“Being” woman or man
In my previous post, I mentioned that most of my life I lived as a man, but I now largely live as a woman. I sign with a woman’s name, Wiltrude Höschele.
“Am” I now a man or a woman?
This question is taken very seriously. As soon as we see a human being on the street, we categorize that person as male or female. Most people find it bothersome to talk to a person without knowing their gender. As such it could be irrelevant for you, my readers, whether a man or a woman has written these lines. Why is it so important to know that? Perhaps one reason why ignorance about a person’s gender causes us such discomfort is that European languages make it very difficult to talk about somebody without mentioning their gender by the use of female or male forms. In any case, I am quite happy to oblige by explaining how I want you to refer to me.
A problem about the question whether I am man or woman is the assumption that a person “is” either a woman or a man. I “am” certainly a human being and can do no other than to think and feel like a human. This identity is clear. But regarding all other identities within the category “human”, the boundaries are less clear cut. For example, I can not absolutely say that I am “German”, despite having been born with German citizenship and never having relinquished it. After all, I have lived most of my life in other countries, have been deeply formed by my experiences there and am therefore in many ways a stranger in Germany. Although boundaries between countries and nationalities really exist and are made as distinct as possible, they can be crossed, and there are overlaps and blurred lines.
I propose to see gender identity in a similar way as national identity.
Gender is a multilayered phenomenon. There is the layer of biological reproduction that goes back to the first sexually reproducing organisms. There are several bodily layers of female and male bodies among mammals in general and humans in particular. There are modes of behavior that are found predominantly or exclusively among members of one or the other human gender. There are various sexual preferences and behaviors. There are gender roles which are either fixed or flexible depending on each human society, and which continuously change. There are forms of clothing, accessories, jewelry and bodily adornments which are gender specific, according to culture. There are linguistic forms that indicate gender, different in every language. There is the felt sense of gender identity. Each of these layers can be explored at depth. And there can be discrepancies and contradictions between different layers.
The multilayered nature of gender is recognized in the expression that a “real man” does this or doesn’t do that. What “this” or “that” are is constantly changing. It used to be that a “real man” didn’t do any “women’s work” in the home. This age is hopefully past. But may a “real man” today appear in public wearing lipstick or nail polish? Or may a “real man” out himself as gay? Anybody who uses “fag” as an insult certainly doesn’t regard a gay person as a “real man”. Anybody who talks about “real men” thus recognizes that being a man (and conversely being a woman) does not just depend on a person’s biological sex, but also on a host of usually poorly defined modes of behavior, preferences, thought patterns, emotions, modes of expression etc. The expression “real man” is thus logically and philosophically incompatible with the notion that being a man or a woman depends solely on that person’s biological sex.
Talking about “real men” of course also implies that “unreal” men are of lesser value – because in some way or other they behave like women, they are considered “effeminate”. There is no corresponding term that would indicate that women who act like men are in some way diminished. This means that women are classified as being of lesser value than men. This is incompatible with equal rights for women. As an analogy: is a person from the United States who has spent many years of their life in England and who has adopted many English ways or mannerisms no “real American” any more? Perhaps people who associate being “American” with being insular, avoiding higher education, being fundamentalist Christian and extremely conservative would say so. However, somebody who sees people from both countries as being of equal worth and recognizes that vibrant cultural exchange enriches us all, would most likely regard the question itself as silly.
If we regard women and men as being of equal value, there is no cause to regard a man as inferior if he practices some modes of behavior that he learned from women. He is simply a man who learned some things from women.
The multilayered nature of gender, and thus its contradictions, is especially apparent among transgender people, but in some way or other is recognizable in almost anybody. Any person who doesn’t feel completely at ease in traditional gender roles, or who sometimes wished to belong to the other gender or to do things that are usually forbidden for people of their own gender in their culture, shows evidence of contradictions between various layers of gender. This is just as “natural” as millennia old wishes of people to fly or to visit the moon, to converse with animals, to discover spiritual worlds, to travel to distant parts of the world, to learn foreign languages and so forth. All these and many more examples show that people do not always comply with “natural” orders, but rather question, challenge, overcome or even negate them. Crossing borders belongs to human nature.
Somebody who crosses a border still retains something of both sides within. Such people are not fully classifiable with one or the other side. However, for some purposes an unambiguous classification is necessary. A migrant from Mexico to the US who has obtained US citizenship must be unambiguously classified as a US citizen when it comes to voting rights for example. This does not depend on whether they continue to feel themselves as in some way Mexican, what memories they have, what fluency they have in which languages etc. All these overtones are important if you want to get to know that person. But it must be very clear that this person has all the rights of a US citizen.
As a border crosser, I “am” at some levels a woman, at other levels I “am” a man or perhaps something between man and woman, or neither one or the other but simply a human being. In the last years, I have discovered that I can only truly be happy if I acknowledge that I identify more with women than with men. Therefore, I prefer to be spoken to with a woman’s name and to be referred to in feminine forms. That is why I also ask of you, my readers, to refer to me as a woman. That requires at most a bit of getting used to on your part, and gives me joy. But that does not mean that I “am” a woman in every respect (just as referring to me as a man would not mean the opposite). It only means that in my social interactions and in my activity as a writer, my female identity stands in the foreground.
Maybe it helps to regard the female or male forms of address as being something similar to the title “doctor”. A person who has earned a Ph.D. may be referred to as “doctor” in recognition of this achievement. Transgender people have usually invested a large amount of life energy and will into their transformation, and I think this deserves to be recognized by referring to them by the gender with which they identify. I personally am thankful for such recognition.