Gender in 12 Dimensions

Even though I didn’t find much self-understanding in the “Classic Trans Story,” I did, eventually find some models of gender that helped me understand more of myself and my experiences, and that helped me answer the question of whether I should go through a gender transition. In this post, I’ll talk about those models, and what I found useful in them and how they helped me make sense of my identity.

Gender is complicated. Much more complicated than I realized before I started (consciously) exploring mine. Like most people, I just sort of thought that there were boys who grew up to be men and there were girls who grew up to be women, and something about all that made me feel pretty awkward so I didn’t really talk about it or hang out with people who were super masculine or super feminine. That led me to become friends with and date some fairly gender-complex/gender-non-conformant people. And that means I started getting exposed to bits of gender theory before I even realized I might be trans. When I was 29 or 30, a trans friend of mine started explaining the difference between “sex” and “gender” to me. “Sex” is about the body. It’s physical. It’s about penises and vaginas and breasts and height and DNA and hormone levels and ovaries and testicles and uteruses (uteri?) and the ability to grow a beard and those sorts of things. Gender on the other hand is psychological and sociological. Gender is about dresses and ties and who asks who out on the first date and dreaming of fairy tale weddings and learning how to fix a car and “Venus and Mars” and such.

When I first heard about this distinction between sex and gender, I rejected it (as most people who’ve never thought much about it do). And when I say that I rejected it, I mean that I didn’t buy that sex and gender were actually utterly and completely unrelated and disconnected and that it was totally random that they got paired up the way they did in our society. What I didn’t get at the time is that they don’t have to be completely unrelated for the distinction to be a very valuable one. If there is anyone for whom sex and gender don’t match up in the way that is publicly expected, then this means that sex and gender are actually independent things that are capable of varying independently. The point is that some people who are physically female just aren’t into cooking and needlework and some people who are physically male just aren’t into fixing cars and playing sports.

The fact that people can vary from the stereotypes was no surprise to me (I had never been very good at matching the expected behavior and personality attributes for boys), but it took me longer to understand that recognizing the sex/gender distinction is critical to recognizing the validity of varying from gender expectations. I knew that I did vary. What I didn’t know (at least not deep down in my gut) was that it was OK, and in some sense even “normal,” to vary from the “boy role” I felt like the world always expected me to play. The sex/gender distinction doesn’t imply that there is no statistical correlation in the world between being physically male and being into “guy stuff”. It implies that it’s possible and not “less real” or “less valid” to be physically male and not be into “guy stuff” (or even to be into “girl stuff”).

This kind of liberating distinction between two things (in this case sex and gender) is a very common theme in the theories of gender that I’ve learned and benefitted from most. And different sets of distinctions are valuable for different people in making sense of their identities. For gay people, the distinction between identity and attraction is critical. Just as society typically expects physically male people to act like “real men”, society also expects men to be attracted to women and women to be attracted to men. And even if most men do like women and most women do like men, having a distinction between identity and attraction and recognizing that those can actually vary independently allows one to recognize homosexuality as a real and valid possibility.

And similar to the sex/gender distinction and the identity/attraction distinction, another distinction that’s critical for recognizing trans people as real and valid is the distinction between (internal) identity and (external) appearance. A trans person might look female but have an internal identity of male. Let me explain in more detail. As I mentioned before, there are people who have an intense need to be a different physical sex from the time they are young children. Many of these people have a very difficult time going through puberty and developing in sex-specific ways that don’t match their internal identities. There is also (some, not-completely conclusive) research that shows a correlation between MTF transsexuality and a deformity of the androgen receptor gene that prevents it from processing testosterone as efficiently as it ordinarily would. Studies have also found correlations between MTF transsexuality and the BSTc region of the brain being the size it would ordinarily be in physical females rather than the size it would be in most physical males. So, there is at least some fairly plausible evidence that for at least some (MTF) trans people, testosterone fails to “properly masculinize” the brain during gestation and then that person’s brain “expects” to be operating a female body. This would be one possible explanation for the experience that some trans people have of a “sex identity” that fails to match their “sex appearance”.

So all of these distinctions are important in understanding (some of) the variety of combinations there can be in people: gender vs sex, identity vs attraction, and identity vs appearance. But things start to get really interesting when we look at ways these distinctions impact each other. Julia Serano, a brilliant trans author, geneticist and feminist writer, combined some of these distinctions to make further valuable distinctions in her book, “Whipping Girl”. (For instance between sex identity and gender identity.) Later, Claire Ruth Winter, another trans author, took Serano’s work and combined all of these distinctions into a simple, straight-forward grid in her book, “Understanding Transgender Diversity“. I’m going to use slightly different terminology than Winter does, but the following model is essentially hers:

(External) Appearance (Internal) Identity Attraction
Gender Gender Appearance (aka “Gender Presentation”) – Do you act galant? “lady-like”? Do you wear ties? Dresses? Gender Identity – Do you feel like a man? A woman? An angel/ooloi hybrid? ;-) Gender Attraction – Do you get turned on by people acting galant? “lady-like”? Wearing ties? Wearing dresses?
Sex Sex Appearance (aka “Assigned Sex”) – Do you have a penis? Breasts? How tall are you? Can you grow a beard? Sex Identity – What sex is your body supposed to be? Physically male? Physically female? Sex Attraction – Are you turned on by people with big muscles, penises and no breasts? Or maybe by breasts, soft skin and shapely hips?

 

This model is particularly interesting to me because it distinguishes gender identity from sex identity. And this distinction implies some very interesting and (in my opinion) useful definitions for the words “transgender” and “transsexual”. I tend to use these words in the following ways:

  • Transsexual – Having a sex identity that DOES NOT match your sex appearance.
  • Cissexual – Having a sex identity that DOES match your sex appearance.
  • Transgender – Having a gender identity that DOES NOT match your sex appearance.
  • Cisgender – Having a gender identity that DOES match your sex appearance.

There are a couple of things worth noting about these definitions. The first is that these are not standard definitions that most trans literature uses. It’s quite common for people to give definitions like: “Transsexual is when you have genital surgery and transgender is everything else.” I don’t really understand the coherence or value of such a distinction, so I define these words in a way that makes much more sense to me and that I find more useful. Another important thing to note about my definitions is the asymmetry of them. One might wonder why “transgender” is about a mismatch between gender identity and sex appearance rather than a mismatch between gender identity and gender appearance (particularly given that “transsexuality” is defined to be about a mismatch between sex identity and sex appearance). The reason is that gender appearance is fairly easily changeable (put on a tie/dress) as contrasted with sex appearance. People who have a gender identity incongruity with their gender appearance can rectify it with so little effort or public backlash that they don’t tend to be in that state often enough (or long enough) for it to give them dysphoria or for us to call it out and name it here.

OK, now that we have these definitions, we can make some very interestion observations and we can understand some fairly gender-complex and gender-interesting people. Let’s start by thinking about a cissexual/cisgender/female-bodied person. This person would be somewhere in the ball park of the “stereotypical woman”. They would feel comfortable and natural being physically female, and they would feel comfortable and natural acting and dressing “like a woman.”

OK, now let’s mix it up a bit. Let’s think about a transsexual/transgender/male-bodied person. This person might also feel comfortable and natural being physically female (and would feel distress, known as “body dysmorphia”, over being physically male). They might also feel natural and comfortable acting and dressing “like a woman” (and would feel distress, known as “gender dysphoria,” over having to dress and act “like a man”).

Great, now let’s consider a person who is transsexual/cisgender/female-bodied. This person would feel body dysmorphia over their physically female form, and they might have a need to take testosterone and remove their breasts, but they would feel comfortable and natural acting and dressing “like a woman”. This is an extremely unrecognized identity (even within the trans community). Most people, even most trans people, don’t understand why a person would want to become male if they were still going to act feminine. Nonetheless, people with this combination of attributes do exist. I’ve heard some of them refer to themselves as “trans-male femmes.” I’ve also once met a transsexual/cisgender/male-bodied person who went through a gender transition and identified as “female but not a woman.” (Pro tip: The words “male” and “female” refer to sex, and the words “man”, “woman”, “boy”, “girl”, “masculine”, and “feminine” refer to gender.)

OK, now let’s consider someone who is cissexual/transgender/female-bodied. This person would feel very uncomfortable acting and dressing “like a woman” but would also have no desire to change their body to be anything other than female. I’ve met many people like this. They often categorize themselves as “genderqueer.” There are also cissexual/transgender/male-bodied people. I haven’t met as many of these (or not many have identified themselves to me) but I have met some.

Having the distinction between transgender and transsexual and understanding that a person could be one or the other or both or neither was extremely useful to me. It allowed me to start asking myself if I thought I was both of these or just one, and if just one, which one. I’ll get into what answers I ended up settling on in a bit. First I need to explain more distinctions. I also want to mention here (without going into quite as much detail) that the distinction between sex attraction and gender attraction was super useful to me. In fact, this distinction was what finally allowed me to realize that I’m not bisexual like I had previously thought I might be. I came to the conclusion that I’m pretty much exclusively attracted to people with female bodies, but I’m very rarely attracted to women, or at least not to highly gender-conformant women. I tend to be attracted to people with complex “not a stereotypical man, and not a stereotypical woman” gender appearances and who also have fairly female bodies. (I do tend to find smaller breasts more attractive than larger ones, though.)

It’s worth mentioning that Claire Ruth Winter goes into a lot more detail about the complexity and flexibility of options within each of the six boxes in her grid. She doesn’t just restrict gender identity to “man” and “woman” for instance. I didn’t go into the detail she does, because I want to talk about another model of gender identity which I found to be very useful for me, and which captures some of the option-complexity inside the boxes of the grid in another way. This model makes an interesting distinction between masculinity and femininity. Now you might be thinking “Well of course, did anyone think that masculine was the same as feminine?” But I don’t mean that the model says masculine people are not the same as feminine people. I mean that it says masculinity is on an independent dimension from femininity. So a person could be more masculine and less feminine (e.g. a man), or more feminine and less masculine (e.g. a woman) or they could also be more masculine and more feminine (which is called “androgyny”) or less masculine and less feminine (which is called “neutrois“).

Gender Diamond

 

I found this distinction between androgyny and neutrois to be extremely valuable. In particular, for a long time I found myself very comfortable with and drawn toward neutrois people and very uncomfortable with and disoriented by androgynous people. For instance, I read Samantha Morton‘s character in “Code 46” as fairly neutrois and I find that character to be incredibly appealing (both to sleep with and to be).

 

 

By contrast, I found David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character to be a pretty uncomfortable role model (or potential sexual/romantic partner) for me. Some of that has to do with him being male-bodied, but a lot of it has to do with how androgynous I find him (i.e. how much gender he displays):

 

 

By the way, this is a good point to stop and re-iterate that these models are imperfect and incomplete just like all models of gender, and in no way am I trying to give more “realness” or legitimacy to these models (or my interpretations of them) than others. These models helped me make sense of my gender experience but they may not help you. And if they don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re confused or mistaken or that there’s anything wrong with you. You’re not “less than”. In particular, I’ve made a couple of negative sounding remarks about androgyny (vs neutrois). If you are a highly genderful person who wants to wear ties and tutus, then more power to you. Now that I understand I’m not a very genderful person and that I can be something other than a man or a woman without that implying that I should be highly genderful, I’m much more comfortable around people who are more genderful. This distinction between androgyny and neutrois has made me a more relaxed and tolerant person by helping me to understand better what I am and what I want to be.

It’s also worth noting that there are many, many interesting gender identities that aren’t well described by picking out one point on this little “gender square.” For instance, “bigender” or “multi-gender” people experience two or more distinct gender identities. They might be well represented by picking out multiple spots on the square. Other people are “agender” meaning they simply don’t have an experience of a gender identity (unlike people who are neutrois and experience a distinct “minimally masculine and minimally feminine” gender identity). Other people are genderfluid, and they have one or more distinct gender identities, but these change relatively quickly over time. Other people have even more complex gender identities that simply aren’t well captured in any way by this model. The term “genderqueer” is an umbrella term meant to cover people whose gender identity is not one of the two “binary” options of “man” or “woman.”

OK, so now that we have the “gender grid” and the “gender square,” we can put them together to get a 12-dimensional model of gender, which has been a significant model that I’ve used to think about my gender experience and make decisions about what I am and how to handle that. The way I’ve combined these two, is basically to put a gender square into each of the 6 blocks of the gender grid above.

 

(External) Appearance
(Internal) Identity
Attraction
Gender
small gender square small gender square small gender square
Sex
small gender square small gender square small gender square

 

So, the 12 dimensions (and my current position in each) would be:

  1. Gender Appearance Masculinity – some, not a ton (maybe 5 or 6 out of 10)
  2. Gender Appearance Femininity – very little (maybe 1 out of 10)
  3. Sex Appearance Maleness – a fair amount (maybe 7 or 8 out of 10)
  4. Sex Appearance Femaleness – very little but more every day because of the hormones I’m taking (maybe 2 or 3 out of 10 currently)
  5. Gender Identity Masculinity – A medium to low amount (maybe 3 or 4 out of 10)
  6. Gender Identity Femininity – A medium amount (maybe 4 or 5 out of 10)
  7. Sex Identity Maleness – Minimal (maybe 1 or 2 out of 10)
  8. Sex Identity Femaleness – Not that much actually (maybe 3 out of 10)
  9. Gender Attraction to Masculinity – very little (1 or 2 out of 10)
  10. Gender Attraction to Femininity – meh (4 or 5 out of 10)
  11. Sex Attraction to Maleness – basically zilch (0 or maybe 1 occasionally)
  12. Sex Attraction to Femaleness – very high (8 or 9 out of 10)

Or visually,

 

(External) Appearance
(Internal) Identity
Attraction
Gender
Gender Appearance

external gender

Gender Identity

gender identity

Gender Attraction

gender attraction

Sex
Sex Appearance

external sex

Sex Identity

sex identity

Sex Attraction

sex attraction

 

Note that my gender identity does not match my external sex (which means I’m transgender) and my sex identity also does not match my external sex (which means I’m transsexual). Interestingly though, I don’t believe I’ve always been transsexual. I do believe I’ve always been transgender, and I suspect (though I don’t know for sure) that as time went on, my gender dysphoria bled over into my sex identity and changed my sex identity from male to neuter (and lately more toward female). I suspect this “bleed over” was only possible for me because I was already so prone to body modification.

Another interesting point worth making is that gender is very cultural. The attributes and behaviors that are publicly considered to be masculine or feminine vary a great deal between cultures and over time. “Man” doesn’t mean the same thing in 21st century, white, middle class Britain as it did in 7th century Japan, for instance. And this is very interesting because it means that a person who is transgender (by my definition above) in one culture may or may not be transgender in another culture. By contrast, sex appearance does not vary as much between cultures or times. (I.e. the distinctions between a 21st century white male British body and a 21st century white female British body are more similar to the distinctions between 7th century Japanese male body and a 7th century Japanese female body.) So while a person might be transgender in one society but not another, it’s much, much less likely that a person would be transsexual in one culture and not another. And, if someone’s transsexuality is about a sort of mis-calibration between some portion of the brain responsible for running the body and the body itself for them, then that person could be transsexual even if they spent their entire lives on a desert island never exposed to culture at all.

It’s also worth stopping here to say that a person being transgender in only one (or a small number of) culture(s) does not necessarily mean that their gender identity was culturally created. I believe I have roughly the same gender identity that I was born with. Because my gender identity is so far from “boy” or “man” in my culture, I’ve tried extremely hard to shift it to match my culture’s expectations of those and I have been almost completely incapable of changing it. I can fake being a boy or a man, but I haven’t been able to *actually* be a 20th/21st century white, middle class, American boy/man.

The way I currently understand my journey through gender is basically that my gender identity has always been very far out of sync with the gender identity my culture expects of people with my sex appearance. So I struggled extremely hard to shift my gender identity (inspired by such helpful hints as being called “faggot” and beaten up for not being “a real man”). As my attempts to shift my gender identity failed over time, I think I subconsciously began trying to shift my sex identity in an effort to re-establish congruity. Eventually this worked well enough to force all of this stuff into my conscious mind. At least that’s my best theory. Maybe that’s what happened to me or maybe it’s not. I can’t say conclusively, but it seems to fit.

At this point, I would say that I’m a neutrois/masculine-gender appearing & fairly male-bodied + slightly female-bodied & neutrois/soft-butch gender-identity & mostly neuter sex-identity person who is attracted to people who appear neutrois/”low femme” & female-bodied. Having this collection of attributes has made it very challenging and slow for me to figure out whether medical science could help me with my body dysmorphia and my gender dysphoria and if so, how. The only immediately clear path for trans people in modern medicine is tailored to people who fit the “Classic Trans Story” and identify as male men or female women (rather than semi-female/semi-neuter / angel/ooloi / soft-butch dykes). Eventually, I did decide to transition from male to female, but only after a great deal of thought and experimenting and trying to be OK staying male. The process I went through to make that decision was fairly long and complex, and I’ll explain more of it in a future post.

Leave a comment