Dissolving the Distinction between Sex and Gender

It’s happening more and more, this confident address of “Can I help you, Sir,” “Hey, buddy,” “Do you have a moment for a woman’s right to choose, Sir?” and, even when there is no address, the sense that I walk about my new city, sit on public transit, and enter business establishments seen as a man.  Most of the time, it feels good.  It feels good to be ogled in the gay club.  It feels good to inhabit the men’s room with other male professors and never get a second look.  It feels good to not be treated in all the ridiculous ways men treat women.  But some parts of it don’t feel so good.  It doesn’t feel good to be stared at over the receptionist’s glasses, who can’t seem to believe that the female name on my paperwork does indeed belong to me. When I hear “Sir,” I am both thrilled and afraid, thrilled to be passing and afraid of the moment I speak, when everything changes, and I am suddenly treated like a woman, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were a FEMALE,” “Here you go, Ma’am.”

It makes less and less sense to me, the way ordinary folk made decisions about gender.  Here they have someone who looks, walks, and dresses like a man, who they saw as a man until I opened my mouth, and then what changed?  They heard a voice that was not a typical man’s voice.  But why, when so many details of my appearance said “man,” was one single female sign enough to tip the balance in the other direction, giving them the absolute certainty not only that I was female, but also that I should be addressed in treated in ways that one addresses and treats a woman?  I would wager that these same people who said “Sir” when they saw me coming would have a difficult time calling me “he” if I were to get to know them and inform them of my preferred gender pronoun.  It simply doesn’t make sense to me.  That one’s sex should so completely determine how one is seen and treated in the world and one’s gender so little.

I am starting to realize that what people find so disturbing about transfolk is the way in which we threaten the boundary between sex and gender, nature and culture, matter and mind, the biological and the social.  This requires some explaining, since, from one perspective, transpeople would demonstrate the necessity of analytically distinct categories of physical sex, on the one hand, and social gender, on the other.  According to this way of thinking, a transperson demonstrates that it is possible to have a felt sense of gender that is distinct from one’s physical sex.  So a non-physically transitioned transman, for instance, feels that he is a man (felt sense of gender, social role), but has a female body (physical sex).  And a physically transitioned transman has utilized medical technologies to bring his sex (female-to-male) as much into alignment with his gender (man) as possible.  Together, this “before and after” pair would seem to demonstrate the necessity of a distinction between sex and gender to the trans experience.

… or do it?  One thing that I have found confusing are the various, and indeed, contradictory uses of sex terms – male, female, male-bodied, female-bodied – and as gender terms – masculine, feminine, man, woman, with regards to trans people.  Most obviously, there is a disjuncture between what is legally required for a transman to be awarded an “M” on his legal documents and what transmen themselves understand to be a male body.  In most cases, the intent of the law is to make bottom surgery (for FTMs, a surgically constructed penis) the requirement for an “M”.  Doctors have gotten around this intent by using vague language in reference to hysterectomies, chest surgeries, or hormone treatment and certifying that these procedures have completed the transman’s medical transition to male.  The fact that such letters work does nothing to correct the state’s (and general public’s) understanding of bottom surgery as defining moment of transition to the other sex.  Rather, such letters rely on the conflation of “full physical transition” and the medical qualification of someone as male with bottom surgery itself, such that officials reading such letters are expected to assume that the medical treatment completing a person’s physical transition to male refers to the surgical construction of a penis.  Of course, the ridiculousness of making bottom surgery the key requirement for legal transition is made apparent by the fact that a transman who has had phalloplasty without top surgery or hormone therapy would, in both social and medical terms, be “less” male than someone who had had the latter two treatments without a phalloplasty.

But are the doctor’s letters lying then, lying, in the service of getting transmen the legal documents that match their genders?  I think not.  What the letters demonstrate is that health practitioners understand that, in medical terms, transmen do not simply jump from the category of female to that of male, but move along a continuum between the two.  Medically, there is no categorical boundary between male and female, there are only “male” vs. “female” statistical norms (in terms of hormone levels, for instance), risk factors, and physical characteristics, each of which can occur on men, women, intersexed people, and transpeople.  Doctors know, then, that while there are concrete medical procedures that can shift a person’s constellation of labwork, physical traits, and risk factors from the gravitational center of “female” to that of “male,” classifying a transperson as “M” or “F” is more a response to the social fiction of binary sex than it is a reflection of medical fact.*

In lay terms however, would it be correct to assume that a transman who had received no medical treatments whatsoever was female (physical sex), and that a transman who had received consistent hormone treatment was male (that is, physically intersexed but male in terms of secondary sex characteristics and identification)?  Transmen would dispute this.  Many transmen insist that if one identifies as male, one is male, regardless of the medical procedures one has, or hasn’t, undergone.  Some consider a transman who has not physically transitioned male, albeit female-bodied, and some would insist that any body belonging to a male-identified person is a male body.  Is such logic merely wishful thinking that flies in the face of both medical fact and a proper understanding of the distinction between sex and gender?

In her new book, Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality, Gayle Salamon argues that the understanding of “sex” as referring to a physical body somehow detached from gender norms, the perceptions of the social world it inhabits, the way it performs gender, and its own gender identifications is an abstraction far removed from the way that genders and bodies are lived.  Surveying theories of embodiment and accounts of the relation between psyches and bodies, she argues that physical attributes do not just exist in some pure state, they must come into the consciousness of oneself and of those around one through touch, vision, and movement, all of which are permeated by social gender cues and norms.  To have a body, one must also have an internal image of the body, a “body image,” “corporeal schema,” or “postural model,” through which one is able to grasp this body in its wholeness, have some idea of the physical movements and tasks of which it is capable, and relate it, through identification, disidentification, and comparison, to other bodies one has seen in the world around one.  The body cannot therefore be abstracted from its relation to others, its physic investments, and its sensate experience of itself in the world.  Nor can “sex,” understood as bodily materiality.

As case studies, let’s consider some transmasculine identifications.  First of all, let’s take someone who identifies as a butch woman. Conventional thought would have it that she differs from a transman in degree:  she is “less” masculine than he.  Both experience and logic tell us otherwise, though.  Many butch women are, in fact, more masculine in terms of their performance of gendered behaviors coded as “masculine,” than many trans men and, for that matter, than many cis men.  Here, we would seem to find ourselves in the midst of a clear sex/gender distinction.  The degree of masculinity of a butch woman, trans man, or cis man (gender) does not directly correlate to either their sex or their male or female identification.

An alternate proposition that Salamon unpacks is that the butch woman differs from the trans man in her degree of dysphoria:  she is less dysphoric about her body than he (or at least, than he is prior to or without physical transition).  I suspect that this statement is, in many cases, correct.  But not always.  I, for instance, am gifted with a remarkably flat chest, and I know for a fact that many butch women have more, not less, dysphoria regarding their chests than I.  One could imagine that certain transmen who are able to pass pretty consistently as cis men without any physical alterations other than slight binding might, in fact, have very little body dysphoria.  This is because body dysphoria is not an innate condition of being trans.  I understand it as a response to a social world that consistently fixates on my chest, my presumed genital configuration, or my voice to determine not only whether I am male or female, but whether I am a man or a woman.  Both my awareness and my rejection of a physical trait or body part is intensified by a social gaze that uses it to consistently misgender me and to insist that I can only ever be a female woman, regardless of the myriad other features that indicate to them that I am a male man.  Although body dysphoria often presents itself as an immediate, unmediated feeling – “These breasts are not mine, they don’t belong on my chest”-  unrelated to other people or to the desire to be a certain gender, I would argue that this feeling, in all its immediacy, derives from a social world in which breasts have been seen as the ultimate sign of femininity and have been used as a way of condemning transmen to femaleness.  If we lived in a world where men with breasts were never scrutinized, their status as men never cast into question, and in which man boobs were prevalent in advertisements and celebrity magazines as the ultimate sign of a sexy virility, I wager that transmen (and butches) would not feel dysphoric about their chests.  This is not to say, however, that because our experience of body dysphoria is merely socially constructed, it is wrong or that, were the the person who disidentifies with hir breasts to reason, “I only feel this way because I live in a world that considers breasts feminine and female, but my breasts are masculine and male,” that person’s dysphoria would magically evaporate.  The socially constructed is real.  It can cause intense discomfort, depression, and dysphoria even when the social world is “shut out” and there is nobody here but me and my mirror.  And one’s reasoning about one’s gender, when it goes unsupported by the entire social world around one, is hard put to combat this social real.
To dispel one last myth, there is no clear distinction between social dysphoria (I am distressed because I am not seen as a man or a masculine being) and body dysphoria (I am uncomfortable with my breasts, my voice, and my other “female” characteristics).  One may present itself more immediately and intensely than the other, but the two are always interconnected.  That is why the truism that one should transition only for oneself, not for those around one, is false.  Gender is social and it can only occur in relation to others.  A gender that I experience privately but that nobody else can see is a melancholic gender.  For my gender to feel satisfyingly real and fully inhabited, it must be recognized by those around me.  For my dysphoria about those physical traits that people use to identify me as female to go away, either others must stop using those traits to identify me as female or I must seek medical intervention to be rid of those traits.  While the former option would be delightful, and trans people are making great strides in communicating to others understand that one can have certain typically female physical traits and still been seen and treated as a man, I am not willing to wait a lifetime or more until the general public can see me as male in spite of my high voice.

The explanation that Salamon proposes is that the difference between a butch woman and a trans man is not primarily one of degree (either degree of masculinity or of dysphoria), it is simply a matter of identification.  Simply put, though she may be convincingly and consistently masculine and have dysphoria about certain “female” traits, the butch woman identifies as a woman (though the transgender butch may not), and this is the crux of her difference from a trans man.  So here’s the major mystery to me:  why do some female-assigned people identify as women and take female pronouns while others identify as men or boys or third-genders and disidentify strongly with female pronouns?  This is related to an intensely personal question that I ask myself every day:  why can’t I identify as a woman and accept female pronouns?  This question carries a burden of guilt because, especially after talking to my butch mentor, I am plagued by the worry that my disidentification with “woman” is a betrayal of both feminism and women.  Why can’t I remain female identified and commit myself to the worthy task of expanding the range of what a woman can do and be?  What is wrong with me, as a feminist political subject, that I identify with women, that I don’t want to shoulder the gender oppression that they face?

In the documentary Boy I Am, this question is answered with recourse to intense bodily dysphoria:  I may not want to enter the class of the oppressor (man), but I simply cannot live in this female body.  For me, this is not the case.  What presents itself most immediately to me is not my bodily dysphoria, it is the knowledge that I am not a woman, not even a masculine woman.  But from whence does this conviction come?  Is there a way for me to change my way of thinking so that it doesn’t twist my stomach in knots to think of myself as a woman?  Here, I think that the problem is not me, it is the following anti-trans beliefs of mainstream feminism (since I am a feminist subject, these assumptions affect me).  First, that the foundation of feminism is being a woman.  Second, that feminist solidarity is solidarity between women.  Third, that feminist knowledge about gender hierarchies and gender discipline must issue from the privileged standpoint of women.  Fourth, that the crux of feminist activism is loving one’s female body, against all of the ways a patriarchal culture it is rendered hideous, grotesque, and failed.  The implications of such beliefs are as follows:  1. The world is divided into Women and Men (manifestly, these perspectives do not take trans or intersex experiences and knowledges into account).  Women are the oppressed and Men are the oppressor (a blatant denial of the crisscrossing of gender hierarchies with other forms of social power, which academic feminism has been struggling to come to terms with for the past three decades).  3. Transmen are making a political choice to leave the category of the oppressed (Women) and enter the category of the oppressor (Men) (which flies in the face of the feminist insight about social construction: that one does not and cannot freely choose one’s gender, because there is no “I” prior to the gender through which “I” am brought into being.  More on this later…).  4. Non-women have no insight into gender hierarchies (because all non-women are Men and all Men are at the beneficiaries of gender hierarchies).  5. Transmen betray themselves as well as feminism by failing to love their female bodies (but gender dysphoria is not a failure to love one’s female body, it is a failure to be a woman.  Patriarchally-programmed women hate that their breasts are too small or saggy; they seek plastic surgery for breast augmentation or the creation of eternally round spheres.  Their problem is an acquiescence to unrealistic patriarchal ideals of the youthful, perfect, and sexy female body.  Transmen hate that they have breasts at all.  Recourse to binding has the effect of giving their chest precisely the appearance that patriarchy considers abhorrent – small and saggy.  They want to have their breasts removed entirely.  Their problem is not patriarchal ideals of female beauty, but the cissexist notion that someone with breasts cannot be a man.  But having a gender that is recognized may be more important than combating, through one’s body, cissexist fallacies).  If this list sounds like a caricature of feminism, this is because the implications of the feminist suspicion of transpeople do, in fact, caricature feminism.  As many have already noted, these charges against transmen are in many ways identical to the charges made against butches two decades ago (which makes it particularly ironic that older butches are often precisely those who articulate such reproaches to transmen).

Salamon’s book has helped me understand that this is a version of feminism based on sameness (between women) and hostile to difference (either within the category of women or between women and not-women).  This is a version of feminism hostile to insights on gender that issue from those who traverse gender categories or inhabit the borderlands of gender.  This is a version of feminism that is incapable of feeling outside of a bounded group of womyn-identified womyn.  Things it is incapable of feeling are 1. interest in the experiences and insights of those who traverse gender categories 2. solidarity and fellow feeling with non-women who are nevertheless oppressed by gender norms 3. an ethical concern with how those who do not identify as women actually do identify (instead, they are immediately cast into the category of Man – The Oppressor).

Let’s look now at my woman-identified butch mentor and I.  She occupies social masculinity unflaggingly.  There is really nothing feminine about her, and she is, without a doubt, more butch than I.  Though she has considered top surgery or breast reduction, she chose instead to struggle to make do with her body. She is, in some contexts, “Daddy,” a “husband,” “Pops,” and “he.”  In most contexts, though, she is “Ma’am,” “she,” and “Mama.”  At all times, she is a woman.  So what, really, is the difference between she and I?  Or more specifically, why am I trans while she is not?  It isn’t a matter of degrees of either masculinity or body dysphoria.  It is, quite simply, that she identifies as a woman while I do not.  But why does she identify as a woman while I do not?  I think that, really, she is right, this is a difference in how each of us are inserted into history, sociality, and politics, not an inherent difference in who we are as gendered beings.  The sense I got, when she was telling me about considering chest surgery, was not that she decided not to get it because she didn’t want it, but that she wanted chest surgery, but she wanted to claim fidelity to her female body and to the category of “woman” more.  In other words, it was a matter of politics, and of the way in which her historical formation as a feminist made it seem politically desirable to her to be woman-identified and to come to terms with her female body.  Seeing men as a distinct, hierarchically dominant class of people (her “man-hating,” in her own words) made her decision that much easier.  This view of gender may, more deeply, have been at the origin of her strong identification with masculinity (understood as something that a woman might transgressively occupy) and her equally strong disidentification with men and maleness (understood as the province of the hierarchically dominant oppressor).  In addition, her status as a legible butch lesbian primarily attracted to feminine women made female masculinity a viable and culturally intelligible position for her to occupy.  I, on the other hand, grew up looking up to gay men in my life, who also happened to be intelligent and benevolent feminists, and came of age as a queer in the moment of the historical ascendancy of trans FTMs.  Though being a feminist was second-nature to me, it was also second-nature to me to be disgusted and disappointed by feminist transphobia.  My most liberating formative intellectual experience as a feminist was reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as an undergrad.  While I recognize that there are faults with the book, I think what was important was the affect attached to this version of feminism.  The formative political utopia was not female rule, the end of gender itself, or a socialist reorganization of labor and kinship.  The formative analysis was not of patriarchy and male domination.  Though each of these touched me in some way, the utopian moment for me was the recognition that gender was not a biological expression but a cultural fiction that each of us were, nevertheless, compelled to perform.  The misrepetition of gender norms, and the inchoate hope of being able to missrepeat new genders into existence inspired me in a way that the overthrow of patriarchy could not.  I was always less interested in women than in gender variant peoples, less interested in feminism than in gender studies, less interested in lesbian than queer, and, in the end, less interested in butchness than in genderqueerness or transgenderism.  This is not to say that my interests are inherently more compelling or more politically salient than my butch mentor’s in any way, but only to speculate by the way in which our historical moments led us to internalize certain political and analytical understandings of gender which, in turn facilitated certain gender identifications while making others taboo, abhorrent, or uninteresting.  I think that we need to think, however, about what “interest” means here.

This dovetails into the discourse around transgender as a “fad.”  The “transgender fad” discourse implies that the recent crop of FTMs isn’t “really” in any deep sense, trans.  However, since trans is new,  sexy, and in, we have claimed trans identity and begun transitioning in order to be cool and to fit in.  The “fad” idea is obviously transphobic, but there are a couple of things that I find interesting about it.  One is the way in which it denaturalizes the border between transmen and butch women.  A butch woman, so the fad logic goes, might become trans if she knows too many trans men, becomes too interested in the trans phenomenon or is, in some other sense, enraptured by the hip and hot aura of trans.  I would argue that the “fad” argument bemoans the way in which trans has, in fact, become interesting – compelling, curious, new, unexplored – and in a collective way – such that being a part of a collective trans project is cited as one of the motivators for “becoming” trans.  This collective interest in trans is seen as threatening to contaminate those who might otherwise have remained within the category of women.  But “interest” is in no way a simple category of either intellectual or childish curiousness.  In this day and age, transmasculine folks are led to wonder, “What would it feel like to be called ‘he’?” “Would having a more male body positively impact my experience of living in the world?” “What would it be like to share transmasculine camaraderie with other transmen?”  In other words, for the first time, transness presents itself not purely as a negativity, a mental disorder, a last recourse for the desperate, a matter of shame, pathology, and dysphoria (though, for many, it is also experienced as all of these), but, alternatively, as a question of personal growth.  We are compelled to wonder if we would be happier, more empowered, more at home in the world as trans men, and we are compelled to wonder who we would become.  And as more and more queers in our generation are becoming sensitized to systemic transphobia – the reduction of sex to genitals, the wholesale rejection of how non-binary people experience their genders, the policing of the categories of male and female – our political emotions are being reorganized as well.  Long before I came out as trans, transphobia, the academic ignorance about trans experience, and specific instances of violence and hate speech against transpeople would touch me affectively in a manner more immediate and intense than comparable instances of misogyny and violence against women.  Again, this is not a matter of right or wrong, important or unimportant, but a document of my affective political formation.  No wonder then, that my combination of political and personal interest (where “interest” is not a simple matter, but a historical complex of hope, attraction, and curiosity) in transness should lead to me, a transmasculine person much like my mentor (though with a different style of masculinity) not to put a hold on the trans aspirations I was feeling in favor of the project of being a masculine woman as she did, but to entertain and to explore these aspirations.

In the question, what is your aspiration – to be a man, to be a woman, to inhabit female masculinity, to transition – is embedded loaded political histories and personal sympathies.  In the call to others to identify in the same way as one identifies is lodged a call to inhabit the same gendered political project one inhabits:  whether that project is learning to love a female body rendered abject by patriarchy, making a space for an alternative female masculinity not derived from men, or becoming a man in spite of bearing a body that others deem to be female.  Each of these projects is important and compelling and requires sustenance from others inhabiting the same gendered political project.  But each of them functions best in an ethical space in which recognizing that someone’s embodied political project is different from one’s own does not somehow delegitimize that project or make solidarity, empathy, and support between projects an impossibility.

So my conclusion:  the difference between a trans man and a butch woman may be some combination of a difference of dysphoria, identification, and gendered interest.  It is not, in any sense, a simple matter of sex vs. gender.  It is a matter of identification and, more specifically, of which identifications are experienced as possible, desirable, and interesting. For my mentor, the interesting and viable identification was butch woman, for me, it was as trans man.  Viability is vital both in the sense that, in her generation, transitioning was not a widely viable option, whereas in mine, it is, and whereas, as a butch woman, she can get a lot of pussy, as a butch woman, I would not have gotten a lot of dick (tongue-in-cheek here, readers).

So now, back to passing…  right now, my primary desire is to be seen and treated as a man… ideally, as a trans man by queers and by those who know me and as a plain old man (ok, probably queer and distinctly racialized) by passerbyes and cashiers.  It is not primarily a desire for a certain type of body, though I would enjoy facial hair, a more square face, more muscle, less hips, and, especially, a lower voice and a lack of female reproductive cycles!  So I don’t feel that I need a “full” hormonal transition.  I am o.k. with being visibly trans, but I want to transition enough so that I can interact with cashiers without them switching from, “Hey buddy,” to “Here you go, Ma’am,” and so that even the less well versed in trans matters will be able to look at me and say “he,” even if they know and can see that I’m a man of female experience.  That’s all

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6 Responses to Dissolving the Distinction between Sex and Gender

  1. nix says:

    usually i don’t read such long posts any more… but i like your discussion of historical and cultural specificity, particularly. good, thinky stuff!

  2. Awesome. Your analysis is incredible. I hope it will be documented more formally than on your blog? It’s way fabulous.

    The intersection of ftm trans expereinces and feminism is much more complex and interesting than the usual discussion between feminism and trans women. I actually think the conflict between FAB and trans women, specifically, has pushed feminism to put up barriers and establish a sense of, as you say, “hostile difference” to become “…incapable of feeling outside of a bounded group of womyn-identified womyn.” I just don’t think that feminism can, at this point in history, make any ideological progress with trans women.

    So, while I don’t subscribe to/agree with all of your feminist descriptions, these observations are *fascinating* for a hardcore-womyn-identified-womyn like myself. It’s almost revolutionary in the sense that this criticism is much more intelligible and, therefore, productive, than the usual crap I hear about feminist transphobia.

    I agree with you about the social gaze inherent in gendered desires. I also believe that passing and the desire to pass– whatever physical changes it may or may not entail for any individual person– constitutes a political decision DESPITE the fact that politics may be an unintended consequence of trans-itioning. I think that feminism would be less hostile to trans politics if this were more readily acknowledged, and seemed of greater concern to the trans community. Feminism, in my view, is concerned primarily with the construction and DE/construction of class hierarchies. Therefore, in order for any discussion to be productive, I think the distinction between individual and socio-political concerns/goals must always be made clear. When the focus remains obsessively on the individual, feminism’s hostility is likely to continue.

    I’ll stop yakking about my feminism now, but this has been very enlightening. Thanks!

  3. nix says:

    I also believe that passing and the desire to pass– whatever physical changes it may or may not entail for any individual person– constitutes a political decision DESPITE the fact that politics may be an unintended consequence of trans-itioning.

    Heh, well, I think that not passing (as something other than the sex assigned at birth) and not desiring to pass – as well as the desire and decision not to transition – is also a political decision, despite politics not being part of that decision. All genders are political – including cis genders.

  4. nix, I don’t disagree with you.

  5. Faggot Boi says:

    Thanks! U.P. — I’d like to work some of my thoughts on these issues into something more formal, such as a conference paper or a publication, but I’m working on a major book project now, so it remains to be seen where I can squeeze it in.

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