Gender Dysphoria: what does it mean to feel more like the opposite sex?

In teasing out what it feels like to be a man or woman, it might be helpful to define what it means to be a man or a woman. Maybe there are some universally agreed upon traits that define one or the other? Let’s start with the obvious:

An anthropologist will tell you that evolution over thousands of years is responsible for many of these differences and a biologist will tell you that the hormones bathing the brain are responsible for the others. But that cannot be the whole story as everyone knows men and women who do not conform to many of these stereotypes, and it doesn’t make them feel or appear less manly or womanly.

It could be argued that my father was not the most masculine of men. He enjoyed musical theatre and cake icing, played no sport, took care of his appearance, had a preference for employing women, and never put business before people. There was no doubt in his mind that he was one hundred percent a heterosexual man. And, there are many, many men who work in artistic or caring professions; who have hobbies that do not correspond to the stereotypical man; who enjoy talking; who take responsibility for their children and for making a home; and, who show/share their emotions willingly. But they still feel like men.

So, maybe there is no universal checklist that we can use to say that is a man and this is a woman. But we know what a man is and what a woman is, don’t we? We use that definition every day without thinking about it. So, is there a default within all of us as to what defines a man or a woman? I believe we can get closer to an answer by agreeing that there is no universal set of criteria. Our education, experiences, and society shape our definition of men and women, and it is subtly different for each individual. We know that is a man and this is a woman because a lifetime of influences has taught us that, when we receive those particular signals from the people we meet, it means man or woman. We only think about it when we come into contact with someone who blurs the gender divide. And, even then, we don’t think about it too hard.

Within a single culture, both sender and receiver will know “the rules”, ie. the accepted gender presentation for a man or a woman. This means that a sender can consciously elect to blur their gender. Done successfully, the receiver will not be aware that they are meeting someone whose biological sex is not aligned with their presented gender. But this also means that the receiver can get it wrong if their experience is not the same as the sender’s. Receivers from another culture may be particularly bad a guessing the right gender based on appearance.

Appearance is, arguably, the most important aspect to one’s presentation as it can be consciously selected, ie. you choose what clothes you wear, how you style your hair, whether you wear make-up, etc. Examining one’s own choices, it is quite difficult to say why your appearance is as it is. The answer would, invariably, seem to be: because it feels right. In other words, I feel comfortable, it suits me, it reflects who I am. Again, not hugely helpful as an explanation of why you appear as you do, but it does suggest that appearance is tied, at some very basic level, to who we feel ourselves to be.

But then that begs the question: is that feeling of “rightness” more to do with how your presentation is received by the onlooker and their attitude towards you rather than the choices regarding appearance that you make? Should the question then be “Gender Dysphoria: why it is important to me to be taken for the opposite sex?” I haven’t reached a conclusion on how much a transsexual makes him/herself and how much society makes him or her. I have a feeling that the individual and society must collude to make the man or woman in infinitely subtle ways, and that all men and women, at times, feel themselves to be more masculine or feminine depending on the environment in which they find themselves.

A question that every transgendered person has probably been asked at some point is: if you have never been the opposite sex, how do you know that you feel like them? When you weigh up everything I’ve already said, it’s a pretty pointless question. You might as well ask a woman why she feels like a woman or a man why he feels like a man. Ask that question in the street and, every time you ask it, you’ll get a different answer. In short, you feel masculine or feminine because you do.

If it is so difficult to define men and women, why do we persist in making individuals choose one or the other? If society were to stop dividing itself into two all the time, what would happen? Next time you fill in a form, or use a public lavatory, or go shopping for clothes, and you are asked to choose M or F, have a think about what it is that you are really saying by choosing one or the other. The difference is not always as black and white as you might think.

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