In Praise of Gender Fluidity: Part II

A meditation on dysphoria.

Posted Jan 17, 2019

 Pixabay/ccoPublic Domain, free imae
Source: Pixabay/ccoPublic Domain, free imae

“Researchers say gender identity comes from the brain, not the body. Some put it more bluntly. It originates between your ears, not between your legs.” Denise Grady, “Anatomy Does Not Determine Gender, Experts Say.” NYT, October 22, 2018

The one area where I felt no gender constraints as I was growing up was in school. I was smart, had good memory skills, and learned easily. In this environment I did not feel that I was treated differently because of my sex. In high school, I attended an all-girls prep school, where the emphasis was on our capacity to achieve. My brain, I believed, was a sex and gender-free zone. 

I had the good fortune, in the 1960s, to attend a women’s college and an egalitarian graduate school, both of which fostered my intellectual development and extended my illusion of male-female equality. The shock came when I entered the world of full-time employment. My first year teaching at a prestigious liberal arts college brought me up against the split in my self-consciousness. For years, I’d separated my mind (gender-free) from my body (visibly female) and tried to ignore the social realities of being a woman in a patriarchal society.

In the work world, I quickly discovered, being female was a disadvantage. I became pregnant just before I began my first job and felt embarrassed to tell the Provost about my condition in our initial interview. The pregnancy was unplanned and ill-timed in my view as I was in the midst of completing my PhD dissertation. Yet, I was determined to meet my obligations as a teacher and scholar, as well as a mother. My institution saw things otherwise.

The Chair of my department called me into his office in January of my first year and asked me if I planned to “retire.” I literally did not understand him. I’d only just begun my career and had no intention of ending it after only four months of teaching. When I pressed him to explain, he said, “I mean in the light of your family situation.” Evidently, he thought that new mothers should not also be full-time workers.

I just said no—I didn’t plan to retire.

This was my first introduction to sexism (a word not yet in my vocabulary) and to the myriad of assumptions about women, their proper roles in the workplace and in society that I had avoided facing in my high school, college, and graduate school years. In my mind, I felt like a guy, able to compete with my male colleagues and succeed on the same terms. In my body, however, I was regarded as a woman, destined to be a wife, homemaker, and mother. Had I remained celibate or childless (a model for academic women of previous generations), I might have continued to insulate myself from this stark reality, which I confronted at the very outset of my career.

Once I had properly identified this problem, I fought against it, and was fortunate to encounter second wave feminism at precisely this moment in time.

Over the course of the next several decades, I worked with feminist colleagues and women in my community (at a land-grant university in the Midwest) to challenge the gender assumptions I’d been born into and absorbed into my bloodstream in the process of growing up.

Did I experience gender dysphoria during this period of time? If you understand this term in the light of a fractured sensibility, in which mind, body, and psyche do not create a unified sense of self, social experience, or personal well being, the answer is yes

In fact, I no longer believe that such a unified identity exists. For anyone—at any time in human history. Nor is it an ideal worth pursuing.

By the time I encountered the transgender movement, I’d achieved a hard-won success in my personal and professional lives. My women colleagues and I had founded one of the first Women’s Studies Programs in the country, organized a national conference featuring Adrienne Rich as keynote speaker, created a curriculum in English we described as “Feminist Studies in Literature,” and founded a feminist journal called Hurricane Alice that addressed topics such as “Women and Work,” “Women and Money,” and “Women and Power,” far ahead of their time.  I’d climbed the academic ladder to Associate and Full Professor and published numerous scholarly articles and books. I’d raised my daughter well, was financially secure, and happy in my personal life. My struggles were over. Or so I thought.

Once again, an encounter with a brave woman changed my mind. I met her in a memoir-writing workshop, which I’d enrolled in to help me develop a new project. Everyone in this class had a compelling story to tell. One especially engaged me; it was the story of a mother who had raised two transgender children. I was riveted by her narrative, which detailed the way she struggled with and then accepted the awareness that the girls she had raised from birth were self-defined boys. Once again, I had to open my mind. Unwittingly, I’d retained a simple set of sex/gender assumptions in the course of my life despite all of my personal and professional efforts to disjoin them.

By then, I understood that “masculine” and “feminine” are culturally constructed categories, created and enforced by social norms. This realization had freed me from my childhood habits of gender conformity. But I still thought of male and female as binary opposites. Why this?

Because I did not know better. I’d read about children whose chromosomal sex does not match the appearance of their genitals at birth, and also about babies born with ambiguous genitals, neither clearly male nor female. But I’d thought of these instances as rare. My mind still clung to the binary norm, a world in which sex is irretrievably biological—either male or female. This system of thinking—as a generation of philosophers has proposed—is not only arbitrary but also a means of establishing and maintaining structures of power.

The transgender movement challenges this assumption, leading me to view sex and gender identities as equally fluid. I now look at girls and boys, men and women, as ranged along a spectrum of appearances and behaviors traditionally understood as male or female, “masculine” or “feminine.”

I am open to believing that some children identified at birth as either male or female feel so profoundly at odds with their sex assignment that they are impelled to change their bodies to reflect their inner sense of identity. Although I do not share this experience, I understand how little one’s physical sex has to do with one’s gender identity.

There is no woman I know who has not felt a dichotomy between her female appearance and/or “feminine” behavior and her inner sense of self. My guess is that men share this experience but feel too embarrassed to talk about it. The standards of “masculinity” in our society are shockingly rigid. It must be as difficult for men to conform to them as it is for women to accede to the roles they have been traditionally assigned.

The transgender movement allows us all to think more creatively about who we are and who we want to be--and to shatter the binary forms of thinking that constrain us.

In closing, I have to say that gender fluidity is more of an ideal than a reality. As long as patriarchy remains the global social norm, women will be treated as inferior and unequal to men in every aspect of public life. The gains that second wave feminism made are real, but we have not yet achieved the goal of gender equality. Acceptance of gender fluidity is an important step in this direction.