From the moment we’re born, we’re taught the unquestionable, immutable “fact” that is: Having a penis makes you a man and having a vagina makes you a woman. Sure, it may be an expectation placed on your child, but it’s just not something that can be argued against.
So it makes sense that if the gender you were assigned was wrong, then your transition would entail surgery to “reverse” the genitalia to match your gender. As the thought process goes, if you don’t have genital dysphoria, why transition? Wouldn’t that make you totally OK with what you’ve got and defeat the meaning of being transgender?
No. Here’s why.
Holding up certain immutable discrepancies between men and women as key to gender identity is called Gender Essentialism. These traits are considered absolute and often simplified (to a staggering degree) to the most obvious physical differences between most men and most women, in this case the genitalia.
But a man with a penis isn’t a man becauseof his penis, just as he isn’t a man because of his facial hair, his abundance of testosterone, or even his chromosomes. None of those things intrinsically make someone anything beyond someone who exhibits those features.
That man would still be considered a man no matter what, as long as he continued to state that he was a man. Facial hair isn’t something unique to men, obviously, and neither is testosterone. Plenty of women who were assigned female at birth have penises, or at the very least, sexual characteristics that could resemble a penis.
Even chromosomes, the last bastion of hope for Gender Essentialism, are subject to all sorts of combinations, even if a specific combination would otherwise determine biological sex. Even if we set aside the existence of intersex people to challenge our views on sexual biology, having a penis still wouldn’t make this hypothetical man a man.
What makes him a man is that he says so. His identity has been considered and defined by the only person able to do so — himself. The more we learn about gender, the more we realize that the history behind it is pretty much a heap of bullshit.
Even people who espouse beliefs against Gender Essentialism may not hold themselves accountable to those beliefs in their day-to-day language. When they talk about women, they refer to someone with a vagina and a uterus. It’s convenient, even if it excludes an entire population of people. It’s often considered unreasonable to change it too, since we’re so used to the language surrounding gender to be that specific.
Well, I can say from an unfortunate wealth of experience, fuck that.
To be considered a woman in concept but not in practice is to be considered not a real woman. I’m not saying that we all need to ignore our bodies or the differences that we have from person to person, but I am saying that there needs to be a shift in what we consider to be male and female.
“The surgery” is an incredibly useful procedure to help some trans people with their perception of themselves, but what if they don’t want it, or what if they are never able to get it for financial or other reasons?
Maybe a shift in the way society views sex and gender would diminish the genital dysphoria we feel, or maybe it’s more than just something born from social constructs that leads someone to feel that dysphoria. What I can say with absolute certainty is that if it wasn’t considered “strange” for women to have a bulge in their pants or for men to have bulges in their shirts, then the world could become a little less stressful of a place.
Fuck Gender Essentialism though, like honestly.
Heather Maloney is an Atlanta writer, editor, and creative thinker with a vested interest in gender and sexuality.
This column originally ran in Q magazine. Read the digital edition here.
Pick up a new issue of Q each week at LGBTQ and allied venues across Atlanta.