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I Have No Idea What Gender Identity Is
But whenever I use a preferred pronoun, it feels a bit like I’m playing a game of pretend. If an AFAB (assigned female at birth) person asks me to use ‘they,’ I do my best to treat them like they don’t belong to either gender… but my brain does not play along. It sits on my shoulder like a child. “She’s a woman,” it says. “She’s a woman and you’re pretending she’s not.” I tell my shoulder brain to shut up, but it does not shut up. And so despite what I want to feel, my actual experience around nonbinary people is that I am actually talking to a woman, but I (and everyone around me) are pretending that we’re not.
This is exactly how I feel about the issue. If I see an individual, my brain immediately catalogs them into various groups. They're tall, they're a woman, they're black, they're likely homeless, they look menacing, they're extremely attractive, etc etc. A lot of these are snap judgments that are extremely open to being updated by new information, of course. Classic example of My Wife and My Mother-in-Law.
My snap judgment of seeing a transwoman is "this is a person who was born a man with a penis, but they'd rather try and pass as a woman to society". I never ever shake this off, it remains at the forefront of my mind. When I come across the slogan "Trans women are women!" I just pause and want to ask "what does that mean exactly?"
I think about this now that I'm navigating the online dating world and coming across a lot of transwomen as I search for quote unquote a biological woman to date. I hate having to harp on this gratuitous point, but when I think about what I appreciate about women as a straight man, vaginas have a prominent position on that fireplace mantle, alongside many other things.
Let's picture a generic masculine man. Someone like Jason Statham or something. I can see a picture of a shirtless Jason and think "Yes, I think he is an attractive individual, but I feel absolutely no inclination to have a romantic or sexual relationship with him." (sorry Jason). But then someone tells me that Jason has just recently started identifying as a woman. I look at the shirtless picture again but literally nothing has changed. His inherent identity has absolutely no bearing on my attraction to him (or rather, her). And why should it? He still has large muscles, a prominent jawline, a deep voice, and a penis, alongside many other things.
Which brings us to the question of what the hell does it even mean to feel like a woman? Aella is uncharacteristically patient with this question and coming up blank on real, coherent, responses.
The real life manifestations I have seen of "feeling like a woman" almost invariably involving playing up an exaggerated caricature of what a "woman" is. It involves getting long hair, speaking in a higher pitch, putting on make-up, dressing up in women's clothing, etc. My initial thought is that's all fine and good, but none of that requires "being" a woman. I start to look around and wonder whether I'm insane because everyone around me has bought hard into the idea of gender stereotypes in the name of gender nonconformity.
So again let's consider a biological man who has thus far in life presented with what society associates as masculine (assertive, muscular, confident, etc.). One day he realizes that he feels like a woman but, crucially, changes literally nothing about his life, demeanor, or appearance. He wears the same male clothing, speaks in the same voice, has the same masculine mannerisms as before, etc. In this case, what does it mean to be feel like a woman?? With a hypothetical like the one I described, the entire concept of a gender identity seems to evaporate into a mist. If someone's internal gender dysphoria changes literally nothing about their outward appearance or presentation, then how does it even exist. I remain infinitely puzzled by this concept. I literally do not understand it.
It's hard to get a bearing on this discussion because you're stuck between the TERFs and the TRA. Some of the former seem to base at least part of their logical framework on simple revulsion. The latter will scold you for not wanting to suck dick. It also has been hard to cut through the dense academic vocabulary which requires internalizing and entire discography on the topic. But here's a dialogue on the topic between the two "sides" on Aeon.
I don't fully understand the point Gender Critical (aka TERFs in some circles) seem to be making, but one aspect which has stuck with me is the idea of abolishing gender completely. Biological sex is a real thing and our society, for better or for worse, establishes strict and starkly different expectations depending on one's sex. This is how I understand gender. The idea of "abolishing" gender would try and get rid of this assumed default correlation altogether. I don't know exactly how this would happen, but as an ultimate goal it seems to make sense to me. If a biological man wants to be more effeminate in dress and manner, I don't see anything wrong with that. Having the fluidity within society to just become an effeminate man seems at least to me to be far more desirable than getting stuck in this rubric where a full binary transformation is the only solution.
The conversation around this topic has gotten thoroughly confused I think primarily because of the ambiguity of how exactly sex and gender are or should be distinguished. I see sex as pretty much a binary (for 99.9% or whatever of the population) with a stark difference between the two poles. I see gender as two spectrums which straddle the two poles and sometimes overlap each other. But the idea is that gender is heavily correlated with sex, but not necessarily 100%. So in the end we end up with the vast majority of men to be mostly masculine, and the vast majority of women to be mostly feminine. And some people, even though they have a clearly identifiable sex, sit somewhere in the middle.
Language is fluid (lol) and can change, but I like this framework because I find it useful to have two different words describing distinguishable concepts.
You can see the confusion at play in this short video. What I find interesting is he starts the interview by asking "what do you think is the biggest obstacle to equality between men and women?" and the participants seem to have no difficulty describing their concerns on the topic which usually orbits around discrimination, lowered expectations, and even how reproductive capacity can be a liability. But when he asks "what is a woman?" you can see the brakes screech everything to a halt. You can't define women as "human with XX chromosomes" or "someone with a uterus" because that would exclude transwomen so you're left with what then? Someone even used a self-referencing definition, where a woman is a person who identifies as a woman.
If asked, I wouldn't hesitate to say "A woman is a human female, aka someone who has XX chromosomes or produces eggs". Another potential definition which I don't subscribe to is "A woman is anyone who presents with the behavioral norms that we associate with femininity". But that's both over and under inclusive, because it means that an effeminate man would be categorized as a woman regardless of what they say, and a masculine woman would lose the label. The first definition seems to be the only coherent one.