Gender Essay

CHAPTER FOUR: Gender Identity 

The word ‘gender’ is often used as a synonym for biological sex. It’s not. Biological sex is a fact. Gender is an interpretation. The word ‘gender’ is used in many different ways and in many different contexts. These are the three ways that I find most useful.

1. Gender rules: 
These are the rules laid down in class societies for how women and men are supposed to dress, to behave, to think. They vary from culture to culture, but they all have one thing in common: men on top; women on the bottom. Feminism has always fought to abolish these rules. 

2. Gender expression: 
Gender expression is how we behave, how we talk, the clothes we wear, the games we play, all considered in relation to our gender and sexual identity. Trying to abolish gender expression would be a nonsense, like trying to speak without an accent: everyone who talks does so with one kind of accent or another. 

But not all gender expressions are equal. How we express ourselves is shaped by the rules and social expectations of a gendered and patriarchal world. Feminism is critical of femininity because subservience to men is coded into it, but feminism is also critical of masculinity because domination and aggression are coded into it. Feminism as I understand it, does not advocate for androgyny, but for a critique of gender expression, a repolarisation, where instead of dividing our behaviour according to masculine and feminine, we divide it into the qualities that can build the kind of world we want our children to live in, like kindness, understanding, courage, tenacity, on the one hand – and to separate those off from the qualities that are destroying our world, like cruelty, greed, and the lust for domination. 

3. Gender identity: 
We all have an identity, a concept, a gut feeling, of who we are. We are all heroes – or antiheroes – of the story we narrate to ourselves as we go through life. Gender identity is a relatively new concept that’s come into its own with the rise of trans liberation. It makes possible a deeper criticism of the whole idea of “masculine” and “feminine” as oppressive social constructs. It critiques not just the gender rules that society imposes, not just how we perform those rules (gender expression), but our whole conception of ourself as an embodied/sexual intelligence. 

Julia Serano in Whipping Girl, describes gender identity as your subconscious sex, something you don’t become aware of unless it is at odds with your “assigned sex”. CN Lester, in Trans Like Me, draws an analogy to proprioception, often referred to as the sixth sense, our feeling of self-movement and body position. Gender dysphoria is then described as the conflict between this internal sense of gender and the “sex assigned at birth” (i.e. the physical body). 

There has been a search – so far unsuccessful – to find some indication in the brain that it’s possible to have a male body and a female brain (or the reverse). Why is this so important? Because if gender identity trumps biological sex as a determinant of actual sex, then surely it must have some physical presence – or is it a kind of soul infused into the body by God at the moment of conception? 

On the other hand, what if gender identity doesn’t trump biological sex? What if it is a social construct, understood dialectically, not just as an imprint from the outside, but rather, a product of the collision of our sexed bodies with the rules of patriarchal society. This is how I think of it: 

Gender identity
Is a war fought on the battleground of our bodies 
There is an element of actual, real reality to it 
We do, after all, have to reproduce, we have to make babies 
(and raise them up so they can make more babies) 
But for all the love that grows up out of this 
The rules that are laid down on top of it   
Are twisted through with power, property, ownership 

Gender identity 
Think of it as a brand 
Like a game of cowboys 
– where you are the cow 
You’re penned in 
You try to escape 
But they throw you down 
Take the iron out of the fire 
And burn it into your flesh 
You fight your way free 
But you carry the scars 
And the scars become who you are 
Your story, a record of all you have endured 
All you have accomplished 
A red badge of courage 
And yours is not the only one 
You realise now you are standing in a field of red 
We are many 
And we each have a story to tell 

<– Chapter Three ***** Chapter Five –>

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