Sunday, March 24, 2013

A real woman

I think about gender a lot. I think it about it when I parent. I think about it when I write. I think about it when I make new friends. I think about it (a lot) when I work. I think about it when it deems my marriage unequal. I think about it when I walk alone down a city street. 

Gender, just for clarity, is how we define ourselves, not necessarily what we're born with. Gender expression is what we do with our internal understanding of ourselves in order to present it to the rest of the world. For most of us, what genitals we have and the hormones we produce match how we would define ourselves to the outside world. Whether we have one or two X chromosomes drives a lot of what happens in our development. For the most part we're all the same embryologically until those chromosomes start telling us to differentiate: XX and suddenly everything is more emotional and you get paid less, XY and boom! you get to rule the world.

The reason this is on my mind right now is the issue of whether Smith College, my beloved alma mater, was discriminating against a transwoman when it rejected her application. There has been an incredible backlash online both to the woman and to the college, often in infuriatingly angry and knee-jerk ways. Is she a woman? Does Smith discriminate? Do trans people belong at Smith or women's colleges in general? Is the current policy sufficient? But what I think every one of the articles and blog posts I've read has missed completely is this: What is a woman?

Whether you're a man or a woman, you have some baseline definition for this, but you probably don't think about it specifically on a regular basis. How do you know I'm a woman? When I speak I use no qualifiers that would tip you as to what gender I am, at least when I'm speaking in English. But. I have long hair. Long eye lashes. Low, pudgy cheek bones. I have curves. I have a relatively high pitched voice. I giggle. I wear dresses. I cry at romantic comedies (no seriously, every time). I wear lipstick. I have never registered to be drafted for war. I attended a preeminent women's college. How many attributes do I need before you think I'm a woman? Until you believe I'm a woman?

Because I'm also tall. I play a lot of different sports and truly enjoy watching them. I'm competitive. I like whiskey. I know how to drive a fire truck. I'm particularly good at math and science. I curse like a truck driver (sorry, Dad). If these were the only things you knew about me, would you think me a man?

By and large, we don't walk around looking at people's genitals in order to determine their gender. We rely on these traits, feminine and masculine, to determine how we will relate to the person we're interacting with. How many feminine traits must I have before I am automatically labeled female? And what's more important: what I say I am or what I was handed by chromosomal command? Does that change if I medically or surgically alter what structures I have or hormones I make? And if I have exactly the same number of feminine and masculine traits does that make me something other than male or female? Do physical traits trump personality traits? Do I decide or do the people around me decide? And, to make it more complex, how do we define gender institutionally? You might not want it to matter, but it does. It matters in all kinds of ways: it changes how things get funded, it helps ensure some measure of equality, it drives what kind of health issues you'll be at screened for, whether or not you'll be involuntarily sent to war, it directs you to a type of bathroom, and in this case, determines whether you'll be allowed to enter an all female college.

We have a reflexive drive for the binary. We don't like in between. I was reminded of this in the recent New Yorker article about kids who are transgender. At least one person suggested that because being transgender is becoming more common (or at least more visible) that it is, essentially, OVER-accepted and we're starting to label children transgender when they're not in an effort to be ultra-inclusive. To me that's not an issue of whether or not the kid is transgender; that's an issue with us continuing to insist that we all pick a category rather than getting comfortable with the middle ground. I can understand wanting to know right this second with no questions and no exceptions. How easy would that be? But, like so many things in life, that's not really how personal identity or identity expression goes. It's nuanced. It changes. It morphs. It refines. And then, just when you think you know someone (or yourself), it changes again.

On the subject of stereotypes: stereotypes exist because they're often true. They are, frankly, incredibly useful most of the time. But they can be damaging if used to pigeon hole or assume or discriminate. The cost of usefulness is having to self-monitor more often to avoid missing the real person. A skill we could all use to practice more often.

Sometimes the binary system is useful. It gives us a sense of belonging. We are on a team, just by the virtue of our genitals or gender expression. As humans, especially in this culture, we operate largely on comparison, on competition. It's a motivator as well as a measure of success. The thing about drawing a line in the sand, though, is that it creates an us vs. them mentality. Which, if you brave the divide, can evoke a sense of betrayal, of severe otherness. The discordance between how comfortable you are in your own body and the exogenous expectations of those around you is a steep cliff.

No one really understands why some people cannot tolerate their biological sex as their gender. I'll leave the scientific theories for my lectures, but suffice it to say that gender dysphoria absolutely exists. Something happens that makes the hormonal effects of your biological sex intolerable for some people. From changes in how you dress and wear your hair to hormone therapy to surgical procedures, there are ways to make this discordance less severe and in some cases resolve it completely. We're in the middle of cultural conversation about which of these changes constitutes the transition from one to the other (a conversation that would be obsolete if we were more comfortable outside a binary code).

So what makes me a real woman? Am I defined by my ability to conform to enough of the cultural expectations that delineate a "real" woman? Am I defined by the absence (most of the time) of more masculine characteristics? Am I defined by my insatiable use of the letter F on forms that require gender or sex? (Maybe I'm more accurately defined by my frequent use of the word that begins with F).

I don't know if Smith is in the right or wrong here. I don't know what the actual thinking was behind the decision. I do know that in our society you must belong to one or the other and there isn't a lot of tolerance for the in between, the transition. I think it's incredible that transgender adolescents and their families have the strength to make these changes. If you identify as female when you apply for college, then you should be given the same chance for admission to a women's college as anyone born with female genitalia. But as a culture the issue lies with how we decide who is female or male. In this particular case at least one of the issues is that the state of CT defines it based on genital structure, whether that be natural born or surgical. I don't agree with it, and it's part of my work to get that changed, but for right now that's what it is. From another perspective, though, we are significantly more progressive in that we allow a change at all, which is not true in many many states. DMV documents and passports can also be changed without surgical procedures. These changes are painfully slow for those who are transitioning or have transitioned. It's awful to be the leader of the pack when the pack is small, outnumbered, and going against one of the fundamental identifiers of everyone everywhere.

I often feel grateful that I feel comfortable in my body. The physical changes that have happened to me over the years, from puberty to child-bearing, have not felt like a betrayal. I don't have to think about what I'm doing when I check "female" on forms, whether someone somewhere might think I'm lying, or, worse, not a real woman. Because of the way I look I almost never have to convince anyone that I am, in fact, female. Maybe the mitzvah for being comfortable in your own skin is to be open to the conversation, to be looking for ways to ensure that policies and institutions adapt to the ways that we are changing as humans and as a society. To not be afraid to talk openly and constructively about this in mixed company. To take a thoughtful approach to the transition, if you will, of society and institutions. To be part of the conversation and not part of the stone-throwing.

1 comment:

A Quiet Corner said...

YOU ARE beautiful in your own skin, Katy...I see it whenever I am in your presence. For you the beauty comes from within as well as your exterior and I for one am proud to know you!...:)JP