A random entry from Cogito, Ergo Sumana

(2) : My Gender (Spoiler: I'm Cis): My acquaintance Danielle Sucher asked:

Friends! What's your gender? & cis folks especially, how did you figure it out?

I'm a cisgender woman, or at least I think so. I can't properly prove it to myself. A few years ago, when a few friends came out to me as trans men (I had previously perceived these friends as very butch women), I introspected a bit, to check. I also checked in with myself a few weeks ago when a trans friend told me she'd thought I was genderqueer. And both times I've concluded that this sis is cis, but oh god, what is gender anyway.

I have always found it hard to make a positive case for my own self-assessment without getting cissexist or gender essentialist. I gather that many trans men and nonbinary people don't feel any particular need to change the secondary sexual characteristics of their bodies, for instance. And I don't feel any particular discomfort when someone calls me "she" -- but a lot of nonbinary people are also fine with that. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes.

As I think a lot of readers would agree without me having to go into too many details, gender is a pretty incoherent set of categories and rules and expectations. As I navigate those, I notice a lot of traditional rules around gender expression (especially in bodies and behavior) that don't feel right to me, e.g., women should have long hair and let men interrupt us all the time, men should by default run things and should not cry. But I have always thought of those annoying constraints as general societal problems (no one should feel restricted by them). I want access to any male privilege men currently keep to themselves, and I want the ability to perform any bits of femininity or masculinity I choose, but I want those things for everyone, and phrases like "I am a man" or "I have/am/perform both genders" have never rung true to me. The traditional femininity racket chafed me once I started noticing it, but that did not trigger within me a realization that my gender did not match my assigned-at-birth body; instead, I found a gender expression that's pretty comfortable for me ("lazy butch," let's say).

In my teens, I read John Varley's 1976 science fiction story "The Phantom of Kansas," in which people can switch into different bodies very easily (compare to a routine and painless elective surgery), including trying out female and male bodies. I still remember sitting on a little staircase at someone's house, escaping from the Indian-American hubbub, reading that and other stories in The World Treasury of Science Fiction and feeling my mind blown. At this point I had never had any kind of interpersonal sex, but I suspected it would be spectacularly cool to sometimes have it using one set of genitals and sometimes using another! But that sort of erotic thought experiment is as far as my bodyswap interests ever went. And I think that if I were trans or genderfluid or genderqueer or otherwise not cis, it's super unlikely I would have finished that story without a deeper thrum of yearning. And similarly, online or in brief customer service interactions, when strangers read me as male, it feels to me like inaccurate misgendering with a mildly pleasing genderfuck quality; in the alternate universes where I'm not cis, I figure those experiences feel quite different.

For political reasons, I like using gender-neutral terms when possible. For instance, I say "y'all" instead of "you guys" as a second person plural, and as a matter of allyship with same-sex couples, I often refer to Leonard as my partner or my spouse. So if you're using "they" or a similar nongendered pronoun for everyone, then sure, call me "they" instead of "she". But "wife" and "she" don't bother me.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Yet when I try to imagine myself as anything other than cis, all my thought experiments turn science fictional. We would have to throw out all this monolithic gender-binary legacy code, this untested ball of spaghetti, or refactor it into a microservices architecture. We'd have to be a very different civilization -- one with new vocabulary entirely -- before I'd find a gender self-description that feels more accurate than "I'm a cisgender woman."


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