I want to talk a bit about how I view gender. With pictures!
First, the requisite prelude: gender is a social construct. To be clear, gender is still entirely REAL. People would still experience gender in some way, shape, or form if there was no society in which to experience it. However, the society in which we are raised and live plays a huge role in how we conceptualize that experience. To elaborate on this, I’m going to use some illustrations to help me.
This is my representation of gender absent societal influence. Each dot represents a possible experience of gender. The dots exist entirely on their own, but right now they lack a context or conceptualization.
Now let’s look at what gender might look like in “traditional” western society.
It’s the exact same dots (literally. I used layers!). But we have a gender overlay that divides the dots into two groups – men and women. It surely works for the vast majority of people, but there is an issue or two. A few dots in the middle don’t fall neatly into either category. And possibly some individuals existing very close to the line might not feel quite right in their assigned category.
This one is my personal conceptualization of gender. “Et al.” is me just broadly lumping non-binary genders together. The boundaries of “man” and “woman” are made rough and murky on purpose – I think that harsh lines always end up leaving some people existing on those edges, unsure of where they fit or feeling like they don’t fit anywhere. So I fix that problem by just not having harsh boundaries. Personally, I would say my gender exists in the lighter area right on the edge of “man.” Sort of a murky area where, yeah, I’m basically a man, but the division between my gender and non-binary genders is pretty weak.
I also find it important to point out that my conceptualization of gender is still heavily influenced by the society in which I live. It comes from a combination of the man/woman binary concept of gender I grew up with, plus my time spend in queer communities, plus my friendships with non-binary people, plus my own gender journey, and probably more. The point is, it’s a construct. And while it’s the one I use and prefer, it would be incredibly arrogant for me to declare it the “correct” construct. It is simply A construct.
Other societies have other constructs. For instance, the Bugis society in Indonesia, which has five(ish) genders. Their gender construct might look something like this:
Here we have five distinct boxes that correspond to their genders. Now, the Wikipedia entry on the Bugis concept of gender says: “Oroané are comparable to cisgender men, makkunrai to cisgender women, calalai to transgender men, and calabai to transgender women” This is an easy shorthand way for a westerner with a western concept of gender to get a basic grasp of how the Bugis view gender. But it is not an entirely accurate view.
A while back I read the book “Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders Among Bugis in Indonesia (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)” by Sharyn Graham Davies. Unfortunately, my copy of the book is currently in a box somewhere so I’m not going to be able to cite it as well as I would like. In any case, the author spent (I believe) a year among the Bugis in Indonesia, learning first-hand how they experience their genders. And she did, in fact, ask some calabai if they viewed themselves as women or wanted to be women. The answer was an emphatic NO! They are NOT WOMEN! They are calabai, which is its own gender, not to be conflated with womanhood. So we may say they are “comparable to” trans women, but that is as far as it goes. To do any more (and possibly even that) is to impose western society’s construct of gender onto a society that has a very different construct.
Also an important note – I even did a little of that right here in the name of ease of writing. To say the Bugis society has five genders is not accurate, as the Bissu is not technically considered a gender. Bissu is, instead, a meta-gender, considered to embody the four genders into one person. According to “Challenging Gender Norms” the distinction is important within Bugis society.
Other societies have different framings of gender. I have definitely heard of many different ways societies conceptualize gender, and I can’t think of any time I have heard of a society without gender at all. Gender is pervasive, because it is real. And because we are human and categorizing is just one of the things we do, we find various ways to categorize experiences of gender in order to make sense of ourselves. As part of our stories of ourselves.
As a final thing – sometimes I see people claim that there would be no trans people if we lived in some kind of magical society without gender. I truly do not believe that would be the case. My physical dysphoria has been very real and very intense in my life. I didn’t get top surgery because of some idea that “boys don’t have breasts.” I got top surgery because having chest lumps was so intensely distressing that major surgery was a good choice for me. Even without the societal concept of gender overlaying those dots, I would still experience dysphoria and be trans.
Because gender is real. And also a social construct. It’s both.