I knew Kris through the internet, first from a newsgroup and then through personal correspondence that covered various and sundry topics. We became pen pals of sorts, and got to know each other. Kris a brilliant artist and a fellow bodyart enthusiast who once drew a wonderful anime caricature of my boyfriend. By any account, this is a wonderful person to know: sweet, funny, bright, and insightful.
When I found out that Kris considers herself a transgendered female (preoperative male-to-female transsexual, woman in a man's body, etc), I tried to take it in stride. I'd always known Kris as a male art student from Georgia, and getting used to her as female-in-a-male-body wasn't instantaneous; in all honesty, it took me a little while to get it all sorted out in my mind. It wasn't that I thought Kris was confused or insane or anything like that; I was happy that she was coming out and coming to terms with who she really is. It's just that it takes time to get accustomed to any new paradigm, particularly one that you haven't experienced much before. I got fairly good at switching pronouns from "he" to "she," and always referred to Kris as a girl; it became automatic eventually. My previous experience with the transgendered was pretty much theoretical, and I think overall I did fine with the situation; I don't recall putting my foot in my mouth at all.
In retrospect, I don't think Kris ever actually told me personally that she is transgendered; I just sort of found out. We hadn't written in a few months, and I stumbled across her web diary and realized we'd fallen out of touch. In her diary, she talked about her gender identification and what it was like living as a transgendered female; it seemed so natural for her to take on a female identity. From then on when we spoke, it was accepted. A big coming-out discussion was never necessary.
At the time I was answering bodyart questions for a website that featured a lot of Kris's work. The main page had a photograph of her and several other people from the bodyart community, and one question we received said something about "that girl in the picture," meaning Kris. A follow-up said that she had gone to Kris's web diary and thought it was sick. Kris had a tongue-in-cheek link on the page that offered people a chance to donate to her "transsexual fund." The girl said that it was awful for someone to expect others to donate to a purely cosmetic and needless transformation. I raked the girl over the coals in a private message, explaining that while it's not common, transsexualism is a very real thing. To be forced to live as something you're not is a special kind of hell, and living a lie exacts a tremendous toll on you. Kris feels the need to have her body match her mind, and I don't blame her for it; my need to modify myself with tattoos, cuttings, and piercings is somewhat similar. Gender is a basic part of who we are, and to have that uncertain in some way undermines the self. Everyone needs to live as they are. (For the record, the girl wrote back and apologized.) Knowing Kris and her situation made me examine my own gender identification and the reasons behind it.
What makes someone male or female? I'm an ardent feminist, and always felt proud of being a woman. But the problem is, I never stopped to think about what it really means to be a woman. (I feel a little foolish about this in retrospect.) I've read volumes of feminist literature and philosophy and psychology, and I don't know if anyone ever explicitly says what a woman is. I know of our accomplishments in all the fields it's possible to be accomplished in, I know what it's like to live as a woman in a patriarchal society. But that doesn't answer the fundamental question: What makes a woman a woman? (Or a man a man, for that matter.) Being female is often tied into childbearing and pregnancy, neither of which are even remotely part of my identity. So what is it? Is it my body? My mind? Neither? Both?
My body, complete with vagina and uterus and breasts, is that of a female. I have clitoral and vaginal orgasms, I began menstruating at twelve and presumably will reach menopause a few decades from now. But while all this is part of my gender, my body isn't what makes me female. (Not entirely, anyway. I'm not saying the body is irrelevant; I'll get to that later.) If the body is what determines the gender, then Kris isn't a girl yet and won't be until she undergoes sex-reassignment procedures. Gender is biology, perhaps, but biology is not destiny.
Lawrence Kohlberg describes sex-typing in three stages: developing gender identity, gender stability, and gender constancy. Gender identity is the knowledge of being male or female, gender stability is the realization that gender is a permanent characteristic, and gender constancy is the recognition that although behavior and appearance may change, gender does not. This means that as girls recognize themselves as female and understand they will remain female, they accept "feminine" activities and traits.
I think the most important part of this theory is the notion of gender identity, the knowledge that one is male or female. I think gender identity is composed of a combination of mind and body, because it isn't one or the other and both obviously must play a role. In my case, my mind and body are both female; Kris has the female mind but a male body. What gives the mind its gender? Beats the hell out of me. I was socialized as female and that's what I am, while Kris was socialized as male and is female. It's like sexual preference: it just is. There's no surmising why.
The most significant effect my gender has had on myself is simple: it makes the world react to me as a female, not as a person. Like most people, I exhibit both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits; I believe that had I been born a boy, I'd have the same talents and interests.
But my experiences would have been vastly different, and all of myself that results from that shaping would be dramatically different. I don't necessarily endorse gender-schema theory, which states that we perceive the world in terms of our gender; however, the world treats males and females in dissimilar ways. Is it any wonder that in childhood, when gender differences are emphasized, there is more of a gender divide than in other ages? We get older and transcend ourselves somewhat; gender can be less of a limitation. I know that statistically some traits correspond to certain genders, but that doesn't mean a lot to me. I think socialization has; many women behave in "feminine" ways because they feel they should, not because it's their natural inclination.
I do consider myself very feminine sexually. I like to seduce, I like to beguile. It's fun to be a sex kitten, predatory in a slinky, feline way. The exquisite pleasure of having delicious, attentive foreplay lavished on me is something I feel in a uniquely female way; it may be just as good for a man, but surely it's different. Feminist writing often discusses how intimidating and powerful female sexuality is, and I agree; I've always enjoyed the idea of vagina dentata. Female sexuality is rich and textured and complex, and I feel that heartily in my own sexual expressions and feelings. But I don't know if I could reconcile my sexuality if I were trapped in a male body. It just wouldn't be the same. I wouldn't be fully myself.
Sexuality complicates transgenderism further. I think of Pvt. Barry Winchell, a soldier brutally killed in July 1999. Winchell's partner was a beautiful transgendered woman named Calpernia Addams. He considered her female, but because their sex life was homosexual (Addams is preoperational), he considered himself gay. Before Addams his other partners were female, and he hadn't shown any indication of homosexuality. I think of their relationship as a standard heterosexual coupling between a man and a woman. But there was that one nagging thing, Addams was still in a male body. And no matter how progressive the thinking, or how natural it was for Addams to live her life as a woman, she still had male sex organs that influenced how she could make love. I wish the mainstream press had been able to tell the story as it is; Addams was portrayed as a gay man moreso than as a transgendered woman. I suppose it's easier that way, no sticky issues of gender identification and sexual preference with which to contend. But she isn't a gay man, she's a straight woman.
As I said, biology is not destiny. Anatomy is not the self. But it's hard to deny a penis (or lack thereof). I admire people like Kris and Calpernia Addams for being able to stay realistic while becoming their true female selves. They don't deny their male genitals, though they both plan to alter them when they're able. They manage to be female without descending into some fantasy world or living in denial.
I know I'm lucky that my self is intact, that there's no fissure between my body and my mind. However, I think of the self as a construct, partly molded from outside, partly created from within. Everyone has to create themselves in their own way. I'm doing it now with my bodyart, my education, my work. If more people thought in those terms, perhaps being transgendered would seem like less of an aberration and more of an obstacle to be overcome.
Kris is a kind, gentle, and talented person, more than just a gender. While being a female is important, it isn't all she is, just like it isn't all I am, or all any woman is. A good part of who I am results from having lived my life as a female; but Kris, who lived as a male for most of her life, is just as female as I am. It's a complex subject, though it all comes down to people in the end.
Second Sex is an ongoing series of essays about the intermingling of sexuality, politics, gender, psychology, feminism, and philosophy.
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.