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Transcending Gender

rae's picture


I have learned about gender in various classes. I learned that gender is constructed--socially, culturally, historically, politically, psychologically. I learned that people’s genders need not limit what they can do. I learned that biology is not destiny; one’s sex also does not control a person’s capabilities. I learned about the feminist movement in the United States. I learned about the many ways that sexism still exists in this country. I learned to see the forms that masculinity and femininity take in society and to notice the ways in which society socializes people to fit into one of two prescribed gender roles.

On my own, I have learned so much more about gender. As Riki Wilchins puts it, “…gender is primarily a system of symbols and meanings--and the rules, privileges, and punishments pertaining to their use--for power and sexuality: masculinity and femininity, strength and vulnerability, action and passivity, dominance and weakness” (Nestle et al 2002). I realized that people do not often question what gender; it is talked about, but it is not generally questioned. I have been introduced to the idea of gender as something more than just a noun that describes what we are. Riki Wilchins summarizes Judith Butler’s theory of performativity by writing that “gender refers not to something we are but to something we do, which, through extended representation and because of the vigorous suppression of all exceptions, achieves the appearance of a sort of coherent psychic substance” (Nestle et al 24). If gender is something we must continually do, gender is more flexible, more fluid, and more fragile that it is usually assumed to be.

I learned to see binaries--man/woman, masculine/feminine, male/female--as socially constructed; once that was understood, I could begin to question what there might be beyond the binary, instead of operating within the assumption that those two categories are all that there is. I learned about transgender and genderqueer as gender possibilities outside of that gender binary. I learned about discursive power, “the kind of small power exercised in hundreds of little everyday transactions” (Nestle et all 51), and how it reinforces the gender binary as we go about our daily lives. I learned about intersex people and discovered that not all people fit within the sex binary of male and female.

Upon learning that gender is more nuanced than simply men and women, I realized that sexuality is also more complicated than categories of gay and straight, or even gay, straight, and bisexual, would lead one to believe. Basing sexuality on whether a person is a man or a woman and whether the person is attracted to men or women ignores the difference between sex and gender and leaves out the many people who do not neatly fall into a category of male or female that neatly matches up with the gender that society would assume corresponds with that biological distinction.

In Evolution’s Rainbow, Joan Roughgarden challenges my current understanding of gender in several ways. She focuses on gender identity, whereas theorists like Judith Butler typically focus on gender as being something one does, not something one is. She also believes that gender identity can be changed and that there is a time period after which gender identity is set and cannot be changed. Given data that she has found, according to Roughgarden, “gender identity appears to form sometime between three months before birth and twelve months after birth” (244). I tend to believe that outside factors, such as how a child is raised, cannot change a person’s gender identity. However, I do believe that it is possible for a person’s gender identity to change, even well past a person’s first birthday. Roughgarden’s data regarding the ability to change a child’s gender identity rests on the assumption that the children in question initially had gender identities that corresponded with the sexes they were designated at birth. For example, in the case of the male baby that was raised as a girl and later completely identified as female, the assumption that the upbringing changed the baby’s gender identity assumes that the baby would otherwise have identified as a male. Roughgarden also views gender identity as a “cognitive lens” (244) that determines whether a baby will emulate a male or female tutor in forming his or her gender identity.

For the remainder of the semester, I would have the focus of the course be on transcending gender. Given that Roughgarden’s book has established that there are more than two sexes and more than two genders in human society, I think that exploring those other gender possibilities seems like a logical move. In keeping with the theme of re-imagining education in Peggy McIntosh’s essay “Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective,” I would also like to look at the ways in which activism could be incorporated into the class.

I would begin the first week with Riki Wilchin’s four essays, “It’s Your Gender, Stupid!,” “Queerer Bodies,” “Changing the Subject,” and “Deconstructing Trans,” all of which are found in the beginning of the anthology GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. I would also include the chapter entitled “Transcending Stories” from The Transgender Phenomenon, written by Richard Ekins and Dave King. As sociologists, Ekins and King have a different perspective on the concept of transcending gender than the outlook of an activist like Wilchins. Although I have read those selections before, I do not know how others would respond to them. I would have a discussion about the readings during the first class. I think that it is important for people to realize that freedom of gender expression would benefit everyone, not just trans and genderqueer people. Also important is the fact that transgender does not automatically mean switching from one gender to its opposite. The point of the concept of transcending gender, to me, is that one does not need to fit into the category man or the category woman.

Also in time for the first class, I would have people think about their own genders and question how they know what their gender is. I would have them write an essay about their gender: how they identify, how they choose to present or express their gender, how people treat them based on that presentation, whether the readings have change their concept of gender. In essence, I would have them write a coming out story. Because gender is can be interpreted so many different ways, even if everyone in the room identified strongly and exclusively as a woman, I believe that the essays could still have valuable insight on gender. I believe that it is worthwhile to examine what it means to be a woman, for example, instead of merely skipping over woman as a category because of an assumption that we all know what a woman is. For the sake of anonymity, and so that people would feel free to be completely truthful, I would have people bring their a paper copy of their essays to the first class without any identifying features. I would scan the papers and email them to the class to read for the next class.

For the next week, I would continue with the exploration into transgender and non-binary gender with From the Inside Out: Radical Gender Transformation, FTM and Beyond, edited by Morty Diamond. Much of current transgender writing focuses on MTF experience, so I think it would be good to get a more balanced view. Also, transgender is often assumed to be synonymous with transsexual, and I would like to look at the ways that gender is not tied to sex. A desire to change the gender one was assigned at birth does not necessitate a desire for surgery or hormones.

The third week, I would like to look at the ways that non-binary gender affects sexuality. Because the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality depend on the rigid gender binary, allowing for more options in terms of gender changes sexuality. I would look for a book like PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality, edited by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, edited by Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi, might be a book that looks at queerness beyond gay and lesbian issues. I believe that the book itself may be less important than the topic it covers. Deconstructing the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy goes hand in hand with deconstructing the gender binary, as the one appears to be based on the other.  

For the final two weeks, once we have a solid foundation of trans theory, I would like to focus on radicalism and activism. In particular, I am interested in how they relate to queer and trans issues. Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and Its Critics, by Paul Robinson, analyzes the conservative, assimilationist gay rights position. I am interested in queer rights beyond gay marriage and beyond the stance that gays deserve rights because they are exactly like everyone else. Queer Mobilizations: LGBT Activists Confront the Law, by Scott Barclay, Mary Bernstein, and Anna-Maria Marshall, and Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy, by Kevin Kumashiro, might be useful aids in determining what some of the options are for queer activism. That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, by Matt Bernstein Sycamore, although less academic, is another possibility for anti-assimilationist options. I am looking for a position that argues that queer people, trans people, and genderqueer people do not need to assimilate and be just like straight cisgendered people in order to have rights. I am interested in the ways in which activism can be made part of the classroom environment, instead of being something that happens far removed from the serious, academic atmosphere of classes. I would like to brainstorm about ways to apply what we have learned in the classroom to the world outside the classroom.

The last week of the course, I would like to step away from discussion and move into action. For example, SEPTA requires an M or F sticker on monthly and weekly passes; there is an article about it in Philadelphia Weekly here: http:__www.philadelphiaweekly.com_news-and-opinion_Transpassing-Prohibited.html. Although there is an online petition (, the class could organize some form of protest and bring attention to this matter in a non-internet manner. We could organize a Transgender Day of Remembrance (http:__www.gender.org_remember_day_what.html) with a candlelit vigil. We could write Op-Ed pieces bringing attention to diversity in gender or trans, genderqueer, queer, or gender-nonconforming issues, either in The Bi-Co News, The College News, or even the blog section of The Huffington Post. There are Employment Non-Discrimination Acts that include gender identity in both the House and the Senate; both have been referred to committees. We could write to our legislators and encourage them to not let ENDA languish in committees forever.

Overall, I do not know what it is that I do not know. The subjects that I would cover in class are not new to me, admittedly, but I cannot think of something I would like to study that is completely foreign to me. What I don’t know is how other people react to the idea of breaking down the gender binary. What I don’t know is what other people think about the viability of living as neither a man, nor a woman, in today’s society. What I don’t know is how I am limited in thinking about gender. I would like to introduce people to concepts that I am personally familiar with and see where things can go from there. Maybe in speaking with others, I will learn what it is that I do not know. Maybe together we can come up with ways to enact change.

Works Cited

Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins, eds. GenderQueer: Voices       From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002.
Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow. Berkeley: University of                   California Press, 2004.

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