Basic Q & A's about transition and some of its issues


Question 37: Is gender just a social construct? What is a 'woman'?




There is a section of feminists who strive to fence off cisgendered women from trans women, and repudiate the term 'woman' for people who transition 'male to female'.

Their argument is that the term 'woman' should be limited to people's biological sex, citing female reproductive systems and chromosomes.

They further argue that 'trans women' are actually men who claim a psychological gender identity as female, but this gender identity is defined as a social construct, of what society has developed as the stereotypes and passwords of what it means to be female. They believe men can appropriate those constructs and act them out (in what they see as a kind of parody and pretence) but none of the identification or the construct-copying makes it possible for them to be biologically female, and therefore 'women'.

As a basic argument, this can sound very persuasive. However... human biology is complex, consciousness and self-awareness is complex, and not all aspects of physical gender (as experienced in the brain) are socially constructed.

A large number of medical and psychological bodies recognise reality is more complex than this reduction of the term 'woman' to womb, ovaries and vagina.

The very simplistic and basic excluding model of a sub-set of feminists and religious dogmatists - who desperately want clear demarcation of the sexes for ideological reasons - simply does not take account of the far from simple operations of human biology in the interaction of hormones, development of consciousness, and the brain. A woman is not just a vagina or a womb. That is pretty obvious.

The complexity begins with the reality that human sexuality (let alone gender) includes the brain, and its complex operations, its receptivity to hormones, its origin in foetus, its modelling, its development. The brain itself is very much a major sex organ, or factory of sexual feelings, identity, and its development and consciousness... in short, who you are. Your sexual identity originates and coalesces in the brain. Biological sex is not limited to a vagina. Biology is the whole of how a system operates, and our identity is first and foremost developed - both awareness of sex and sense of our gender - in the brain. Our feelings develop, incline, evolve... but not everyone develops in the same way. A person's sex is the whole of the biological system.

In short, neither the sexual reality of a person, nor their gender awareness, are make believe. It is something integral to a person, and a functioning system that originates in the brain, evolves in the brain, and coalesces around a gestalt sense of who someone is as a person, how they feel, how they identify. In fact, biologically, this is very powerful and very real. The person grows to know this consciousness, to recognise it about themselves. It is real, it is true about themselves. It is who they are. In short, sense of gender is not just constructed socially by imitation: it is integral to a person. It is the operation of their biological system.

Now those feminists, and many of us, would agree that there IS such a thing as gender 'expression': the external behaviours that we act out or stereotype as social constructs... ways by which women navigate their way in society, or are defined by others in terms of clothing, jobs, household, church roles, make-up, hair, and so on. But these aren't gender itself: they are 'expressions', constructed by society.

What's inside a person - the gestalt sense of how someone feels and identifies - that is not a social construct. It's an incredibly complex sense of being - as complex as the brain.

When we talk about someone operating as a 'woman' in society, a huge part of that is more than 'construct'; more than 'having a vagina' (which is how ideologues want to reduce it); it also, deeply, involves recognition of your gestalt, that integral aspect of gender awareness. Through that strong gender identity, this operating and gendered gestalt then has to navigate the world it lives in and interacts with, and evolve in it. It does this from earliest childhood. Even cisgendered women can find that hard, because gender is far from simple and far from stereotypical: more like a spread out spectrum of experiences, interactions, moods, feelings, behaviours.

What the inner gestalt - your core consciousness and subconsciousness - does tend to do is it recognises externals which it also recognises in itself. It identifies with what it already knows and feels within itself. It's an incredibly natural thing. It's like the click of an instant camera, capturing reflections of itself again and again, a multiplicity of 'recognitions' where the brain goes 'I know that' or 'I recognise that feeling'. This happens again and again and again. It shores up the core gestalt, and helps it open up to itself.

There is an invidious theory called 'autogynephilia' (widely decried by many professional bodies) that alleges that when some trans women transition, it is a kind of sexual fetish, where the person so desires women that they want to become one themselves as a kind of ultimate sexual satisfaction.

That is incedibly demeaning. It fetishises and sexualises something that is not all about sex at all. Trans people are no more fixated on sex than anyone else. 'Being a woman' is not just about sex, whether you are cisgender or transgender. It is far more than that. People transition, not out of sexual fetish, but out of desire for psychological ease, for congruency between their peripherals and their inner identity, for peace, and out of longing to get on with an ordinary life. That is by far the main driving motivation for most people who transition: the ending of dysphoria and the jarring incongruency with who they recognise and know themselves to be, integrally, in their core consciousness and being.

They have an integral gestalt sense of self and, like every single human being, they may not open up to all of it all at once, but it's the core of who they are, how they feel... and if they can't express that because of repression, self-constraint, societal policing... in the end that scars, that limits, that hollows out and harms... and the beautiful integral person at the core may begin to fracture from within. Transition is not some kinky, hedonistic, lifestyle choice - or some rebellion against God - it is a person trapped in a socially imposed situation and definition at painful odds with who they actually are and how they feel. Transition is about resolving that harmful, painful incongruency, and opening up to the loveliness of who someone actually is.

So when certain (not all) radical feminists, or self-appointed religious gatekeepers, try to insist on imposing the framework all over again, and to use labels that are instruments of social coercion, all out of ideology... that damages and harms a person. It attempts to close them down again within parameters which are the very problem they need to break free from... if they are to open up, to live authentically as themselves, to flourish, to give, to create, to love from the heart of who they really are. It can be a very cruel policing.

Fundamentally, gender police - whether certain feminists or religious dogmatists - cannot dictate a person's identity and the reality of how they feel and who they are. 'Being a woman' for most people thankfully involves a congruency between reproductive systems and core identity (including awareness of their own integral gender)... the gestalt consciousness of their being.

But for some people... actually more than a few... that congruency doesn't fit perfectly (whether they are cisgender or transgender). Life is complex like that. And for some the incongruency may be devastating, inflicting terrible dysphoria, suffering, repression, and ultimately real (and sadly sometimes terminal) harm. The brain is part of one system that is running as 'biological sex'. It is not excepted from it.

People who identify - in their integral awareness and state of being - as female, and recognise their 'woman' in the 'women' their gestalt snaps countless times a day, are just being honest, not fake... and the dogmatists who call them fake are cruel and hurtful for denying that person's lived and authentic reality.

Why, if transition, and tuned hormones, shore up their gestalt and bring greater congruency to life, enabling them to flourish, to be happy, kind, and to have psychological ease... so that their own version of biological sex and gender cohere, make sense, open them to themselves... why should people be so territorial about the term 'woman' as to exclude expressions of womanhood that often take huge courage and sacrifice to truly open up to?

It's not about appropriating every aspect of other people's womanhood... it's about being yourself, and the womanhood that is integral to yourself, and has grown and ached for freedom in an often cruel world.




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contact: Susannah Clark email: thecommunity (at) gmail (dot) com