How Do You Know What it’s Like to Be…? (Gender Analysis 08)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. As trans people, we’re often asked how we would know what it’s like to be our gender. Trans women are expected to explain how we know what it’s like to be a woman; trans men are asked how they know that they’re men. At first glance, this might seem like a simple enough question: what is it about our experiences that aligns with womanhood or manhood? But this line of inquiry, innocent as it may be, runs parallel to scrutiny and invalidation. And when you break this question down, it doesn’t really make any sense.


What purpose does this question serve?

When someone asks us this question, what kind of answers are they looking for? What are they intending to do with these answers? Is it possible to give a right answer? This approach of interrogation tinged with doubt and judgment seems to show up pretty often.

In the last episode, I explained how the commonplace usage of fixed biological reference points to define trans people as forever “female” or “male” is inconsistent to the point of being unjustifiable. Afterward, I was often asked, “so what does it mean to be a woman?”, or “what makes someone a man?” The problem, as you might have gathered from the previous video, is that this is complicated. There isn’t an easy checklist that you can go through to verify someone’s gender. And more importantly, why even try? When you ask these questions, are you going to use our answers to fight for us, or as an excuse not to?

It turns out that many are looking for exactly that excuse. When trans children come out as girls or boys, they’re often met with the most bizarre objections – from conservatives who lazily retort, ‘oh, well some kids want to be firetrucks when they grow up’, and so-called ethicists who blather about children who like to pretend to be train engines. Now, if you’re aware that half the human population isn’t firetrucks, being a woman isn’t really like being a freight train, and children have examples of boys and girls all around them, the analogy kind of falls apart. But I guess not all cis people can wrap their heads around that.

On the other end, when trans people come out in adulthood, they’re told things like “how would she know what it’s like to be a woman after living as a man for 65 years?” The elegance of this argument is that it can be wielded against any of us at any time. If we come out at 50, or 20, or 5, we can be told that we lack that experience of living as our gender. But that’s the very point of transitioning: we want to acquire that experience and immerse ourselves in it for the remainder of our lives. And when you refuse to treat trans people as their gender, you’re denying them the very experience you’re demanding from them.

It’s a self-fulfilling bigotry.


How trans people experience ourselves

There’s a substantial gap between the typical cis approach to questioning trans people’s genders, and the process by which we as trans people come to recognize and actualize our genders. I can’t speak for others, but when I started to understand my gender, I never once asked myself, “how do I know I’m a woman? What does it mean to be a woman?” All of that was too abstract and disconnected to help me figure out who I am in any practical way.

Implicitly, these questions refer to cis women, treating them as a definitive standard of womanhood. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a cis woman – not in totality – because I’m not one, and I never will be. I can share experiences with them, just as any of us can share experiences with anyone else. But when those who position themselves as the judges of our genders don’t have a complete sense of our experiences, and are never really clear on the degree of similarity they expect from us, this is just a recipe for arbitrarily dismissing and invalidating who we are. They don’t quite know what the must-have criterion for womanhood actually is – they’re just set on believing we don’t have it.

It would be foolish to assume that my chosen affiliation with womanhood was based on my ability to meet that confrontational standard, whatever it may be. That doesn’t help us. Here’s what does: I didn’t have to know what it felt like to be a woman in some general, global sense. I only had to know what it felt like to be me. Declaring myself, presenting myself, and being recognized as a woman felt right, where doing the same as a man never did. Being a woman made me feel more comfortable, more confident, more ambitious, and more willing to see my life as worth living. Being a man made me anxious, depressed, hopeless, and lacking any reason to live. I know I’m a woman in the same way I know that I want to be alive.


Will the real gender please stand up?

So, how would we know what it’s like to be a cis person? How about this: How would cis people know what it’s like to be us? If we’re going to start using supposed personal familiarity with others’ experiences to authenticate or invalidate their gender, this can easily be turned on its head.

Who knows more about their gender, what it is, and how it works than someone who had to build theirs from the ground up in the face of ongoing assault and then defend it on all fronts from those who try to take it away? Who knows more about what it’s like to have a gender than somebody who spent years searching far and wide until they found what was right for them, and cherishes it more than anything?

We know that our gender makes things so much better for us that losing everything else is still worth it. And we know that going without our gender is so unacceptable that nothing else could make it worth it. Cis people have never had to make these difficult choices just to keep their hard-won gender. They may never even have had to contemplate the possibility. But we have – and we know what it’s like. So what if we hold the keys to the one true gender, and you’ll never know?

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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