Transcending Gender

What makes a man or a woman? A new book by a non-transitioning transsexual explains one point of view.


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Oh for the good old days, when gender was such a simple thing. Men were men and women were women and never the twain should meet, except in the bedroom (where of course two women were not supposed to meet)! And all you had to do to know which was which was to check between their legs. Since gender was the same as physical sex, genitals told the whole story. They were supposed to dictate every aspect of your life.

Gender defined what sex you were supposed to be attracted to and how you were supposed to look, act, and even think. It told you what to wear and how to wear your hair. What you could do for a living. Whether you should like football or ballet. Barrooms or tea parties.

And definitely how you were supposed to act with members of the other gender. Within the past few years, the old concept of gender has been aggressively challenged. It is no longer assumed to be an objective fact determined by your anatomy. The new understanding of gender is that it is entirely subjective. Our gender is whatever we think and feel it is. If you think you are a woman you are, because thinking it is what makes you one. To put it succinctly, sex is between the legs but gender is between the ears. We can now transcend the old boundaries imposed by gender.

The old concept of gender was binary. There were two poles, one male and one female, with nothing in between. The male pole had a complex set of characteristics that were called masculine; the equally complex set of characteristics associated with the female pole were called feminine. It was an abnormality, and in some cases literally a crime, to have characteristics associated with the other gender.

Under the new concept, gender is a continuum from extreme femininity at one end to extreme masculinity at the other. A man can have some feminine characteristics and a woman some masculine characteristics. Most people are somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes, some closer to the masculine end, some closer to the feminine end, and some in the middle. But either a man or a woman can have any combination of traditionally masculine or feminine traits, so your place on the continuum does not determine your gender. Only your view of yourself determines that.

Although gender does not depend on physical sex, most people do self-identify as the gender traditionally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. But not all. Those who do not are called transsexual, transgender, or sometimes just trans. But even they are not all alike. Once a person discovers that he of she is trans, the next step is to decide what to do about it. There is a whole spectrum of options. At one end is simply living as a man with a female body or a woman with a male body, without doing anything to change either body or appearance. The other options are called transitioning, which can be done to a greater or lesser degree. Some simply change their presentation through clothing, hair style, makeup, mannerisms, voice modulation, and so forth. Some change certain physical characteristics through hormone treatments. Still others go even farther by means of surgery, and that too can be done to various degrees. There is no right way; each transgender person has to find the option that works best for him or her, just as each cisgender person should be free to choose whatever combination of traditional masculine or feminine characteristics works best. Trans or cis, these choices are the key to transcending gender boundaries.

It is interesting to imagine what a completely self-gendered society would be like. People would identify as whichever gender they felt themselves to be and neither gender would be limited by traditional standards of masculinity or femininity. There would be none of the current pressures to dress, think, feel, or act in ways determined by gender or even physical sex. People would do whatever work corresponded with their predilections and abilities. Clothing and other aspects of appearance would be determined only by personal tastes. And, miracle of miracles, sexual orientation would be virtually a non-issue, with each person free to join sexually with whomever he or she was attracted to.

“He or she.” That simple expression, so familiar to all of us, actually contains the most basic of all assumptions about gender. Everyone is either male or female. But that idea, fundamental to so many of our social constructs, is finally being challenged. Even on the physical level, it is not really true. A substantial number of people are actually born with ambiguous genitals, and cannot be definitively classified as either male or female. So the doctor has to make a sometimes quite arbitrary decision about which sex to assign to a baby, often supporting that decision with a bit of quick surgery. Even when the assignment of sex is indisputable, an increasing number of people now reject the idea that they have to be either male or female. They identify as completely outside the continuum from male to female. The term currently used by many such people is “gender queer,” and they may be the ultimate gender transcenders.

What if everyone transcended gender this completely? It is hard to even imagine a truly gender-free society. Would it even be desirable? How would we relate to each other in the absence of something so basic to most people’s sense of identity? There is no way to answer such questions at present. If it ever happens, it is almost certain to be a gradual development. And although such speculation may be interesting, we do not have to worry about it. Instead, we can be content to transcend as many boundaries of gender as we wish, right here and right now.

About the author:

Lee Schubert is the author of Woman Incognito: Transsexual without Transition.

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