The Self and Society in Becoming a Visible Man

September 26th, 2007

Personal experience informs everyone’s ideas about gender so powerfully that it can seem nearly impossible to develop a posture approaching holism. An important route to progressive awareness is exposure to a diverse array of views and life experiences, so narratives in which gender is addressed rationally and emotionally are valuable on face—even ignoring any other purposes they might serve. Jamison Green’s Becoming a Visible Man is one such narrative: it provides meaningful descriptions of Green’s personal experiences of gender and of transition. But it also goes a step farther, incorporating descriptive views of gender which form a persuasive sociopolitical argument. There are a few instances where this argument becomes inconsistent, but they should not be allowed to completely devalue the work as a whole. Its overarching philosophy of tolerance and self-determination is valuable. Still, readers might wish to address the particular inconsistencies, which generally seem to arise from Green’s predictable instinct to define groups based on his individual experience—an instinct against which Green himself cautions.

Early in the autobiography, Green writes that “some [trans] people appear normatively gendered with respect to their bodies, and their transness is not apparent to others until they begin a physical transition that makes them appear unusual, as if their sex and gender are not aligned, which is the opposite of my experience” (38). This implies that the outward manifestations of socialized gender roles, the behavior quirks that are associated with “masculine” and “feminine” attitudes toward the self, “gendered” styles of communication, and other attitudinal and behavioral stereotypes of gender are not intrinsic to gender identity. They are, on face, unrelated to our internal experiences of gender; it is in the interactions between individuals and societies that they become projected onto the psychological contours of gender identity, and in most cases internalized through complex associations. This doesn’t mean that everyone a society treats as male will see themselves as male—but it does mean that most people raised in a sexist society will link maleness (whether they identify with it or not) with what that society describes as “masculinity.” The reader should bear in mind that Green’s own experiences do not explicitly refute this tendency, since he himself claims to be socially masculine in addition to internally male. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does occasionally lead him to overgeneralize his experience.

For example, he later writes:

Incidentally, I also think that being a woman requires exactly the same thing: being comfortable in the body of a woman, knowing what is expected of a woman at any given moment, and choosing how to go about meeting or not meeting those expectations. Strong women, just like strong men, are capable of doing the unexpected—that is, breaking gender boundaries—and still being womanly, or manly, or even gender-free in the process, depending on the situation and on their own particular identification and/or intentions. I have never condoned thoughtless conformance to stereotypical gender roles. (94-95, emphasis added)

Since our society’s expectations for women and men are arbitrary and limiting, knowledge of them should not be a part of the internal definition of a woman or man. Obviously everyone should have the ability to conform or not to conform. It is inevitable that most people will have at least a vague idea of what actions constitute conformity. However, social codes, though powerful, are not rigid, and variations abound. Knowledge of any particular social code might provide someone with tools to express elements of his or her identity, but it should not be a prerequisite to existing with those elements. Nobody would argue that a female diplomat traveling to a vastly different culture with unknown expectations for women ceases to meet the requirements for being female. I don’t think Green meant to incorporate such an arbitrary component in what he phrased as a definition; rather, he was instinctively reflecting part of his own (legitimate) personal strategy for expressing his internal maleness, which involves some elements of intentional conformity to social standards for masculinity.

Green supports my interpretation of gender identity as purely internal (with external expressions being personally chosen manifestations of or reactions to this internal self-concept) when he writes:

If we have to worry about following any prescribed path in order to be ourselves—no matter who prescribes it: the trans community, the medical establishment, or the non-trans assumptions of stereotypical (and therefore socially validated) gender behavior—we are only setting ourselves up to be judged by an arbitrary standard that can be changed at any time by those to whom we’ve delegated authority over our own authenticity. (144)

Some of the more broadly integrated social standards and stereotypes are actually difficult to change “at any time,” but in their case this inertia makes arbitrary judgments of authenticity all the more damaging.

For the above reason, it is strange that when writing about Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, Green narrates, “[s]he extended her hand and I was struck by its softness, by the gentle weariness in her eyes and her understated, quietly confident, feminine bearing. She was as real a woman as any other I’ve ever met” (176, emphasis added). He uses this description to refute the assumption that her cross-dressing detracts from her femininity, but he fails to adequately convey that these listed qualities are not inherently female. The fact that he perceived in her a demeanor that paralleled the prevailing social definition of “femininity” does not make her more “real” as a woman; if this were the case, it would be equally legitimate to say that a woman who does not share her bearing is a “fake” woman. The point should be that behaviors like “gentle weariness” or cross-dressing or “feminine bearing” do not themselves define identity. Associating traits with definitions of gender only serves to promote stereotypes and heighten the pressures to conform to them.

Earlier he writes that “an appearance of conformity with normative gender behavior does cause less social friction, a fact that every child has had drummed into her or him from earliest consciousness” (128). This fact drastically cramps human development—and the most complete path to freedom necessitates rejecting the idea that there should be gender norms at all. All norms, even ones that are not viewed as exclusive, come with embedded pressures. It is fine to use existing norms to express oneself (as Green does) as long as one doesn’t use them to define others.

Green writes that “[e]veryone uses gender to communicate” (186). This form of social communication can be personally important, but the norms involved are damaging: it is necessary—and possible—to avoid communicating gender in such a way that it reifies gender norms. The problematization of social gender does not require the extermination of individual gender identity, but neither does the expression of individual identity necessitate the preservation of social roles. When Green argues in the same paragraph that “[t]he fact that gender is problematic for some theorists as well as some transpeople is no justification for an attempt to mandate it out of existence,” the reader should keep in mind the distinction between the gender of the self and the gender that is projected onto the self (186). Green tells us that gender is “deeply embedded in the gestalt of expression, the body language, that a person uses,” but this gestalt is a social phenomenon—when framed productively, an expressive tool; when framed unproductively, a harmful basis for judgment (189). An example of productive framing comes on the next page, when he writes, “gender belongs to each individual, to do with as he or she pleases; it is not possible for an ‘objective’ observer to paste gender onto another person by labeling them with a gender that the person does not feel, whether or not that gender is expressed” (190).

Sexuality and gender are fuzzier concepts than some theorists acknowledge. Social pressures and normative categories influence many people’s self-perceptions, sometimes artificially inflating their dichotomous absolutism. Those who claim that their own experiences of gender or sexuality prove that the concepts must be absolute may not be fully aware of these pressures on themselves or others. Green challenges social absolutism regarding sexuality when he writes that “every person, gay, bi, or straight, is subject to the possibility of change in her or his sexual desire, response, or interest. We’ve just been too sheltered to know this as a society, or too fearful and judgmental to discuss it” (158). However, at times he seems to reinforce social absolutism regarding gender: “One thing all men understand is that they are not women” (187, emphasis added). Many men may readily accept this statement, but some self-identified men may not view the distinction in such absolute terms. Maleness and femaleness are different, but they are not necessarily antithetical to each other. In fact, even Western society’s warped views of masculinity and femininity are not direct opposites.

If gender is viewed as a universal dichotomy, or if identity is viewed as intrinsically tied to behavior, then deviance becomes suspect. In order to achieve Green’s dream of “a world without shame or fear of difference, a world in which people are not afraid of other people’s identities or beliefs,” we must question these perceptions (216).

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