Glad You Asked
I recently received an email from someone who had watched one of my videos on YouTube and it was so interesting I decided to put my response here where more people could read it. They started out by saying they had never before come across anyone who identifies as a woman but is comfortable having a male body and has no interest in transitioning. This does not surprise me, because most of what is out there about trans people does seem to imply that we all want to change our body to match the gender we identify as. In fact, that is one of the reasons I wrote WOMAN INCOGNITO: Transsexual Without Transition. I wanted people to understand that the essence of being transgender is simply self-identifying as the gender opposite the sex that was assigned at birth. Anything a transgender person does to alter their appearance or anatomy to match the physical sex more commonly associated with his or her gender is something he or she does to be more comfortable with that gender, but it is not what determines the person’s gender.
The next point in the email was that most people, if asked to visualize a woman, would conjure up images based on a very similar set of physical characteristics. And if then asked to define what a woman is, most would probably do so in terms of those same physical characteristics. True enough, and that is why transgender people and mental health practitioners alike are working to help people realize that although sex is physical, gender is essentially mental and emotional.
If being a man or a woman is not a physical condition, it is of course fair to ask what it does mean. The email writer went on to say that if we discount “cultural pretense and bias,” it seems as though being a man or a woman is almost the same thing and says this thought had never come into their mind until seeing my video. And of course helping people to look at gender issues in new ways is exactly what I am trying to do. But then they asked the big question. Since being a woman obviously is important to me, what do I mean by it?
As basic and unavoidable as that question is, I have to admit that I have no simple answer to it. Like anyone else, I grew up being bombarded by countless messages about the differences between men and women. Many of those messages were probably subliminal and at this time I do not even know where they came from. Others were quite explicit and made me quite uncomfortable. One of the effects was a definite feeling that I did not fit the stereotypes of what a man was supposed to be. At that time no one even raised the question of whether there was a third alternative, so something inside me may have unconsciously concluded that I must be a woman.
As for what that means to me, I think it is probably a complicated matrix of elements derived from innumerable sources. I think the bottom line is not what I think it means to be a woman but that I feel that I am a woman. So why do I feel that way? I have often said that what it comes down to for me is a line from an old song, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” The line goes, “something deep inside cannot be denied.”
This is obviously no scientific answer, and probably not even an intellectual one. But perhaps it is no coincidence that it comes from a song. A function of music and the other arts has always been to express powerful human feelings that defy logical explanations but still cannot be denied.
And yet there is something more to say. Although I and other members of my generation seem to have an inescapable need to identify as either male or female, that is not the case for a growing number of younger people. For several years my involvement in the transgender communuty has included going to the amazing annual Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference. Even before that, I was aware that some people were calling themselves “gender queer,” meaning that they did not identify as either male or female. More recently the term “nonbinary” has become widely accepted for such people. During the years in which I have been attending the Conference I have noticed an increasing number of nonbinary people there. Some identify as having no gender, some as both male and female, and some as another gender altogether. This may be the trend of the future, although I think erasing the concept of gender would at best be a very long and very difficult process. For the foreseeable future most people will probably continue to identify as either male or female. What we can hope for, however, is that the two will be understood in less and less restrictive ways and that those who prefer to identify as nonbinary will be increasingly free to do so.