Deconstructing Gender (While Living It)

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

In the introduction to her essay collection “Deviations,” second generation feminist Gayle Rubin describes gender in our culture as the aggregation of “chromosomal sex, hormonal exposure, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia and psychological identifications.”

Rubin doesn’t argue, as her contemporaries sometimes did, that gender is merely an outcome of social conditioning or, more pejoratively, “brainwashing.” She instead highlights the arbitrary way in which these varied components have been lumped, and some might argue, reduced, to two prescriptive sets: male and female.

Reflecting on my transition, Rubin’s quote can read like an old to-do list: Hormonal exposure? Taken care of. Internal reproductive organs? Removed . . . And so on.

The one mystery it contains, I find—the item that can be neither “fixed” nor fixed—is “psychological identifications.” On a basic level, it’s straightforward: when I learned what a female was, I announced I was female, and, because trans identities weren’t recognized, my identifications were not affirmed.

On a deeper level, though, and considering Rubin’s thesis about the top-down binary assignment of “identity” our culture practices, and its supersession of “psychological identifications,” my mind boggles. What if, rather than encountering two opposite, supposedly distinct options upon discovering my gender identity, I’d been presented with a boundless palette? What if my identifications had been given free reign?

If the five components Rubin lists were seen as separate, if they were simply present and the possession of each person, rather than some automatic induction into the lifetime job of being “female” or “male,” and one could discover and affirm their own gender expression as they chose, it’s almost unimaginable what variety and freedom we might encounter.

In our culture, however, gender expression is freighted with many meanings, involving class distinction, sexual identity, professional status, and so on. Being seen as who a person “is” involves reading all these codes, and using one’s fashion and grooming choices to communicate back to the world.

For this reason, I can have a head full of gender theory and be actively dismantling binary roles with my mind, and still feel a secret thrill when someone calls me “she” or “her.” “I did it!” I’ll think; “it” meaning presented myself as I see myself inside.

In that way, I’m living two places: the world around me, where “she” and “her” are vast improvements on what I was called throughout my enforced maledom and torturous early transition, and the world I can imagine, where gender is not a system that works adequately, if not ideally, for the majority of people, and dismally or not at all for those in the trans* umbrella.

The inherent injustice of the current binary system, which benefits cisgender people while penalizing trans* folk, as seen in statistical outcomes involving unemployment, housing discrimination, homelessness, incarceration, and so forth, leads to my musing about hitting some mythical reset button that unshackles gender expression and identity from all other social categories, and frees people to discover whatever presentation feels authentic to themselves without worrying over any negative repercussions.

It’s probably a basic human impulse to try to spare others the pain one’s endured themself. Having not been believed when I announced my identity, having been policed by those around me, and learned to police myself, as though my gender was something shameful, and having unlearned those messages through years of painful, tedious self-reflection, my thoughts seem to bend these days toward some reforms that might spare any other youth from living through what I have.

With every transgender homecoming queen, and each new school district that announces trans-friendly policies, I can see that such an outcome is likely, and that the rigid world I grew up in is crumbling. The prohibitions that shackled me, and at times still ring in my head, like ghosts, or phantom enemies, might have no resonance or meaning to a young person today, which makes me feel both happy and old.

It doesn’t completely change my day-to-day experience, however, in a world where transgender representation is new and minimal, and non-binary representation all but nonexistent—in a world, as well, where “woman” means “cisgender woman,” and most people don’t know what “cisgender” means. It’s probably unsurprising that, feeling so marginalized, I turn to deconstruction, and utopian fantasies.

Deconstruction and utopian fantasies have their purpose, though, I believe. When Gayle Rubin wrote her essay, a transgender rights movement was likely unimaginable, just as, when I started transitioning, a parent affirming their trans child was beyond my conception. Each step starts with someone questioning why things are the way they are, and conceiving of what might be better.

Reading words like Rubin’s today makes me happy, as they remind me how illusionary, unfounded and dumb our culture’s rules about gender are, and how fun it is to watch them change.