Gender can be a tricky question, especially when you’re surrounded by people who have a very conventional view of such matters. (Note that this post is about gender identity, the subjective experience of gender. Not sexual orientation.)
It’s not a topic you find ever comes up in general conversation unless it’s to mock somebody who doesn’t fit the “accepted” norms: the standard Western view of two distinct genders. I have never felt comfortable with this.
I grew up as a biological male and was always treated as such. I attended a mixed school up to age 11, single sex to age 16 and then mixed again after that. All my life I have been trying to play this role that was assigned to me. I never felt I really fitted in, but I had been ascribing that to my Aspergers. For some time, though, I’ve been wondering: what if that’s not the whole story…
You see, although I certainly look male, I don’t feel masculine: I have never felt that many of the stereotypical traits of masculinity were applicable to me. This caused me some confusion because I used to feel that it meant there was something wrong with me. Even discovering I have Aspergers didn’t explain all of it, although a more fluid view of gender is not uncommon on the Spectrum — possibly a consequence of going through life feeling different for other reasons.
But how could I broach the subject? There is still such stigma attached to gender nonconformity by society. I have been afraid to raise the issue for fear of ridicule, or worse — there is still a possibility of incurring harm. The thing is… suffering in silence is also harmful. So I am writing this to describe how I feel, how I think of myself, and to put an end to my concealment. To come out, as it were.
The fact is that while my body appears male — and I have no great desire to change that, although a more androgynous appearance would be OK: I’m not gender dysphoric — my mind is less clear-cut: I identify more as feminine than masculine. This correlates with my score on the Bem Sex Inventory Test: I score highly for traits such as compassion, gentleness, passivity, caring, sympathy and understanding but not for ones such as aggression, assertiveness, dominance, independence or willingness to take risks. And although I find it difficult to show or talk about my feelings much — an autistic trait — inside I experience very strong emotions.
Another trait that is more commonly feminine: I internalize stress and hurt, dwell on things, incorporate them into my self. This can increase the risk of anxiety and depression which are internalizing disorders. On the other hand I’m much less inclined towards externalizing disorders such as anti-social behavior which are more typically masculine.
As somebody whose natural inclination is to be open and honest about things I have found it difficult to keep all this to myself, but my desire to express the feminine side of my personality through appearance and mannerisms is more than countered by my fear of people’s reactions. People who know me know what I’m like, but I am worried that there will prove to be a limit to how much they are willing to accept. So for now I will go no further than just labeling myself feminine.
The key thing I want people to understand is that announcing the fact I identify as feminine does not change who I am: it is who I am, who I have always been. It is probably one reason why my closest friends — the ones whom I trust most and feel able to talk to most openly — have almost exclusively been women: I identify more with them than I do with “other men”.
The shape of a man
Hides a secret deep inside —
Look into her eyes.
22 thoughts on “Gender Ambivalent”
I like your point about gender dysphoria. People often assume that if your mind feels feminine, you’re supposed to want to be a woman. You’ve explained really well how that isn’t necessarily the case. Doesn’t mean that gender dysphoria is not a thing, but it’s not for everyone who experiences fluidity on the gender spectrum.
So much of it is just being ourselves in a world that feels the need to divide behaviours up into either male or female. The reason why I’m a feminist is because I believe in emancipation for both men and women. The liberty to be themselves without repercussions.
I think you’ve taken a courageous step by writing about this. I wish it didn’t have to be courageous, but we need more people fighting for change and willing to face the world head on. To make the world a safer and better place for those who come after us. Not just for autistic people. Or not just for others who don’t feel gendered in the same way as others. But for everyone who’s ever struggled with not doing something that makes them happy because they fear the disapproval of others.
You have such a positive way of looking at these issues. I gives me strength. Thank you for your understanding and support.
I feel that my point that feeling feminine does not mean that I must want to be a woman was very important, and I’m glad it came across. Gender dysphoria is a very real and serious condition that drives some to take their own lives because they are unable to achieve that necessary match between their internal image of themselves and the external reality. I do not know if I would have the courage to live with that.
I spent longer on this post than any other I have written. Five or six times I read through it, adjusting the wording, adding explanations here and there. I don’t usually work like that: normally I just write and publish. But this time I needed to feel certain that I was expressing as much as I felt comfortable with and that it wasn’t ambiguous. That I wasn’t suggesting anything beyond what I meant. Anything that might leave me too exposed.
It was still difficult to finally press that Publish button. It certainly wasn’t impulsive: I suppose it did take courage to speak about this subject when there are so many people who are intolerant of different expressions of gender: I’ve heard firsthand some of the ignorant and insulting comments aimed at LGBT people (especially trans women and lesbians) and I always think that if I find it hurtful what must they feel. I see stories in the news about assault and murder of people simply because they were seen as different: it at once both frightens and angers me.
I am very much in favor of everybody being free to live and express themselves in whatever way they choose (providing that doesn’t hurt anybody). For example, if I felt like going around in a skirt I shouldn’t face persecution (teasing, bullying, assault): it’s not hurting anybody in any way.
This article from last March was one of the things that helped convince me to speak out about my own gender identity. It’s a refreshingly balanced report from the BBC (even thought the headline is a little sensationalist), and hopefully it shows that progress is being made, however slowly.
Thank you for writing about this. It’s something that I struggle with as well. I just don’t feel very feminine. As you say not dysphoric, not wanting to change my body, but just very uncomfortable with all the stereoypes that go with me being female. I don’t identify as masculine either, just… not very feminine. I don’t want to have to conform to the entire package. You know: “I have breasts therefor I should shave my legs, dress sexy and want to have kids later”.
And it’s getting increasingly uncomfortable, seeing all the kids’ toy stores going all out in the pink and blue. Even supermarkets have separate cupcake decorations and candy for boys and girls. Yuck. It seems to be spreading.
I wonder if it’s related to the increased (superficial) acceptance of homosexuality. People say (especially in the Netherlands) “I’m fine with gay men, as long as they are real men and not so effeminate”.
Good thing you clarified gender identity v sexual orientation. I noticed that even the Dutch LGBT society (COC) immediately talks about homosexuality when speaking about gender variance. (tomorrow’s Coming Out Day will be on that theme in the Netherlands)
Yes, good point about Dutch society doing that superficial thing. Gender and even sexuality is still seen as very binary here. You’re either gay or straight, male or female.
I really like that BBC article that Bean linked to. About gender and sexuality being on a spectrum too. It’s something that isn’t at all acknowledged in the LGBT community here, which is why I’ve never felt comfortable there. My spectrum even changes on how I feel that day and who I interact with. I don’t see why that should be a problem.
(But then again, people have a hard time acknowledging that about the autistic spectrum as well. My functioning changes from day to day and year to year. Why is that so hard to accept?)
Glad you liked the link: when I first read it I thought, “Yes! That’s how I’ve always seen it.” It was such a good feeling to be validated.
British society has definitely moved on from where it was when I was growing up, but there’s still a long way to go. There is still a lot of casual homo- and especially trans-phobia, and elements of the media still sensationalize the subject, falling back on tired old stereotypes and prejudice, treating these people like some kind of freak show.
These stereotypes are harmful even for cisgendered, heterosexual people: how many young women — and men — feel pressure to conform to standards of physical appearance and behavior that they see in magazines and on TV? It’s all-pervasive and is a common root cause of conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and depression.
I have long considered gender and sexuality to exist on a spectrum: I think this is true of a lot of traits that society traditionally sees as binary. And I definitely wanted to separate gender from sexual orientation: they are so often portrayed as being equivalent and that leads to invalid assumptions based on one or the other. As you said when you mentioned that talk of gender variance leads on to homosexuality. There is a presumed correlation that I do not feel exists.
I’m like this too. I was debating a very fundamentalist friend once who gave me a list of 100 differences between the minds of women and men that was supposed to support his point that there should be a clear line between the sexes.
I went through the list and counted how many of the “masculine” traits applied to me. 25. Feminine? 75.
I think society’s definitions of masculine and feminine are warped and stupid. Perhaps they are generally true…or perhaps those are what society expects so everyone acts like they are true and hides any part of themselves that doesn’t conform. Perhaps the generalization is more wrong than right.
Thinking or acting in a way society labels as feminine doesn’t change anyone’s gender or blur the fundamentalists’ precious line. Because ultimately, what one society calls masculine can be totally feminine in another, and vice versa. It’s as subjective and superficial as clothing.
As autisticook mentioned above, gender exists as a spectrum. Just as with the Autism Spectrum, a person can have different aspects that lie at different points on that spectrum. The majority of people are clustered at either end and it is from that that the binary picture has come into being. I have some masculine traits — mostly physical but also some relating to visual-spatial reasoning — but emotionally and psychologically I feel feminine. I use the label because it is a shorthand way to emphasize how I feel different in this respect.
There are any number of pejorative terms used to bully gender nonconformists into line by the ignorant and intolerant: I’m sure I don’t need to repeat any of those slurs here! It is bullying. It coerces people into acting in ways that are unnatural for them, just like the Quiet Hands abuse relating to autistic stimming. And yes, standards of gender-appropriate behavior do differ between cultures: this only highlights their artificial nature. Perhaps one day we will achieve a state where it is not only acceptable but laudable to express oneself in whatever way feels most natural: I’m willing to do my bit to work towards that.
This took courage. Thank you for being so open and honest about this.
When you think about it, it’s really unfortunate that we tend to think of compassion, sympathy, and caring as exclusively feminine traits. I wonder how much of that is really true and how much is a result of suppressing these traits in boys from the time they are babies. And not only that, but we often subject boys to harsher discipline and give them less affection and attention, and by doing so actually make boys more aggressive than they would be otherwise.
I have known a number of quiet, caring, unassuming and soft-spoken men, and they were wonderful people. We need more compassionate people in the world. Keep on being you.
I agree with you completely. Gender stereotypes are pernicious in the way they unconsciously affect people’s expectations of behavior based on gender presentation, and there are too many people who coerce others into matching those expectations by, as you say, suppressing their natural traits. I don’t know how I “slipped through the net”, but I’m glad I did. Thank you. 🙂
It’s something I think about nearly every day. There’s a lot of discussion going on about the sexism in our society when talking about women, but men are the victim of sexism just as much. Like the nearly INDESTRUCTIBLE belief that all men want sex, all the time, and will cheat and lie to get it. Even though we can now see that when women are given the same opportunities as men, getting out of the house and having their own income and all that, they will cheat just as much (or as little). Or the fact that nobody trusts a man to be able to care for an infant. The way custody is still automatically granted to a mother, no matter which partner is closest to the child. (The way that nearly every website in the autism parenting community talks about fathers as an afterthought, if at all). How we always assume a man to be violent unless proven otherwise. HOW EVERY AUTISM TEXTBOOK TALKS ABOUT “NOT HAVING EMOTIONS” AS A NORMAL MASCULINE THING. Sorry, that makes me very shouty. Sexism is just as harmful to men.
You have raised some very good points here. 😀 The sexism debate is skewed by the privilege of men in our society: there is a reluctance to consider that a privileged group is disadvantaged in any way. That is not to suggest that any disadvantage comes close to outweighing the advantages of privilege. (I dislike the fact that privilege even exists, and then feel guilty because that’s a relatively easy position to take when one is a member of such a group.)
Your shouty bit reminded me of the somewhat-discredited “extreme male brain” theory of autism that shamelessly plays on the stereotype of masculinity.
Why can’t it just be as simple as I’m a person, you’re a person, s/he’s a person too, and leave it at that?
Taking that last as a literal question: I think people need to filter and classify and gender (like race) is an easy one. It may be another factor: in an increasingly complex world people want to hold on to stereotypes. Plus science seems to be busy confirming a lot of stereotypes.
Very good points, that I also think about daily.
The “men always need sex” argument is rehashed every time prostitution is discussed. No prostitution -> more rape, as if men are mindless animals who are not capable of moral behaviour. This is also the basis for head scarfs / burqas etc, but actually any call for ‘decent’ clothing. Most societies teach us all that men are simply not responsible for their behaviour if ‘provoked’.
A grown man near a playground, not obviously a father of one of the children, can quickly be seen as a child molester.
On the one hand men are the privileged group in our society, at the same time they are systematically demonized, without most of us even realizing it.
Sexism definitely harms both sides.
And yes, the ‘extreme male brain’ thing. In all those books, no-one even seems to consider how much of the masculine/feminine divide is based on how people are raised and treated. It’s all “more testosterone therefor…”
Interesting post. Hadn’t actually seen this for some reason..
I thought it was interesting that you mention typical feminine traits but also internalising and the predisposition this brings for anxiety and depression.
Here in Australia, where, at least in the middle class suburbs, gender stereotypes are almost caricatural compared with what I knew in Europe, there are campaigns aimed at all the blokey blokes to stop bottling stress up and, basically, killing themselves.
I get confused by gender type behaviour, and like some other commenters feel also less feminine about certain things (and I do not mean wearing my hair stubbornly short although people here seriously still class you as a lesbian for that). But at the same time I am very comfortable with my sexuality and have no doubts about being straight or liking my body, curves and all. I think its odd that we have come to this situation, now and after so many efforts by feminists but also progressive male thinkers, that girls are more pink and boys still “will be boys” – not to mention young women in showbiz and on the street confusing nonconformity with actually responding to the (dominant) male idea of being a styled concentrate of sexual attraction..but I digress. I am not sure WHY compassion and caring even are “feminine” traits and why we cannot, as someone mentioned, simply see our personalities on a spectrum. I also believe that MANY of the traits girls and women typically display are learned behaviours induced by their environment, the expectations put upon them – especially in conflictual situations.
Which brings me back to you and considering your recent accounts of both, your first and your second marriage, the fact that you have aspergers and were probably in conflictual situations throughout your youth as well…it makes me think that internalising, but also caring, reflection and so on are all very good, HUMAN traits, and I wish it didn’t ask courage from a man to talk about them but would simply make him proud. I know if you were my son, I would be proud of him.
Just as an update: I found an online version of the Bem Sex Inventory Test, and my scores were 90/100 masculine, and 63/100 feminine. And yet I feel very much cisgendered and comfortable in my femininity. It’s just other people who sometimes label my behaviour or words as “unfeminine” or even “third gender”. Silly people. 😛
Interesting. I’ve been called effeminate a number of times, which didn’t bother me because it’s how I self-identify.
Yeah, in the range of things people have called me, I’m far more bothered by arrogant or coldhearted than I am by unfeminine. Even though none of those things reflect how I think about myself. But my gender identity is far more secure than my social identity is.
Thanks for the idea of that test. Which online test did you use?
I took 2 different ones. They tend to differ, plus I found it difficult to stay consistent in the ‘what do I think of myself’ and ‘what do I think others think of me’.
I scored 55-60% masculine and 65-68% feminine. So more towards androgynous. Fits.
I can’t help feeling a bit annoyed as I take the test, though, as I read the adjectives I’m thinking “yeahyeah, ‘shy’, ‘loves children’, those are bound to be the feminine ones, ‘dominant’, leadership qualities’ are the masculine ones, yadayada” That didn’t realy help 😉
But then again, I suppose it is about the stereotypes.
I did three different ones (one was an EXTREMELY bad translation into Dutch), and I didn’t feel like any of them were really true to the actual test and its principles as described on Wikipedia. So that’s why I didn’t link to any of them. But my score was pretty consistently masculine.
It is about the stereotypes partly because the theory is that people who really believe in these stereotypes will also self-censor any of their own behaviours that do not fit the desired stereotype. So that makes sense to me.