For most of the six-billion people who occupy this planet few things in our ever evolving lives are completely static, completely unchanging and rigid. Hardly ever do we give second thought to the things we believe are static and cannot change, but are we correct in assuming that anything in our life is permanent? The relation of gender (our mental constructions of being male or female [or perhaps even neither]) to sex (the anatomy of our bodies) can be such a thing. Although throughout our life the world around us, that which is immediate and that which is distant, ebbs like tides, ever-changing, we know so well that some things – such as our bodies – will always remain familiar. We may move between jobs, between cities or nations, even friends come and go, but we do not fear ever waking to find ourselves in a new body, with a new sex, or even with a new sense of gender. This though is only what we think is true.
There are some people though, unmentioned, often unseen or forgotten, perceived as alien: like strangers in a strange world who we feel incapable of relating to. The intersex, the transsexual, drag queens and drag kings, even cross dressers deconstruct that which we may feel can never be questioned: how our perception of sex and gender seem to be linked; if I feel male then I am male and if I am male then I must feel male. Yet the truth is that our physical sex, and the more personal gender, are capable of becoming disjointed with one another. It is through the individuals previously mentioned though where we may find that which we felt so sure of before, our bodies, may in fact be no more immalleable than our dress styles. For it is from these people and out of their stories that we should recognize the often unseen truth behind sex and gender: that both are neither static, but are rather dynamic identities that are not only capable of change but capable of remodeling over-and-over throughout all of our lives.
“What was I?” Max Beck wrote in his story “My Life as an Intersexual” (Beck 2001). He described his sex as “a fuzzy picture”, a “mosaic” of genomes some “XY”, others “XO” (Beck). Raised as a girl – Judy - since birth, Max’s own personal story is one that occurs far more frequently than we may believe. Born intersex, (previously known as “hermaphroditic”), raised as Judy, a self described tomboy and butch lesbian, eventually to become Max, a married father, this tale is only but an introduction to the notion that sex and gender are just as malleable as our dress styles. Countless stories and essays exist on the topic, from academic writings to more personal accounts, where individuals find themselves in the wrong body with the wrong anatomy; the idea that “this is not who I am” being common throughout their accounts. Genetics and hormones may do much to structure our bodies but identity seems to fall from something deeper than our biology on the surface: a feeling, a knowing that one’s internal self may be schismed from one’s external body.
Allie Lie, within “Passing Realities”, provides a narration on her transitioning from male to female in which the reader becomes pulled into the difficulties encountered due to the divide between her internal self and her external body. “I’m reminded of Nabokov’s Despair”, she writes, “the story of a man who imagines that a stranger who looks not even remotely like him is his virtual twin” (Lie 2002). This is how she perceives her existence at one point, for as she was born as one sex this did not remain constant. Her body became like Nabokov’s virtual twin and grew more alien to her. She did not feel herself to be male such to the point that looking at her body in the mirror was like looking at a stranger; she felt her gender had changed and now her physical sex began to betray her emotions.
The relationships between sex and gender are seen to be potentially dynamic for all people, yet it should be seen also that this potential for change is ever ongoing even for those who have previously transitioned into new lifestyles. It is not about changing sex on a whim or merely to find a humor in challenging social preconceptions but rather about finding a comfortable life in a comfortable body; a thing that most individuals take for granted without question.
Riki Wilchins muses over her own dynamic gender identity in her essay entitled “Queerer Bodies”: “since I keep getting called ‘sir’ these days, maybe I should create a whole new category called M-to-F-to-M, where I finally get to be Real…” (Wilchins 41). It can be difficult for intersex or transsexual individuals to alone identify which part of their self, be it their physical body or their internal mind, is “real” but Wilchins points out directly that to herself it is not a single identity which is real but a complex gradient of transitions between genders that defines who she is. It is from out of these people’s stories that we may better understand our own selves and our own roles within our culture.
As a first response it may be natural for one of us to ask simply “what is wrong with these few individuals?” but what we have come to discover is not that transsexuals are either harboring a disorder or deviant in nature but rather that they are perhaps far more “normal” than many of us may be despite how we may want to perceive them. For these few people are placed not in the wrong job or the wrong city but rather in the wrong body and have come to realize this far more aptly than most others could. For as science steps away from socialized norms and delves into the basic nature of human biology we see that the ideas of masculine and feminine are inventions of humankind and that gender is more a force of nature, a thing subject to transition and change just as prevalently as our hair, eyes, nails or skin.
Beck, Lie, and Wilchins face difficulty in trying to explain what to them the world “real” truly means. From the day we are born our culture teaches us what it believes is “real” or authentic; you can be either man or woman and no place else exists for a middle gender. But what we are taught only enforces antiquated knowledge about human nature, one that attempts to simplify and catalogue the world into neat binaries with no overlap or extrusion. This is where the difficulty of the word real comes into light for what our social constructions teach us is real contrasts against what the physiology of the human mind indicates is real. It would seem natural to accept change as the norm as we live in a universe ruled by forces of transformation yet we cling to an ancient notion that mankind is without change; that we somehow transcend the forces of nature and exist separate from biology and time. It is not real to assume our bodies cannot readjust themselves, that our likes and dislikes will never be reshaped, or that we can defy the mind’s capacity to reevaluate its self. What is real is that we are who we are and that the story of who we are continues to be written in every hour. The presence of intersex and transsexual activists and individuals is a reminder to what is real, to what is “normal”. It is a true depiction that what we once thought was static and unbending is in fact a thing subject to the forces of existence and thus is something that ultimately cannot be forced into conformity but rather forces us to reshape our own beliefs.
Beck, Max, “My Life as an Intersexual.” Pbs.org. Oct 2001. Web. 8 Mar. 2010
Lie, Allie. “Passing Realities.” Genderqueer. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002. 166-70. Print.
Wilchins, Riki. “Queerer Bodies.” Genderqueer. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002. 33-46. Print.