Who Owns Gender?

This post is really brilliant, and encapsulates many of the issues I have with neuroessentialism and “born this way” trans* activism.

From the brilliant Delilah Campbell, who I hope comes across this blog, because I suspect we’d have a lot to talk about:


Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

Hello to you in Gibraltar, Burkina Faso, or wherever you may be.

I’ve been keeping track of what countries my blog visitors come from, and was surprised (and excited!) to find that there are people reading this in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, and Burkina Faso.

If you’re from a far-flung locale, particularly if you’re from outside of English-speaking countries, I’d love to hear about how gender and gendering works where you’re from.  People outside of a “gender binary” exist everywhere, and the varieties of gender-nonconforming people depend largely on what available gender roles exist in society and what the consequences are of operating outside those roles.  Please feel free to leave a comment about gender non-conformity where you’re from, including any information about who is allowed to step outside gender roles–for instance, many societies have accepted third-gender positions for males who adopt some aspects of a female’s societal role, but lack a similar position for females wishing to adopt male social roles.

Welcome to the blog, folks from sixty nations(!), and please keep reading–there’ll be plenty more where this came from.

Two Stories, True Stories: On the Creation and Re-Creation of Gender in Memory

This is the story of two people.


Annie–we’ll call her Annie–was born unambiguously female, and from the time she was a very young child, everyone could tell that she was just about as girly as they came.  For several years, Annie would only wear skirts and dresses–never jeans or pants, and she’d cry if anyone made her dress “like a boy.”  As a very young girl, she played with dolls, had tea parties for her stuffed animals, and acted in a caretaker role for friends and family alike, even as a little child.  She grew her hair long, long, long, as long as possible.  She loved Disney princess movies and plundered her mother’s romance novels.

Annie was excited to get her first period, maybe because she had read too many Judy Blume books and thought it was terribly romantic in some senses, and later enjoyed sex both with herself and with others.  She maintained long-term friendships through her adolescence and young adulthood with a fairly small number of close female friends.  Annie reads celebrity gossip blogs from time to time, tries to keep relatively current with fashion trends on her limited budget, and communicates with her loved ones in an emotional, cautious way that is designed to take care with their feelings.  She pipes down during many discussions involving men, preferring to demur when it seems prudent (which is often) rather than making people think she’s a “bitch.”


Andy–we’ll call her Andy–was born unambiguously female in terms of her genitals and chromosomes, but everyone–everyone!–could see that something wasn’t quite normal in terms of her gender presentation, from basically the time she started to talk.  She showed very little interest in “girl clothes” as a toddler, going so far as to scream and throw tantrums if someone tried to dress her in pink or frills.  Andy preferred getting dirty in the garden to helping mom in the kitchen, and all her jeans had holes in them from the times she skinned her knees riding her bike, exploring the woods near her house, and so on.  Her parents worried that she was a lesbian.

Andy liked science, and math, and looking through her microscope and telescope.  She played with boys, and had little time for girls.  She was upset and quietly contemplative about getting her period for the first time, because it put her squarely into the “girl” category she was more and more uncomfortable with.  She became confrontational and angry, and started cutting her hair short, wearing oversized sweaters, baggy jeans, and steel-toed work boots, and never so much as learned to put on makeup.  People called her “Pat,” as a pejorative, referring to the androgynous character on Saturday Night Live.  Andy was uncomfortable with her changing, developing adolescent body, and uncomfortable with how it made people treat her.  While she was interested in sex, her non-conforming gender presentation made it difficult for her to find a relationship for some time.  As an adult, she has never been comfortable with the gender assigned to her–she prefers communicating in a very direct style, regardless of what it makes people think.  Andy today follows science and technology news, plays video games, and writes science fiction, often from a male point of view.  The majority of her friends are men.


If a person with Annie’s history chose to transition and start identifying as a man, most people would be quite surprised.  For someone with Andy’s past, though, it would seem like transition was simply a natural step–perhaps one she should have considered much sooner.

The problem with this is that Annie and Andy are the same person.  They’re both me.  In my life, my conformity with gender roles has waxed and waned, over and over again–in my life today, I present as significantly more “feminine” than I did six or seven years ago and much more than when I was in high school, though probably substantially less feminine than when I was a five year old.  I’m not genderqueer.  I’m not “cisgender,” which would imply a comfort level with my gender that in no way exists, but I’m also certainly not transgender.  I was just some regular girl-kid who went through all the ambivalence and anxiety that being female creates in our society, and became a woman-adult who never fully got comfortable with what it was I was supposed to be doing as a woman.

When people make the decision to transition, they do something quite ordinary involving their memory, something that we all do from time to time.  In my professional life, I often end up discussing with attorneys how they got started in their career.  It’s incredible how many of them believe that they were born to be attorneys–they can point out specific moments in childhood and adolescence where their latent attorney-ness fired off and was recognized by others.  They point, glowingly, to the time their second-grade teacher told them “you’ll be a lawyer someday,” or the day that they helped the bullied kid stand up to their bullies.

But, I always wonder: if they had become a doctor, instead, wouldn’t they have had some “doctor” moments, too?  A time when they put Band-Aids all over their teddy bear, or were very brave and even curious as the doctor stitched up a cut, watching the needle move through their skin with fascination instead of tears?  If they’d gone into business for themselves first, would they recall their childhood lemonade stand through the haze of nostalgia and memory and say they were born for business?

Almost all of us have some “lawyer moments” as children.  But we also almost all have some “doctor moments.”  Some teacher moments, some artist moments, some entrepreneurial moments.  We have them all, because human beings are complex, and in telling the stories of ourselves, we change what parts of our past matter, what parts are worth remembering and mentioning, based on our present self-image.  As human beings, we are attracted to consistent narrative–we thrive on stories, whether they’re about fictional characters, our friends, or ourselves.

We can modify our stories about ourselves in any number of ways without making those stories untrue.  As you identify more strongly with a trait, a profession, or an identity category, your life’s narrative will shift–imperceptibly at first, and then so strongly you couldn’t believe it was ever any other way–to making your story the story of The Person You Believe Yourself To Be Today. What’s more, we do it with other people: once a person decides that one of their children is the “compassionate one” and the other one is the “daring one,” or once one child is a lawyer and the other a nurse, parents often create these same kinds of revisionist narratives of their sons’ and daughters’ childhoods.


All this is by way of saying: I find it highly, highly suspect when anyone starts talking about gender non-conformity in their childhood or adolescence as proof that gender is brain-linked or that their transgender identity has been consistent since their early days.  I find it even more highly suspect when parents talk about gender non-conformity in their children as evidence that their children were simply always boys in girls’ bodies or vice versa.

Why?  Because I’ve seen the amazing lengths that memory can go to in order to produce that compelling, cohesive narrative.  Because transgenderism isn’t unique in leading people to embark on what amounts to autobiographical revisionism–in fact, this kind of revisionism happens to nearly everybody, for whatever it is that they hang their identity hat on.  Republicans, writers, religious converts, business leaders–whatever the core of your chosen identity, you will see aspects of that throughout your life, even though you might have seen very different aspects of your past as important if you had chosen a different basis for your identity.

That’s why the dominant media narrative of transgenderism follows the same narrative curve: child expresses displeasure with his or her sex organs or gender roles, child grows into moody, depressed adolescent, adolescent grows into adult who comes out of the closet and starts transition.  Sometimes we’re now skipping those second two parts, and keeping just the first one before delaying puberty, starting hormone injections, or even having surgery (I was just reading about a surgeon who will perform double mastectomies on children as young as 12).  The media has to put messy, complicated lives into a narrative their readers will care about, a consistent narrative without confusing loose ends that never get tied up.  The media ur-story about transition then begins to influence how individual transitioning people construct their own autobiographical trans narrative.

If I made a decision to transition, starting tomorrow, I could use Andy’s narrative in a heartbeat and get all the sympathy in the world.  It’s fairly close to the classic trans narrative.  It wouldn’t be the whole story, but no autobiography is, nor can it be–unless, perhaps, you, dear reader, are actually Marcel Proust, and have chosen to read this blog rather than engaging in many of the other fascinating activities available to you in the afterlife.

The point of all of this is not that revisionism is wrong, but merely that it happens, and is unavoidable when people begin to have a self-identity that depends on having a particular trait or belonging to a particular group.  We should be cautious about considering narratives of childhood or adolescence–whether they are biographical or autobiographical in nature–to be substantial evidence of inborn, unchanging traits or qualities.  To paraphrase Whitman: we are large, we contain multitudes.  In each of us as children were a hundred adult narratives waiting to be created and re-created, and every one had its own peculiar version of our earliest history.

Percentages, Prevalence, And Why Women Get Freaked Out By This Whole “Locker Room” Thing

One of the things I set out to do with this blog is to talk about why it is that trans* issues create a complex interplay of conflicts between groups.

The bathroom/locker room issue is one where I feel both sides are talking past each other, rather than to each other.  So let’s talk about it.  This is what I’ve seen, by reading things from both sides and trying to get past the intense personal rages that tend to frame these discussions on both sides.

Trans people, by and large, aren’t rapists and have no interest in sexually assaulting or causing any type of physical or emotional harm.  Many trans women, in particular, believe (often rightfully so) that their physical safety and mental health could be endangered by men in men’s locker rooms or bathrooms.

I accept all of this, completely.  However, what I don’t accept is the idea that no men will take advantage of there being a legitimated way to gain access to women’s spaces.  Let’s talk about some numbers.

It’s hard to estimate the actual number of men who are or will become rapists in the United States.  While very large percentages of women and smaller percentages of men are rape victims, studies suggest that a large majority of rapes are committed by rapists who rape several different individuals, resulting in there being a smaller percentage of rapists than rape victims.  However, the prevalence of rapists in the male population is still estimated at somewhere in the vicinity of 10 percent.

Let’s take a high school as our setting for a bathroom conflict of interests, so I can show you why it’s complicated to allow transwomen access to women’s spaces at some times, and why that doesn’t mean in any way that someone believes all trans women, most trans women, or even ANY trans women are rapists.

Let’s say this high school is about the size of the high school I attended back in the age of the dinosaurs–so about 1500 students.

That’s 750 males, 750 females.

Based on the prevalence of trans* people in the population (around three-tenths of a percent), if all trans* kids came out, there would be about 4-5 trans students in the school, 2-3 of whom would be trans girls.

Now, let’s say you have a locker room–it could be a locker room like the one I had to change in every day, the girls’ swimming locker room, in which full nudity was necessary for changing into and out of your bathing suit.  It’s my contention that the issue isn’t with the 2-3 trans girls, who are just trying to escape male violence that they could be exposed to in the men’s locker room.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the 75 rapists.

Out of 750 boys in the school, 75 of them are already or will become rapists at some point in their lifetime.  A number of the ones who do not become actual rapists will still be creeps of some variety, including your garden-variety flashers, subway masturbators, and abusers.

Do you sincerely believe that out of 75 men sociopathic enough to believe rape is something they’re entitled to, not one of those men would see a naked-girls-changing-clothing space as so worth invading that it’s also worth jumping through some gender hoops for?

Think of the most psychotic assholes who went to your high school.  If they were anything like the people who went to mine, they were males who’d have done basically anything to be creepy perverted assholes.  They knew how to suck up to people in power to make it all look unintentional, so they never got in trouble.

And all it takes is one.  When women’s locker rooms aren’t penis-free zones, the first rape that occurs makes women less likely to go to the gym, to participate in sports, to gain all of the benefits of physical activity that those locker rooms once gave them access to.  Women’s locker rooms, especially for pools and other spaces involving full nudity, were never comfortable places for me as a young woman–but neither were they places where I felt like I had to fear rape.

Now, this means–painfully clearly!–that there should be some place for trans* people to change and use the bathroom where they are not subject to that kind of risk, because those 75 rapists are still around in the men’s locker room.  Please know that I’m not saying that trans women should just use men’s facilities, risking harm.

The solution that seems most obvious to me would be to have a third locker room that involved exclusively individual-sized lockable stalls with good privacy, rather than a large open space for changing–which could be used by any person of any gender identity or sex to change in.  I suspect that some women who currently use women’s facilities might switch to such individual compartment changing rooms, since I have seen large numbers of girls and women who change in the bathroom, risking terrible accidents involving bikinis and toilet water, just so they won’t be seen naked, even by other women.  Not having had the ability to observe men in their native locker room habitats, I don’t know if the same thing goes for them.

If it turns out everyone prefers individual compartment rooms, great, let’s convert locker rooms into that–it wouldn’t be the first time that society had changed how we do rooms in order to create additional privacy.  Anyone who’s traveled abroad for some time, or who has studied history and how houses and castles used to look, has probably seen a row of toilet holes, with no dividers.  At some point, folks here decided that we’d really rather not watch our neighbors take a dump, regardless of their sex or how well acquainted we were.  It may be that it’s come time to do the same with locker rooms.

I think a lot of trans* people, and a lot of women (and, hell, probably some men, too, though I don’t know enough about their overall locker room shyness levels, as I said), would be able to use these facilities.  When trans* women say that this kind of situation isn’t enough (I’m thinking here of the Evergreen State situation, in which a transgender woman was first told she could use a separate auxiliary women’s changing room, but not the changing room where other women were), it sets off red flags in a lot of women’s heads. Why?  Because it suddenly looks like you’re not just trying to get away from an unsafe situation, but instead are creating a situation that others may perceive as potentially dangerous.

Sure, I understand the problems inherent to “separate but equal.”  There needs to be understanding on the trans* side, though, that women aren’t just making up these concerns about rapists and their inability to feel safe in a space that previously was free from possible invasion by men who’d like to rape them.

Even if we make an assumption that zero trans women with penises will use that penis for rape (a bad assumption, as I’d think there are some rapists in any group of that size), it doesn’t mean that a fear of rape by men who are manipulating their way into a locker room is irrational.  People born male are more than 30 times more likely to become a rapist than they are to transition into a feminine gender role, and that matters when it comes time for women to evaluate the risks of letting people with penises into spaces that had, heretofore, been penis-free.

There is no perfect solution, because we do not live in a perfect world.  We live in a world with rapists, manipulators, liars.  If there were no rape, we could easily have fully integrated communal bathrooms and changing rooms with no objections.  That’s not the world we live in.

If you want to understand the bathroom problem from another perspective, let’s consider the perspectives of four groups of people–non-transgender males, non-transgender females, MtF trans* people, and FtM trans* people–as locker rooms open from being sex-segregated to being segregated by man/woman gender identity and/or expression.

For non-transgender males, this change is either neutral (if you’re not a creep) or, if you’re a really incredibly gross dude, it could be positive to you, because you might be able to gain entry into a women’s space to gawk or rape.

For MtF transgender people, this change is significantly positive, removing them from a large majority of potential rapists and into a space where they feel more comfortable, happy, and at ease.

For non-transgender females, the change is neutral to negative.  Rape risks are real, and fears of manipulative men invading women’s spaces, sometimes even at great personal cost, are also real.

For FtM people, the change is unlikely to be positive and could be significantly negative.  If an FtM person is forced to go to the men’s locker room, they risk rape for their gender-nonconformity.  Their alternative is to stay in the women’s locker room, where they feel they do not belong.

So here’s the problem radical feminists have with that: do you notice the groups that are getting positive effects, and the groups that are getting negative ones?  People born with penises, regardless of the gender they identify as, are at worst looking at a policy change that is neutral to them.  People born with vaginas, on the other hand, regardless of their gender identity, are being hurt by this policy at worst and will find it neutral at best.

Now, let’s look at the three-bathroom idea, and how it affects those same groups of people:

Non-transgender men: this policy is neutral to positive for non-transgender men.  Men who are embarrassed to change in the company of other men may prefer the third room, resulting in a positive experience versus the current configuration.

Transgender MtF people: this policy is positive, with caveats, for MtF people.  It definitely decreases the risk of rape or harassment that could befall an MtF person in a men’s locker room.  However, the positives of this may be tempered for some MtF people by the fact that going to a separate locker room would seem like it was invalidating some aspect of their gender identity.

Non-transgender females: This policy would be neutral to positive for non-transgender females.  Some of these women would choose to use a third bathroom.

FtM people: This policy would be positive–few FtM people were able to use men’s locker rooms without fear of harassment or rape.  The policy allows FtM people to go into a safe space locker room that isn’t designated as being for the gender they do not identify with.

So, that’s the bathroom/locker room problem.  It’s complicated, and like I said, no solution is perfect because we don’t live in a perfect world.  But could we maybe take a few minutes for everyone to acknowledge that yes, both sides in this intense disagreement have very real fears about assault, rape, and identity, and that any good solution for these issues will, in fact, work by taking those fears into account rather than dismissing them out of hand?