I go back and forth between being a gender essentialist and not. Sometimes, I believe that men and women are pretty much the same and except for differences so inconsequential as to not matter, but blown out of proportion by ridiculous gender expectations, we are pretty much indistinguishable from one another.
Other times, I believe that there is something grand and mysteriously different between men and women, that our experience as women is and must remain at some level utterly foreign to men.
But, if that’s the case, what, exactly, would it be that would make men so different from us? What would be the locatable area in which we could begin to look, even if we couldn’t know?
Men often say that they are much more visual creatures than women and if women only understood how men cannot help but respond to visual stimulation. And yet, I can tell you exactly how pleasing I find the curve of one man’s face, right where the eye socket meets the cheek, at his temple. Or how impossible I find it to concentrate when men with big, square meaty hands are trying to talk to me. Or how the ropey muscles in a forearm can stop me short. Or how I’m convinced that women would be banned from baseball games everywhere if men had any idea how many of us sit there trying to remember to keep our hands above our waists. And when Rachel Maddow comes on MSNBC? I’m sorry to tell you, but few women are listening in rapt attention only because she’s brilliant.
We might not talk about how much we’re looking, but, whew, we’re looking and enjoying and thinking, all the time, about what we would do, if only the opportunity presented itself.
So, I’m not buying it.
I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s one universal thing you can point to and say “THAT’s the thing all women share in common.” We don’t all menstruate. We don’t all have children. We don’t all have boobs or for that matter darling boob freckles. We aren’t all nurturing. So, what is it?
We know it’s not chromosomal. We don’t all share two Xs. Though they don’t make up a huge minority of women, there are women who have three X chromosomes (one in one thousand women), women with just one x chromosome (maybe one in 2500), and XXXX and XXXXX variations (though much much more rare), and there are women with XY chromosomes, both those with Swyer syndrome (where the sex-determining gene on the Y chromosome doesn’t click on and no gonads develop and so the fetus remains female and so then does the person once born) and women with androgen insensitivity (where the testes develop in the abdomen, but because of the androgen insensitivity, the switch over to male doesn’t happen and the woman develops a “normal” body but with testes up in her abdomen instead of ovaries).
And we have some sense that it’s not what a woman looks like. Even if some of us are uncomfortable believing that a woman could be born with a completely functioning unambiguously male body which she might want to transition out of, I can’t imagine any of us would doubt the word of a person with ambiguous genitalia if she said that she felt like a woman.
So, if it’s not in the behavior and it’s not in the body and it’s not in the chromosomes, where then is it?
I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t even know where to begin.
Except to say that I think the only choice is to take people at their word about who they say they are. And remember that the world is always more complicated than we’ve been lead to believe. And to remember that we are, at heart, just the stories we tell and that all of those stories can be retold in a way that lets us live more comfortably in the world.