Nothing is more heavily enforced in our society than gender. We assume gender is predetermined, that being a man or a womyn is black and white, that our biological sex and genitalia clearly make us one or the other. Which is why people who are transgender, gender-queer or androgynous, who don’t look or behave in ways that conform to conceptions of gender, are met with intense invalidation, rejection and discrimination for challenging something we assumed was completely fixed.
Everything in our culture conditions us to look, dress, talk, act and think in particular ways according to our biological sex. So we fail to recognize that gender is a performance. As defined by UC Berkeley’s GenderEquity Resource Center, “Gender is a set of socially constructed, assigned behaviors and identity patterns which are often perceived to be intertwined with and/or equivalent to one’s sexual biology.” Every day we dress up, do our hair, put on deodorant, speak and behave in ways that are either perceived as masculine or feminine according to the biological features we were born with. All babies are assigned a gender and a set of expected behaviors the moment they are born, based on what’s between their legs. We are not given the option of choosing the gender through which we would like to express ourselves throughout our daily lives.
Being comfortable and consciously identifying with the gender identity that corresponds to your biological sex means you are cis-gendered, and thus you have cis privilege—so if you have a penis you are comfortable expressing yourself like a man and if you have a vagina you are comfortable expressing yourself like a womyn. Not being able to personally identify with the gender identity one is expected to uphold according to their biological sex can lead individuals to experience Gender Identity Dysphoria and/or identify as transgender or gender-queer.
Transgender is an adjective that describes a person, whose conscious and subconscious gender identity does not align with their biological genitalia. This can manifest in a person feeling uncomfortable and experiencing dysphoria about one’s body and expected social role. There are also individuals who identify as gender-queer through which they identify with multiple or no genders, and express themselves however they wish in a mix of masculine, feminine and/or androgynous ways.
Despite identifying and expressing themselves as personally feels appropriate, mainstream society constantly tries to categorize nonconforming individuals as purely male or female. Social institutions are structured to uphold the gender binary which only recognize men and womyn, and do not acknowledge alternative gender identities. Transphobia is rampant in our society, evident in the numerous derogatory terms such as she-male, hermaphrodite, tranny and lady-boy, and the offensive misrepresentations of transgender figures in the media (check out the new show “Orange is the New Black” for a real trans-womyn actor playing a trans-womyn). Transgender individuals are discriminated against in employment, housing, health insurance and by romantic partners. Over 80% of transgender people experience abuse or discrimination because of their gender expression and appearance (www.transgenderlaw.org). My (super awesome) trans housemates at my (fantastic) LGBT cooperative, talk about facing daily micro-aggressions such as stares, whispers, discomfort in bathrooms, being called wrong gender pronouns and verbal slurs from people they know and the general public.
Saying “that trans-womyn was born with a penis so she’s actually still a man” is transphobic. Calling a trans-man “she” or “her” even after they’ve clarified their preferred gender pronouns is transphobic. Asking someone “are you actually a boy or a girl,” or “do you have a penis or a vagina?” is transphobic, and extremely rude. It’s none of your business to determine who or what someone “really” is. They’re just people like everybody else. Asking a transgender person “No, but what are you really?” is like asking an Asian American “But where are you really from?” after they tell you they grew up in California. If you are unsure of someone’s gender ask them what their preferred gender pronouns are, or refer to them as gender neutral pronouns such as “they.”
Transgender and gender-queer individuals challenge us to think about how people are defined and what it means to be who we really are. What constitutes a man or a womyn is set by cultural norms, and how we identify with a certain gender is more complicated than we think. Gender is a spectrum. No one is completely masculine or completely feminine, even though some of us strive to convince others that we are. For example someone could love Hello Kitty which is supposedly girly, but also enjoy playing video games and sports which are considered very boyish things to do. There are many assumptions that come with gender and it’s important that we don’t categorize anyone based on surface-level traits. No one likes being defined through traits that they were born with which we cannot change.
Freedom of expression is not only the freedom to speak, but the freedom to simply be. Everyone has the right to express themselves freely and openly without eliciting violence or judgment. It is not up to any of us to define who anyone else really is we only have ourselves to define. Everyone has the right to be defined according to how they personally want to define themselves. We all have only one life to live and it’s important that we can spend it being who we feel we really are and who we want to be.
If there was less gender policing and sexism in our society, more individuals would feel safer to explore different gender expressions, sexual orientations and more of who they are. But even under oppressive conditions, there are androgynous, transgender and gender-queer individuals who bravely come out and express themselves as who they truly are and show us that gender is mainly a bunch of stereotypes that can be deconstructed and performed. They are inspiring and they challenge society to check assumptions and the privileged norms through which human beings are defined and repressed.
Resources to learn about transgender people
UC Davis LGBT Resource Center: http://lgbtcenter.ucdavis.edu/lgbt-education/words-that-are-transphobic-and-why
UC Berkeley GenderEquity Resource Center: http://geneq.berkeley.edu/information_sheets