Gender / Gender Expression

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“I’ve often found myself asking this question and recently Troye Sivan tweeted about it so I felt like I should ask you guys: If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean? If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it (as an imaginary thing), then how can this coexist with transgenderism?”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Liam Lowery Says:

First, a disclosure: I have thought about your question every spare moment I have had for over a month. It is a good question, one that people (particularly people who have been aware/accepting of trans identities for a while) ask me pretty often, so I want to answer it as thoroughly as possible.

If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean?

Gender is a social construct. This is a phrase that anyone who’s taken a gender studies class (or looked at the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme) in recent years could parrot back to you. At the same time, trans and gender-nonconforming people have recently become visible in ways we were not before, pushing for equal or sometimes trans-specific rights and resources. When considered together, this presents an obvious question: If gender is constructed, then how can trans be a “real” identity?

Well, there’s a catch. This question assumes that social constructs can’t have deep-reaching effects on the ones who, within the construct, are perceived as “less than” or “other.” Social constructs, more than anything else, govern the way that systems cause violence to marginalized groups. Calling something a social construct doesn’t eliminate its power, or meaningfully address the harms people in the out-group experience.

I don’t feel like gender is only a social construct when I am treated differently because of my gender identity, like when a supervisor advises me to talk less about trans issues to benefit my career, or when a colleague asks me to “explain” Caitlyn Jenner (statements made by well-meaning people who are, for all intents and purposes, allies). Gender itself may be a social construct, but the gender binary has very real consequences—for trans individuals and for cis-women, too. In the patriarchal world we live in, male assigned and identified people experience privilege that female-identified people do not. Transgender people, though, typically experience being outside of and unrecognizable to this gender system—even when we are read as cisgender, we are still subject to harms based on our trans status at any point when we come out or are outed.

But being trans also means digging deep inside yourself and discovering riches beyond telling. It means that, while people may have told you that you were crazy, that this would alienate you from your family, or that you would get yourself killed, you knew yourself, and chose to live as yourself. Being trans means moments of clarity, spiritual awakening, joy, and self-discovery, all in the face of deeply ingrained opposition. It means you led your own uprising, and are now the sovereign of your own nation-state. Being trans is the truest kind of victory, the kind that is won with a great deal of expense. It is indescribable, and these words are clumsy in trying to capture it. My point is, it definitely means something—something very deep, personal, and impossible to explain.

If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it, then how can this coexist with transgenderism?

Transgender identities are complicated and not uniform. They include all kinds of people with all kinds of goals for how gender should evolve and change. So this question I can only answer for myself.

Gender is a multi-faceted word, but I think what you mean here is that one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism [the valuing of cisgender identities through framing gender discussions around cis identities and making trans identities “other”] is working to end the gender binary. In my experience, transgender identities (and learning to respect them) serve to undermine the gender binary!

While the gender binary is a system of oppression that subjugates women and disenfranchises trans people, gender identity is flexible and highly individualized. Ending the gender binary does not mean eradicating gender identities—far from it. It means making space for more of them. Being able to claim your own gender identity is a valuable part of the human experience, and everyone ought to be able to do so without the fear of violence.

There are some who would say we do not need to end the gender binary, but just complicate it more and create space for non-binary identities to be recognized. While personally I believe we can and deserve to go further, complicating the gender binary is certainly the first step towards creating space for all people to live authentic lives—not in spite of their gender identities but because of them.

Until we agree to listen to each other and allow all people to be the experts on their gender identities, the gender binary will persist. So put your gender pronouns in your email signature, teach trans 101 workshops at your school, and most of all, assume less and listen more.

We also need to address access to gender-affirming healthcare and protect against employment discrimination, not to mention protecting trans people’s rights to use the restroom of their choice.

I eagerly prepare for the day when all of us take ownership of our bodies and cast off the yoke of a binary gender system that harms every person—a  day when we are all trans, determining our identities as we see fit, and moving about a spectrum of gender identities rather than clinging to a socially constructed, harmful binary. I should say, though, that while this might be the endgame, being trans has never been about an endgame for me. My trans identity is the exact place where the personal intersects with the political. This is just who I am, and this work is done in the hopes that you, and only you, can get to be just who you are, too.

Your question about fighting cis-sexism through ending the gender binary is an evolving one. Just as the butch community who nursed our community through the AIDS crisis could never have predicted the current prevalence of trans identities at the time, we can’t assume what the future will hold, or how our conceptions of gender and identity will evolve over time. Gender is a product of place, culture, and the economy—consider, for instance, how third-gender people in the Philippines are more and more claiming binary trans identities because of globalization. I’m sure my answer, my identity, and my point of view will seem outdated even a decade from now.

But today at least, to fight the gender binary, we must keep our heads down and work, and allow ourselves to be surprised by what the future holds. I bet the next crop of rainbow children will have brilliant ideas and move our world forward in ways we never could have imagined.

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“So I’m a nonbinary trans man and I’m starting college next year. At college I want to start going by my preferred name and pronouns, maybe presenting a bit more masculine, etc. BUT. I’m confused on one thing… Should I tell people I’m trans when I meet them? Like, I don’t want to like, have to explain what being trans is or stuff right when I meet people, especially since I have trouble with social anxiety already. But I’m worried they might assume I’m a girl if I don’t explain.”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Liam Lowery Says:

Hi there, Anonymous. As a non-binary trans man who started going by my preferred name and pronouns in college, I’m glad you reached out with this question. The fact that you’re reaching out at all indicates you have your stuff far more together than I did as an incoming freshman, but I will tell you the top three things I wish I had known when I started undergrad.

The first and most important thing I can tell you is to let people pleasantly surprise you.

When I rolled into my all-girls dorm and met my lady roommate, I stutteringly told her I was trans Actually, I may have said, “I’m a dude, kind of like inside?” I braced for impact, assuming she would ask to change rooms. Instead, she said “cool” and asked me if I wanted to order pizza. Don’t discount that you can get lucky.

What’s more, all the women in my dorm who I feared would shun me were friendly and generally disinterested in my gender identity. That’s because from the first week on, we had papers to write, philosophy texts to read, passages in Russian to translate (maybe that was just me). On top of that, people were hooking up, fighting, and going to Taco Night at the cafeteria. Which is to say that once you are in school and dealing with the day-to-day, it will likely not be as challenging as it seems in the abstract.

My advice is to practice your script for when you meet people initially. Maybe you want to say you’re non-binary, maybe you just want to say your name and preferred pronouns. It will probably change, but the important thing is that you set boundaries for your everyday interactions and introductions that are comfortable for you. Once you do this a few times, you will get used to it and feel out how much you want to say and when.

Now, to the second big thing I wish I’d realized sooner. There is a major pitfall to be wary of, especially as a trans person: you will feel pressure to do the unpaid work of educating people when there are others who are tasked with that responsibility. Try not to fall into this role.

Early in my time in undergrad, when I did happen upon some poor unfortunate soul who had no clue what gender identity was and had never heard the word trans before, I would talk with them at length about gender identity and why it mattered. I had at least thirty of these conversations in my first month of school, I kid you not. It left me feeling burnt out and unsatisfied.

Here is the thing, Anonymous: you are at school to learn, just like everyone else. And hopefully, have a blast and make a lot of friends. But you are not there to be anyone’s personal gender identity educator, even if you happen to be an expert in the subject area.

Looking back, I realize that those people who had burning questions about what gender pronouns are should have just googled it. I mean, give me a break here—gender pronouns are what they sound like!

Asking me those simplistic questions just because they knew I was trans was disrespectful of my time. If nobody is paying you to do that educational work and there are a lot of great resources available to people who want to be allies, you do not need to be that resource. Stepping into that role instills an expectation that trans people exist to educate cis people. If you want to get involved on your campus, advocate for your school to include a transgender 101 training at orientation so that all students will get some info on trans identities—that would reach more people than a one-on-one chat with you.

The other important pitfall to side-step is one I never realized until I was done with school, and it might be even more important than the whole “you are not everyone’s gender professor” thing.

My RA didn’t really get it when I told her it was important that she take the sign with my given name off the door. Instead of complaining to the building manager, I ripped it off and put up on that said Liam in big, honking block letters. I did that, more or less, all through college: I would email professors at the beginning of the semester and ask them to change my name on their class rosters. Usually they would, sometimes they wouldn’t. I would get called by my given name in class, be embarrassed, and stop participating. Or if I felt brave that day, I would clear my throat and say, “Actually, I’m Liam.”

Those moments were far from personal triumphs. What I should have realized is that there were salaried staff members at my university tasked with helping students—including me—deal with administrative issues. By making my problems and myself invisible, I was giving them a free pass not to engage with the issues transgender students often face at colleges.

Look for opportunities to lessen your load so you can take full advantage of being a college student. For instance, contact a dean at your school and ask them to inform professors about your preferred name. Let people do their jobs for you, and by extension you will show them how to do it for other trans students.

There you go, Anonymous—those are the things I wish I knew when I started school that have remained relevant (at times, too relevant) since graduating. Good luck at college, and remember: you’re there to learn and occasionally have fun!

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“This question might be a little trite, but how do you deal with needing to carry around a purse when you’re not a very feminine person? I don’t like how they look, but I’ve got all this stuff! Help?”

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Anita Dolce Vita as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Anita says:

Your question is not trite at all. Curating a wardrobe that fits your identity is a struggle that many have in a world that imposes very restrictive, binary rules on how we can express ourselves! You are not alone and you are not the first to ask this question.

I’ve got some good news for you; Purse alternatives are an easy style fix because you do not have to worry about proper fit or tailoring, and there are affordable options available at thrift stores and online ETSY boutiques, as well as more pricey investment pieces that you can purchase from designers like Ted Baker and Fossil. dapperQ offers suggestions for purse alternatives here. But, I’ve also created a special purse alternative Pinterest board just for you and the Everyone Is Gay Readers. Just click here to access. The board contains some of my favorite purse alternatives, such as clutches/portfolios; satchels/ messenger bags/shoulder bags; brief cases; and duffle bags. Now, it’s up to you to select the formality, style, colors, patterns, and materials you like most and that best represent your personal style. Have fun and happy styling!

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“I’m FTM trans, but I have only recently started to transition and haven’t yet had to dress up for a formal event. Prom is coming up soon and I have no idea how even to wear a suit or a tux. Help!”

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Anita Dolce Vita as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Anita Says:

Congratulations on embarking on this challenging but exciting personal journey of self-empowerment and self-love. For many of us, clothing is an extremely powerful tool in affirming our identities, and not having the resources and support to assist in finding a style that matches who we are on the inside can be anxiety producing. But, we’re here to help!

Society puts less emphasis on masculine attire, leading most people to think that masculine clothing, especially suits, is fairly ordinary and easy to pull off. For example, most conversations about prom and wedding formalwear focus primarily on feminine attire. However, masculine formalwear is actually quite complicated and layered. So much so, in fact, that leading “menswear” magazines have published manuals with entire chapters dedicated to the art of wearing suits and tuxedos. There’s lots to learn about this art, but style experts agree that proper fit is the most important element to execute flawlessly.

But, here’s the issue with fit: Of all the elements, it’s the most difficult to achieve. The Handbook of Style: A Man’s Guide to Looking Good by Esquire Magazine writes, “Are you a ‘drop six’? If you are, you’re a suit maker’s dream: Your chest is six inches larger than your waist. You can wear anything. Sadly, most of us don’t live inside those ideal tailoring measurements.” This means that tailoring formalwear is a necessary (and sometimes expensive) evil for many. Starting out with the best fit possible will minimize the amount of tailoring, if any, you’ll require for off-the-rack suits. (You can also get a suit custom made to your exact needs.) But, you must first know the language of suits (e.g., vents, breaks, single-breasted, etc.) so that you can communicate your fit needs. dapperQ published a very helpful three-part suit manual on Autostraddle to help queer folx negotiate the world of suits. You can find the chapters herehere, and here.

Once you have a good understanding of what it is you’re looking for in terms of fit and price, the next step is to actually go out and find it. Here are some queer and queer-friendly owned formalwear retailers that dapperQ readers swear by:

Of course, if you are not a fashion head and just want to dress in “appropriate” formalwear attire, you can opt for a black suit or tuxedo and dress shoes. Boom, you’re done! But, if you are a style geek and want to stand out from the pack, add some personal touches. Now is the time to take style risks, break the rules, and get creative. Here are some ways to get your suit/tuxedo game on fleek:

  • Pair your suit/tuxedo with sneakers, high tops, or studded slippers
  • Ditch the flower boutonniere and instead rock a handmade pin, perhaps one made of metal, knit, paper or cloth
  • Add colorful, patterned socks
  • Since your jacket and pants do not necessarily have to be the same color, wear an evening jacket with non-matching pants
  • Wear a suit/tuxedo with patterns and/or bold colors, rather than just reaching for standard black, blue, white, and gray

I have created a Pinterest board to inspire some prom creativity, which you can find here. The most important accessory is confidence. Wear your suit with pride and have a great time. And, don’t forget to share your prom pictures with dapperQ at dapperQ@gmail.com

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“Does it make me any less trans* if I don’t want to physically transition?”

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Liam Lowery as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Liam Says:

The short answer, and the one I want to get out most is: no. Being trans is like being in a state: I am not any more in New York than you (presuming we are in the same state) because I am in Queens and you are in Syracuse. No one is more or less trans than another, we all just are.

Often, we use the term “physical transition” as shorthand for medically altering one’s body through the use of hormones or gender-affirming surgery. The notion of “transitioning” from one gender (female/male) to another (female/male) has always been and remains the home base of talking about gender identities, because of the pervasiveness of the gender binary. This way of thinking about physically transitioning, while less complicated than an alternative, perpetuates regressive ideas about gender that exclude non-binary gender identities—it implies there is a right and wrong way to transition, and that it must involve medical steps.

It’s this representation of physical transitions that lead to the very question you posed: whether one way of being trans is more trans than another way of being trans.

For me, my physical transition didn’t start when I began taking hormones or got a surgery. It started when I got a short haircut (an overly floppy and now embarrassing mohawk) two years before that. Because that was a change that made me begin to feel whole, it was the first step I took in aligning my body and my gender identity.

We—every living human being—are all physically changing, all the time: our hairs and nails are growing longer, our skin cells are sloughing off and regenerating. This is a key part of our embodiment, for all of us. None of us stay the exact same, and therefore we are all always physically transitioning. But rarely, if ever, do we pause to reflect on and celebrate these changes.

For those of us who are trans, however, this has a special meaning: claiming ownership of our bodies means rectifying our bodies and our gender identities. This can mean deciding we do not feel the need to make physical changes, or that we need to make a lot of changes. But the important thing is the decision making process, the recognition that when your gender identity changes, your relationship with your body deserves some consideration in light of that change.

Really, all of us trans folks have a physical transition, even if we never so much as trim our hair or buy a new shirt (let alone start using hormones or get surgeries) because the act of checking to see if there are changes we want to make to our bodies by affirmatively deciding what does and doesn’t jive with our gender identities means transitioning the way we relate to our physicality, making a physical transition. And no one’s physical transition—whether it takes five seconds or five decades—is invalid, the process is different for all of us.

This difference between the shorthand version of “physical transition” and the version based on the interaction between your gender identity and your body is also meaningful when thinking about cis people. Lots of people who do not identify as trans or gender non-conforming use hormones or have what we might call “gender affirming” surgeries, but taking these steps doesn’t mean anything about your gender identity inherently, it’s the reasons for taking the steps that count.

Whatever conclusions you draw on what a physical transition means won’t change how trans you are. Nothing ever could. Being trans is what makes you trans—the rest is just figuring out what it means to you.

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