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.
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.