Sex !== Gender

Feeling confessional and my Twitter rant this morning and the bathroom bill thing has gotten me riled up so I’m going to tell a story.

I wrote a paper while in college (16 years ago) for an independent study I did on gender. (You can still read it, if you like.) My independent study was a result of a personal exploration about gender and it was primarily through the lens of transpeople, because that’s where the real exploration and discovery of gender and what that means is happening. Cisgendered people (individuals who identify with the gender they were given at birth) don’t think about these things because, for the most part, it doesn’t apply to them, and to those people, gender is an easy binary thing.

Gender is not an easy binary thing.

But here’s the thing that I really wanted to highlight and the thing that I feel needs to be reiterated, particularly to the cisgendered people who obviously are responsible for the so-called “bathroom bills” that will put a legal impediment between transpeople entering the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, is that gender is completely unrelated to sex and sexuality.

The nightmare scenario that organizations like the one described in the Mashable article in my rant portray is this: Transperson is secretly hiding in the bathroom of a gender that is other than the one on their birth certificate for the purpose of taking advantage of the cisgendered individuals visiting said bathroom. This scenario assumes two things, both of which are incorrect:

  1. That being transgendered is a choice, something that can be turned on and off. It isn’t.
  2. That being transgendered is equivalent to some form of “sexual deviancy”.

It’s the second thing that, I believe, is most harmful, but both are pretty terrible. So, let’s talk about that.

The idea that transgender is in any way related to sexual deviancy is predicated on the idea that gender is tied to sex and sexuality. Like sexuality, gender is a spectrum, not a binary, but that’s where the relationship ends. I think it’s safe to say that we have gotten to the point where most people are pretty aware of and to one degree or another can at least acknowledge the fact that who you have sex with is unrelated to your specific anatomy. But we still correlate the two, particularly when discussing the “sex” of a baby or person. It would be comical (and probably inappropriate) to respond to a official form you were filling out when asked “Sex:” to fill in “yes please” or to check the box of the gender with whom you have sex. It’s assumed that “sex” in this context means “gender”. And that’s where the relationship between the two can be confusing and why, in most cases I’m aware of, the question has been reworded from “Sex” to “Gender” which is more accurate.

Let me be clear: a man dressed as a woman to gain access to a women’s restroom for the purpose of attacking women is absolutely something that everyone should be concerned with. But anyone being attacked in any bathroom (or anywhere) for any reason is something that everyone should be concerned with. Women being attacked, sexually or otherwise, by men is something that everyone should be concerned with. Attacks on people of color is something that everyone should be concerned about. Attacks on queer people is something everyone should be concerned about. Attacks on transpeople is something everyone should be concerned about. The thing that’s different here is the idea that someone “snuck in” to some place they were not welcome and in all other contexts are not allowed. And the reason it’s such a hot topic is because bathrooms, in particular, are places where we make ourselves more vulnerable. But the case that Just Want Privacy is using to prove their point, doesn’t actually prove anything — it wasn’t a person who was transgendered attacking a cisgendered woman, it was a cisgendered man in a women’s bathroom attacking a cisgendered woman. Your argument is invalid.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the root of the problem which is the idea that gender is binary. Because that’s the crux of the bathroom issue. There are two bathrooms, one with an image depicting what’s assumed to be a man, but really just looks like a non-specific human, and one with an image depicting what’s assumed to be a woman — identified with the triangular shape that is intended to represent a skirt or a dress. Here’s a fun fact: men wear dresses and skirts. Women wear pants and leggings. And then there’s a whole host of people in between that are not accurately depicted by these two minimalist representations of humanity that we somehow have to shove ourselves into every time we enter a public restroom.

I went to a pretty liberal program at a university in Southern California — one that was afforded a fair bit of leniency in self-governance and independence from the rest of the university. And before I walked on campus, I was told that the bathrooms were non-gender-specific. And sure, at first, I thought that was kind of sexy. You know what’s not sexy? Going to the bathroom. And that’s what a gender neutral bathroom was. Just a bunch of people using the bathroom. Yes, there were showers in there. Yes, people of both genders used them. Never, in the three years I spent there, was there ever a problem with non-gendered bathrooms. It was just a thing that existed and everyone was fine with it (possibly after a little initial time getting used to it). So, I’m acutely aware that the real solution to this problem is not to check what’s under the skirt, but to remove the binary and normalize the idea that gender isn’t one.

My independent study on gender was the result of going through a period of gender dysphoria which largely came down to not accepting or identifying with the typical expectations our society has for what it means to be “male”. “Men” are supposed to be strong, fearless, courageous. They are the protector and the breadwinner. They are dominant and assertive. They can also be violent and angry. They can be abusers and assailants. They are predominantly responsible for the depressing statistics around the number of women who have been sexually assaulted some time in their lifetime. “If there’s a choice, and I have one, I don’t want to be associated with that” went the thinking.

The same year, I went to a conference at Occidental College with the on-campus GLBSU (Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Straight Union). One of the things that remains with me from that experience is a workshop/session/discussion about bisexuality, in which everyone in the room was asked to stand in a line, and place themselves on that line with where they put themselves in terms of attraction to members of the opposite gender — the idea being that sexuality is not binary, there is a spectrum and all of it is okay. We were then asked where we would have put ourselves a couple years ago. And where we think we might put ourselves in a couple years. Where you place yourself in that spectrum changes over time.

From my independent study, the thing that was reinforced over and over (besides that gender is not the same as sexuality) is that gender is also a spectrum. I’ve come to the point where I no longer believe in binaries unless I’m dealing with software. People don’t work in binaries. Nature doesn’t work in binaries. We talk about being “on the spectrum” when we’re talking about Autism — the idea that there’s no single, all-encompassing definition of Autism, it’s a range of different things in different intensities, and each individual experience is unique.

The idea that groups like Just Want Privacy want you to believe — that a transgendered woman is really just a sexually deviant man in a dress — is preposterous. And it’s extremely harmful. It’s harmful to those who identify as transgendered on an emotional level, but it’s also harmful in a very real, physical level, by playing on people’s fears, by positing the idea that they are “wrong” and can and should be “fixed” it fosters fear and hatred toward transgendered individuals. Bills like this create a culture a fear which cultivates violence towards those deemed socially unacceptable.

Transgendered women are women. Transgendered men are men. As long as gendered bathrooms still exist, you wouldn’t ask a woman to enter a men’s bathroom and you wouldn’t ask a man to enter a women’s bathroom. So please, stop doing it.

On Trans, Gender, and Body

I tweeted out a post on Mashable this morning and then, after it went out, I wanted to elaborate on why it’s important. This is the tweet:

Gender is not a binary thing

It would be easy to look at that headline and switch off. I don’t care about trans-anything. Those people aren’t like me. There’s nothing for me here. That’s the nice version. The not-so-nice version might get into the mental states of transpeople or the “right-” or “wrongness” of a 14-year-old taking estrogen for hormone replacement treatment. Having met a trans kid who was living as one gender in kindergarten and first grade and then publicly coming out as the opposite gender the next year, I’ve had to take some time to evaluate my own feelings on whether it’s a nature or nurture thing, of whether we are pushing things, and our own agendas onto kids and that this is a decision rather than a part of who they are.

Despite what you may have been told, gender is not a toggle switch. It’s not Green for male and Red for female (see what I did there?). The reason why there has been a marked increase in articles about transgender individuals and issues and more transgender people in the media is because this is a human thing. This is a thing that exists in the grand scope of human existence and it is normal.

It’s a thing that we just accept as a given that people are different. No two people are alike. “Everyone is a unique snowflake” and all that. So why do we assume that the same does not apply to things like gender, like mental health, like sexuality, like autism? There’s more to it than just XX or XY chromosomes, but even within those, there are more variations than just those two. None of these things are on/off, you-have-it-or-you-don’t things. Like everything else that it means to be a living creature on this planet, it’s a spectrum. And it’s that spectrum, that variety, that makes things interesting.

Speaking from a place of extreme privilege

Look, I’m well aware of how easy things are for me just to exist in our society. I will never know how hard it is to be a woman walking down the street, let alone what it means to be a trans woman walking down the street. I’m white, male, cisgendered and (more or less) heterosexual. I have it easier than most, so it’s important to me to take advantage of that privilege and add my voice to these types of issues.

…and so…why that post is important

I have never experienced the feeling of not knowing/understanding/trusting/feeling comfortable in my own skin. I have maybe experienced mild gender dysphoria but it had nothing to do with my identity and everything to do with the expectations and cultural values assigned to men. Men are supposed to be muscular, drink beer, watch football and shoot guns. They harass women, rape, and are physically and emotionally aggressive. They are villains but they are also heroes. They are the center of the story. They are the ones who rescue the princess. They make the rules and run the show. They are presidents, CEOs, prime ministers. I am not, nor will I ever be, any of those things, or those things I might be because of my gender, I do not accept. Ergo, I must not be a “real man.” It was later, after doing an intense study on gender and transgender issues, that I realized that none of that mattered, really, because society’s expectations are stupid and don’t define any of us. But I digress.

The point is, I don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager who feels like she is trapped in the body of a boy and I never will because that’s not me. I only know what it feels like to be a teenager and young adult who has a lot of self-hate having to do with what it means to be the gender that I was born as. But I don’t have to have that common ground to watch that video and realize what just happened. And what’s happening every. single. day. that posts like this and others are published and more awareness is spread around the existence and acceptance of women and transpeople as human beings deserving of equal rights, respect and privilege.

I am well aware of the demographics of my followers on social media and the sorts of folks who will stumble across my blog. Very few of them are around because I talk about gender equality or gender issues. Mostly it’s nerds like me, or people who follow me because I write about soccer or WordPress. And that’s part of what makes it so important that I also talk about stuff like this. Because maybe someone who would never have looked at that video of a transgirl getting her first hormone treatment from her mom and breaking down in tears of gratitude will be able to see it for what it is — a real, human experience, real joy and acceptance. And the more stories like this there are, the more real, human experiences from transfolk and women and people of color we see, the closer we get to a world that I want to live in. One that accepts you for the person you are. Not for what you look like, not for what society expects you to be, not for the things you like or the way you style your hair or your tattoos or piercings or clothing or money or where you live or where you were born or what god you put your faith into or what the motherfucking scale says. Just you. That’s where I want to live.