When I explain that my manhood is not defined by the presence or absence of a penis, by my mannerism, or by my physical nature, a lot of cis folks will ask some permutation of, “Well, what does being a man mean to you, then? How do you know you’re a man?”
The shortest I answer I have in response is: “Well, how do you know you’re a man or woman?”
The longer answer is that this is both complex and simple. Let’s dive in.
1. ASKING A TRANS PERSON TO DEFINE THEIR MAN-, WOMAN-, OR PERSONHOOD FOR YOU SO THAT YOU CAN VERIFY IT WITHIN YOUR OWN BOXES IS A MICROAGGRESSION.
(A quick litmus test for “is this a microaggression” via my best friend Kevin is this: If you are talking about marginalization and you say something you don’t think it’s offensive, but it offends someone, it’s a microaggression.)
I am very cognizant of the fact that most folks do not intend these questions as mean or invasive or invalidating. I hear the curiousity and that is why I’ve created this webpage. However, intent does not bar impact. It’s imperative to recognize that a cis person asking a trans person to define their personhood to them can feel incredibly invalidating because, again, regardless of intent, this implies: I don’t believe you. Your declaration of yourself and your manhood is not enough for me. You must explain and prove to me the validity of your gender. That is, as trans people, we are almost rarely allowed to know ourselves simply by knowing. Instead, we are demanded to prove and to validate something we simply know to be true in our hearts.
As such, I strongly encourage cis folks to wonder why they desire trans people to define their man, woman or personhood in order to understand or accept them. I have never met a cis person who demands other cis people to verify their man or womanhood. I encourage cis folks to consider that while respect should never depend on comprehension, gender isn’t just some incomprehensible concept to cis folks. That is, cis folks have gender, too. Cis folks just rarely have to fight for or prove their gender.
2. GENDER IS NOT A “SOCIAL CONSTRUCT.” GENDER ROLES ARE.
There is absolutely a strong social component of gender. But in my belief, my academic studies in both biology and psychology, and my experience, gender is complex interaction of psychological, social, biophysiological, and yes, some biological factors. However, when I say biological, I am not referencing someone’s penis or lackthereof. I am talking about hormones effects in utero, which is a very long conversation. You can read more about the biology of sex here. In short, some preliminary research theorizes that the hormones a fetus is exposed to in utero have a relationship with the gender identity of the child that is born. Some biologists believe these hormonal interactions in utero play a strong role in formation of gender identity. Still, it seems that there are many factors–as previously stated–including sociality and psychological factors.
All of this is to say: Gender itself is a social construct alone. Gender roles, on the other hand, are absolutley a social construct.
An anecdotal piece of evidence: Some folks seem to believe that if society hadn’t gendered me as female and I could have just defined myself for myself, then I wouldn’t have transitioned. People often use this to support the theory that gender is a construct. This is false. I would have transitioned regardless of anyone else’s perception of me. That is, if you took away sociality and put me on an island alone, I still would have transitioned. I know this because this is exactly what I asked myself when I was trying to figure out if I would transition in the first place. That is: my transition was and is for me and me alone. It’s about truly feeling myself as myself and aligning my soul with myself.
I think many cis folks believe that “gender doesn’t matter” outside of sociality and society’s systematic categorization and oppression based on gender, but I think this is inextricable from the privilege of being cisgender. Many cis folks have never had to fight for their gender, or even explore their gender. Most cis men have never even considered what their gender means to them, what privileges it affords them, and what it would mean to have it questioned.
I encourage everyone (cis folks especially, though) to wonder about and question your own gender. Discover what it means to you and how, truly, at your very core, you know your gender to be true. If you are a cis man and tomorrow you woke up in a cis woman’s body, would you suddenly be (in your soul, in your mind and heart) a different person? I would imagine not. What does being a man mean to you? How do you quantify your manhood as a cis person? How did you know you were cis? How do you know you are who you are?
You might find (as most folks do) that the end of the line of questioning leads to: “Well… I don’t know. I just know this is who I am.” Well, same here.