Gender is not just a spectrum but something that evolves with time

The explosion of trans awareness over the last few years has been super exciting, even as it comes with its own challenges and problems (like the mediamakers falling all over themselves to include ‘trans diversity’ even if it means representing us terribly and actively offensively on many occasions). I’m particularly excited that children are learning about transness earlier, and that parents along with medical teams are reconsidering how they approach gender, and allowing their kids to be more fluid while they sort out their gender identity.

And there’s a growing awareness of the fact that not everyone is male or female, which is also delightful. Though I am frustrated with the attitude that femmes cannot possibly be anything other than female, that people who aren’t men or women need to have lean, angular bodies and other traits traditionally associated with masculinity. But this is something that will shift over time, I have faith, just as the attitude that binary trans people must undergo some socially defined version of ‘transition’ to be ‘real’ will hopefully slowly melt away, just as the notion that transition in general is required of all people to be ‘trans enough.’

But as our relationship with gender evolves, it’s time to look at another important facet of gendered experience that’s not getting enough airtime: The fact that gender is not a constant. I’m not referring to genderfluid people (though they are one representation of the inconstancy of gender) but specifically to the fact that gender is something that can evolve considerably over time. A person’s relationship to gender is not always stable or consistent, and that doesn’t invalidate that person’s gender at any point, contrary to social attitudes.

Cis people in particular tend to think of gender as something that is very fixed. You were born with a gender and bam, that’s it. They generally assume these genders to be ‘male’ and ‘female’ despite the fact that biology is actually much more diverse, and that there’s no such thing as a hard and fast ‘biological sex’ or ‘chromosomal sex.’ People have chromosomes and genitals in a dizzying array of configurations and it’s pretty great, actually.

With time, some cis people have come to understand and accept that some people have genders that do not match those assigned at birth, and that some of those people choose to transition to whatever degree feels comfortable and necessary for them. A smaller subset is opening to the idea that gender is a spectrum, and that a whole slew of identities and experiences beyond ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are present and real. (Of late, I’ve really been trying to avoid using the term ‘nonbinary’ as a blanket term, because it’s not accurate: Some people do identify themselves as nonbinary, stressing that they sit outside the gender binary, but that erases the experiences of people who do not, and ignores the fact that this reflects Western relationships with gender. In a sense, to use ‘nonbinary’ as a generic term is a form of colonialism, one that excludes diverse lived experiences, imposing instead Western definitions of gender onto those who do not necessarily share those experiences.)

But for most cis people, there’s still a notion that in the case of trans people, gender is a fixed constant. You’re assigned male at birth, but you’re actually a woman, or you’re genderfuck, or agender, or genderqueer, or any number of other things. And these things are clear points on a spectrum: First you were this, now you were that (ignoring, of course, that you were ‘that’ all along, even if people assigned ‘this’ to you).

However, this isn’t an accurate reflection of how gender works. Many people have a relationship with gender that shifts over time — a child assigned male at birth might grow up as a girl, might later identify as genderqueer, might realise they’re agender later in life, might identify as a man even later. None of these identities are invalidated by those that came before or will come after. He hasn’t ‘failed’ at gender and shouldn’t be treated as though he was making it all up for attention. His relationship with his gender shifted, in response to any number of factors.

Sometimes, external presentations of gender identity change because of gatekeeping. I know some people who transitioned in an era when the only way to transition was to follow rigid, highly binaristic standards. Thus, people who wanted to access surgical or medical transition had to play a binaristic game to get the treatment they needed, effectively having to come out twice — once as a binary trans person, and again later as someone of a different gender. Today, I see more and more cases of the opposite, as a growing number of medical professionals embrace the gender spectrum and provide a range of treatment options — some genderqueer people pursue transition and later identify as men or women, for instance, as they settle into their changing bodies. They’re not being forced into these identities by the medical or social establishment, but rather find their gender by being freed to explore their identities, which is a good thing.

We must talk about the nonlinear experience of gender because perceiving it as something fixed and stable is damaging. People experience gender in a lot of different ways, and they need to know that this is okay. Without these affirmations, trans people are going to keep struggling for social and community acceptance, and that’s a grave injustice.

Image: Gender Abolition, Kristofher Muñoz, Flickr