[Written for Outright, May 1997,
in connection with the debate around
transgendered people using Nottingham Women's Centre.]

Gender Questions

Gender is a fascinating subject. Without it, sexism and homophobia wouldn't exist, but we can hardly imagine such a world. Babies have gender assigned to them the minute they're born, and if their physical sex is ambiguous, they may have surgery to make it less so. After all, how could they possibly manage in the world without a gender? There wouldn't be any toilets for them!

Most people have eroticised gender to some degree. Even the word "bisexual" assumes that it's important in sexual choice, although some people within the bi community reject both the word and the binary split behind it. A lot of gay politics relies on gender, although queer politics doesn't reinforce it in quite the same way.

How many genders?

One thing that mainstream patriarchal culture has in common with some brands of feminism and some gay politics is the insistence that there are only two genders - male and female. This is questionable on several levels.

Genetically it's clearly false: XX and XY aren't the only genetic combinations. Biologically it's clearly false: all human genitals grow from the same cells of the embryo, and there's a spectrum of possible development between what we call "male" and what we call "female".

Socially, we usually try to divide people into exactly two categories, even when they don't exactly fit them. Because so much of our society, even our language, is divided along gender lines, it's uncomfortable not to know what category someone belongs in. You wouldn't know what pronoun to use or what prejudices to hold about them.

But the gender "woman" includes people who experience themselves as butches, femmes, tomboys, drag kings, femmes fatales, earth mothers, traditional "feminine" women and many other flavours for which we don't have names. Even though we consider all those people as part of one group, that doesn't mean that their own sense of their gender is the same.

Some people may remember an episode of "Dyke TV" where people rated themselves according to how butch and how femme they were. They weren't in opposition - you could be, say 6/10 butch and 8/10 femme, or 3/10 butch and 1/10 femme. Afterwards some of us were exploring gender in a similar way - you could be, say, 10/10 woman, but at the same time 8/10 girl and 3/10 boy. This internal "sense" of gender doesn't necessarily have anything to do with your body, and also allows for another experience - of being neither female nor male. In that sense, most of us were a bit transgendered, even though we didn't identify as such.

Some transgendered people accept the binary model, and represent themselves as being a mixture of male and female: for instance, a male mind, or a male "soul", inside a female body, or vice versa. The medical profession seems to like this interpretation. Other transgendered people speak of more complex realities.


The word transgender is used with several meanings, but can include anyone inclined to cross gender lines. Transsexual is the term usually used to mean specifically people who want to live full time as a gender that doesn't correspond with the gender attributed to them at birth. Like everyone, transsexuals want to live and be accepted as the gender they experience themself. This may involve changing their body.

It can be disturbing to think of someone wanting to change their body that much. But there are few people who take no interest in that game at all. Ever felt better when you get the new haircut you want? Ever felt worse with the "wrong" haircut? What about dyed hair, a suntan, ear piercing or a tattoo? How do you feel when you get fatter or thinner? All those involve the alignment of the physical body with some imaginary picture of how you want to be. And all of them also involve other people's perceptions of you.

Who is a woman?

The idea of "Women's space" brings up particular questions. Historically, women's space is a place where we don't have to deal with "male" behaviour patterns and our reactions to them. For this reason, people who've been raised "as boys" and then want to be accepted as women are often viewed with suspicion in this context. Even though they don't experience themselves as men, they've been socialised to behave in the way that men are supposed to behave.

On the other hand, there's a huge variety of socialisation within the category we call "women". I didn't think I was a boy, but that didn't stop me identifying with male characters in fiction or taking part in stereotypically male activities; and as a child and as a teenager I was sometimes mistaken for a boy. What does that say about my socialisation? Are you sure you should let me in?

And if socialisation is the main factor, does that imply that people raised "as girls" should always be welcome in women's space, even if they now live, pass and experience themselves as men?

Also, early gender-atypical behaviour may lead to reactions like verbal or physical abuse or being led to believe you're deficient in some way, which means many transgendered people have had an atypical childhood for that very reason.

Of course, the more rigid the stereotypes are, the more likely behaviours are to be deemed gender-inappropriate. Reasoning like "I knew I was a girl because I wanted to play with dolls and I didn't want to fight" makes perfect sense in some realities, but in others appears preposterous.

Some people believe that, no matter what your environment or behaviour, and no matter what your body looks like now, "Whichever gender the doctors said you were when you were born, that's what you'll always be". ("Biology is destiny".) Others believe, again irrespective of upbringing, that some "essence" of "masculinity" or "femininity" can occupy any kind of physical body.

Who's got a cock?

Patriarchal culture bases gender attributions (e.g. of babies) mainly on the presence or absence of a cock, which is seen as the presence or absence of maleness. In this paradigm, the essence of being a woman is the absence of maleness. The inclusion debate is sometimes represented as a question of whether to allow cocks into women's space, and this seems to me part of the same paradigm. Some theories go further - cocks epitomise male privilege and violence. I don't see that idea as helping women (or men) at all. It simply reifies the traditional bullshit - such as the idea that men aren't responsible for what their cocks tell them to do.

Perhaps one underlying issue is of "proving" a genuine commitment to being a woman. The fear is: once you let one male body into women's space, what precedent are you setting? Surgery, being something no-one undergoes lightly, can be seen as the "gatekeeper" to women's space.

On the other hand, using this as the only criterion is problematic. Health issues can prevent access to surgery. The financial costs make it a class issue. If you can't convince the medical profession you'll be able to fit in in your new role, they can turn you down. Also, the "state of the art" is such that people may choose not to take the risks - for instance, the risk that you'll never be able to have an orgasm again. More radically, some people don't consider that any particular body shape is required to validate the gender that they are. So besides "post-operative" and "pre-operative" transsexuals, there are also "non-operative" transsexuals, who for various reasons are not expecting to have surgery.

No simple answers

Looking from a practical point of view, the question of behaviour seems to me the one most relevant to women's space - as opposed to what the medical profession, or the law, or spiritual theory, says makes someone a woman. One question is whether someone is living as a woman and experiencing prejudice as a woman. Another, for people raised as boys, is whether they're actively setting out to challenge their own typically "male" behaviour patterns. This is not trivial, since most people brought up as men haven't been encouraged to examine their own behaviour. That's part of being brought up as a man.

Some women's groups choose to include "female to male" transsexuals in their transition period, recognising that some of them have strong social ties to the dyke community.

There aren't simple, clearcut answers, and that's a reflection of the fact that in beginning to address "who is a woman? / who is a man?", we're bringing into daylight something about which almost the whole of our culture is in denial. It isn't surprising that transgendered people don't seem to fit neatly into the categories we've got, because the categories are flawed in the first place. People who've experienced life on both sides of our culture's gender divide are in a position to contribute a valuable perspective on our beliefs.

This article raises more questions than it answers. So does transgender.

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Copyright Jennifer Moore 1997
Email: jennifer@uncharted-worlds.org

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