There’s a particular strain of reasoning, especially among people with feminist leanings, that I want to discuss. The belief goes something like this, “trans people are trans because they want to look and behave in ways that don’t match the gender roles of their biological sex. With the abandonment of gender roles, everyone will be comfortable with a gender that corresponds to their sex, ie, all people born with vaginas will be okay with being women. Why can’t you just be a masculine woman / feminine man? Trans people, especially men who are Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB), perpetuate a narrow-minded understanding of womanhood and are hurting the cause.”
This is a semantic argument with real life consequences. Misgendering trans people is an act of violence which makes trans lives harder and carries the assumption that you know somebody’s gender better than them. The argument stems from a misunderstanding of gender that I will attempt to lay out in the following paragraphs.
Sex refers to biological characteristics, gender refers to how we actually group people into “men” and “women” categories. These things are different, and you probably already agree. When you judge someone to be of a certain gender, do you check their chromosomes, genitals, AND secondary sex characteristics? Or do you ask if they were treated as a girl growing up, which some people argue is a necessary condition for womanhood? No, you just look at them and apply the “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck” test. Functionally, society has defined a “wo/man” as someone who behaves and appears similarly to other “wo/men”. This is completely independent of biology and upbringing.
This system works pretty well with gender roles. Men are a certain way; women are a certain way. Easy. If you do X, Y and Z things, you are a man. If you do A, B and C things, you are a woman. By extension, if you are a woman, you SHOULD do A, B and C things but not X, Y and Z things. In recent times though, we have come to realise that gender roles are prescriptive and restrictive, and have tried to abandon them. No longer do you have to look or behave a certain way just because you are a woman. Options A to Z are now open to all.
“You can do X, Y and Z things and still be a woman!”, feminists declare. Yes! Yes, you can! But you don’t have to be either! In an ideal world in which gender expectations are completely abandoned, a person can look and behave like Clint Eastwood and also be a woman. Or they could be a man!
In a world in which both the groups “men” and “women” grow increasingly diverse, overlaps increase. No longer can you determine a person’s gender from their occupation, or their dress, or their appearance. If anyone can be anything, how do you know whether or not someone is a woman? You ask them. We arrive at a new definition of gender: A man is anyone who identifies as such, for whatever personal reason*. A woman is anyone who wants to be. A non-binary person… exists!
And then we get to the fact that we do NOT live in a world without gender roles and expectations. All our experiences are always filtered through the lens of our culture’s conception of gender. Living as a man is still materially different from living as a woman. If you do not insist that cis people stop identifying with the gender and inhabiting the gender roles that they do before gender is abolished at some hypothetical future time, don’t ask the same of trans people.
*: hate to go mystical mumbo jumbo on you, but nobody has so far figured out what these reasons are, really, and we just call it “gender identity”, and it seems to exist independently of gender roles. It’s somewhat mysterious. Why go through all the trouble of transition for what seems like an empty semantic label? A lot of trans people are gender non-conforming with the gender that they identify with, and a lot of gender non-conforming people are nevertheless cis. Many people have a gender identity that is different from the gender roles they inhabit. WHY?? And if I examine my own feelings of gender, for example, I feel a very strong sense that I am NOT a man. Thinking of myself as a man just feels really wrong, regardless of what I know a “man” can be. WHY? (If you are a cis person who feels such strong feelings about a gender that you were not assigned, for a sense of the trans experience, imagine being forced to live as that gender all the time.)
The good person over at Valprehension has thoughts on this matter that you should definitely read.
Which, to be honest, this just makes the the category “genderqueer” the same as the categories of “man” or “woman”: there aren’t any unifying factors that define womanhood or manhood other than that the members of those groups identify as such.
So, what is the difference between someone who identifies as a man, someone who identifies as a woman, and someone with a non-binary identity? The only thing we know for sure is that they have different gender identities.
This is the point at which gender starts to look pretty meaningless. But I don’t actually think that it is. It’s pretty clear that some proportion of the population (though definitely not everyone) experiences a very strong sense of themselves as one gender or another, so something called gender certainly exists.
The thing that makes it impossible to parse or explain a definitive difference between the genders is not actually that mysterious: it’s simply that our gender identities (or those of us that have them) arise from the combination and confluence of countless variables, including (but not limited to): (see more)