We are taught from our earliest experience that gender is a simple concept. Boy or girl, blue or pink, Tonka or Barbie; the line is clearly marked. You are either one or the other, and to transgress the boundary of gender is to transgress against the very fabric of our society. To step over or disregard the rules of gender is to become a rebel, and to place oneself at risk for ridicule, public censure and physical violence. But the truth is that the line between boy and girl isn’t as solid as it appears at first glance; rather, it is a continuum, allowing for an infinite number of valid genders and expressions thereof. As a transgender person and educational activist, I work to help people reframe the way in which they view gender.
Gender as a Social Construct
When a child is born, one of the first things a doctor does is take a look between its legs and declare either the child’s sex on the basis of the apparent genitalia. For most people, such an assignment works just fine. They are cisgendered – that is, their assigned sex matches their gender identity (Rapier 3). Girls are taught to wear dresses and be submissive, while boys are directed to distance themselves from their emotions and never, ever, be less than masculine. While this may vary in individual cases, the rules of society-at-large strongly encourage individuals to conform to absolute binary archetypes of gender.
However, culture is not as static or monolithic as it might appear at first glance. Just as an individual’s taste may change so do cultural standards of beauty evolve. Consider seventeenth century Europe: a person who wore lace at the wrists, covered their body in velvet and silk, donned tight fitting hose, makeup, a voluminous wig and heeled shoes. Their skin emanated a scent of flowered perfume, and their movements were sensual and full of grace. This was a man of power, firm in his masculinity. Today, if a man in a position of authority, like a politician or lawyer dressed like this, he would be met with ridicule and scorn. He would be called a pansy, effeminate, and fag. For deviating from the current definition of acceptable masculine behavior and appearance in Western culture, the competency and masculinity of such a man would be brought into question.
While Western civilization has always had very binary definitions of gender, there are many other societies which allowed – and even encouraged – a wider expression of gender than just male and female. In Native American societies, such people are commonly called Two Spirit. The Two Spirit Society of Denver explains further:
The term Two Spirit refers to another gender role believed to be common among most, if not all, first peoples of Turtle Island (North America), one that had a proper and accepted place within indigenous societies. This acceptance was rooted in the spiritual teachings that say all life is sacred and that the Creator must have a reason for making someone different. This gender role was not based in sexual activities or practices, but rather the sacredness that comes from being different.
A non-binary approach is not limited to Native American peoples either; Leslie Feinberg notes there is evidence of transgendered priestesses playing a regular and acknowledged role in early goddess worship throughout much of the early world in Transgender Warriors (40), and one can today look at the Hijra of India to evidence contemporary acceptance of gender diversity in action.
Cultural concepts of gender vary widely, and are dependent on several factors, including religion, politics, class struggles and what is considered socially acceptable behavior. What is celebrated in one time and place may be anathema in another. The truth of a binary gender construct is, then, a relative truth which is valid only in certain times and places. Gender is not the absolute we might initially think it to be.
The Myth of the Man’s Man
If gender is dependent on context, so too is an individual’s gender expression in contrast to the societal gender archetypes, or ideals of gender. A woman wearing pants in 2011 is not met with the same reaction as the woman who would have dared to wear pants in 1911. Nevertheless, there still exists an archetype of what is ideally feminine, and that ideal is not seen to wear pants, or be too independent, or less than a nurturing mother and wife. While every woman may fit that archetype sometimes, it is very unlikely that she fulfils every facet of a complex and often conflicting image of the “ideal woman” all the time. Simultaneously desired and reviled, the ideal feminine archetype is equal parts slut and mother; submissive, beautiful, sexy, emotional, scheming, demanding, easy, chaste, and so on. The archetype of the “ideal man” is likewise complicated and contradictory.
As individuals, we build our identities with bits and pieces of these archetypes, constructing our personal presentations out of experience, aesthetics and social expectation. No one exists in a vacuum; their identity is informed by the world in which they live. My gender identity as a transgender person would likely have a very different expression in a different time and place. Instead of the immense personal struggle of coming to terms with my gender identity in a society that focuses on repression of individual identities, I might have come out at a much earlier age in a supportive environment – or I might not have come out at all, if the consequences for doing so were uncompromisingly harsh.
Each Person is Enough
In 2008, a small group of people and I worked to found what ultimately became TransEnough, a volunteer-run organization which celebrates transgender, genderqueer, intersex and gender non-conforming identified individuals. As the mission states, we “work to engender mutual respect between many diverse communities and allies, and towards the creation of an environment where every person may live their life with the dignity that is their due” (transenough.com). The name TransEnough came as the result of an ongoing dialogue with members of our community who felt pressure to conform to archetypes as a result of social pressure. The idea that a person isn’t really their gender identity unless they take every step possible as soon as possible to transition is a pervasive one, which is reinforced by the notion of an absolute binary gender system and a consumerist culture which focuses on continual material and physical improvement as a method of personal validation.
The fact is that the decision to transition – or identify as non-cisgendered – is a deeply personal choice, and what is right for one person may not be for another. Further, medical and legal transition can be an expensive, risky, lengthy and exhausting process. Surgeries alone can cost in excess of $100,000 (Green, 116), and are often not covered by insurance. That does not include the ongoing price of hormones and associated medical costs, the expenses associated with changing one’s name and gender marker, the cost of new clothing and so on. In a country which does not as of the writing of this essay provide a public option for healthcare, surgeries and hormones are often not a financially feasible option. Additionally, there is only incomplete research at this point as to the long term effects of hormone intake, especially for Female-to-Male (FtM) identified people. A person may also have pre-existing medical conditions which make hormones or surgeries unfeasible.
TransEnough focuses on the validity of an individual’s gender identity because it comes down to personal authenticity. No one exists as an archetype all the time; we are all individuals, all with unique and equally valid truths. My truth may not be yours or the next person’s, but it is true for me, as yours is for you. There are as many different ways to express gender as there are people, and each way is genuine.
Eyes to the Future: Ongoing Work
I currently serve as the editor for TransEnough.com, and will continue to contribute to the project over the coming years. I also volunteer with TransActive, a Portland-based volunteer organization which focuses on holding supportive space for gender-variant children and their families. My past experience includes stage managing and producing queer performance events, including the 2008 Portland Dyke and Trans Pride March, and the 2009 Portland Trans March and Day of Celebration. I have volunteered on an ongoing basis as a panelist speaking to my personal experience as a transgender and queer person in both California and Oregon. In 2010, I made the decision to go back to school that I might continue my formal education and thereby become a better advocate for my community. As we move forward into the future, I look forward to new opportunities in which I can serve, educate, and help people reframe the way in which they view their world to celebrate gender in all its diversity.
“About TransEnough.” TransEnough.com. TransEnough, n.d. Web. 13 Jan 2011.
“About Us.” denvertwospirit.com. Two Spirit Society of Denver, n.d. Web. 13 Jan 2011.
Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. Print.
Green, Jamison. Becoming a Visible Man. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004. Print.
Rapier, Nik. “TransEnough Lexicon.” TransEnough.com. TransEnough, 21 Jan 2010. Web. 13 Jan 2011.