It sometimes seems as though there’s this societal insistence that gender can only be either personal or social. It’s either directly due to people as individuals, or it’s solely the result of socialization. Furthermore, I, at least, have felt a message that it needs to be individual, in order to be “real” or “authentic” or “legitimate.”
There’s this idea that how I feel about my gender, or how I present myself, isn’t real if it’s influenced by society. It’s only considered legitimate if I do something because it’s what I want for myself, not because I want others to view me in a certain way. And while I understand and respect the importance of staying true to oneself and not being too bothered by the rest of the world, it’s an undeniable fact that we’re influenced by society. And that’s okay. That’s simply how the world is. Humans are social creatures; we do not exist in a vacuum. We cannot act as though we’ve never noticed, or been affected by, how society treats us. We can’t ever truly know how we’d feel about gender if we hadn’t had any sort of social influences–societal pressures, messages, and expectations are such a part of our lives that to do so would be impossible. It would mean having been raised without other people around (particularly impossible, given how dependent human infants and children are), without human-made clothing, without books and toys and so many other things.
However, to say that we cannot avoid having been influenced by society in terms of gender does not mean that society completely controls our gender, or that we cannot work to free ourselves from some of society’s most harmful gendered messages and expectations. It does not mean that we must stick to the gender roles mandated by society, nor does it mean that our gender identities and expressions are somehow inauthentic because they have been shaped and influenced by outside forces. I simply mean that it would be naive to think that the society in which we live has no effect on us and our conceptions, and performances, of gender.
I don’t always know whether the way I dress is “really” based more on expressing myself or attempting to get others to view me in a certain way. And I don’t necessarily know whether how I feel about gender is innate, or whether it’s largely based on the limitations that society has imposed upon me. And I’m learning to be accept that. It’s certainly easier for me to wear girlier clothes (admittedly, something I typically only do when I need to do laundry) when I’m alone, and no one will see me. But does that mean that I dress only for others? I don’t think so.
I deal with a lot of insecurities about what it means that I dress a certain way, what it means that I’m sometimes fine looking like a girl, what it means that I sometimes put more effort into presenting in a more masculine/androgynous/please-dear-Athena-call-me-anything-but-a-woman sort of way when there are other people there to see me, what it means that sometimes–even when I know there’s no one around–I need to be binding and wearing boy clothes, and I just can’t make myself wear form-fitting, feminine clothing. I know that some people would tell me that if I were “really” trans, I would always be uncomfortable looking like a girl. I know that for some people, if my comfort level regarding gendered clothing varies based on whether anyone will see me, that means that I’m doing it for the wrong reasons–that I’m not really trans,perhaps that I’m just trying to make some kind of political point. I know that by some lines of thinking, feeling as though I need to wear one sort of clothing or another is just all in my head and isn’t based on anything real.
I try to get past that. I really, really do. Some days it’s easier than other days. On my good days, I know that nobody can take away who I am–that I don’t need to fit into someone else’s narrow definitions of transgender in order to be trans, that I don’t need to know right now exactly how I feel about my gender–that I have time, that it will eventually work its way out. On my bad days, when I have trouble remembering that . . . well, I have a friend who once basically told me that if I identify as trans, then that’s all there is to it, and to hell with what anyone else says–I should just do what’s right for me. On my bad days, I just try to listen to the voice in my head that sounds like my friend and ignore all of the other doubts, all of the insecurities, all of the other little voices that tell me I’m not enough. And if I listen really hard, and focus on their words with all of my concentration, it’s enough to get by.