by TC Rogers.
Even though we are besieged with public definitions of gender in the media, on billboards, and within our families and cultures, gender is deeply personal. It would be impossible to strip ourselves of the many messages about gender and gender roles loaded upon us in a lifetime, which can make being an individual within such gender constraints troubling and painful. Although the male/female binary is most often celebrated as the accepted societal standard, the reality is that gender has become almost indefinable. Though some feel easy in their gender and the way it aligns with their physical body and society’s norms, many do not. It’s often complicated. Feeling the freedom to be in one’s gender, to dress and express as feels natural, to be comfortable in the world, does not come from a pink or blue one-size-fits-all box. For those who feel outside the gender norm, the pathway to becoming their gender is unique, no two paths the same. Many might like to rest for a while as the genderless narrator in Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and enjoy the freedom of having no gender identity. For others, having a clear and definable gender identity is essential to living their life fully.
Through interviews with local community members who consider themselves outside the standard binary or who help those discovering their place in gender, this article attempts to reflect the textured tapestry of gender, and the journey through and into gender—living and loving and finding support.
Defining and Redefining Gender
Judith Butler, American philosopher, published Undoing Gender in 2002. In the text’s introduction Butler professed, “If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not ‘do’ one’s gender alone…But the terms that make up one’s gender are, from the start, outside oneself, beyond oneself in a sociality that has no single author.” The following interview participants responded to Butler’s notion of gender and shared their own perspectives on defining gender.
Eliza Sher, LICSW, psychotherapist posited, “Unlike anatomical sex, which in most cases is unambiguous, gender is a state of mind, an internal state, a perception of oneself, perceptions of others, and a social performance, as Judith Butler writes.“ Sher also states, “I personally believe that gender is a very fluid thing and that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are completely made up and arbitrary categories.”
Naturopathic doctor, educator, and social justice activist Marcy (M) Feibelman said, “Gender is one of the ways I see and identify myself as a person, and something that is fluid and ambiguous.“
Janelle Heideman, writer, educator, and activist explained, “I feel my gender in terms of how I relate to others…The way I relate to others is often determined by expectations society has in terms of what is typical behavior for various places on the gender spectrum. Gender is different from sex, although how we think of sex can also reflect society’s expectations. For instance, I was assigned male at birth, but see myself as female.”
Social alchemist, storyteller, sound manipulator, and urban ecologist Kai Xavier LoMuscio described gender as “the intersection of how society perceives us and how we see ourselves.”
Michael Friend, LICSW, pointed out that “one does not do one’s gender alone. Support of family, friends, professionals all can play a positive role in assisting someone reach their full potential…Our views of ourselves are impacted by our interactions and reactions of others.”
Michelle Forcier, MD, MPH, a specialist in gender and sexual health services at Rhode Island Hospital and associate professor in pediatrics at the Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University, emphasized, “My patients are very clear that their gender is a deep and critical part of who they are, not a choice but a part of their being that is affected by family, culture, and community… that gender is a core part of every person’s identity and development and the uniqueness that occurs in biology and humanity is to be respected and celebrated for the diversity it offers.”
Living and Loving, as Nonconforming
Embracing gender nonconformity, including partial or full transition from anatomical birth sex and its prescriptions to a gender that feels more comfortable physically and soulfully, presents challenges and growth in relationships. For those who embrace the need to shift their gender after developing deep loving relationships, such as with significant others who fell in love with their mind, body, and soul, can be confusing and painful. Heideman shared that she lost relationships, including her spouse, family members, and friendships with co-workers when she began transitioning from male to female. LoMuscio identified as genderqueer for years, though when he told his girlfriend at the time that he wanted to physically transition, “she told me I was disgusting. That was unexpected.“
Feibelman explained, “ln relationships where partners have had trouble understanding my gender identity, its fluidity, and the relationship I have with my body–it has been challenging” and has found the most satisfying relationships with those who also find themselves outside the gender binary. Sher stated that although her daughter, a “feminine little girl who loves very girly dresses,” asks many questions to help her understand Sher’s place in gender, the intense love that they share has become more important than how they express their genders.
Support from family, friends, mental health therapists, doctors, books, and support groups help make living in between, around, and through gender easier. Eliza Sher and Michael Friend are recommended mental health therapists, who have served the LGBT community for many years. Dr. Michelle Forcier classifies herself as “a medical mutt who has been doing work with all age patients in gender and sexuality and reproductive justice for 15 years,“ and works with individuals who are seeking medical assistance with gender transitioning.For those seeking to transition from their current gender identity, Forcier explained,“There is every option conceivable by the individual regarding how, when, where, and why regarding their unique gender identity and goals for transition,” whether it be name and pronoun only, or physical changes including hormones and surgery. Additionally, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There: My Life in Two Genders was noted as a helpful read by Heideman. LoMuscio and Feibelman said that the local organization TGI Network has been especially supportive in their journeys with gender identity.
People need to be honored in their unique claim on gender and gender identity. For those who do live in between, around and through the standard gender binary, we find comfort in a time that airs an interview of Bruce Jenner’s personal struggle and journey with gender identity, watched by millions, though there is still far to go in shifting from the prescribed gender binary. So what can we do to strive as a society and peacefully eradicate judgment and fear about gender nonconformity? We live, with the sweet mix of courage and ease, however we feel is true to ourselves in our own gender identity; we set the example, and we take it one breath at a time.