A conversation with my six-year-old son:
“Mama, why do you have hair under your arms?”
“Why do you think I might have hair under my arms?”
“Oh, because you’re trans.”
“Nope. I have hair under my arms because hair grows under my arms.”
“You didn’t have it before.”
“That’s because for most of my life I was trying to fit into what other people thought I should look like. In our culture most people believe that women shouldn’t have hair on their bodies. But hair grows on women’s bodies, just like on men’s bodies. So, if it grows there, why shouldn’t it belong there?”
“Oh, we have hair to keep us warm! Like winter foxes, and bears!”
“I mean, sure.”
For the record, I have never told my son that I am trans. I’m not trans. He knows about it because of my former partner, who is non-binary, and because of a character in one of his favorite graphic novel series, The Backstagers (which you should all read regardless of if you have kids or not). He knows his grandpa wears women’s clothing sometimes, but I think he thinks it’s because Grandpa “likes to disguise himself as a woman sometimes.” I think Monty understands “trans” more than “crossdresser.” Now that I think about it, he’s not alone there. As unaccepting as our culture is of transgender people, I think it’s an easier concept to grasp than crossdressing. GENERALLY SPEAKING, transgender people tend fit more neatly within the gender binary than cis-gender or gender-fluid people who choose to wear clothing more typical of the “opposite” sex, or who don’t bind their chests, or shave their beards, or mask whatever secondary sex characteristics they might have. As for gender-fluid people, I don’t even know how my son tries to fit that in his head. It’s easier for him to understand that someone might have been born with the wrong body parts than it is for him to understand that someone might be comfortable with their body parts and also not fully identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, or even just refuse to accept the gender norms placed on them by our puritanical culture. Even I have trouble with that concept, and I am one of those people.
I’m very proud that my six-year-old has a concept of what “trans” means, but I also know it would never occur to him to ask his dad why he has hair under his arms. And he’s being raised in a household with a parent who is gender nonconforming, who has friends and family who are gender nonconforming, and who make sure that the media he consumes includes gender nonconforming and trans people. This is how absolutely insidious misogyny and sexism are.
Just a quick thought on a very complex subject. Happy Thursday!
Notes from the Road
Part Twelve: Los Angeles
I’ve been thinking a lot, A LOT, about gender. Gender identity. Gender presentation. Gender conformity and nonconformity. And this is going to be a little unwieldy because I’m kind of working it out as I go.
When Ryan and I first met, they were considering taking T and having top surgery. They had their period on our second date and felt embarrassed and ashamed. They’ve talked about preferring their body when it’s less curvy. My ex also hated her hips and wished that shorts fit her they way they fit some men. This is so foreign to me. Ever since I could remember, I wanted “womanly” hips. Personally, I find curves to be delicious. There are few things more satisfying to me than resting my hand on the curve of a hip. But far be it from me to tell other people how they should want to look or feel. Ryan could take buckets of T and have top surgery and be a beanpole and I’d still love them. I’d probably still be wildly attracted to them. There would be things that I missed, but those would all be physical. Ryan would still be Ryan and that’s enough for me.
Neither Ryan nor my ex are males. My ex is a woman and Ryan is nonbinary (they use the term “enby”, which not all nonbinary people do). But they both feel uncomfortable with certain “feminine” aspects of their bodies.
I am fascinated by how trans people “know” they were assigned the wrong gender at birth. I have no idea what it means to “feel like a woman.” I never felt “like a girl” when I was growing up. I was a tomboy. I’m now a grown-up version of a tomboy. Tomman? But I didn’t feel “like a boy” either. Maybe the point is that it never occurred to me that anything was out of place and I was lucky enough to have parents who weren’t interested in hypergenderizing me. But it seems to me that when people say they don’t feel like the gender they were assigned at birth, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t necessarily feel like being categorically treated the way our culture has decided their assigned gender is supposed to be treated.
And maybe there is something deeper than that. Ryan says that they feel like there’s something deep, deep inside them that told them their gender assignment was wrong. Maybe that’s the thing that would determine what “gender” we were if we were all raised equally. Personally, I don’t have a strong feeling in any direction. I use she/her pronouns because it’s what was assigned to me, but I don’t feel any allegiance to my womanness. I don’t feel fundamentally female or like a woman. I don’t have anything in me telling me I’m a man, either. Maybe that’s my privilege as a cis gender person. But if you asked me what it is to be a woman, I would be at a loss.
Side bar: Someone I know recently announced via intsagram that he and his wife are having a baby, with a picture of pink balloons, pink baby shoes, and a pink sign that read “It’s a girl!” Really? Really?
Ultimately, I think it’s impossible for anyone to know what it feels like to be a man or woman. All of our gender “norms” are cultural. Being brave or meek or tough or sensitive; Liking trucks or dolls; Liking to bake or liking to grill. Those aren’t genetic traits. Those are culturally prescribed behaviors. A person who has female reproductive parts and who grows up liking trucks, and being scrappy, and wanting to play football, and, I don’t know burping, farting, and jerking off with abandon, who gets to say that that person is male or female?
We have a strong desire to classify things. And I understand the purpose of classifying humans based on their body parts. It is, in truth, the only thing that makes us different from each other (along with the accompanying chromosomes and hormones, but even those things are being found to be less clear cut and have less determining force than we thought). So, we came up with a classification system. The fact that different cultures, over human history, have managed to come up with more than two genders should be proof that gender is subjective. And yes, yes, I know humans have gotten plenty of shit wrong scientifically. Like, we used to think that our veins were filled with air and that diseases were caused by spirits or some dumb ass shit like that. But gender isn’t science. Sex is. Gender is not. Gender is a completely made up social construct to help us classify people. Gender, like race, is a MAN-made construct. No one can tell you what it feels like to be White because “white” isn’t a thing. (Which is not to say that “Trans-racial” is a thing. It’s not. I can’t explain it. But, it’s not. Rachel Dolezal, sit down.) I can tell you what it feels like to have my period because that’s a sciencey thing that actually takes place in my body. But I can’t tell you what it feels like to be a woman. I can tell you what it’s like to be treated like a woman. I can tell you what it’s like to go through this world being treated like a woman (it’s not great, guys, it’s not great). I can tell you how I feel being treated like what my culture has decided a woman is. But if I were somehow teleported to The Isle of Lesbos and I was like, “Ladies, don’t you hate feeling terrified of walking home alone at night,” they’d all be like, “A. What’s a lady, and B. What?”
This is not to say that all cultural constructs are useless and should be disregarded. Some constructs are truly useful. Having shame around pooping and peeing serves to prevent us from pissing and shitting directly into our drinking and bathing water. Not raping and not murdering are cultural constructs that serve an actual purpose (and people disregard those constructs constantly…).
It is next to impossible to extricate ourselves from our culture conditioning. There is no need, for example, for makeup. But I like the way I look with makeup on. And I know that’s because I have been conditioned to accept certain standards of beauty. I understand that rationally. But I still like it. I prefer to have my legs and armpits shaved and I KNOW that serves absolutely no evolutionary purpose. I KNOW that it’s just my culture telling me that’s how women should look. But I like it. Ryan doesn’t feel like a woman, so they present in a way that is culturally less feminine. In their nonconformity they are, ironically, consciously or unconsciously conforming to cultural ideas of gender, albeit, that gender being “not” male or female. Because they like how those things make them look. It is unspeakably difficult to separate ourselves from our cultural norms.
Side bar: I was watching Fear the Walking Dead last night and Kim Dicken’s character (who, btw, is (or was? I’m not caught up) the most badass woman character on television) does a bunch of badass shit to protect her children and this dude calls her more of man than some other men, and she says nothing in response. Really? Really?
Ryan and I have talked a lot about these things. I have told them that I will support whatever they decide to do, but I have also asked them to think about who or what is telling them how their body should look or what it should do. And since then, Ryan has looked more deeply at their gender presentation and what it means. I think, when they realized they were non-binary, about a year ago (because they finally had a term that sort of fit how they had felt their whole life), they felt pressure to conform to whatever they thought a non-binary person “should” look like. And more recently they have started looking deeply at what it means and who they are, as opposed to who they thought they were and who they were supposed to be.
There should be no shame in who you are. If you like the way you look in a shirt with a binder on and also love having breasts when you’re naked! Awesome! Live your best (breast) life. I like my silhouette in clothes with breasts. But I have no emotional attachment to them. They don’t signify anything for me. I wouldn’t be devastated if I had to lose them. But I do like they way I look with a bra on under a shirt. For me, getting my period is a pain in the uterus, but it doesn’t make me a woman. When I stop getting my period, I will still be a woman. I think. Who knows what I’ll be by then? If you want to grow a beard, take T! But a beard doesn’t make you a man. And neither, incidentally, does testosterone.
If gender is not science, then no one should be able to tell anyone else what gender they are or how they should present or behave. If, tomorrow, I realized that I was, in fact, a man, I shouldn’t have to change a single thing about myself. It’s no one’s business if I don’t have surgery or don’t take T or don’t even change my name. I get to be whatever I want to be. Someone else’s discomfort at that because it challenges their ideas of gender is not my business. If the day after tomorrow I realize that I’m not a man, that’s okay, too.
Be who you are. Look however you want to look. But do it for you. Life is hard. Getting from point a to point b is a fucking slog. You don’t have to make everyone else comfortable while you’re doing it.
Thank you for your time. I will now spend the rest of the evening burping, farting, and jerking off.
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