Not so much time ago, two people with different backgrounds — psychology and sociology — asked me the same question: do I identify myself as female or as male? The question seems simple enough to answer! Nevertheless, I gave an unusual answer.
Sexual attributes, sexual preference, gender expression and identity
Sexual education in my high school was very straightforward and closely tied to biology: if you were born with a set of XY chromosomes, you’d develop male sexual attributes, you’d identify as a male, present yourself as one, and have female sexual partners. Easy-peasy, and it might be true for perhaps 80-90% of all human beings — so the teachers didn’t feel the need to instruct us about all other exceptions.
So let’s take a look at those definitions. Sexual attributes — primary and secondary — are a function of one’s genetic makeup and embryonic development. It’s the physical aspect of the issue, and usually it means that people are assigned a gender at birth based on their primary sexual attributes. This works well for a vast majority of cases. Sometimes, however, the genes are right, but the embryonic development is not; intersexed individuals might have not such clear-cut differentiation in their sexual attributes. In the past, doctors would just cut some bits here and there so that they would get assigned whatever gender would work best depending on what bits were more prominent. And there are cases where a defective gene give the opposite result — some people, for instance, have normal XY chromosomes, but due to a genetic defect, their cells are not sensitive to male hormones; they will develop female bodies, although, of course, they will not develop an uterus. They tend to be assigned the female gender at birth in spite of their male DNA.
So, even at the genetic/embryonic/biological level, things are not that easy to figure out.
Sexual preference just means what kind of partner you prefer to have sex with. Now, in this enlightened age, we have been shaped by behaviourist thought, but we have gone beyond it: what this means is that labels like ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’ do not refer to the act, but to the agent. In essence, what this means is that you fit in one of those categories only if you wish to do so, no matter what the actual sectual act is. Therefore, as an example, it’s absolutely fine to declare oneself to be 100% heterosexual but enjoy an active role in homosexual acts.
Simply put, homosexuality just means that while your sexual attributes and identity are aligned with your chromosomes, your sexual preference is not. The expression aspect, however, is problematic. One school of thought claims that homosexuals are part of a so-called gay culture and that implies identifying with a specific type of (stereotyped) image, behaviour, and social interaction. To be honest, I believe that all my homosexual friends reject this idea: they just express themselves as regular males or females and are not part of any ‘gay culture’ movement whatsoever.
But that’s certainly not the case for many millions of people. For them, because the sexual preference is different from the majority of the human population, they also believe they should express themselves differently. This is naturally questionable — at least in the sense that you have to do that — but nevertheless it’s a quite widespread belief.
The difference between expression and identity is not so easily understood. On a different article (it’s a pain to keep my Portuguese and English articles somehow in sync; they’re not translations of each other, but I often address the same topics in both languages…) I talked about soccer fans. If you support a specific soccer club (‘identity’) as a fan, you dress in the club’s colours (‘expression’). People can’t read minds, so they look at what you’re wearing, and try to figure out your identity based on that. It would be very confusing to claim to support a specific club but dress in the colours of the opposite team! So, in general, people expect that one’s expression is aligned with one’s identity.
On a daily base, that’s what we do: we dress in business casual clothing for work, for instance, and that tells other people that we have a successful job at an office. If you see someone on the street in a police uniform, you expect that person to be a police officer. In a hospital, someone in a white gown is very likely a doctor. I can go on with typical examples like that, which show how much in our society we immediately link someone’s appearance to their identity.
But we know that this is not always the case. For instance, someone might be wearing casual clothes all their lives, because that reflects much better the kind of person they are. But then they get married and dress up in a frock. They will look strange, unusual, sometimes even comic (as they struggle inside their most uncomfortable clothes), mostly because we’re not used to see them wearing things like that. But because society expects people to marry in formal clothing, that’s what we do.
The same happens when our family doctor, whom we have always seen in a white gown, suddenly puts on some sportswear to go to the gym. We might not even recognize her! This is a typical scenario: because we expect doctors to wear white gowns, within the context of their job, we fail to register the change of context — doctors, like everybody else, wear different clothing when exercising at the gym — and therefore we might not even notice it’s the same person.
Of course, expression is not just ‘clothes’ but also behaviour, language, and so forth. A doctor lounging at the bar will act and behave completely differently from how they behave at their office when consulting with patients. Obviously we know that, but we will still find ‘strange’ if we meet our family doctor dancing on the floor at a nightclub.
So clearly we express ourselves differently, depending on context, and according to social rules. What does that tell us about our own identity? Is a doctor ‘less doctor-ish’ because they’re in club attire, dancing to a wild beat, probably with a drink in her hand and perhaps even smoking? Do they suffer from some kind of multiple personality disorder?
Of course not. We all know that we can express ourselves differently according to context. Right?
Transgenderity and going further
When we arrive at transgenderity, thinks really become complicated.
Although we can safely assume that people express themselves in a myriad ways, our society draws a line at gender expression. So, to get back to our doctor: she might also be a soccer fan and dress in the club’s colours and yell like any other fan, cheering her favourite club; she might be in sportswear while jogging on the street; at home, with her kids, she will be in casual clothing and acting the role of the perfect mum; at a wedding, she will be in her best formal dress; and, at the hospital, she will be in a white gown and acting professional. We might only know her in this last role, but, because we also have many different roles, depending on the context, we can safely assume that other people have different roles as well, and even if we might get ‘surprised’ if we meet them outside the context we’re familiar with, we will accept it (because we also do the same).
However, in our society, we cannot cross the gender barrier. A genetic male, for instance, is not supposed to have any context where they present themselves as female (the reverse is not quite true, though). Although we allow for almost all possible contexts, and have freedom to express ourselves in uncountable ways according to context, there are some contexts that are socially ‘forbidden’, they’re taboos. Crossing the gender barrier is one of those cases, and possibly the last one to cross in our relatively free and enlightened society.
Why is that so? In the typical cases — recognising a police officer by their uniform; a soccer fan by their club colours; a doctor by their white gown — we assume one’s identity based on their appearance. Even if we are aware that those people are not always like that (a police officer can be off duty; a soccer fan will also have a regular job beyond cheering for their club; a doctor might be a mum at home or work out at the gym), we usually think that people are generally defined by their appearance. Thus, a doctor will always be a doctor, even if they’re not in a white gown. It’s just that we expect them to dress like that at the hospital. But, having been trained as a doctor, they will always be a doctor, even when not working; there is a certain expectation that the identity of this person has a profound ‘doctorness’ about them. One might say that their ‘inner selves’ — whatever that might be — has somehow the word ‘doctor’ written in it. They might circulate freely among different contexts, but we will still think of them as ‘doctors’.
When we talk about transgenderity, the main issue is that society hasn’t established an association between ‘identity’ and how some people present themselves as a different gender. There is, obviously, a reason for that. ‘Doctorness’ is not biologically determined; you’re not born with a ‘doctor gene’. It’s a social construct based on what someone has learned.
Because most people believe that gender is biologically determined (which it isn’t), they have some difficulty understanding a gender presentation which is not aligned with the sexual attributes. We shouldn’t be surprised about that: after all, we’re conditioned from birth to ‘believe’ that humans have binary genders and that those genders are assigned at birth according to one’s genitalia. Our whole society is established on that belief. And you know how hard it is for people to change beliefs — especially if almost everyone in the society believes the same things.
So we have to say that there is a difference of quality (even if not of kind) about presenting as a different gender. Although we might agree that a ‘gender role’ is, in essence, not different from a ‘soccer fan role’ or ‘police officer role’ or ‘doctor role’ — all of those imply a certain behaviour and attire — there is a fundamental difference. Gender, in our society, is tightly coupled to physical attributes. Other roles aren’t.
Now at this stage we ought to closely examine that statement, and skeptically inquire if it is really true. Let’s take a look at some myths: men are taller and stronger than women, so we can easily differentiate between both. On average, in fact, this is true. But the difference is not that huge; human beings haven’t got a huge sexual dimorphism, compared to other species. Just take a look at how different roosters are from chicken. By contrast, male and female cats, dogs, or horses, are not so easy to figure them apart — in those species, both genders look pretty much the same. Humans are way more like cats, dogs and horses than chicken!
That means that, for instance, although most men will, on average, be taller than most women, there are uncountable counter-examples where this is simply not the case. Women in Denmark or the Netherlands, for instance, will be on average much, much taller that the average Portuguese guy.
Even if we take a look at sexual attributes, there is also a vast variety of difference. Not all women have huge breasts and wide hips; my own natural ‘moobs’ are larger than the boobs from most of my female familiars — almost all women in my family are flat-chested. They’re not ‘lesser women’ because of that.
We can list a lot of those physical attributes, and, if we’re very honest about it, we will realize that humans really differ so much from each other, that it’s only when we consider the averages that we can draw some conclusion about the differences. As so many crossdressing guides say, ‘women come in all forms and shapes’ (and the same applies to men too, of course). This is certainly correct. One of the major reasons why we wear clothes is to emphasize one’s sexual attributes, to make it easier for others to identify our gender identity.
Think about that for a moment.
We started by saying that our society has a binary gender, and claiming that this comes from being part of a species that has different sexual attributes for each biological gender. But then we started to analyze that, and see that the variety of humans is so great, that we can only address it by using statistics and averages. And finally we concluded that, because there is such a variety, both genders wear clothes that make them ‘look’ more like the gender they belong to. Surely there is a contradiction somewhere in this statement. If gender were absolutely and irrevocably determined by genetics and embryology, then we wouldn’t need to wear clothes at all. Male cats will know for sure if they’re after a female cat; they don’t need any ‘hints’ to figure that out!
So we have to conclude that most of the characteristics of each gender role are social constructs. Just like a police officer wears a police uniform to help people to figure out they’re police officers, women dress and behave as women to be correctly identified as women, and men dress and behave as men to be identified as such. Gender-specific dress code and behaviour is socially conditioned, just like police officers in uniform also behave like police officers.
However, just looking at someone, we can only induce what their identity is, but we cannot be sure. That’s where transgenderity confuses the whole issue. If someone presents as the different gender, what is their identity? The honest answer is that we cannot know (unless we ask). Induction is a form of logical reasoning that allows us to extract some information from what we observe, but it can never make absolute statements, just estimate a probability that something is correct. It’s still useful for making many predictions about the most probable outcome, and that’s why we use it a lot. But we tend to mix up induction with deduction and assume that the logical reasoning in both cases is the same. It is not. With induction, we can get things wrong. This is what happens when we try to induce someone’s identity from their appearance and behaviour. We might utterly fail.
Identity in the transgender community
Let’s start by taking a look at transexuals — people diagnosed with gender dysphoria — where it’s obvious that their identity is not aligned with their biological makeup, i.e. their phenotype (technical jargon to define how an organism looks like based on their genes). Gender dysphoria is just about identity. How people express or manifest themselves — before or after transition — is (technically) irrelevant for the diagnosis. Likewise, their sexual preferences are also irrelevant — they can be part of the wide spectrum of possibilities, from straight heterosexuals to pansexuals, with everything in between.
Most crossdressers are cases of merely expression: they usually identify themselves with the gender they have been assigned at birth, they usually are heterosexual (i.e. prefer partners with the opposite pair of chromosomes), but they express themselves, mostly temporarily (but sometimes full-time) as the opposite gender. These are usually very balanced cases who have absolutely no problem with their gender identity, even though people who see them might think otherwise.
This also applies to fetishist MtF crossdressers, of course. They have no problem in identifying themselves with the male gender. However, when having sex with a willing partner, they temporarily express themselves as females to fulfill their urges and fantasies. Their identity, however, remains the same as ever.
However, not all crossdressers are like that. A few simply refuse any gender definition; they just dress whatever they wish, and think that labels like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are obsolete or misleading. What, exactly, is their gender identity in this case?
Others might accept the gender binary as two roles that our society has (from among the millions of possible roles). While they’re dressed as women, they identify with the female gender. While dressed as men, they identify with the male gender. This conditions their behaviour: they might, for instance, consider themselves as heterosexual in either gender. That means that while they’re dressed as men, they will feel attracted to women; when they’re dressed as women, they feel attracted to men.
This should actually not surprise us much. A cardiologist might sternly forbid us to smoke while acting her role as a specialist doctor, but then, after working hours, go to the nightclub and have a smoke herself. A police officer might stop our car and test for the alcohol content in our blood, and fine us or even forbid us to drive, but off duty they might go to a bar and have a few rounds of beer. A bank owner might be formal and even stern with their employees during working hours, but, while cheering their soccer club at the stadium, they might be relaxed, even wild, and treat all employees (who support the same club!) as best buddies (I actually know a real example of this case).
This is not hypocrisy. This is just switching contexts, and acting different roles according to different contexts.
While we’re fine with such context switches, again, the problem is that switching contexts across genders is unusual in our society (but not as unusual as people might think!), and most people find that kind of behaviour strange or even questionable.
However, we might be reasonably tolerant towards temporary gender role switches. For instance, performers who act on a stage can entertain an audience by providing the illusion of being of the opposite gender. If the performance is made on TV or on a movie, we don’t expect the actor to be transgendered; we know it’s just ‘a role’, done for entertainment, and we don’t question the identity of the actor. Similarly, if a guy dresses up as a girl for Halloween or a cosplay event, we might just shrug it off — people have been doing so for centuries, and such behaviour is not questioned. During the Victorian era, it was customary for young boys to wear dresses and petticoats; when they were very young, it would be hard to distinguish their gender that way, but nobody really worried much about that — it was considered to be a ‘temporary’ development.
It just becomes problematic for society in general when such behaviour becomes regular (or even constant).
Crossdreamers are an even more interesting case, because they might have a gender identity that is opposite to their sexual attributes, but never express it in public. The word ‘crossdreamer’ is relatively recent and, as far as I know, it hasn’t been reviewed in academic articles. The proponent of this category suggests that there is a continuum between crossdreamers, crossdreaming crossdressers, and transexuals. And this could be explained in the following fashion:
For some people, they have an inner self-image of themselves as the opposite gender from the one assigned at birth. If they do never express it physically (but perhaps just artistically, i.e. writing fiction, drawing cartoons, creating an avatar on a virtual world…), they are merely crossdreamers: their self-image of the opposite gender never leaves the mental aspect.
Some, however, require the physical manifestation of this self-image to be realized: they dress as the opposite gender and adopt the behaviour and language of that gender. This is what crossdreaming crossdressers do. The difference is like someone actually wishing, in their dreams, to become a police officer; and, on Halloween, actually donning a police uniform.
And for some, the expression is not enough. They wish to have their body — their sexual attributes — aligned with their inner self-image. These people are transexuals and are clinically diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
Of course, these are typical, average examples. Reality is much more fluid and confusing.
Gender as a role or as identity?
So, what exactly is gender?
I’ve deliberately followed the behaviourist approach here, and consider gender merely a social construct, which includes behaviour, language, and attire. In that sense, gender is merely just a ‘role’, common to so many other different roles. To be more precise, it’s more a ‘group of roles’, because obviously each man or woman is an individual, and, within the context of their gender, they adopt several different roles, some of them stereotypical, some of them freely expressed according to their preferences. Thus, a bridegroom will act a very stereotypical role during marriage, which is a well-defined role including behaviour, attire, and language. But the same person might loosely don casual clothes and hang out with friends in a most un-stereotypical way — that would be part of their individual expression — but still remain within the overall context of ‘male’.
It’s not always clear if a ‘role’ is a ‘group of roles’ or an individual role. Let’s take our doctor as an example. She plays one role when addressing her patients; but a different role when doing a meeting with her colleagues; another role when performing surgery; and a further different role when presenting the results of some medical research at an academic conference. All these ‘subroles’ are part of the ‘doctor role’. While they might be different according to context (they might not even use their white gown when meeting with colleagues or doing an academic presentation), we still recognise a sufficient amount of characteristics to label them according to the overall ‘doctor role’. We will use the expression meta-role to designate the overall context of the ‘doctor role’, which, in itself, includes a lot of ‘sub-roles’.
In practice, we actually can split this even further and further. The same doctor at two different meetings with different people will act slightly different, even if they are in their ‘doctor meeting role’. Ultimately, we will act different roles when interacting with each individual. And, of course, our own moods will influence how we act. So, the finer we split hairs, the more roles we encounter. We might even go as far as saying that we play a slightly different role from moment to moment.
Nevertheless, we can generalise, and say that, on average, no matter how many different ‘sub-roles’ the doctor will act during a day, she will identify with the meta-role ‘doctor’. While there will be subtle differences according to circumstances, in general, this person will think ‘I am a doctor and will behave accordingly’.
According to this principle, then, gender is a huge meta-role. It includes a vast variety of possible sub-roles. Some of them overlap gender — a typical business executive might act in a similar way independent of gender, just to give an example — but, in general, we can still differentiate between the two meta-roles. A male police officer and a female police officer might have similar uniforms and behave similarly, but we can still distinguish between both, and it’s not just because of their sexual attributes: it’s mostly because a male police officer will identify themselves both with the ‘police role’ and the ‘male role’, while a female one will identify herself with the ‘female role’ besides the ‘police role’.
Clearly, when we speak about ‘identification’, we have to take into account that human beings are not acting a single role, but several roles at the same time, and, to add to the confusion, they will act different roles according to context. On the other hand, they will almost always identify themselves with some meta-roles — these will define most of their behaviour, or, to be more precise, they will ‘flavour’ their behaviour according to those meta-roles.
Thus, two loving parents who work as ruthless business persons during the day, assume their ‘parent role’ when they’re relaxing with their kids at home. But the husband will act the ‘father role’, while the wife will act the ‘mother role’. Both are subsets of the ‘parent role’, and their behaviour might be very similar in many cases. However, because each parent also identifies with a different gender meta-role, a father will not act in the same way as the mother. And, at the office, both may be acting the ‘white-collar meta-role’, but their attire will be different according to their gender meta-role, even if their behaviour and language might be very similar, since both will be in a business context.
So we cannot say that the mother who works as a business manager is ‘less than a mother’ when doing so, or that she is being hypocritical — not being ‘her true self’ — when she is dealing with customers and colleagues at work. Likewise, when at home, acting her role as caring mother, she’s not a ‘lesser business person’ because of that. And she’s not really being hypocritical, either. She’s just displaying different roles according to different contexts.
Confusing? Yes, a bit, because most of us don’t really think about our different roles much. We all assume there is an ‘intrinsic self’, something hidden deep in ourselves, which we bring out in certain special occasions — say, to impress a boyfriend/girlfriend. But if we believe that is our ‘true self’, then we have to question what kind of behaviour we’re adopting when talking to our buddies and pals. Are we just lying to them? Are we just ‘pretending’ to be someone else?
Almost all of us will readily accept that we behave differently according to context and the persons we interact with. Somehow, we assume that our ‘true self’ will shine through magically, and allow others to connect with that inner self, even if externally we adopt different roles depending on the circumstances.
In practice, however, that’s not how it works. We still cannot read minds, so we create an image of the person we interact with based on their behaviour, language and appearance. What we call ’empathy’ is just a very advanced technique to minutely read expressions and body language and create a better picture of the other person. Nevertheless, all we have is the external appearance to base our judgements upon.
This means that our significant other will have quite a different image of our ‘true self’ than our colleagues at work: he or she will have different behaviour and language to work with. Our colleagues will not see that behaviour and language, which we reserve to our beloved ones, so they will have a different image of ourselves.
We might claim that, nevertheless, both our colleagues and significant others will at least agree on a core set of characteristics that defines our ‘true self’. That is to be expected, after all — even if we act two different roles in two different contexts, some of our characteristics will remain. A typical example: someone who is naturally choleric might be irritated all the time, both at work and at home, so that characteristic will be common across all roles they play. Of course, at home they might just grumble a bit with their spouse; at work they will actually yell and insult their co-workers. So there might be a different expression according to context, but the driving emotion will be pretty much the same.
This is not always the case, and certainly not universal, but it’s a good general rule. Again, we can only talk about averages. On average, some characteristics of our so-called ‘inner self’ will ‘shine through’ in almost all contexts.
And here is where we jump back to gender identity again.
Gender identity as driving force
If gender is just a social construct, why did all societies in all ages create two gender roles? Since humanity has experimented with so many social groups and developed so many different societies, one would expect that there would be genderless societies, or societies with gender roles that would be absolutely different from the ones we got today.
In fact, there is some slight variation in gender roles across societies, but those variations are relatively minor. So the only alternative explanation is that there has to be some biological source for the different roles, and why they are so widespread across time and space.
Of course we can fall back to the obvious physical differences: men are, on average, taller and stronger than women; women have to bear children and nurture them. When homo sapiens developed a hunter-gatherer society, it would be natural for men to become hunters (since they are stronger, run faster, etc.) while women stayed at home and picked roots and berries. Because such an arrangement went on for so many generations, evolution (in this case, sexual selection — an aspect often ‘forgotten’ about Darwin’s theories) modeled men and women to have not only different physical attributes, but also different mental ones as well. To put it simply, men would prefer women who could bear children and nurture them best (note that this also implies a mental aspect, i.e. the ability to teach their children better) and were good at finding roots and berries. The opposite was also true: women would prefer men who were taller, stronger, ran faster, became good hunters, and brought more food back home.
While this is a gross oversimplification, what happened over thousands of generations was that such an arrangement tended to favour certain types and kinds of men and women, who naturally gravitated towards different roles, since they slowly acquired characteristics that made them more suitable to each of those roles. The reason why we’re not that different is just because ‘thousands of generations’ is simply not enough. We would probably have needed millions of generations to see substantial differences between males and females. And, of course, as the gap between the genders is narrowing more and more, it also means that we have (artificially!) ‘stopped’ evolution. It’s not conceivable that future generations of males and females acquire larger differences; we will stick with those we have now.
This is, of course, my own speculative analysis. However, we seem to have a few hints that this might actually be the case. Researchers are looking for biological markers during the embryological stage that show that such differences — albeit small ones — actually exist and are genetically determined. And that seems to be the case, even if the results are not conclusive yet. What seems to be the case is that the ‘classic view’ — hormones produced by the gonads determining not only sex, but also gender identity — is currently being disputed: there are other mechanisms at play which change the brain structure so that it works like a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain, and not all those mechanisms can be attributed to hormones produced by the gonads. Such findings are still at the early stages of research.
If that research proves to be successful, then we will have the tools to differentiate between a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’, independently of individual XX or XY chromosomes and their genitalia. The preliminary results actually show something that was foreseen: MtF transexuals seem to have a ‘female brain’, while FtM transexuals tend to have a ‘male brain’, no matter if their sexual hormone levels are consistent with their chromosomes. There is no surprise here; that was the kind of result that was exactly expected. Another expected result is that there is no 100% male or 100% female brain, but rather a continuum. Nevertheless, we can go back to statistical averages again and claim that when certain markers are present in a certain amount, there is strong evidence that someone will identify with the male or female gender, and that a lot of biological mechanisms regulate the way the brain works in order to sustain that identity permanently. This also means that gender identification cannot be easily manipulated using external agents (i.e. overdosing individuals with hormones, removing their genitalia, and so forth). It seems that research is proving that once gender identification has been embryologically determined, it remains that way (the same actually happens with sexual preference), even though not all mechanisms that regulate ‘gender identity’ are clear.
These are the most common cases, but of course there are cases where those markers are not clear enough, or insufficiently regulated, and the person will either reject the gender binary, or easily switch between genders at will, being comfortable with either one.
I tend to invoke this research (in spite of knowing it’s incomplete at this stage) when some people insist that I might change sexual preferences, assuming that ‘you only know if you like it if you try’. Such a statement is not consistent with psychological research, but now it seems that it is not even consistent with biological mechanisms that regulate sexual preferences. So, my friends, don’t bother to insist over and over again that this is something I might ‘enjoy’ if I just try it out. I simply lack the necessary biological mechanisms to ‘enjoy’ it, and there is nothing that I can do about my current sexual preferences… they will remain as they are.
Even if the scientific results presented before are controversial, and considering that we’re at the very beginning of our journey in understanding exactly how a brain becomes ‘male’ or ‘female’, such results are relatively convincing in the sense that even if they are wrong, they will not be wrong by much. Rather, it’s relatively reasonable to expect that sexual selection during thousands of generations might have created subtle differences in how the two sexes think (and, in turn, how they behave), and such differences ought to be genetically transmitted in some form. And, of course, such biological mechanisms support the behaviour/psychological research, which had come to the same conclusions a long time ago.
It’s also not conceivable that there are genetic markers for ‘different’ genders (i.e. beyond male and female). Evolutionarily speaking, we have not been around for too long to be able to differentiate more than two gender roles. In a few hundreds of thousands of years this might be the case, but it is not reasonable to assume that this is the case today. Also, at least in mammalians, there is no evidence of such ‘third genders’ to have evolved; and mammals have been around for dozens of millions of years, so we should have seen evolutionary proof of that by now. Therefore, the claim that there are ‘third genders’ or something like that doesn’t make any sense, at a biological, genetic, embryological or evolutionary sense. A ‘third gender’ would be purely a social construct without any ties to biology at all.
What quite clearly seems the case is that the embryological development of the human brain requires some chemicals during growth to acquire those ‘male’ or ‘female’ markers, and not all of those chemicals are associated with sex hormones. And it’s established that in some cases the brain develops differently from the assigned gender, i.e. the one determined by chromosomes. There are many possible explanations for that — we’re talking about complex biochemical processes here — and not a conclusive, affirmative, single explanation about why this happens. We just know that it does happen.
Biology, however, is not the only explanation. Just because someone has a ‘female brain’ doesn’t mean that they identify with the female gender or present themselves as female. Genetics don’t define all our characteristics (not even all physical ones!). We have also to take into account the environmental factors.
When a girl is born, she is treated like a girl by their parents. This is an environmental trigger: she is born with a ‘female brain’, but that is not enough: it’s the social conditioning, provided by their parents and later teachers and classmates that will teach that girl to act and behave like a girl. So what this means is that the ‘female brain’ — if I can coin it that way without offending any researchers currently working in the field — is the precondition for a ‘female identity’ to develop, but for that to actually happen, it requires social conditioning: nurture, education. However, the reverse is also true: someone with a ‘male brain’ cannot be successfully ‘conditioned’ by education to think and act as female. There is something in that brain’s wiring that will ultimately reject such a gender identity.
Not so many decades ago, psychologists still believed that this social conditioning was all that was required. In the case of some intersex individuals, or children with their genitals destroyed by unfortunate accidents (the case of David Reimer is the most famous one), parents were encouraged to condition their child according to the newly assigned gender — after doctors performed the required surgery. Behaviourist theory assumed that all that was required for a ‘gender identity’ to emerge was the adequate environment. Treat someone like a girl, and she will think of herself as a girl. This, as we know today, is completely wrong. It simply doesn’t work that way. You cannot ‘coax’ someone to ‘become’ a specific gender, unless they already have the potential to identify with that specific gender.
Instead, you need both aspects — to be born with a ‘female brain’ and to socially condition that person to think of themselves as being ‘female’. Only in those cases we will see results. Of course, for the vast majority of human beings, this is exactly what happens, because most humans will have their brain aligned with their body, and both aligned with their chromosomes. It’s only when there is a difference between that alignment that things don’t work as expected.
A physical male (as determined by chromosomes and sexual attributes) might have a ‘female brain’ and never really notice it. They might have been socially conditioned to think as themselves as ‘male’ that they simply never develop a ‘female identity’. Instead, they assume a male role at all times, although sometimes they might display characteristics more common to females. Because humans are so diverse, those people don’t really stand out. They might just be extra-loving husbands and very caring parents; they might be less aggressive, less violent, less competitive, and more empathic than the average male. They might become artists and abhor maths or physical sports. But because there are so many different possibilities of expressing ourselves, such a person will very likely not even be noticed.
At some point, however, they might be subject to an environmental ‘trigger’ that might suddenly resonate with their differently-gendered brain. Crossdressers report that a lot: they might, in their infancy, stumble upon their mother’s clothes, and wear them with sudden curiosity — and feel that something is ‘right’ about doing so, even if they become ashamed of what they just did. In some cases, the trigger happens much later — seeing a picture of a transgendered individual, for example, and becoming very curious about that. Or they might get teased by their buddies to put on some women’s clothing ‘for the laughs’ and suddenly realise that this is what was ‘missing’ in all their lives. Whatever the trigger might be, it certainly is not universal, and can be very different from person to person. Most, for instance, might simply repress their feelings once they were exposed to the trigger, and will actively deny that such feelings ever existed. Many are successful in doing so for all their lives.
In this article, I’m not providing an explanation for all kinds of crossdressers — because that would be impossible! Instead, I’m focusing on the crossdreamer-crossdressing crossdreamer-transexual axis. That is the one that is best researched, and the one that has the best explanation so far (but in science, better explanations come up all the time, so all we can say is that this is the best provisory explanation we have at the moment). Because it’s so hopelessly incomplete, it explains little, but at least seems to be pointing in the right direction.
We don’t have genes or biological markers that ‘make’ us become doctors, police officers, or soccer fans. However, we certainly have some genetic predispositions for some sorts of thought. For example, cognitive abilities differ a lot among individuals, but, in general, it seems that genetics play a substantial role in our cognitive abilities. While controversial, it seems that intelligent people, inheriting some ‘intelligence genes’ from their parents, seek environments where they might further enhance their intelligence. By contrast, having ‘intelligent genes’ but living in a household where one’s subject to constant physical abuse, might never ‘trigger’ the need to enhance one’s intelligence. Although these studies are never conclusive, they seem to indicate that having a loving and caring family is enough to make sure that the ‘intelligence genes’ are able to fulfill their potential during youth; later on, however, people need m0re stimulating environments to continue to develop, and seek them ‘naturally’. Therefore, while we might not have ‘doctor’ genes, it’s plausible enough to imagine that someone who is intelligent from birth looks upon studying medicine as a challenging environment to which they are naturally attracted, and, therefore, enhance their cognitive skills. Similar examples can be found for other genetic traits; the children of gold medal athletes, for instance, might be conditioned to follow the steps of their parents by training hard, and, in adulthood, progress even further by dedicating their lives to enhance their physical abilities. This also explains why in most societies certain skilled jobs were passed from fathers to sons. Because there is some gene drift, and this social conditioning is not perfect, it also means that such claims regarding hereditary traits are not 100% absolute. Again, we can only talk about averages here.
Therefore, I postulate that the crossdreamer-crossdressing crossdreamer-transexual axis is biologically conditioned and triggered by environmental factors. Looking at the MtF side of things, I’m assuming that individuals in that axis will have some degree of genetic or biological markers that made their brain not fully develop as ‘male’. This not only tends to give them certain skills and abilities that are more stereotypically associated with females, but it also makes them generate a female self-image. The degree of brain development might be what differentiates between those three types. At the extreme point of the continuum, there is a clearly diagnosed gender dysphoria: the brain has developed as fully female, while the rest of the body has developed as male. This, again, is relatively consistent with some research. MtF crossdressers, and crossdreamers in general, might either not have such fully developed ‘female brains’, or, even if they have them, they have not been subjected to the environmental factors that trigger the development. This would explain ‘late transexuality’ as opposed to transexuality expressed during infancy: it’s just a question of different environmental aspects.
I would also claim that the gender identity is very close to the root of all other aspects of one’s personality — it is one of the ‘master meta-roles’. Putting it into simpler words: we might identify with being humans first, but our gender identity will come immediately below that. All other aspects of our identity will come next and be driven by the gender identity. So, we’re not doctors first and female next, but rather we’re females first and doctors next. The many exceptions we encounter (those who deny the ‘supremacy’ of gender, for instance) are mostly due to different aspects of one’s brain chemistry and how it developed.
Under this scenario, and, again, restricting myself always to crossdreamers/crossdreaming crossdressers/transexuals, I would furthermore claim that such individuals are in a state of ‘gender insatisfaction’. Again, looking at the extreme case, this ‘insatisfaction’ becomes dysphoria. ‘Milder’ versions do not necessarily require any form of treatment or can be dealt with, either through a cathartic release (such as crossdressing), or simply suppression of that insatisfaction by turning one’s mind to different stimula (basically, ‘not thinking much about it and watching TV’…). In some cases, gender insatisfaction might lead to depression or other mental diseases, and those can be easily cured these days through medication and therapy.
‘Gender insatisfaction’ might not necessarily be always negative. In fact, based on my experience interacting with most crossdressers, this is hardly the case. Most of them are quite happy about being able to express a different gender. Indeed, most don’t feel any ‘gender insatisfaction’ at all; they just love to express a different gender, for many reasons, and are reasonably balanced individuals, in terms of their mental aspects. How does this fit into the proposed model?
Is there really a dividing line?
Previously I addressed the issue if gender is ‘merely a role’ or if it is related to ‘identity’. But I’ve tried to debunk the notion that what we call ‘identity’ is something fixed and immutable; by contrast, we ‘identify’ with very different aspects of our personality, and behave differently according to context. As such, the dividing line between ‘role’ and ‘identity’ gets blurred.
When looking at the case of the caring mother/ruthless business manager, we might, as an external observer, label both extremes as merely ‘roles’ and assume that the person beneath both is the true ‘identity’. The person herself, however, will identify with both aspects and not think of them as ‘roles’, but more as ‘aspects of their identity’. So we can see that we are falling back again to the issue of expression and identity. From the perspective of the hypothetical woman, she identifies with both aspects, and expresses them differently according to context; she is still the same person, and her ‘identity’ is only completely defined by both kinds of expression. What we perceive as antagonistic traits (how can a stern, implacable, ruthless business manager be such a caring, loving, kind mother?) do not exist in the mind of that person; for her, it’s perfectly normal to assume both aspects of her identity, without conflict.
This model also explains why so many crossdressers feel no ‘conflict’ among their different expressions. MtF crossdressers might actually identify with the male gender, and have little doubts about their ‘true’ gender, as assigned by birth. However, they see no conflict in expressing themselves as female. It’s also a part of their identity — not the gender identity, but their identity as a human being. Remember, I suggested that identifying with being a human is very likely higher in the hierarchy than gender. So, from the perspective of a typical crossdresser, they are human beings first and foremost, who just happen to be fine in expressing themselves in different genders. Both are aspects of their personality; not exactly ‘roles’, but merely expressions of their identity as human beings.
The problem with labeling such aspects as ‘roles’ is that we have certain associations — not all of them positive — with the word. We assume that if someone is ‘playing a role’ they are being dishonest or trying to delude us; that’s mostly because we have borrowed the word from theatre, where the audience knows that the performance is just an illusion, and actors are just pretending.
Here, I employ ‘role’ more as a set of behaviours, language, and attire, and use the word neutrally, without negative connotations. That’s why I prefer the expression ‘aspect of one’s personality’ because it’s a bit less ‘loaded’ (but takes more time to write!). Assuming that the only way we can express our personality to others — because they are not mind-readers — is through our behaviour, language, and attire, it means that those different ‘aspects’ reveal our personality to others. In some cases, we feel the urge to express those aspects. For instance, a sports fan wants to show other sports fans that they support a certain club or athlete; they adopt the behaviour, language and attire that is appropriate to convey such aspect of their personality.
Crossdreamers might not feel the urge to fully express themselves — in the physical sense — as having an aspect of their identity that is aligned with the opposite gender of their physical body. They might just express themselves through artistic means, for example. Crossdressing crossdreamers, by contrast, express themselves by physically adopting the behaviour, language and attire of the ‘gender role’ they identify with.
Such identification might not be permanent. Again, a soccer fan might suddenly support a different club, and the identification will change accordingly. Granted, this is not a good example, but consider your musical preferences in your teens contrasted to the music you like to listen today. As time passes, and we constantly change, our preferences change, and certain aspects of our personality tied to those preferences will also be expressed differently.
And of course, during the course of a day, we express our personality differently all the time, as we switch contexts (from home to work and back to home, for example). So it’s not as if there is a rule that forces us to express the exact same aspect of our personality all the time. Most MtF crossdressers, therefore, will claim that they have the urge to express themselves as women, but not all the time. Gender-fluid individuals might even go further and assume that their identification with a particular gender — or none at all — might change according to their current mood; others, also denying the gender binary, will deliberately express themselves in a way that evades stereotypical gender behaviour, language or attire.
So while people will try desperately to induce identity/personality based on expression, the truth is that such reasoning will ultimately never be precise. This is very typically seen among the crossdressing community: from fetishists to crossdreamers, there is a vast variety of reasons for crossdressing, and just because someone crossdresses, it is almost impossible to induce those reasons. Only the crossdresser will know.
What I’m positing is that, on one hand, gender as a social construct is not different than other social constructs — it’s just unusual for people to express more than one gender. It is ultimately a role, an aspect of one’s personality, which might or not be manifested fully or permanently. Most people will display their gender identity full-time, but some will not. But because it’s a ‘role’ — in the neutral sense of the word — it means that it can be adopted, and is not ‘fixed’ at birth. There might be some genetic predisposition to adopt a certain gender role, and such predisposition is an evolutionary and biologic consequence, but the environment also plays a role (pun intended!) to trigger a specific gender role. And while there are many possibilities of expressing different meta-roles and subroles, there is a hierarchy of importance, and the gender role is almost at the very top of such a hierarchy.
What is very important to understand is that although we can stereotype gender roles — we certainly do that all the time! — each individual expresses themselves differently. The caring mother/business manager is always a ‘woman’ but expresses herself in totally different ways according to context. And a different mother will also express herself differently — even though she might identify herself with the same roles (‘woman’, ‘mother’, ‘business manager’).
So where do I fit?
Research shows that transgendered people are always searching for labels for themselves, and tend to find some mental stability once they find the ‘right’ label — for a while. In some cases, they might settle on a certain label, derive comfort from it, and stick to that label for the rest of their natural lives. In other cases, as circumstances change, their search for new labels continues. Some will always search and search and never settle on a label.
I fear that I’m in that last category — I’m always looking for better ways to define myself. And, while doing so, it’s likely that I will twist the world around me to fit my own labels 🙂 I’ve been accused of doing so in the past, therefore I should leave this warning here: I’m not always objective — although I might have good reasons to support a certain view, and try to explain them as best as I can, I might still be completely wrong and deluded by my own perceptions.
Therefore, when I got asked if I identify with the male or the female gender, I have answered in a devious way. I explained that I see ‘gender roles’ as simply yet another kind of roles that we play depending on context. I gave the typical examples: I do play a role when I’m at home with my wife, another for my friends, another for my colleagues at work. When I’m dressed as a woman, I play that role; when I’m dressed as a male, I play a male role.
I explained further that there is no ‘difference’ between those roles; all of them are ‘me’, and neither of them is ‘my inner, true self’ (because, as a Buddhist, I’m aware that no such thing truly exists — but I leave the investigation of that for yourself 🙂 Take your time, I took several years and I’m still not absolutely convinced, either). When I switch from the ‘work’ role to the ‘home with wife’ role, I’m not really ‘a different person’; therefore, there is also no real ‘personality change’ when switching from my male role to the female role, and vice-versa. ‘Sandra’ is not truly an independent construct, someone I pretend to be while I’m dressed as a woman, like an actor plays a role on stage or on a movie. ‘Sandra’ is me; I am Sandra. There is no difference whatsoever. There is not a ‘me without Sandra’ (as if ‘Sandra’ is some sort of ‘add-on’ that was later developed and has an independent existence); but the reverse is also true, there is no ‘Sandra’ who is not absolutely me. Does that mean that someone who sees me as Sandra will notice a difference between my male and female personas? Sure they will. In the same way, my colleagues at work will see how different I am when I’m with my wife, or yelling at my cats, or dealing with my demented father. There are different contexts, different interactions with different people, and of course there is a (quite noticeable) difference in how I express myself in those different contexts. So naturally if my self is ‘tuned’ to a female context, there are differences between being in a male context. But those differences are tiny.
A lot of my fellow crossdressers experience this in a completely different way. When they are dressed as women, they suddenly completely change their personalities, become someone totally different, to the point that even their sexual preferences change: they are attracted to women while dressed as males, but when they dress as females, they suddenly desire men as sexual partners, and that desire is quite true and not faked. Some, for instance, would not even dream to smoke as a male, but are fine in smoking as a female. So the change is actually very, very deep. It’s pointless to argue which one of those personas is ‘more real’ than the other. The point I wish to make clear is that many, many crossdressers have a completely different experience than mine.
In my case there is no ‘personality split’. If you know me as Sandra, you know me as my male counterpart. We have the same tastes, the same preferences (sexual and otherwise), the same ideas, the same conversations. My thoughts are the same, my feelings and emotions are absolutely not different. There are, of course, tiny behavioural changes, because they’re socially conditioned. A typical example, I walk on heels differently than on flat male shoes, because there is no other graceful way of walking on heels, and that is socially conditioned; but even if I were wearing flats as a woman, I would still walk differently, because females do not walk like males do. But this is not different from the way I slouch on a couch at home, compared to sitting straight in a very formal environment. Once again, social conditioning directs my behaviour according to context.
What I usually tell people is something different: between my male and female roles, with which do I identify most? Here I have no doubts: my identification is with my female side, not my male side. As I jokingly say so often, I’m actually not very good at acting the male role — and yes, it feels often that I’m just acting, just pretending to be a typical male. I’m not very good at acting, but after 45 years of playing that role, I fare reasonably well in my ‘performance’. My behaviour as a male is not — and never has been — very ‘typically male’; I’m simply not a good enough actor to pull that off. However, because people look at my physical body and create their mental image, ‘this person is male’, they don’t notice much how I actually behave as a male. I might not even be seen as slightly odd, but just fit in well — just because I have lots and lots of experience!
Experience is what matters. Some people wonder how I’m able to write English so well, if I live in a country surrounded by people who speak Portuguese. My answer is very simple: for the past 30 years, I have read books in English every day, and I write far more in English than Portuguese, day after day. I’m aware it’s not flawless, but if you do something for thirty years, not skipping a single day, you’re going to be very proficient in what you do!
That’s why I don’t stand out as a male, even if I’m not a good actor playing that role. It’s simply a role that I’ve been socially conditioned to play for 45 years, and have to play it (almost) every day. So naturally I can fool almost all people in believing I’m male 🙂 And, of course, my physical body is that of a male, so obviously most people will expect me to behave as one.
That doesn’t mean I like it. I don’t. I actually abhor everything which is male. That’s also one of the reasons why my sexual preferences will not change: there is really absolutely nothing in the male physique that interests me; in fact, it even causes me physical disgust and repulsion.
If you’re male and are reading this, do not be afraid 🙂 Again, I have dealt with my distaste of everything male for so many decades that I’m pretty good at ignoring it. Some of my best friends are male, and I can definitely empathise with them — because I see beyond their physical body and ‘connect’ with their mind. I’m fine in flirting with males, if they have interesting minds as well; I’m lucky enough to know a few who are like that!
On the other hand, I have not much experience as a female, and this is something I deeply regret. I look back on my whole past life, and think what a waste of time it was, to spend so much time working so hard to ‘act like a male’ and not making a very good job at it. Good enough to ‘pass’ as a male — nobody I know has any idea that I might be anything else but a male — but it was still a painful struggle. By contrast, when crossdressing and expressing myself as a female, there is no need to ‘struggle’. I just lack experience. It has been way too many years of just playing a male role; getting in touch with my female self-image and expressing it is not so ‘natural’, just because I haven’t had so many opportunities to express myself as a woman.
The way I experience the world is a bit twisted… if I had a choice, of course I would have immediately chosen to be a female from birth. Because I was unlucky not to been born with the ‘right’ genes, I had to do the best I could with what I’ve got. People expect me to act a male role, and I hate to disappoint people, so that’s what I’ve been doing for so many decades, and very likely will continue to do so until I die. As a consequence, I’m not too bad at playing the male role. On the other hand, it’s not a role I’ve chosen. My designated choice would be to present myself according to my gender identity. What is frustrating is that I’m not very good at doing so, simply because, instead of having been conditioned as a female from birth, I wasted all my life in trying to get conditioned to be a male. So my experience as a female is very limited, and it shows.
Naturally enough, the more I dress, the more I go out, the more I interact with others while presenting myself as female, the more experience I get. But I feel I have a lot of catching up to do. It’s like picking up jogging when you’re 30 and, by the time you’re 40, you’re starting to run on marathons. You can only wonder how good you’d have been if you had started to run as an athlete since your childhood. At 40 or 50, you might still be able to run marathons, but not go for the Olympic gold — simply because you have never trained enough, and no matter how hard you try to ‘catch up’, all professional athletes will always have much more experience than you do, since they have started their training much earlier than you.
I feel the same way. I can train very hard to present myself properly as a woman. Ultimately, I might even do it full-time, 24/7. But no matter how hard I try, genetic women at my age will have decades of experience in presenting themselves as females; while I just have scattered days now and then. There is simply no way I can ‘compete’, even if I’m a fast learner.
Also, having been trained as a male is a serious handicap. It’s like having trained badminton for all your life and suddenly switching to tennis. So many decades of playing a similar, but not quite the same sport, will have created a lot of automatic reactions for badminton which are simply not appropriate for tennis. You will have to ‘unlearn’ badminton in order to play tennis properly, but this is not easy to do if you have vastly more experience in badminton than tennis.
Commercial airplane pilots have the same problem when they learn to fly a different airplane. In fact, in some countries — in Europe that’s certainly the case — they are only allowed to do so once in their professional careers. It is considered that the automatic reactions they have acquired to deal with emergencies for a specific kind of airplane are not easily ‘unlearned’, and, when we’re talking about fractions of seconds to react correctly — pressing the right button, moving the correct lever a notch up or down — the last thing that one wants to happen is to fumble with the instruments and having to think what to do (‘wait, should I press this button first and move the lever next, or is it the other way round?’).
That’s how I feel when ‘switching’ between my male and female roles. I might dislike the male role, but by now I know quite well how to ‘act male’, because I’ve been doing it for so long that it has truly become second nature. As a female, however, I need to think all the time about what to do. Some things obviously become automated as a matter of course; others do not come so easily, simply because I’ve not had enough experience as a female.
That means that if someone meets me as ‘Sandra’, and I explain them on how happy I am for being able to present myself as female, they might find it odd, since they will see that I’m not that good at ‘being female’. They might think I should just give it up and continue to ‘act male’, since I clearly am far better at that gender role. It’s true, as a male I’m not really ‘girly’ or ‘effeminate’, and, as a consequence, as a female, I’m not ‘girly’ either. I’m just me 🙂
Then again, a lot of women aren’t ‘girly’, and we wouldn’t really describe them as ‘effeminate’ in the pejorative sense that the word is applied to males. My wife, for instance, is absolutely not ‘girly’ — and neither is any woman in her close family. Nor in mine, to be honest. Thinking a bit about it, I believe that none of my close female friends are ‘girly’ in any way. One friend of my wife might be described as ‘girly’, and one old female friend I had liked to put on a ‘girly’ act most of the time, but that’s pretty much it. All those genetic women I know, in fact, do not fit the ‘female stereotype’ in any way. That has nothing to do with the way they dress! My mother-in-law dresses exquisitely well, she could definitely be a personal fashion consultant if she wished, but she is not very ‘feminine’ in the way she acts. She definitely walks well in high heels, and definitely walks like the elegant woman she is, but her personality is not especially ‘feminine’, in the stereotypical way that we employ the word.
What I’m anticipating is that some people will comment here, ‘no, Sandra, you do look very feminine!’ as an encouragement 🙂 Well, I know this is not the case, but I don’t really mind, because I’m quite aware that so many genetic females definitely avoid acting in a stereotypically feminine way. So I don’t do it either! As Sandra, I just express myself as if I had been born female, not according to any stereotype I might have on how females should behave. What this means is that when you meet me as Sandra you would experience what it would look like if I had been born in an alternate reality where I happened to be genetically female. There would really be no difference.
And this is a long-winded and very thorough explanation of why my answer to that question was so unusual. It’s very likely that, because of that answer, I will never be classified as gender dysphoric, since I don’t exhibit the characteristics typical of dysphoria. I don’t even exhibit a true ‘personality switch’ — like I see so many transgendered people, and huge amounts of crossdressers — when presenting myself as female. While there certainly are different experiences for females that are not available for males, and I certainly crave most of them (but not necessarily all!), and obviously I’m happy to do them when presenting as female, the truth is that, in general, I’m still exactly the same person, no matter how I present myself.
A typical, perhaps stupid, example. I’m getting constantly bombarded by fetishists all the time, who only have one thing in mind — sex. Almost all see crossdressing as a way to experience sex in ways that are impossible when they present as males. They have an urge to do so, and, as a result, they truly change personalities when dressed as females. They might be very peaceful and relaxed while presenting as males, but as females, they become absolutely dominated by their obsession with sex. And a lot of other traits of their personality radically change as well; so much, in fact, that their close friends would very likely be utterly shocked in realising how much they change, and very likely not recognise them, at least not through their behaviour.
When I recently went to a bar with some friends, the music was low, enough to allow us to have a nice conversation. And what did we do? We talked and talked about sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and even a bit of politics. That kept us entertained for several hours and we deeply regretted we had to part and go to sleep. That would be exactly what I’d done with friends if I were presenting as a male. Just because I was presenting myself as Sandra, it didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy high-brow intellectual conversation! My ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ has nothing to do with the way I think and the things I enjoy. I’m truly not ‘a different person’.
So — as so many people have asked me! — why bother to dress up as a woman, if I’m truly ‘the same person’? As said, there are tiny differences. One thing I always feel is that a huge burden has been lifted from me: finally I don’t need to work so hard at ‘pretending to be male’ and can just naturally be myself, presenting myself as the gender I identify with. That is incredibly relaxing, to the point that it generates some euphoria — like a prisoner who finally sees daylight outside the jail, even if they know they’re just on parole and need to get back to jail sooner or later. I think that describes my feelings best: when I’m presenting as Sandra, I feel freedom. It’s a form of escapism: I can, at least for a while, escape the burden of carrying those decades of pretending to be a male, and enjoy my little moments of freedom.
Freedom, in Buddhism, is closely tied to happiness: you cannot be happy if you’re not free, and of course this has a much deeper meaning in Buddhist philosophy — it doesn’t apply merely to be free from jail, or social constructs, but mostly free from your own self-conditioning, imposed by giving too much importance to your thoughts and emotions. While of course I’m not ‘free’ in that sense, at least I get a small taste of what that means when I’m dressed as a woman: I’m free, for a while, of the social conditioning that imposes me to behave as a male against my will. And that obviously gives me a sense of euphoria, at least for a little while. Even the thought that soon I will have to stop dressing and return to my male social conditioning is not enough to ruin my mood: in this life, we all have to deal with eternal insatisfaction at all moments, so we rejoice during those moments where there is a temporary reduction of insatisfaction, and call that ‘happiness’.
So, while presenting as Sandra, I’m truly happy for a little while. And that is my truest reason for crossdressing at all. For me, it’s not just enough to imagine that I’m a woman, like crossdreamers do. I need to experience the world as a woman and be addressed as one — that is what truly reduces my insatisfaction of being unlucky for having been born as male and being forced to live as one.
So many people have myriads of different reasons for crossdressing, but this is my reason.
And what is the future?
Identifying with the female gender and expressing that gender publicly is not an universal panacea that fixes all problems; thinking that way is just delusion. When we read tales of transition stories that utterly failed, they almost always revolve around the same issue: someone is deeply unhappy about their situation, understands that the whole reason for their unhappiness is because they have been born in the wrong gender, and finally take the leap and change their gender, and expect that all their problems will go away.
In many cases, this doesn’t happen. This is because most of those ‘problems’ were never related to gender issues anyway. It doesn’t mean that those persons did not have gender dysphoria; they certainly had it, and changing genders will cure them of their dysphoria, which was the main reason for transitioning, but the remaining problems will not go away just because someone has switched genders.
I’m a partial victim of that fallacy as well. Because my mind is in a depressed state, and crossdressing produces euphoria, I wrongly attribute the solution to all my problems to crossdressing more and more. But of course this will do nothing to diminish depression. It will just temporarily dislodge it from my mind.
When presenting as a male, I’m used to be mostly ignored, yelled at, and having people being indifferent to what I do. Even when I worked very hard (before my depression), I rarely got a word of thanks, and certainly not any kind of praise! Rather, this was something that was expected from me. And it was also part of my education as well: you do what you have to do, not because you wish to get praised for it, but because it’s your duty.
All my life I have been that way, and at all levels, not only regarding ‘work’. My previous girlfriend used to treat me like garbage, and I simply assumed that was ‘normal’ since I’m used to being treated like that by everybody. Because I’m not that good at ‘acting male’, this means that I’ve been often bullied during childhood (way before the word ‘bully’ became part of our contemporary vocabulary), and, in my adult life, my time is always being abused by others — people are always taking advantage of me, and expecting me to be fine with it. I used to never say ‘no’ to any requests. Actually, such traits are typical of interpersonal rejection sensitivity or even avoidant personality disorder; I’m probably just a mild case, though.
Whatever the case — and the degree that such experiences have shaped my personality — all this has changed dramatically while presenting as female. Suddenly, people put me on a plinth and worship me (or at least that is what I feel). They shower compliments upon me, apparently for no reason whatsoever, and they insist that those compliments are actually heartfelt and sincere.
This is a completely novel experience for me, and, as such, I have extreme difficulty in accepting it. I always assume that people say those things because they are basically nice persons and enjoy my friendship, not because they mean it.
Similarly related is a certain degree of body dysmorphia which I exhibit. Again, it’s not an extreme case, and not worthy of attention, but it is nevertheless true that when I look at myself on the mirror — either as male or as female — I see myself as an extremely ugly individual. Such feelings do not change just because so many people say otherwise! Rather, it’s a consequence of my experiences during my teens, when I had absolutely no chance in getting a girlfriend, and wondered why it was the case. I blamed it all on being shy, so I made an effort to get rid of my shyness, which succeeded. I still didn’t get a girlfriend. So my conclusion was that I was physically repulsive, combining that with a certain clumsiness and difficulty in pleasing others, plus the strange feeling that I was really not very good at ‘acting male’ (which was so hard since I spent all time dreaming how it would be nice to have been born a woman…). Such feelings never left me, although I have been partially successful in repressing them to a point that I don’t really think much about them and they don’t bother me. After all, I do enjoy the pleasure of living with a wonderful wife who sticks to me in spite of all the trouble I give her, so I must have done something right after all 🙂
But when I’m presenting as Sandra, all these things get seriously questioned. People enjoy my company, praise me, even admire my looks, something which is utterly beyond my everyday experience and feels totally alien to me. It’s so hard to accept that! On the other hand, sometimes I can overcome my denial, and assume that if everybody agrees with something, and I’m the only one disagreeing, surely I must be wrong!
Those moments are also very euphoric, and, as a consequence, I love to present myself as Sandra even more. My female side gets an incredible self-confidence boost that my male side never experiences.
No wonder, then, that so many people who experience the same thing get completely lost in their euphoria, and jump straight into transition. I have known of a few who did exactly that: their life as women was so incredibly exciting and euphoric, compared to the dull burden of remaining a male forever, that they simply didn’t want to stop — they decided to become women full-time.
I can certainly understand quite well why they made that decision!
Nevertheless, in my case, such a decision is merely a fantasy, not reality. I’m aware that there is truly a lot of ‘garbage’ in my mind, and crossdressing just somehow allows my head to raise above all the garbage and look at the world with clear eyes. What I need is not to jump out of the garbage and emerge as a woman; instead, what I need is to eliminate the garbage. Once I do that, presenting myself as male or female will not matter much. I will still crossdress regularly all my life, but I will not really experience the sense of euphoria and freedom only when I’m dressed as a woman. Instead, I need to learn how to replicate that experience in my daily life while struggling to keep my male façade.
This is pretty much what I’m trying to do with the help of my therapist and doctors: I need to get rid of all the garbage in my mind. Once I accomplish that, I believe I’ll be able to fully enjoy presenting myself as female, as often as I can, while still being able to cope with the burden of needing to present myself as male most of the time…