Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sex and Gender

(cross-posted from

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.


  1. Thanks Melinda. This is really interesting, along with the second post that nicely balances your personal experience with more theoretical considerations. What confuses me in this post is your use of the term "gender queer". What exactly do you mean by it? You never give it a definition, but from what you describe you seem to mean someone who, while comfortable with their sexual identity nonetheless has significant contrasexual personality traits. But I don't see that there is anything "queer" about this at all. It seems to me that a good balance of masculine and feminine is healthy and normal. I like pink flowers, ballet and my skin crawls every time your husband pulls out that ugly knife he uses for martial arts training. These things are fairly superficial, but they are neither culturally nor archetypally masculine. May I suggest that contrasexual traits well-integrated into the personality make me perhaps less masculine but a better man. I think your masculine traits make you a better woman. Even though I know you don't mean the word "queer" as denoting anything negative, it still doesn't seem like the right word for what you describe.

    1. Hey Neil. I agree that a healthy balance is normal, and people who really play into gender stereotypes kind of tend to seem like they're lacking part of their personality. However, I do think there's a place where one crosses the line from "a gal with a well-integrated animus" to gender-queer. You, for instance, sport a beard, talk like a guy, interact with other people like a guy, and to the best of my knowledge you've never been particularly inclined to parade about in skirts. If we're hanging with a group of mixed company, you'll tend to gravitate towards the male conversation, and Mantis has so far never raised the possibility of extending you a grant of honourary womanhood. I, on the other hand, start going stark-raving mad if I don't spend at least a third of my time in persona Thut, or Tory, or Manilius, or Germanicus, or Catullus, or Juvenal, or... At some point I realized that I never feel strongly compelled to dress and behave as my female characters -- I will do it as a character development exercise, but it's not a psychological survival mechanism. And I can't function at all unless I have at least one masculine persona that I can retreat into. That to me seems a little abnormal, and I think it's pretty clearly related to my sense of gender-identity and my capacity to function in the world as a woman.

  2. Great post! I sympathize a lot with what you say here. I have a huge amount of trouble establishing strong emotional relationships with men or women. I guess I have a strong male identity(I can't imagine any other way of being) but its really hard for me to connect beyond a supperficial level with other men. I always feel like a lightning rod for contempt. Everything I say seems to rub people the wrong way or alienate them even though I intend no disrespect or malice. If I express my apologies I get waved off as paranoid (by both male and female friends and family) which just increases my already isolating tendencies. My spiritual director once asked me if I had ever been on intimate terms with anyone, when I asked him what that meant he just said "Never mind" and changed the subject. Im not sure if this has anything to do with gender identity but most of the blogs I enjoy the most are those written by women. I don't experience gender confusion but there is something that attracts me to a "typical-Femine" expression of thought. The feminine genius I guess?

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding. Glad to have you following the blog. It's kind of a world-of-misfit-toys sort of place. This may not be helpful, but have you considered geekdom? I've found that Doctor Who fan clubs, board game clubs and table-top RPG groups are a great place to meet people whose social expectations are way lower than usual -- everybody kind of behaves in ways that "rub people the wrong way" and everybody kind of gets that there's no disrespect or malice in it. At least that's my experience.

  3. Interesting article.

    I have been reading up on the biological side of such issues. All brains start out as female. Androgens alter the brain and "masculinize" it. Obviously, this generally happens to a significantly greater degree in men than in women.

    Still, the pattern is not so much binary as it is bimodal. There is a lot of space both in-between and beyond the margins.

    One of the hallmarks of the "masculinized brain" is less social awareness (for lack of a better term). Another is a relative ability to hyperfocus, or "geek out". These traits are seen in different degrees in both men and women. A man may have an hypermasculinized brain, but paradoxically, this may cause him difficulty in relating to normal men. (Think of "nerds" vs. more stereotypical male "jocks".)

    For women, having a more masculinized brain may make them more socially masculine (or "geeky"), even while maintaining a female sexual identity. This study details some of the effects that androgen excesses have on girls (and has a long series of great links, which I would love to geek out on sometime.)

    Going back to the subject of this blog, it appears that Catholic teaching on women, marriage, sexuality, etc. may be particularly difficult for women dealing with androgen issues, even for happily married heterosexual women.

  4. Thank you for that helpful explanation of what being genderqueer is. I'm afraid that I had assumed that it was a meaningless term used by straight people to pass as queer and infiltrate queer spaces. Not charitable, I admit.


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