Gender as a Social Construct and Way of Understanding

This past Thursday, I attended a panel discussion titled “Trans? Fine by Me”. This student-organized event featured a panel of three students and two members of faculty, all of whom are part of the Geneseo community as well as the transgender community. This event helped me to realize and expand my thoughts on something that I have been considering throughout this course, which began as a seed of an idea that Butler’s works planted in my head.

A simple Google search for the definition of the word transgender results in the following definition: “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.” Initially, a person who is uninformed might assume, based on this definition, that a person who identifies as transgender would identify with either male (if their birth sex was female) or female (if their birth sex was male). This, however, is not necessarily always the case. As highlighted by the panel I attended last night, people who identify as transgender often altogether reject the notion of gender as a binary construct, viewing it instead as a sort of continuum or spectrum. Some people who identify as transgender do identify as male or female, but others identify as something other than these; two panelists last night identified themselves with female pronouns, one identified with male pronouns, and two identified with gender-neutral pronouns. Interestingly, these two people had chosen different gender-neutral pronouns by which they wished to be referred to – one person preferred they/them/their, while the other preferred xi/xir. The person who preferred xi/xir as their pronouns acknowledged that these pronouns are less commonly used and can be difficult for others to incorporate into their language. I found this concept interesting because I have never heard of anyone using these particular pronouns before, but also intriguing because this made me think about issues that arise from this concept other than mere language barriers.

It can be very difficult to change a person’s speech and writing habits to incorporate personal pronouns other than the gendered she/her and he/him that many people used to using, just as it is difficult for children to change their speech habits as they learn proper English (or whatever other language(s) they might be learning). I think it is vitally important to understand, though, that the difficulty many people experience with incorporating different pronouns into their language stems from a greater difficulty that some people might be experiencing more deeply within themselves. It seems to me that we as human beings have an inherent tendency to try to fit the things that we encounter into the construct of pre-existing notions that we have formulated in order to understand the world around us. This understanding allows us to function in everyday life and to feel comfortable in the reality that we live in. What we as humans often fail to realize, I think, is that our own understandings and perceptions of the world around us are extensively influenced by countless social constructs that we have nonconsensually been submitted to by way of our own birth. The existence of these constructs is, arguably, what makes us a functioning society, but their acceptance without consideration – the way they are expected to be accepted without question or opportunity for revision – often serves mainly to constrict a person’s understanding of both themselves and the world around them. The concept of something that might exist outside what a person understands as their reality often provokes a visceral reaction of discomfort and rejection, at least in a person who has accepted the constructs that they have been thrust into without their own consent and/or realization (as society has encouraged, and nearly forced them to do). These constructs are formative of our understanding of the world we live in, and the presence of something that questions one of these constructs easily makes people uncomfortable as it draws the validity of their own understanding into question – not surprisingly, the idea that I might not understand the world around me, and thus, my very self, as well as I thought, is a really scary one. But it’s also a terribly valuable one; perhaps one of the most valuable there is.

This whole notion has been stirring within me and nearing the surface of my thoughts as we have gone through Butler’s fiction throughout the semester, as she continually makes us notice and question our pre-conceived notions about our reality. This “Trans? Fine by Me” panel is what finally brought this idea to the surface in my head and made it clear to me. Admittedly, when I think about gender, I typically tend to think about it as a binary construct, at least initially. Most people are generally socialized to think about people in terms of being male or female. When I think about myself, I think of myself as female; in own understanding of myself, there is no question as to whether I identify with the male gender or the female gender – I’m certainly female. But then, as I am challenged to rework my understanding of gender as something that may not be a binary construct as I had previously (thought I) understood, but rather as a continuous spectrum, I am also asked to reconsider where I might fit in on this spectrum. I am in no way claiming that people who identify as transgender are purposefully asking me to reconsider or question my own identity, but in a very real way, that is what has to occur if I am to reframe my entire understanding of gender itself. We base our understandings of ourselves on our understandings of the world around us, which are based upon constructs – like gender – which shape this understanding. Inevitably, then, to reconsider one of these constructs is to reconsider ourselves and the way we fit into our newly understood world. I think that this is where a lot of the resistance toward the transgender community comes from; of course, there are other contributors, but I think that people are afraid to accept something that denounces one of their deeply-engrained and thoughtlessly accepted constructs as flawed, as it would require a reworking of their understanding of themselves and their world. As Butler articulates in Adulthood Rites, “Human beings fear difference,” and I think there is a substantial difference between the understanding of gender as a binary construct and as a continuous one (329).

There are more textually specific and rather obvious connections that can be made between the notion of transgender identity (and the panel discussion I attended) and Butler’s ooloi in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, but I’m beginning to focus more on the bigger picture here as we have read a handful of Butler’s fiction and I work at developing increasingly clear connections in her work. This pointing out and challenging of the very constructs that shape our understanding of our world and ourselves is something that Butler has masterfully incorporated into each of her works in different ways, many of which I have noted during my reading/thinking and others which I am surely yet to discover.

To all who may be reading this, please keep in mind that I write this post from my own perspective and draw upon only my own personal experience with/thoughts on gender as I grapple with these ideas. My intention in this post has been to articulate some personal thought and struggle, and while I do speculate that others may be dealing with similar things, I wish in no way to speak for others, as we are all entitled to our own opinions and perspectives on these subjects.

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