The pink and blue highlighters in your brain

Last update on Nov. 11, 2014.

Why would so many people sacrifice money, effort, and social respectability, even risking their lives, defying rules that society has laid down for members of their sex…so they can follow rules that society has laid down for members of the other sex? I mean, if you’re going to get yourself in trouble with the Gender Police, why not be straightforward in your rebellion?

People who answer this question use clinical terms like “gender identity,” or clichés like “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Kosse Phillip Feral, an FTM transsexual, told a filmmaker: “The way I explained it to [his children] was I’ve always felt like a boy on the inside and the outside didn’t match the inside… They’re just little kids so they can relate to I’ve always felt like a boy or I’ve always felt like a girl.”

Statements like this are obviously directed to an audience that includes non-trans people, and they imply that everyone in the audience, trans or not, adult or child, has a gender identity. I’m expected to read Feral’s remark and think: Ah, yes, I feel like I’m a man, and I’d be pretty damn distressed if, given that feeling, I had breasts and a vagina and people kept referring to me as a woman. Therefore, I can understand how someone who is in that situation is a human being deserving of sympathy and respect, not a pathological weirdo.

Here’s my problem, though: I agree with the “human being deserving of sympathy and respect” part, but everything that comes before it trips me up. I know what it feels like to have a penis. I know what it feels like to spend my childhood with other boys indoctrinating me into Appropriate Masculine Behavior. I know what it feels like to be told that it’s good for me to go into elementary education, because I’d be providing little kids with a “male role model” in the classroom, and then discover that without a spouse making substantially more than myself, I can’t make enough as a teacher to pay off my student loans and live in Boston. (Not that I’m, y’know, bitter.) I know what it feels like to think, well, a sundress would probably be a lot more comfortable than pants in this 90° weather, but I’ll never know, because if I go out dressed like that I would be risking my job security if not my physical safety.

But I don’t know what it feels like to be a man. Or, for that matter, a woman. At least, I think not. Do I have the emotion that Feral talks about, but label it with different words? Am I like one of those incredibly closeted people who call themselves “asexual” to avoid labelling themselves as “gay”? Or am I the pathological weirdo here—not because of my gender identity, but because my lack of gender identity? To sort out these questions, I have been on a quest to isolate this mysterious “gender identity” that so many people take for granted.

Mommy, this strange man is deconstructing me

So what is gender identity, in terms that an AI, an alien, or a cripple like myself can understand? It can’t be the desire to have a penis or vagina, since some trans people are content to keep the genitals they were born with. It can’t be the desire to conform to a male or female gender stereotype; as Colt Illicit points out, you can be an FTM trans and enjoy all sorts of non-“masculine” pastimes.

C.I. suggests that there is a spectrum of gender identity, similar to the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation, in which most people are somewhere in the middle. With all due respect, I think he’s fallen into a taxonomic trap: confusing gender identity with conformance to a gender role. If you look at how well people conform to the stereotypes of their gender, you’ll see a pretty wide distributions. But when people are asked what sex they are, they almost always choose one side or the other, not a point on a continuum. C.I. has “met many ftm men…who enjoy doing female drag,” but he calls them “ftm men”, not “80%-men-20%-women”.

We need to disentangle gender identity from gender role-conformance. How?

The curious incident of the girlfriend in the bio

Typically, a woman’s intimate, platonic friendships with her “girlfriends” are important parts of her emotional life. These friendships are radically different from anything that most men have experienced; when I read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the women there, in the ways they manipulated one another, might as well have been aliens from one of those “sociological” science fiction novels.

I am led to wonder: do MTF transwomen have these kinds of relationships with other women, especially non-trans women? Do they not feel any need to form such relationships? Do all of their close friends know their medical history, changing the dynamics of the relationship? Even after reading a number of autobiographies (near the bottom of Lynn Conway’s “Successes” page, there are a few dozen links), I have no clue; the topic just doesn’t seem to come up.

This absence of information is, in itself, informative. I assume that the people who write these autobiographies value their non-trans female friends, and put a lot of effort into maintaining those friendships, but they must not consider the friendships relevant to their lives as trans people. By contrast, descriptions of the physical and emotional effects of hormones are standard components of this genre. And this is a demographic group that is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for various medical procedures not covered by insurance, not to mention the thousands of hours they devote to learning how to “pass.” So why isn’t friendship with women part of the standard “MTF trans success” story? As they say in the Talmud, mai nafka mina, what’s the difference between them?

Here’s the difference: the unwritten rules of how to be a girlfriend are specific to women, but getting recognized as a woman does not depend on following them. Suppose that Alice and Barbara are girlfriends, and Barbara, unbenownst to Alice, is a transwoman. If Barbara violates Alice’s expectations of how a girlfriend should act, Alice might consider her less of a friend, or wonder at her poor social skills, but Alice is not going to suddenly realize, or even suspect, anything about Barbara’s gender.

In my arrogant opinion

Here’s my theory: gender identity is the desire, as an end in itself, to pass: that is, to be recognized by other people, even toddlers, as unambiguously belonging to a certain gender, for most of your day-to-day life. (I say “as an end in itself” to exclude, say, a 19th-century woman who dresses as a man so she can join the army.)

I think this theory fits what I have been looking for in my quest. It reflects the fact that most people, trans or not, seem to know what their internal gender is. The theory doesn’t make identity depend on genitalia, since most people who see you will decide your gender without looking at your crotch. The theory doesn’t make identity depend on role conformance: you can break every standard of Proper Femininity you ever learned, but as long as you want people to recognize you as a woman, you clearly have a female gender identity. The theory marks me as a pathological weirdo, but hey, I’m weird for all sorts of reasons, no harm in adding one more.

(A corollary is that if we lived in a culture where a child could change his or her social gender without stigma, hardly anyone would seek sexual reassignment surgery. I realize that this corollary is both controversial and unprovable.)

I think this theory has some interesting political and sociological applications, but before I go on to those, I need a reality check. All of you readers who do feel like you have a “gender identity,” whether or not it matches your physical body: how well does the description in my words connect with what you feel in your guts?

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