Nothing is more heavily enforced in our society than gender. We assume that gender is predetermined, that being a man or a woman is black-and-white, that our genitalia clearly make us one or the other, which is why individuals who are transgender, genderqueer or androgynous, who don't look or behave in ways that conform to accepted conceptions of gender, are met with intense invalidation, rejection and discrimination for challenging something that we assumed was completely fixed.
Everything in our culture conditions us to look, dress, talk, act and think in particular ways according to our biological sex. Therefore we fail to recognize that gender is a performance. UC Berkeley's Gender Equity Resource Center defines "gender" as "a set of socially constructed, assigned behaviors and identity patterns which are often perceived to be intertwined with and/or equivalent to one's sexual biology." Every day we dress up, do our hair, put on deodorant, speak and behave in ways that are perceived as either masculine or feminine according to the biological features that we were born with. The moment they are born, all babies are assigned a gender and a set of expected behaviors based on what's between their legs. We are not given the option of choosing the gender through which we would like to express ourselves throughout our daily lives.
Being comfortable and consciously identifying with the gender identity that corresponds with your biological sex means you are cisgender (or "cis"), and thus you have cis privilege. Not being able to personally identify with the gender identity that one is expected to uphold according to one's sex assigned at birth can lead individuals to experience gender dysphoria and/or identify as transgender or genderqueer.
"Transgender" (or "trans") is an adjective that describes a person whose conscious and subconscious gender identity does not align with their biological genitalia. This can manifest in discomfort and dysphoria about one's body and expected social role. There are also individuals who identify as genderqueer, which means they identify with multiple genders or no genders and express themselves however they wish, in a mix of masculine, feminine and/or androgynous ways.
Despite the fact that they identify and express themselves as personally feels appropriate, mainstream society tries to categorize gender-nonconforming individuals as purely male or female. Social institutions are structured to only recognize men and women and do not acknowledge the fact that alternative gender identities exist. Transphobia is rampant in society, evident in numerous derogatory terms, such as "she-male," "hermaphrodite," "tranny" and "ladyboy," and in the offensive misrepresentation of transgender figures in the media. Transgender individuals are discriminated against in employment, housing and health insurance and by romantic partners. Over 80 percent of transgender people experience abuse or discrimination because of their gender expression or appearance. They face daily microaggressions, such as stares, whispers, discomfort in bathrooms, being addressed or mentioned using the wrong gender pronouns and personal attacks from people they know and from the general public.
It's transphobic to say, "That trans woman was born with a penis, so she's actually still a man." It's transphobic to call a trans man "she" or "her" after he's clarified his preferred gender pronouns. It's transphobic and extremely rude to ask someone, "Are you actually a boy [or a girl]?" or, "Do you have a penis [or a vagina]?" They're just people, like everybody else. Asking a transgender person "but what are you really?" is like asking an Asian American "but where are you really from?" after they tell you they are from California. If you are unsure of someone's gender, ask them what their preferred gender pronouns are, or refer to them with gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" (as exemplified in this blog post).
Transgender and genderqueer individuals challenge us to think about how people are defined and what it means to be who we really are. What constitutes a man or a woman is dictated by cultural norms, and how we identify with a certain gender is more complicated than we think. Gender is a spectrum. No one is completely masculine or completely feminine, even though some of us strive to convince others that we are. There are many assumptions that come with gender, and nobody likes being defined through traits that they were born with, which we cannot change.
Freedom of expression is not only the freedom to speak but the freedom to simply be. Everyone has the right to express themselves freely and openly without eliciting violence or judgment, granted that they're not harming anybody. It is not up to any of us to define who anyone else really is; we only have ourselves to define. Everyone has the right to be defined according to how they personally wish to define themselves. We all have only one life to live, and it's important that we spend it being who we feel we really are and who we want to be.
If there were less gender policing and sexism in our society, more individuals would feel safer to explore different gender expressions and sexual orientations and more of themselves. But even under oppressive conditions, there are androgynous, transgender and genderqueer individuals who bravely come out and express themselves as who they truly are and show us that gender is mainly a bunch of stereotypes that can be deconstructed and performed. They are inspiring, and they challenge society to check assumptions and the norms through which human beings are defined and repressed.
For more queer, feminist and sex-positive writing, check out nadiacho.com.