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Gender Identity, Expression, and Presentation

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Hi all, I've been having some gender identity trouble lately because of some misunderstanding and confusion over some of the concepts associated with gender. In sum (TL;DR), I can't think of examples of how gender identity can be expressed outside of presentation and would love input.

 

I identify with many experiences of females because I have presented as a female from birth. However, I do not feel intrinsically connected to the female identity or to females in general. I connect to personalities. I won't feel connected to a woman just because she is a woman (supposedly "like me"). I will feel connected to her if she shares some of my interests, though, or experiences and history. So, great, I don't identify with womanhood.

But, I really enjoy a lot of traditionally feminine things, including many so-called 'girly' fashions. To me, they're just cool or pretty, and I don't have an interest in them because I want to express a female gender identity. But I'm not sure if women in general think about explicitly expressing their womanhood when doing these things either. Furthermore, many people who identify as female don't even engage in these things and can be more butch. I look like a traditional cis female and have their privilege, especially because I am impartial to pronoun use for me (if people assume I'm female and use "she" to refer to me in conversation, I likely won't mind). But if someone were to come up to me and explicitly say, "You identify with women and the female gender, and you feel a part of the female gender coalition" or something to that effect, I feel like that description would be inaccurate for me.

 

Pronouns and presentation can be very important for some people. I think that knowing this makes it difficult for me to reconcile my ??? gender identity and highly feminine presentation, even though I /know/ they are completely separate.

 

I guess I'm looking for a bit about everyone's experiences with gender identity and how they express it (through presentation but, perhaps more relevant to my dilemma, through other ways).

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For me it's kind of hard to explain. I've thought about my gender a lot from time to time, especially in connection with my orientation. I see myself as a girl, other people see me as a girl, and while I'm cool with whatever pronouns, she/her is what I'm used to and what I prefer. But while I suppose I identify as female, and I do feel connected to womanhood and femaleness in many aspects, in other ways I don't identify that strongly with womanhood. Part of that comes from my orientation and not feeling as connected to my gender, I guess, because of it.

 

As for physical presentation, I mostly present myself anywhere from androgynous to the androgynous side of feminine, if that makes sense, but if I had my way I'd present a bit more androgynous all the time. Most of that is personal comfort/style preference/just the way I like to look and what I think flatters my body type (hyper-feminine clothing typically doesn't). As for other forms of expression, it gets a little complicated and a lot more subconscious and I've been thinking through it a lot. I don't associate the way I think, feel, or behave with my gender, and it bothers me when people tie my personality or mannerisms to my femaleness (especially because that's usually sexist). But I often catch myself behaving slightly differently around people depending on their gender and the way I want them to think of me. I especially notice this when I'm hanging around guys. I think this comes from my orientation rather than my gender, because guys are much more likely to perceive me as a potential romantic interest or a threat to their existing relationships, and I want to avoid that, even if that means playing into the idea of being "not like other girls," as problematic as that line of thinking can be.

 

Mostly, my identity and expression of gender are tied to my orientation and the way I want others to perceive me in all aspects, not just in my gender. I want people to see me as a girl, but I want that to not matter. I am a girl, but I don't want me being a girl to come with additional baggage that I have to keep working to cast overboard the more I get to know someone.

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Gender can be such an abstract concept, and I think everyone's approaches to defining their gender varies a bit. I spent 4+ years very intensely questioning my gender before I came out to myself.

 

I took a very prescriptive approach to defining my gender. I knew that transition would improve my quality of life, and what I wanted out of transition was ultimately very binary.

 

My gender really ties to my relationship with my primary/secondary sex characteristics. My body was not designed to function with estrogen dominating its system, which made its impact on my emotions and on the shape of my body especially distressing. Before top surgery, my chest dysphoria was especially bad; it was actually what awakened me to the rest of my dysphoria that I navigated subconsciously up to that point. Turns out that I used to downright dissociate to cope with my estrogen-spurred crying fits in early puberty actually. I have experienced social dysphoria as well, but I think it tended to be secondary to the physical dysphoria. That said, I really don't ascribe to particularly masculine ideals of social function and actually quite value some of my more feminine-associated traits. If I were a brain in a jar, maybe I'd come off as non-binary, but that brain would still need testosterone as the dominant hormone for me to function, and that's the primary reason I would define my mind as male. This is just my approach to labeling myself though, and I would never impose this on others.

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Hi!  Your whole post, it me!  I have some feelings about this in general, and about your post in particular.

 

So, I mostly identify as agender.  I'm AMAB, I use he/him pronouns (though I don't care if someone uses any others), and I have a rather masculine presentation.  I have a big bushy beard and facial features that our society would generally consider rather masculine.  I wear men's clothing, but I don't really go out of my way to find clothing that is masculine.  If anything, my clothing could be described as "plain".  I quite like my body, especially my facial hair.

 

I do know women who are into feminine clothing BECAUSE it is feminine and because wearing it reinforces their female identity.  But not all women are like that.  Some women wear clothing that isn't feminine and look for other ways to reinforce or validate their feminine identity.  The gender scripts fall apart quickest when you examine the assumption that they are universal, because they objectively, provably are not.

 

For me, the separations between presentation and identity are really apparent, but I think that's because I am sensitive to them.  While I know that pretty much everyone in our culture would consider my beard to be inherently masculine, and I even understand why people would assume that, I get VERY irritated with anyone who says so.  In my mind, my beard is just hair, and it doesn't have a gender, and someone calling me or my beard "manly" is misgendering me.

 

I don't really relate to men as being "like me" at all.  Honestly, I find most men pretty gross, and most of my friends are women.  Male-only spaces are toxic as hell, and being in them for me has the double discomfort of feeling like I'm in a place where I don't belong and feeling utterly disgusted at men who think it's okay to be nasty and misogynistic when no women are around.  I've also found that many men CONSTANTLY seek validation of their masculinity from other men when no women are around, and not much makes me feel more dysphoric than that, so I avoid being alone with men.  Long before I realized that I'm trans, I avoided male-only spaces or any event or activity that would be divided along gender lines because I was always uncomfortable in them, like social dances, sports teams, and the like.  In large venues, I'd go out of my way to find less-used public bathrooms so I wouldn't have to be in the men's bathroom with other men.  In college, I lived on the top floor of a dorm with no elevators, and I would pretty frequently go down to the first floor where no men lived and use the men's bathroom there because I knew it would be empty.  And this was with people I knew, trusted, and (more or less) liked.

 

I think most the examples of expressing gender outside presentation are behavior.  For example, my favorite alcoholic beverage is single malt scotch, which is considered a manly drink.  I don't care what its gender association is, I just think it tastes good.  You'd be hard pressed to find any men who would admit that they like colorful fruity cocktails, because they are considered feminine drinks.  It may not be the case any more, but when I was a kid, video games were considered a hobby for boys only (and even then, only nerdy boys who couldn't cut it as sports jocks).  There are tons of gendered communication patterns, too.  Men are way more likely to make confident assertive statements, while women offering suggestions are usually going to add conditionals or pose it as optional or questionable.  These are all socially trained responses.  When a friend discloses an emotional dilemma or stressful situation, the "masculine" response is to brainstorm for solutions (or just straight up give unsolicited advice) and the "feminine" response is to express sympathy.  A lot of emotional labor is also gendered.  My girlfriend in college often said that my willingness and skill with discussing emotional content with sensitivity was very feminine, and that it was usurping her role in our relationship.  It also bothered her that a lot of my friends saw me as a good person to discuss sensitive emotional issues with, and that her friends didn't see her that way.  I've often been told that my lack of aggressiveness and my calmness are "unmasculine", to which I sometimes respond "Go fuck yourself, I'll be passive and calm all I want.  Is that masculine enough for you?"

 

Personally, I think people can "observe" my gender identity in my behavior.  Or I like to think so.  I think most people probably don't see past my big beard.  Men are supposed to be emotionally constipated, so I like to express warmth (though depression and my naturally monotone voice doesn't help with this).  Men are supposed to be emotionally stunted, so I express emotional sophistication and awareness.  Men are supposed to be lascivious and quick to anger, so I'm sexually reserved and slow to anger.  Men are supposed to be incapable of nurturing, so I go out of my way to be nurturing.  Maybe I'm the only one who sees these behaviors as a gender rebellion, but I'm the only one who needs to see it.  The only way I present a lack of masculinity in my appearance is my long hair, but even that isn't the case in a lot of the subcultures I hang out in, like long hair is normal for men in metal music and in wilderness enthusiasts.

 

As for privilege, I do admit I have it and benefit from it, especially when it comes to professional settings or situations where I feel unsafe.  Sometimes I use it to subvert things, though.  Like if I see men being misogynistic, I'll call them out on it and present myself as a "fellow man", because they're far more likely to take me seriously if they see me as "one of us".  I've also found that a lot of men are more willing to take advice about cultivating emotional awareness and sensitivity from someone they think is a man.  But on the other hand, sometimes my friends that I'm out to will dismiss my criticisms of their cisnormativity because I'm trans.

 

While I support the current movement against toxic masculinity and cultivating images of masculinity that are healthy, I have no desire to participate in them and my support for them is always at a distance.  Even if I liked men and masculinity, I'm still not male and I still don't want to be seen as such.

 

I guess for me there is a little bit of a paradox in that I have a strong desire to be seen as not male, but I maintain a masculine appearance, and my acts of gender rebellion decidedly avoid altering my appearance.  I think it's because the paradox isn't something I hold, it's something everyone else holds.  My appearance is my appearance, it's not inherently masculine, and in fact, since it is MY appearance, it's NOT masculine, because I'm not male.  Everyone else assumes it's masculine, and that's their problem.

 

Though it is interesting to note that in my dreams, I have a much more androgynous appearance.  That's never failed to fascinate me.

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This is a very confusing issue for me, too. If you completely sever gender identity from

  1. biological sex1 and
  2. gender expression

that is, you conceive it purely as an internal experience, the whole theory seems highly vulnerable to private language type arguments. The total severance with 1. results in puzzlement why we use words like “female” or “male” for gender. Severance regarding 2. is even graver, the whole concept runs the risk into becoming unintelligible.

 

Let's say a firefighter, overcoming their fear by willpower, enters a burning industrial site to close a fuel valve. This means that fear is not necessarily associated with the typical behavioral patterns like flight from danger. But if such situations wouldn't be an exception, how could we ever associate the word “fear” with this special, shared subjective experience of fear? How could we ever infer that we're talking about the same thing? Similarly if you cut all ties to anything empirically observable regarding words like “female”.

 

1 if you like it or not, it's SEX that's written in the passport. And I have no reason to doubt that they really do mean biological sex (as encountered in its most ”purified” form in textbooks about population genetics) here and they also really do believe it's the only game in town.

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addendum (26/3): okay, I thought about it a bit deeper.

 

1.) The concept of biological sex is deeply entrenched in biology. For humans it is applied in pure binary form at a sufficient level of abstraction; biological sex has explanatory and predictive power. So if sex is a social construct, then also biology itself must be – partially. We must reject that biological concepts necessarily latch on or correspond to real properties in the world.

 

2.) One could then instead accept “resemblance nominalism” (a particular object has some property if and only if it suitably resembles a certain paradigm case) for gender.

 

But talking of a “paradigm of femaleness” seems quite weird (to say the least)… is it like we have to find a woman who

  • looks super feminine in outward appearance
  • possesses all the stereotypical behavioral traits (passive, weak, nurturing, adaptive, agreeable) in a very pronounced way
  • works as a florist ;)

??

 

And even “resemblance nominalism for gender” would, at a first glance, conflict with self-identification.


Okay, maybe the “private sense of one's own gender” comes from a subjective, intuitive examination of one's qualities (especially psychological) and feeling if overall there is a suitable resemblance (perhaps motivating oneself to increase one's visible, outward resemblance) – still confused about this, though!

 

In the end, the drawback would be, of course, that “female”, “male” etc. lose clear, fixed meaning. Probably this inconvenience can be justified because for many people identifying with a gender is an important factor for happiness. Though personally I couldn't care less.

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I don't understand gender at all, so all I can provide is my own experience here, for whatever that's worth...

 

To express gender identity, you have to actually have one in the first place, right? Otherwise you're expressing other things, which maybe some people might interpret as being gender-related, when to you they're actually not. This has been my experience. Like, I'll do stuff, and someone will comment on it in a gender-ey way. Like "that's so un-lady-like!" or ... now I'm trying to think of times when someone has commented that something I do is 'feminine' and I can't think of any. Hah. But my point is, I just do whatever makes sense to me, and gender is completely and utterly not even remotely on my mind when I do things. So if people actually do things for the purpose of expressing gender, that is a completely alien concept to me. But it's interesting how different people are, and until I started seriously reading about trans stuff, I literally thought people were just either playing along with or rebelling against society's gender roles. I didn't know internal gender identity was even a thing until I read about it on Wikipedia.

 

As far as my external presentation goes, to me it's whatever I happen to be comfortable with. To other people, they might think I express myself in a more masculine way. I don't know why people think they have to gender my hairstyle, clothing and even hobby preferences, but some of them do. It's all a big confusing mystery to me. :P

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These are all extremely helpful responses, and I'm comforted by the fact that everyone has defined their gender identity and what it means (if it even means anything) to them so differently. I'm also quite happy that many of you identify so strongly with my confusion and my experiences (I'm not alone! Whoo!!). It's such a difficult concept to pin down, and while some of us are comfortable identifying with such a nebulous concept, some of us are equally as confused by it and prefer to try to rationalize it or understand it before ascribing to it.

 

It's cool that some of you define gender through your relationships or orientation, some through gendered behaviours, some through the presence/absence of intrinsic feelings of belongingness, some with biological and neurological factors, and other things! It's been helpful to understand others' experiences (whether you do feel gender or not). I've tried writing all of these factors down and ended up creating a complicated chart (not unlike those ability polygons you see for character stats in video games), and I attempted to place myself in each of those areas... but I think that my doing that really revealed to me how little I personally identify with gender, haha. :D Now I just have a journal page with complex polygons drawn all over it and question marks littering many of their vertices!

 

But I guess that my point is that the diversity I'm seeing in everybody's answers so far is really neat, and I've loved reading people's honest responses. I still have no answer to what the heck gender is, but I suppose I didn't really expect to from the beginning anyway, and that's ok. Thanks, guys!

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