I have read one trans* activist or their ally after another claim that the concept of transgender somehow transgresses the concept of binary gender. I have never been able to grasp just how anyone could arrive at that conclusion. In fact, transgender theory embraces binary gender; it simply holds that one can be born with the wrong gender. Nothing about that transgresses the patriarchal social construct of gender. In fact, it reinforces it. And who are the most likely victims of such reinforcement? Well, women, of course.
My questions about gender did not arise from any feminist theory. In fact, I came to question the entire concept of the immutable nature of gender when I was in college. One semester, I took a cultural anthropology course entitled “Gender & Society”. It was a cross-cultural exploration of gender. Not of sex, but of gender. What I learned there was that concepts of gender varied quite dramatically from one society to another. There was not a single way of being that could be called “feminine” that stretched across all cultures. Similarly, there was not a single way of being called “masculine” that stretched across all cultures. This would come as a surprise to those who insist that one can be a male, yet experience the world in a feminine way. That doesn’t happen simply because there’s no such thing as experiencing the world in a feminine way.
What I learned in that class is that males and females don’t inherently find themselves drawn to one activity or another. They don’t see the world one way or the other based upon being male or female. They do, however, find themselves drawn to certain activities or see the world in a specific way based upon how their particular societies say each sex should be. Whether it’s sex-specific jobs, appearance and ornamentation, or anything else we commonly associate with gender, the only thing that is constant is that the male way of being or behaving is valued more than the female way of being or behaving. This tells us two things: that women are harmed far more by the social construct of gender than are men, and that there could not possibly be any truth in the concept of gender if it varies so widely among cultures.
Of course, even within a culture, individuals, their experiences and their interests vary widely. My own family is a prime example of this. The gender concept of the West says that males should be more aggressive, more confrontational, more interested in politics, better at math, more interested in technology. It says that men are sexually stimulated visually, while women are more into “feelings”. It says that men give affection to get sex, and women give sex to get affection. It says that women value their long term sexual relationships more than men do. It says that women desire to “nurture”, while men desire to “provide”. It says that little boys like certain things and behave in certain ways, and little girls like other things and behave in a diametrically opposed way. Of the four of us in my nuclear family, we all stand in conflict to these gender concepts to varying degrees.
First, let’s speak of my spouse and myself. I am the one who controls the money, and I have been the one who makes most of the money for quite some time now. I am the one who is more aggressive and confrontational–both politically and personally. Once our children reached school-age, my spouse became the primary caregiver. He enjoys it quite a bit. I am the one who does home repairs and knows technology. We are both attracted to visual sexual stimulation; I’m no more into the love-for-sex concept than he is. However, at this point, he shows the kind of devotion to our relationship that I was prone to as a teenager. In short, he’s the one who does most of the active work to keep our relationship strong; this has always been the concern and job of women, so says the culture construct of gender.
Our children were not brought up in a gendered household. They were not encouraged to “act like a boy” or “be a good girl”. Our daughter grew to love things and interact with people in a way that boys generally do. This isn’t a “tomboy”; this is a girl who was not taught to act according to the gender concept. She was always self-assured as a child. She wasn’t interested in “girl things”, and she resisted the pressure to wear feminine clothing. She never wore make-up. She rode skateboards and played sports. Most of her friends were boys, although she had some very close female friends. This was just her way of being. To a great extent, it still is.
Our boy is even less impressed by gender concepts, because he is autistic. The primary manifestation of autism is an inability to understand and disinterest in social concepts. Gender means less than nothing to him, because it is entirely a socially conceived and built concept. In many ways, he acts very much like a stereotypical boy. In many other ways, he acts very much like a stereotypical girl. His primary interests are “girl” interests: he wants to be Snow White, he loves the Disney princesses, he talks of being a “ballet princess”. He’s not attracted to these stereotyped images of feminine beauty for romantic reasons; he wants to be these female characters. It does not occur to him that a boy can’t be a princess or want to dress up as Snow White.
So, what conclusions to draw from a family that refuses to recognize gender as an inherent way of being? What to say of parents who refused to tell their children that there was a “male” experience and a “female” experience? No one here is “transgendered”. We’re just people who don’t give a shit about what society says we should like and how society says we should be. We are human beings, no more nor less. My daughter and I are females who refuse to recognize the cultural dictates of femininity. My spouse and our son are males who refuse to recognize the cultural dictates of masculinity.
And here we arrive at the greatest failing of transgender theory. Even general experience will tell you that the majority of transgendered individuals are male-to-female. In fact, studies say that male-to-female out number female-to-male by almost 3-to-1. The male-to-female trans* are certainly the most vocal and publicly active segment of the population. Why is that? I think it’s quite simple. Women are encouraged to “act like a man”. It’s supposed to be a badge of honor to be compared to a man in a patriarchal society. On the flip side, a male who is likened to a female has just been hit with the greatest insult–pussy, bitch, woman, girl.
It is more socially acceptable for the female to act in stereotypically masculine ways, so it is less necessary to identify as transgendered when she doesn’t fit the stereotype of feminine. For the male, it is not acceptable to be labeled “feminine”. So, some members of that “feminine” male population will choose to identify as transgendered, instead. See, they’re just women trapped in the bodies of men, not feminine men. What they fail to realize is that, by doing so, they have just reinforced the binary gender concept. They aren’t a “feminine” male; they’re really a female, because only females feel or act the way they feel or act. They have just tied all women to the social construct of femininity that has been used to restrict our activities and our self-determination under patriarchy. They have just played the trump card for the patriarchy.
In other cases, those who are diagnosed as transgendered and encouraged to have sex reassignment surgery have gone through abuse as children. Some psychiatrists who are eager to slap the “transgendered” tag on them try to dismiss this as a reason for their feelings of uncertainty and confusion. This victimizes the person yet again. Unfortunately, those who come out with these regrets publicly are victimized a third time by those in the transgender community who wish to silence them.
In the end, this isn’t about condemning the trans* community. They are victims of a patriarchal society that tells us there really is a female way of being and a male way of being. They are victims of a patriarchal society that tells men that accepting any stereotypically feminine feelings or behaviors is a failure on their part. This is about realizing that gender is a social construct. This is about realizing that gender is used to bind both women and men to ridiculous notions of how they “should” be. This is about realizing that gender concepts are especially harmful to women and girls. This is about moving towards a world where concepts of gender no longer matter, no longer exist. Transgender theory doesn’t get us there. It keeps us stuck, bound by patriarchal concepts of binary gender.