Gender is socially constructed – I guess anyone wanting to read a blog with “feminist” in the title is probably going to agree to some extent with that statement. But what exactly does that mean?
I’m going to put my child development head on, and draw from my learning as a children’s counsellor, to help bust through some of the false assumptions that arise about “social construction”.
The most important thing to know about children’s social learning can be exemplified by how to teach a child to say “thank you”. It turns out that one of the best ways to teach them is to say thank you to them, and in front of them, as much as possible. Telling children to say it without modelling it to them, turns out to be a really poor way of teaching them. In other words, children learn best by watching what others do, not by being informed what they should do.
How is this relevant to gender? Because likewise, children learn how to “do” gender via their social interactions, not by being told. So, as many trans people will attest, telling a female-identifying child who was assigned male at birth how to perform her gender, will have less effect on her than you might think – she may be told to “man up” by the people around her, but meanwhile, she is watching the women and girls around her, and as someone who identifies with that gender, she will be influenced by them as much if not more than she will by direct messages about how she should behave.
Trans girls often want to wear pink and purple, for example, because society is modelling to them an image of pink and purple girlhood.
This is why it is important not to make an essentialism out of gender construction. When we argue there is something fundamental and essential in itself about having been raised a boy or girl, we are suggesting that gender socialisation is universal and uniform. This would lead to an absurd conclusion: in a society that treats women as inferior, if childhood socialisation is absolute, strictly follows our (assumed) chromosomes, and is irreversible, then women can never overcome their social programming.
This is nonsense, of course. Our socialisation is varied and changeable, not fundamental. If this were not true, all people would be walking stereotypes of their assigned gender.
As feminists we might be drawn to a compromise position where female socialisation is partial and can be overcome, but male socialisation is insurmountable. But that would simply be bad science.
Trans children also have a very different socialisation experience from cis children because they are often gender non-conforming. Their vulnerability and social exclusion as a result of this is evidenced by the fact a higher proportion of trans children are sexually abused than the already alarming percentage of cis girls. Socially marginalised kids are vulnerable to being targeted by bullies and predators; a trans girl’s childhood is therefore unlikely to be one of typical cis male privilege.
The inequality and misogyny in our society also ensures that assigned male children who are are attuned to women’s social cues rather than men’s will be punished far more severely than “tomboys”. Trans girls and feminine non-binary people often face transmisogynistic violence because of this.
Most trans women I know accept that at times they have benefited from male privilege pre-transition for passing as male, but equally a person with black African heritage and pale skin can pass as white and benefit from white privilege, but this does not make them white. The psychological experience of that person and the impact of the racism that they see in the world will be entirely different than for a white person. We can’t equate one civil rights issue with another, but there is a comparison to be made here with trans women, who experience themselves as women and are bombarded with misogynistic messages they internalise, just like other women.
Why do trans people perceive ourselves the way we do? We don’t know for sure. We suspect it is a hormonal effect, but we have no conclusive proof yet of how or why we exist. But we do exist. That there have been people wanting to live as a gender different from their assigned sex throughout history and across many cultures is a fact we cannot deny. How we understand ourselves is ever-evolving.
Let us settle this – trans people do not experience a socialisation process that is normative for their assigned sex, and very often trans people have a considerable amount of socialisation patterns in common with the opposite sex to the one they were assigned. Because these socialisation patterns bed in very early in our lives, while our brains are still forming, they are very much a part of who we are as people.
Where we get stuck, of course, is that nobody is a walking stereotype, and trans people, just like everyone else, will have a blend of gendered characteristics. Sometimes, it is easy to say that the behaviours that match their assigned sex are more “essential” and those of their identified sex more “performed” but this erases the fact that all people are performing gender, and we are all constantly renegotiating our relationship with the rules of gender handed to us by society. We cannot hold trans people to a higher account than we hold the rest of humanity.
We all need to be constantly questioning and examining our relationship with gender, and the assumptions we make. Trans people are as capable as anyone else of both confounding and perpetuating gender stereotypes. Changing the way we “do” gender is about how we challenge the ideas we advertise and model to all children – we do not need to put trans kids under any special scrutiny as they will simply reflect norms in gender socialisation that all other kids of their identified sex will be experiencing.