You’re a freak! You’re a pervert! You’re possessed by a malevolent spirit! Something is seriously screwed up in your head! What kind of deviant are you? It’s one thing when statements like these are said to trans people by those who are not. But even when negative, hurtful or hateful opinions aren’t said directly to a person—the vitriol is real!—culture and society still seem to have knack for circulating terrible messages over time and across platforms. In other words, we humans are basically programmed to equate sex to gender. Anything that deviates from that is weird or unacceptable. Oft times, trans individuals find themselves saying these mean things to themselves. Hence the root of a lot of the deep-seated anxiety, depression, self-loathing and even suicide that plagues our community.
Sociologists call it “socialization” (if you really want to nerd out and get the word out on socialization, click here!), or the way our ideologies, thoughts, identities, behaviors and so on are shaped over time by our environment—especially by other people. It’s important to distinguish which aspects of our identities are innate and which aspects are learned—the old Nature vs. Nurture argument! In the case of gender, the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against any Nurture argument.
One of the most compelling, and unfortunate, examples is that of Bruce Reimer. He and his twin brother, Brian, were born in August 1965. Bruce’s penis had been burned off in a freak circumcision accident. The boys’ mother reached out to an ambitious psychologist by the name of Dr. John Money who opportunistically decided it would be a great opportunity to demonstrate his hypothesis: that gender can be taught and learned.
Long story short, the experiment failed. The individual who lost the most was poor Bruce, whose mother—at the direction of Dr. Money—attempted to raise Bruce as a girl. There’s a lachrymose ending to this story. Find an in-depth account of how things turned out for Bruce Reimer — Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis. It turned out, though, that Dr. Money was no monster (perhaps just misguided in Bruce’s case). In fact, John Money coined the term “gender identity” and is known as a great contributor to the branch of psychology dedicated to sexual and gender identity. He also helped bring awareness to transexualism and gender reassignment surgery. All of this and more can be found in his New York Times obit.
Gender identity—identity in general—is not predominantly learned; and it’s not behavior in the sense that one can choose whether or not to “do it” or “act on it.” It’s laughable to think anyone could be taught to be transgender. Although, gender (and all other aspects of identity) can certainly shape our behaviors; and as we go through life, our identities are certainly augmented as we learn. Some of the simplest, most common examples of how we are socialized according to gender are when someone says “Be a man!” “Boys don’t play with dolls!” “Don’t be such a pansy!” “That’s not very ladylike!” “Women belong in the kitchen!” “Shouldn’t you be at home raising your children?”
The list is endless. These are the types of messages that perennially circulate throughout our society. They reinforce “gender norms” and “gender roles” that falsely stereotype the ideal man or woman, boy or girl. What’s worse is that people most commonly tie sex to gender. This is how we wound up in this mess! Unless you are transgender, you’ll likely never fully understand the purely innate status of gender identity the way we do. What I mean is that cisgender people don’t generally wake up in the mornings and take note of their gender identity. For a transgender person, knowing their gender is innate; but expressing their gender is what takes work; and for many of us, it can take a lifetime to work up the courage to even do it.
When you wash yourself in the shower, your genitals don’t feel alien, gross or out of place. When you dress yourself—while it’s possible you may wish you could afford a completely new wardrobe—the clothes in your closet don’t look someone else’s threads. As you look in the mirror, your face doesn’t cause confusion or grief or cognitive dissonance—you don’t look at your face and see someone you don’t recognize. This is all because, as a cisgender person, your gender status matches the body you were born into. It doesn’t take any special action (such as transitioning) to confirm or affirm your gender. Even though most people do all sorts of things that confirm their gender identities, it happens subconsciously or without thinking.
Here’s another way to think of it: When you woke up today, did you have to remind yourself that you’re a man? Did you have to say I’m a woman? Unless you suffer from a severe case of amnesia—like Guy Pierce’s character in Christopher Nolan’s amazing breakout film Memento (2000)—chances are you did not. And even though Leonard (Pierce) had to use a series of Polaroid pictures to piece together his fragmented memories, I’m guessing he never needed a photo to remind him that he’s a he.
We trans guys and gals don’t necessarily suffer from amnesia; however, I definitely love seeing pictures of myself that accentuate my femininity. This one kind of does that. When I see it, the woman staring back at me looks more familiar than the man/boy I’ve been locking eyes with for decades. Similar to an amnesiac, when you feel like a woman but find yourself looking back at a man, it results in confusion, anxiety and sometimes even anger or self-loathing. This goes for any transgender person whose gender identity (how they identify deep down) may not align with how they look. Thankfully, as I’ve begun to transition, my mind has gradually begun to normalize as who I feel like on the inside moves closer to who I look like on the outside.
“But looks aren’t everything, Whitney!”
Any confident, well-established trans person will tell you that your gender identity, especially as transgender, is not and should not be affirmed by some need to adhere to stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. I imagine this would also apply to those who are gender queer, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming, since by definition their identities do not adhere to a masculine-feminine dichotomy. The idea that as a trans woman I have to look a certain kind of feminine or a certain type of female in order to confirm or affirm my gender is a direct product of Western culture. And yet I do have a general idea of how I want to, or even need to, look! For me, though, that’s ok. As far as my body’s physical traits (i.e., breasts, face, skin, genitalia, etc.) and my clothing, jewelry, accessories, as well as the decor in my bedroom and even my phone and computer cases, I like things that are stereotypically “girly”! If you’d ask a hardcore, progressive gender activist, I’m contributing to the problem.
For real, though, I shouldn’t have to feel like I need to spend 2 hours and a bazllion dollars on clothes, handbags, jewelry and so on just to be able to leave the house. Cisgender women don’t necessarily do that, right? If I walk out the door and I’m not wearing makeup, am I still a woman? That’s right! I buried the lede again! Of course I am! And when I can feel confident in knowing I’m a woman simply because I am, then I’m affirmed.