What Is Gender? - Part 2

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #097, Spring 2002.

by Miqqi A Gilbert, Ph.D.

Gender is a complex concept that changes depending on your perspective. There is assigned gender?a legal concept that places you in a certain category. There is social gender?the assignment made on you by the people with whom you interact. And there is self-gender, which you feel internally is correct. Difficulties arise, we know all too well, when self-gender and social-gender do not coincide, since one of the most basic rules is that you are one gender, and that gender is the one people can identify. You are supposed to be what you appear to be.
In reality, the gender rules are repressive categories designed to divide the population into two differently empowered groups. Remember that in the majority of modern industrial nations there is a degree of equality and power sharing that has rarely if ever been witnessed before. Legally, women have equal rights, protections, and fair access to everything available to men. This is, of course, nonsense. Because of institutionalized discrimination and longstanding cultural traditions and practice, women are underpaid and disadvantaged in every country.

Gender rules and the strict enforcement of categories are required because of the political, social, and functional differences perceived to exist between the genders. We still see those differences as paramount, and therefore need the categories so we know how to hire, court, interact, and simply exist with the other gender. Certainly, other categories are important as well?notably race, but also class, education, age, and occupation, but gender is crucial because it exists within each of those other categories as well.

No one doubts the importance of gender, but that doesn?t say what it is. The answer to that question is gender is a complex and multi-faceted tool of social control used to maintain and perpetuate an existing social order. That?s why the most important aspect of gender is the legal one: assigned gender is what puts you in one category or another, whether or not your outward appearance and/or inward feelings match that category. If they don?t, then you are a gender outlaw. If you pass as your self-gender and that is different from your legal-gender, then you may be relatively safe?but you are still an outlaw. If your social gender is ambiguous, if people are not sure how to categorize you, then you may well be treated as an outlaw, even if you do not want to be one.

Gender, as Judith Butler always reminds us, is essentially a performance. Your appearance, mannerisms, sound, and aura all form the communicative event that is your gender message. Since it?s a performance, it can be a good one or a bad one?one that gets approval from fans or carped at by critics?one that is convincing and seems real, or one that is shallow and seems counterfeit. Interestingly enough, there is no one-to-one correlation between one?s ability to perform gender well and one?s legal-gender: sissies, butch females, and, for that matter, anyone who strays from the fairly rigid paradigms laid on us from childhood on suffer from the slings and arrows sent to gender-diverse people. As transgender folk, we frequently seek to be socially assigned to a gender that is not our legal-gender, and, like everyone else, succeed or fail in varying degree. This is what it means to say that gender is an achievement.

The majority of people don?t work at achieving gender; it?s something they have been learning and doing since birth and comes ?naturally.? But someone who is gender diverse must learn to perform gender in a more systematic and self-conscious way. And I don?t just mean transgendered people here?the list includes all those, like young gay guys who give off too many effeminate signals or budding butch dykes who do not want to be hassled in high school, who choose not to be punished for being different. Of course, for transgendered folk the regimen is extreme. Wanting your self-gender to be accepted as your social-gender can be an arduous undertaking, depending on how fortunate you are with respect to the physical aspects of your self-identified gender.

Maybe I?m getting too dense here, so let me try and recap. Gender is a social role, we know that. You?re either a boy or a girl, and you?re supposed to look and behave accordingly. In order to be safe, most of us learn early and well what the rules are and how to abide by them. That?s the performance part ?little boys know we have to behave like a boy in order not to called a sissy and get ostracized or beaten up; little girls know we have to put on a dress at least once in a while for the same reasons. More and more, as we grow older, go through school, are submitted to the incessant socialization processes and virtual gender boot camps many of us barely survived, the gender-diverse fall by the wayside, picking up their cues and becoming members of the norm. Ultimately, it is only those who are driven by the force of their self-gender, driven by the knowledge and insight that their legal-gender is wrong, limiting, or has too many expectations attached to it, that real rebellion takes shape.

Everyone knows it?s wrong to violate the gender rules. The little boy who dreams of being a girl knows he must not tell a soul, not share that secret. The little girl who refuses a dress not because they?re hard to play in but because she knows she is a boy and oughtn?t wear skirts, learns to keep that part to herself. For these people, gender truly is an achievement, because it does not come ?naturally.? Everyone has to achieve gender, and even the most masculine football player has to be careful about getting too enthusiastic about the ballet in the locker room. We all remember the pre-adolescent trick of asking someone to look at their nails and seeing if they did it in the ?right? way. (For you gender trainees, that?s an upside-down fist for boys and hands straight out for girls.) But for transgender folk?for crossdressers, transsexuals, transgenderists? the achievement of gender is extraordinarily complex.

For the majority of people, gender performance is largely unconscious; indeed, a good part is physical (the width of your hips, facial hair), and therefore unthinking. But for people whose self-gender is different from their legal-gender, the impetus to bring their social-gender into line with their own choices is overwhelming. All right, I?ll say that again: if you want people to take you the way you want to be taken, you have to work hard. That?s why we use wigs, hip pads, fake mustaches, and a plethora of devices that strongly signal a gender message. Mind you, we?re not alone. Many people unsure or even unconsciously uncomfortable with their legal-gender go to great lengths to declare their self-gender unequivocally.

Gender is a basic form of social control that allows no deviation or diversity. The rules of gender are laid down in social, political, and economic terms, and the vast majority of people, including transfolk, work very hard to follow them. But?and this is the saddest thing?the rules are unnecessary. They?re relics of history, only with us for unthinking albeit extremely enduring reasons. We could, in theory, allow gender choice to be free, to have self-gender be the only relevant factor?but that won?t happen. The system, the cultural matrix this world exists in, is in no way ready to lift the restrictions and limitations that separate producers of zygotes from producers of eggs.

This is it for the foreseeable future. If you want to pass through life without being hassled (or worse), you must convincingly appear to be in one of the two gender categories (Some few major urban neighborhoods excepted).

What is gender? It?s a tyranny that dictates behavior, thinking, career choice, family management, and presentation of self. It should die, but it won?t.

But then, I?m just a silly girl, so what do I know?

Your feedback is important to me. I need to know you?re out there. Hope to see you at IFGE 2002.

Miqqi Alicia Gilbert is a Professor of Philosophy at York University. She can be reached at miqqi@gilbert1.net.