My 1999 Master’s thesis in cultural anthropology was called Gender Pretenders: A Drag King Ethnography. Focused on a set of women performing in drag as men in NYC, it explored the idea of gender as a set of signs, rather than a fact of biology. My recent personal website update caused me to go back and look at the work again, 16 years later; the first paragraph rang like a bell in my head:
I have never taken gender for granted. As a very young girl, I was convinced that I’d grow up to be a big, strong man; needless to say I was somewhat disappointed when puberty hit and made it quite clear that was not going to happen. As a short-haired, overweight tomboy, I grew used to adults calling me “son” and, “young man,” and as a masculine woman have come to expect the occasional “sir.” But I am not transgendered; I’ve grown to love being a woman, to appreciate my female body, and to value my identity as a lesbian. I do not feel”like a man” and do not want to be one; still, I am often accused of harboring such a desire. I am told that I dress like a man, I talk like a man, and I look like a man; surely I must want to be a man?
I’ve obviously been thinking about my own gender for a long time. What stands out here is the description of my childhood, accurate now as it was then. It’s the first thing I tell people when explaining my recent decision to transition. What follows, however, is a strong statement of denial. I said four things which now require reconsideration:
“I am not transgendered” – The more honest statement at the time would have been, “I don’t want to be transgendered.” I didn’t know for sure that I wasn’t, but I did harbor a suspicion. Why else was I focusing on gender in my graduate studies?
“I’ve grown to love being a woman” – This was and is still true. I believe that women have a more flexible range of cultural expression (for example, in terms of dress) than men do; women are also encouraged to have and communicate emotions more so than men. This worried me until I realized that it’s okay to be an expressive man. And I admit that I grew, over the years, to believe in a sort of female superiority — in a “if women ruled the world, then there wouldn’t be any wars” kind of way.
“…to appreciate my female body” – This is a flat-out lie. I’ve never appreciated anything about my body below my neck. I’ve never really been in my body to begin with. I wrote the statement because I knew it was the most important thing to say if I were to convincingly deny that I was transgendered.
“…to value my identity as a lesbian” – This was and is still true. It’s one of the things I’ll be giving up in my transition. This troubled me for a while until I realized (a) I’m still queer and (b) I’m still a feminist.
There are straight men who claim they are “really just a lesbian in a man’s body.” I will be.