"What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets."

What Ought A Woman?

I’m a man. But how can I make that claim? What is a man?

The “traditional” (i.e., codified much later and in fewer places than you think) answer, of course, is a man is a guy what’s got dangly sensitive bits and does the sperm part of babymaking and has at least some of the biological accessories like deep voice, flat chest, larger than median frame, hair just fucking everywhere, and so forth. In recent years this has often been defined in terms of genetics, which are Science and therefore Objective. Capital letters means I am being sarcastic. The genetic definition just makes people feel a comfy sense of certainty, and also it serves the function of sticking it to trans people because it’s the one thing we really can’t change.

The usual trans-inclusive answer to “what is a man?” is that a man is whoever says he’s a man. For everyday purposes this is a pretty good one. There are relatively few situations where a social introduction requires followup investigative work. Guy says “hi, I’m Phil,” neither of our lives will be greatly enhanced by me verifying that he is phil-osophically correct about that being his True Name. I’m not a wizard. Hi Phil.

But all of this is angels dancing on pins, it’s not useful for anything beyond filling out a dictionary entry. Call a rabbit a smeerp, it hops just the same. Until we follow this question to the always-implied, rarely-stated reason for asking:

What ought a man?

A man ought to be called “him” and ought to have a name like “Samuel” and not like “Samantha.” A man ought to use the bathroom where the sign has the little pants dude and not the little dress lady. A man ought to not wear lipstick. A man ought to have a high sex drive. A man ought to be the strong protector of the family, but also a man ought to be at least a little dangerous to women and children.

And… I could go on forever, but you get the idea, and it gets very offensive, and also extremely silly. You can grind this shit down to a “a man ought to have short hair, but may have long hair, but may only style that long hair in certain ways, like a low ponytail is safest and a high ponytail is a bit edgy and a claw clip is right out of the question unless he has an amazing jawline and if he wants to braid his hair please refer to Addendum 4(d)(ii)” and oh my god you people.

You people who are ready to destroy our lives over this.

No, not the hair specifically. Within the Overton Window of 2023 it’s mostly understood even in conservativish circles that it’s gauche to be too direct about yelling “BOYS CANNOT WEAR FLOWERS OR I WILL POOP RIGHT HERE ON THE FLOOR.”

What you say instead is that “boys should be boys”, which gosh, who could argue with that, it’s a truism.

Or it looks like a truism until you spell it out to “boys [testicles] should be boys [no flowers].”

Trans people are collateral damage of gender. This system wasn’t really set up to oppress us. It was set up to whip little cis boys and girls into being the right kind of cis men and women. We’re just exceptionally egregious in our failure to become the right kind. (Note the very common tendency among human dingleberries to depict a straight trans woman as a sort of extreme form of gay man. And whomst among my trans brothers has not been asked why he couldn’t just be a butch lesbian? Just, as in, not quite so far along the continuum of gender disobedience.)

But though we weren’t the original targets, we sure are juicy ones now. We had a couple years of increased visibility and then shit went from “society doesn’t approve but doesn’t really think about it that much” to above-the-fold headlines on what if we’re out there telling children that you can have testicles and be called Samantha, what then, let’s rally the entire conservative political machine around gleefully violent solutions to unauthorized Samanthas.

This is why “trans rights are human rights” isn’t just a generic slogan like “trans rights are important because trans people are human.” Trans rights are an extension of all humans’ rights to live their lives and express themselves and control their own bodies. The rules that blocked women from voting are from the same book as the ones that try to block “women” from taking testosterone. Freedom from expectations that depend upon your ovary/testicle status is a human right. Trans people’s exercise of that right is not a special case.

(it is popular among a certain sort of transphobes to say “no, wear what you want, call yourself what you want, just don’t claim to be a woman.” these people are lying. not some interesting complicated lie, normal kind. they invariably throw their binkies across the room at the sight of a man in a dress who does not claim to be a woman. it has happened so many times there is not much more to say about this.

if they weren’t lying i would actually be fine with being “a special sort of woman who is called him and Cliff and takes testosterone and swims in shorts,” what do i care about two letters, but alas, this deal has never actually been offered to me. me being a woman is always a foot in the door to me being a proper little lady. trans rights, as i say, are human rights.)

There is also a certain sort of argument in favor of trans people that is something like: these poor dears have been born into the wrong bodies, with a life-or-death need to occupy the opposite gender role. But only the exact opposite; let me be a man and I promise to do all the things a man ought to do. I do not wish to challenge the system fundamentally, only to occupy a different part of it. This argument is often convenient and I’ve used it myself. You go to the doctor’s office, they ask you why you think you’re trans, and what do you say? “It is my god-given right to shape my own body within whatever technology allows and I request your assistance in exercising that right” felt a lot less safe than “uhhhh i like trucks. since i was a little kid. a truck kid. that means boy.” Doesn’t mean it’s true, for god’s sake. Although I did like trucks as a kid.

Our dependence on this argument is, I hope, a transitional state. Because I do not actually identify as, or want to be, or however I’m sposta phrase it, a normal man. I’m a big fuckin’ weirdo who actually wants to break all the gender rules. Yeah, I do have a “gender ideology” and that is: it is ridiculous that our society has all these rules about gender and I am opting out. I’m not trading in margaritas for whiskey, I’m drinking whatever tastes good to me and you probably should too.

(Why do man things generally taste better to me than woman things? I don’t know, I can’t solve the fundamental questions of human consciousness right here on my WordPress and I shouldn’t have to do so before I’m allowed to pee standing up. There undoubtedly is some aspect to being trans that’s much more than a simple preference, but we shouldn’t need to prove we will literally die before being allowed to violate even the pettiest of Gender Laws.)

So, as they say, what is a woman? The answer is I don’t care and neither do you. What matters to us, the only thing you could possibly really be asking, is: what ought a woman do with her life?

And the only answer compatible with human dignity and freedom is:

Whatever she, he, they, or zie wants.

  • Ian MacMillan
    January 19, 2023 at 21:52

    To me, this boils down to a question of fashion, although with tragic outcomes because people take it all far, far too seriously, and seek to enforce their own fashion preferences with sometimes lethal consequences. I look at it as being akin to the completely artificial generalizations people make about race – so called race is a matter of skin pigment, for crissake, and is just as important as hair colour and eye colour and should be treated the same. If I want to wear a dress, who cares? Similarly, if I want to suck cocks and get fucked in the ass, who could possibly care, other than those who might want to engage in sexual activities with me and are curious if there is an ‘opening’ for such. But the range of human experience among eight billion people is far too much to assume anything is true generally, and too wide to attempt to enforce any fashion standards. Indigenous populations often recognized that there was some variations in how people sought to express themselves in terms of gender; and it didn’t seem to cause any problems. What caused problems was being invaded by the MEN from Europe who sought to donate the benefits of Christian oppression and enslavement and slaughter.

    And as far as the ideas of “proper” clothing fashion goes, I don’t believe that it should ever be enforced. People should be allowed to wear whatever they please, up to and including complete nudity. As to the idea that this would encourage rape, etc. I believe the opposite; that treating the common anatomical features of the human body as fetishistic taboo sights exacerbates the many problems associated with repressed and distorted sexuality. It is the common experience that spending time on a nude beach or at a nudist colony quickly reduces the sight of the naked body to the mundane.

    Would men be unable to resist raping women if they saw them naked? This assumes that these men are not adults, and incapable of controlling their own actions. This is ridiculous. Just because I am attracted to someone does not mean I must automatically rape them. I am a conscious human being, I have volition and self control. If I did not, I should be locked up for the good of society as well as myself. And as I was saying, if everyone is naked, nudity is no big deal in such environments.

    As far as the original questions of what ‘ought’ be a woman or a man, I favour the old usage of the word “man” being used meaning human. Wom-man, is a man with a womb. Perhaps we can use some term such as ‘testi-man’ to denote a man with testes, should it seem important to include this bit of information about someone. In all other cases I would suggest that the term ‘man’ be used to indicate a person.

    – Ian MacMillan

  • Laz
    January 19, 2023 at 23:21

    As someone whose egg recently cracked, this is all so real to me in a new way. I mean, it was real before, but as a problem that happened to Other People. Now I *am* Other People, and seeing just how fucked up the arguments against me being me really are.

    Also, major props for the Castlevania reference.

  • Eric Christenson
    January 20, 2023 at 00:38

    Here’s my list of six inconsistent, mutable, and inequivalent ways to define gender.
    a) Sperm/Egg/Womb for making babies?
    b) Crotch? Intersex?
    c) Chromosomes? XXY, etc?
    d) Hormone levels?
    e) Brain?
    f) Human social tribe?
    It’s this last, the tribe part, that makes for all the trouble. Only in my lifetime, most of us have collectively decided that skin tone, gender, and the gender or nonexistence of your preferred partner should have no more impact on your social status than your eye color or your height.

    It feels to me that non-standard people violate a need felt in some for simple distinctions, a yes/no answer to “do I want to make children with you?” that makes them angry about those that complicate their emotional life. It’s also true that for most of human history, there’s the sacred people you may not kill (your village) and everyone and everything else is fair game, so the need for an “out” group may be intrinsic.

    Now, on a day-to-day, I notice my brain always decides “man or woman” when I see a person, only rarely leaving me uncertain, even though there’s zero chance it matters, as I am fiercely loyal to my current partner.

  • Charley
    January 20, 2023 at 01:23

    Cliff! Glad to see you blogging again! I followed your blog *way* back when, and tbh the things you wrote as your egg was cracking were pretty integral to my own egg cracking some years later. Your writing is, as always, amazing.

  • willaful
    January 21, 2023 at 04:22

    I’m also really glad to see you blogging again, and I loved this post. As a cis parent of a trans child I’ve had to expand my mind so much about what gender does and doesn’t mean… mostly doesn’t. 🙂 My daughter is actually remarkably like me (physically too, we share clothes) in not wanting to deal much with traditional expressions of femininity except sometimes for fun. The first trans person I was friends with, back in the 80s, told me I could get away with not caring about it but she couldn’t. I’m glad my daughter doesn’t have to feel that way today.

  • Lulupoo
    January 23, 2023 at 09:39

    WONDERFUL to read you long term again! Looking forward to more musings and insights.

    • Lulupoo
      January 23, 2023 at 09:40

      *long FORM

  • L
    February 1, 2023 at 13:34

    “The genetic definition just makes people feel a comfy sense of certainty, and also it serves the function of sticking it to trans people because it’s the one thing we really can’t change.” Quick nitpick: sex chromosomes are the thing that’s *upstream* of all the other sex differences. Once they cause one kind of reproductive system to develop in utero, one will never have the other reproductive system, although they can truncate and alter their own reproductive system and change their secondary sex characteristics.

    The problem with “man/woman as a cluster of associated features” is that it conflates the *causes* of one’s sex with the perceived *effects.* It’s like if someone asked, “Who qualifies as an African-American?” and the answer was “an American [defines the boundaries of the “American” label] of sub-Saharan African descent [goes on to define that] who generally [insert laundry list of cultural norms and stereotypes].” We can (and should) completely leave off that latter portion and have a coherent definition.

    What people seem to mean by “gender identity” is “the set of probability priors I’d like to be viewed with.” If I identify as a man, my attraction to men would be considered gay; if I identify as a woman, my attraction to men would be considered straight. If I identify as a woman, my interests would largely be considered gender-conforming; if I identify as a man, I would be considered highly gender nonconforming for a man, not necessarily judged as a bad thing, just rightfully recognized as anomalous. And identifying as non-binary, then, is to say, “Scrap your two common sets of priors; neither fits me particularly well.”

    What the pro-trans side misses (as M. Taylor Saotome-Westlake pointed out in response to Ozy Frantz) is that a lot of these priors are directly downstream of a person’s *sex*, which has much more predictive power in many more situations than a mere self-chosen label would. In this sense, you really can’t identify your way out of the probability priors that actually apply to you. Like, if you’re born with a male reproductive system, it’s utterly ordinary to be exclusively attracted to women; how can we call that “gay” just because you say so? How would you have anything in common with women who had no choice but to be labeled “gay” because they were never attracted to the sex they were expected to be attracted to?

    And what the radfem side misses is that we can’t hope to abolish all these priors and pretend the bare biological definition is the *only* distinction between men and women that’s relevant. Sex-based norms exist in every society! There are things that are normal in one sex that are not so normal in the other; there are things that are largely attractive to heterosexuals of one sex that are not so attractive to heterosexuals of the other sex. You can’t stop people from noticing this stuff and forming priors accordingly. We can stop people from mistreating gender nonconforming people, sure, but we can’t stop them from being recognized *as* gender nonconforming.

    I’m glad to see you back! I remember an old piece of yours, articulate and thought-provoking as always, asking yourself, “Do I hate womanly things because they suck, or because I’m not a woman?” I definitely get how the radfems would take offense at that and say, “You’re so close to getting what we’re saying! You want to transition because of patriarchy!” You’re both right that a lot of norms for women can feel like getting the short end of the stick if you’re not a gladly feminine woman. But ultimately, I don’t think it’s wrong for heterosexual men to enjoy seeing sex polarity emphasized in women, I don’t think it’s wrong for women to play along to be perceived as more attractive, I don’t think it’s wrong to teach girls in their youth (to an age-appropriate extent), and ultimately, I guess I don’t think it’s that wrong for women who opt out to be looked at as kinda weird. It’s not a human rights violation; it would be a lot more violating to force the vast majority of ordinary people to think and act against their nature, which “gender abolition” would require them to do.

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