Gender (by )

A friend on Twitter opined:

Ahhh, gender; it's an interesting topic, and one I've felt like blabbering about for a while, so this seems like a good opportunity to do so!

There's a whole academic field of gender studies, and to start with, let me make this clear: I've never studied any of it. This blog post is purely my own thoughts on the matter, based on my own personal experience. I've not even read that Wikipedia page! So my amazing insights will probably just be a tiny subset of the corpus of knowledge held by proper gender academics. On the other hand, I am hoping that therefore my thoughts will be more accessible to normal people.

As I see it, gender is almost entirely a social concept, like "democracy" and "fashion".

Don't get me wrong, I have a penis, don't have significant breasts, have a deepish voice and get lots of stiff facial hair; I've fathered children; I'm undoubtedly biologically male (although I haven't had my chromosomes checked).

And I'm lucky in that I don't mind that. Some people feel very wrong in their bodies, and suffer greatly with the feeling of "being trapped in the wrong body". I sometimes feel something similar about the fact that I'm blind in my left eye (so, medical advances aside, will never know what it's like to perceive depth directly, and will always be rather poor at catching thrown objects), so I can relate somewhat to that being very unpleasant. Luckily, it's possible to have surgery to swap the bits around, which provides great relief; however, complications remain further up the stack - full legal recognition of a change in gender can be hard to obtain.

Anyway, being happy with my body's gender means I get to call myself a "cisgender male".

I'm not sure if I'd feel uncomfortable in a female body; my first thought is that it would probably be quite interesting. I'm honestly not certain if I'm not uncomfortable in my male body because I'm inherently male inside, or because I'm just easy-going about it. Perhaps if medical technology advances to the point where sex changes can be had on a whim and easily reversed later, I'll give it a try.

But there's more to being male than just having a willy. I'm also romantically and sexually attracted to women (It's handy that I'm consistent in both kinds of attraction; is this always the case? Do some people fall in love with members of one sex, but not want to have sex with them, and instead have sex with members of the other sex?). So I also get to call myself a "heterosexual cisgender male" (I'm white, able-bodied and educated, too; thanks for asking!).

And that, pretty much, is my actual gender.

However, I live in a society with a whole load of stereotypical ideas about other attributes I'm supposed to have because of the above. And, pretty much, I reject them all.

Yes, I'm a nerd; I like computers and maths and science fiction and engineering and metalwork. These are stereotypically male pursuits, but that's not why I like them; I'm just fortunate to have a bunch of interests that society doesn't consider wrong for my gender. My interest in making things extends to cooking, crochet, and sewing, as well, which are stereotypically female pursuits; but apart from the technical details, I don't see any fundamental difference between those fields and my other interests that should justify a gender divide. Cooking is largely applied chemistry combined with some construction skills. Sewing and crochet are just another means of making objects from materials, another technique alongside other such as casting metal or routing wood.

Society also says that, as a heterosexual male, I mustn't be affectionate with other men, and certainly not have sex with them. Well, I'm quite an affectionate person at heart, and I'll gladly hug whoever wants me to (one of the best things about having gay friends is that they'll warmly hug me without worrying that it "makes them gay"). And I'm not excited by the thought of sex with men, but that doesn't mean it repulses me, either; if a horny male male-fancying friend asked me to Do Them A Favour I'd give it a go, and I'd be rather intrigued to see what it was like. No big deal. I'm certainly not afraid that it would "make me gay".

Society certainly has ideas about how it's acceptable for me to dress. Although, in my society, it seems to be perfectly fine for females to dress just like males (perhaps with the exceptions of formal garb such as top hats and tails), the opposite is considered rather unusual; I'm not allowed to wear dresses and lipstick. Thankfully, I don't like make-up much (on myself or on others) so that doesn't bother me much, but I find being told I'm not allowed to wear a dress a bit annoying. I've no interest in the rather unpractical "pretty female clothing" that actual transvestites might want to wear, thankfully (as that would put me in opposition to society's expectations, which can be awkward), but I do hanker for a kilt. And when I get one, I'll wear it, even though it will attract occasional ridicule, because I'm not easily cowed.

More subtly, society seems to think that, as a male, I should generally be dominant and take charge of things. I quite like taking charge of things, but that's because I enjoy the challenge of problem-solving and helping a team of people to work together towards a common goal; it doesn't seem to involve my penis at all (although... it might be interesting if it did). I'm not particularly dominant, though; I think that the "macho" male stereotype of always being in charge and never "letting anyone push you around" is really just borne of insecurity, that to respect somebody's leadership is to "admit to being weaker than them". The strongest shouldn't be in charge. In general, the strongest should be out there doing stuff, while those better suited to planning are in charge. There is no shame in either position.

My daughter find this frustrating, too. She often complains that people tell her some things are "boy's things" and some things are "girl's things", which she finds limiting. She introduces herself to people as a "tomboy" as this justifies her being interested in both. When she seems concerned about people saying she can't do something because it's "for boys", I often ask her this simple (and tension-releasingly-amusing to a seven-year-old) litmus test question: "Ok, do you actually need a willy to do this thing/play with this toy?", and the answer is almost certainly going to be no.

So, what of my twitter-friend feeling confused about their gender?

I don't know exactly what they are going through. They look female in pictures, and have occasionally expressed a weak preference for a more masculine identity, but have generally spoken of gender non-comformity and confusion, so I'm going to hedge my bets and stick to the gender-neutral pronouns "them", "they", "their", etc for this blog post (and if they ask me to refer to them with any given set of pronouns, I will endeavor to do so (although the pedant in me would like to add that I restrict this offer to pronouns that (a) can fit into tweets and (b) only use characters on my keyboard and (c) do not break any local or international laws)).

But I have a suspicion that being confused about ones' gender is probably a consequence of social pressure. I've worked hard to reject the social pressures on me, and have concluded that I'm a heterosexual cisgender male, but I've also found that that's quite a "weak" alignment; it's not a huge part of me, it doesn't really define much about me that matters to people who aren't trying to have sex with me, and I don't see it as excluding me from anything.

However, I think that if I took the social stereotypes and stigma to heart, I might find myself a bit confused about why I don't seem to feel strongly about them in my own right. I might then "worry" that I was secretly gay or bisexual (as society would like to tell me that this is at least slightly wrong). However, even if I was a homosexual cisgender male, there's a stereotype for that in society that is now largely accepted (if still rather second-class), so if I was that way inclined, at least I'd see myself conforming to a standardised place in society.

But if I really didn't fit into any of the Standard Places, and I took society's expectations seriously, I can imagine myself feeling pretty confused. I can imagine myself thinking or feeling something along the lines of "I have observable trait A, which means I should also have trait B, but I don't. So what am I?".

And so, on the assumption that this is the problem facing them, I would encourage my confused twitter-friend to see if they can separate their own model of themselves - based PURELY upon objectively observing their own feelings and body - from social stereotypes. Find out who you are, and only once you're sure about that, worry about where you fit into social expectations of gender. And try to keep the worrying down because, really, it doesn't matter that much. Unfortunately, life can be awkward for people who buck social expectations; I hug male friends (and hope to wear a kilt) knowing that this will sometimes attract negative comments, because I can do so from a position of otherwise being secure in my life; indeed, to some people, the content of this blog post alone will mark me as INCURABLY FILTHY GAY. Somebody who is struggling to get by, and who faces a real risk of violence or other abuse if their community fails to accept them, may well have to wear masks for more of the day than I do. This is bad, and needs fixing, but we'll have to live with it for now.

But this is starting to lead towards a later tweet in the conversation that ensued:

(in which they are suggesting that nobody will enter into a relationship with them).

NO. No no no. Dear God, no. I only know them from what they say on Twitter (although, to be fair, that is rather a lot), but the pictures they post of themselves look quite fanciable to my tastes, and the things they say have generally made me like and respect them; if I wasn't married and on a different continent and all that, I'd certainly like to ask them out (I probably wouldn't, but that's just because I'm stupidly shy about that sort of thing, alas...). Their "weird"ness, to me, comes across as "not being a boring conformist". And there's something I admire about somebody who has undergone the stress of realising that they "don't fit", but not let it destroy them - they come out stronger, and with a deeper understanding of reality. I'd definitely hug them if we met and they seemed to like that idea (regardless of what gender they looked on the outside, or felt like inside). To me, what they see as "weird" is attractive.

However, I understand they live in a rather conservative Christian community. This feeds my suspicion that the source of their confusion is, at least partly, having a strong conformist social expectation model shoved down their throat at every turn; and it also leads me to suspect that they feel very, very, alone in "being different", which is sad, and "locally true" in their community, but unrepresentative of the sheer breadth and depth of humanity out there in the larger world.

And so, I wish them luck in escaping the confines of their community, be it physically, or purely emotionally.

See also: wise words on "labels"


I've decided to come back to this post and edit it. Not that I've changed in any way, but because I've learnt more about gender thanks to more trans people coming out and talking about their experiences, which has had two consequences:

  1. A better description of me would be something along the lines of "agender heterosexual cissexual-male"; I don't have an innate feeling of gender, I have male sexual characteristics and don't feel any dysphoria about them (although I don't feel any euphoria about them either, it means no more to me than eye colour), and I'm attracted to people with female sexual characteristics (regardless of their gender).

  2. When I wrote that, out trans people were a rarity in my circles, but it turns out this was because they were all closeted. That's changing now and lots are coming out, and talking of their feelings of having gender that doesn't match their sex! Now, when I wrote the above, I thought that gender was a purely social construct that I found mildly annoying because society's expectations of me only loosely fitted me, and trans people were people who happened to find it VERY annoying because society's expactations strongly didn't fit them. But statistically significant numbers of trans people reporting a feeling of innate gender can't be a coincidence; it must be a thing for at least some people.

That means I'm actually OFFICIALLY A BIT QUEER in being agender; reading up on this a bit (mainly, /r/agender on reddit), agender people have a self-image that seems very consistent with my self-image, but it seems like most agender people follow the same sort of path of self-discovery as trans people - complete with stressful coming-out experiences (I have opinions on that!). My story is entirely different...

I grew up as the only child of a single mother, so my household had no comparison between sexes/genders; the axis was "small child / adult parent", rather than any "mother / father" or "boy brother / girl sister" comparisons. My mother never implied any gender expectations of me; there was no "you should do this because you're a boy" or "you can't do that, it's for girls". I saw social expectations of gender in others, and in fiction in books and on TV, but whenever they were apparent, my mother was disdainful of it as sexism. I remember her fury when she and another parent were discussing their children's likely careers; I was very interested in science and technology so seemed set for a career in those fields (correct!) - and the other parent responded "Oh, of course [their daughter] won't amount to much, she's only a girl". I grew up in a world with a female Prime Minister and a female monarch; it seemed clear to me that people had physical sexes, but the idea that those sexes had relevance beyond their direct biological consequences was just a hold-over from a darker age, like racism and homophobia, still lingering in dark corners of humanity where forbidden jokes were quietly snickered but denounced in all public discourse. Grammatical gender in the English language, and gendered clothing expectations, were things that carried on through social inertia but would fade with time. To put those views - in hindsight, rather progressive for the 1980s - in perspective, we lived next door to a gay couple and a transvestite guy lived a few houses down the other way!

So the surprising revelation for me wasn't that I was agender, but that everyone else wasn't...

Of course, I base this position on other people's reported sense of gender, and this always comes from trans people; I don't think I've ever heard a cisgender person say "I feel totally and definitely male" or whatever. So perhaps - just perhaps - being cisgender is actually no more commonplace than being transgender; a small fraction of humanity have the misfortune to be innately gendered, and have a 50% chance of that gender matching their sex! 🙂


  • By sarah, Mon 22nd Jul 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    On the Tomboy note - Jeany is also suffering with people telling her she is a tomboy so can't play with the sparkly pink princesses which has upset her greatly as she does like sparkly stuff and space ships etc...

    Gender based toys annoy the hell out of me 🙁

  • By Jean, Sun 23rd Sep 2018 @ 3:21 pm


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