Sex and Gender

I wanted to write a post on transgender/transsexual issues for the Day of Remembrance yesterday — but it wasn’t coming out right. I’m trying again today.

A couple of weeks ago, Ron received an e-mail from someone who was asking about trans people, and who wanted to know whether this is something that we’ll be covering at Spiritual Friendship. We tend to concentrate a lot on the LGB in LGBTQ, but the T, and to a lesser degree the Q, kind of get left out. The reason for this is simple: most of the writers here ID as L, G, or B. We don’t have any trans writers on board yet, and while I consider myself gender-queer that’s not really the same thing.

The difference lies in the way that I experience the relationship between my gender and my sexuality, vs. the way that a trans person would. For me, my sexuality (female) is a straightforward, authentic part of my identity. As much as I may sometimes feel conflicted or confused about this I always come back to certain essential features of my feminine identity. I am very maternal. This doesn’t always manifest in a predictable way (Precious Moments figurines make me shudder) but it is true that my primary modes of relating to my children, my writing projects, and my correspondents resonate archetypally with mothering. For example, I’m the one who intercedes with my husband on behalf of the kids; I don’t “invent” worlds or “make up” characters, rather I allow them to form within my psyche and I give them space to develop within my body. My entire way of relating to my own creativity is deeply bound in up in images of maternal fecundity and in the processes of impregnation and birth. Hence, I don’t find the statement “I am essentially female” difficult to affirm.

My gender identity, on the other hand, is a lot more conflicted. To try to give an idea of what this means, it’s necessary to first define the difference. Sex includes all of the aspects of maleness and femaleness that are bound up in somatic structures — everything from the genitals, to the secondary sex characteristics, to the sex-differentiated structures within the brain. Gender is all of the socially constructed stuff: girls wear make-up, boys play with trucks, pink is a feminine colour, real men don’t eat quiche, that sort of thing. Gender is not entirely independent from sex. Little boys gravitate towards truck and gun toys, and little girls gravitate towards dolls and tutus from a very young age — but it’s also obvious that these particular traits are specific to our culture (guns and trucks only came into being in the very recent past.) Something like the statement “boys like sports” stands at the intersection between sex and gender: in almost all societies, the majority of males do enjoy aggressive, competitive outdoor play governed by predictable rules. Moreover, there are hormonal and cognitive-structural reasons why these activities tend to appeal to men.

Gender, however, requires socialization. Girls know to wear pink because they pick up social cues that tell them that pink is feminine — and they pick them up unconsciously starting in infancy. I was a girl who had an ideological aversion to Barbie by the age of six. I tended to have both male and female friends — not because I was part of a mixed-gender cohort but rather because I had a group of girls that I hung out with as a girl, and a group of boys that I hung out with as a tomboy.

As I grew older my difficulties in relating to girls as a girl became complicated by certain points of dissimilarity: it was really uncomfortable, for example, to try to fake an interest in cute boys, to find boyfriends and cultivate crushes on guys so that I could join in the boy-obsessed conversation of adolescent girls. More fundamentally, though, I found that as my female friends matured they became increasingly aware of a whole field of social cues, interactions, and ways of relating that are foreign to me. For example, I just figured out this year that a lot of female conversation is directed towards affirming and confirming previously held social beliefs — building up community by going over familiar ground and reifying an already existing consensus. I always thought that those conversations were about nothing, and I could never make sense of the fact that most of the women I knew seemed to have real friendships that consisted entirely of emotional venting and small-talk. I figured that there must be “real” conversations (i.e. more abstract, philosophical ones) that happened at other times. Only slowly, as my male friends have started marrying, have I been able to start to understand that these conversations aren’t small-talk — that emotional relationships are established, social information is exchanged, even moral ideals are discussed. It’s just that I’m almost completely oblivious to the actual content of female discourse.

Many male readers will probably have had the same experience of feminine conversation that I’ve had: it’s boring, it’s repetitive, it’s about nothing, it’s gossipy, and it’s really easy to commit a faux pas by accident. Even though I’ve achieved a theoretical and ideological respect for feminine forms of social interaction, my experience is still, at best, that of a social anthropologist trying to keep an open mind while observing a foreign tribe. For me it’s much more natural to hang out with guys (because they make sense) and my preference for male company has been a fairly consistent since late adolescence.

The difficulty is that if you’re a woman and you hang out with men, the normal reaction of men is to react as though there’s a woman in the room. Man-talk dries up fast when there’s estrogen around, and if another woman walks in you are seconds away from talking about diapers and who’s getting married to whom. On the other hand, if you show up to the conversation dressed in unisex jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt, grab a beer, and start talking like guy it doesn’t take that long for the men to go back to behaving like normal men, rather than like men who are trying to be sensitive and respectful because they’re in female company.

The decision to adopt a relatively masculine gender presentation is not, at least for me, about subverting gender-roles or undermining sexual complementarity, or seeking a genderless society. It’s about social survival. Becoming Christian altered my relationship to essential, archetypal forms of femininity, but it didn’t make me able to successfully behave in female-typical ways. My attempts to force myself into standard feminine gender-behaviours have been consistently disastrous. They make me feel fake, and they’re never quite convincing to other people, especially other women. Even if I’m trying my best to be feminine, I don’t dress right, I don’t relate right, I don’t send the right signals, I don’t play the right games. I’m somehow off. Women sense that, and so while I can sometimes pass okay in superficial social settings it very rarely goes any deeper. My friendships with men, on the other hand, tend to be deep and intimate and much more comfortable than most of my relationships with women.

The way that we present ourselves to the world tells the world how it is supposed to respond to us. For someone like me, trying to conform to gender role is an occasion of severe anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt and depression. The way that I present myself invites other women to sneer, or to be coldly polite, or to be condescendingly nice, regardless of what I do. If they look at me askance because I’m wearing my husband’s clothes (and no bra!) at least I know what social taboo I broke, and I know that breaking it was my decision.

Returning to my original point, there is some overlap between my experience and that of the transgender community. Transsexualism is something else entirely, because a transsexual experiences their trans identity as being their essential or somatic identity. But I’m way over any kind of reasonable word-count at the moment and that’s a massive topic that deserves a post of its own.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

6 thoughts on “Sex and Gender

  1. AHA! It’s good to know that someone else experiences some of the same issues as I do. I totally suck at female small talk. This is why I get labeled as “shy”. I’m not necessarily shy. I just don’t see the point in many of these conversations. The topics don’t captivate me and neither does John & Stasi Eldredge book of the same name!

  2. I can definitely relate. I consider myself gender queer and have always felt like a misfit among the average woman. The only thing that is different is that I never connected with guys either. Perhaps because I grew up in a male chauvinistic culture and so men seemed very oppressive to me. It wasn’t until I went on for post-grad work within more moderate Christian circles that I finally felt like I was where I belong. As a nerd, I am not very good at small talk and it seems most people don’t like to have deep, intense conversations all the time. But in the academy people do. In this setting I have noticed that at the parties where the male colleagues bring their wives that I end up often talking to the men–but that could be because their wives are not necessarily in the program. Whereas I share academic interests with the men.

    The other thing that is slightly different is that I used to be very androgynous or masculine in the way I dressed. Felt very uncomfortable in feminine clothing. This was the case from a young age. But, in my late 20s, for whatever reason, I started to feel more comfortable with myself as a woman and wanted to look a little nicer than jeans and t-shirts all the time. It may be that I was a late bloomer that way. I am a nerd and it seems most nerds are a little oblivious about appearance. I couldn’t understand why people always thought I was not dressed right. I mean, I had showered, was clean, and all appropriate parts of my body were covered. So, what more did anyone need? I really didn’t understand why wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt to school or an outing was a problem.

    Or it may have had something to do with two lesbian friends I made around that time who were very stylish and I suddenly understood why people think appearance matters. I never understood prior to that what the big deal was–I wasn’t attracted to men so what they wore had no impact, I didn’t tend to be attracted to heterosexual women–especially feminine women, and most lesbians I had hung out with prior to then didn’t pay much attention to their appearance either. So I think I suddenly became aware of what sensuality was and how it connected with my femininity because in noticing the appearance of my stylish lesbian friends something clicked that I think normally clicks for people in adolescence.

    It is still very rare to catch me in a skirt and I tend toward casual, but I am a little more comfortable with my femininity than when I was younger to the point where people are sometimes surprised to know I am gay.

  3. I’m pretty much the same way hanging out with guys. I’m constantly listening, trying to pick up the “language” so I can play along. Over the years, I’ve grown much more comfortable in my own body and have lost a lot of my more effeminate mannerisms, so I glide by unnoticed most of the time. Still, if the conversation turns to the typical “sports and cars,” or if it devolves into a bunch of smack-talk and posturing, I’m pretty much out of the loop.

  4. Pingback: The sound of complicated women | Mirrorgirl

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