Imagine yourself as a child running into school after recess, desperate for the bathroom before the bell rings. You walk quickly down the hallway and walk into the bathroom labeled “boys” with out even thinking twice about it. You do what you went in to do, wash your hands, look up, and see yourself in the mirror and flinch at the sight of a female looking back at you. “That’s not me,” you think to yourself as you shake your head and look down again, wishing the next time you look in the mirror the boy you know yourself to be will appear instead of that odd girl. You then quickly run out of the bathroom before anyone sees you and gets upset, laughs, or tells on you. Can you even begin to imagine such a situation? For many people it is impossible to understand how it feels to be trapped in a body that has been assigned the wrong sex. However, there are many individuals in our society that deal with this type of frustration and confusion in their every day lives.
People who feel entirely disconnected from their sex are practically forced by societal norms to suppress such emotions and to conform to the typical gender-traits that are expected of them based on their genitalia. According to this gender binary if you have a vagina you are to be a feminine female and if you have a penis you are to be a masculine male. Clean and easy, just the way our society likes it. But—what if you have a penis, yet you have no connection to the traits that are supposed to go along with such an organ? Sadly, our society, in general, chooses to answer this question with very little support: ‘Why, you are to see a therapist and get past these strange issues and step into your assigned gender role, duh.’ Unfortunately, many people do not understand that this therapy will not result in a person negating his or her gender-identity and individuality. It is hard enough for people in these situations to accept their differences and to be proud of their unique identities with out the added stress that our culture puts on them. Commonly, people are raised to follow a strict set of norms, and within such societies as our own, people who do not identify with their assigned sexes feel unaccepted or trapped in a life that is not their own.
Of course there are solutions of sorts to these internal struggles, but these people are still judged as abnormal and unacceptable by most close-minded individuals. Some people born as women want to completely change their sex and become male by getting sex reassignment surgery. Similarly, people born as men may want to change their sex by becoming female through surgery. People who choose this route are known as transsexual, because they have completely transitioned their sex. There are also people who choose to change their gender by taking hormones and dressing like the opposite sex, but keep their original genitalia. These people are known as transgender individuals. It’s important to recognize the difference between sex and gender because in situations such as these the two are very different. One’s sex is determined by their genitalia, while gender is determined by the set of characteristics that separate males and females. Therefore, sex involves identity based on body parts, while gender is based on social roles and masculine or feminine characteristics. Society, unfortunately, seems to find it easer to accept people who completely transition sexes versus people who are in-between genders. If a born-male person feels totally disconnected from their sex and therefore wants to become an absolute woman, it is easier to accept their complete transition into becoming a female. However, a woman who also feels alien to her sex but chooses to avoid sex-reassignment surgery and instead changes gender roles is more confusing for society to understand and accept. As a whole, our culture seems to be much more accepting of situations that are easier to consider: A person who does not feel like the sex they are born into changes sexes. Rather than more complicated matters: A person who does not feel like the sex they are born into takes hormones to look and sound like the opposite sex but keep their designated genitalia. For the majority, it is easier to consider this topic when one’s gender matches their sex. When this is not the case, and is therefore more difficult to consider, people tend to just write it off as unacceptable. As a society, we need to open our minds to all people and their feelings and opinions because otherwise we are going to deprive our culture of the possibility of acceptance and opportunities for all.
An example of how struggling with gender identity can affect a person is exemplified by Ethan Zimmerman. Ethan Zimmerman, in his story “Transie,” gives readers an inside look at what it feels like to be a transgender individual. Zimmerman lays out the cruel beliefs that society holds, in general, about transgender people and the ways in which it affects such persons. Zimmerman was born a female, but the problem is that Zimmerman never felt like a girl, and instead felt more like a man. There are no gender names that truly fit his identity, and he is therefore on his own. Zimmerman says to himself, “Have I always felt this way? How do I feel? Am I feeling anything yet? Do I deserve to be here? Why are people so afraid of me?” (Zimmerman 191). Zimmerman is not only confused by his own uncommon feelings, but he is also concerned about how his feelings affect other people, and how other people view him. Unfortunately it is not easy for people dealing with issues such as Zimmerman’s to feel contentment without worrying about other people’s opinions and reactions. Accordingly, Zimmerman may be happy that he’s finally being honest with himself, but it does not take away the sense of loneliness and stress. He describes his emotions when he says he feels “Happy that my world is making more sense every day, crazy because I’m not sure at least once a day that no one else could possibly understand how I feel, disjointed (Zimmerman 192).” Issues such as this are certainly difficult to grasp for people who have never felt similar feelings to that of Zimmerman, however it does not mean that those feelings are not real and fierce.
Our culture has difficulty understanding and accepting differences, especially in regard to gender norms. As a result, it can be a frightening thing to reveal these dissimilarities that will surely set one apart from society. Zimmerman not only hears the judgments and concerns that others have about his seemingly confused gender, but he can also feel them and he ultimately internalizes them, as do most people. He recalls people saying, “Are you a he or a she? Are you a girl or a boy? You’re a he/she, aren’t you? What sex are you? How can you be a faggot? You must be confused. Why don’t you like women?” (Zimmerman 190). Imagine hearing comments like this everyday. It could easily persuade a person to conform to traditional gender norms just to avoid such torment, even if it means abandoning one’s self. Zimmerman fortunately feels strongly enough about his identity that he is able to remain strong and has continued on his journey towards self-comfort and satisfaction. Unfortunately, not every person struggling like Zimmerman can be as secure. After all, our society is taught to believe and understand that if your sex is male than you are to assume that gender role, so when this is not the case people become irritated. If the public was not so critical of gender norms, someone experiencing feelings like Zimmerman’s might feel worthy of happiness and a realm of normalcy. Normalcy in the sense of not worrying about the disgusted stares, walking into a labeled restroom without feeling self-conscious, or writing down your sex on a resume without wondering what is appropriate. Feeling disapproval from others may cause disapproval for oneself. How does Zimmerman survive? He survives by, “talking to people who get it, by crying when I can’t take it anymore, by reading reaffirming words by other gender warriors, by fantasizing that I have a huge dick, a flat chest, and a deep voice, by reminding myself that I felt like a boy as a child and it didn’t feel freaky or weird (Zimmerman 193).”
Overall, the gender binary that exists within our culture gives people the right to be judgmental and closed-minded rather than welcoming and optimistic. Many people in the United States struggle with accepting their gender identity due to the lack of support from our society. Zimmerman is only one example out of all the people who have had to deal with these difficult decisions and situations. If we were to listen to people different from ourselves, then perhaps we would be able to create a generation of acceptance and possibility. Should all people be subjected to a life that is unnatural and uncomfortable to them just to prevent the discomfort of others? Gender is considered to be a cut and dry topic, but in reality it is far more complicated. As a society, we need to be considerate of the personal struggles that people experience, whether they are male, female, or a little bit of both.
Zimmerman, Ethan. Transie. GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed. Joan
Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York, NY: Alyson Books, 2002. 190-193.