Drew Cordes

The Social Component of Valid Gender Identity

Filed By Drew Cordes | January 18, 2013 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender dysphoria, gender identity, gender theory, identity, trans*

There's a certain perspective that occasionally pops up in trans discourse that irks me. I usually see it occur in situations such as a trans woman saying something like, "When I was a guy ..." or a trans man referring to his "lesbian days." Granting validity to a previous iteration of a gender identity or presentation sets some people off. transgender_symbol.jpgUsually other trans people. "But inside you were always a man/a woman/the way you are now," they say. "Your body or your presentation may have been wrong, but your brain/your soul/your heart was always there."

There are two important reasons why this is wrong. Naively well-intentioned, perhaps, but still wrong.

The first is obvious: I get to decide which iterations of my identity are valid. Not you. Not anybody else. The decade I spent identifying and living as a gay man (the "living as" bit is crucial - more on that in my second point) never lost validity for me - not when I identified as a straight femme woman, a queer femme trans woman, or even now that I consider myself more of a trans, genderqueer androgyne. I decide what has meaning for me. Not you.

Conversely, someone who does feel that prior forms of their identity or presentation were false or incomplete is absolutely justified in saying "inside I was always a man/woman/etc." Because that's their decision and their source for meaning.

You don't get to tell me how to feel, and I don't get to tell you how to feel. OK? Didn't we go over this in, like, kindergarten?

Some will persist, though, taking the medical science route, citing the leading research about fetal hormone washes' effects on brain development vs. body development. And I will not dispute the leading research. Even my slightly too-healthy ego has no problem yielding to the scientists on that stuff. (I'll just pick apart their grammar later for some consolatory ego-stroking.) Their argument is that the brain has always been its "true" gender from day one.

This position is absurd for a number of reasons. Really, choose your own adventure here for how to refute it. Shall we start with its equation of an infant brain to an adult brain, ignoring the years of development and countless things that might happen to it in between?

Shall we point out that it ascribes a gender onto an infant and deconstruct the idea that babies have a gender at all? They have genitals, yes, but their own gender? C'mon. The pink or blue hat means something to us, but I assure you, it means nothing to the speechless thing happily sitting in its own poop.

Shall we highlight the underlying fascism of slapping a label on a person before they even attain full consciousness and maintaining that it will hold true for an entire lifetime?

Shall we bring up that this theory changes nothing about our unthinking and obsessively rigid, binary-focused sex classification system besides shifting the focus from the mechanics of one body part (genitals) to another (brain), without any regard for what a person experiences or feels to be true?

I'm not discounting medical research here. It's invaluable. We need more of it for trans people. I won't deny that trans folks undergo an in-utero hormonal brain bath if the research says so. My point of contention is using that one piece of data to gender someone, independent of what their own wishes might be. The urge to rigidly classify via observable data while disregarding one's expressed humanity and experience is not the proper path to understanding and acceptance. That's just another cell in the same prison.

The "gendered brain" claim for inflexible identity certainly does fit into the cis-written mainstream narrative of the trans experience, as well as the simplistic cis-written medical diagnosis of "gender dysphoria," both of which I think many of us self-apply because of: 1.) the lack of more nuanced narratives on gender (or their lack of visibility); 2.) our excitement in finally finding a diagnosis or narrative that touches some of our long-unacknowledged feelings; and 3.) its dubious notions that a surgery will "cure" or "fix" us.

Therefore, I can understand how some trans people would come to embrace it as The Answer, especially if they want to transition and need to procure those (again, usually cis) doctors' letters of recommendation. But again, if someone is fully informed and aware of these issues and genuinely feels the unchanging, internal "gendered brain" identity narrative speaks to their experience, then that's their choice and I don't get to tell them they're feeling the wrong feelings. And they don't get to accuse me of that either. OK? OK.

Now, on to the second, more complicated aspect of identity validation.

When I attended college, I was a very masculine gay man and identified as such. During a discussion on gender theory, I asked my professor and our class, "Even though I'm a man, if I feel I'm a woman inside, why can't I be a woman?" I was insistent that all that mattered was what a person felt to be true about themselves inside. (It's important to note that at the time this occurred, my conflict with gender was still buried deep and, for all intents and purposes, it was a cis man making this argument.) The discussion ran way over the end of class, and the professor and I talked more about it afterward and on a few future occasions as well.

The sticking point we came to regarding why feelings kept solely internal do not add up to a valid identity was essentially socialization. If gender is a social construct, it must receive some form of social corroboration. We are socialized to recognize all sorts of identity divides (whether we want to or not): race, nationality, wealth, sexual orientation, gender, etc. One cannot just arbitrarily decide that their identity lies with one group or another, even if a solely internal yearning is present.

I may feel a great kinship with my local black community and feel accepted and understood among them in ways I never am among others; I may strongly identify with them - but I can never identify as one of them, because I am white and will always be seen and treated as such by a society that inherently and unconsciously perceives our difference. Furthermore, that perceived difference plays out some rather drastic social inequalities in class, education, justice, and all sorts of other areas of privilege that color how we grow and exist in the world, all of which push that already unbridgeable gap between black and white identity a little wider. (I should hope we're all nodding and mouthing "duh" at this paragraph.)

Well, the same is true of gender. I may have truly felt I was a woman inside (actually that kind of turned out to be the case), but I couldn't justifiably lay claim to such an existence without taking any steps beyond just saying "Hey everyone, I'm a woman now. Treat me as such." If that's all I did, people would definitely not treat me as such. Not until they saw some tangible evidence of those internal feelings, at the very least. (Please note: This does not mean that the feeling or desire isn't valid - the feeling is real, but the identity isn't, not yet anyway.)

As for what the "evidence" must consist of, there's nothing set in stone, but one thing I should absolutely specify that it need not be is passing. Passing certainly will get you treated like your desired gender, but it's not the only way or even the best way (there is no set best way - this is a person-specific process); and just because someone passes doesn't mean they even identify with the gender they're presenting. There are drag queens out there who pass effortlessly and will never identify as women.

But until the way others treat me reflects that internal truth, and until I go through life and interact with others, even just one person, who recognizes me in this new identity (in any way, good or bad), I cannot validly claim it.

Yes, in this case, the tree that falls unheard makes no sound. In other words, the gender identity that is never expressed is not identity; it is instead only a tragic, secret longing.

(Transgender symbol graphic via Bigstock)

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