thoughts on gender

I have never felt especially feminine.

As a child, I was told I was a girl because if you have these body parts you’re a girl (versus those body parts that make you a boy), and I did have these parts rather than those so I couldn’t really argue with the logic. When I was 5, my friend and I played at being boys: we knew that boys had penises so we pretended by stuffing wads of toilet paper down the front of our pants, which was entertaining for about 10 seconds and not especially enlightening. I had stuffed animals, little metal cars, Lego, cards, crayons and books. The neighbour gave me a baby doll for Christmas one year and I hated it, but I coveted an Easy Bake Oven (which I didn’t get) and a Barbie (which I did).

When I was 10, the teacher told us we should all thank our mothers on Mothers Day for cooking for us, which I dutifully did. My dad asked whether I’d noticed that he did most of the cooking. Well, of course. I was vaguely resentful that the teacher set me up to be wrong, and wondered why this was supposed to be specifically a mother thing. Yes, my mom has a big career and my dad has a part-time job, so what? My dad also spent more time with me than my mom did.

I never had a pink phase and for a long time I actively avoided it. I lived in jeans. I didn’t like skirts, first because it was too hard to ride a bike in them (and I rode my bike everywhere), and later out of habit. By age 13 or so skirts and dresses made me feel deeply emotionally uncomfortable.

When my breasts first started to develop, I was excruciatingly self-conscious about them. I stopped wearing my favourite t-shirt (wide purple and white stripes) when the shape of my body started to be discernable under it. I noticed girls wearing tight shirts that revealed their form and could not comprehend how they could wear such a thing. I didn’t think they shouldn’t, I just didn’t understand how it was even possible for them emotionally.

By the time I hit my teens, I felt like there was a manual on how to be a girl but I never got my copy. I didn’t understand why girls travelled to the washroom in flocks. I didn’t know the correct response when someone announced, while getting changed for gym, that her calves were so big or that she was fat. I never had many friends in school, and I got along with boys just as well if not better than girls.

I took dance lessons, I took martial arts lessons. I was both graceful and tough. The only rumour that ever circulated about me was that I’d once broken a boy’s arm. I did well in English class, I did well in math class, I did well in all my classes and I didn’t discover until I was in university (or possibly later) that there were some subjects that girls were supposed to be better at or worse at than boys.

I never liked perfume but I experimented with cologne.

The length of my hair has mostly been in the feminine range, though I also went very short for a while. The hairdresser was concerned about going too short because some of her female clients in that situation were afraid of looking butch. Did I look less feminine, less het? Yeah, probably, but that was fine.

I’ve never been grilled about when I was going to get married and make babies. My parents don’t really talk about that kind of stuff, and I’m pretty sure they knew my answers anyway. No one else in my orbit would consider pushing the matter, though Wolf’s mother once asked if I thought about having kids and I recall tearing a strip off her for it (pretty sure I overreacted there).

Wolf and I lived together for many years and when we got legally married it was weird to refer to him as my husband or to think of myself as a wife. When I started blogging, he specifically requested that I refer to him as my partner as he doesn’t feel like a husband, and for that matter I don’t feel like a wife either.

Being part of a group of women that is addressed as “ladies” properly sets my teeth on edge, while being addressed as “sir” in a letter or email also pisses me off because my name is pretty obviously feminine so it’s usually a result of the person being oblivious and/or sticking to outdated habits and assumptions (and it’s only ever men who do this). I’m happy enough to be called “guys” as it’s relatively gender neutral in my corner of the world. Someone commented on a nude photo of me on Jaime’s blog and referred to me as “they” despite very visible breasts in the image; I found this strangely pleasant — not because I use that pronoun (I don’t), but because it demonstrated of the care they took to not assume.

Eventually I learned that male and female isn’t the be-all and end-all of gender, even though that’s what I was taught as a kid. In the last few years I’ve often wondered how my sense of gender maps on to the options and words now in use, but I don’t really have an answer.

I recently read How to Understand Your Gender by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker, and they describe gender as being biopsychosocial, that is, it is shaped by biological make-up, psychological experiences and social context.

The discomfort about my developing body was not gender dysphoria. As far as I can figure out, my negative feelings about all things feminine came from subconsciously learning that to be female and/or feminine was to be at risk (something that I believe I picked up from my mom due to her own history and trauma, though she never discussed any of this with me directly). I don’t reject the shape of my body or the parts that I have even though some people may react to my body with the incorrect belief that it somehow represents my personality.

My experiences growing up were relatively balanced with a slight emphasis on the feminine, but I never felt overly pushed toward one construct or away from the other. Culture also plays a role but I don’t take a great deal of notice, perhaps because I’ve not found femininity to be especially strictly enforced here (as compared to the US or the UK).

When I think of “masculinity” or “femininity” I always think of them with the quotation marks because each represents a socially determined but utterly arbitrary collection of behaviours, skills, preferences, and interests. Neither category has any connection with biology; none of it is innate.

I suppose I see myself as agender or gender-neutral, but I don’t identify with those terms any more than I do with female or woman. I’m just a person.

3 thoughts on “thoughts on gender

  1. A thoughtful post.

    My own take is that the gender roles, and all the baggage that comes with them, are just stupid. Why, as you say, pink? Why dresses for girls and not for boys? (I dunno.)

    In personal terms I identify as male, and I know I have a masculine vibe. I try to make it a warm and safe one.

    But I never wanted to do the stuff that “guys” do. I never cared about cars, except functionally, never cared about sports of any kind, and the last time I got into a fight I was 11 years old and I lost because hitting the other guy just seemed like a stupid thing to do: what would be the point? And I don’t much like hanging out with guys: I have to perform so much bullshit. So I prefer hanging out with women.

    I wonder if we need to make a clearer distinction in our respective cultures between gender dysphoria and gender role dysphoria. It would be better if we could chose the supposedly “male” and “female” characteristics and behaviours that suit us, rather than having to take them as a package deal.

    Anyway, great post!

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    1. I suppose we need some clarity on the meaning of ‘gender’ itself first. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are sometimes used interchangeably. Sometimes they are considered to be different concepts, but the concepts they refer to have also been interchangeable to some extent (i.e. the biological concept has been referred to as either sex or gender at different times). Still, I think we’re close to consensus that ‘sex’ refers to biology (which is a whole other can of worms, not going there now) and gender is social and cultural (while being informed by biology). If that’s correct, then ‘gender role dysphoria’ would be redundant because ‘gender’ is understood as the construct, and gender dysphoria would thus be the profound unease with the assigned construct. So perhaps I *have* experienced gender dysphoria, but just not in the sense of feeling like my body should be different.

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