What does it mean to have a gender?
October 29, 2013 1:36 AM   Subscribe

I've been wondering about this for years. I have no concept of what it means to be female, apart from the body parts (which, as I've learned, don't, by themselves, mean a lot). All I can think of is a lot of cultural stuff, which doesn't seem to be universal all over the world, so surely that's just what we've learned? I get the impression that there is such a thing as a female or male identity, as inborn gender. If you have one, what does it feel like? How do you know what gender you are?

I know that this question may sound like I'm being wilfully obtuse, and that is not the case. I feel that I have, as a child, been told that I was a girl, and that's how I knew; also, body parts.
There was no internal feeling of being a girl. But apparently, other people (some? many? most?) do have such a feeling.
I feel like I'm blind to something that other people can see. I've also heard that gender is something you 'perform'. That sounds so artificial to me.

Some things about me:

English is not my first language. I'm 45 and live in the Netherlands.

I do a lot of different stuff, much of it seen as 'man stuff' in this society, but society can kindly go fuck itself. I'm childless by choice and have a male partner. I'm self-employed in a creative profession that is traditionally more often held by men.

I dress in a rather gender-neutral way. Pretty much everything I wear could also be worn by a man and not raise an eyebrow. Hmm, come to think of it, doesn't that mean that I dress in a masculine way? In any case, I started to refuse dresses and skirts when I was seven and have never looked back.

I have, on occasion, dressed up as a man and found that very satisfying.

I'm fine with being seen as a woman. It goes well with my body parts. I know that body parts don't signify gender*), but it's all I seem to have.
Physically, I'm very clearly what's traditionally seen as female. I'm short, have big hips, fairly big breasts. Round face and short jaw.

I'm lucky not to have body dysphoria. But I think I would be happy in a different body, too. If I woke up with a penis tomorrow, I would be mostly concerned how my partner would feel about that, because he doesn't swing that way.

I'm fine with being seen as a man, too. Except when I get mail addressed to Mr. Soandso. Because that is not about me, that is about assuming that all enterpreneurs are male and that sucks.

So, basically, the question is:
How do you know what gender you are? How does it feel to know?

*) This notion is pretty new to me and I'm still having a bit of trouble with it. Sorry. I'm working on it.
posted by Too-Ticky to Human Relations (52 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am not going to answer "look up all the stuff about queerness and non binary gender on the internet" because I assume you have Google. So, just a personal experience.

There are certain things that, socially, are associated with being female. They include being accepted by other women in a certain way, touched, spoken to about my manicure (or hers), looked at in a "you are one of us" way. They also include quasi-sexual stuff, like for the feminine parts of my body to be noticed in the world at large, and maybe even wanted, including sexually.

For me, if I don't get those social cues, I get depressed and maybe even suicidal. I can say this from very clear first-hand experience because I had a face problem a while ago that, before I got surgery for it, would make me appear more masculine. I didn't have a beauty issue but a gender issue. I was not getting the "you are a female cues" from the outside and I felt massively, fundamentally sad and wrong. I wore pink all the damn time but women still didn't quite accept me. After my surgery, they did, and men accepted me more as female too in all those social ways, and a big piece of depression lifted.

To me, gender has a lot to do with getting an involuntary sad/wrong/depressed feeling from the ~absence~ of gender-appropriate social response. I can speak on this because, as I said, I had that face issue. It also feels (comparatively) good to get culturally accepted gender-based behavior, like a female friend playing with my hair or talking with me about her bf, or a man holding open a door for me.

So gender is about the good feeling in response to those cultural cues. Even more so (for me) it's about the excruciatingly awful feeling if they are missing... and the desire to "feminize" myself so I get the appropriate feedback if I'm not getting it.

If you don't get those same happies and sads, maybe you are indeed somehow blind to gender in a way that I am not.
posted by htid at 2:26 AM on October 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

For me gender is fluid. I identify as female and follow the social norms and such because I find it more fun than identifying as male. There was a time when I felt I was meant to be "male" and identified as such. As a note I am biologically female.

For some people, well for me anyway, gender isn't a complicated psychological thing. It is skin deep and easily changeable. But... I. suspect the majority of people don't feel as I do. Just thought I'd give a different perspective.
posted by Autumn at 3:26 AM on October 29, 2013

Best answer: I see it as a set of subcultures that have grown around the bodily sexes. In this sense, "woman" and "man" are "performed" in the way that "hard rocker" and "nerd" are performed. The special difficulty is that the subculture and the bodily sex have strong cultural links, but are really not the same.

Many humans are reared and cultured in a way that aligns one's styles & preferences with the subculture that's associated with one's bodily sex. Traditionally, this has been an almost unfathomably strong pillar in mainstream culture, such that deviation was shunned and punished.

But in modern times, we have come to realize -- through the work of feminist thinkers and activists, and through general liberal enlightenment -- that the configuration of these subcultures is from an individual perspective brutally unfair and actually unnecessary.

The modern/postmodern explosion of gender activism has operated in a few different ways. One is by trying to change certain attributes of the subcultures in order to make femininity and masculinity roughly equal in terms of opportunity, respect, and so on. Another is to question gender itself, to allow individuals to express themselves -- and be met -- in whatever way they decide, regardless of whether it fits into standard subcultural ideas.

This cultural reconfiguration is massively beneficial and unfinished, but can also be confusing. Some people react to this confusion with extreme fear and negativity, for example as seen in homophobia. Some just feel uncertain about what kind of relation they "should" have with gender.

The subcultures can provide a comfortable, traditional, even beautiful kind of template for expression and behavior. As modern individuals, we are mostly free to adopt elements of them by our own best judgment, though we certainly encounter resistance if we stray from the norms.

I don't think gender as performance is something to be afraid of because it is "artificial." It's a matter of human culture which is almost the definition of artifice. Playing the blues guitar is also a performance, a social construction, artificial, and so on, but it's still beautiful and fun and worth learning if it resonates with you.

People around you will probably always interpret you through the lens of gender. Even if you don't wear skirts, people see a woman who doesn't wear skirts. If I, as a man, wore a skirt to work tomorrow, or just painted my nails, there would be a big ruckus. The superficial stuff is most provocative. But it's also fun to play with.

You don't have to dive deeply into your true self and find your "true gender" deep down somewhere. It doesn't necessarily exist. You are free, and this is scary. What is there to do but have fun with it and make the best of it?
posted by mbrock at 3:26 AM on October 29, 2013 [14 favorites]

I previously asked a representative of an NGO that promotes awareness in LGBT issues to talk the notion of being "trans" in relation to a decision by police to detain a trans person in men's holding cells based on information on her ID saying she was male. She was female. Why? Because she said so.

The NGO's position was clear that people had the right to define their gender for themselves and they gave me the following description of "trans":
“Trans people include those with a gender identity that is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. These includes, among many others, transsexual and transgender people, trans men and trans women, transvestites, cross-dressers, no-gender, liminal-gender, multigender and gender-queer people, as well as intersex people who relate to or identify as any of the above.”

I believe that - in the case of gender - the kind of knowledge you have of your self trumps any third person perspective.

As a heterosexual female who has no wish to change her gender, I struggle with being identified female, because I consider the fact I'm female to be accidental to who I am. I don't feel strongly male or strongly female and sexual attraction doesn't seem to be a good arbiter because I could have been a gay woman, or bi or trans. So I can't define my gender in terms of who I'm attracted to. And because my interests are split between what people view as "male" or "female" or even biased towards the "male" interests, I couldn't define my gender by my outward behaviour even if I wanted to. And yet, people will often jump from :'mkdirusername likes/does X' to: 'all women like/do X' in a way that's obviously a fallacy to anyone who's done elementary logic. A bit like so.

The biggest reason I can give you for knowing I'm female is because people tell me or show me.
Others, may identify with a specific gender and like htid said, know by the way they feel by other people's response to them.

But I think it's fine to identify with neither, both or no genders. Not everyone has an "inborn gender," some are born with the wrong one and others just fall into whatever they were assigned.
posted by mkdirusername at 3:36 AM on October 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I do a lot of different stuff, much of it seen as 'man stuff' in this society, but society can kindly go fuck itself.

That, it seems to me, is really the nub of the thing. It seems to me that if the attitude expressed there were close to universal, the patriarchy in anything like its present form would not be sustainable.

I find it terribly, terribly sad to contemplate people being led to feel bad because they don't conform to some quasi-traditional set of expectations based on something as arbitrary as body shape, and I've always found the idea that gender is fundamental to identity to be a broken, wrong and unhealthy idea; who and what I am, it seems to me, should have nothing at all to do with who or what I am like - regardless of whether the likeness involves skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, height, build, genetics, sexual preferences or genitalia.

But apparently, other people (some? many? most?) do have such a feeling. I feel like I'm blind to something that other people can see.

I think you're fine. I don't think that this particular emperor actually has any clothes.
posted by flabdablet at 3:43 AM on October 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You sound a lot like me! Masculine/androgynous clothing, "If I woke up with a penis tomorrow..." hypotheticals, childless by choice, male-dominated career field, short stature, big hips, noticeable breasts, round face, short jaw...

For me, it's just about a lack of objection. I'm not a feminine person, but when I look at my boobs and girly hips in the mirror, I think, "Well, it's not incorrect for those to be there. That's just how the coin flip turned out."
posted by revi at 3:49 AM on October 29, 2013 [13 favorites]

For understanding what people talk about when they talk about gender as "performance", Judith Butler Explained with Cats is helpful.

Thinking about my own gender-feeling: some of it is feeling that I have something in common with other women that I don't have in common with men, knowing that I am looked at by other people as a woman (and being aware of the side-effects of that), knowing that I have the option to act feminine without repercussions, knowing that I have to be cautious in ways that I wouldn't really if I were a man, things like that where my gender affects how I relate to other people.
posted by dreamyshade at 3:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

Lack of objection sounds about right to me, too. (In case it's a useful data point I am a bisexual woman partnered with a man long term, with no plans or desire for marriage or children. I dress in a range of masculine to feminine clothing, but have zero interest or skill in makeup or hairstyles, my hobbies are fairly neutral, i am nurturing/caregivery as hell to my loved ones.)

My gender does not feel to me as of it has anything to do with how others perceive me or act toward me. My gender feels entirely about the inside of my head. How I have been socialized, who I relate to and feel solidarity with, how I react to the world. It's also made up of the fact that I am at home in my woman-shaped body. Other than weight struggles, this body feels natural to me, I know how to move in it without conscious thought, I feel no incongruity between who I am in my body and in my head. I think I would find it briefly interesting but then distressing to wake up in a male body and navigate being a man, in a way that I would not if I woke up and were a different woman shape - say, a shorter woman or one without the Russian peasant stock childbearing hips or one with small breasts.

I do not feel my gender extremely strongly, but I do feel it, in a steady way that I don't recall ever changing throughout my life.
posted by Stacey at 4:07 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I just know.

Maybe for you, not knowing is what you know?

Maybe gender is a bowl in the heart that can be pre-filled or come waiting to be filled?

But yeah, I'm a girl, whatever that means.
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:23 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think I just got lucky that I was born into a time, place, and culture where I'm ok to identify with the gender assigned to my sex. If you haven't already heard it, there's a very interesting episode of This American Life called 'Testosterone'.

To further emphasize the gender-culture link, when I was living in Japan (a tall western woman) I was treated more like a man than a Japanese woman... I just didn't encompass enough Japanese identifiers of femininity. I wasn't particularly bothered. There were advantages and dis advantaves, but aren't there always?
posted by jrobin276 at 4:25 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's funny - when I was about four, I went through a phase where I wished I had a penis, because I thought they were neat. But I never wanted to be a boy; I just wanted the body part. Being female was something I just assumed to be true: this is my name, these are my parents, I have brown hair, I am a girl.

"Lack of objection" sums it up pretty well for me, too. There have been times where I've hated my body, and times when I've hated the cultural assumptions around my gender. But I've never felt that my body and my gender were wrong.

I'd like to say that if I woke up tomorrow in a man's body, I'd continue on as normal, but the sad truth is I would panic. Then I'd get a blow job. Then I'd go back to panicking.

Another thing: I've always been shy, sensitive, conflict-averse, daydreamy, more artsy than sciencey. I believe most of this came pre-loaded into my brain, and I don't really consider these traits gender-linked, but I do find it remarkably convenient that my quiet nature fits a feminine stereotype. A huge part of the reason I'd panic if I woke up with a man's body is that I'd feel pressure to be more assertive, less wishy-washy. I am not at all sure what I'd be like if I had been raised with the same brain in a male body: would I have overcome some of my delicateness, or would it have been subtly discouraged from birth so that it never took root? If my personality turned out the same, would I be frustrated that society's definition of masculinity didn't include me, or would I feel like my gender was incorrect? I can't know.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:43 AM on October 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

For me personally, it's easier to identify as "not male" than it is to identify as "female." In that I don't feel any of the stereotypical male urges to either fuck or fight/dominate almost everyone I encounter.

So I guess for me, my female gender is mostly about taking a cooperative approach to social interactions?
posted by Jacqueline at 4:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a young man, I was fortunate to be healthy, large and fairly strong. I got to enjoy contact sports like football, boxing and judo, and the experience of putting myself in physical competition with other young men, and occasionally beating them by superior strength and skill. I got to enjoy creating things at work by acts of physical power, like hammering, putting a wrench to big iron, bending pipes, and putting a shoulder to structural members of a building, and moving a wall slightly into place, or pouring concrete. I rode motorcycles, cut down trees, sailed, went SCUBA diving, and enjoyed hunting, fishing, and most other outdoor living. I never worried about getting scars. I never minded getting hurt, except if it was a stupid, avoidable injury that kept me from enjoying myself more.

I liked growing a beard, and getting short hair cuts while swapping bad jokes and big lies in barbershops, when there still were barbershops. I prefer handshakes to hugs or high fives. I liked getting sweaty and stinky for a purpose, and then getting cleaned up. I liked smoking cigars, and occasionally getting blind, knee-crawlin', preacher cussin' drunk on good whisky, with good pals, and I'd rather have a hangover than a brunch. I like a beer now and then, but I can't say much for wine. I've always liked big dogs, and rough play with them. I like a loud motor more than a loud stereo, and a loud stereo more than a TV, unless the TV has a ball game or a boxing match on. I like scratching my itches, and blowing my nose, and I've always burped and passed gas like a zeppelin and felt better for it. When I was young and rowdy, I liked chasing women, and the few times any chased me, were confusing as hell. I dance like I shouldn't, and I try to keep my singing to Interstate highways.

The worst thing about getting older has been having to recognize the decline of my physical vitality. I just can't go like I used to, and I really miss it. I've worn out my joints, and my heart, and yet I remember what it used to be like to have power, and speed. I sleep more now, and still wake up more tired than ever I used to be. I can't see anything without bifocals, and very little with them. I wouldn't have made much of a woman, and it's hell getting old, as a man. I never felt pretty, and I hated every single tear I ever cried (even those in good causes), viscerally, down deep, more than any punch I ever took. The best thing about getting older is that my impulses are easier to resist, and I don't rile as quickly.

I'm pretty sure I've enjoyed this life as a man, about as much as a person can. It ain't all been roses, but the parts that have been horseshit, have at least been fresh.
posted by paulsc at 5:29 AM on October 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

Gender is not inborn. It's a social construction. You can create your own, if you want. Or ignore it. And whatever feminine women of the Netherlands are meant to be now is not the same as the gender ideal of 150 years ago. These things are different in different times and places.

Social pressure is probably what's causing your issues. Thrre are some things people can reasonably expect - don't yell fire in a crowded theater, don't spit in the punch bowl- but a lot of what people want to know about you is none of their business.

I have a friend or two who, especially in their early 20s, were very interested in the "being attractive to men" aspect. So they dressed like women and threw themselves at men and had bad sex. Really bad sex. And if they managed to get into some kind of relationship, they immediately stopped having sex with the guy (frequently while cheating with others. ) Gender can be such a hollow thing. Or a trap.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:32 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I feel the same way as you.

I had short hair and was petite/a somewhat late bloomer, so I was misgendered pretty frequently as a teenager. I mostly was amused by it or didn't really care.

I am really bad at things most women are supposed to like/be able to do (especially appearance stuff like makeup and heels) and have no desire to figure them out. That said, despite being queer I just am not butch and have no interest in being butch, so there's also that particular data point.

I'm perfectly fine with being female-bodied, but if I woke up tomorrow and discovered I was male, that would probably be acceptable as long as I could be as shitty as masculinity as I am at femininity.

All of the above said, I intellectually accept that this is not something that can be universalized, and especially that transpeople are telling the truth about their feelings about this stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 5:32 AM on October 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

This is a bit of a non-answer, but, as far as I know (we talked about it once), my brother got told he was a boy as a child, thought "Oh. Okay, then." and has proceeded on his merry way ever since. It certainly sounds like you put more thought into your gender than my brother, but you're not alone in 'That's what I got told and it seems to work' school of thought.

I suppose I'm coming from a queerer place than my brother, where my gender need not be 'man' or 'woman'--really it's a constellation of some sort of idealised image of my body and how I present myself to the world (and how I react to the world's reaction to me). For me, that's best approximated by 'man'. That comes with a lot of privilege, both male privilege and the privilege of being understood to fit fairly neatly into one of the 'man' and 'woman' boxes, but I can't do anything beyond be cognizant of that.

Of course, the 'how do I present myself' stuff is culturally bound to some large extent, but we still make choices. I knew two women who were really into wearing skirts and dresses and almost never wore trousers (one is my best friend and actually owns more than one pair of trousers now, the other one I've lost touch with). One was very consciously performing some notion of femininity from her image of the 1950s (and would tell you about it). I don't know that that was 'natural' for her, but I'd hope it was an extreme version of her default setting, if you well. The other was in a phase of really liking long skirts and wasn't aiming to convey anything beyond perhaps 'I like skirts'.
posted by hoyland at 5:34 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I suspect that, like for most interactions between biology and culture, gender identity is a spectrum that we've slapped some binary labels on out of necessity. There are definitely people who feel dysphoric about their cultural gender (how other people perceive them). There are definitely people very comfortable with their cultural gender, and if they woke up tomorrow in a body that reads the other way, they'd feel very dysphoric. And there are lots and lots of people somewhere in the middle - people like Michael Wallent who would probably be a 4-5 instead of a 6 if there were a Kinsey-like trans scale; people who aren't comfortable with either label; people who accept their assigned label but it's not a big deal if they are labeled differently (this sounds like you), etc.
posted by muddgirl at 5:52 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll also say that understanding certain things about my "oh, um, I guess so?" gender identity enables me to really get transpeoples' experience. Like, I have a lot of friends and family who just assume that I could do makeup and such if I really wanted to, and I must just be lazy, or I'm deliberately trying to be provocative or attention-seeking, or it's part of some kind of feminist Agenda.

I feel like I've fought pretty hard for my "sure, whatevs" way of performing femaleness, so I've got to accept other people who have not slotted quite so easily into "I strongly identify with the gender that matches the genitalia I was born with, and performing that gender poses no challenge to me". I mean, I'd be pissed as FUCK if I were suddenly required to wear a skirt, pantyhose, and 3-inch heels to work, and told there was something wrong with me if I couldn't conform. So, same deal, basically.
posted by Sara C. at 5:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

It is funny, I've never really thought about it. I identify as a woman, but I don't let that define me. I do whatever I want, gender roles be damned, but I do definitely identify with being a woman.

In some way, the fact that I never questioned it and have never had any objections to it makes it seem more natural, if you know what I mean. It feels natural, it feels fitting and right for me to identify as a woman. It is a weird thing to say, but identifying with a gender is almost a lack of wrongness. It doesn't feel wrong to identify as a woman. It doesn't feel misplaced or ill fitting. In no way does my body or mind reject being identified with that gender.

Because it doesn't feel wrong it must be right...?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:04 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

In my world, there are gender baskets. Two big ones... masculine and feminine. Some smaller ones.... doesn't matter, neither, both....

You come along and we meet. I write a description of you in my head and throw it in the appropriate (for me!) basket.

What gets thrown into the woman basket?

Cooperation. General lack of aggressiveness. A certain grouping of responses to behavior probes (less gross, more refined and civilized, perceptive, nurturing). Body parts, of course, but they are less important.

Boy basket?

Individualism, compartmentalization, reticence, emotional vocabulary low, energy, focus (both inappropriate and appropriate), assertive/aggressive, physical. Body parts, of course.

When I meet masculine women, it is usually their behavior that classifies them as such to me, not their morphology. This is true of feminine men, too.

There is the concept of convergence, too. With age, we tend toward the other pole. Old men play with children and become nurturing. Old women fix their shelves and buy tools. I do things at my age that I never would have at 20. I FEEL more feminine, expressive, inclusive, caring and nurturing.

Of course, I offset that with being a total asshole every now and then so my boy creds are not doubted, and I spit, curse, and ridicule, get aggressive and insolent. All these are essential or my penis will atrophy. YMMV.
posted by FauxScot at 6:06 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It is funny, I've never really thought about it.

It occurred to me months ago in a thread around here about trans* people that this is a hallmark of being cisgender (for most people who are, anyway): It's an absence of disjunction. It's something many of us never have to spend a moment thinking or wondering about if we don't feel like it.
posted by rtha at 6:08 AM on October 29, 2013 [34 favorites]

I'm a cisgender heterosexual female, married to a man. Childless by circumstance.

It's funny that the more time passes by and the more obvious it becomes that gender is fluid and a spectrum, the more we (society? marketers?) are not only continuing to try and make gender boxes, but we're trying to shrink those boxes. Here in the US it seems that we (society? marketers?) are trying to make MAN = John Cena and WOMAN = Babysitter Barbie. But it's not that way.

I've always been socially clumsy, didn't always have stylish clothes to wear and was kind of kludgy with hair/makeup until a few years ago. I can easily hang out in sweatpants and a tee, or a sweater, skirt, hat and pearls.

I am a nurturer. I'm the office 'mom' who brings in cookies and donuts for the coworkers because I truly want to see people eat and be happy. I want to create a warm, cozy living space for my household. Even if my bits and parts don't work as intended, I know that this body that I'm in was built to bring life into this world and nourish it. I get weirdly Earth Mother-y about my monthly cycle.

But I am not helpless. I am not a damsel in distress who won't change a light bulb or stares helplessly at computer errors, waiting for a man to swing by and fix it. I play World of Warcraft without having my husband level up my character or pick my talents for me.

You can say that much of it is due to my upbringing, but I grew up in the 70s with dolls AND blocks. I had a primary-color childhood, not the pink/purple one that marketers try to foist on little girls now. My family and teachers told me I could be the President if I wanted.

All of this is as natural and obvious to me as putting on two socks in the morning or saying I'm from New Jersey.
posted by kimberussell at 6:28 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

you say you're husband is straight. are you straight or bi? i only ask because it can be a good way to look at how some people are fluid, or non-fixed, while other people are very definite. there are people who don't feel their gender (although some of those are just because it's matched up - much like white people who say "i don't see color" it's a privilege to not feel the agitation) but that doesn't mean gender is fully a social construct. the way we perform gender is highly cultural, but that's different than gender being not a real thing.

you might find that reading personal stories from people who are intersex to help give you a concept of what it feels like when there is a clash. some people find it easier to wrap their heads around that on the way to understanding and accepting how people who are trans see the world.
posted by nadawi at 6:38 AM on October 29, 2013

Response by poster: nadawi, I'm straight. I don't think that either my sexual orientation or my gender identity are very fluid, it seems they've both been the same way forever.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:46 AM on October 29, 2013

Best answer: I know that this question may sound like I'm being wilfully obtuse, and that is not the case. I feel that I have, as a child, been told that I was a girl, and that's how I knew; also, body parts. There was no internal feeling of being a girl. But apparently, other people (some? many? most?) do have such a feeling.

I was reading your comments in the other thread, and wanted to comment - but you looked like you were getting uneasy with the attention, so I didn't. I'm glad you came here, because I can say what I was going to say there.

I think maybe that what you're seeing as people having a feeling that they were a girl maybe isn't accurate - it's more like, an absence of feeling to the contrary. I got told I was a girl, and my lack of a feeling that "wait, no, that's wrong, I can't be a girl" is that inward feeling that I'm a girl. In particular, I noticed you said that "I got told I was a girl, but there wasn't anything to contradict that" (or something like that) - and that "nothing inside me to contradict that" is that "feeling like you're a girl" people are talking about, maybe. People who are transgender frequently do have that kind of "wait, people tell me I'm a girl and I have girl parts but that just feels wrong somehow in a way I can't put my finger on" feeling. The only time I even came close to feeling like that was when I was about nine; I was a bit more aware of what the vulva looked like, or was paying more attention or something, and really took a good look at my own for the first time, and - okay, why not tell everyone - some of the inner bits poke out a bit more than I thought they should, and I spent a day worrying that "wait, did they maybe screw up and I'm really a boy?" But that only lasted a day until I saw some more pictures in a library book that reassured me that girl parts that looked like mine were also normal. And I do remember feeling a little relieved ("okay, good, I'm glad I can still be a girl like I'm supposed to be").

However, the whole ball of wax about gender identity and all that can be really confusing for many people because we also have so much societal issues around gender and sexuality and sex and all that, which are constructs of society - you know, girls are supposed to be like [foo] and boys are supposed to be like [baz]. And a lot of people tie what they feel about those secondary things (because they are secondary) into the same "feeling like a girl/boy", to a far greater extent than they should be. I was never into a lot of the whole girly-girl thing - I'm crap at fashion and makeup, I didn't date at all in high school, I don't know how to talk about girly things. I'm kind of like how Kaylee was in that one episode of Firefly when she gets invited to a ball and tries to chat with some of the fashionable ladies, but they shun her because she doesn't know how to talk to them - but then she ends up having a way better time talking to all the guys at the ball because they're all talking about starship engines and she understands that. But she never acted like she wished she were a boy, she just was a girl who related better to boys. She liked dressing up in a frilly dress just that once and going to a fancy ball, and then she was happily back to her uniform working on the ship's engine. I'm like that - I never feel like "a boy in a girl's body". I'm a girl who just happens to like some boy things and knows how to relate to boys better.

I hope this doesn't sound like an insult, but - I think something that can help you uncouple the secondary societal characteristics of gender from gender itself may be if you have a few listens to the children's album Free To Be You And Me. I note that you're not from the US, so - this was an album that was really popular in the US in the 1970's, when the women's rights movement was really active. It's a lot of songs and poems on the general topic of "girls and boys may be different genders but the things they do don't have to be." You know - "girls can be doctors or lawyers" or "boys can play with dolls" or "girls can choose who they want to marry, or can even decide they don't want to get married at all" or "boys can stay home and be the daddies while the mommy goes to work" or whatever. I had that as a child, and I think that helped me understand the difference between gender-the-social-construct and gender-the-inward-thing from an early age. I did also take a course on human sexuality that let me really analyze that, but I definitely think I was already in that headspace because of that album. They actually made a television special for that album as well, and you can find some of the clips on Youtube - do a search for "Free to be you and me" there.

Good luck. This is hard to understand because it's a very murky thing overall.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:50 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Too-TIckey - then, yeah, you're being straight is just as valid as me being pansexual. much like you not innately feeling your gender as far as you can tell isn't related to people who feel their genders very strongly. no one is just making up what they know to be true - no one is just reacting to the way society said they should be. all of us are just being who we are.
posted by nadawi at 7:03 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's an absence of disjunction. It's something many of us never have to spend a moment thinking or wondering about if we don't feel like it.

I think this is the main thing. As a child, I hated all 'girly' things. I didn't like dressing up, I didn't like playing with hair, I didn't like skipping or games like that, I didn't like dolls or babies, and I preferred reading books and digging holes. If a boy is unstereotypical in this way, then some may have concerns that he is 'a bit funny' - at least in the 1980s when I grew up, where 'pink boys' were unheard of. As a girl, I never felt anything other than female, and it frustrated me that I was the only girl who liked doing these things that I knew, and that people classed certain things as 'for boys' for no good reason. In particular, not liking babies was seen as extremely weird for a girl - this is probably the closest I got to 'not feeling like a real girl' because people reacted to this in a way that they never would were a boy to express the same feelings. As a teenager, I felt I didn't fit in because fashion didn't really interest me - mostly because the clothing I wanted to wear was not available where I lived - and I dressed pretty much in a unisex fashion as I was tall enough to just buy men's jeans from Stolen From Ivor. Looking back, I suppose I did dress in a unisex way, but this wasn't a conscious choice based on my feelings about gender, just that I didn't want to spend a lot of time or effort on it. I didn't see the point of make-up or clothes until I was about fifteen, and realised that appearance can be used as a form of expression as much as a way of attracting boys or being trendy.

As I got older, I did get into make-up and fashion more, and some of my hobbies are very stereotypically feminine whereas my (male) partner's are stereotypically masculine. I am taller than average and wear a man's shoe size, but I present very much as female and I've never felt as though I am anything other than female. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that even if you are or were into Man Things, it isn't necessarily down to doubting your gender identity. I've always felt female and even feel that we have it easier in some ways than men when it comes to not conforming to mainstream standards. If I woke up tomorrow in a man's body - after seeing what having a penis felt like - I'd find it hard to get used to in terms of what society feels I should be, do and look like.
posted by mippy at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in the same boat as you and have felt this way since I was very young. I am a woman largely because although I am generally enraged by being socialized and identified under that heading due to stereotypical associations between femininity and weakness, I could not possibly tell you whether I want to be a man because I have no idea what being a man is or even could be like, much in the same way that I have absolutely no idea what being a woman is or could be like outside of how that identity relates to my observable, corporeal self. I have always experienced a great deal of dysmorphia and discomfort with the sexed aspects of my body (mostly along the lines of "why on earth do I have these horrible things hanging off my chest?! get them off!") but I don't associate those feelings with gender at all because I don't really identify with the concept of gender at all.

After a great deal of poking and prodding, I've grown more comfortable with the notion that what I perceive as an absolute lack of a gender identity is itself a fairly specific gender identity, that many others feel quite differently for a variety of reasons, and that I will probably never understand exactly what it is like to identify within the binary just like other folks will probably never understand exactly what it is like to identify wholly outside of it. It upsets me more than it probably should when people refer to traits simply as "masculine" or "feminine" because society generally presents the former as positive/strong and the latter as negative/weak, and I hate being seen as somehow lacking -- or even outright flouting the rules -- simply because I was born with ovaries and a uterus but have failed to possess or subscribe to the vast majority of the traits slotted under "woman."

Expression-wise, I don't and won't wear makeup or heels, I've never been remotely interested in "girl stuff," I wouldn't give birth to or take care of a baby for any amount of money, I loathe all trappings of stereotypically socialized gender, I have a very slight build, I am frequently referred to as male via pronouns ("sir," "he," and yes, "the ugliest boy I've ever seen"), and I am occasionally asked outright if I am a man or woman (answer: shrug!). None of this bothers me at all except insofar as it has made dating an increasingly horrific experience: I am 100% straight and have always been seriously boy-crazy, but most people assume I am a lesbian. The fact that "gender non-conformance" even exists is a source of neverending angst and turmoil for me; it infuriates me that wearing a dress is seen as unusual or transgressive (even terrifying) for someone with external bits but perfectly natural (even necessary) for someone with internal bits.

While I was able to mostly ignore the biological reality of being female for the first decade of my life, as I've aged, I've begun to consider that identity increasingly important specifically because of all it entails. At least in America, my body and others like it are legislated upon and interfered with like biologically male bodies are simply not. Being a woman has become central to my existence as a human because it affects me in ways I did not anticipate when I was small -- for example, since I am fertile but opting out of motherhood, abortion restrictions and the availability of effective birth control dictate large swaths of my sexuality, which definitely affects how I relate to the world. I also get weirdly Mother Earth-y about my cycle, partially because I am inextricably bound to it barring a hysterectomy or menopause, and partially because its existence has made elected officials feel the need to pass laws to restrict my rights, which makes me feel like my sisters and I were born in possession of some kind of incredibly powerful weapon that must be contained and controlled at all costs. Mwahahaha.

Overall, my identity as a woman is a direct, daily statement of absolute and unequivocal political solidarity. Our bodies are a battleground, you know?
posted by divined by radio at 7:34 AM on October 29, 2013 [17 favorites]

You may be interested to read this article, which is by a trans woman who is not stereotypically 'feminine' and has no interest in becoming so. "Femininity" and "being female" are not actually the same thing, though obviously they are highly correlated.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:37 AM on October 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I don't generally spend a lot of time thinking about or being aware of my femaleness except in some social interactions; when I'm learning or working or engaged in professional interactions, I'm mostly just aware of my personness. When I was in school, I studied a lot of male-dominated areas, and every now and then someone would go, "But you're a girrrrrrl!" and I'd always be slightly surprised and be like, "Oh, right, yeah, I wasn't even thinking about that!"

When I was in junior high some girls and some boys became very interested in overtly performing gender more or less all the time; others didn't. I personally didn't; I liked dressing up in gender-traditional ways now and then for, say, a school dance, but otherwise I wasn't terribly aware of it. But that was the first time I noticed that for some people it mattered A LOT and they filtered everything through that lens, and for other people it didn't matter much at all. Some of my friends became very girly (or boy-y); others didn't; it wasn't a very big deal.

I have always liked having some close girlfriends with whom I can discuss specifically female life things, which is a time I'm aware of my femaleness, but I've always had a wide variety of friends from all over the gender and sexuality spectra. My feelings of femaleness were definitely heightened during pregnancy, and that was an interesting experience, but now that I'm not pregnant I don't think about it a whole lot again.

I enjoy being a girl, as the song goes, but I don't think about it very often. :) I expect for people who are cisgendered, who grow up in a supportive family without strict gender rules, in a fairly equal society, there's probably not nearly as much a sense of gender-as-identity because it's not a source of drama or oppression. I would probably be a lot more aware of my femaleness if I'd been prevented from taking high-level math as a child, or if my mother had not allowed me to wear pants, or if my brothers and I had different chores at home. But since I and other girls were basically treated the same as the boys around us, it wasn't as important an identity marker as it could have been.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I most frequently think of myself as female when I run up against my physical limitations against men. I am an athletic, strong woman, but when I play co-ed sports, I can be outmatched by men who are taller and stronger than I am, even if they don't have the same level of skill or training that I do. This has bothered me for as long as I can remember. In the real world, it translates into me being more careful with my physical safety than most men I know and some feelings of vulnerability.

I guess I also feel female when I run into cultural barriers and expectations, such as when people expect me to be quieter or less knowledgable or whatever. But I don't see those expectations as an intrinsic part of being female. I see those as other people's cultural programing. Changing that cultural programing so that women are not subject to endless amounts of discrimination and violence worldwide is an important part of my life mission.

Otherwise, I'm happy being female, I think of myself as part of a group (women of the world, unite!), and I think that waking up male would be initial confusing (to me and my partner). But I don't think that it would really change my sense of myself.
posted by oryelle at 8:58 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't think that either my sexual orientation or my gender identity are very fluid, it seems they've both been the same way forever.

I think you might be misunderstanding the way this phrase is being used.

It's not that the average individual will have a fluid sexual orientation or gender identity.

It's that the wide expanse of all possible orientations and identities out there among humans is extremely fluid. Some people identify strongly one way, to the point that they cannot live in a world where they cannot present as their gender identity. For others, it's maybe not so important. Still others feel strongly that they have no gender. And it's not just a gradient, there are literally infinite understandings, reactions, and ways of doing gender. In a sense, there are as many genders out there as there are people.

Like, I feel most days that my gender and sexual identity is pretty simple, but if I had to describe my own, it would probably take fifty words. So it seems absurd to expect everybody else to stick to one of two choices.
posted by Sara C. at 9:12 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know I am a man because I have zero desire to be a woman. I'm not sure if other gender-certain (for lack of a better term) people would say the same thing, but that's what I would say. I can imagine though that if I were a woman, I might not say I have no desire to be a man, because the fact is, men have certain advantages in the world, including natural things like less concern about physical safety, and unnatural things like unfair preferential treatment when it comes to things like salary, etc. But those are secondary factors that probably don't get at the core of gender identity, so I think what I said about having no desire to be another gender would still be the determining factor for for someone like me regardless of whether I identify as male or female.
posted by Dansaman at 9:15 AM on October 29, 2013

Contra many of the posters above, I have a very strong gender identity as a woman, although I don't "perform" my gender very often and I don't really conform to gender roles in a lot of standard ways. To me, this is a problem with gender roles and gender essentialism, not my gender; everything I do, from nursing a baby to cooking a meal to fixing a drain to arguing with assholes, is a feminine thing, a female thing, because I am doing it and I am a woman. I don't just have an absence of disagreement; I have a very strong sense of congruence and rightness between my body and my spirit. My disagreements about gender come 100% from the ways in which my culture tells me my gender should prescribe my behavior.
posted by KathrynT at 10:16 AM on October 29, 2013 [11 favorites]

Mod note: please don't turn this into a discussion of topics other than the pretty narrow one defined in the question, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:26 AM on October 29, 2013

Cisgender female here: I've never had the sense of internal cues of being a girl, but I've resisted male identity the few times I've tried it. Some of my clothes are androgynous-- some are men's clothing I liked the cut of better.

When I do perform a gender, it's more hair/makeup/dresses to look retro and classy than anything else. If I could find a three-piece suit to fit me, I'd wear that.
posted by RainyJay at 10:37 AM on October 29, 2013

Best answer: Hey, Too-Ticky, I share a similar experience and I've repeatedly asked the same question. People are all over the place when trying to answer it! "Gender is a social construct!" "Both sex and gender are innately biological!" "Gender is inherent, but I need other people to validate it for me!" "Gender has nothing to do with what my body looks like!" "I can tell what gender I am by looking at my body!" And however you want to define gender for yourself, someone will come along and tell you that, duh, you just don't understand gender.

I think that for "gender" to be a distinct concept, it should be separate from "sex," in the sense of your physical appearance. It should be also distinct from "sexuality," in the sense of the set of people or traits you are attracted to. That leaves me with the word "gender" for the set of culturally contingent performances of categorical social identity.

Therefore, I use the word "gender" in a radical (?) way strictly to describe a cultural construct. Or at least that there is a social construct out there that I am willing to call "gender." I've had to read a lot of anthropology for school, and I've read about lots and lots of cases where something that seems "inherent" and "essential" is actually completely contingent on the culture of a community. For example, I wear "masculine" dress and talk in a "masculine" way, which is completely contingent on what "masculine dress" and "masculine language" means at this moment in history, in this part of the world.

Others may have very strongly held views about what "gender" means for them, and it can be a very personal topic where people want the insights of their introspection to be taken for granted immediately. They are talking about a different idea of "gender." There are many personal definitions, this one is mine.
posted by Nomyte at 11:49 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

This comes at a relevant time for me, because that thread has me examining, once more, that while I identify myself as cis, my experience of gender is kind of...not standard for a cis person (showbiz_liz's anecdote in the thread about RS's article on Coy Mathis, for example--I had similar things happen throughout my childhood, including one experience that happened when I was about 15 and definitely already pubescent--so, with secondary sex characteristics--and the part that was weirdest for me was how offended other people--parents, friends, teachers, etc--got on my behalf, because for me, being taken as a boy--or, more usually, as someone of unclear gender--was interesting, not upsetting.)

At the same time, I seem to also be going through one of the rare but periodic phases I get about wanting to present with a lot of feminine cues--dresses, skirts, jewelry, make-up (normally, I wear none of these.) Even then, it's less about feeling feminine or wanting to be read as female--it's more that I find it fascinating (but sort of scary and a lot of work? which is why I usually don't femme it up) how different I look and feel when I adopt that kind of presentation.

Still, my body is female and people react to me as female basically all the time, and I don't experience dysphoria about that (though I have a low-level, vague sense that neither of those exactly 'fits' my gender.)

So, I don't know, is what I'm saying. Since you sound like you're comfortable with your body, I think you kind of have the luxury of figuring this out kind of at your leisure (or not at all, if you don't want to). I'll address one specific point of yours, about 'gender performance' sounding artificial--I definitely get where 'performance' kind of carries that connotation, but I think it's meant to emphasize that each individual has some control over how much and in what way they want to exhibit their gender identity and how they let their internal feelings about gender interface with social situations. Your wearing androgynous clothes and your statement of that
I do a lot of different stuff, much of it seen as 'man stuff' in this society, but society can kindly go fuck itself.

(I agree!) are, in their own ways, performance of gender.
posted by kagredon at 12:10 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a very deep identity for a lot of people. On one end it touches on how you relate to your body. At the other end, it is something like a contract, a way of presenting yourself to society and implicitly (unwittingly, even) announcing to society the way you expect to be treated. It is also the way society wants to treat you. In some ways it is arbitrary and fucked up. It's also a huge part of society itself and not something that most people could just modulo out, so knowing it's all arbitrary doesn't exactly help you function in society sort of like saying how money is all imaginary and weird doesn't help you pay your bills.

So... yes, mostly I'd say it's like a contract you negotiate between yourself, your body, and society. Except that it's also like a coloring book they give to children telling them how to dress and act and see themselves and with hints of what they will be expected to do when they get older. And it's also kinda "Social Roles For Dummies", something people can use for awhile, then outgrow and forget—or return to later life because it's such a basic identity. Often times it's just a safe easy way to relate to strangers. "Hey, do you like the stuff typically associated with our genitals/genders? Me too!!" Most people don't want to walk the road of the outcast.

What's it like to have a gender? It's like signing a contract when you're too young to understand, then renegotiating it over the rest of your life anywhere from zero to a million times, depending on the person.
posted by bleep-blop at 12:38 PM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

How do I know what gender I am? Mostly, I think, because people have told me. With absolute consistency and lots of emphasis and repetition, I've been given the message that I'm female, and that because I'm female there are things I can't, mustn't, shouldn't do; things I should or shouldn't be interested in; things I do or don't need to learn; things I shouldn't be good at.

How does it feel to have (female) gender? To me, it feels restricted. Arbitrary and unfair. Not necessarily all wrong, but limiting and often irritating. I feel a lot less free living as a woman than I imagine I would feel if I were able to live with a primary identity of "person" instead of "woman."

Dansaman says: "...men have certain advantages in the world, including natural things like less concern about physical safety, and unnatural things like unfair preferential treatment when it comes to things like salary, etc. But those are secondary factors that probably don't get at the core of gender identity...". For me, as a girl and woman, those "secondary factors" ARE the core of my gender identity. Identifying myself as female is the effect that has resulted from carrying around the fears, limitations and expectations that the culture has assigned to me because of the shape of my body.

I'm not convinced that gender is an inherent, immutable status that exists except as an effect of the assertion of power by some people over others. Being aware of your gender is a constant reminder of where you stand in the power hierarchy.
posted by Corvid at 12:54 PM on October 29, 2013 [11 favorites]

A question I sometimes like to ask of a group of friends is "if you could change your sex at will, would you do it? Under what circumstances?" MOST people shudder at the idea of switching for more than sort of jokey superhero-like circumstances. ("I'd pick up a guy and make him pay for drinks!") The answers here skew much more towards the middle of the road than what I've seen in the past.

Growing up, I had very few things in common with girls my age, and therefore assumed that some kind of Boy Fairy was going to just make me a male someday. Bits of this hung around long my brain enough to make me really surprised when I got pregnant, for example, so this wasn't 100% childish whim but a pretty core part of my identity. As an adult, I don't feel male enough to go through the hassle of hormones or name changes, and I appreciate the fact that women are given more opportunities to play with the trappings of gender expression than men, which means that I can go ahead and wear a skirt when it's very hot outside. Like you, I am content with the surface I've been given, but I feel that very little of my self would change if that surface were to change. As it stands, strangers call me "he" or "sir" 2-20% of the time, depending on circumstances, and like you I only get annoyed or correct them about it when it's an email to Dr. Lastname, because that's about society, not me personally.

But just because I don't feel strongly wedded to my gender doesn't mean that I can't empathize with people who DO feel that the surface doesn't match the core strongly enough to make the surgical, hormonal, or pronoun changes. There are lots of experiences in this world that I will never have, I just have to take other folks at their word.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:17 PM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have been trying to figure this out my whole life and I still have no damn idea.

I identify as and perform female all right, in that I wear pretty neutral clothing (jeans and a tee or tank, cut to fit women) and have hair that is long and not in a masculine style. But again, a lot of that is specifically cultural -- there have been societies where long ornamented hair was an indicator of masculinity, and are still others where it is accepted for either gender. I feel less ridiculous in Halloween costumes than in a nice dress and heels, and I shed them for much more neutral clothes as soon as I can.

Mostly though, my being female is a direct result of the configuration of my body and, as Corvid says so elegantly above, all of the societal fears and expectations that are given to me because of my body. I don't want them, and I wish I could live without them. I'm only half joking when I say I wish it was socially acceptable to clomp around in a big robotic exoskeleton so that I could just go ahead and be me without everyone making assumptions about what that is because of how my body is shaped.

I wouldn't want to be switched to Being A Guy because that'd require learning a whole new mess of social cues. I don't want to wade through more of the damn things, I often fail at the ones I've been taught since birth. But that's more societal gender expectation than physical sex; if there was no real social difference between the two, I don't suppose I'd care much how my body is configured. Not menstruating would be nice. Ditto not wearing bras.

I feel like Generic Human, Subconfiguration Female. I have some confusion when reading trans threads because it's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of feeling gender that strongly, but that's only my own lived experience being different from others, and no reason for me to discount or deny another's life.
posted by cmyk at 1:29 PM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

How do you know what gender you are? How does it feel to know?

To the extent that I know what gender I am (which varies over time, both the strength of gender feeling and my level of confidence in the self-knowledge!) I know because I've chosen it. In case my history is useful to explain this view:

I am female-bodied, queer, and I think both cisgender and genderqueer at the same time. When I was a kid all of my friends were boys. Some were on the nerdy side and some on the sporty side. These friendships formed before kindergarten, and I didn't feel any gender-based dissonance in what I was allowed to do or be in those relationships, certainly not before puberty anyway. I missed out on a lot of early girl-training for three reasons: my peer group was all boys; I looked enough like a boy that the world at large didn't direct much feminine gender-policing at me - it still doesn't; and my parents didn't either.

Kindergarten was when it first dawned on me that I was a girl and that the rest of the world thought that meant very specific things about what I should do and think. I didn't like that very much, and ignored it as much as possible. At around 13 I made some friends who were girls, and I made some efforts to conform to their expectations of clothing and interests. I hung out with a school-oriented bunch in a university town - we were all interested in school subjects, so there was plenty to talk about that didn't feel too gendered to me.

When I came out I explained that history as being tied to my sexuality - I had been a little dyke, and that was reason enough for everything. Then at some point I learned that a lot of other women felt a bedrock sense of female identity, no matter their sexuality. Which was totally missing from my life. Then I started to think in terms of gender identity in addition to sexuality.

So today I identify as a woman partly for political reasons, partly because I like being a dyke (though I think I'd enjoy being a gay man too, if that were to magically happen), and partly from inertia. When people use gender-specific pronouns or titles about me, both sets feel equally, just-slightly, wrong. I do occasionally wonder what I'm missing, not feeling strongly about my gender. I feel like it's a kind of ironic detachment, which isn't always my favorite stance about things. But in most ways, this all works for me as it is.
posted by expialidocious at 1:38 PM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: cmyk: "I feel like Generic Human, Subconfiguration Female. I have some confusion when reading trans threads because it's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of feeling gender that strongly, but that's only my own lived experience being different from others, and no reason for me to discount or deny another's life."

I feel so much the same way that I wanted to quote it for truth, and thank you for phrasing it so well and clearly. For me, it eventually dawned on me that I don't have to UNDERSTAND how other people feel in order to ACCEPT that they feel that way.

That might help you too, OP ... it's totally normal that you (and I, and cmyk) don't feel particularly strongly about our genders, but it's also totally normal that others do. It's really hard to wrap my head around because it's so fundamentally different from my experience of myself, BUT I don't have to be able to wrap my head around it, I just have to accept that their feelings and experience are different. (And in fact accepting that other people have a radically different experience of gender has helped me to understand at least a little bit! Probably not very well, but better than before, and at least now I know where I'm ignorant, you know? So I know to stop talking and just listen to try to be less ignorant.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:11 PM on October 29, 2013

Mod note: Folks answer the question being asked and don't start side derails about other gender issues. AskMe is not MeFi.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:31 PM on October 29, 2013

Best answer: I think gender is about the cultural constraints imposed on you because of your sex.

My sex is female. I have a vagina, breasts, a wide pelvis, a high voice, and all the other usual physical characteristics. My gender is also female. The cultural constraints imposed on me because I'm female frustrate the hell out of me. I blame those constraints for certain kinds of (sometimes implicitly) socially sanctioned violence, intimidation and disrespect getting directed at me, a lack of opportunity to do lots of things that I would like to do (like playing contact sports), assumptions about me that are irritating (like that I'm stupid), and some things just being that little bit harder for me than males because male bodies are considered normative (like having to wear a bra in public). When I run up against cultural constraints like that I'm very aware of my gender, that I not only have a certain sex but that my culture is going to deal with me a certain way because of it. I'm not even really sure about the extent of the cultural constraints imposed on me because I only really notice the more overt, extreme ones. Not because I don't care about the more insidious constraints, but because my perspective is limited. It's frightening to me to think of the ways my life and perspective has been shaped by constraints I can't even see.

If I could choose wholesale, I'd choose to be male, both for the sexual characteristics like a penis, bigger muscles, a deeper voice, narrow hips, etc, and for the what I think of as more appealing gender-creating/based cultural constraints put on males, like not having to wear a bra and not getting a lot of flack for getting drunk in public, etc. But I can't choose wholesale, the body I've got is my template. Based on how far along surgeries, etc, are now for changing that template, I can either be a conventionally attractive woman who knows how to play "my" gender in my society with relative ease or I can be a conventionally unattractive (short, delicate-featured, small/no penis, etc) man who has to learn how to play "my" gender in my society as an adult and with the added bonus of undergoing a lot of painful and expensive surgical changes. I don't feel some inner connection to "my" female gender, though I think it has had some (largely unintended) impact on my perspective and has definitely impacted my experiences. The reason I don't change it isn't because things feel "right" as they are, but because my cost-benefit calculation says changing would be more trouble than its worth in my circumstances.

Probably because I don't feel an inner, personal connection to my gender I do think of it as performance. I do the whole bit -- makeup, hair "done," nail polish, skirts, jewelery whatever. I happen to enjoy the rituals and skills involved in dressing up, too, but the reason I do it is fundamentally as costuming. When another costume gets me more of what I want, then I go with that other costume -- for example, I work in customer service and after experimentation it turned out that, at a certain restaurant, what customers paid me the most for (via tips) was looking as ragged and unisex as possible. So when I worked there, I would make sure to look as ragged and unisex as possible. It irritated me but hey, the performance isn't for me, it's for the audience and that's what they wanted to see.

When I was younger, I would get frustrated by how people would look at me and just see "pretty girl," and it felt like this mask I couldn't take off. I think gender is always a mask, though, and it's pretty much a crapshoot how well your mask happens to match your face ("you" as an individual, your personality) or how comfortable you are playing the role your mask assigns you. Sometimes people will try to alter the mask so it better matches their face and/or alter their face so it better matches their mask. For me, I've given up on it matching all that much, so I just play the role it assigned with as much aplomb as possible.
posted by rue72 at 7:01 PM on October 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

I totally agree, rue72. I'd choose to be born male so I could have the size and privilege advantages, big time....but I cannot be a six foot tall dude with a penis in this lifetime, I'd be a girly-looking short man with a vagina. Feh on that, that doesn't get me what I want. I have a friend who is pretty borderline trans (it's confusing, just go with it) and she says that she wouldn't want to go full on dude unless she could actually get the penis. Plus she is very small sized even for a woman, so she probably couldn't pass as she'd like--plus she does sometimes like to do girl in her look at times. I'm just like, whatever you want to do there.

I don't know. I am a very girly dresser (one of the reasons why I wouldn't be so psyched to be a dude is because boys have to dress completely boring in order to "pass" in society) and have very girly hobbies, but...I always feel like I fail at being a woman because my primary interests in life aren't cooking, cleaning, and babymaking. I can't have conversations with other women when they bring that stuff up. I hate cooking and cleaning and I am about as nurturing and self-sacrificing as a piranha, and I just don't do "female" on that level. I'd rather be "the dad" or "the breadwinner" any day, and when it comes to that thing, I'm as man as any 22-year-old college senior slacker fratboy. But that's not an option for me to get to do, so....what can you do.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:12 PM on October 29, 2013

I'm a biological female, cis-gendered, and bisexual. My experience is slightly different. Pre-kindergarten, I had short hair, and my mom dressed me in my male cousins' hand me down clothes, because it was the 70s in the U.S. and she was a feminist. I had both dolls and blocks as a child, as did my brother.

I remember often being mistaken for a boy, and it would make me so angry. And when I would yell, "I'm a GIRL!" the person would chuckle benevolently and say, "No, you're not", and continue to insist I was a boy until my mom said, "She really is a girl."

Even later on, when I wore skirts or pink stuff, it was "Why is that boy wearing pink stuff", not "Why does that girl have short hair?" And it made me mad that this ONE thing (short hair) somehow defined my gender for everyone, and it did not matter whatever else I did. I realized very early on how stupid the narrow boxes we draw around gender expression are, and I've always tried to do something based on whether it made ME happy, as opposed to conforming to societal expectations of gender expression.

My gender has always felt female. When I think about it, it feels like a rock in my stomach/gut - heavy, unmoving, unchanging. It feels like stone, not like water. I don't always embrace all the associated gender expression that goes with being female in my culture - I work in a male dominated field, rarely wear makeup but enjoy it when I do, and own both dresses and pinstripe suits. But much like my bisexuality - I've always been attracted to both men and women, and could have easily ended up with a life partner of either gender - it's always been a known, intrinsic, fixed thing for me. Other people describe being bi as fluid, but I have never felt it that way. Again, it feels like stone. I guess from outside it could seem like water: "Oh, maybe my life partner will be male, maybe they will be female" - but to me it feels immutable, just with both genders in my possibilities bucket instead of one. I would be really sad - I mean, crying, depressed, upset, SAD - if I woke up one day as a man. I would have a lot of issues adjusting, and imagine a strong dysphoria when I try to picture it.

But. I recognize that there is, as I think SaraC put it, a whole galaxy of possible options for people. And I would love to get to the point where we as a planet can recognize all of the possibilities - female, male, both, neither, unknown, fluid, genderqueer, Generic Human, etc.

Thank you for asking this question. Reading the answers has been very interesting.
posted by RogueTech at 7:25 PM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am a cisgendered woman, and my gender is a strong internal feeling for me. I think that as a child, I probably had the "oh, I'm a girl, so what?" feeling, or didn't think about my gender, but at some point in my early teenage years that shifted and I started to have a strong sense of myself as a girl/woman. I remember the shift.

My female identity doesn't feel restrictive to me. I'm a feminist, and I see that our patriarchal society restricts women in a variety of ways--I feel that. But identifying as a woman doesn't feel restrictive or limiting to me in myself. My gender identity is deeply connected to my body. I feel very comfortable with the female aspects of my body. I think that I would feel extremely distressed if I were not in a female body. My gender identity feels related to my sexual orientation. Right now I identify as lesbian, and I feel that it's not only about my interest in women, but also about being a woman who is with women. However, at different times in my life to date I have had different feelings about my sexual orientation, while my gender identity has always felt very clear and solid to me.

I don't feel my gender in a way that influences how I dress or what activities I do. I'm not androgynous in appearance, but at the same time, while my clothing varies from t-shirts and jeans (including some items from the mens section) to dresses, I never do the whole "put together woman" thing with the nail polish and the full face of makeup and the shoes and whatnot; that's not me. I have some stereotypically female interests and skills, and some stereotypically male interests and skills. I enjoy talking with and can relate to both men and women. And I don't really feel like any of that (how I dress, what I do, who I like to interact with) is really related to my gender identity--my gender identity is a part of who I am, regardless of all of those things. It is a strong, innate feeling that I can't explain any better than this.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:12 PM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I want to add a couple things:

Identifying as female-gendered tells me which team I'm on. Or maybe it's the other way around, that the feeling of belonging to "Team Women" tells me that I'm a woman. When I see pictures of people I don't know, no matter what culture they're from, my gut emotional reaction is to identify with the women, because they're my people. I feel a reflexive wariness about the men.

That wariness might be the key to my feeling of gender identity. I've always felt that I'm living within a constant cloud of low-grade terror. The threat of potential violence is always in the air, and can never be forgotten. I usually feel unsafe in the world, and those few moments when I feel a bit of safeness, I'm sure to be quickly reminded that I'm probably not being careful enough. There is predation going on, and I feel like potential prey. That's what knowing that I'm female feels like to me.

Thinking about your question reminded me of a snippet that stuck with me from a book I read almost 20 years ago: "... no one has any idea what women's psychology under conditions of safety and freedom would be like." *

Each of us can tell you about what our experience of gender is like, but no one can shed any real light on the question of what the real essence of being one gender or another feels like, because the conditions necessary for that to be studied don't exist (yet). There's no way for us to know what the experience of gender identity might feel like outside of a culture based on gender oppression. "What does gender really feel like?" is a hypothetical question.

* "Loving to Survive," by Dee L. R. Graham
posted by Corvid at 10:35 AM on October 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all! I'm having a hard time marking some answers as Best, so I'm probably overdoing it; truth of the matter is that pretty much all of these answers have helped, and are helping still. I'll be thinking about them, and rereading them, for a while.
I will also read the articles y'all have recommended.

I appreciate it, and yes, it's helpful. If you feel like adding some more, please go ahead.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:41 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

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