As a young adult, it can get frustrating sometimes when I speak with certain older adults about transgender identities. Most of the time they are confused about the concept of gender nonconformity and have a hard time understanding or accepting their validity. They may say something like “there’s only two genders” or “if you were born a girl, then you are a girl.” In these instances it’s hard not to lash out and say they’re being transphobic, or that they’re just wrong and don’t get it.
While that can be true for some folks, I have found that most of the time people who are saying these things just haven’t been introduced to the concept of gender as a social construct, and don’t actually have malicious intent. Instead, they may just be operating off of the viewpoints of essentialism, which assumes that gender exists on a natural and fixed binary. This way of thinking is incorrect and harmful, and it is important to understand why in order to deconstruct antiquated views on gender.
As an essentialist society, we created the labels of “male” or “female” to be placed on people based on your biological sexual characteristics. Around that, we created different methods of socialization to instill the idea of gender: we are assigned a gender at birth and based on that we are supposed to either grow into a man or a woman, and we are given different clothes, different toys, different media to consume. The dominating view was that each person is one of two genders and you are meant to marry someone of the opposite gender and have children.
However, as we discover more about ourselves and the world around us, we have learned that this isn’t true and it never was. Like I mentioned before, gender is a social construct, and essentialist thinking simply assumed that gender is a natural and fixed binary. In reality, gender exists on a spectrum, with male and female on either end. Gender identity is your personal conception of gender; it can be male, female, a blend of both, neither, or something completely fluid and unlabeled.
Your gender identity is not based on what sexual characteristics you have or who you are attracted to, and it can be different from person to person. Cisgender people are those whose gender identity happens to align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Conversely, transgender people are those whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. Even though they do not feel a connection with the gender they were assigned, they were socialized as if they were: made to wear clothes that didn’t match them, told to consume media geared to their gender assigned at birth, and overall act like someone who wasn’t them.
We currently exist in a cis-normative society that assumes everyone is cisgender, and those who are not are deviating from social norms. This cis-normative and essentialist way of thinking tries to paint the world in black and white, but we as humans simply do not operate that way.
All this is to say that there is no one true definition of gender, and the essentialist way of thinking that claims you’re either this or that is just not true. Humans are complicated and trying to put us in a box has never worked. So the next time you or someone you know is having a difficult time understanding the concept of being transgender, try to decipher where the confusion is coming from.
People who have adopted a cis-normative viewpoint may not always be transphobic, they may just be operating off of a mindset that needs to be updated to match with what we are continuing to learn about ourselves. Understanding this concept and rejecting essentialism is critical in our society so that everyone can recognize transgender (and all gender-nonconforming) people as welcome and validated members of the human race.
Felicia McSweeney attends the University of New Haven.