In which I ramble about what it means to be real

March 9, 2009 § 9 Comments

This article about a “female athlete who was really a man” has me thinking about “real” identities.

Xiao Nan’s extraordinary athletic performances in schools and in provincial and national competitions, won her great honour and free access to university education.

Inside, she felt confused: “I felt I often had an impulse or desire for women instead of men. And my body is more like a man than a woman.”

I can understand why Xiao would be confused. The culture in which we live has a narrow definition of what it means to be a woman, and that definition has little tolerance for women who desire women and women with “masculine” bodies. It has little tolerance for any female body that’s not white, tall, thin, big-breasted, clear-skinned, and hairless – and even attempts to subvert that constricted definition, like the “real women have curves” mantra, can leave not-so-curvy women like myself in the dark.

So, just to throw this out there: you can be a real woman if you desire women. You can be a real woman if your body is considered by society to be more masculine than feminine, or if you have curves, or if you don’t have curves. You can be a real woman if you don’t like pink. You can be a real woman if you don’t wear skirts. You can be a real woman if you don’t shave your legs. You can be a real woman if you don’t have a vagina. You can be a real woman if you don’t have breasts. You can be a real woman if you have short hair. You can be a real woman if you don’t like to cook. You can be a real woman if you don’t want to get married. You can be a real woman if you want to be a housewife. You can be a real woman if you like to hunt. You can be a real woman if you don’t menstruate.

The only thing you need to do to be a real woman is to self-identify as a woman.

Silvia and I talked about this issue a few days ago, in a different vein. We were pretty excited about an upcoming opportunity to take a group photo of all the Women’s Glib writers to post on the site, and we joked that once readers saw her, they wouldn’t believe she’s Latina. But she is, and that has less to do with the fact that her parents were born in Cuba and more to do with the fact that she identifies as such.

She’s the one who gets to say whether or not she is Latina. It is no one’s place but yours to tell you what you are.

That’s one reason why I was intrigued by the title of the article: “female athlete was really a man.” I wondered, what do they mean by “really?” What is proof enough that you are “actually” a man, besides you saying that you are a man?

Xiao had a check-up at a local hospital and the result confirmed she had male chromosomes.

Ahhhh. This must be what they mean by “really” being a man. So despite Xiao living for years as a woman, and self-identifying as a woman, a simple medical test was all it took to erase that self-determined gender? Silly me. I thought that we got to decide our own identity fates.

Is this what gender has come to? That your identity is not defined by you, as a result of any combination of factors like chromosomes, hormones, physical characteristics, personality traits, socialization, and personal preferences – but by a doctor’s pronouncement? I’m disturbed that someone’s life experiences and their self-determined identity can be so easily erased in the eyes of this news source.

He is now living as a man and has begun a course of sex change surgery at Sichuan Xichan Plastic Surgery Hospital which will take nine months.

“The first thing I want to do after the surgery is to go swimming, wearing only boxer shorts,” Xiao told Chengdu Business Daily.

I want to make it clear that I support any action Xiao does or doesn’t take in a situation like this one. He’s chosen to live as a man and opted to get surgery, and I respect that completely – because I can only assume from this article that it is what makes him most comfortable, and it is his choice. His choice isn’t what bothers me about this article. What irks me is the implication, from the reporter’s and editor’s words, that the labels other people place onto our beings matter more than the identities we choose for ourselves – that the experiences we’ve accumulated and the convictions we’ve strengthened can be nullified by society so quickly and so thoughtlessly.

This sort of labeling has serious potential to invalidate the identities of many marginalized people in the eyes of society. Just a few examples of where this fucked up logic might lead (or has already led):

  • She says she’s a trans woman, but she hasn’t got a vagina so she’s not really a woman.
  • He says he’s bisexual, but he only wants to hook up with men, not date them “seriously,” so he’s not really bisexual.
  • She tells everyone she’s black, but she’s actually biracial. She’s lived with her white mom for her entire life, so she’s not really black.

Not okay.

I can’t wait for the time when our self-defined identities are taken as truth by others, without criticism or controversy. I’m glad that Xiao appears to have found identity harmony and lost his sense of inner confusion – but I’m pissed that the article defines him as a “real” man because of his chromosomes rather than because of his personal convictions.

§ 9 Responses to In which I ramble about what it means to be real

  • Phoebe says:

    I can’t wait for the time when our self-defined identities are taken as truth by others, without criticism or controversy. I’m glad that Xiao appears to have found identity harmony and lost his sense of inner confusion – but I’m pissed that the article defines him as a “real” man because of his chromosomes rather than because of his personal convictions.

    You. Are. Amazing.

  • Goodfriend says:

    My semi-incoherent ramble at way to early in the morning:
    What i think needs to be said more, and what really struck me, is blatant statements like you said and all those other warm and fuzzy statements that just put it out there, loud and clear “IT IS OKAY IF YOU DON’T FIT SOCIETY’S STANDARD FOR A RACE/GENDER/SEXUALITY (and the list goes on) because it’s about how YOU FEEL and what makes YOU comfortable!”
    It was SO AMAZING to read that posting because it was so accepting of everything (whatever everything is) about a person…and i know personally i’ve always struggled (like every day) that if i were to reveal how i self-identify people would stare at me and call me a “fake” because i don’t fit their standard of fillintheblank…but really, they have no idea haha

    p.s. i read woman’s glib religiously – so I think all ya’ll are AMAZING!! keep writing!!!!! so jealous!
    haha

  • Peter says:

    I’m a bit blown away by this post – not because of the chromosome thing, but because of the rant at the beginning of it. I don’t know where you live and what sort of issues exist there, but I know that where I live, women are defined by themselves. You talk about only white women being attractive to society – I’m sure my African-American wife would love to hear you say that. I find this post demeaning to women and men everywhere. For women, you just blithely post stereotype after stereotype without really thinking about how society truly operates. I’m not talking about A&F ads, I’m talking about real life. Women everywhere should be appalled that you think they are so stupid as to not be able to think they are beautiful even if they don’t fit into the stereotypical blonde-haired-blue-eyed model mold. Ridiculous. For men, you just gloss over the fact that men are obviously attracted to women who are not white models. I certainly hope you are not paid to spew this drivel.

    • mirandanyc says:

      Peter, I think that you misunderstood my intents in writing this post, and I’m sorry if your perception of what I wrote was offensive. I’m upset by your comment because I think we are actually very like-minded, and I would hate for my words to contribute to the injustice you describe.

      You talk about only white women being attractive to society – I’m sure my African-American wife would love to hear you say that. I mention the white beauty standard in order to expose its harmful and limiting effects on women. I believe that society on the whole thinks that white women are more attractive than women of other races (as evidenced by the cover girls on most mainstream magazines and the unfortunate prevalence of skin whitening creams around the world), and society is wrong.

      Women everywhere should be appalled that you think they are so stupid as to not be able to think they are beautiful even if they don’t fit into the stereotypical blonde-haired-blue-eyed model mold. I talk about these stereotypes, again, in order to expose and discredit them. I don’t think women are stupid – far from it – I just know that, for me, the beauty standard and conventions of femininity are pervasive and easy to internalize. This post was meant to support, not criticize, women who live in our exclusionary society.

      Don’t worry – I definitely don’t get paid.

      Again, I’m sorry that this post upset you – and I hope my true intents in writing it have become more clear.

  • Crowfoot says:

    I agree, mirandanyc. Yes, Peter, you have misconstrued her *critique* of the stereotypes for support of said stereotypes. And I would bet that your African-American wife is fully aware of the way “women’s beauty” is generally raced white (if I can term it that way).

    I think it’s good, actually, that you were offended, Peter – because it looks to me that what was offending you was the racism and sexism in what mirandanyc described. It’s just that she wasn’t supporting that attitude, but describing it. Your anger needs to be directed elsewhere! And yes, unfortunately this is not something that’s just happening where the poster lives, but is also happening where you live.

    Is this what gender has come to? That your identity is not defined by you, as a result of any combination of factors like chromosomes, hormones, physical characteristics, personality traits, socialization, and personal preferences – but by a doctor’s pronouncement?

    I don’t think that this is what it’s come *to* but what it’s *always been*. If the doctor looked at you as a baby and saw female genitalia, then a girl you were and a girl you’d be raised as, regardless of what was going on biologically. That’s how gender works, generally, in our society. It’s a role proscribed to us, whether we like it or not. I think this is a part of why people can have such a hard time with people who are biologically one sex and live as/identify as another. Or people who are intersex, like Xiao. It’s supposed to be a rigid category – it’s what holds up the patriarchy. I think the crapitude displayed in that article is showing how gender is policed by the culture at large. Kind of a “must be one! or the other! nothing in between!!11!!” etc.

    If we lived in a culture that didn’t have such strict ideas around gender then Xiao could have grown up a woman, being attracted to women, and being in a “masculine” body, without being considered “really a man.” Of course, if Xiao grew up in that world but still wished to transition, then I support that. But I can’t help but wonder how much gender pushes us in one direction or another? I mean to say that one can be a Real Woman and be attracted to other women and be really butch *without* having to be “really a man.” I really liked your list of what you can do and still be a Real Woman ™ :-)

    (oh, came by via Shakesville – and sorry for the super long comment!)

  • mirandanyc says:

    No worries – we love super long comments! Thanks for the feedback.

  • Crowfoot says:

    Hi mirandanyc – I apologize but I’ve just realized that my user name has a link to my old blog, and not the new one that I post at!

  • Gene says:

    Delete the comment if you must, but it still is highly contradicting to speak out against judgment of a person when you write judgment of others.

    • mirandanyc says:

      I got “shy and submissive” from “cute little eyes and adorable personalities.” Doesn’t seem too off-track to me.

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