In comments sections of news articles about transgender people and issues, I often see a question come up.
If society didn’t have gender roles, would transgender people still feel transgender?
Often this question is asked as a subtle way of implying that transgender is a mental illness and not a medical condition — in other words, one based on psychology rather than physiology. It’s a concern-troll way of saying “But really, you just want to wear dresses.” At least, that’s the way it comes across to me. So as I sit here in my jeans and t-shirt, makeup-less and hair pulled back, yet feeling as female as ever, let me explain why I think this is such a loaded and disingenuous question.
First: Let’s be honest; it’s a pretty far-fetched hypothetical. It’s like imagining a world without crime or a society without war. I honestly think that humans are incapable of not seeing difference and categorizing based on those differences. As long as procreation needs two humans to happen, there will be an inescapable difference between some people and others, even if we somehow otherwise homoginized our genetics to eliminate all the other differences (tall/short, light/dark, etc.). And whenever there is a perceived difference, humans are prone to generalizing and categorizing. So there will never be a world where “there are no gender roles.” As such, the question is already pointless.
Second: More realistically, in the world where there are gender roles, we develop and grow in stages, by the time we become self-aware of things like gender and gender roles our view of those things might already be influenced by outside forces (our parents). And when we do become self-aware, we innately settle on a gender. Most of the world doesn’t remember that because there was no feeling of wrongness. But a five year old declaring that they are not a boy hasn’t had a lifetime to internalize gender roles. They sense some wrongness and they express what they feel with the vocabulary they have. That their expression of wrongness comes out in the language of modern gender roles is not unusual, because that’s what they have to express it. The sensation of wrongness and the expression of that sensation in terms of social gender roles are two different things. We express feelings in the best way we know how.
Third: In reality, transgender has shown up in all sorts of cultures across the globe and throughout history, regardless of the particulars of a culture’s gender roles. Doesn’t that suggest that transgender isn’t rooted purely in society and gender roles? Certainy a pre-colonoal Native American two-spirit person wasn’t simply driven by the desire to wear high heels and use the women’s restroom. Again, it’s the question of wrongness and the vocabulary that exists to express it. The phenomenon of transgender just keeps happening, which strongly suggests there’s more than social psychology at play.
Let’s play along. Let’s imagine a far-flung future that is postmodern, post-feminist, post-heteronormativity, etc. A future that is close to identity homogenization as is possible. Would I still be transgender in such a society?
Honestly, I don’t know, and neither do you. But my sense of being transgender, my experiences over a lifetime, suggest to me that gender dysphoria would still be something that I would experience, I can’t say for sure how I would experience and express it, as I am not a part of that society and do not speak its cultural language. But I am certain in my heart that it would still be there.
Ultimately I think the “what if there were no gender roles” question is a dodge, a way to try and dismiss the immediate issue. We don’t live in that society. We live in this society, and in this society I am transgender. Let’s deal with me, and those like me, now. Not at some unlikely point in the far-flung future.