a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Theories of gender from an outsider’s perspective

For something that doesn’t apply to me, gender has a massive effect on my daily life. I can forget about it for a while, but then someone calls me “she” and I start thinking about it all over again. During my wrangling with the concept, trying to understand what exactly this “gender” thing might be, I’ve come up with a few theories.

I don’t know if I’m more qualified or less qualified to talk about gender as someone who doesn’t have any. More qualified because I can be (kind of) objective, looking at it from the outside? Or less qualified because I have no earthly idea what it feels like to have one and therefore am missing a significant piece of evidence?

I don’t know. Let’s find out.

Theory #1: Gender is the sex characteristic of the mind

Description: Each human body has a sex. Some bodies are female, some are male, some are intersex, etc. There are different characteristics that make up the sex of a body: hair thickness and distribution, fat distribution, chest shape, skeleton shape, genitalia shape, voice, hormones, chromosomes, etc. One of these characteristics is found in the mind, and that is gender. Just like a male chest will generally be flat and a female chest will generally have breasts, a male mind will generally feel like a man and a female mind will generally feel like a woman.

The trans perspective: There is a lot of variation in the sex characteristics. A male body can have quite a range of chest shapes, for example; some male bodies have breasts that might look more at home on a female body. That is considered a medical condition (gynecomastia) and is fixed with surgery. When a male body has a mind that doesn’t feel like a man, it’s still a medical condition (transsexuality), but we don’t treat it the same way we would treat gynecomastia and try to change the mind to fit the rest of the body. The mind is much more important to who the person is than the shape of the chest, so that person is likely to want to change their body to fit their mind.

Applied to me: Well, if this theory is true, then I’m either a woman in denial or I am a transsexual whose mind kind of missed the gender part when it was being formed. That’s like… if I ended up being born with a female body that was only missing hair. It wouldn’t have a feminine hair pattern or a masculine hair pattern because it just wouldn’t have any hair at all, but it would still be considered a female body. So my body is a regular female body, except that it’s missing a gender.

My verdict: I know a few transsexual people whose idea of gender is quite similar to this. Personally, I don’t like the idea of people’s genders being medical conditions or the idea that there’s something wrong with us that medicine needs to fix. I’m also not sure that it adequately captures the variety of gender out there. How would it handle fluid genders? How would it handle multiple genders in the same individual? Are all of us trans folks biological mistakes? Really? I’m not a fan of this theory.

Theory #2: Gender is an inborn personality trait unrelated to sex

Description: Just like enjoying certain tastes in food, or getting energy from socializing or solitude, gender is a facet of personality that is part of our psychological makeup when we are born. Being a man is not that different from, say, being an introvert.

The trans perspective: When we’re born, our doctors or families assign us a gender based on our sex, but that’s a mistake. Gender has nothing to do with our sex; gender is psychological, not physical. Cisgender people are those whose gender happens to be the one they were assigned at birth, and the rest of us are transgender people. It would be better for everyone if we changed our system so that we didn’t assign genders at all, since people’s genders are already part of them when they’re born, and they’ll be quite capable of telling us about them when they’re old enough to talk.

Applied to me: If this theory is true, then I was born without a gender, just like others were born with one. People assuming that I’m a woman just because I’ve got a female body is kind of silly. When I was old enough to understand what people meant by “boy” and “girl” I knew that neither one sounded much like me, and I could have told them that if they had asked me.

My verdict: This theory separates gender from sex entirely, giving us plenty of room for all the different gender identities people have. I like that about it. I’m not sure that gender is inborn, however, because I don’t really understand what the point of it is if it’s completely unrelated to the sexes. If it’s related to the sexes I can see how it might have evolved, biologically speaking, but otherwise it seems pretty random, doesn’t it? I think I’d have to have a better understanding of biology and psychology (and, probably, the experience of having a gender) to have a legitimate opinion.

Theory #3: Gender is a false cultural system based on a flawed system of sex

Description: People used to think that there were two sexes, male/man and female/woman, and the word “gender” was nothing more than a euphemism for “sex”. Now we know that there aren’t just two sexes and that gender doesn’t exist, biologically speaking. Gender is something that we teach to children, a bunch of rules and regulations we force upon them because we (erroneously) think that’s just the way it is, and if we stopped teaching it to them, it would cease to exist. Everyone would be gender-free and everyone would be better off.

The trans perspective: Since sex is complicated and gender isn’t real, it’s not terribly surprising that there are people who rebel against the gender they were assigned. Actually, it’s somewhat surprising that cisgender people exist at all, but culture is a powerful force and if people are capable of fitting in with their society, they will usually do it. Many people find that they are capable of fitting in with their society if they can transition and be seen as a man (if they were assigned female) or a woman (if they were assigned male), and these folks are female-to-male or male-to-female transsexuals, but this doesn’t mean that their gender is real, either. It just means that their personality is more suited to the rules and regulations of one or the other. Then there are those of us who just can’t fit in at all, and this theory explains our existence quite well. It’s only natural that there would be people who aren’t men or women – “men and women” don’t even exist!

Applied to me: According to this theory, I’m the normal one. All you folks who have a gender are buying into a false system. How’s that working out for you?

My verdict: This used to be my theory. It’s a heady thing, realizing you could be the normal one after a couple decades of feeling like a freak. I thought gender didn’t exist until it was forced upon us, and I wanted it abolished from my culture. I was sick of being shoved into labels and boxes, sick of my body shape dictating the way people treated me, sick of the absurd rules and the suffocating regulations. Cisgender people boggled my mind. How could they stand it? How could they deal with this excruciatingly screwed up system?

Listening to the experiences of other trans people is what changed my mind. Sure, I can see how cisgender people might be buying into a system; most of them have never really considered the possibility that their gender might be different than the one they were assigned. But trans people? They think about this. They think about it long and hard. For some of them, it consumes their lives. Yet they still believe in their gender. Who am I to tell them they’re wrong about their own experience? Who am I to tell them that their gender doesn’t exist? This theory works for me, and the abolition of gender would make life easier for me, but I have to face the truth: I am the odd one out. Most people have a gender. Abolition isn’t the answer.

Theory #4: Gender is a cultural system that doesn’t have to harm anyone

Description: People used to think that there were two sexes, male/man and female/woman, and the word “gender” was nothing more than a euphemism for “sex”. Now we know that there aren’t just two sexes and that gender is an identity that forms gradually for each person, similar to subcultures. Just like you have hipsters and rednecks and emo people and preppy people, you also have women and men and genderqueer people and agender people. Gender is something you cultivate, something you perform.

The trans perspective: Many people are comfortable learning how to be the gender they were assigned at birth, and they spend the rest of their lives performing this gender, some of them never realizing that they had any other option. These people are cisgender. Others don’t like the role they are assigned and they choose to perform another one, or choose to make up their own, or choose to walk out of the play altogether. These people are transgender. The transgender experience of figuring out which gender is right for you can be fun and fulfilling, and every person should have a chance to go through it. We should stop assigning genders at birth and start appreciating everyone’s unique gender journey.

Applied to me: I was assigned the role of Woman, but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the part for me. I looked at all the other parts and they didn’t sound much better. Neutrois was close, and genderqueer had a certain flair that I admired, but ultimately I decided not to accept any of them. Maybe I’m working backstage or something.

My verdict: You are probably not surprised to hear it, but this is the theory that sounds best to me right now. I believe that gender should continue to exist, deferring to people who’ve thought about it seriously and still identify with it, and I think that a theory that separates gender from sex completely and defines it as something cultural rather than biological is the best way to include trans people without making us feel broken. Gender can be a good thing. Treating it like a bunch of rules that must be followed makes it into a bad thing, but if we stop doing that, then it can be a way for people to express themselves and relate to one another. It doesn’t have to hurt anyone.

The moral of the post is, of course, that no matter which theory we believe, we would help each other a lot more if we tried not to use it for harm. Gender doesn’t have to be a weapon. Even if you don’t agree with any of these theories, I hope you agree with that.

5 Responses to Theories of gender from an outsider’s perspective

  1. I’m glad I read your blog. It’s puzzled me (though not as intimately as you) why there seems such a difference between males and females. I know a lot of behavior is from how society treats us but a lot does come from within. (past lives?)

  2. I guess I’m cissexual then. I’ve been wondering, because I don’t really get what gender even is (theory 3 makes most sense to me, even though I know logically that it’s not true).

    But whereas you don’t like being called female just because your body is, I personally don’t care. If you mistook me for a guy, I probably wouldn’t correct you (not that this happens in real-life because I have a visibly female appearance). But I do consider myself female, even if only because my body is female.

  3. I feel like I’m trying to get to Theory 4, because it seems nicer, but I’m stuck on Theory 3. I don’t REALLY, deep down, believe that gender could ACTUALLY make anyone happy and be a non-oppressive force.

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