Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why I Identify as Male, part one*

I’m writing this post because I’m struggling with understanding gender from my own position as a straight, white, cisgender male… so there’s a lot of blindness I’m working through.

            The fact that I am male-bodied seems like a solid way to begin my explanation, and yet the fact that there are people born male-bodied who do not identify as male means that this explanation is not sufficient. My male genitals, testosterone levels, and secondary sex characteristics—a person could have all of these things and yet not identify as male. So, why do I identify as male?
For those readers who feel personally comfortable with the gender binary, I put it to you: Isn’t it weird that something can be so utterly socially conditioned AND simultaneously feel completely natural? My gender identity resides so close to my overall identity that it feels too obvious to explain. It’s instinctual; it’s gut-level. And yet, every time I try to explain why I feel like a male, I end up spouting off a bunch of socially-conditioned descriptors, like:

  • I look terrible in a dress.
  • I’m not entirely in touch with my emotions.
  • I’m not too concerned with my appearance (yes, I see how this contradicts my first bullet-point).
These reasons are pathetic, especially since there are women for whom they hold true, and men for whom they are inaccurate.
I can also supply a bunch of reasons that conflate maleness with heterosexuality, cisgender identity, whiteness, American-ness or even just privilege in general:

  • I’m attracted to women.
  • I feel like society is weighted towards my advantage.
  • I enjoy much of what’s considered “male humor.”
No reason listed so far is unique to identifying as male.

            So… why do I identify as male??? If I say “because I don’t feel like a woman,” I’m (A) reiterating all my crappy reasons from above; (B) taking the gender binary as absolute. Still, I don’t feel like a woman, and I also don’t feel gender queer. (Well, I guess if my family/social environment were more hyper-gendered, then I would feel gender queer. My white, liberal, Jewish, middle-class, east coast upbringing allowed me to have a somewhat broader sense of masculinity than if I were from other regions.)

            Do I identify as male? I mean, I pass as male, and I feel fine being treated as male (except when male is equated with some hyper-gender stereotype). I’m comfortable in my own skin (from within, and how others treat me). In general, I feel too privileged to call myself “queer”—the best I can aim for is “ally.”

            Sometimes I prefer simply to identify as a “dude.” For me, “dude” means I’m chill (of course, I’m not always chill), friendly, playful… and whatever else positive you associate with dudes. At the same time, “dude” is usually posed opposite to “chick,” and I have no aversion to many things usually labeled “chick stuff” (for example, quiche or romantic comedies).

            Ok, I’m getting nowhere, but I’ll end with my real complaint: Being a white, straight, cisgender (etc., etc.) person means that I’ve never had to defend or explain my identity as a male. And yet, I am currently trying to understand what a transman might mean when he identifies as male. That’s patently unfair—I can’t explain myself, yet I demand an explanation from him.

But I’m seeking this out because I want to understand in order to be an ally. It’s one thing to say “OK, you call yourself a male, so I’ll call you a male,” and it’s another thing to expand my notion of male identity when faced by a person who violates my learned ideas. I want to expand my understanding of masculinity, and yet my entire experience and understanding of masculinity is ingrained and (so it seems) irrational. If I don’t understand my own act of identifying as male, how do I go about understanding anyone else’s?

*I’ll write part two if I ever figure out Why I Identify as Male.


  1. You know I've found myself wondering the same thing although often more in the context of why non-traditional gender identity makes many folks (even self-described progressives like myself) so much more uncomfortable than say homosexuality. I've come to suspect that there are elements to gender identity that are actually "hardwired" in us, which might explain why gender identity can be so hard to describe. Maybe think of gender or learning one's own gender identity as being analogous to learning language. Noam Chomsky has put forward the idea that human beings' ability to learn language is rooted in what he calls "deep structures". As I understand it, this means a neurobiological template for acquiring language skills. We are then biologically predisposed to learn and decipher language in a somewhat intuitive manner especially when we are very young. I wonder if there isn't something similar when it comes to acquiring one's own gender identity. Obviously some of it is learned through socialization or more explicit inputs (similarly a child must be spoken to in order to learn language), butI have to ask the question of whether or not on some biological level we might be predisposed to identify with our genitalia or y-chromosome/lack there of. You can't really explain how or why you learned language and it seems we both have trouble making sense of why we feel male. Perhaps this because at a certain level we kind of "just do" both. At the same time, if there is a biological aspect to gender it might explain why gender-queerness and trans identity can be so hard to feel comfortable with even when one's values and ethics should dictate otherwise. I'm not positive I've stumbled onto the secret of life here and it's certainly not a fully formed explanation, but I just wonder if there might be some parallels.

  2. Hi Yachad-- Thanks for your thoughts, although your explanation raises the question-- if gender identity is hardwired, then what of transfolk? Your comparison to Chomsky explains our 'gut level' experience of gender, but because you tie to biology and genitalia, it seems to be an explanation that remains clueless about trans identities. What do you think?