I very recently read something (
annoyingly I can’t remember where exactly it was Julia Serano’s excellent piece Detransition, Desistance and Disinformation) that was super helpful to me in that it described one’s gender as being experiential. That is, your gender identity is not something that can be assigned from the outside, by another person; it’s the sum of how you have experienced yourself and your life in terms of gender.
This was so good for me to read because it provided an easy way out of the paradox of gender that has confused me for years if not decades. As a feminist child and young person, I had read and concluded that gender was mostly if not fully socially constructed. This made sense to me and the way I perceived my own gender. On the other hand, I found out that lots of people (trans and cis) had a strong and insistent internal sense of their own gender identity. I wasn’t about to dispute this, but it seemed very weird to me. I searched inside myself for this feeling of gender. It was not there.
I saw myself as a person whose personality had been formed in certain ways by having been brought up as a girl; I saw myself as someone who stood up as a woman out of political solidarity with others in the same position. Was I supposed to feel like a woman as well? Was the fact that I had no idea what that meant a sign that I was perfectly cis, so well suited to my assigned gender that it was like water to a fish? But that was not actually my experience: I had struggled for years to feel welcome and in the right place among other women. I had conducted thousands of thought experiments about gender over the years (what if I woke up in the other kind of body? -- and every variation on that theme) and always concluded that, actually, I wouldn’t mind at all if I looked like a man or if people treated me like one.
Seeing gender identity as something experiential, rather than as an inherent knowledge of one’s personal true north, frees me of this conflict between gender as internally generated or as externally imposed. I might not have Always Known what my gender is, but I certainly have a stock of experience of moving through a gendered world and how all the parts of it have made me feel.
When I came out as nonbinary, it was after a couple of years of hesitation, exactly because of this confusion. Could I really call myself that? Did I have the right, if I hadn’t Always Known and didn’t really Know now?
I’m really glad I made that jump, now (thank you, random trending twitter hashtag that pushed me to do it), because it’s been so much more common since then that I’ve felt and recognised gender euphoria. It feels fucking great to wear ‘men’s’ black tie to a formal occasion. It feels amazing when people use neutral pronouns for me, call me by my chosen name, group me not with the men or the women but with the others who are neither or both. It feels so, so good that we can be acknowledged now, that people know we exist.
My face is round, my body is curvy and stereotypically feminine. I don’t really suffer from physical dysphoria -- which makes me, I know, very lucky -- and I could have, I guess, lived with the social dysphoria, hidden how I felt in the world, and passed as cis for ever. (My gallant and brilliant transmasc best friend, who got yelled at in the street for years before he even realised he was trans, probably could not have done this. I want to go back in time twenty years, sometimes, knock our heads together and yell, “Talk about gender to each other! It will save you so much time!”)
My internally-experienced gender identity is that of a person who wants to be treated like a person, ungendered, most of the time, not like a man or a woman; who nonetheless reacts more to being gendered female because they’ve had far more of that over the years; who revels in stereotypically masculine pursuits and has taught themself to respect and enjoy stereotypically feminine ones; who is neuroqueer and gendervague; who is finally free from trying to be a woman, because they discovered there are other options open to them, but who is still and strongly a feminist.
The best part is that experience can change, be reevaluated, and fluctuate over time. If gender is experiential, that also means I can stop trying to engineer a constant and coherent identity that will encompass my whole life in a single word everyone will understand. I fit under the umbrella terms of nonbinary, genderqueer and trans, and if I’m asked will pick whichever is most useful of those, but I feel no further need to specify, just to be.