Gender is never a solitary pursuit.
Sure, we all have some inner sense of who we are, but the development and expression of that sense is always in the context of the social system of gender. The symbols and behaviours in that system shift over time and place, shift between race and class identities, shift between ethnicities and cultures. Gender expression that is appropriate in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles wouldn’t be appropriate in a Hooters in Tulsa, for example.
We teach each other how to do gender, that imitation for which there is no original, as Judith Butler called it. Gender expression is always relational, judged on how effectively it advertises who we are, how effectively it makes the connections we want to make. Gender expression needs to communicate who we are and what we are trained to do and needs to fit together with the gender expression of others to create links.
Learning to be gendered in a culture is learning to see through the eyes of other people. We hang with people like us — are homosocial — and learn how to be one of the group, assimilating ourselves by finding our version of the shared behaviours. We interact with people not like us and see how they respond to us, learning how to change that response by reshaping our own gender presentation.
The truth of gender is primarily cultural, shaped by the relations between people and studied by social scientists. Gender exists around reproductive biology, helping to control procreation and child-rearing, defining the roles of mommies, daddies and relatives, but every culture has layered its own needs and desires onto the gender system, needs that are romantic, economic and political.
Humans are social animals so gender is a social system. A “wild child” would never learn gender, having no need to and no way to do so.
For transpeople, whose journey is strongly solitary, moving to claim an individual identity over the assigned and compulsory group identity, this shared acculturation is always a challenge. How do we learn to see with the eyes of those we wish to be when we are not accepted in their circle? How do we take on shared vision when we are locked out of the sharing that would teach us that way of seeing?
Gender policing comes with separation. Systems of gender always separate people by reproductive biology and then formalize interactions between those groups to limit the possibility of unauthorized and premature procreation. The need for these separations is reduced with the availability of reliable contraception, which is one reason that gender has changed so much in the past 50 years. Breeding pressure is also off, as there is little economic incentive to have more children, and this always opens up gender, as Gilbert Herdt notes in Third Sex, Third Gender.
Women are people who make the choices of women. While women’s choices of dress and ornament may be their most visible choices, they are far from the most important choices to define and shape the woman gender experience. Engaging the stories of other women, sharing experiences and viewpoints, coming together over needs and beliefs is at the core of how women create a shared and powerful identity. Sisterhood is indeed powerful.
Learning a new gender role without immersion in a group of others who also work to embody that gender role is almost impossible. Doing gender alone gives a flat view without the depth that sharing views from around the circle gives. Alone we don’t have the perspective which shapes and refines our presentation and choices in the world.
Polishing gender expression, finding that balance of tame connection and wild individuality that lets us be effective and graceful in the world always requires the feedback between observer and participant, between us and them. For transpeople, who always end up spending time between groups, this is a real challenge.
Changing our mind always means seeing the world we share in new ways, seeing through the eyes of others. And those eyes are always gendered.