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

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

  1. 1

    Hi Zinnia, thanks again for another on point article.

    I always found this objection really weird, that there’s some kind of hidden answer as what it’s like to be X that nobody is allowed to know.

    In reality, what they describe when pressed is so highly specific it only identifies “what it means to be me, and possibly a handful of other people who are my friends in the same demographic”

    It’s one of those questions that people ask as some kind of copy paste ‘gotcha’ I’ve found

  2. 2

    I know you’re kind of talking about meta-level stuff here, but I want to point out that

    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.

    does a good job of answering the question. (Or at least, it answers the question that I would mean if I said the words “How do you know what it’s like to be [gender]?”.)

  3. 3

    Please correct me if I’m off here. I see a couple of specific reasons why you’re probably right. First, it is obvious that the majority in society are cis hetero. And it’s clear to everyone who’s thought about it that there is some social disapproval in some circles for those who aren’t clearly cis hetero. Thus, there is a clear cost to declaring that one is not cis or not hetero. This establishes that it is unlikely that anyone would claim such out of false or insufficiently examined ideas. By the way, this is enough to prove that Hucklbee was being an idiot when he pretended that it would have been a good strategy to fake being trans in high school,
    The second point is related. For any transition, there are many costs, both monetary and non monetary. To transition one way and then reverse it is so rare that I’ve never heard of such a case (although maybe some here have heard). The point here is that it is unlikely that one would ever hear of a transition unless it were sincerely and deeply thought out in advance.
    So for both points, there are strong reasons one would not fake such an intention. There are many things in life where people are tempted to lie or fake a position, but that would make so little sense with these costs that the idea of being a fake trans person is extremely unlikely.
    Thus, it is only logical that anyone who claims to be transitioning or to be a trans person is almost certainly being as honest and careful and thoughtful about this as anyone could be.
    Certainly some cis people literally cannot imagine this. Or more likely, they prefer to reject it as an uncomfortable idea for themselves. But in discourse with logical and clear-minded people, there should be a much stronger presumption than normal that claims by a trans person about trans issues are trustworthy claims and do not need to be vetted by amateurs.
    The only reason for such questions is a somewhat purient curiosity by those who are uneducated on such topics. But simple good taste should inform one that such personal topics may be volunteered by the one who knows, but otherwise should not be raised by interviewers, whether they are your friends or Barbara Walters.

  4. AMM
    4

    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?

    Maybe even more to the point: how does a cis person (say, a cis woman), know what it’s like to “be a woman”, anyway? How much does being a member of a particular gender category mean that you know about all the other 3.5 billion people who share your gender?

    Are we going to say that Kate Middleton (yeah, the UK royal one) knows more about what it’s like to be a peasant woman in Bangladesh than Julia Serano does about what it’s like to be Elizabeth Warren? Intersectionality, folks. We’re more than just a gender, and those other things are going to affect our experience of our gender.

    None of us really know “what it’s like” to be some category of human. We really only know what it’s like to be us. (And sometimes not even that. 🙁 ) The most we can do is to listen to what other individuals say and see to what extent their accounts of their experience of being themselves sound like what we experience.

    That’s how it is with me with other trans people. I listen, and sometimes I say, that sounds just like what I feel. And sometimes it’s more like, no, I can’t really relate to that. And sometimes it’s like, maybe that’s what I’m feeling (but I’d use different words for it) or maybe it really isn’t.

  5. AMM
    5

    P.S.: Thanks for providing transcripts. I don’t absorb information very well from videos (my company _loves_ them), so your transcripts make it a lot easier for me to understand all the ins and outs of what you’re saying.

  6. 6

    Based on this logic, everyone should be mandated to live as a year as a woman, then a year as a man then pick at the end. People should simply be that which they elect to be. Man is defined by deeds, not some intangible internal essence. We are because we do.

  7. xyz
    7

    Good point AMM. I always feel that once the discussion gets to this point, it’s basically moot. I’m just not going to sit trans people down and be like, EXPLAIN YOUR DEEPEST FEELINGS. Self-analysis and navel gazing are fun, but not required for me to be able to empathize and support!

  8. 8

    Based on this logic, everyone should be mandated to live as a year as a woman, then a year as a man then pick at the end. People should simply be that which they elect to be. Man is defined by deeds, not some intangible internal essence. We are because we do.

    Except that cis people are still going to experience aversion and discomfort when they go through their period as the other (binary) gender. I live with gender dysphoria, and I would not want that forced on anyone else. Not even asshats like Huckaby.

    Anyway, thank you for your video and transcription Zinnia. I wanted to turn to research after my soul searching brought me to the conclusion I was transgender. I like facts that are derived from testing, that can be reproduced from the experiment. And certainly, on a blog like FtB, I’d like to think that most of us would trust a well researched article over our anecdotal experiences. So I’m hoping my fellow FtBers believe me when I say the research on gender these days is astronomically bad.

    Full of just-so stories, unproven assumptions, post hoc explanations and a generous sprinkling of correlation must equal causation. We recognise these patterns in other fields as being bad research, and it’s pretty much all you will find on gender in psychology, unless it’s an article slamming the methodology employed in gender in psychology.

    There is no current scientific consensus on why or how a person is predisposed to being transgender. We just don’t know yet. There are no shortage of articles triumphantly claiming they know, but all that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot!) use god awful methodology. While I’m glad there are people asking questions, directing them at transfolk isn’t going to be very productive, because the transfolk only know what they know about their perception of themselves.

    What has been demonstrated thoroughly is that for the people who experience gender variance, permitting or assisting with a transition is tremendously helpful. This we know. The act of transitioning can’t reasonably be questioned. There are three case studies of transfolk who regret their transition–out of the 50 to 80,000 transfolk who transitioned over the course of the case studies’ timespan. 3 out of 50,000. Not many medical treatments have a prognosis like that. And this is a condition that, when actually acknowledged and treated by a medical provider, is constantly being monitored throughout a trans person’s life, because they all stem from the same doctor who provided the standards of care.

    So if you’re ever unsure what to think of transfolk, at least acknowledge that. Transitioning genders is a tremendously successful process. You could at least support us on the principles of harm reduction, even if you’re completely unable to conceive of what gender dysphoria might be like and can’t find good evidence that explains what it is.

    1. 8.1

      From a consequentialist perspective, no real anti-transition argument prevails. Some argue that it is wrong for reasons of deontology or virtue, but the latter is not a basis for law, and there is substantial debate upon the former. I say let all people make their decisions and pay whatever price may come.

  9. 9

    Great video. Really shows the poor logic of questioning/challenging trans people’s gender identity (and showing how rude that is) and refutes it efficiently. Very helpful to those of us who are fairly new to Trans issues. Well done.

  10. 10

    […] Back on the question of what gender is, Zinnia Jones has been running a great series of videos (all with transcripts), called Gender Analysis. Particularly relevant to this topic is the latest, “How Do You Know What It’s Like to Be…?” […]

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