Friday, July 22, 2016

Gender: A Year of Confusion

Around this time last year I came to the conclusion that I am nonbinary and settled upon the label agender. In the intervening year I've done a lot of thinking and angsting about gender--gender identity, gender expression, gender performance. Masculinity. Femininity. How race intersects. I am no longer labeling myself as agender, mostly because gender is born from external, societal forces/interactions and I don't want to give myself anything to hide behind such that I could opt out of thinking about what my gender means about how I interact with other people.

Last September I wrote a series of posts about gender: a post about Discovering Gender. Gender: MU, and Masculinity. I still mostly agree with the last one, but there are gaps missing in the sum of these. I'll try to fill those gaps in; it's going to get messy.


I reread these posts in order to prepare for this one and I cringed a lot while reading them. Past me had never really thought about LGBT issues until discovering that they were ace, and didn't tend to consider others' opinions and experiences. As a result, the posts above are pretty transmisogynistic. I conceptualized womanhood as belonging exclusively to cis women who are capable of bearing children*, and since that kind of womanhood is one I fervently do not want, I neglected to consider people who embrace a kind of womanhood beyond the one that society deems valuable.

*(At the time, I was reading a lot of Justine Musk (yes, Elon's ex-wife) and since she's very eloquent I unreflectively accepted her idea of womanhood/femininity as a working definition of "the" womanhood/femininity. But no one woman can speak for all women.)

Spoiler alert: this is not where I go "surprise, after talking to various other people I've decided that womanhood actually is something valuable to me and I want to be a woman and expand what that means." All power to people who do but that isn't me.

In the fall and winter, I had a lot of conversations with others in my dorm about various topics relating to gender/LGBT identities. One time, I and a gender-questioning frosh (who has since come out as a trans boy) asked two of our cis woman friends how they knew that they were cis. They both said that 1) growing up, masculinity was strongly associated with violence and 2) they resonated with the traditionally feminine roles of caring for, nurturing, and supporting others. So there were both push and pull factors.

What I remember most about that was a sinking feeling when they said "masculinity was associated with violence." Because even if I don't have a label for where I am on the gender spectrum, my trajectory is transmasculine. I am moving toward the pole of violence, dominance, entitlement, aggression, and a host of other ills that have hurt many, many people. So I'm wary.

But the thought of embracing femininity and womanhood makes me nauseous. I'm going to leave my dysphoria off the table for a minute, because the body does not determine gender, and look at what femininity means. For my cis friends, it was nurturing others, putting others' needs first, and god is that noble but god do I not want to do that. In high school I wrote a paper about relationships and power in Crime and Punishment and in the end came to the conclusion that Dunya, Raskolnikov's sister, won in the end because she wanted respect but also to support others, and she got both. This was one of those stumbled-upon conclusions, and I remember having to turn that thought over in my mind a couple of times before deciding that it was true enough to leave in--because I couldn't conceptualize being satisfied with that. I couldn't parse being in a subservient position and being happy.

This is not to say that that is all that femininity can or should be. And I definitely need to talk to more women, cis and trans and neither, about what their gender means to them, why they are women. Because femininity is currently placed in a position of less power than masculinity, and I don't have enough information about what is going on in the minds and hearts of people who claim it.

Ubermadchen was in some ways a way of working through questions relating to femininity. Marilla, the main character, is a very feminine lesbian--someone to whom maleness has no appeal. I think writing her helped me a lot with confronting my internalized misogyny, because she values sensitivity, vulnerability, emotions, intuition, and girls. These are not things we are taught to value. While writing I had to consciously stop myself a lot of the time and think, what would Marilla be noticing in this scene that you are leaving out? Most of the time the answer was either sensory details in the setting (a perpetual problem of mine) or people. How are people reacting? How are people feeling? This is not a question I ask naturally. In the past year, now that I'm trying to be a better human being, I've been trying to remind myself more and more to check in with how people are doing. It gets tiring.

I think that writing femininity for 500 pages was so unnatural and exhausting for me that I didn't develop the other characters quite as well as I should have. But as a first draft goes, I am really quite happy with how Marilla turned out. And seeing the world through her eyes was, as I said, very important because I had to put things front and center which I was not, and still am not, used to putting front and center.


In my post about masculinity from last year, I said that I saw masculinity as a self-centered deal, which works well for me because I am naturally self-centered. After talking to more people about it, though, I've shifted my viewpoint somewhat. The kind of masculinity that is played out most often in the world is not self-centered in the sense I use it--using the self as the main reference point--but rather, focuses on creating a hierarchy between the self and the other. This is toxic masculinity.

On the internet I've seen people say "all masculinity is toxic masculinity, toxicity is inherent to masculinity." Masculinity is fragile, is a prison. Femininity is also, although it causes more damage to yourself than to others if you take it on. The two concepts, locked as they are in this zero-sum transfer of power, seem irredeemable.

I would happily see both concepts made obsolete. What purpose do they serve, anyway? There are feminine men and masculine women, and everything in between, and anyone of any gender can relate to others in any way and have any combination of characteristics. Some combinations (nurturing woman who is comfortable with handling emotions) are more socially acceptable than others right now, and so people may feel pressure to align with those ones. But in the absence of those social pressures I doubt we'd see the same distribution of men and women around the traits called "masculine" and "feminine" today.

Whenever I start thinking about gender, it feels as though I push it down, then overbalance and find myself in a swamp, possibly having tripped over or stepped on something valuable. I say this because what I'm about to say is "but these concepts also have a lot of cultural inertia, so one way or another I want to come to terms with them."

What does it mean that I've been trying to achieve a more masculine presentation since concluding that I am not female? I thought of it as having my outsides match my insides, but there is nothing incoherent about a cis woman who shops in the men's section and speaks in a low register, or about a nonbinary kid who still wears dresses and dances follow. If gender is performative, where does that leave closeted people?

(The link above goes to an essay titled "I am a transwoman. I am in the closet. I am not coming out." Very, very worth reading and thinking about. A critique of it here. I'm still trying to figure out what I think.)


This is the part where I talk about dysphoria. To repeat: trigger warning: dysphoria.

I'm not going to go into detail about what it feels like, but I experience both social and body dysphoria. Looking back I think I had begun experiencing some low-level form of both, probably starting around third grade and possibly earlier, but I didn't have the words to describe it. In fifth grade we had a short sex ed module and I remember looking at the list of things that happen to girls during puberty and feeling utter dread. At the time the worst part seemed to be that after puberty you stopped growing taller. But I definitely wasn't looking forward to the other stuff either.

When I came to my conclusions about gender last summer I hadn't consciously had any dysphoria. Through the course of freshman year I had even come to enjoy certain aspects of femininity. I obtained a dress for dancing. I became more emotionally available to friends and tried a little harder to be emotionally sensitive. My first month in Indonesia I bought flats and skirts. These were important steps because this was me fighting against internalized misogyny, and then I realized I wasn't a girl and backtracked on the decoratively feminine aspects.

In fall of freshman year when I first started experiencing dysphoria, it was mostly awful because dysphoria is awful, but I also in a weird way felt validated. Aha, I thought, I feel sick wearing women's shirts. Looks like I'm not making this up after all. Aha, I who have not previously had body image issues now deeply loathe this biological machine I am inhabiting. Aha, this mirror to which I was once indifferent is not actively hateful. Aha...

But if I take dysphoria--violent rejection of the body coded as female--as evidence that I'm trans, does that mean that I'm buying into the idea that a "female" body means a female gender? A "female" body is not necessary to be a woman, so why do I need to reject my biology to reject my assigned gender?

I envy the transmasculine friends who are confident and brave enough to go through permanent steps in transition. One friend just had top surgery on Monday. Another friend has been on T for several months (on the off chance that he sees this post--C, dude, your voice is awe-inspiring). I am not sure if I will ever be ready for such steps, and I wonder if that's fine. There are many ways to be a man, many ways to be a woman, many ways to be anyone in between. I like but don't feel comfortable in liminal situations, and I am not quite in the closet and definitely not all the way out of it either. I collect guides on passing; I have short hair; a majority of my clothing purchases in the last year have come from the men's section. This is what I do to feel more comfortable in my own flesh--a compromise, an appeasement, of the revulsion.

(None of this is to invalidate the people who cannot, for whatever reason, physically transition in even the cosmetic ways that I am edging towards--or who simply just don't want to. )

The social component of dysphoria is one I haven't thought about as much. I hate that my voice gets higher in situations where I feel less powerful, because all that's doing is drawing the line stronger between femininity and weakness, and that's a line I don't think should exist. (Also because I hate feeling powerless and having a high voice, even if it's in the low range for a cis woman.) Being physically unattractive is awesome because it means I've never gotten street harassment. At some point in my career it may become evident that failure to perform femininity is affecting my professional success (my parents are beyond convinced that this is the case), but I'm really hoping that in as male-dominated an industry as construction, being perceived as a masculine woman will work in my favor instead.

I know that people look at me and see a girl. I know that the woman who cut my hair on Sunday was confused when I asked her to go shorter. I know that when I'm filling out forms I have to check F.

I'm still trying to figure out how "out" to be in the future. When I thought I was a girl I used to fantasize about issuing powerful, moving statements about being a woman in STEM that would inspire other young girls to not abandon their love of technical subjects. Now, knowing what I know about my gender, I could not in good faith join any sort of professional women in STEM society or organization or anything. Having been socialized as a girl*, the kind of issues that face women in STEM still apply to me (impostor syndrome, being perceived as less competent) but I'm also not a woman, so I could not honorably take up resources meant for women.

*by which I mean, everyone assumed I was a girl when I was growing up. I've always been nonbinary, I just didn't have the words for it at the time.


After a year of struggling to come to terms with my gender and with gender in general, I'm honestly a little sick of it. Why is it not enough just to be a good person, regardless of what gender the characteristics of a good person are associated with? Unfortunately, I don't think that viewpoint is entirely tenable, given how big a role gender plays in how people move or are moved through the world.

In terms of personal conduct, I'm not going to consciously let the gender-coding of traits determine if I try to cultivate them or not--sure, I'm trying to be more confident in myself, but I'm also trying to be more emotionally available. But subconscious biases slip in so I have to be aware of ways in which masculinity could lead me to more harmful behavior (e.g. the reflexive protectiveness I display towards certain friends, who are almost always girls, may take on a patronizing undertone) (yes, I chose the word patronizing deliberately).

The question that really interests me is what to do going forward, not in terms of myself, but in terms of the trans and broader LGBT community. Trans people, including trans youth, are at elevated risk for bullying, homelessness, suicide, &c (sources for youth 1 2 3; general sources: 4 5)--not because of being trans but because of transphobia.

I shouldn't have had to realize that I'm trans in order to feel responsibility to do something--what? I'm not sure yet--to improve the situation of other trans folks. The philosophical labyrinths/mazes of "what is gender" and "what is masculinity really" are important to me because asking such questions helps orient me in the world. But it cannot and should not and will not be the case that all that comes of it is me buying another button-down from the men's section.

I've been feeling restless the past few weeks, perhaps because this is the first time I've been away from all of my friends since last summer and I want to talk in real time with people I trust about race and gender and problems in the world. Junior year is going to be real challenging academically, but I do also very much want to get involved with more communities on campus--because I'm realizing that as an individual I can do little, but organizing with others has a lot more leverage. Am I talking about activism? I suppose so.

Earlier this evening I started reading the Republican Party's 2016 platform but stopped halfway through because I was just making myself angry. Climate denial, homophobia, voter ID laws, anti-abortion--how anyone can talk about "progress" and endorse such backwards views is beyond me. I want to do more for people who are put in danger by the mindsets behind this platform, and I want to do something that moves the world in the right direction.


  1. Power to you wherever your reflection and action take you. I'm about 75% done with Meditations and have been thinking about ethics and personal conduct from Marcus Aurelius' point of view. Gender binary aside, your quest to understand what gender means to you is a quest to better understand your "ruling center" and become a better "Roman man". I think you will do your best work as your true, better understood and reconciled self.

    1. Thanks! It does feel a lot like reconciliation--looking at the differences between what is on the inside, what is on the outside, what is expected from the outside, and trying to square them.

      The Aurelius focus on "following your nature" could be twisted into a binary argument but what I'm getting from it is that what is good and right changes depending on who you are--which is important because the right/good thing to do for me as a nonbinary person is different from what it was when I thought I was a girl. Different constellation of responsibility.

  2. great post! it does seem odd that we as a society assign certain traits and activities into arbitrary categories of masculine and feminine. i thankfully have never been questioned by anyone with regards to my gender identity and what i choose to wear/do and who i choose to date (i tend to wear masc clothing but i plan to grow my hair long and love nail polish/i'm bi and poly but primarily attracted to masculinity) but i am always prepared(scared?) that someone will question it and i'll have no way to defend myself.

    when i was working at my internship i was sitting around with my co-workers just talking and they started talking about (physical) fights they were in as kids. one of them said that all guys have been in fights before. that surprised me -- i, personally, have never been in a fight, nor do i ever want to be in a fight. obviously my experience is a little different as a trans dude but i've been on t for 7 months now and have not really ever wanted to punch someone, though i've heard other trans dudes have problems with getting into fights when they go on t.

    i kind of rambled there for a bit. anyway, gender is fake (in that it is meaningless and arbitrary and not that it doesn't have real-world repercussions) and being masculine is weird. also, thanks wrt my voice!! i'm pretty excited about it too. in high school i wanted to be a tenor and now i'm a tenor!! (hindsight much)

    1. Cam! Thanks! I'd be interested in learning about how gender works or is perceived in non-Western societies. You're absolutely right, it all seems pretty much arbitrary (also, very nicely phrased clarification of "fake").

      Interesting point about physical fights. That seems to me to fall into the kind of toxic hypermasculinity that is pushed as The Way of being a Man, and I guess it just goes to show that there are many ways of being a man and the most common narrative ("all guys have been in fights") is inaccurate and damaging.

      Yay, tenor Cam!!