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What is a sense of gender?

  • Posted on March 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

A section in my book Realisations is called ‘A Sense of Gender’, and it is a really curious thing. What is it to be self-aware of being a man or being a woman? Is it just a feeling of consonance with others who have bodies like yours? Or perhaps dissonance with those who don’t? That seems a bit thin somehow. I am sure that with a bit of research I could unearth psychological studies that would dip into the gendered mind, the ways we think, that place us more comfortably in one camp or the other. Except that drags us kicking into the binary conflict that simply doesn’t suit everyone.

Early in realising who I really was, I used to play this mind game: if it was a ‘Manday’ rather than a ‘Chooseday᾿ and I closed my eyes against what I was wearing, how did I feel? Hmm. Nothing really. And to begin with in my female clothes I looked as different to myself as I would to any friend. Not bad, but certainly different. Did that make me feel more like a woman and less like a man underneath? Well, it helped.

Close the eyes. Ask: what does it mean for anyone to feel like a man / woman?

There is a physical awareness, perhaps a bra wire is digging in or trousers feel tight, or maybe the lightness of a dress brushes the skin differently, and parts of your body feel the particular familiarity or unfamiliarity of something. But that doesn’t make me feel like a man or like a woman. It doesn’t make me feel gendered or placed in a role or a persona at all. I just feel like me. How do you feel?

Now put me in a party. There are the women clustered in one place, and there are the men in another. Where do I head to feel most congruent? Off to join the men and share the latest sport / cars / job news? Or to the women to find out what’s really going on, how they are feeling, what’s going on in their families? Join the first group and I don’t really know what to talk about, unless we turn to a passion like the environment, or poetry. Join the others and I am an outsider; perhaps the conversation changes because a man is present.

A man? What man? I look around and then realise it must be something about me. I have a sense of gender from the inside, everyone else has a perception that is different. My gender is visibly in the wrong kind of body. It isn’t even ambiguous enough, because I got to wear the grey trousers and the striped shirt.

There have been too many days when I have been obliged to present as a man when wanting to write about being female. What happens if someone comes up on Skype, I have the cam on, and Andie, the strongly female friend is sitting there in the wrong trousers, perhaps even unshaven, with man specs? Is that a betrayal of my sense of gender? I judge not, because I am already uncomfortable, not even looking at myself.

What do you feel when you wake up in a morning. OK, certain things can happen to a man that remind him of his gender at that time of day. But aside from that, are we aware? Does it matter? No, so long as we are content with what happens next and get on with the day, doing what we do naturally.

Kate Bornstein is producing a new edition of her Gender Workbook, and has been Tweeting regularly to gain a contemporary view of how people feel about aspects of transgender. Central is the question ‘how do you identify?’. I was not alone in a very assertive, ‘I know what I am not!’ Interesting, because I hear it more and more. I am not a man. I’m quite happy to be called transgender, but do not call me a man! It isn’t that I disown what I have lived as, and I don’t hate men. I just know I do not belong to that tribe.

Which is interesting.

For some time, mainly because it was so easy to do so, I went to the Brighton Buddhist Centre to practice meditation. Mindfulness. Being present, in the moment. Just sitting, being aware of how things are. And in that state of mind, I am aware of a physical state of being a woman. Funny that.

Over a year ago, a friend did some therapy with me in similar vein, and my first comment afterwards, reviewing the inner experience, was that throughout I had visualised myself as a woman in a white dress. I don’t know why. It wasn’t suggested, it wasn’t in the commentary. It wasn’t supposed to be there at all. The only guidance I had was to gain a sense of belonging, and to listen to myself. And there I was.

Now, having just presented myself and my intentions, in the space of a week, to well over 100 musicians, and in public as it were, I had another unexpected experience. My previous blog post covered the matter of whether it was courage or not. No, this was an awareness that somehow, enough people were just recognising what I was saying, and more than just respecting that, were welcoming me as a woman. I am perfectly aware that when I appear for the first time in that last bastion of my male life, many may find it hard to adjust. I will be a novelty, a curiosity, a not-quite-sure and what do I say to – her? But as the pronouns started to be used already, and people were writing my new name, I was so deeply at home with myself, it felt like I had been dragging an anchor and now it held.

Yes, I know what a sense of gender means – though I’m not sure I’m a whole lot better at describing it.