Gendered Spirit?

By Kris Littlesun

I am going to talk about something I think about a lot, and especially recently as I’ve been reading a few anti-trans blogs and articles* (mainly because I like the mental exercise it gives me, and to understand why people think the way that they do).

The main argument against people transitioning, from a certain kind of feminist point of view, seems to be that gender is socially constructed – that when female bodied people talk about “feeling male” that what they really mean is that they are more comfortable with the male social role than the female (and also that they have been taught to hate their female body by a misogynistic culture). They claim that the problem is the limitations of the social roles of gender – that if these roles were broken down then people would be happy being in whatever social role they fitted into best and not feel the need to change their body or to identify as a gender different to the one assigned to them at birth.

I have heard many people talk about their gender identity and try to explain it, whether they be trans, cis, or gender fluid in various ways. Something I’ve noticed is that people tend to use the language of masculine/feminine, by which I mean society’s ideas about how men and women should act. Things like “I like wearing dresses/suits/etc, I always played with cars/dolls/etc”. But these things really have very little to do with feeling male or female (or whatever); they are about style and behaviour. Someone can feel more comfortable in a dress and yet still feel very much male and vice versa. I’ve also known trans women who feel like butch lesbians and trans men who consider themselves to be transvestites because they enjoy wearing women’s clothes.

I have a very strong feeling of being male, despite being born with a female body. I don’t feel particularly masculine, and those who know me know that I don’t act in a way that is typically masculine at all. So what does it mean to feel male? This is something that I actually find quite baffling myself. The idea that there is a core part of my identity which somehow fits into the binary gender structure which I don’t really believe in is one that is a bit of a stumbling block for me.

So I can’t help feeling there must be something more going on here. Something that is beyond language, something of the spirit. It might not be a very fashionable idea to have in this queer world of gender deconstruction, to talk about our spirits being gendered, or about us having some sort of gendered essence. In fact it’s something that goes against what I want to believe about gender. However it’s the only way I’ve found that can describe how I feel.

At Queer Pagan Camp this year I ran a workshop that involved a shamanic journey to meet your gender identity (this idea initially came from a humorous misreading of the forthcoming attractions board where the name of two workshops were mixed together). I ran this to try and find a new way to talk about gender that wasn’t based on these culturally defined ideas of masculine and feminine. I feel that the shamanic language of metaphor and symbology has the potential to give us answers to these issues, that by connecting directly with both Spirit and our own personal spirit we may be able to find a way to communicate about gender on another level, one that isn’t held in by binary thinking and biological determinism and also that doesn’t rely on culturally defined ideas of presentation style and behaviour.

The workshop had varying levels of success, some people seemed to have very profound experiences while for others I got the feeling they felt it was a bit of a waste of time. I certainly feel that we only dipped our toe into a vast sea of confusion and possibility with this workshop, and that there could be much more work done by many people on this (I personally was unable to join with the journey as I was holding the space – I’m sure I’ll try it myself sometime though!).

I think for me the main reason I’m drawn to looking into these issues is to understand what makes people trans – or more to the point what makes me trans. I have felt for a long time that I chose to be born trans, that I volunteered for this particular role that I find myself in now. I think that it could also be possible that, rather than there being a set “spirit gender” (for want of a better term), there may be some of us who simply come into this world more likely to be trans, or gender queer, as a reaction to the rigid gender structures that exist in our culture. We are fed into the world to shake things up, to challenge perceptions, to stop people getting complacent. To show people that the map is not the territory and that we can change the map at any time.

But, as I say, these thoughts are very much a work in progress.

*I was initially going to post a link to one blog in particular, but I decided against it because a) I don’t want to give her more publicity than she deserves and b) I don’t want her to find this blog through the link and give people on here abuse

5 comments on “Gendered Spirit?

  1. maevie says:

    This has turned in to a much longer comment than I intended. Feel free to delete it and we can have the discussion via email if that’s more appropriate! I’ve tried to be careful about the language I’ve used but please let me know if anything is potentially/actually offensive.

    Firstly, just to say that I’ve been reading quite a few blogs of trans people lately, which often iniclude rebuttals of anti-trans blogs, hence I suspect I know who you’re referring to in your article! And I agree, no need to give her more publicity.

    On to your post, which was great:

    I find the social construct/roles of gender argument to be intruiging, especially as someone raised within the exact sort of feminist post-gender surroundings that are argued for by some people. Despite being subject to the usual social pressures for girls/women in the ‘outside’ world, there was never any pressure on me at home to fulfil any particular roles, and I wonder whether that contributes to the fuzziness in my head about this topic.

    As you said before and here, so much of it is just about style, and I find the idea of gendered clothing or behaviour, to be pretty ridiculous. Apart from the fact that e.g. most corsets were designed for a certain waist/hip ratio and breasts, it seems absurd to me that clothing can be gendered at all. It’s all just historical and social behaviours that get passed on.

    But the idea of ‘feeling’ a particular gender is really fascinating. As I said before, I really don’t know what it means to feel female, although I am quite happy in the body I’m in. Before puberty, I can remember being mis-pronouned, and being quite affronted about it, but, having examined this quite closely in recent weeks, I think the only reasons I was offended were a) the fact that it was contradictory to everything I’d been told about myself, and b) the guy that said it was clearly making a statement that was derogatory towards women, so I felt the need to align myself with and stick up for them.

    But I really struggle to work out whether, or how, I feel ‘female’ and what that means. The only tangible thing that I can come up with is that I do want to experience pregnancy and childbirth, but even that may simply be a result of social pressures. If I’d been raised as male, perhaps I wouldn’t have that thought? It’s led me to wondering whether a lot of people are just comfortable enough in what they’ve been assigned, with a small population feeling more strongly that they either identify with their assigned gender or don’t.

    So I’m definitely up for more discussion, and would really love to hear more from trans people about how you can be so sure of your gender; whether it is just that the one assigned at birth felt wrong (a push?), or if there is something tangible that you are moving towards (a pull?).

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article

    • Hey Mave! Thanks for the response, don’t worry about the length, it’s good to get into these conversations 🙂

      I thought your question of the push/pull thing is interesting (though it does remind me of talking about migration in GCSE geography…), and I’ve not ever really thought about it in those terms. I’m sure different people have different experiances, but this is my personal take on it. I don’t think I ever really hated my female-shaped body, it just never felt like it was the same shape as my brain think it is. Also before I started taking testosterone, I felt pre-pubescent rather than feeling “trapped in a woman’s body”. The main initial relief of testosterone was being able to go through a puberty that felt right for me. So for me it was very much about the “pull” of feeling male, rather than the “push” of feeling “not female”

  2. maevie says:

    Cool, that is very interesting. Were there specific things (hair, shape etc) ‘pulling’ you, do you think? Or is it a more vague sense of moving towards being male?

    Also, you talked in the original post about not being particularly masculine. Have you got any thoughts about what maleness means outside of stereotypical masculinity?

    I’m going to a bunch of trans-themed sessions at the LGBT health summit next week (including Heathen and Bonsai’s, of course!). But I think this one should be really interesting, and quite relevant to this conversation:

  3. That workshop looks interesting, I’d love to see any notes from it!

    “Cool, that is very interesting. Were there specific things (hair, shape etc) ‘pulling’ you, do you think? Or is it a more vague sense of moving towards being male?”

    I think most of the time when things seemed to be “pulling me towoards male”, it was more that these were things I desired because they would allow me to pass better, though I think there was also the physical aspect of the fact that most of these things are how my brain always felt my body should be. I guess it’s hard to seperate them out. Though the main reason I wanted chest surgery before starting T was because I didn’t pass at all and I thought it was due to having a large chest – then once I was on T I started passing anyway, and it became less of an issue.

    “Also, you talked in the original post about not being particularly masculine. Have you got any thoughts about what maleness means outside of stereotypical masculinity?”

    I guess this is the question I’m trying to work out through this article and the thoughts that have led up to it… It’s not something that really makes any sense to me at the moment!

  4. maevie says:

    yeah, I quite understand. As you may imagine, I have spent some time pestering Jay with these sorts of questions! I’m really interested in trying to understand how we internally perceive our own gender. My conversations with cis folk have been even more vague, as it’s so rarely something that people even think about unless there is something they perceive to be wrong.

    Very interesting about the reduction of importance of chest surgery for you as you were able to pass more. Do you think if we were able to create a society where gender was either non-existent or completely self-defined, (i.e. where there is no need to pass), physical alterations would be even less important? I wonder how much what ‘your brain thought your body should be’ is socially defined by our thoughts about maleness?

    Arg! I just keep coming up with new questions!! Will have to attempt this conversation in person sometime!

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