On the long list of “things I probably would have gotten done if I’d had my shit together in my college years”, I came up three credits short of both Linguistics and German minors. It was equal parts poor planning, not wanting to read The Metamorphosis again irrelevant of what language it was in, and, like I said, not having my shit together. Still, I did take quite a few classes and learn much about the structure of language and the act of speaking another language even if my German is terrible (as wonderful as Latin is, it’s not great for that). Some might say the ability to truly grasp another language comes when you are able to think in it. I get that argument, but I’m not sure I agree with it. Language is like learning any other skill. It’s repetition. It’s rote responses. I say danke, you say bitte. It’s not being able to think in it, it’s not having to think about speaking it. After all, it’s rare when I stop when speaking English unless I’m searching for the precise word, phrase, or memory. Hopefully I think about what I say, but I don’t really think about what I say if that distinction makes sense. I just say it.
Yet we all spend a lot of time learning rules we already know. Some of this has to do with writing, an inherently different act than speaking. Some of this has to do with the fact the English I speak is not the same as the English you speak and what we learn in school or at work is a standard dialect. Where I say y’all frequently in casual settings, I’d never write a work email with it. It wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s debatable what is and isn’t appropriate. Literally, to use a contentious example. That gets back to the difference between descriptive (looking at how we actually do it) versus prescriptive (telling people the right way to do it, though right can change over time) linguistics. Even with our native tongues, we all need occasional reminders when using the standard dialect (Standard American English if you live in the US like me) because none of us speak the standard dialect as our true native tongue. Further still, just because we know the rules does not mean we can describe them. You know what a gerund is, and you know how to use it properly, even if you don’t consciously know what a gerund is.
Gender operates under strikingly similar parameters. We unconsciously learn how to perform gender, and it’s definitely something we learn. We definitely get prescriptive reminders, but there are tacit reminders everywhere. One of the greatest aspects of being trans is it forces you to interrogate your relationship with gender. Much of what I found challenging the first couple years was rewriting a lot of those unconscious actions and ways of thinking. I may have always been female, but I definitely grew up learning what it meant to be a boy and to be expected to be a man in our society even as I struggled with that dissonance. I had to learn what it meant to be a woman in a much less superficial way than what I had picked up over the years. After seven years, it’s unconscious. I think about how I perform gender, but I don’t really think about it. I still spend much more time interrogating my relationship with gender than some might by virtue of the fact that I’m constantly reminded of it. But that’s okay. I try to consciously perform gender by doing the aspects that matter to me and challenging the bullshit that comes up along the way and hopefully that unconsciously manifests itself in how I live my life.
What would be great to see is more people thinking about gender in this manner. Or more to the point, more people thinking about gender as something we perform, something we do. After all, if it’s natural for a man or woman to act certain ways, why do men and women raised in different societies perform gender differently? Or have wildly divergent expectations of what it means to be a man or woman? Those might be general concepts, but many societies have come up with multifarious ways to express what being a man or woman, or perhaps being something else that does not fit either of those, means. It’s a cop out to say that gender is something that’s innate. Like a first language, we pick it up quickly and unconsciously learn it from everything around us. But children have to learn at some point. We aren’t inherently born with gender or language. We learn from previous generations and pass it on as teachers. It’s a cycle.
So what can we do to help break that cycle as it relates to gender? Why do adults freak out when they learn that trans children are at schools when you rarely see complaints from the students themselves in these stories? Is it because the parents are shielding the students? It’s not uncommon to see someone saying “my child told me about it and felt uncomfortable”, but why do we never hear from those children? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think the students start to learn to condemn trans identities when they see the adult condemn trans identities. There’s nothing innate about hating someone for being trans. Trans identities aren’t something to be condemned. But that’s not what most people learn. That’s why it’s always sad to see another school district pass rules discriminating against trans people on flimsy criteria based on their own fears and ignorance. Because that’s where children learn that from. And they become the adults that enforce and teach those rules in the future.
That’s why it’s important for cis people to interrogate their relationship with gender as well. Plenty do. It is one way of looking at feminism, after all. But if your feminism excludes trans realities, it’s no feminism at all. Not that I think all people seek to exclude trans realities necessarily; they just haven’t interrogated the systemic way we learn transphobia in our society. I don’t honestly think a lot of people I interact with try to be transphobic. If I’m the first person openly trans person they’ve met, then it’s possibly the first time they’ve been forced to interrogate those unconscious, learned behaviors and ideas. But if only 9% or so (at least last time I looked, that was the number being bandied about) of people consciously know a trans person, what about the other 91%? What’s their reason to learn? What’s their impetus? I refuse to believe that people can’t learn to treat trans people with respect and dignity as people since they have to learn otherwise. I refuse to believe that we can’t get to a world where trans people aren’t demonized, or called unnatural, or at least we can’t get to a world where viewing trans people in that manner isn’t rightly condemned as something naïve, ridiculous, and unfounded. I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime not because I am pessimistic but because this isn’t the kind of work that takes a lifetime. It’s the kind of work that takes lifetimes. It’s the kind of work we all need to do. Gender may be something we unconsciously learn, but it’s something we all need to consciously challenge. And it’s something we all benefit from. Other peoples’ genders need to be something we unconsciously respect, not something we consciously police. It gonna take time. So let’s get going.