Transcending Flesh: What Is Gender

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

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Transcending Flesh in Fiction and Fantasy:
Essays on Gender and Body Modification in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #2: What is Gender?

~Social Constructs~

In order to talk about how magical and technological body modifications can interact with gender, we need to be on the same page regarding what I mean by the word gender. So what is gender?

Gender is a social construct that has to do with how people view themselves, how they interact with the world, and how they interact with others. Gender is influenced by society and therefore varies widely across cultures, but that doesn't mean gender doesn't exist or isn't important. Most social constructs are important to societies even if they don't "exist" as something you can hold in your hand or look at under a microscope.

Gender is not a collection of body parts or chromosomes, nor is it a bundle of behavioral stereotypes. The latter is often invoked against trans people with the claim that we stereotype femininity and box women into misogynistic roles. This is nonsense. There are a million ways to be a girl and all of them are valid: soft girls, feminine girls, sporty girls, butch girls, lesbian girls, straight girls, bi girls, ace girls, girls who love pink, girls who love blue, girls who love pink and blue, gamer girls, programming girls, nerdy girls, preppy girls, California girls. There is no wrong way to be a girl nor any act which can render someone not-a-girl and revoke their girl-status. There is no body a girl can't inhabit, no collection of chromosomes she can't possess. Girlness is a social construct and only the individual in question can tell you if they are a girl.

...Okay, I realize I just lost some people there, so let's set gender aside for a moment and first talk about social constructs and how something can be socially real without having a physical material existence.

Social constructs are ideas we build and create in order to interact with fellow humans. An example of a social construct you use every day is a calendar. Days are a physical reality, of course; the sun rises and sets, or rather the earth revolves on its axis in a way that makes the sun appear to rise and set. But there is no physical reason to arrange days into sets of seven called a "week", nor to gather weeks into groups of four and call those "months". If everyone on earth were wiped out tomorrow and Martians came to colonize the empty planet in our wake, they wouldn't recreate our weeks and months and calendar structures because those things aren't based in physical reality. They're a collection of social structures we built up together.

Mondays are a social construct. They do not "exist" in the sense of something you can hold in your hand or scientifically deduce, but that doesn't mean Mondays aren't real. If I may employ a Matrix voice, "the mind makes it real" or rather society does. You are certainly welcome to call your employer and explain that Monday is a social construct instead of a physical reality and therefore you won't be coming in today, but they are still going to want you to work; if you refuse to show up because Mondays "aren't real", you will be really fired. In short: Social constructs become real because we live in a society which treats them as real.

Most social constructs don't have a hard and fast definition, but we tend only to notice (and be bothered by) that fact when we're discussing gender. People attending "Gender 101" are often frustrated by the wibbly-wobbly definition of gender offered above. If gender isn't a collection of body parts or a set of chromosomes, if gender is "a social construct that has to do with how people view themselves, how they interact with the world, and how they interact with others", then what is gender? Is gender just a "feeling"? If anyone can be a girl just by saying they're a girl, what is girlness? Where does it all end? Is everyone a girl?

The simplest answer to these questions is that a girl is someone who calls themselves a girl. This tautology can be understandably vexing for people who want hard definitions! But we accept similarly squishy identity constructs without blinking when the identity is "Texan" or "Democrat" or "Hufflepuff" or "Christian", even when the people within those identities vary so widely across their group that we might reasonably say they have almost nothing in common with each other except their shared choice of identity. We accept self-identification in each of those cases, believing that people are the best arbiters of their own identity.

Let's look at "Texan". What makes a Texan? Not every Texan was born in Texas, nor is everyone born in Texas a Texan. Not every Texan lives in Texas, nor is everyone living in Texas a Texan. Most Texans have lived in Texas for some period of time, but there's no official set period which makes one person a Texan while barring another from the identity until they meet that threshold. Many people who were born in or live in Texas are not Texans and vocally reject that identity. Even the meaning of the identity "Texan" can vary depending on who you ask; my definition doesn't match the definition my neighbor uses for himself. Who gets to say I am right and he is wrong? If anyone can identify as a Texan and being Texan is "just a feeling" then where will it end? Who is to stop everyone in the world from calling themselves a Texan?

We live with the squishiness of the "Texan" identity every day without the world crashing to a halt. Society carries on without a universally accepted definition for the term; society accepts that I and my neighbor can have different definitions for our shared identity; society agrees we are both Texans on the evidence that we each feel the term applies to us. Society takes our word on the matter of our own identities; indeed, society makes a general policy of accepting that people are in the best position to know and inform others of their own labels. The alternative would mean subjecting every identity we encounter to a sleuthing expedition. Such hyper-skepticism would be untenable and exhausting, as well as fundamentally impossible to resolve: there is no organ a doctor can point to and say "yup, there's the Texan spleen! This here is a Texan."

In short: "Texan" is a social construct that has to do with how I view myself, how I interact with the world, and how I interact with others. The term does not have a physical reality rooted in my biology, nor does it have a hard-and-fast definition we all agree on, but that doesn't make the term less real or meaningful.

I use the Texan identity as a flippant example because I don't have to load it down with trigger warnings. However, there are several situations of body-altering accidents and/or bereavement which illustrate that identity isn't rooted in biology but is rather a social construct which can sometimes include biology. A man who has lost his penis in an industrial accident is still considered a man by society; we do not classify him as a woman on the hospital intake form. A woman who has had her uterus removed during cancer treatment is still a woman; we do not change the gender on her driver's license when an internal organ is taken out. A person may identify as a parent even if their children are no longer alive, or as a child even if their parents are gone and they are grown, though other persons in similar situations may shed those identities.

These are examples where identity is socially constructed, distinct from biology and appearance, guided by personal experience, and ultimately a matter of personal choice--all of which will be relevant when we talk about body modification in fiction. But first let us set aside my Texan metaphor and return to gender so we may talk about what I mean when I say transgender and cisgender.


Let's try this again: What is gender?

Gender is a social construct that has to do with how people view themselves, how they interact with the world, and how they interact with others. Gender is influenced by society and therefore varies widely across cultures, but that doesn't mean gender doesn't exist or isn't important. Most social constructs are important to societies even if they don't "exist" as something you can hold in your hand or look at under a microscope.

Gender can be connected for many people to their biology or genitals, but this is not universal. Some people will cite possession of [body part] as reason for their gender ("I'm a man because I have a penis!"). Other people will desire the acquisition of [body part] as affirmation of their gender ("I'm a man and I would feel more validated in my gender if I could acquire a penis!"). Still others like myself have genders which are detached from their body parts ("I'm a man and have no need of a penis one way or the other!"). All of these experiences of gender are valid; they are all normal variations on the human experience.

This is important to understand for a setting in which body modification is available: gender is not a simple sum of body parts. A person who loses a body part to accident or illness or magic or trickery or coercion is still their gender, regardless of the shape of their body or the perfection of the transformation. There will be men in your setting who will remain men even if their bodies are changed; there will be men who do not have "manly" bodies (however your characters define that concept socially) yet see no need to change. There will be variety and people will have opinions on their own gender; they won't just passively accept that they're a girl because they accidentally drank a Gender Potion or because the BodyTron5000 malfunctioned and gave them a shiny new vagina. (We will explore this concept in further depth through a later essay.)

Now that we know what gender is, let's talk about what it means to be transgender.

Gender is important to our society. One of the ways we see this manifest is our impulse to gender everyone and everything--including babies! The problem is that babies are notoriously bad communicators who aren't able to tell us their gender. We could assign them a neutral state and wait for them to tell us when they get older, but what we tend to do as a society is hold them up Simba-style (Lion King music swells around us) and say "Well, we don't know this baby's gender, but we're going to assign them a gender until they tell us otherwise. Here are their pronouns for now!"

This assignation of gender at birth will be denoted in these pages as "AGAB" or "assigned gender at birth". You will also encounter the terms "AFAB" (assigned female at birth) and "AMAB" (assigned male at birth).

Later in life, that baby will be able to tell us their actual gender. If their gender matches the assigned gender at birth, they are "cisgender" or "cis". The word cis comes from Latin and means "on this side", indicating their gender is on the same side as their assigned gender. If their gender does not match the assigned gender, they're "transgender" or "trans". The word trans comes from Latin and means "across", indicating that their gender is across a dividing line from the assigned gender--in other words, they don't match.

You'll note I didn't say a word here about genitals or biology, neither at birth or later in life! The words "cis" and "trans" indicate a match or mismatch of actual gender to assigned gender. If a child is assigned [yellow gender] at birth and grows up to tell us their gender is indeed [yellow gender], they're cisgender because their gender matches their assigned gender. If a child is assigned [yellow gender] at birth and grows up to tell us their gender is actually [blue gender] or [pink gender] or [green gender], they're transgender since their gender does not match their assigned gender.

In short: The words "cis" and "trans" are metadata tags denoting whether society guessed correctly when assigning a gender to the person as a baby. Those tags do not tell us anything about their bodies. In our society, we use genitals as a starting point for assigning gender at birth but we could just as easily assign gender with the toss of a coin or a glance at hair color. The "assigned gender at birth" given to a baby is merely there as a placeholder for convenience until the child is old enough to tell us their actual gender.

If someone says they are trans, that label doesn't indicate anything about their body or chromosomes or genitals, either now or at birth. The word "trans" simply conveys that their assigned gender at birth was wrong. Wrongful guesses for the gender of babies happen and will always happen in a society which genders babies, no matter how otherwise advanced the futuristic or magical society in question is.

So how is all this relevant for an setting with easy magical or technological body changes?

First: Whether a person is cis or trans depends on whether their gender was correctly assigned at birth. Because gender is not biologically determined and is a socially constructed identity, it is impossible to perfect the gender assignation process via futuristic science. Even in a setting with BodyMod technology which grants people whatever bodies they want, there will still be folks whose gender was assigned incorrectly at birth. Trans people will therefore exist in your setting. Transness as a concept cannot be removed from society with futuristic technology; we will always exist as long as babies are assigned a gender.

Second: Because cisness and transness are a function of how a child was labeled at birth, rather than a function of body appearance, BodyMod technology will not "make everyone cis". Though body modifications will be a boon for trans people who desire to alter their bodies, they will still be transgender! Transness is a matter of being gendered incorrectly at birth, not a matter of body "mismatch" or dysphoria. Trans people will experience their early lives as a trans person: i.e., being gendered incorrectly by society until they come out. Even if they experience little or no bigotry, their experiences will almost certainly be different from the cis people who were gendered correctly at birth and never needed to undergo body modification.

Third: Because gender is not strongly correlated to bodily appearance for many trans people, your setting will include trans people who choose not to undergo body modification, or who do so in ways which do not result in perfect conformity to a binary model. This group will include binary trans people (i.e., trans men and trans women) and nonbinary trans people (i.e., people whose genders are not neatly contained in the binary man/woman model). All of these people will have valid genders and pronouns regardless of whether or not they undergo body modification, and none of them will conform to a cisgender binary ideal.

In short: Your setting will have trans people. Regardless of how easy it is to modify bodies, regardless of how accepting society is of gender identity, regardless of every social and scientific advance in the far-flung future or magical reality, trans people will exist if babies are assigned a gender because some of those babies will be assigned a wrong gender (and are therefore trans). Trans characters assigned a wrong gender at birth will experience years of being called by that wrong gender before they are able to vocally correct the people around them; this experience of theirs will be different from the experiences of the cis characters in your setting. Cisness and transness are not removed by the invention of BodyMod technology.


Here are some terms to keep in mind as we delve deeper into these essays. Please note that each of these terms are not set in stone within the community. When I offer a "definition" for a word, take that to mean how I will be using the word here, and not as a universally agreed-upon definition.

* Gender. This is an identity which has to do with how people view themselves, how they interact with the world, and how they interact with others; this identity is not determined by body, genitals, chromosomes, or stereotypes, though an individual may feel some or all of those things contribute to their identity. Genders include the two "binary" genders acknowledged by our society (i.e., man and woman) and countless "nonbinary" genders which do not neatly fit into those two buckets. People may also be agender and without any kind of gender at all.

* Transgender. A transgender person is someone whose gender does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. Someone who is a woman but was assigned a male gender at birth is a trans woman; someone who is a man but was assigned a female gender at birth is a trans man. Since most nonbinary people were not assigned a nonbinary gender at birth, nonbinary folks are transgender. (Though some may choose to opt out of that term for reasons of their own; identity is complicate!)

* Cisgender. A cisgender person is someone whose gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth. Someone who is a woman and was assigned a female gender at birth is a cis woman; someone who is a man and was assigned a male gender at birth is a cis man. In theory, if a nonbinary person were assigned the correct nonbinary gender at birth, they could be a cis nonbinary person. (This is unlikely because (a) there is more than one nonbinary gender and the people assigning gender would need to guess the correct nonbinary gender and (b) our society doesn't formally acknowledge nonbinary genders.)

* AGAB. This acronym stands for "assigned gender at birth", but is used less often than the more popular gendered versions "AFAB" (assigned female at birth) and "AMAB" (assigned male at birth). These terms do not have any bearing on a person's body or genitals or chromosomes: if someone is AFAB, that doesn't tell the reader that they either (a) have a vagina now or (b) had one at birth. All "AFAB" tells the reader is that a person was assigned female at birth for reasons unknown.

* Enby. This is another term for nonbinary people. The word is a vocalization of "nb" ("n" for "non" and "b" for "binary") and evolved on twitter after Black activists requested that white trans activists like myself not use the Black activist term "NB" for nonbinary gender. The term "NB" means "non-Black" and is useful when Black activists need to differentiate NBPOC (non-Black people of color) from Black people as a group.

[Continued in the next essay.]


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