Why is Gender So Important, Anyway?

So I hear this one a lot.

“I’ve never really thought about gender”, or “Gender just doesn’t matter to me”, or “I don’t ever spend any time thinking about my gender”.

I get where people are coming from, when they say this. I really do. They see me, living my trans life, and all the associated baggage, hardship and struggle that comes with it. The name changes, the identity documents, the laser hair removal, the meds, the speech therapy – it’s difficult, it’s painful, and it’s expensive. And it’s difficult to understand, if you aren’t trans.

The instinctive reaction, when someone hears about my experiences as a trans person, is to try to imagine how they would feel if they were trans. So, if I’m talking to a cis woman, she tries to picture what her life would be like if she really, really felt like she was actually a man.

Of course, this exercise never works. Because being trans isn’t about who we feel we are, or who we want to be. Being trans is about who we are. It’s that simple. So, in that example, I’d tell the woman – don’t imagine that you were a man. Imagine that you are still who you are, but everyone treats you like a man.

And usually after that, I see the lightbulb come on.

I can’t ever explain what it’s like to be trans, not in a way that encompasses everything or does justice to it. And even if I could, my explanation would cover only my small set of personal experiences, which may be vastly different to those of the next trans person.

My therapist asked me the same question once. She said, “I’ve never felt especially like a woman. Why is gender so important to you?”

People like to say “Gender is a construct”. It’s a really radical-sounding statement that just oozes progressiveness, isn’t it? And it’s something that we hear in a lot of different places, until it filters through into our subconscious minds, filed away somewhere to be conveniently repeated at an expedient time.
The problem with the statement? It’s wrong. Or rather, it’s incomplete.

Gender roles might be socially constructed. But gender, that core component of one’s identity and sense of self (be it absent or present, binary or non-binary) is not.

Even in an ideal world, one in which we’ve dismantled the idea that what is socially acceptable for boys is different to what is socially acceptable for girls, one where gender neutrality is not something to be feared, where we have stopped assigning genders to concepts and inanimate objects, and by extension disrupted the capitalist complex that feeds off this practice, I would still be trans.

Yes. I would still be trans. Just as trans as I am now.

In that world, my body remains incongruent with my sense of self. My identity and my anatomy are still at odds. I still have dysphoria over facial hair and muscle mass and flat hips and no breasts.

I still have to choose whether or not to transition. I still have to choose whether or not to survive.

Maybe, in that world, it would be easier. Maybe there would be less explaining to do, and maybe there would be fewer judgments made based on who I am. Or maybe, in that world where gender norms and roles and expectations are universally regarded as unimportant, being trans might be even more difficult. After all, if gender doesn’t matter to anyone else, why should it matter to me?

CU2RBppUcAAe9lMAnd this is the key to unlocking this argument. For some of us, gender isn’t important even in this world. Because we’re comfortable with the way society’s expectations of us interact with who we are. Some of us might never have thought about gender, because we just took for granted that everything would always fit. For some of us, we had the luxury of “ignoring” gender, because it wasn’t out of place.

I didn’t have that luxury. I don’t have that luxury. I probably never will have that luxury.

Gender is important to me. Gender is something I have to think about all the time. Gender is exhausting and overriding and all encompassing. Because, I’ve seen what happens when it doesn’t fit. I’ve seen people lose friends, and family, and housing, and jobs. I’ve seen them lose their lives, even.

I don’t get to ignore gender. Not when it caused me to have dysphoria that might have threatened my life, not when it made me walk away from my career, not when it has been responsible for so much stress and anxiety and angst. Through my own experiences, and those of people I care about, I’ve had to examine carefully what gender is, what it means to me, and what implications it has. I’ve had to learn about cissexism and transphobia, often the hard way. I’ve had to scrutinise how gender interacts with privilege and oppression. I’ve had to disassemble, piece-by-piece, the conditioning to which I was subject, the unsolicited preconception of who I was supposed to be, and rebuild it, authentically this time, from the ground up.

I didn’t decide to be trans. It’s not a whim or a fantasy that I’m chasing. I’m not trying to fit myself into some stereotypical perception of what constitutes a woman. All the pain, all the suffering, all the hardship and all the expense – it’s because this is who I am. This is who I have no choice but to be. This is the only way I survive, by reconciling my body with my mind.

And there’s no doubt that it’s working. There’s no doubt that I’m in a much better place than I was a year ago, or especially in the years preceding that. Now I can be open and honest, I can let people in, I can love others and be loved by them. More than that, I can love myself. And even more than that, I do love myself.

So yes, gender is pretty damn important to me. And now, you know why.

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