Male or Female?
Lizzy stood still as she starred at her naked reflection in the mirror. The five year old turned to her mother and asked why she did not have a penis like her brother, John. Her mother said that only boys have penises, and she was a little girl. Lizzy blurted out, “I am not a girl!” Her mother sighed, and continued to dress Lizzy in her pink skirt and Little Mermaid t-shirt. Lizzy did not feel like a girl, and did not understand why she was dressed differently and had different sex organs than her brother. While Lizzy knew she was not a boy, she did not feel like a little girl, and this tormented her small soul. Lizzy felt like she was something in between, but what was she? A girl-boy? While this is a hypothetical situation, there are millions of individuals in Western culture who have experienced feelings like Lizzy. They are unable to understand “what” and “who” they are because they do not fit into the limited category of male or female that language has created.
Outside of the United States, there are many cultures that have a multitude of genders. Individuals are not required to subscribe to only male or female, often times there is a “third” gender. For example, in some Asian cultures like Thailand, Kathoey’s, or “ladyboys,” are widely accepted. In comparison to Western cultures, Kathoey’s express themselves openly, with little to no repercussions one might experience in America. While there is not an official third gender in America, “transgender” is a term that has grown to be immensely popular in describing individuals who do not identify as male or female. Author and Riki Wilchin’s describes transgender as, “both an identity and a descriptive adjective” for those whose behaviors and looks fall outside of the normative gender roles (Wilchins 60). However, this term does not come without controversy, for Wilchin’s states, “But when we equate transgenderism with those individuals who can claim their gender is a sign of an internal, binary essence, we privilege transsexuals over other genderqueers who cannot make similar claims” (61). Once again a problem with language arises when individuals do not fit into the narrow categories of male or female, and even transgender. Individuals who fall outside of the gender binary are confined to two descriptors: male or female. This language barrier makes it extremely difficult for transgender’s to understand their identity, and many spend years searching for a category to “fit” into.
In “Courage From Necessity,” Mr. Barb Greve depicts how language has affected his identity and his ability to understand himself. Mr. Barb’s story began as a young child who never saw himself as a little girl. From Kindergarten, he truly believed when he grew up he would be a man, and when this did not happen, Mr. Barb went on an internal journey to search for his identity. In Junior high, he experienced his first attraction to other females, and was called a lesbian by a classmate. Unaware of what “lesbian” meant, Mr. Barb found a definition in a dictionary, and then decided he “fit” the word. After coming out in college, Mr. Barb attended women-only meetings while trying to understand his identity. However, Mr. Barb did not feel like he ever belonged in the women groups and spent years struggling with his gender. Mr. Barb stated, “I realized I wasn’t comfortable expressing my gender as either one” (249). He was not content with using language to categorize himself as either male or female because he felt he was a combination of both.
Mr. Barb decided that he needed to put his feelings first and choose a way to express himself that made him happy. He chose to leave Barb in his name because his adoptive mother gave it to him meaning, “stranger in a foreign land” (248). Barb was a very important name to keep because of his adoptive mother and the meaning the name held for his family. Because Mr. Barb felt he was neither a male nor female, he attached the pronoun “Mr,” to adequately express the combination. Mr. Barbs story illustrates the struggles a transgender person may experience because of the limiting categories created by language. He was not able to ascribe to male or female because he knew he was not going to grow up to be a man or woman. Mr. Barb stated at the end of his story, “My journey is not about transitioning into one of the two acceptable genders. It is not about making a political statement. My journey is about becoming a whole person” (249). Like Mr. Barb, transgender individuals are not trying to make political statements be deviating from gendered norms, they are only attempting to understand their identity and live their lives happily. The lack of language and available categories made it difficult for Mr. Barb to feel comfortable with his identity. By creating a name that that used a masculine title for his feminine first name, Mr. Barb used language to create his own category.
Mollie Biewald’s story, “World’s Youngest,” is another example of how language affects the identity of a transgender individual. In her narrative, Biewald recounts numerous experiences of her confusion with her gender while growing up. At fourteen, Biewald wrote a letter to her friend explaining to her that she was attending transgender meetings. When they met each other in person, her friend finally brought up the letter saying, “I’m very…confused by your…uh…gender nonidentification” (120). Biewald’s friend’s comment was followed by silence. Finally, Biewald acknowledged her own gender confusion to her friend. From this moment, it was clear that Biewald was uncertain of where she “fit” in. Having to choose between male or female discriminates against those who feel they are neither or both. Another example of Biewald struggling to find her true identity was illustrated when she returned home from a queer conference. She wrote in her journal, “If I’m transgendered, wouldn’t I know it by now?” (122). Biewald is troubled by her confusion and frustrated that there is not a word that describes who she is. Biewald’s story exemplifies how a transgendered individual can be affected by the limits of language. She was constantly searching for something to label her; Was she female? Was she male? Was she a transgendered? The barrier that language creates negatively affects the identities of many transgender people.
Through the use of arbitrary symbols, language is continually invented. It is socially constructed, deriving meaning from signs, sounds, gestures, and more. Language is a gateway to communication, enabling relationships to be built and maintained. However, the continual invention of words, leads to a societal obsession with categories. Categories are seen everyway; what is your sex? Race? Ethnicity? Age? Sexual orientation? The need to categorize has benefits, but in the transgendered world, it generates problems. The stories of Mr. Barb and Mollie Biewald illustrated how the pressures of “fitting” in a category of male or female greatly affected their identities. Language should be used to make all individuals feel included, and should not discriminate by only having two genders for people to identify with.
Male or Female?