Gender Identities: Who Are We?

We all want to be seen in a certain way. At a job interview we might want to be seen as capable, smart, and educated. On a date we might want to be perceived as attractive, lovable, and funny. The way others view us is essential to our lives as human beings.
Have you ever been introduced to someone when you weren’t at your best and wished you could re-live the situation? Sometimes we meet people when we feel unattractive or unkempt. At times we want to portray ourselves as something, even though we might not be that something just yet. While trying to put forth our best selves, sometimes we hide a part of us that we wish wasn’t there. Occasionally we all find ourselves fighting against a false impression. Many times, first impressions can haunt us.

However, normally, it is relatively easy to transform one’s appearance or even one’s way of speaking in order to create one’s desired self-image for the next interaction. If the first interaction occurred just after a work-out, and one was wet with sweat, and in baggy clothes, for the second interaction with the person, one could shower and put some nice clothes on. This transformation in appearance is relatively easy for most people. Much harder, however, is changing something that, for many people, seems like an unchangeable trait. Gender is one trait that many people do not question about themselves or others. Therefore when gender does become a matter of choice, “is that a woman or a man?”, those being questioned and judged face many concerns.
In our society, there are gender expectations for both men and women. Men are expected to be masculine: aggressive, powerful, out-spoken, physically strong, etc. Women are expected to be feminine: nurturing, soft-spoken, caring, emotional, etc. Though many people don’t often question their gender, there are some who battle internally with their own gender identity, trying to answer the question, “who am I – a man or a woman?”

Transgender people are those who do not fit in the stereotypical gender roles that society usually suspects. For a transgender person, the gender (man/woman) assigned to their biological sex (male/female) does not feel right to them and they prefer to chose a different gender than that which usually accompanies their sex. For example a biological female could choose to be a man (a transsexual man) or a biological male could choose to be a woman (a transsexual woman).
While making the switch from one gender to another, transsexuals face many challenges. At the same time a transsexual individual struggles to get others to see them they way they want to be seen, the individual may also battle internally with their own identity.

For transsexuals, it is very important that they are perceived to be the gender that they feel they are. Most people would be ashamed or embarrassed if they were called the wrong pronoun (if a man was called “ma’am” or a woman was called “sir”) but this is the reality many transsexual people face daily. For a transsexual man, the task is to hide all feminine aspects of their bodies, like breasts, and to accentuate or create masculine characteristics like facial hair, Adam’s apple, etc. For a transsexual woman, the task is the opposite – to hide masculine characteristics while emphasizing feminine ones. To get strangers to see the desired gender is a task many transsexuals find humiliating.

For Allie Lie, a transgender woman (a biological male who identifies as a woman), what she feels to be her gender is not always what others see. Allie feels like a woman. She tries to hide all of the remnants of her biological sex (male) by plucking her beard, wearing feminine clothing and makeup. Getting strangers to see her as a woman can be a stressful, somewhat humiliating process. In “Passing Realities” Allie recalls a scene in the grocery store where a cashier and their manager clearly disagree over whether Allie is a man or a woman. The issue arises when there is a problem with the cash register and the manager is called to help. The manager asks, “And she wrote a check?” and the cashier replies, “Yes. But he wrote it for $30 over the amount” (168). This disagreement in pronoun between “she” and “he” surely caused Allie to feel as though her femininity wasn’t convincing enough to the cashier. To have to face issues of gender on a daily basis in public during interactions with strangers must be grueling for Allie. Something so outward in appearance as gender is hard to escape from in almost every situation.

Trying to get these other people to change their views about one’s gender is extremely difficult. Even though dealing with strangers can be humiliating and degrading, interactions with family members or friends can be even more daunting. Due to the importance our society places on gender roles, many people become uncomfortable when interacting with transsexuals. Imagine trying to explain to someone your innermost thoughts about yourself of why you feel you are a man or a woman. For many of us, so engrained is this aspect of our lives, that words to describe our feelings towards gender are almost impossible to find. When a transsexual individual tries to explain to others about their gender identity, they face the possibility of rejection and even anger. For transsexual individuals, just being themselves puts their relationships with others at risk.

For Stacey Montgomery, a male to female transsexual (a biological male who has undergone gender reassignment surgery to become a biological female), explaining her transition to close friends proves to be quite a challenge. Stacy sits down with a couple she has known for many years (as a man) and tells them about her decision to make the full transition to being a woman. According to Stacy in “Twenty Passings”, this interaction, “takes all day” and they ask “a lot of questions – hard ones” (244). For people who have always thought of Stacey as a man, of course it takes them a while to get used to the idea of Stacey as a woman. Not only is Stacey transforming her life but also the lives of those around her.

Even though Stacey’s friends proved to be quite accepting of her new gender identity, another important figure in Stacey’s life is not so accepting. Facing strangers, family members, and friends must be extremely exhausting for transsexuals. However possibly the most difficult part of transitioning from one gender to another, is facing one’s lover or partner. In sexual relationships, where there is physical and emotional intimacy, there is also a high degree of vulnerability. Stacey describes a situation where her biologically female, woman lover/ girlfriend shows her discomfort with Stacey’s identity, “I think that you are a very special man. I love you. But you’re not a woman. I’m gay, and I need to deal with that” (239). For Stacey to hear that her lover does not see her as woman must be devastating. After her lover says this, she cannot feel loved as a woman nor can she feel sexy as a woman during sexual interactions. When Stacey’s lover does not accept her womanhood, her own personal acceptance of herself as a woman is wounded and weakened.

While getting others to see them as they wish to be seen, transsexuals also have to face many internal battles. After Stacey’s lover tells Stacey that they don’t accept her as a woman and actually see her as a man, Stacey not only questions her own sense of self but actually ends up agreeing with her lover, “if she doesn’t see it…it isn’t there” (139). Even though Stacey’s lover was trying to be honest with Stacey, her comments are particularly damaging to Stacey. Stacey’s whole world is thrown upside down by her comment. After this interaction with her lover, Stacey looks in the mirror and thinks, “a boy looks back at me” (239). Stacey’s confidence is shaken and her whole identity comes into question.

For Allie, being a woman is a process that involves hiding her masculine features. She fights against her physical body in order to truly feel like herself, like a woman. Allie fights this internal battle constantly, “I am seldom happy with what I see.” she says. “The disparity between what I want to see and what actually greets me is too great” (168). To look in the mirror and not see one’s true self is devastating to many transsexual people. The difference between one’s physical body and their mental representation of themselves can make many transsexuals feel as though they are incomplete. For transsexual people, this struggle for identity and peace-of-mind is not always won.

As a society, we place too much importance on gender. If when meeting someone for the first time, an individual could not immediately tell the other person’s gender, many people would become uncomfortable and even agitated. There is no reason why knowing someone’s gender must be so important. If, as a society, we can be more open to those who are transgender, we would be welcoming in many people who feel like they are on the outside. It is no one’s place in society to exclude others. The differences within our society are what make it so rich. A truly inclusive world where gender can be bent and experimented with would be a more colorful, honest place.

Additional Readings:

Transsexual Women's Successes: Links and Photos
Transgender Struggle
Transexual Road Map

Works Cited

Lie, Allie. “ Passing Realites.” Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the sexual binary. Ed. Clare Howell, Joan Nestle, and Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002. 166-170. Print.

Montgomery, Stacy. “ Twenty Passings.” Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the sexual binary. Ed. Clare Howell, Joan Nestle, and Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002. 238-246. Print.

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