2017-09-29

What If I Don't Have a Gender Identity?

Last Sunday, after the worship service, 50 or so of us gathered in Community UU's Fellowship Hall for a screening of “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.” As I listened to the stories of the transgender people Couric interviewed, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I had such a thing as a gender identity.

I present myself as male because, from early on, I was told I was male. I never had any sense that was right or wrong. If my parents had told me from birth that I was a girl and dressed me in frilly pink dresses, I think I’d have been fine with that (at least for as long as I could have been prevented from noticing that my external genitalia didn’t match the other girls'). I did have certain preferences that were more common among boys than girls -- I loved playing football, for instance -- but as long as girls could also play football and participate in the other "tomboyish" things to which I was drawn -- being identified as a girl would not have felt like a problem for me.

Of course, I could be fooling myself – delusion is always a possibility – but it seems as though I present myself as male only because that’s easy and convenient (also, males have lots of advantages in our culture, so why not?) rather than because an inner gender identity makes me feel that being female would be wrong for me.

Maybe I'm unusual in how weak my inner sense of gender identity is (or, perhaps, unusual in how strongly I’m in denial about it). In 1977, at age 18, I went away to college and started going by Meredith, my middle name, whereas previously I’d always gone by Steven, my first name, or Steve. I was attracted to the gender ambiguity of “Meredith.” I was consciously making a small statement against the very idea of gender identity. I learned that sex is a biological category while gender is a social construct, and my opinion was that it would be better to stop socially constructing it. Or, at least, since gender roles are oppressive, especially to women, let’s construct gender in a way that allows for a lot more role fluidity -- and minimizes the significance of gender identity.

What I’ve been learning is that there is something biological about gender identity after all, and even if my brain’s gender identity structures really are at the weak end of the spectrum, a lot of people, both cisgender and transgender, have stronger gender identity built into their brains. I don’t know directly what that’s like, but I don’t have to know. Other people bear no burden to make their lives make sense to me. Rather, it’s my responsibility to extend respect and care to everyone, whatever ways they differ from me. It’s up to me to take them at their word about who they are and what they make of the meaning of their life and experience.

As for my identity? GBNS (Genderless But Not Sexless)? No, I have a gender, just not a gender identity. By long habit, I clearly present as male, don't have any energy to change those habits, and continue to benefit from the privileges of maleness. Even if, for me, my own gender is entirely a social construct, male is how I happen to have been socially constructed. Thus, I identify myself as male without identifying with being male. I might have just as readily taken to being constructed female, but I wasn't, so I'm not. Much. I guess. Maybe I'm SHMPUA (Socially and Habitually Male but Personally/Privately Ultimately Apathetic). Or: SCMMLCANGBPGI (Socially Constructed Male and More or Less Comfortable with that but Apparently Not Genetically or Biologically Predisposed to a Gender Identity).

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