A reader writes: “In a comment, you wrote about gender norms: ‘I also believe that, no matter how much we relax (the binary gender system) or expand it (or even if we eliminate it), the medical need for transition will remain. People who need to transition need to transition, regardless of the gender system in place. The elimination or expansion of the binary gender system would serve to reduce or eliminate the stress and discrimination that trans people experience, but I don’t think it would eliminate the need to transition.’
“I would like to hear more about your thoughts on this and the reasons why you think so. How would trans issues look in some sort of gender-diverse/free utopia?”
The comment that the reader refers to above was my response to another comment on the post “I Don’t Regret Seeing ‘Regretters.‘” There are people who believe that, if gender norms were relaxed or eliminated, there would be no need for any trans person to correct his or her physical body. I believe that such a system might reduce some people’s need to go through a physical transition, but I don’t believe that it would eliminate such a need for all trans people.
I am, of course, looking at everything through the lens of a Western, binary gender system. That is the system into which I was socialized, and although I can acknowledge, and even favor, other systems, I will probably never be able to look at things with complete objectivity.
It’s interesting that this question comes along now, because in “Writing Your Gender,” the class I teach at Metropolitan State College of Denver, we have been discussing that very thing – if a society recognizes more than two genders, and if genders did not correspond so strictly with the physical body, would anyone be compelled to change his or her body based on gender identity?
I could reference many other cultures and I could point to examples that would either reinforce or dispute my assertion that this need would still exist for some people, but either way, I would be trying to look at the question through the eyes of a culture and a mindset that I don’t have. I would be putting my own “stuff” onto someone else’s experience.
So instead, I’m going to say that the reason I think that the need would still exist is because I think that the mind and body are not separate entities. I think that they interact and influence each other. And I think that attachment or non-attachment to one’s body or a certain body configuration – identifying or not identifying with one’s body – is hard-wired.
And I think that the reason that some people in certain cultures that recognize more than two genders or do not strongly link gender with the physical body do not undergo physical transition is not because they don’t feel the need to. It’s because such a procedure is not available to them, and if it were, they would do so. Or it’s because such a procedure is so foreign to them based on their own socialization that they can’t conceive of it or identify the need to do it.
Please note that I said “I think.” I have no scientific backing for these opinions, and if there is some one way or another, I hope readers will point us in that direction.
The flip side of the opinions that I am offering is this: if gender is not tied to the physical body (but is instead, for example, tied to a person’s livelihood or community roles), then the physical body means nothing with relationship to gender identity and there would be no compelling need to make any changes. The notion of mind/body misalignment with regard to gender would be completely foreign.
I do think that our modern definition of “trans” is a Western, binary concept. I don’t think it translates across time periods or across cultures. But if our current theories about hormones in the womb affecting the mind’s relationship with the body (whether you want to call it identity, gender identity, or something else) bear out, then this is definitely a “condition” that would cross all cultural boundaries, and I believe we have seen that it has.
How it is received and responded to in each culture would be different, as we have also seen. And the structure of the culture would certainly make a difference with regard to how people within that culture would see and feel about themselves. But I’m not certain that all mind/body incongruity would respond to cultural cues and be eliminated. It just might not be identified as a “gender thing.”
I do find this subject quite interesting, however, and would love to hear readers’ thoughts, opinions, and experiences. I’m open to being convinced that the need to transition is strictly the result of a Western, binary system – so readers, once again, you’re on.
(Ask Matt Monday returns next Monday with a discussion about the various aspects of age and transition.)