Whenever I talk about my relationship to womanhood, I am splintering. While I have embraced my identity as a woman, and believe that womanhood is in some sense deeply intertwined with how I experience the world, there are thorny questions still unresolved. Before I dive too deeply into the reasons why this might be the case, let us talk about why gender exists and where it comes from. Has it always been there, sleeping in our house like a resident, did it slip in unbeknownst to us, or did it steal the house from under our feet?
The way gender works has a lot in common with how naming works, at least in a modern North American setting. And it might be easier to comprehend gender through an analogy with naming, so I’ll begin there before moving into more treacherous and confusing territory. Why do we have names? Well, names have different uses for different people. For most of European history, most people didn’t really have surnames, and would have been named different things throughout their lives, adopting, earning, and dropping names as they aged. Your name was often tied to where you lived or who your father was, and in a highly localized context that was all that mattered because everyone knew each other personally.
You could say “Teresa from the red house” and everyone you met on a day-to-day basis would know exactly who you meant. Now, when the taxman comes knocking on your door to do an assessment or collect what’s due, that kind of naming system just isn’t very convenient. What if Teresa moves into a green house, or a famine forces her to move to a neighbouring region? At that point, if her tax records were all put down as “Teresa from the red house at such-and-such corner” the tax agency would have no way of tracking that person except by asking around and doing all kinds of research that aren’t good for the state’s bottom line.
So the state starts giving everyone surnames and fixes your name in stone. Eventually, you are just given a name at birth, registered with a certificate, and that’s who you are barring some kind of legal intervention. The authorities, in order to govern you, have to know who you are regardless of where you live. Curiously, or not-so-curiously, birth certificates contain another precious bit of information that’s crucial for trans and cis people alike. That would, of course, be a gender marker. M or F, typically. (This is why renaming ourselves, for trans people, is so vital, and way of not just of shaking off our old gender but of choosing who we want to be in a broader sense!)
Every human being born under the eyes of some official––whether a doctor or someone else acting in that role––gets categorized according to their gender. This act is, ultimately, one that is designed to sort people into recognizable populations that can be governed. In this case, gender is a system that’s intimately tied into what we can call “sex,” or the “physical” aspects of being gendered. No one has any say in their gender when they’re born. Your name is put on a form and, until you have legal agency, you must comply at least somewhat with that designation. A designation that was put in place purely on the basis of what kind of reproductive organs doctors and parents think that you have. Vulvas are for girls, penises for boys, roughly speaking. Even putting aside that there are a huge number of people who don’t have physiologies that work so “neatly”––namely intersex people––when we understand that gendering and sexing at birth are coercive, customary practices aimed primarily at regulating bodies and what they can/can’t do, making people superficially “easier” to manage, and that even now many people revolt against this system and have questioned it, we have to realize that it has no heart, no essence.
And as for those who are unlucky enough to either be assigned or choose womanhood or a nonbinary identity, the results are a higher chance of being marginalized, being paid less, saddled with extra work in the home, etc. etc. So our destinies are projected outward for us, at least partly, at birth. You can read the genitals of an infant child like the stars of the astrologer. What do these constellations of body parts tell us? It tells us what kinds of clothing “she” will wear, what kinds of jobs “he” will be encouraged to enter into. And on and on and on. It’s a con, one that’s all the more effective for being, to my view at least, absurd from a humane and ecological point of view.
Gender, in other words, is something that, at the outset at least, happens to you. It’s only later, after being raised as a girl or boy, with your future already mapped for you despite you being, you know, a child, that you begin to inhabit this role more consciously. Many people reject this gendering process at a young age, while others only recognize that gender has happened to them later. I inhabited a particular role for almost two decades before shaking it off and realizing that I had no attachments to it that weren’t black and toxic. Like a poison, I vomited up all the bile and sick of “manhood.”It is simply incompatible with my being.
I believe that this con, this system of labeling and divining as if by magic the futures of children based on our genitals, is fundamentally destructive. And yet I still embrace womanhood as my safe haven. This is a contradiction I am of course aware of and uncomfortable with. My nonbinary friends and comrades have another nettlesome problem to deal with, searching for forms of being that escape the usual binary ways of thinking about men and women. So I hold my gender gingerly, aware that my life can twist and change in many ways. The future is still uncertain. I do know, however, that gender as a system, as a way of regulating people’s bodies and their behaviour, has to go. Even men, though especially those who are not men and those whose gender is marked with racial discriminations or class oppression (gender is always a colonial system as well as a regulatory one), suffer under it. I can’t untangle all of this confusion right now, but I hope that my own life can be a source of hope for other young people who see the con for what it is. Despite all my failings, I want to be a light others can share in.
The next three days of posts will be:
March 17: Reflections on how I’m treated by and seen by classmates, professors, and university administration.
March 18: The bizarro world that is how I’m seen by the state and how I navigate situations where I need official ID, etc.
March 19: A happy post about my pride in being myself and in being in community with others like me.