It’s time I came out of the closet, again. Just like I’ve been told many a time while arguing with trans excluding radfems online . . . I’m not really a woman.
Let me explain . . . I don’t know what my chromosomal arrangements are, I imagine few people do for sure. I do know mother nature gave me breasts and periods, so presumably ovaries and a uterus although nobody’s ever gone in and taken a look. I don’t have a dick. I don’t look like a dude. But right from the start I was socialised more male than female, and I believe this is about how I looked at and experienced the world . . . my brain (or heart, or soul) led me down roads intended for males to walk.
An early photo has me standing in a flat cap and braces and I look like a cute little 4-year-old boy. My sister liked dolls and make-up; I liked climbing trees and getting mucky – but what does that really mean? Liking ungirly things shouldn’t make anyone, including me, question my woman-ness. But it’s deeper than that – something pretty fixed in me made me look to males rather than females for my social cues. Something more than just the prevalence of male role models and the invisibility of female icons; beyond social construction, beyond feminist ideas, beyond sexuality; something I’m going to daringly call an innate gender identity.
How we “do” gender is made up by society as it goes along, as evidenced by the fact pink was a boy’s colour not so very long ago. But something inside us makes us follow the lead of whichever gender our identity points us toward. We’re social animals, designed to “download” whatever environment we’re born into, and it’s becoming increasingly clear we naturally tune in to gendered information. The possibilities for how we tune in – how our unique selves meet the gendered world – are endless, but can be broadly (if a little inaccurately) chopped up into male, female, both or neither, and these instincts may not always match our bodies. It’s unique for each of us, and no simple binary explanations quite cut it. Some scientists may say it’s hormones in utero shaping our brains, but I don’t need a science experiment to tell me who I am. I know who I am, and that should be enough.
I’ve wanted to wear trousers, play with cars and climb trees since I could walk. It has nothing to do with me being a feminist. It has nothing to do with me wanting to subvert the stereotypical gender roles in society. It has nothing to do with my sexuality, which is about who I am attracted to, not who I am. Yes, I’m attracted to women, but contrary to what some anti-trans folks might say, that does not settle the issue of gender identity, although for a long time I tried to believe it did, and having come out of one closet I built myself another. How can anyone possibly say that as a kid I liked to play with tools and shoot bows and arrows because I’m a lesbian? It doesn’t make any sense. I was drawn to boys’ things and boy’s social rules because part of me thought I was a boy, it really is that simple.
But hang on, we feminists know gender is socially constructed, right? All that stuff about “boy’s toys” and “girl’s toys” is sexist rubbish that needs challenging. The arguments are pretty persuasive, and I agree with them. Check out books like Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and suddenly it becomes clear that all qualities and behaviours we think of as innately male or female are easily implanted in human children’s uniquely “plastic”, adaptable and socially-orientated brains.
But if social construction is so powerful, why did it miss me completely? How did I escape such a dominant force? It wasn’t my feminist leanings, at the age of three, that made me throw my sister’s dolls across the room in disgust. Some people say my being a lesbian explains it – but how, exactly, does that work? Isn’t that just a convenient blurring of gender and sexuality? What made me reach for trousers or throw away the make-up my auntie kept insisting on buying me? What made me resist the powerful conditioning that was happening to all the girls around me? Could I perhaps have an ineffable quality that is drawn to boy’s things and boy’s social rules?
Ok, but once again, we know gender is socially constructed, right? Well what if we lived in a society where it was socially constructed that boys always wear bananas on their heads? I truly believe by the age of three I would have had the intense desire to wear bananas on my head. Something inside of me reached into the social world and looked for my cues from males instead of females. It wouldn’t have mattered what the boys were doing, I wanted to do it too. It has nothing to do with what I actually did – I wasn’t born with an innate desire to shout, show off my strength and torture my sister’s barbies, it was simply that boys did that kind of stuff and I was programmed to copy them. If boys wore blue lipstick and played hopscotch I would have wanted to wear blue lipstick and play hopscotch. As it was, I found myself wanting to open doors for women and win at arm wrestling. I absorbed a million social messages that weren’t intended for me and an awful lot of the messages I was “supposed” to receive simply bounced off me, to the exasperation of my female relatives.
If we had lived in a century where, as in nature, boys dressed for display and women for camouflage, maybe I would have been sequinned and feathered and rainbow from head to toe. I had boyish tendencies, and whatever society chose boyish to mean, I think that is what I would have wanted to be. And I just want to make an important distinction – I don’t think I ever said I was a boy, the messages for me were not quite that strongly implanted. But if I had, I sincerely hope (although I doubt) that my parents would have respected this, because children are perfectly capable of knowing themselves. If I can feel this way, I have no problem believing others feel it more strongly, and can only thrive living as their true gender.
But people are not left to figure out their own realities; society moves in and interprets their reality for them. Layers of complex socialisation become part of our gender stories and we can never separate nature and nurture, nor is there any value in trying. As a child, I was given the label “tomboy”, as if this resolved everything neatly. It didn’t, but for a while I was satisfied with that label. Later, I hit on “lesbian” and it more or less fit, but inherent in that word is the assumption that I’m a woman, and that my difference has nothing to do with gender. But I’m not a woman. I’m not entirely a man, either, as it happens; I don’t have any plan to transition, although I fully support those who do. But I’m tired, so tired of my gender being missed, I’m tired of passing for cisgender, even though it has many privileges. There’s probably nothing I can do about it but open my mouth and say how I feel, although coming out to a community that is so scared and confused about trans* issues is more than a little frightening.
Labels never quite manage to live up to the human need to express and describe, but if you want a label for me, for the moment I’ll settle for genderqueer.