Warning: I talk about body parts without the slang, and I talk about reproductive processes using biological terminology. You want to read about body parts through slang language, go elsewhere.
About a year ago, I thought I knew all there was to know about gender: Men have penises, and women have vaginas. Sure there were other rules to it but for the most part I figured that was them at their basics.
A year later, and meeting many transgender people and understanding gender as a concept, I have come to realize I do not really know what a “man” is and what a “woman” is unless they tell me. Sure, in theory the former is born with a penis and the other is born with a vagina; men wear pants, shirts, ties, and suits; women wear blouses, dresses, and high heels; men cut their hair and have beards; women grow their long and have no beards; men are allowed to have leg, armpit, and pubic hair; women are allowed to like pink, read about unicorns, and have high pitched voices. But do those rules really determine gender? Do they really decide who is a she and who is a he?
Well, I suppose those rules sort of give away gender: You’ve all seen my hair and know it is long. And you could probably guess from my style and voice that I’m female biologically. But what is it that makes me a woman?
What I have learned over the course of this year is there is nothing objectively that makes me a woman. I suppose objectively, biology tells me I’m born female: I have two X chromosomes; my reproductive system is a vagina, uterus, and ovaries. Although I have extra testosterone because of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS for short), and that results in more male-like hair growth on my face and arms, I developed feminine features during puberty. Those things, for me, objectively say I was born as a typical female biologically. I am not intersexed, and as far as I know meiosis (the cellular division in ovaries and testicles that makes reproductive cells that eventually unite to form a new human being) did not go wrong during the reproductive process.
However, those things determine my biology. What then makes me a woman? Through this year I am beginning to see there is technically nothing hidden in biology that objectively defines me as a woman. The rules I listed above? Those are not based on objective study of biology. Rather, they are the norms and gender rules of the society and culture I currently live in that interpret biology.
Those rules and norms would be very different if I moved across the ocean, went back in time, and perhaps even if I flew to another planet. Those rules were developed over time and over history. Furthermore, a simple Google search would show those interpretations, and the interpretation of said interpretations are changing all the time. It is interpretation based on the mind of the individual, and based on the collective minds of the part of humanity I am currently surrounded by.
One could say I moved from a modern to postmodern understanding of gender. In modern times things are kept in rigid divisions. For example, men and women. In modernism and premodernism, men and women had clearly defined biology, roles, and places in society. Although it was not unheard of for people to cross those lines, it was still a given that biology and gender go hand in hand. A throw back of it is in the appeal to nature many anti-gay people argue (men only have sex with women, because it is ‘natural’ to have sexual intercourse between a penis and a vagina because it produces offspring), and the idea that cisgender is normal while transgender is strange.
Postmodern thinking, from my studies during my master’s into postmodern philosophy, would say that those gender rules and norms are interpretations of biology. They are not objectively found a part from how people’s minds interpret biology, and collectively those interpretations form the back bone of gender norms and roles. To quote Jacques Derrida, one of postmodernism’s founding fathers: “There is nothing but the text”.
He first stated this while critiquing literature and the study of written documents. “Nothing but the text” means there is no hidden world behind a written piece of literature that one must go through in order to get to the text’s real meaning, ie the author’s intended meaning. There is the reader, the text, and the reader’s interpretation of the same text. No objective meaning whatsoever.
My modification of his infamous statement is that there is nothing but the mind when it comes to gender. Gender for me is a construct that comes about when human beings interpret their bodies and then apply it to how they live through day to day interactions. Since there is nothing but the mind, yes a four year old can know what their gender and body do not match. Furthermore, it is possible for people to forgo defining themselves in terms of gender: It is in their mind. Collectively, those minds write the rules of gender and what it means to be men and women. There is no set in stone rules about gender that I have to get to that are clearly marked in nature. In fact, biologically there is no set in stone rules about sex and chromosomes. If that was true then intersex people would not exist, nondisjunction would not happen during meiosis, and transgenderism and homosexuality would not be evident across time and cultures.
Why am I a “woman”? Honestly? Not because anything objectively is telling me I’m a woman, so I do not know. Perhaps it’s just what I am used to, so I’m sticking with it? Doesn’t mean I’m going to change my gender, nor demand you all use neutral pronouns to address me.
Do I like being a woman? I suppose I do all things considered, since I don’t want to be a man. But does not wanting to be a man mean I have to be a woman? I don’t know, as liking being a woman or not still does not change that I have to take the bus places… (yes, I shamelessly stole this from Ferris Bueller and reworded it). honestly I do not mind my answer staying with “I don’t know.” Am I privileged that I have the option? Hell yes! And I am not going to spend it sitting on my privileged throne, especially when so many people don’t even get that and my throne is more down to earth given I am also asexual, and have two mental disorders. To that end, I best use my privilege to ensure my transgender friends do not have to put up with all of the prejudices that come with daring to be anything but cisgender, never mind stand up for those under the T umbrella who are too much an inconvenience to be given a voice like the non-binary people, and gay transmen.
To all of my readers: Why are you a “man”? Because you are a man. Why are you a woman? Because you are a woman? Why are you non-binary? Because you are non-binary. There are no rules outside of your mind that can truly tell you differently. So this pride month, be who you are!