From the moment we take our first breath (and sometimes even before that, what with sonic imaging technology), the cry “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” ushers us into this world. As we grow into adulthood, everything about us grows and matures as we grow and mature. Everything except gender, that is. We’re supposed to believe that our gender stays exactly the same as the day we were born. Our genders never shift, we’re told. The genders we’re assigned at birth lock us onto a course through which we’ll be expected to become whole, well-rounded, creative, loving people—but only as men or as women. From where I stand, that’s like taking a field of racehorses, hobbling the front legs of half of them and the rear legs of the other half, and expecting them to run a decent race: it doesn’t work. Gender, this thing we’re all seemingly born with, is a major restraint to self-expression.That doesn’t make sense to me. Why should we be born with such a hobble? Does that make sense to you?
It is important to note that the relevant factor to sexual harassment in this story is not gender identity but gender perception. Some friends and acquaintances who have experienced harassment do not, in fact, identify as women; they were perceived as women. As I sought support, the key issue was not their gender identity, but the gender signifiers that led them to be perceived as women. If we don’t admit that sexual harassment is a gendered experience, we can never shed light on the sexism implicit in many cases of harassment. However, in addressing these sorts of gendered experiences, we may find that gender identity is not the most useful category.
If one more person tells me that “all gender is performance,” I think I am going to strangle them. Perhaps most annoying about that sound-bite is the somewhat snooty “I-took-a-gender-studies-class-and-youdidn’t” sort of way in which it is most often recited, a magnificent irony given the way that phrase dumbs down gender. It is a crass oversimplification, as ridiculous as saying all gender is genitals, all gender is chromosomes, or all gender is socialization. In reality, gender is all of these things and more. In fact, if there’s one thing that all of us should be able to agree on, it’s that gender is a confusing and complicated mess. It’s like a junior high school mixer, where our bodies and our internal desires awkwardly dance with one another, and with all the external expectations that other people place on us.Sure, I can perform gender: I can curtsy, or throw like a girl, or bat my eyelashes. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. It offers no insight into the countless restless nights I spent as a pre-teen wrestling with the inexplicable feeling that I should be female. It doesn’t capture the very real physical and emotional changes that I experienced when I hormonally transitioned from testosterone to estrogen. Performance doesn’t even begin to address the fact that, during my transition, I acted the same, wore the same T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers that I always had, yet once other people started reading me as female, they began treating me very differently. When we talk about my gender as though it were a performance, we let the audience—with all their expectations, prejudices, and presumptions—completely off the hook.
If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.
Instead of saying that all gender is this or all gender is that, let's recognize that the word gender has scores of meaning built into it. It's an amalgamation of bodies, identities, and life experiences, subconscious urges, sensations, and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture. Instead of saying that gender is any one single thing, let's start describing it as a holistic experience.
Gender isn’t simply some faucet that we can turn on and off in order to appease other people, whether they be heterosexist bigots or queerer-than-thou hipsters. How about this: Let’s stop pretending that we have all the answers, because when it comes to gender, none of us is fucking omniscient. Instead of trying to fictionalize gender, let’s talk about the moments in life when gender feels all too real. Because gender doesn’t feel like drag when you’re a young trans child begging your parents not to cut your hair or not to force you to wear that dress. And gender doesn’t feel like a performance when, for the first time in your life, you feel safe and empowered enough to express yourself in ways that resonate with you, rather than remaining closeted for the benefit of others. And gender doesn’t feel like a construct when you finally find that special person whose body, personality, identity, and energy feels like a perfect fit with yours. Let’s stop trying to deconstruct gender into nonexistence, and instead start celebrating it as inexplicable, varied, profound, and intricate.
Transgenderism depends for its very existence on the idea that there is an ‘essence’ of gender, a psychology and pattern of behaviour, which is suited to persons with particular bodies and identities.This is the opposite of the feminist view, which is that the idea of gender is the foundation of the political system of male domination. ‘Gender’, in traditional patriarchal thinking, ascribes skirts, high heels and a love of unpaid domestic labour to those with female biology, and comfortable clothing, enterprise and initiative to those with male biology. In the practice of transgenderism, traditional gender is seen to lose its sense of direction and end up in the minds and bodies of persons with inappropriate body parts that need to be corrected. But without ‘gender’, transgenderism could not exist. From a critical, feminist point of view, when transgender rights are inscribed into law and adopted by institutions, they instantiate ideas that are harmful to women’s equality and give authority to outdated notions of essential differences between the sexes. Transgenderism is indeed transgressive, but of women’s rights rather than an oppressive social system.
We change our attitudes, our careers, our relationships. Even our age changes minute by minute. We change our politics, our moods, and our sexual preferences. We change our outlook, we change our minds, we change our sympathies. Yet when someone changes hir gender, we put hir on some television talk show. Well, here’s what I think: I think we all of us do change our genders. All the time. Maybe it’s not as dramatic as some tabloid headline screaming “She Was A He!” But we do, each of us, change our genders. In response to each interaction we have with a new or different person, we subtly shift the kind of man or woman, boy or girl, or whatever gender we’re being at the moment. We’re usually not the same kind of man or woman with our lover as we are with our boss or a parent. When we’re introduced for the first time to someone we find attractive, we shift into being a different kind of man or woman than we are with our childhood friends. We all change our genders.
How come when girls play with gender it's a sign of strength and when boys play with gender it's a sign of weakness?
Radical feminist theorists do not seek to make gender a bit more flexible, but to eliminate it. They are gender abolitionists, and understand gender to provide the framework and rationale for male dominance. In the radical feminist approach, masculinity is the behaviour of the male ruling class and femininity is the behaviour of the subordinate class of women. Thus gender can have no place in the egalitarian future that feminism aims to create.