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.

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7 thoughts on “Two Stories, True Stories: On the Creation and Re-Creation of Gender in Memory

  1. Yes – we create the stories by which we understand ourselves and the world around us. We create our own mythologies, for better and worse. Always good to keep in mind, not just when we encounter other people, but when we try to understand ourselves.

  2. This post is really brilliant. It gets at one of the niggling little things that make me so uncomfortable about the way gender is talked about in my social circle. I also am an Annie/Andy type. If I was less honest or had a more selective memory I could tell a story about how I was always a masculine kind of girl and then I grew up to be a butch lesbian, the end. But it would be total bullshit! I wore dresses and liked to be told how pretty I looked in them. I loved china dolls because they were so delicate and lovely. I also rode my bike everywhere, loved fighting and rough housing, and was obsessed with science fiction, legos, and video games- but who’s to say a girl can’t love rough housing, science fiction, legos, and video games anyway? Rather than selecting parts of my personal history and discarding anything that doesn’t fit, I prefer to think that the category of “woman” is large enough to include even a men’s clothing wearing, sci-fi loving, sex-obsessed lesbian like me.

    Now, I’m all for personal expression. But when someone tells me that they’re a man trapped in a woman’s body because they’re really good at math, I want to scream. It feels like there’s this campaign to redefine women by their most limited, stereotypical qualities, and then for everyone who doesn’t have those qualities to jump ship and claim they’re not actually women after all. It’s misogyny. I really think that’s it. Women are deciding that all other women are icky and lame and they don’t want to be associated with them, so they’ll be transmen, or genderqueers, or andros.

  3. A great post, it sheds an interesting light on the re-writing of history that individuals engage in. We all have an external and an internal narrative. They are not always the same in that the external narrative often will contain the rationalizations of our internal narrative. It also goes both ways. Sometimes, what is patently clear on the outside will be rationalized to be able to incorporate a coherent image of ourselves into our internal narrative. It is, most often the re-writing of history.

    Remember the old adage that history is written by the victor. I believe this lies at the root of narratives. Narratives are stories told from the perspective of the teller, not the perspective of the actual history.

    Your and my history would always be different whether told by me, by my mother, by my sisters or my friends. Of course none of it is reality. It’s a story and an acculturated one as well.

    Where your argument tends to fail, in my view is that a lot of gender variant tend to latch on such narratives to justify the fulfillment of a fantasy of living a secure life however that may be perceived. Immutable traits express themselves quite differently than what you described and they have little or nothing to do with gender.

  4. It seems like the implication of your argument boils down to:
    (1) Your experience of gender is complex and revised over time.
    (2) You’re not trans.
    (3) Everyone’s experience of gender is complex and revised over time.
    • Therefore:
    (4) No one is trans.
    (Or at the very least, we can discount people’s reported experience of gender identity.)

    It’s possible that #4 is not really your desired implication. There seems to be reason for to be cautious, though, given the audience that you seem to be cultivating. I do appreciate that, unlike many of your commenters, you seem to have *some* interest in mutual co-existence with the trans community (as in your locker room piece). But listening to and accepting your experience of gender identity isn’t an argument for rejecting the experience of others.

    Should we be cautious of your conspicuously crafted narrative, too, or only the narratives of trans folks?

  5. An extraordinarily well-argued essay. I too have serious concerns about six year olds “transitioning,” puberty blocking drigs being foisted on children, and a frightening attitude that gender, which is learned behavior, is somehow identical to sex which is biology. Children need to be free to explore who they are and what they want to do wiithout being locked into a trans narrative.

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