Gender: Mish

I’ve written about gender a lot over the years. I’ve gone from describing myself as having opted out of the gender question to being loudly comfortable with my gender as having been constructed by both myself and the society around me. Currently I have a partner who is transsexual, she has a boyfriend who is transsexual (can I say in the ‘opposite’ direction?) I lived in a country with very set gender roles for two years of my life and at the moment these things combine to make me feel guilty for daring to define myself as ‘Mish’ and stepping outside of male or female or the gender binary.

I’m not trans, weirdly enough thats an identity that I’ve never played with, I’m very happy that I’m cis-gender and I’m usually ok with the definition ‘woman’. I’m most ok with the term ‘mish’ but unfortunately that’s not overly communicative to people I’ve never met. Early on in my activism within the LGBT community – I still count myself as an activist, it’s just that I’ve often erred on the side of quiet, letter-writing type activism and that’s increased lately – I met a lot of older (in some cases a lot older) transsexuals and transvestites. Of these I met maybe two transmen, mostly I met transwomen and drag queens, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to know a drag king though maybe some of the butch lesbians I knew almost leant that way. A lot of the older transwomen I met were unhappy with their decision to transition, without exception this was because their old friends/family either totally or mostly did not (would not? could not?) accept their new gender identity.

It has been consistently difficult for me, having been brought up a feminist, to sympathise with the amount that the majority of the trans community talk about their transition in relation to how other people view them or how they perceive other people viewing them.
I was not brought up to wear make-up, this was part of the suggestion throughout my childhood that as a woman my appearence did not matter. Throughout history a woman’s appearence has mattered, make-up is part of that, certainly when my mother was growing up wearing make-up was about making your appearance the vital part of who you were because you as a woman were essentially an object. Pretty and you were valuable, not pretty and not so much. Not wearing make-up meant you had to be valued for other things, other things that were not going to render you an object. To this day my relationship with make-up is much the same as my relationship with other things that I find in a dress-up box. It’s fun but not necessary, certainly not the only way I have of projecting myself, days when I can be bothered are fund, days when I can’t I don’t feel particularly bad. My appearence is only a single, solitary part of me.

I regard that as a massively feminist statement to make and something which is very freeing.

But mostly the transwomen I met all did their make-up perfectly and dressed, perfectly, kind of like my Aunty Joyce dialled up several notches. How much was this as the result of the hoops they had to jump through in order to get the surgery and hormones they needed? How much was this as the result of being denied those things throughout the whole of their lives? I fully admit the desire I have for the pretty frills of EGL fashion is because my clothing of choice as a kid was jeans and a flannel shirt and my longing for long hair is because until the age of eight I wasn’t allowed anything longer than a Beatlesesque bob. But my reaction as a feminist is that you must define the gender you are for yourself and not perform what you think it should be.

Yet after two years in a society of restricted gender roles being told that the trans community had embraced the notion of more than two genders over the last few decades, certainly ten years or more after I started talking to transsexuals at LGBT protests and events, met with displeasure from me. It coincided with my re-embracing of the gender binary, my conclusions that I liked manly men and womanly women and suddenly I have to think about androgyny again and those people who’ve chosen to step out of the gender question.

Transvestites, I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for, that’s all transvestites from the full-on Lily Savage-esque Drag Queen to the integrated? subtler? Eddie Izzard sort. Transvestites generally like to play with gender, some days they’re more boys some days they’re more girls but they tread a line of in-between by being both. I know some people would call me for equating something that is a stage performance with something that is a life path. As with most things I’m coming to the conclusion that gender is analogue rather than digital and whether the performance of gender is simply that, a performance for work, or whether it is a lived existence I think it still belongs in that three dimensional graph.

Transvestism is about embracing a choice and feminism is all about having the freedom to choose which is why I think I find the transvestism section of Trans easier.

As a woman, brought up as a feminist, there’s a certain amount of guilt and awareness of myself as a very fortunate person within a minority which has in recent history been oppressed. As a result whenever I’m not doing to well with myself I can hear that mantra, drummed into me by so many adults during my childhood ‘You’re not only letting yourself down…’
My secondary school had a very distinctive uniform, it was a grammar school, we wore blazers. Now obviously since smoking cigarettes only becomes legal when you’re sixteen and the sixth formers at my school wore ‘professional attire’ rather than a uniform there should only have been a few months when it was possible that some kids in uniform may have been seen with cigarettes. This is bollocks of course, a significant minority was picking up and buying cigarettes from the age of eleven onwards. This lead to any amount of rants/speeches/dire warnings that smoking whilst in uniform was deletirious to the reputation of the school (Go go Royston Vasey Grammar).

This digression is not a digression but the idea that whilst in your uniform you should be the best representative of the organisation is one that sank deep along with the idea that women fought amd gave their lives for me to be this free. I am big on independence, I am big on being Mish representing myself and myself only but the one uniform I can’t get rid of (mainly because at root I don’t want to) is this body. People are always going to assume, based on looks alone that I am a woman and as such I feel I have to be doing the best that I possibly can, using all of the wonderful chances I have to the best of my ability. If I’m not then I’m letting down all the women who fought for me to have the chances that I do.

So, if I find transvestism ‘easier’ because it’s about embracing choice then do I believe the rest of the trans community to be about denying choice? I don’t think so. A very important basis for the sort of feminism I was brought up with is that your body doesn’t matter, you can do anything but you cannot judge people based on their bodies otherwise you are objectifying them. (I’m massively aware that this could now go down an ability route but I’m trying to talk about gender here). Now I can see a whole lot of readers at this point about to start talking about social interaction and how obviousy people do judge based on appearance and how a whole lot of the psychology of interactions is based on appearance with very probably a massive amount of citations. That’s great and all but feminism has always been about changing the status quo in terms of re-training the brain to recognise when it’s being subconciously unreasonable.
By this I mean the idea that women are very pretty and all but obviously they’re too unstable to vote, or the notion that women are small and weak and so shouldn’t go into the police force. Those sorts of examples, if we have to retrain our brains to think of what should be acceptable, are pretty much at the base to my comprehension of how feminism tries to achieve equality.

So why is trans so hard for me? Because the way transsexualism has often been framed to me has been in terms of changing your body to fit a particular social role. Often a specific gender role. Feminism is about defining for yourself what role you should play within society and not adhering to somone else’s notions of what that should be. Especially not adhering to someone who is often a priveleged straight white male.
If you go the whole hog and suggest that gender is totally socially constructed then surely transsexualism has no place within society and should presumably be classed along with other people suffering forms of body dysmorphia…

I don’t think you can go the whole hog though. Gender clearly has some basis in sex but there are so many exceptions to the rules that as with anything else I would suggest you can’t make assumptions based upon it, gender roles however, they really are social constructs and unless someone is grabbing a role and an identity you can’t push one upon them.

Wait a minute. Did I just say that people choose their own identity? Does that include their physical appearance? If it does then why can’t a transwoman have breast implants and vaginoplasty so as to express her identity?

Isn’t my problem with transsexualism only the notion that it is about conforming to other people’s expectations, if it’s about identity expression then that is something very feminist indeed. I’ll never be able to say that I’m trans because there is a notion of going from one identity which is placed upon you to another which you have chosen for yourself. I’m going to have to describe myself as cisgender because for all intents and purposes the general identity that I have is in line with my general physical appearance.

But don’t assign me a gender role which I have to be a woman to play. I don’t fit into a narrow gender binary, I never have and I never intend to, I like to play, I like to be me and I don’t see any reason why I have to restrict myself to roles which are on one side of a highly subjective line.

6 thoughts on “Gender: Mish

  1. Defining oneself as a gender entirely of your own and identifying it with just your name is something thats been done by a few trans people, the one that springs immediately to mind is S. Bear Bergman who I’m pretty sure I’ve seen identifying as "bear".

    With regards to appearance, leaving aside the hoop jumping you’ve identified I note that you’re also defining it as fine for yourself to want to wear pretty things, possibly as a reaction to your attire growing up, but seem to react strongly to older trans women dressing their age and caring about their appearance, which seems slightly like a double standard. Additionally the notion of talking about being percieved by other people as your gender is not so much about the perception as the reactions, unsurprisingly many people (cis and trans) like being percieved and reacted to as their actual gender, and not as another gender, or as an ungendered being (if they aren’t one) for some make up can help this, to cover (or provide) stubble and help provide cues to those around them, as well as being something they may just enjoy because they enjoy feeling pretty for themselves.

    In response to your statements about cross dressers embracing choice I’m not convinced this is the case, for many this seems to be a core part of their identity that they feel they need to express regularly. To support this there is a common narrative in that community, the "binge-purge cycle", where people feel ashamed or reluctant to continue cross dressing and so will destroy their supplies of clothes, accessories, padding and makeup. However after they have purged there will normally be a delay before they cannot resist their desire and will then binge of obtaining fresh supplies and resume dressing. This suggests to me that its not so much a choice but an expression of themselves and their identities, and while many of those encountered in public enjoy playing whimsically with their expression I’m not sure how much of the population of cross dressers they represent.

    To many people their bodies do matter, and they seek to make themselves at least comfortable in their own appearance to avoid feeling dysphoria when they see their own reflections, pictures, or their own bodies with their eyes. I think your suggestion that trans women are aiming for the "women are very pretty" stereotype is not quite accurate? Surely the existence of non-femme trans women kind of blows this one out of the water and suggests that its not universal? Also if bodies and gender identities are things we can change and force our brains to accept when they’re being silly I have to ask why you aren’t seeking to hormonally modify yours with use of Testosterone, being as I seem to recall one of your goals for the year is to increase your fitness and stamina, it would certainly help with these things.

    Your discussion of changing a body to fit a social role is again kind of hampered by the fact that this isn’t anywhere near a universal experience for trans people, who are generally trying to make their bodies fit their own ideal of their gender identity. This is hardly an uncommon behaviour as you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who doesn’t at some level do this a little bit.

    Your last points seem to answer the whole article. Yes it is about identity, and also the notion of "going from one identity which is placed upon you to another which you have chosen for yourself" is an interesting one. The concept of the "transsexual" and the initial definitions were written and constructed by psychologists and medical doctors to describe the patients they were seeing, since they were operating inside a gender binary they of course decided to lean on their knowledge and use the "trans-" prefix (see chemistry) to describe the people. There was an initial push from theorists and the community in the 90s to try and get away to a more generalised term, which started as "transgender", and has since morphed to trans (or trans*) in an attempt to cover all the people who want to go for it. Regardless some people don’t see it as a binary at all any more, and the name just stems from a historical accident. Functionally the definition is something like (and not everyone will agree) "You’re cis if your sex, identity, expression, presentation and role all line up, otherwise you can be trans if you want too".

    You seem a bit miffed with non-binary gendered people for disrupting your reacceptance of the gender binary, while at the same time asserting that everyone should free themselves of the restrictions of societal pressure on the expression and role they choose and be free to play with gender more. Mainly you have a dislike of societal pressure to accept gender based roles for both binary trans people and cis people, which I think is the main thrust of your displeasure. If so you should perhaps stop seperating trans people from everyone else to express this view, since its hardly like cis people don’t do it as well.

    Further reading:
    Natalie Reed – Gender Expression Is Not Gender Identity and pretty much everything else shes written
    Thirteen Myths and Misconceptions about trans women part 1 and part 2

  2. I think you missed the point of my writing, they are about explaining a process of thoughts I’ve been through, which is why the concluding paragraphs seem to conclude the whole piece. Because they do.

  3. …Well, I have a whole load of reactions to this post. Many of which are deeply unhelpful or provocative.

    But you have said that this is to be taken as just an accounting of your own thought processes – so could I ask how "It coincided with my re-embracing of the gender binary, my conclusions that I liked manly men and womanly women and suddenly I have to think about androgyny again" squares with "I don’t fit into a narrow gender binary, I never have and I never intend to"?

    And your thoughts about trans people who identify as non-binary, present as male and like to crossdress on occasion? Enquiring minds would like to know…

  4. Irrespective of the fact that the last few paragraphs state that this is a thought process, as a cisgendered male, I find some of this post deeply problematic, because I’ve always felt male inside, and that’s had nothing to do with social pressure, any more than my sexuality is anything but internally generated.

    Your phrase ‘please don’t assign to me’ is I think, telling to me, because frankly it has nothing at all with externality.

    People are what they are, which you have repeatedly stated over and over again for yourselof, and yet every one of your posts on gender has always had reference to external loci of definition, which I find fascinating.

  5. I’m occasionally intrigued by the post-War construct of gender so beloved of the social sciences, but buying into it seems to be a personal choice. Best of luck to everyone in their journeys!

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