16 February 2014

An essay on sex and gender

I've been trying to complete this post for several weeks. I come to it, change a little, feel unable to complete it, save it and go off and do something else.

A few weeks ago, I exchanged a series of private messages with a cisgender woman who is struggling to understand how my transgenderism fits into my family, in which I am essentially a male ~ a husband and father, and whether my expression of femininity ~ hair, makeup, dresses, high heels, etc somehow implies that she is less female than I am!

I sent her what was essentially an essay. I originally intended to re-write it to fit the normal tone of my blog posts, but I've come to the conclusion that rather than trying to re-write it, I'll just quote what I wrote to her, with minimal editing to clarify things that she would have understood but others might not. I'm not sure how she took it...

To provide context to part of what I wrote later, I've included part of an earlier message, where I observed that:

The problem is that I know what the solution to my depression is. Spending time socialising "as female" is effectively the anti-depressant that I need, but like using a drug, the frequency has to be high enough to avoid bouts of depression between the doses. The Catch-22 problem is that if I get too depressed, I can't push myself to get organised and go out and it becomes a downward spiral of depression.

It really is as simple as that.

That led on to the main essay:
I do understand when people intend to be considerate, understanding etc but struggle to do so. As a child, my father (like many people in that era) was extremely homophobic, to the point that I feel that I have some homophobia ingrained into me, even though I consciously reject it. To make it even more complicated, that extreme homophobia effectively incorporated transphobia, because at that time all transgender behaviour was seen by most people as being a variety of homosexuality. The presumption of a connection persists to this day, and is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with other people's ideas of who I am.

If you think that it is difficult for you to understand, I assure you that you're not alone! Plenty of people who live it every day don't understand it either.

The first thing to try to get your head around (and it is difficult) is to separate the concepts of physical sex, brain sex and gender. Physical sex is an immutable biological fact ~ it's part of the DNA. Brain sex is a function of how the person perceives themselves, which is determined by hormonal "programming" that happens during foetal development. Like physical sex, it is immutable ~ it's what was programmed into the brain before birth. Gender is a social construct ~ it's generally what a society considers normal for people of a physical sex, but some societies have a category for "third gender", which basically recognises the existence of transgender people.

None of the three are binary male/female. Like intersex people who have a range of positions along the continuum between male and female, the brain sex can be ambiguous or even variable. The latter is how it is for me ~ it varies with context. Gender has an unlimited number of positions on a spectrum. When you look at someone and think "that's a male" or "that's a female", it is a gender attribution that you are making.

Crossdressing is seeking to temporarily align the gender role with the brain sex. In a social setting, it allows the person to behave in a manner congruent to how they think. That's where I'm at.

Transsexualism takes it a huge step further, involving hormones and surgery to alter the brain and body to approximate that of the opposite physical sex. I know quite a few people who have gone that way, including one who I've known for several years as "just" a crossdresser (their self-description), who has just started transitioning.

I can't see that in my future. At some point at the end of a day or night out, it is a relief to strip off that gender role because my mood has shifted away from feminine and I've satisfied the craving ~ I've got my hit, and I'm ready to do something else. To transition would be to trap myself in something that I don't want all of the time.

If you can get your head around all of that, you'll realise that "femininity" is a gender construct, and is quite separate from being a woman. If you ask yourself the question "am I a man or a woman" and you confidently answer that you are a woman, then that is what you are because that's what your brain sex is, regardless of physical sex and gender. If I ask myself the same question, my answer is either "yes" or "no" depending how much emphasis I put on the "or". I admire transsexuals for the fact that they are able to answer that question one way or the other, and that they have the courage to choose to adjust their entire life including their bodies to fit that.

Being a woman does not come down to makeup, fancy hair styles and dresses. For most women, other people will see you as a woman unless you go out of your way to look male. For someone whose body says male but their brain says (or screams) female, there is a need to alter the appearance so that most other people will see them as female. Because there are gender cues in hair styles, skin colour and texture, facial bone structure, body proportions and many other physical aspects, a crossdresser has to over compensate to some extent, drawing attention towards constructed feminine features to distract from masculine features. Likewise for mannerisms.

For transsexuals who use hormones and have had their body and face surgically altered, this becomes less and less of an issue, as the masculine features are removed or obscured, meaning that many tend to move more and more to living just like every other woman ~ little or no makeup, simple hairstyles and loose fitting comfortable clothes.

While I have, at times, made an effort to make my makeup subtle and dress down to fit in such as when shopping, it's not why I dress. My recent move towards 1950s "pinup" style is because it is "a bit out there" but there are enough women getting around day-to-day dressed that way that it's not completely out of place. It generates attention, but it is good attention because people tend to admire or at least respect the effort and results. If I didn't have confidence in my presentation, I couldn't pull that look off. I needed practice dressing down and fitting in to build my confidence when I first went out, but with that confidence established, I now tend to want to express my individuality ~ by dressing like all of those other pinup girls. :-P
Note (added 13 March 2014) ~ A follow-up post can be found here.


  1. Alice Jane, i can't imagine how hard it would be to be transgender. but i admire you for being so open about it and willing to share this article.

  2. I'm so glad you wrote this. I've been wanting to ask about the thinking behind cross dressing for ages but haven't know how to ask the question without it being offensive.
    This post perfectly explains what I was wondering. Thanks!

  3. An excellent simple and elegant explanation of the near inexplicable. Thank you

  4. What-ever works, everyone is unique!

    I'm a cross-dresser (MTF) and I can clearly undersand calling what I do as a form of anti-depression, that is a good point. Pin-up girls have always helped me emulate the woman I know I am and I can clearly identify with the notion of over-compensating!

    Your letter to the cisgender woman is not technical but well written in common language, kudos to you!

  5. Alicejane this piece is so clear and well written. Thankyou so much for writing it! I lurk on the bh forums and have seen you around and have been interested in understanding this topic more. I was completely ignorant before as I was one of those who didnt understand how cross dressing couldnt be linked with homosexuality but you really have helped me to see.

  6. I found your article by following a link from another website and I'm glad that I took the trouble to read it because you've given a simple and elegant explanation of what it's like to be a crossdresser. I fully agree with what you've written and can identify with the position where you place yourself on the gender spectrum. I'm there too, but not as "out" as you, unfortunately.
    With best wishes from Davina

  7. It enlightened me too. I hadn't really taken on board how a crossdresser would treat dressing female as a take-as-required medicine, to alleviate an urgent but passing state of mind. And the unwillingness, for mainstream crossdressers anyway, to transition - with permanent physical and social changes to contend with 24/7 and forever. I'd somehow picked up the notion (from some other trans people) that crossdressing was simply a less intense form of transexuality. But you have explained that it addresses a distinctly different need, and that the 'look' is in fact very carefully considered.


  8. I'm sorry you are constantly explaining your life choices to others it must be very tiresome for you. I'm wondering why this "cisgender" woman as you put it, deserved an explanation anyway? What business is it of hers that she is having such issues with you and your family life?

    1. The woman in question is quite close to my wife, and our children spend time together. Hence, I want her to understand and be comfortable with me. I find that explaining my life choices isn't something that I need to do frequently, and isn't a big problem.

  9. Good post :) I'd agree with most of it – apart from:

    1) where you say that brain sex ‘is determined by hormonal "programming" that happens during foetal development.’. That's certainly a possible explanation of brain sex (or what Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex”), but I don't think it can be claimed as a scientific fact – at least not yet.

    2) where you explain that ‘Crossdressing is seeking to temporarily align the gender role with the brain sex.’. Yes, that's one motivation (yours, I guess), but it's not the only motivation. For instance, for me crossdressing is an expression of my gender, which is sort of "feminine" – and unrelated to any notion of femaleness (or, as you say, “quite separate from being a woman”). So it's an alignment (if you like) of my gender and gender expression; whereas my physical sex (male) and brain sex (male) are already aligned.