This is my submission to the January Carnival of Aces, hosted by Ace and Aro Acts with the theme “Conscious and Unconscious Difference”. It was inspired by mundo heterogéneo’s post “Growing up cis-genderless without a word”, which was written for the same Carnival.
When I was in first grade, there was a group of my classmates I thought of collectively as “The Girls”. What exactly I meant by “Girls” I could not have said, but I knew I wasn’t one of them. I might be “a girl”, but one of “The Girls”? No way.
What was the difference between me and them? Was it that they tended to be fair-haired, and I wasn’t? Was it that most of them were unambiguously white, and I wasn’t? Or was it that they were all conventionally feminine in a way I precociously realised I could never be? I don’t know, but I had the same sensation thirty years later, working through my M.A. in a class full of ponytailed blondes.
Growing up, I don’t remember ever feeling resistant to femaleness, but I didn’t feel any particular loyalty to it, either. The fictional characters I identified with were as likely to be male as female, and the few friends I had included both girls and boys. I fantasised about being a princess, but also about being a knight.
As I approached puberty, I was confronted with a version of adolescence that was as daunting as it seemed inevitable. Many of the changes I was told my body would go through sounded unpleasant, as was the sexual role I was expected to take on. However, male puberty sounded even worse and the sexual pressure on boys was even higher. I was torn between wanting to be a “normal” human being and wanting to retain my sexlessness into adulthood.
For much of my adult life, I was uncomfortable thinking of myself as a “woman”. I was used to being a “girl”, but “woman” seemed to connote a version of femininity that was beyond me. I was almost thirty before I realised that I could be a “woman” on my own terms, and that my version of womanhood could be valid even if it didn’t conform to the standard set by Hollywood.
Through a lot of this, I was unaware of the sex-gender split. The earliest explanation I remember getting of it was in my last year of undergrad. My Psychology professor explained that, regardless of biology, some people could have female gender traits, some could have male gender traits, some could have both… and some could have neither. I pricked up my ears at the last part.
In recent years, trans issues and trans identities have been on my radar a lot more. Labels around one’s relationship to gender are proliferating. But, as in the past with sexual and romantic orientation labels, I’ve found it hard to find one that fits me.
Cisgender? That means my gender matches my physical sex. But what is gender? All my reading has failed to lead me to a satisfactory definition. I think of myself as female because, growing up, I was told I was female and that bodies that looked like mine were “female bodies”. But the message I keep hearing is that gender has nothing to do with biology and that no one can tell you your gender except you. So if I take away my physical characteristics and other people’s say-so, what do I have left? Nothing. I’m just a person. A person who happens to inhabit a certain kind of body and be treated in a certain kind of way. I don’t have a sense of my gender that transcends those things. Which means, I suppose, that I don’t have a gender.
Does that make me transgender? Well, there I run into the same problem. If I don’t have a sense of having a gender that matches my physical sex, I certainly don’t have a sense of a gender that’s different from it. I don’t have any sense of gender at all!
Then am I agender or non-binary? It’s possible, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those labels, either. It’s not like I have a sense of myself as having no gender, or as having a gender that’s different from male and female. I don’t have any sense of gender, not even a gap where my gender would be. You might as well ask me, “Team Edward or Team Jacob?” Even saying that I’m apathetic, neutral, or indifferent would misrepresent my relationship to the Twilight series. The fact is that, never having read the books or seen the movies, I don’t just not have an opinion; I have no basis on which I could form an opinion. I don’t just claim a third option; for me, all the options are meaningless.
But recently I’ve heard some labels that do seem applicable. I’ve seen “quoigender” floating around, for people who don’t know what gender is. I really relate to the term “cis by default”, meaning someone who thinks of themself as male or female because it’s what other people have told them they are but who has no subjective sense of their own gender identity. However, the one I like best is the one recently used by Isaac at Mundo Heterogéneo: “cis-genderless”. I relate to a lot of what Isaac writes in that post, and to a lot of the comments in this AVEN thread on the topic. What I like best about this term, though, is the way it brings together two seemingly contradictory ideas. One is the idea of being “cis”. I’m sure I appear “cis” to many people, and I enjoy cis privilege by virtue of not being trans. The other is the idea of being genderless. Without any sense of gender identity, that’s what I am: gender-less.
So, am I still a “woman”? If I don’t have a gender, shouldn’t I start using one of the gender-neutral labels? Maybe, but I still think of myself as a “woman”, for several reasons:
- Force of habit. I spent the first twenty years of my life not realising I could be anything other than a “girl” or “woman”, and the past fifteen continuing to think of myself as one. I’m not keen to change now.
- The lack of any good alternative. I might not identify with “woman” as a gender label, but I still have female body parts, and it’s useful to have a word to describe that. Perhaps one day everyone will call people like me “XXs” or “gynomorphs”, but, in the meantime, “woman” is the best word I have.
- Because my physical sex is infinitely more important to me than my gender. I don’t mean it’s very important; on a scale of 0-10, I’d probably only rate physical sex at about a 2. But that’s still infinitely more than my gender, insomuch as 2 is infinitely more than 0. Having a uterus and no penis affects my life in small but significant ways. My gender doesn’t affect my life at all – because I don’t have one!
- I don’t think my gender should be important to anyone else, either. I’d rather people think of me in terms of my physical sex traits than a gender I don’t even have. For example, it might be useful for someone to know that that they can borrow feminine sanitary products from me. My gender is none of their business!
- Adopting new labels would also imply that the onus is on me to change, rather than society. And I’ve always been of the opinion that, if some fundamental part of me doesn’t match society’s expectations, it’s the expectations that are the problem. Remember those “Girls” from Grade 1? If I didn’t conform to their version of “girlhood”, I don’t think the problem is that I needed a different label; I think it’s that our ideas about “girlhood” are too restrictive. And my hope is that, eventually, we’ll shed those ideas and stop thinking that girls should be a particular way. That might seem like a tall order, but there is already a movement to make this happen. It’s called “feminism”, and for more than a century feminists have been working to dismantle restrictive gender roles. Speaking of which…
- I’m the heir to a long tradition of people who, regardless of gender, were oppressed for having certain kinds of bodies, and who fought back against that oppression. It’s thanks to them that someone like me can vote, wear pants, cut their hair short, go to school, and own property. We call most of these people “women”, despite the fact that we often don’t know their gender and have no way of asking them. And I’m proud to be a “woman” in the sense that these people were, even if I don’t fit other meanings of the word.
- And I want to continue that tradition by continuing to challenge normative ideas about womanhood. And I do, every day, simply by being the person that I am. By not conforming to the standard model, I implicitly challenge that model. But if I give up the “woman” label, then I also give up that challenge. To take myself out of the “woman” category is to leave it up to other people to define what “woman” means. And I don’t want to do that, especially because…
- I have a small child in my life, one who already has some fairly definite ideas about how girls and boys are supposed to behave. And I like being able to challenge her on those ideas and model a different kind of womanhood for her. When she says things like, “Girls like pink and boys like blue”, “Girls like dresses and boys like pants”, or “Girls like fairies and boys like dinosaurs”, it’s useful for me to be able to say, “But I’m a girl, and I love blue, pants, and dinosaurs!” Relinquishing the “girl/woman” label would implicitly reinforce her stereotyped thinking. I don’t want her to think her Aunty Ice isn’t a girl because she doesn’t do the typically “girl” things. I want her to rethink the idea that any things are only for girls or boys.
Of course, all that may change. If being a “woman” is strictly a matter of gender identity and has nothing to do with biology, perhaps I’ll eventually have to abandon the “woman” label. But maybe “woman” doesn’t have to just mean one thing or the other. An aromantic homosexual and a homoromantic asexual can both think of themselves as “gay” despite having very different orientations. Maybe people can also claim the “woman” label for different reasons. Or maybe it’s like how “chips” means one thing to Britons and another thing to Americans. Ultimately, it’s just a word; it doesn’t change the reality of what things are. If I fit your definition of “woman”, then to you I’m a “woman”; if I don’t, then to you I’m not.
I suppose these are questions we as a society will eventually have to sort out. In the meantime, though, I hope one thing is clear: It doesn’t matter what words I use to describe myself or what pronouns other people use to talk about me; none of that should be taken as evidence of my gender. I know that gender is very important to some people, but not to me. I don’t even know what gender is. So you can think of me as a “woman”, or not, as “female”, or not, as “she”, or not, but don’t think of me as a gender. I don’t have one.