That which makes us men (and women)

Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), Sicilian dress (a boy disguised as a girl). Taormina, circa 1895.

Over the weekend, I read two blog posts, both of which contained phrases that made me cringe a little.  Overall, I liked the posts.  I thought both writers had good things to say.  So my desire is not to be critical of the bloggers or their opinions.  And I do understand the place they were coming from, given the fact that it’s really hard to think outside a small circle of personal experience.  I also want to be sensitive to this issue of privilege, especially after turning my critical eye on a fellow blogger for how she treated the problem.

But here it is: Both blog posts had obviously cisnormative bias in their writing.  Probably unintentionally so.

In the first, About a Boy, Meg Lawton talks with her son about the harsh words used against him at school.  It is otherwise a beautiful, wise, gentle post both about the nurturing of our children and about the feelings we as parents experience when our children are hurting.  But it contained the unfortunate phrase,

The only thing that makes you a boy, is your penis.

The second post was The church is not feminised – blow your noses on your man sized tissues and get over yourselves!  The blogger, Jenny, writes about the tendency of some men (ahem) to complain that the church has been emasculated.  I don’t entirely agree with her theology, but she makes a good point:  Since men still have the bulk of power in the church, they can’t complain about it becoming “feminized.”  This post, too, had a phrase that bothered me:

If you have a penis you’re a man.

Not to sound like I’m obsessed with penises, but what the heck, people?

Neither of the statements made by these bloggers is strictly true.  Certainly, it’s true most of the time.  But not all.  It isn’t the penis that makes one a man.  There is more than one reason a man might not have a penis, and more than one reason a person with a penis might not be a man.

As I said, I can entirely understand the bias of the writers.  In their experience, the people around them are likely to be cisgender, and they are probably unaware of anyone whose medical condition necessitated the removal of the penis.  They probably don’t know (or don’t think they know) anyone intersexed.  So of course they are going to speak from that perspective.  And in the case of the first post, Ms Lawton was also dealing with how to help her non-gender-conforming children process the world around them, which in itself is admirable.

In reading these posts, it occurred to me that I don’t have any idea what makes us men or women.  Obviously, I personally don’t believe it’s the presence or absence of certain genitalia.  Nor do I think it has anything to do with our interests.  I have two non-conforming children, yet both of them (at least at this point) seem pretty clear that their outsides match their insides in terms of gender.  So what does make us men or women or both or neither?

I don’t think I could tell you, even for myself.  Because I’ve never had to struggle with this personally, I’ve never even had to think about it.  I am the possessor of breasts and a uterus; I also just feel like a woman.  Yet I wouldn’t be any less of one if I lost my breasts or uterus to cancer.  I might miss those parts, but not because I had suddenly become a man without them.

It’s probably something worth considering, especially if I want to be able to understand how others think and feel.  It’s worth figuring out why I feel so distinctly womanly, in the same way it was worth thinking about why I feel attracted only to men.  (I think this exercise is worth it for any area of our lives in which we differ from someone else, in order to better understand their experiences.)

If anyone wants to chime in, feel free.  When you think about your masculinity/femininity, what makes you feel that way?  Is it just a matter of “knowing” who you are, or is there something specific?


5 thoughts on “That which makes us men (and women)

  1. Hi Amy, thank you so much for continuing this important conversation. As you’ll see in the comment thread below my article I addressed the very concern you highlight here. In retrospect I have often thought my response wasn’t helpful, or true. I’m sure the transgendered community would have not agreed with my response at all. I too have struggled to succinctly define what it means to align yourself with a gender – and if it is even important to! i’m keen to read any forthcoming comments here.

    • Wow, thank you for replying to my post! I hope in no way did I sound critical of yours–it struck me very deeply, as I have a boy who has had his “boyness” called into question for being interested in the arts. Personally, I *loved* your post. I only highlighted it as an example of one thing that has made me uncomfortable because as we shift from being sensitive to non-conforming people, we still have others who are marginalized. I still haven’t worked it all out myself, and I love that there are other kind, wise people on this journey with me. 🙂

  2. Late as usual to this, but it’s a subject pretty close to my heart, as someone who often feels a couple of steps closer to the middle of the gender spectrum than I think most people who present as male. (Not something terribly obvious about me; I suspect I’d do a lot more external code-switching if I were more able to assume traditional female beauty standards. I think that’s Mysogyny and Body Image Hoses Everyone, part six million and three in a series.)

    As an aside, just yesterday I was poking around the Internets looking up stuff about Richard O’Brien (who you likely know best as the voice of Lawrence Fletcher on [em]Phineas & Ferb[/em]; also famous for writing and co-starring in [em]The Rocky Horror Picture Show[/em]), and his Wikipedia page links to an article from a few years ago where he talks about feeling uncomfortable with traditional gender roles and thinking of himself as between male and female. It’s nice to know that all the gender-bending stuff in RHPS – an inspirational beacon to several generations of us middling-Kinsey and genderqueer folks of all stripes – came from the heart.

    • (Note to self: Pointy, not square, brackets on formatting tags in WordPress. I’m away from the console for a little while and I forget all I know.)

    • Well, anyone associated with P&F is cool in my book. 🙂

      Societal codes prevent most of us from feeling free to explore these things. Not to mention the ways in which we’ve dictated certain associations between what is or is not “masculine” or “feminine.” When I stopped listening to conservative Christianity on the matter, I found that I was free to think about what makes me feel like a woman. I discovered that I feel very much like a woman, and I would never want to be a man. But I’m not super “feminine” in that I’m not interested in many of the things women are expected to like. I also discovered a great many people (both men and women) who feel the same way about themselves, but have learned to feel guilty about it because of the Church. I wish more Christians would take seriously the part of the Bible where Jesus says he came to set us free. I don’t take that to mean just from sin, but from all the things placed on us that don’t come from nature/God/our true selves. We’re set free from what our human culture imposes on us. Sadly, for a lot of my fellow Christians, there is a deeply rooted sense that societal norms are Biblical ones, because they mistakenly believe we are (or were) a “Christian” nation. If we broke free from that tether, we would be much better off.

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