What does it mean to know you're a certain gender?
July 2, 2017 7:46 PM   Subscribe

I've been trying to learn more about gender dysphoria recently due to the issues with trans rights that have been in the news (bathroom bills etc). I'm not sure how to articulate this question but basically I'm still wondering what it means or how it feels to know you're male or female (or agender), specifically that psychologically you're a certain gender, not just that your body should be.

What's prompting this question is a comment I read (I forget where) from a transgender woman who said that, when cis women ask how she knows she's a woman, she asks them how they know they're a woman and that usually makes them understand. But I'm struggling with this thought experiment because i feel like if I woke up tomorrow in a male body it would take me some time to get used to having a penis but otherwise nothing about the way I live my life would change. I can't imagine that someone calling me "he" in that scenario would feel wrong. I don't feel like I know I'm a woman, that just happens to be the body I was born into.

Basically, after reading a bunch of blogs and forums I think I have a better understanding of what it's means to feel like you're trapped in the wrong body and want to transition physically, but I'd like to better understand what motivates people to transition only socially because their gender identity feels wrong (recognizing that there are a bunch of reasons why someone might want to be in a different body but choose not to undergo the medical process). I'm also wondering what it feels like to identify as agender or genderqueer since all the experiences I've read so far resort to gender stereotypes, maybe because things like not wearing dresses are more tangible and easier to articulate.

I hope this question doesn't offend anyone - I'm not trying to deny anyone's experience of gender dysphoria, I'm just trying to understand what internal sense of gender I might not be noticing simply because I'm used to people acknowledging me as being the gender I identify as.
posted by ersatzhuman to Human Relations (38 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
For me (female to male), to answer your question feels like trying to define love. It's a little different for each person, and you can use words to point at it, but you only know what it is once you've found it. You can list things that you love about a person, but the concept of love transcends a checklist of qualities. So too, gender transcends my haircut, my clothing, my emotions, etc.

But neither love nor gender are simply constructed concepts; both have a biological basis. I can't speak to agender or non-binary folks, but both MTF and FTM brains are closer to their cis counterparts (i.e., female and male respectively) than to the gender they were assigned at birth. And yet you can't slice off a piece of the brain and call it "gender" or "love." It's a collection of variations and chemical states.

If you identify with the gender you're assigned at birth, you're cisgender, and it's probably like being a fish in water. You're so used to water that you can't perceive its existence. Sorry this is sort of a non-answer, but it's hard to describe water to someone who doesn't know land.
posted by AFABulous at 8:30 PM on July 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

I can't speak to most of your question, but I can tell you that my ongoing frustration with not being able to understand exactly this is what led me to realise that I'm agender. I honestly just can't get my head around it--"How do I know I'm a woman? People told me I was, I guess?" And that's all I've got. The idea that someone could be have particularly strong feelings about their gender, or offended when someone gets it wrong, is baffling to me to the point of sounding almost hilariously fake.

Even before I figured out the agender/genderqueer thing, I'd had extended periods of my life where it was a complete toss-up about how people gendered me. I always found it confusing that people got upset and visibly worried/uncomfortable when they talked to me for a while and realised that I wasn't, as they'd assumed, a man. Why did they care? I wasn't aggro or anything, just greeting a server in a restaurant or whatever. It was super confusing to me, but I think it's because I don't have strong feelings about gender, and most people do--so much so that they can't imagine being in a position where you have to ask "So, what does it feel like to know that you're female?" They can't imagine someone referring to them as [other gender] and it not being something meant to wound or humiliate.
posted by mishafletch at 8:34 PM on July 2, 2017 [17 favorites]

for me, who identifies as gender queer, it is a complicated set of social and political spaces--much of my move to non binary pronouns was a refusual of feelings, and a refusal of gender and a central agreement with the idea of social construction. I never felt male, but I never felt female, and i did not feel agender either--i felt this constant bumping against any of the recieved ideas of gender.

i also cannot imagine feeling comfortable in my body at all
posted by PinkMoose at 8:47 PM on July 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think gender-identification rests along a spectrum, and some people feel more gendered than others.

That said, I did read a suggestion for cis people trying to understand gender dysphoria that rather than imagining how you'd feel if you woke up with different genitalia, imagine how you'd feel if nothing about you changed, but everyone started treating you as if (in your case) you were a man. And they judged you for not living up to masculine standards, up to threatening violence for those areas in which you would be gender non-conforming, and just generally expecting you to "know" how to be a man in the world.

Again, though, as others have said, this may not be super elucidating if you personally don't feel super-gendered.
posted by lazuli at 8:48 PM on July 2, 2017 [36 favorites]

I'm AFAB cis butch dyke (all, some, or none of these may come into play in how other people see themselves/their gender). I know I'm a woman because I don't feel any disjunction in my self. I guess if I woke up tomorrow in a typically male body I'd get used to it? But I'm a woman who loves being a woman with other women, so maybe not. I don't always love (everything about) my body (who does?), but none of it has ever felt not-me.
posted by rtha at 8:53 PM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I never knew-- all I knew is that I felt better when I did male-coded things or appeared more typically male. At every step of transition I was only about 80% certain it was a good idea going into it. I really only learned it from emotional and physical feedback when I tried different actions. This is very typical of my personality-- I basically don't know what I want ever, and I'm just making educated guesses or working from routine, and I never 100% sure of what i don't want until I've tested it, and that's related to my upbringing and personality. Other people probably have a more strong impression of what works for them.

If you're wondering, I always say, experiment with something small, discreet, and meaningful to you. More information is good, and there's nothing wrong with trying something new.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:07 PM on July 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

I'm a cis woman, and it was being misgendered online and the feeling of ringing wrongness that went with it that made me realize I really was cis and it wasn't just failure-to-think-hard-enough. I like being a woman and would be sorry to be anything else, so I have a gender identity, and that's my gender identity.

FTR, the feeling "how do people know they're straight, how on earth can they tell??" is what clued me in that I was bi, so...
posted by peppercorn at 9:09 PM on July 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

For me it was a lot of little things that all started to tell a coherent story.

There are a lot of things I don't like about my body, but all of the truly unbearable ones are those things that make my body appear masculine. There are a lot of things I don't like about how masculinity is constructed in our society, but the thing that I loathe the most is that I've been forced to participate in it. I am viscerally distressed by the fact that feminine roles, behaviours and attire are socially off limits for me - distressed in a way that none of my cis male friends feel. To them, if they want to do something feminine, they do it, and don't feel any worries one way or another about whether they're doing feminine performance "right". When I present or act feminine, I worry endlessly whether I'm doing it in a way that "a cis woman would", despite the fact that I know that there are no right answers (and cis women do all sorts of different things!) No matter how I parse it, and no matter what context I examine it in, there is something fundamentally "feminine" about my mental representation of myself that is mismatched with the body I was born with and the social expectations that have been foisted upon me on that basis. I want to be seen as feminine and (if I'm being honest) I wish I'd been born a cis woman. I want these things even though I know they will make me a target for misogyny and transphobia, and no matter how I try to be otherwise (internalised transphobia - sigh), I can't force that self-concept to change.

In the end, it's rather like Ockham's razor: ascribing a non-cis gender identity to myself is a simpler explanation for my subjective experience. I can either believe that I happen to be a cis man who has a very large number of strange anxieties, body image issues etc that all just so happen to follow a particular pattern, or I can believe there's a "latent" gender identity that drives all those things. Plus, there's the fact that when I admit to myself that this gender identity is a real thing, I finally feel sane or comfortable with who I am. That feeling of finally being calm, more than anything else, is what makes it seem convincing to me.
posted by saltbush and olive at 9:17 PM on July 2, 2017 [17 favorites]

So, I have no idea, because I'm starting to think I might not be AS cis as other people. Maybe a little more genderfluid or agender or something, I don't know. I always assumed I was cis because I was born into a female body, and I don't feel overly pained about it. I often hate my body, but just for the usual reasons everyone hates their bodies I suppose, and when people call me "she" and "her" I'm fine with it. Wearing women's clothes is comfortable. Performing femininity is a little bit annoying but doesn't cause me any great upset.

However... wearing men's clothes is also comfortable. I daydream sometimes about dressing "in drag" (as a man) complete with drawn on facial hair. I frequently am a man in dreams. When people call me by male pronouns (which often happens online, or on the phone/any non-visual medium, due to my low voice) it doesn't cause me distress. I feel no "wrongness" and I don't even reliably feel a need to correct them.

Left entirely to my own devices (in times of my life where exterior pressure is lowest) I style myself in a pretty androgynous manner, so that's not much of an indicator either.

I used to think my experience was normal, but I've more recently gotten the idea that other people actually innately have this sense of their own gender? Like they just know what they are, they have some sense of it, and I believe that they do. But I don't, so I don't really know how that feels or works.

The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about the whole thing is feeling as though I'm supposed to have some certainty of "what" I am, and I don't.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 9:40 PM on July 2, 2017 [14 favorites]

This: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpUDiHJjgZg&t=5s
may touch upon some of the issues that you are seeking an answer for.
posted by synapse2512 at 9:52 PM on July 2, 2017

Cis get female here; fairly comfortable in a gendered female role but not prone to heels, hair styling, etc. I am very much a woman and do see this as part of my identity. My close family member is trans so I am relatively well-versed in this space, but I still struggle with how to answer this question.

I apologize in advance if this seems rude/belittling, because this is very serious business and people struggle daily with discrimination and dysphoria, but to address your question, I almost feel like this is similar to "are you a cat person or a dog person?" Many people find themselves clearly in one camp or the other, others don't have a clear preference, others don't care for pets, and others start out due to circumstance thinking they love dogs but later find out they actually love cats (or vice versa). It's not ingrained but it is innate. (I apologize in advance if anyone finds that inappropriate- I don't mean to make light of a serious question, it's just genuinely the closest analogy I can think of - I know I'm a woman in the same way that I know I'm a dog person.)
posted by samthemander at 9:56 PM on July 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

What's gender, as a subjective identity? Who really knows! I don't know. And I'm ok with that. I think when I was questioning my gender it was hard for me to understand if it was internalized misogyny or dysphoria. I just felt uncomfortable being seen as a woman.

Then I realized I was into women, not men, and then it was clearer to me that I was a woman. I wanted to relate to other women as a woman with shared experiences. For me, my sexuality comes before my gender.

Basically: you probably don't need to think too hard about it. If gender identity isn't important to you, then it isn't. I personally think of gender as a cultural/relational thing rather than, like, an essence.
posted by typify at 10:21 PM on July 2, 2017

Hi. Transguy here.

One of my youngest experiences was when I was a young child, and my parents explained to me what penises were, and what vaginas were - and I had a vagina, which meant that I was a girl, and would grow up to be a woman.

I *pitched a fit*. Because CLEARLY I was a boy, and CLEARLY my penis was missing because a monster ate it off (wasn't it OBVIOUS?!) and CLEARLY they needed to rectify this at once, by finding the monster and giving me back my penis.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:21 PM on July 2, 2017 [22 favorites]

The answers to my pretty similar question may help you, as they did me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:14 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is a not so helpful answer, but personally as trans rights and genderqueerness started to become more visible and possible in the world around me, giving me a pattern for the masculine-of-center self I'd always imagined, I found that I wasn't as interested or able to move toward it. In some ways, the wrongness of taking on male characteristics (as distinct from masculine- and androgyny-inflected female ones) was what sold me on my actual femaleness. I think there's a fine line between discomfort with one's gender and discomfort with one's gender in society, and perhaps drawing it was what I'd been doing, and have been doing my whole life as a woman (more or less) stuck persevering in the background radiation of patriarchy.
posted by tapir-whorf at 2:30 AM on July 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

I hope this comment doesn't trigger anyone, but when I think about having a male body I am revolted. I am not a very femme person, but my female body is very important to me.

It is not something I can explain, it is just how it is.
posted by winna at 4:41 AM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: But I'm struggling with this thought experiment because i feel like if I woke up tomorrow in a male body it would take me some time to get used to having a penis but otherwise nothing about the way I live my life would change. I can't imagine that someone calling me "he" in that scenario would feel wrong. I don't feel like I know I'm a woman, that just happens to be the body I was born into.

So I'm a trans woman, and I'll address this from personal experience in a sec, but first I want to tell a story.

A few years ago, a very tomboyish queer woman friend of mine decided she wanted to know more about what trans guys in her community were going through, so she spent a week presenting as male. She's an extrovert with a theatrical flair and she really went all-in on it. I didn't cross paths with her during that week, but by all reports she passed pretty well. She was regularly addressed by waiters and bus drivers as "sir," she used the men's changing room at the gym without incident, the whole nine yards. I bumped into her at a party just after the experiment ended and she was really excited to talk all about her experience. She'd learned a lot — both about how scary it is to worry if you'll pass (in a men's changing room omg that's doing it on hard mode for sure), and about how gratifying it is to realize you're succeeding.

She also said, in passing, that she was celebrating her success by letting her hair down so to speak, letting the pendulum swing in the other direction, and femmeing it up a bit — which was funny, she said, because she didn't normally even LIKE dresses or makeup, but at the end of a week of masculinity she was kind of craving them.

I told her she was looking at the experiment wrong. She hadn't been learning what it was like for trans men. She'd been learning what it was like for trans women.

Because, yeah, that quiet craving for femininity — the way an introvert having a blast at a party still inexplicably craves a dark empty room after a while — was how I felt for thirty years of my life.

So. If you want to know what it's like to know you're a certain gender, I actually think you should try what she tried. Because people actually ask the question you're asking a lot, and I've had very little success explaining it to anyone; but that friend of mine, after that experience of hers — she got it right away. So as far as I can tell, the best way to learn is by doing. Try to pass as male for a little while, or put yourself in a position where people will treat you as male even if you don't pass, and see what happens. If you keep it up long enough, you'll learn one of two things. Either you'll start to realize you could happily keep it up for the rest of your life, and find yourself wishing you could extend the experiment longer — in which case hey, congratulations, you're some flavor of not-always-straightforwardly-a-cis-woman and that's really exciting news. Or (statistically this one is about a hundred times more likely) you'll at some point start feeling a weird irritation at the idea of keeping it going any longer, an introvert-at-a-party full-stomach-at-a-banquet feeling of disinterest that slowly turns into revulsion if you try to power through it for too long.

The assumption you have here, that you learned about your gender by looking at your body and that changing your body would change your gender, is a cultural assumption. It's really pervasive — especially among women, and especially among women with center-left feminist views (because it fits nicely with the idea that we've already created a society in which gender roles are becoming obsolete anyway) or with experience in second-wave white radical feminism (because it fits nicely with the idea that womanhood itself is a patriarchal invention, and that women form a political class defined by shared experiences of oppression) — but. But. It's an assumption nonetheless. When you try to do the thought experiment about how you'd feel if you woke up "in a male body," that assumption feeds you the wrong answer and tells you that you'd immediately prefer male pronouns and male terms of address and the company of other men. If you actually did the experiment,* there's a very good chance you'd feel differently.

*And at this point you're probably imagining doing the experiment, and imagining what you might learn, and remember that that's still just imagining and not actually doing the experiment, and the lessons you're imagining learning from it are still just ideas based on your cultural assumptions.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:09 AM on July 3, 2017 [94 favorites]

Hi, I'm a nonbinary trans femme person. I'm okay with my body & I always have been. I take hormones because they make me feel good. I don't think there's such a thing as a male or female body. I think gender is a lie we tell to oppress people or to find people who share our values or to obtain adequate healthcare (pdf). I rarely see my narrative represented in the media, but that's okay because I don't need to see Jeffrey Fucking Tambour get a septum piercing.
posted by your hair smells like cheese! at 5:48 AM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am grateful to Too-Ticky for linking the previous thread, since it turns out that what I said there about my cis-queer-woman-self is pretty much still true and is what I would have said here, except that I was far too casual about throwing the terms "male body" and "female body" around a few years ago, apparently, ugh. Do better, past me.
posted by Stacey at 5:51 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am a cis woman and it's not something I have thought about tons, but yeah, I always have known I am a woman. I've been misgendered a lot because I am tall and lanky and as a teen/young adult I was slow to develop, and I typically wear jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup, so my presentation isn't super femme. But I don't know, whenever someone calls me "sir" . . . it just bothers me. I don't think there's anything wrong with being a guy and as I said, I'm not super femme, so logically why should I care if someone calls me "he"? But . . . I do, somehow. I don't get all angry or weepy about it but I do get irritated - I was unfortunately short with a TSA agent in the Toronto airport towards the end of a long trip back from Europe who called me "sir", then apologized profusely . . . my bad.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:46 AM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm forty two years old and just starting to wrap my head around my own non-binary self. For the most part, I wouldn't categorize my last forty one years as knowing something was wrong about my being male. Sure, there were times that I embraced feminine things, and some of those times came with a rebuke from society, but until recently, I just thought of myself as a man who liked feminine things and had mostly women friends. I have transfolk as friends, and none of this was new to me.

An online friend of mine made this shirt flipping the use of the term guys as gender neutral, "Ladies is gender neutral." She offered it in various women's cuts. Some men online majorly missed the point and said things like, "I'd totally buy that if it were in men's cuts." I bought one in pink with a scoop neck.

So winter rolls around and this friend and I are going to be at the same tech conference, and I decide to plan a whole series of outfits starting with this shirt and some rather femme looking pants of mine and, every day, going one more step towards a femme outfit. Day two would be a large fuzzy pink striped sweater and leggings. Day three, a t-shirt dress over jeggings. Now, since we are on MetaFilter, and you have no idea what I look like, it's probably useful to know that I'm a 5'11", 225 pound man with a full beard and really broad shoulders.

When I dressed femme in public, a bunch of things seemed to click into place. There are times in this world, when you finally feel at home, and this was one of them. Much like most people struggle to find words to explain how one knows when they are in love, I struggle to know how to really articulate this. Being non-binary tends to draw odd reactions and a few stares, especially bearded people in dresses. I know the violence trans women face, and I certainly felt a lot of fear presenting so femme, but somehow it just felt right.

Looking back, I can see a lot of times in my life where I walked through the women's section of a shop and wished out loud that they made that shirt for men. I remember dressing up in my mom's clothes when I was a kid. I think back to the Halloween where I dressed up as a woman and really felt at home. Was this why I grew out my hair in college and wore a "man bun" in the nineties?

It's not just clothes. If, in an instant, it was socially normal for men to wear dresses and pretty blouses, that still wouldn't be enough. There is something I can't really articulate about being femme that pulls at me.

There are times when I look at being a tomboy with envy. Society has an accepted model for that. Society has a space for butch dykes. The space for femme men is slowly becoming known, but it's scary to be out there. For now, I'm using the term non-binary. There are a lot of things I still love about being male. Life is certainly easier when I present as male in this body. Maybe some of those are rooted in a fear of living as a transwoman, I don't know, and I don't claim to have a line on universal truths.
posted by advicepig at 8:01 AM on July 3, 2017 [15 favorites]

I identify as a cis woman, but I don't have a strong feeling of "being a woman." I mean, I see myself as a woman, but mainly because I don't have a sense of being anything else, if that makes sense?

If I woke up in a cis man's body tommorrow

a) it would suck because my partner is a heterosexual man, and it would be a deal breaker for him;

b) it would be annoying because maybe women would trust me less and want to be friends with me less;

c) it would make it a lot easier to ask women on dates, which would be mildly pleasant;

d) strangers would give me more personal space and wouldn't touch me without asking, which would be AWESOME;

e) I'd worry about the fact that testosterone contributes to heart attack and early death.

But I don't think I'd have a sense of gender dysphoria, or "this is the wrong body for me".

I'd just look at the pros and cons. If my partner wasn't a strictly heterosexual man, and I woke up as a cis man, I'd be like "eh, whatever" - I'd worry about the social effects on my female friendships; and the health effects of testosterone, but otherwise I wouldn't have much of a problem with it.

To be perfectly honest, my ideal body would probably be Ranma 1/2, where I switched between cis woman and cis man every time I had a shower... I could be male for train rides to avoid harassment, and female for time with my partner or friends.
posted by Murderbot at 8:46 AM on July 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

So this is complicated for me.

I'm an AFAB cis-privileged queer. I've generally identified as an androgynous and lesbian, since those are easy to say without explaining a bunch of stuff to total strangers.

When I talk to cis women about what it means to them to be a woman, I cannot relate to anything they say about it.

What it means to me to be a woman is that I experience sexism, and the subtypes of heterosexism and cissexism that are directed at AFAB folks.

I have a lot of friends who are trans and have spent some time thinking about whether transitioning would make me feel more like myself or feel happier, and I concluded that it would not: what I hate is not being identified as a woman, because that doesn't mean anything real to me. What I hate about being identified as a woman is having to deal with sexism.

I had bad dysphoria about menstruating and the idea of being fertile, and also had endometriosis. The idea of being pregnant was always nightmare territory for me. I had a hysterectomy a few years ago and that has all cleared now. (I do feel that if I had been AMAB, I would not have been made to suffer through 22 years of severe monthly pain that was totally treatable, but that's not about dysphoria, it's about, again, sexism.)

I am also not a man.

I've spent much of my life as "one of the guys" among nerds, but when men get into what it means to them to be men, I either don't relate to it or I think they're making generalizations about human experiences. At the same time, I generally get treated socially as though I am male in groups, and I've gotten the "but you're not really a girl" speech more often than I can tell you about.

I don't have the kind of dysphoria the trans men in my life do, or the AFAB nonbinary folks who want top surgery and a greater level of gender neutrality than I have.

I also don't relate to the way the trans women in my life experience womanhood.

I do pass for male with some frequency and have since I was a teen. I find this comfortable and like being in a space where my gender presentation is fairly neutral. I'm also 5' 4", built small, and curvy, so it's interesting to me how much of this is about people paying attention to signifiers rather than my frame or voice. I've noticed that I pass for male more often if I wear my Motörhead shirt, which is probably useless anecdata, but I have also passed while wearing skirts and tight clothes. Do I try to pass? No. Do I care one way or another? Not really, though I'd obviously like to avoid being hurt or killed over it, and it's weird for me when everyone thinks I'm a woman all the time.

I'm not at all bothered by people using feminine pronouns for me, though I honestly don't care what pronouns people use for me as long as they're not doing it to be terrible. I don't think it's my business to identify as trans, since that's a fairly particular experience that I'm not having, but at the same time, my experience is unlike that of most other cis folks. My own experience is that gender is a social construct rather than something more inherent, but this is easy for me to say as someone who has cis privilege.

I get a lot of erasure as an androgynous dyke, even within the lesbian scene. A lot of people are way into butch/femme, and I don't do it. I'll date butches or femmes or whoever, but I'm not butch or femme myself and not going to be just because someone else is into it. This is reminiscent of my childhood, where my parents tried to force me to be the feminine daughter they anticipated: I am not that person. At the same time, being around other queer people is where I feel I can be most easily understood, even if I don't entirely know where I am myself - there's more space to be self-defined than there is for cis straight people.

So what does it mean to know you're a certain gender? I have no idea, but it's okay if you don't either.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:07 AM on July 3, 2017 [12 favorites]

Hey, cis woman here who is gender non-conforming enough to have spent a lot of time questioning gender ID back in college, especially because I've got a lot of non-binary friends. Ah, for context, I spent a lot of time in college fretting about whether I was butch or not, and then repeatedly realized that whoever I was measuring myself against didn't identify as female at all, and like as not identified as male. I don't experience physical dysphoria, but I get fucking upset if my hair gets too long or I have to dress in particular gendered-as-female ways, and I might count as experiencing a form of social dysphoria. (Having to wander around in a chiffon dress for my sister's wedding was torture on a number of levels.) The answer I came to--aside from eventually deciding that lazuli's idea that people have different levels of connection to their gender identities--was fairly idiosyncratic, but it works pretty well for me.

For me, what we call gender is actually a shorthand for a whole category of sub-genders, which are influenced by other aspects of your identity. "Female" and "male" are categories that encompass cultural expectations about groups of people that are modified by context; what it means to behave in a normative gender-typical way for a white working-class woman versus a Latina wealthy woman vs a black middle class woman are all things that are different, so "female" has to encompass a whole lot of specific gender identities that hearken back to race and class, and what we mean when we say "female" teeeeeeends to get defaulted to middle/upper middle class, straight, white traditions of 'female'.

So for me, when I think about the traditions of gender that I feel most strongly comfortable with, I think about the specific experiences that I feel a kinship to. If I lived a century ago, how would I translate myself to the cultural norms of that context? If I was a space alien, what kind of space alien would I be--which of my traits are human traits, and which are personal, and which are gendered? What categories of people do I gravitate towards when I place myself in the context of human history? Do I resonate more with a collective sense of a specific tradition within 'female', or do I resonate more with a collective sense of 'male', or do I resonate with both at different times or with neither at any time?

I think about the ways of describing my gender that I feel most comfortable with. The traditions of social categories that fit me most comfortably regarding gender are those of women* who broke or bent gender norms while still being socially identified as female--butch women, women in Boston Marriages, women who transgressed norms while not abandoning them. I could conceptualize this as "definitely not female," because it's certainly not a social category that fits under female as we tend to categorize it in the default--but it is one that encompassed an awful lot of women that would have, at the time, identified themselves as female. So I felt a kinship with that broader category and I felt comfortable identifying my particular sub-gender class within that wider category.

I also straight up decided I didn't want to fuck with pronouns, because she/her don't bother me and I didn't particularly want to deal with a lifetime of correcting people on my own behalf. (My partner, on the other hand, feels most comfortable with they/them, and I'm happy to fight that battle. I'm lazy about myself, not others--or rather, I didn't feel strongly enough to want to bother about pronoun shit. You don't have to feel strongly about all aspects of your gender to have a gender identity. It's about where you're most comfortable being, I think, and where you instinctively place yourself when you imagine who you are.

*defining the historical categories, traditions, and people I'm referencing here as women because that's typically how they self-identified/were identified by others; they might decide to identify differently today! Gender ID has a lot to do with context, I suspect.

In my case, I am thinking of people like Jane Addams, Georgia Tann, but *not* people like Deborah Sampson or Charlie Parkhurst who opted to completely switch social gender roles. Incorporating historical figures into what we'd call today non-binary is difficult, in part because it's a relatively new label in many spaces and historically queer/trans people tend to be interpreted in a number of lenses depending on who has the capital to be doing the interpreting, so it's hard for me to grab one off the top of my head or with a quick internet search.

posted by sciatrix at 9:38 AM on July 3, 2017 [8 favorites]

tl;dr: gender is complicated as shit. there might not be an element of choice about where you're comfortable, but there sometimes is an element of choice about how you choose to categorize your place on the wibbly wobbly timey wimey Great Big General Mish-Mash that is gender, and how you present that to other people. You get to feel about as strongly about that as you want.
posted by sciatrix at 9:42 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's also possible to separate out gender identity (internal) from gender expression (external) -- at least it's possible in a theoretical, model-of-understanding sort of way; it's complicated in practice, of course. Someone can identify strongly as a woman but not have any desire to express that by dressing in a girly way. I think those things often get conflated, which adds to some confusion.
posted by lazuli at 9:52 AM on July 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't feel like I know I'm a woman, that just happens to be the body I was born into.

Enjoyment of and comfort within an adult female body is not something that comes naturally for very many people. the experience of e.g. wanting to have one's breasts removed (usually a temporary hatred, not always) is so common for cis women that I'm not sure it's even notable enough to have its own name or be talked about much, since it's not what people usually mean by dysphoria. learning that your body makes people see you, not as a gender that is incorrect for you, but as a gender that is wrong for everyone, and that men take your physical sex characteristics as signs and markers in a language they invented and you yourself don't speak, that's just puberty. None of these things make an AFAB woman trans. none of them are in conflict with "being" a woman or "knowing" that you're a woman, though they certainly contribute to being depressed about it.

they are in conflict with certain narratives about gender identity that class cis men and cis women together under the cis umbrella in a fabricated alliance that is, shall we say, problematic when it forgets to acknowledge that the alliance is strictly rhetorical and that the two social and physical experiences are not equivalent. If someone talks to you about gender identity as an uncomplicated feeling of certainty that your body is correct and is the one you are meant to be wearing, obviously this is not going to mean much to you as a woman if your experience is at all typical.

plenty of people have atypical experiences, so it will sound just fine to many. but not most.

you could say that enjoyment and comfort are distinct from identity. and this is true; you can hate being a woman, hate being forced to be a woman, and hate that other people recognize and treat you as a woman, all without doubting that you are in fact a woman. this is very common.

I know I'm a woman the same way I know I'm an American -- I've lived here all my life. If I had been assigned a male sex at birth, I would have to know I was a woman in a different way, if I knew it at all. this doesn't make me "agender" as some kind of identity category; it just means that my gender is an acquired characteristic that, like spoken language, was acquired at such an early age that it is attached to me no matter how little I may be attached to it. my gender, I say, not "gender," because not everybody is exactly the same as everybody else.

but still, even given all of this, I don't understand what you're saying at all. If you have lived and been treated as a woman for your entire life, and you're willing to say you are one, then you do know you are one. to not know it in the face of a lifetime's experience would take a great deal of conscious effort. Knowledge isn't unreal just because you acquired it instead of intuiting it. it isn't even necessarily a different kind of knowledge; you just got it in a different way.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:25 AM on July 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

lazuli: It's also possible to separate out gender identity (internal) from gender expression (external) (...) I think those things often get conflated, which adds to some confusion.

Yeah. And now try having a first language that doesn't even have discrete words for 'female' versus 'feminine', or 'male' versus 'masculine'...
Lots of fun and not confusing at all. /s
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:47 AM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

My reaction to being misgendered online has always been amusement. It used to happen fairly often when I was posting in ebook or legal-focused forums. I was never able to sort out if I had some kind of obligation to inform people - should I tell them that no, women can have these kind of thoughts too? Or should I let them go on thinking they're talking to a guy? I usually opted for the former, out of a sense that I should fight the casual assumption that anyone contributing to serious analytical discussions must be male. But it never mattered what gender they thought I was.

I read a fanfic once, where Lois Lane called Oracle in an emergency. Oracle had a computerized voice and avatar, and their gender was a secret, even from allies to the Justice League. And after about twenty seconds of conversation, Lois called her a woman, saying something like, "no man would go to that much effort to disguise his gender."

There can be solid reasons for "I do/don't want them to think of me as a woman" that have nothing to do with one's gender identity.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:32 PM on July 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who's answered so far. There are so many useful perspectives here, but the ideas that have helped the most in terms of challenging my assumptions are that:

1) Different people can feel a different affinity for their gender. It's possible that it's something I'll never fully understand - being misgendered online or mistaken for a boy when I was younger was never something that bothered me like it seems to have bothered some people (Funny story: my own mother saw a recent-ish photo of me with short hair and asked, in all seriousness, "who's the guy in that picture?". It later struck me as something I ought to have been offended by.)

2) At the same time, being occasionally misgendered or imagining waking up in a different body can't really tell you what it would actually feel like to experience that continually and on a regular basis. Nebulawindphone made a great point - even if I don't think I feel a strong sense of being female, it's impossible to tell from a thought experiment whether, if I tried to live as a man for a period of time, I would discover I actually do.

(Also, peppercorn's comment about "how do people know they're straight?" cracked me up because I too asked that question many times before realizing I wasn't straight.)

I get that this question is a bit like asking "what is love?", so I appreciate all the attempts to articulate something that probably can't be fully articulated. Also, to be clear, this question is just out of curiosity and not because I feel any real discomfort with my own gender - which I suppose, in and of itself, is what I should recognize as "knowing" I'm female.
posted by ersatzhuman at 4:01 PM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'll come at this from maybe a different perspective. I lean significantly more conservative than MeFi in general, and just pop in here periodically; after scrolling through these answers I find I don't really understand half of the words and acronyms and concepts and am just sort of shaking my head in confusion.

Nevertheless, to have any hope whatsoever of understanding/supporting trans issues, here's the intuition pump I use: Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). People with this disorder feel so strongly that their body is not "correct" somehow that they mutilate or amputate their own limbs.

From this, I note a few facts:
  • There's some "mapping" between the brain's understanding of the body and the body itself.
  • When this mapping is off it causes considerable distress, even to the point where people are willing to amputate healthy limbs.
  • Sufferers generally feel better after amputation.
  • There's no real objective benefit to missing a limb, so I'm inclined to give sufferers the benefit of the doubt here that there's not a weird ulterior motive.
Even if I don't really understand intuitively how a BIID sufferer feels (e.g., what it "feels like" to know your functioning leg shouldn't be there), I'm at least pretty certain that they feel that way.

That said, this thread has made me less confident in this comparison. Of all the responses, only spinifex23's matches what I would expect given my prior beliefs. Most of the responses are much more of the "fluid" / "spectrum" type, which doesn't map cleanly to BIID. They differ from the trans experience reports I've read online previously, from which I formed the belief and which are much more cut and dried, so now I'm conflicted about the BIID comparison's usefulness.
posted by losvedir at 8:41 PM on July 3, 2017

nah, you're onto something, losvedir. There have been studies that trans women who have lower surgery (removing the penis) don't experience the "phantom penis" experience that cis men have when the penis has to be removed due to injury, cancer, etc. Same thing with trans men and mastectomies. The brain seems to know whether or not a body part "should" be there. It's indisputable that surgery overwhelmingly helps the trans people who want it. The rate of regret is less than 3%, whereas regret for cosmetic surgeries such as nose jobs is around 15%.

That said, this only relates to those trans people who seek surgeries, who tend to be - but aren't always - binary.
posted by AFABulous at 9:01 PM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


BIID really doesn't have much to do with being trans unless you're talking dysphoria from "the wrong bits" being on the body. Many trans people I know are actually perfectly happy with their bodies and don't want surgery, unless it magically fell on their lap as getting "literally exactly the body you've ever wanted."
posted by gloraelin at 12:17 AM on July 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

If there was a spectrum between being agender and cisgendered, I think I'd be in the middle of it. I'm "kinda gendered".

I don't identify strongly with either gender (although I like and cultivate certain traits and styles that are associated with both sides of the binary and some aspects of androgyny). I don't feel loyal or integrated into gendered groups, and I usually avoid referring to myself by gender- I think of myself as a person. Being expected to behave like a specific gender doesn't feel comfortable to me. I feel fine about my body and don't experience physical dysphoria.

I remember even as a little kid as young as 4- and to this day as an adult- I have never felt quite right when I was identified by my assigned-at-birth gender: when someone calls me by that pronoun or identifies me as that gender, it kind of feels like they're pronouncing my name wrong. In my case this feeling is noticeable and mildly annoying, but not such a big deal for me personally that I'd actually change my pronouns at this point in my life. But wrong enough that it itches slightly.

I think the best analogy I can think of for my own relationship with gender would be imagining if you moved to a new country and people who spoke the new language all consistently pronounced your name incorrectly. It doesn't feel malicious or necessarily Bad, and you might not bother to correct everybody, but it's not Right, either. That's how I feel about being gendered.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:03 AM on July 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've had a long, odd relationship with femininity. I am a woman, born female (and I HATE the term 'cis', so, no), and for a very long time, my gender identity was "brain" -- as in, I've always regarded my body as a vehicle that transports my real identity (e.g., my "I", my mind, my intellect) around. My body was just a vessel, but I had no particular attachment to it.

As an adolescent, I had no interest in girly behaviors, utterly failed at makeup, etc. I liked boys, but seemed wholly unable to crack whatever code that would make all of that dating stuff work.

I liked androgyny, as an external display, that suited me.

College, and Women's Studies 101, helped me embrace radical feminism, and understand that my identity had (as I'd experienced) fuck all to do with genitalia, and that external performative gender was largely irrelevant, except that it allowed you to move in a world that had fairly standard/rigid understandings of 'woman' and 'man'. Which was fine.

I bought a purse, for the first time, when I was 31. I got into makeup when I was in my late 30s. I don't know how or why these things happened, only that I was ready to do them. I am a woman, and still a radical feminist, and I think gender is entirely performative, but biology matters because sexism and patriarchy is based on material reality.

I don't know why I'm more comfortable with feminine trappings now, but suspect it has more to do with age, and time. At 45, it's simply easier to be who I want to be, and fuck anyone who cares to voice an opinion about it.
posted by gsh at 3:09 PM on July 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

biology matters because sexism and patriarchy is based on material reality.

Now that this thread has wound down, I think it is useful to respond to this from a trans perspective. One of the things we have to live with (especially for trans feminine folks) is this idea that gender is purely performative. That who we are as people is simply an act, a show that we put on to adhere to some social norm.

It's not really true. The core point that second wave radfem folks make is accurate as far as it goes, but the "gender performance" idea does not properly capture what it means to have a gender identity at odds with one's body.

There are many people who have written at length on this topic. Most are better qualified than I am. But I'll at least try to give a feel for it...

Men are given a free pass in our society. This was obvious to me from the beginning, and I tried desperately to play by the rules. Seriously, who wouldn't want to have male privilege? It's fucking awesome. But if you are trans, you don't get that privilege for free the way that real cis men do. Whether you acknowledge it or not, it gnaws away at you, leeching your mental health. It is a Faustian bargain: male privilege or mental health? You cannot have both.

For me, having worked so very hard for so long to retain some semblance of male privilege and some approximation to mental health, it is a bitter pill to swallow. If I want to avoid suicide, I have to do this thing - I have to publicly announce and adhere to myself as a femme, and desperately ask admittance to the girl club (so to speak). I hope they'll accept me, but I don't know if they will.

... So given all of the above, what counts as "material reality"? Do my rape and my beatings count for less because of my penis, or does the fact that they followed inevitably from my gender performance actually count? I'm not sure what most feminists would say to this, but it's pretty central to what makes my trans feminine identity what it is
posted by saltbush and olive at 3:20 AM on July 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Thank you so much for writing that saltbush and olive. I often wish I had the words to push back against those who claim gender is merely performative. I wish I could live in that fantasy world where I could just choose to perform womanhood when I felt like it and my day would go as well as it does when I fit the model that people see me as.
posted by advicepig at 1:03 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Quick reminder: though this question is more chatty than we've usually been okay with, I need to point out that this is still Ask Metafilter and not freeform discuss / argue / debate, and basically the OP wanted to know what it feels like to "know you are a certain gender," which, unsurprisingly, is not the same for everyone, so answers are sort of running the gamut, and as well, it's something that many have strong personal feelings about. That's fine, but we should try to stick to answering the question. Thank you.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:49 AM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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