a little bit philosophically problematic, as words and concepts are always tied up with beliefs and philosophies (what you think those words mean) and so may not be as revealing as we’d like to believe.
Let’s look at the big horrible thing first. I have certain needs and desires with regards to sex and romance. I am primarily attracted to women and it is women that I need and desire these things from. Yet if I identify as a guy I would be forced to call these needs and desires “role reversal”. For most of my life, including when I identified as a guy, I wanted, needed, desired to be in the conventionally female role and for my female sexual partners to adopt the conventionally male role. This undoubtedly makes being a man very painful and difficult but it is not necessarily indicative of gender identity. However it has shaped my life with a lot of pain.
I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough about this matter. I’ve realised that whether I identify as a guy, a woman or somewhere in between that nevertheless these needs of mine are something I cannot help (they are how I’m wired) and that they are totally ok. Yes, it sucks to be physically male and attracted to women but desire the women in your life to take the lead, initiate sex, be strong and protective, sweep you off your feet, ravish you, penetrate you etc. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a woman (although you could conceivably make some point about mating instincts and biology if you wanted). But whether a person who feels this way is a man, a woman, in between or neither it should be seen as totally ok to be that way. So in interest of healing I need to remind myself of that. I can’t help it and it’s ok. And yes, we should challenge stupid gender roles that attempt to constrict people’s life options and make them feel they are wrong for desiring what they desire. I hope to still be able to challenge the idea that men have to be a certain way, should be a certain way in their romantic and sexual relationships. I can still rage against how much this particular thing sucks for those born male. And I will.
But there are three things that probably do indicate that I’m a trans woman and certainly indicate that gender transition is right for me. Those three things are: preferences for gendered words and pronouns, feelings about my body and what I can only call “self image”.
I’ve discovered in recent months that on the rare occasion when people gender me as female that it feels comfortable, right and honouring to be referred to in those ways. Well meaning friends call me “missus” or “madam” sometimes. I was referred to as “that lady over there” once in a cafe. People use “she” and “her” pronouns of me on occasion. I’ve been called “Ms Kim”. This always feels right, whether I’m dressed male or female. On the opposite side, terms such as “man”, “fella”, “sir”, “dude” and even “mate” and “he” tend to grate on me. Some of them always have, even way back when I identified roughly as a “guy” (for some reason the word guy doesn’t bother me as much). You could make the point that the reason some words feel better than others is to do with whatever associations and ideas you attach to those words, so that it doesn’t actually indicate anything about your gender but only what you think about your gender. That certainly seems accurate as far as it goes. But if a person prefers to be referred to as a woman then it definitely seems like the best course of action for that person to legally and socially transition to being a woman. It’s straight forward really; pure pragmatism. If that’s the issue then this is the solution. It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.
Then there is the complex matter of how I feel about my own body. I’ve also only truly discovered these feelings in recent years. But if I’m honest many of these feelings go back to my youth, to puberty and my teens. I just didn’t consciously accept it, I argued it away and suppressed it. One thing I’ve never had a particular problem with is my genitals. Yes I don’t like to use them as nature intends in the bedroom but I’ve always been fond of masturbating and of having them touched, sucked, played with by partners. When it comes to genitals though I have discovered the opposite matter. I envy pussy. When I include having a pussy in my sexual fantasies, wow it is sexual dynamite. To feel someone inside me, to have a sexually sensitive hole to be penetrated in, whether with dildos, fingers or a sexy big toe, that sounds like heaven. Anal is so uncomfortable and icky really. Ok, with plenty of lube and the right person it could be ok. But to be penetrated in a way that feels like when my genitals are being stimulated. Wow, I want that. I want that so badly!
Then there is body hair, facial hair, body shape, chest, weird little things like the muscles on my arms or how narrow my waist is. I’ve had complicated feelings about all of that all my life. I hate my body hair. I’ve started to hate my facial hair too. My chest looks wrong, my body shape is wrong, I should have more delicate arms and wider hips. I do want a body that has that hourglass shape. Even a large woman’s shape, where the majority of the fat is on the chest and the hips/bum would be preferable to my fat male shape. Small or moderate sized breasts would definitely be preferable to my flat male chest. My boobs look best to me when I’m hot so that the nipples swell and the boobs look a bit flabby. That’s when I look at them and say “ooh, I’ve got boobies”. Then they go all flat, the nipples shrink and I just don’t find them as attractive.
It seems clear to me, in that exact same pragmatic way, that these are things I could change with hormones. My facial hair I could change with electrolysis or laser hair treatment. I already remove my body hair regularly with an electric razor. Simple really, if that is the problem then this is the solution. HRT for me.
But the core of the issue when it comes to gender identity is what I call “self image”. Who do you see yourself in? What set of human beings do you feel the most kinship with? Who are your role models? What do you want to see when you look in the mirror?
The truth is that I am more likely to see myself in women than in men. Even men who crossdress or wear make up, I might see that they deal with similar issues to me but I’m aware on some level that I’m not like them. Of course I can see myself in trans women sometimes but I almost always feel like I’m on some kind of wavelength with cis women. I feel the most “kinship” with women. I don’t know a better way of putting that. It’s an odd feeling to truly explain to someone but it is what it is I guess. Consequently the people I want to look up to and emulate are often women, with the occasional feminine man (eg. Eddie Izzard) or geeky character (the Doctor or Peter Parker/Spiderman).
And what do I want to see in the mirror? An attractive young woman. Ok, I’m neither slim nor young anymore. But a lot of larger, middle aged people get that. But I do think it is relevant when considering gender identity that I really do want to see a young, attractive woman in the mirror. Not a young, slim man (like I used to be) but a young, attractive woman. Quite possibly I have always desired that. Maybe I just didn’t fully realise it when I was young because I was suppressing the desire or something. And it’s not just about clothing and make up. I want my face to look like a woman’s face, my body to look like a woman’s body. I want to see a young, attractive woman in the mirror. And I mean that in every sense.
But what about clothing and make up? Well, obviously that is to do with gender expression and doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about gender identity. People crossdress after all. I’m actually fairly androgynous in style. I don’t wear dresses, tights or high heels. I wear jeans and t-shirts, boots or trainers. But I like to wear boots or trainers marketed at women. I like to adorn my appearance with necklaces. I like to wear nail varnish, eye make up, lipstick. I like to wear my hair long. I like to wear knickers and even socks that are marketed at women. I even like to wear women’s deoderant (it smells much nicer than men’s).
Some of these manifested in my teenage and young adult years, such as playing with lipstick and nail varnish. The desire to wear make up has never really gone away and the more I have opened my mind up to wearing “women’s” clothes in recent years the happier and happier it has made me. It may be gender expression, it may not indicate what gender I am but it has been an important way for me to feel more happy and joyous and to keep the constant pang of misery at bay. For that reason long may it continue.
Finally I want to look at the matter of what gender you think you are. This is lifted up as the absolute decider on gender identity. You are what you identify as. If you think you’re a woman, you’re a woman. If you think you’re a man, you’re a man. If you think you are neither or in between or both then you are non binary.
But I have a problem with this. Words, concepts, labels – these are very dependent on how we interpret them. It sort of begs the question really. What you think you are very much depends on what you think those words and concepts mean. In other words it is to do with what your personal philosophy about gender is.
This isn’t good enough. When I “thought” I was a man was I really any different to how I am now? If I think I’m non binary sometimes but think I’m a woman sometimes does it really mean that my gender changes? Or is it more likely that a person can be confused or closeted about things?
What we think is shaped by how we interpret the world and the subject of gender. It cannot then be a reliable or accurate way of deciding what your gender identity is.
For what it’s worth I often have a detached feeling towards this philosophical level of gender identity. Do I really have a strong sense of myself as a woman? No, not really. But then I certainly don’t have any kind of sense, strong or otherwise, of myself as a man.
When pressed on this matter I will claim that I don’t feel especially gendered on the inside. I feel kind of genderless. What do I think I am really? I think I am a human mind of no particular gender that has been forced into a world that makes a big, big deal about all this gender stuff and bombards me with it every day so that it makes me feel like screaming at the insanity of it all. For that reason I have often identified as genderless, agender, non binary or genderqueer in the past. But is this an accurate picture of my gender identity or just a reflection of my personal philosophy about gender? I have a Buddhist kind of detachment from words and labels sometimes and I feel like saying (in the style of the 10th doctor) “wibbly wobbly, gendery wendery”. But does that really say anything at all about what gender I really am? Isn’t it a reflection of what I feel and think about the subject of gender, a stance on the matter, rather than any kind of objective truth about my gender identity? If a person thinks they are a man or a woman on the basis of their genitals, does that necessarily mean that they are a man or a woman on the inside? What if I swallowed radical feminist ideology whole and started saying I’m a feminine man because a man is an adult human being with a penis and testicles? Would that really change who I am or just mean that I had been convinced of the philosophy that genitals=gender?
I think what people are trying to refer to when they speak of an “internal sense of gender” or a “feeling” or a “knowing” of what gender you are, is that “self image” I spoke of. It’s a weird sense of kinship or otherness with regards to one gender or the other, a tendency to see yourself in one gender or the other and a desire to see a person of a certain physical gender when you look at yourself in the mirror. It connects very strongly with how you feel about your own body. Perhaps it even connects with what words and pronouns you prefer or what sexual and romantic instincts reside in the wiring of your brain. Who knows? What I do know is that I am transgender because there are real issues and problems I have and the only real solutions to them is to transition socially, legally and with hormones. There’ll always be a slight tendency towards a kind of non binary philosophy about gender though. Maybe on some level I will always be slightly non binary too.
I was thinking of a term for this, something that can refer accurately to being philosophically non binary but pragmatically a trans woman and I came up with the word “femqueer”. I like it actually. I like it a lot.
The problem is that a lot of people focus too much on words and labels. But I feel a Buddhist kind of detachment is helpful when it comes to these largely external and illusionary things. The radical feminists are probably right that a lot of our problems about gender stem from the faulty concepts and ideas that society tries to bombard us with all the time. It can be nice to be called by the right words, words that seem to honour you for some reason. But it’s not words or concepts that mean I need to transition. It’s more pragmatic than that.
I feel more woman than man, and I need to transition to feel comfortable. But there’ll always be part of me that when I feel confused or exasperated by the subject of gender will want to wave my hand dismissively and say “wibbly wobbly, gendery wendery”.