Ask Polly: Am I a Woman or a Man or Something Else?

Have I ever mentioned that I would be a bad advice columnist? Because I would. Because I feel like this letter writer deserves an answer, but I would not be able to give a very good one.

At this point, I feel like “gender” is the most fraught Idea that’s ever existed. For one thing, nobody seems to agree on what it even is. Construct or biology, psychology or physicality, cognition or experience — all the theories are on the table. Or a table. Someone’s table. There’s a lot of tables, here. And chairs too, probably.

I’ve heard all sorts of definitions. A depressingly large number of people still seem to categorize others by what they’ve got going on in their pants, while some different people, in much the same spirit, frankly, define gender by what’s going on in their chromosome’s pants. Reductive and exclusionary, but concrete. That’s what some people seem to want: concreteness. I’ve heard some say that you’re not really a man until you’ve sired a child. I’ve even heard someone else say that you’re not a women until you catch your seventh grade math teacher peeking down your shirt. Such simple tests we seem to want.

The point is that it’s not simple, though. And no one really understands all of the complexities of it, but people talk a lot about it because that’s what people do. Though often people make stuff up that leaves a lot of people out and excludes and divides and diminishes others, and that really stinks. And everybody’s got a dog in this fight because even if we don’t personally have a gender, lots of the people we deal with do, and many of them want you to have one too, and they fucking FREAK OUT if they can’t put you in a box as quickly as possible.

So. If you care about other people and justice and empathy and all of that sort of thing, what you do is you listen to what people say about themselves. If someone says they are a man, or a woman, or something else, you believe them. (Hey, it’s got to be better than the mess described in the previous paragraphs, right?) They know better than you who they are. Unless they don’t know who they are. Which is fine. It means that they might have to go on a long personal journey, but it’s still fine. They still know more about themselves than you do.

There’s the you that goes out into the world. There’s the you who you are at home. And then there’s the you that’s in your head wherever you happen to be. How can you tell someone else who they are? It’s likely you’ve only met a third of them — two thirds, if you live with them, maybe.





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