What is gender? Part 5: Gender as behavior

This post is the fifth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.

The conversation on gender expression.

In the last post I talked about gender groupings and how one is perceived/treated as a gendered individual. The gender one is perceived as is largely determined by two factors: secondary sexual characteristics, and gender behavior. The first, secondary sexual characteristics, is the physical amalgam of sex-typical characteristics (facial hair, breasts), which is largely determined by hormones and can change over time. The second, gender behavior, is the varied ways in which a person displays femininity, masculinity, or androgyny in the world.

In my chart I break gender behavior into several terms. The first one is gender expression (or gender expressiveness), and for my purposes it means the natural outflowing of masculinity or femininity. Generally this is affected by subconscious sex, gender identity, hormones, and any inherent masculine or feminine tendencies. The gay boy who cannot stop himself from having limp wrists no matter how much his parents try to beat it out of him might very well be expressing natural femininity, just as a left-handed person expresses natural lefthandedness even if they’re taught to be ambidextrous. When I came out of the closet, at least some of the femininity in my behavior arose from a subconscious place that was natural to me but that had been shut down by society. Certainly the more integrated I’ve become, the more natural expression has emerged from the deep.

Gender performance (or affected gender) is the side of gender expression that isn’t natural. Some feminists would say that all gender behavior is performative, but I disagree. There are too many people who act naturally feminine or masculine despite being socialized in the opposite direction. However, some of gender is definitely an act. The little boy who hates sports is performing gender when he pretends to like sports. When I tried to suppress my subconscious sex and redefine myself based on forced masculine role models like Teddy Roosevelt, I was studying how to perform gender. On the other side of the coin, a female drag king who dresses as a guy to entertain a crowd is quite literally performing gender. For some gay guys (certainly not all), their particular culture of gay-specific flamboyancy (or effeminacy as it’s derogatorily called) is a performance to mark themselves as visibly gay.

Gender breakdown drag queent

Possible gender embattlement for a drag queen or transvestite.

Both natural gender and performed gender combine to create gender presentation, which mostly has to do with how one deliberately appears to the world. If gender performance is how one deliberately acts, gender presentation is how one deliberately wants to be perceived. It is how one attempts to have their gender perceived (not necessarily how other people actually perceive it).

As a transsexual woman my gender expression is now feminine because my femininity is unrepressed. My gender performance is also usually feminine, but more because of social pressures to conform to cultural notions of femininity, as well as my desire to be affirmed as a woman. The sum total is a female gender presentation: I present myself as a woman, with the hopes that people will perceive me as female (my perceived gender) and will group me with other girls (my gender grouping). Tension exists when all these factors don’t align. Just the other day I had an experience in which my gender performance and perceived gender didn’t match my gender expression, and the result was incredible anxiety.

Unfortunately, gender behavior is the side of gender that the media leans all its weight on. A lot of public discussions about gender behavior become steeped in pejorative sexism. Gay men and transgender women are confused with each other because both are considered “feminine males.” For those who define being a man as being anatomically male, both gay men and transgender women are effeminate men; whereas for those who define being a woman as being feminine, both gay men and transgender women are “basically girls.” Misogyny turns this evaluation into an insult, since (after all) it’s bad to be feminine or a girl, especially if you’re male. Of course, confusing gay men and transgender women is ridiculous and defies actual experience.

A place where gender-as-expression creates tension within the trans community is the de-medicalization of trans issues by trans liberationists. For many transsexuals, the existence of transsexuality or gender dysphoria as a medical diagnosis is extremely comforting. It aligns with our own experience, that being trans is problematic not only because of how society views us, but because our body itself experiences an innate tension that can be crippling. Gender reassignment surgery really is life-saving for some. Other transgender people who conceive gender primarily as a presentation which ought to be queered or usurped view hormone therapy and surgeries as elective cosmetic procedures. This is why the transgender community is sometimes schizophrenic on this issue, one moment demanding health care coverage and the next demanding God-like autonomy over their own bodies. The community doesn’t know how to treat issues of problematic embodiment separately from issues of  gender performance.

These assumptions and conflations become crystal clear with the media hype around Caitlyn Jenner. During her interview with Diane Sawyer she had some vulnerable breathing room to talk about her gender as both subconscious sex and social grouping – she feels a sense of belonging both to the female sex and the “woman” social group. However, perhaps in no small part because of how she presents herself, since then the media has only latched onto the most superficial elements of her femininity. It’s not her lifelong subconscious transsexual experience that makes her a woman, but her new hairdo, name-brand cocktail dress, and plastic surgery.

Gender breakdown media

How social media, fundamentalist Christians, and TERFs mistakenly conceptualize Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.

With Caitlyn Jenner we see the negative side of this view of gender. If gender is nothing but a set of superficial cosmetic stereotypes that mostly apply to women, then gender ideologists are right to tear it down because it’s essentially meaningless. There was no Christian Doir in the Garden of Eden, or even in the Bronze Age.

So much of gender is performance that it’s hard to see what’s genuine expression. Expression is important because it points beyond the superficial to the subconscious and natural. The two are hard to parse out because they often coincide. When I wear a floral skirt, it’s predominantly expressive in that I just frickin’ love floral skirts, but it’s also performative in that I’m conforming to standards of femininity. We need to separate out these two elements so we can both talk about what this expressiveness says about my nature (are you listening, gender essentialists?), and what this pressure to perform says about our society (how about you, gender deconstructionists?).

The ways in which my gender behavior isn’t natural is only in the same way that some cisgender people unnaturally exaggerate their own gender behavior to fit in. Would I feel compelled to wear makeup as often as I do if the world was more accepting of frumpy women? Probably not. However, for transgender people there’s an added dimension to behavior concerns: namely the need to feel safe and validated. Transgender women in particular get a lot of flack for practicing their feminine voice or obsessing over “passing” as women, and cisgender people use this as proof that trans women are “performing” in order to “deceive” others or “play” at being women. They fail to empathize with the social ramifications of being a tall woman with a deep voice. This kind of “practicing gender” isn’t usually about “transforming into a woman,” but about having the luxury to live as oneself without being constantly accosted. The end goal is free expression – creating safe space in the world to allow oneself to be oneself.

A lot of conservative rhetoric against me assumes that in acting as a woman in society, I’m putting on an elaborate ruse to fool the outside world. They miss the fact that much of my female persona is a natural expression flowing from my inner self.

It’s this expression that forms the core of some peoples’ gender identity. An anatomical female may, for example, be naturally masculine but not have a subconscious male sex. They identify as transgender not because they feel an inescapable male identity at their core, but because their natural gender expression is so masculine that it puts them outside any recognizable female gender expectation. There’s nothing about “girlhood” or “womanhood” that resonates with them.

Gender breakdown expression

The possible gender embattlement of a transgender female who takes on a masculine persona because of inherent masculinity.

In this case, as is partially the case for a transsexual woman with a subconscious female sex, the issue is authenticity. However, it’s authenicity of expression, expectations, social grouping, and role rather than subconscious sex. This distinction is lost on most people, even some transgender people, but that’s why we need to have these more nuanced discussions about gender. The transgender person above has just as valid a complaint against gender oppression as a transsexual like me, but their complaint is entirely different. They quite naturally don’t fit into the binary, and in asserting themselves as transgender, they’re refusing to be shoved like a square peg into a circle hole.

If we can’t create a society that tolerates exceptions to the gender “norm” such as this, then we’re heartless. You can kick and scream all you want about how “it’s only natural that males be masculine and females be feminine,” but you need to read what’s actually natural to real people, just as you have to simply acknowledge the existence of intersex people. You can formulate a lofty notion of gender essentialism to define “what a woman is essentially,” but be careful not to ignore the individual woman whose essence doesn’t quite reflect the characteristics you thought it would.

Proceed to Part 6, the conversation on “gender as role.”

10 thoughts on “What is gender? Part 5: Gender as behavior

  1. Pingback: What is gender? Part 4: Gender as social grouping | The Catholic Transgender

  2. Pingback: What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible | The Catholic Transgender

  3. Hi, Being a scientific researcher, it is hard for me not to add credence to your words and ideas. To me, all the answers to any question, lie between the extremes somewhere. The point is, if I or anyone can find the two extremes than everyone we know of is either one of those extremes, or some addition of both conditions. For instance, I am sort of an extreme, in being a girl in a guys body, but not a femme girl, as I would like to be. Instead I like planes and scuba diving, hunting hiking a cigar once in a while, and in general anything the boys like to do. Yet, i love a good dress an pretty hair once in awhile and certainly need a girls night out, and romance, not sex, romance from my lover who in my case is also my husband. As I grew up and was captured Psychologically by a Sociopath, I had to live a life that I thought I had to live. In that life a child was born, who thankfully now has graduated Summa, or Magna Cum Laude in Psychology from Notre Dame de Namur University in Menlo Park California. I raised her being the best male dad that I could be. As she aged and I did not die of natural causes in time, the time came when I knew what I was finally, at age 65 and then had the rather scary and unpleasant task of killing her dad, to me. That was my worry. I had to tell her once I knew, that I was actually a female on the inside, thus she never had a normal dad per se, but a woman for a Dad. I wished of course like everyone else to be dead, so I could avoid this rather unpleasant task. The day came. She responded with.”I wondered why I took so many abnormal sexuality classes at school.” Later she would say this to me: “All the unusual ways you had about you compared to normal dads, is totally explained now.” She meant she understood that I bought into those who said that gender is anything but natural in a person, and those that said your body type determines your gender. She also meant that she now understood that I was just a female trying to be a male dad, but that is impossible to do naturally, and she always saw the differences. Today, she means, yes you were a girl trying to be a guy. Now, if you take the fact that I was trying as hard as possible to be male in a male body, and the late realization that I came to believing in what my internals were saying, then I am an extreme, and thus very valuable in understanding how gender plays it self out, in the long term. In my case, and all the guys even today say, “But you are so tough, and so authoritative and so scary in confrontations, how can you say that you are female on the inside?” My answer is because I am, and those that know me long enough know that without my knowing it or trying to be female. It is also this. Now that I am on hormones, although looking no different almost, you all treat me as though I am a girl. You never fight with me. When you see my emotions on my face, you immediately react. I calm a group of men, even though my body is male looking and male acting. You all like me because guys like girls. I have had this conversation with combat veterans, which is also my peer group, and they all know it is true. They act like guys around a girl with me. And they don’t even know it, normally. Then when they are told, it changes nothing except they no longer expect me to be in certain “guy” conversations anymore. Gender in my experience, no matter what kind, meaning male, female, or something in between is just fixed and unchangeable. So, even the real world agrees with you, Anna. LOVE, …Mary., …. .

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Pingback: What is gender? Part 6: Gender as role | The Catholic Transgender

  5. Pingback: Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender | Queering the Church

  6. Catching up! 🙂 … You express things very clearly. It’s eye-opening to read about the different levels of gender perception, performance, expression, and grouping. Learning a lot about human experience in general here, as well as trans experiences in particular.

    I’ve been reading a bit recently about the importance of a sense of group belonging to human flourishing, and that’s driving home the seriousness of the sense of not-belonging, of isolation, that comes through in your posts (and that I’ve been seeing again and again in testimonials from the LGBTQ community ever since I started listening). Your last paragraph … I’m not sure whether to cheer or cry or ready myself for an epic battle with society, but either way, my heart’s all with you in that rally for a more accepting world.

    You’re often on my heart and in my prayers. Hope you wear your floral skirt just for the sheer delight of it, and feel loved.

  7. Your articles are really great. And you are expressing the thoughts well. I would like to suggest you to add some tips for transpeople to cope with what they are. By using the information here, people will be able to think in various levels. It would be even better if they can convert those thoughts into actions that protect them well, and to progress further..
    For example, for some people cognitive strategies are enough to reduce gender dysphoria. For others, transitioning is the better choice to move on in life. I am sure it will help a lot of people, if you add such thoughts along with the philosophical ones..

    • Thank you for the feedback! This particular blog is geared toward theological/ philosophical questions but honestly my passion is for more postural & personal concerns. My hope is to soon start two new initiatives, one telling the testimonies of trans Catholic people, and the other being a spirituality blog. I would love to give advice and feedback, but I think the format of this blog is somewhat limited. If you email me through the contact link, we can talk more in person

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