Four things about men and women I’ve learnt from being neither

March 30, 2014 § 55 Comments

I think part of it is a family trait, of being treated as a safe person to talk to – several relatives have had similar experiences – but part of it is most definitely being publicly genderqueer. Since I came out, nearly half a lifetime ago, I’ve found that so many of my interactions with women and men* have been marked by them designating me as something like safe territory. Someone they can talk to about gender, sex, sexuality, identity, who will both understand where they’re coming from and give them another perspective – like a gender translator and diplomat – and, crucially, listen and respond without judging them along strict binary lines. Because I’ve already transgressed those boundaries, and won’t try to punish them if it turns out that they’re transgressed them too.


This isn’t anything more than anecdotal evidence and personal experience – in generalized, anonymous terms and without personal details – but I wish we were having these conversation in public, as loudly as possible, and could have done with them and move on. Maybe this is too obvious for words – but if there’s anyone out there reading this who’s worried about any of these points – worried like the people who’ve opened up to me have worried – then I think they need saying.


* Most often this has been in relation to cis men and women – not because I believe that trans men and women are somehow less ‘natural’ or ‘real’, but because most of the trans people I’ve met have been forced to untangle societal ideas of sex and gender in a way that most cis people haven’t.



1. Most people don’t fit common gender definitions

I say ‘most’ people to be safe – in my own life, I don’t think I’ve met a single person who could fit themselves perfectly into the templates our society has given us of ‘men’ and ‘women’. Not without cutting out crucial parts of who they are, not without pretending, in whole or in part, to be something that they aren’t. Some have an easier time than others – and some who look, from the outside, like they’re having the easiest time of it are actually having the worst. So often the face presented to the world doesn’t correspond comfortably with the person behind the face – and, yet, so many of these people think that the fault lies with them, and not with a definition that fails to include the people nominally included under its auspices.



2. Most people keep secrets

Whether it’s how often they cry, or how they’ve stopped themselves from crying for so long that they can no longer let go, how they feel about their bodies, how they’d want to be penetrated, or be the one penetrating, how they’ve wondered about being transgender, how they felt when they were first punished for not being a ‘proper’ girl or boy, how they can’t even remember how to be angry because good girls are never angry, or forget how to count calories and hide it because that’s not what men do…


If a system can only exist because people can’t tell the truth then I think that tells you all you need to know about the authenticity of that system. I think if we could, collectively, tell the secrets we keep about what our selves are and are meant to be, it might go a long way to knocking patriarchy down entirely.



3. Most people worry

How could you not worry, when faced with a culture that presents two (and only two) options, allows little to no dissent, failure, divergence – and pretends that it should be natural, easy – because to find it unnatural, or difficult, is proof of failure, and failure (as previously stated) is not allowed?

The standards of manhood, of womanhood, we’ve been presented with are, in my experience, impossible. Not just impossible for me, as a genderqueer person, but impossible even for cis people who suffer no bodily dysphoria – because they don’t allow wholeness, exploration or freedom.



4. The binary gender system hurts everyone

It doesn’t hurt everyone equally – that should go without saying, but still probably needs repeating – but, again in my experience, I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been hurt by it. Even people I’ve met who benefit most from the structural benefits of the kyriarchy, and the binary gender system that goes with it – the secret hurts they carry, which cis men are not meant to carry under patriarchy – which, by definition they cannot carry – it astounds me, how much hurt there is. The number of cis men I’ve met who want to talk about their experiences of eating disorders, of child abuse, of being raped (by women as well as men), of bullying, of depression, of street abuse. It shocks me how we could, collectively, allow a system to continue when it hurts us so badly. It saddens me to think of the reasons why we do.


This isn’t a ‘what about teh menz’ – but it does amaze me, that an oppressive system supposedly in service of some people manages to damage even those it most benefits.


This isn’t to say that everyone should give up the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ and call themselves ‘genderqueer’ instead – but it is to say that the ways we’ve taught people to use those terms, what those terms supposedly mean, does not cover the totality of what people actually are.


Maybe this is simply the verbal equivalent of throwing up your hands in frustration.


A lot of the trans activistism I do is about the specific rights of trans people – the fact that we’re still unequal under law, that we’re frequently punished by mainstream society, that, all too often, we’re not treated as fully human. But, for myself, there’s a broader point I want to make about trans activism, about gender and selfhood and cultural systems – and that’s that in helping the people most oppressed by harmful gender norms, we’re in fact helping all of us. I want cis people to care about trans activism because they care about trans people – because transphobia and cissexism are terrible things.


But I also wonder why more of them don’t care about it from a selfish place – because, from where I’m standing, being a man or a woman in a binary gender system is not half an easy as it seems.

§ 55 Responses to Four things about men and women I’ve learnt from being neither

  • helgurney says:

    This is so incredibly true. As someone who has been openly genderqueer within my social circles for some while now, and someone who people generally seem to confide in – yes. Almost everyone has a complex and/or difficult relationship with gender, whether they’re cis or trans or question, and regardless of which gender role they’ve grown up in. I really wish more people would talk openly about this stuff.

  • Eoin Madsen says:

    I bet when you’re doing DIY you never end up with any of those nails that stick out because they’re hammered-in slightly arseways.

    • cnlester says:

      I ALWAYS end up with nails like that. Mostly because DIY is always better with a beer in hand.

      • Eoin Madsen says:

        Ah, so you reserve your profound hitting-the-nail-on-the-head talent for your blog…

        DIY with CN Lester sounds like fun though. It also sounds like a pitch to Channel 4.

      • Alex says:

        Wish there was a Like button for that last reply πŸ™‚ Although I don’t like the term queer I guess gender-queer is what I am – may be we need to talk πŸ˜‰

  • […] of identifying neither as male nor as female, has a more interesting perspective on such matters. Read this, it is […]

  • Byghan says:

    Reblogged this on Belerion in my Mind and commented:
    Almost everything I have learnt about feminism I learnt from trans* writers

  • kazerniel says:

    Hey, I really liked this article, so I translated it to Hungarian here:

  • Miranda says:

    One thing I’ve seen online is that a lot of cis people really aren’t happy with being called ‘cis’. I think the general feeling is why does there have to be a label? From what I’ve read on numerous discussions, many cis people feel that they were born a certain gender and identify with that same gender so don’t feel there’s a need for an additional ‘label’

    I am cis, I have no issue with being referred to in this way. But one thing I do have issue with is a person I know through family. This person was born female, identifies as a female, but seems to have set herself up as an overtly (unfairly?) politically correct person, so not only does she use ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ to describe people she knows, she will refer to the children of her siblings as her ‘nephieces’, and she will refer to a person as ‘hir’ instead of ‘him/her’. What has annoyed numerous people about this is that in the case of the ‘nephieces’, these kids were born a specific gender and currently identify that way themselves, and their parents certainly identify them as the gender/biological identity they were born with. Similarly people who were born male and who identify as being male now do not like being called ‘hir’ instead of ‘him/he’. I feel that whilst cis and trans are perfectly acceptable forms of reference, this sort of thing is a step way too far and I don’t feel comfortable with someone ignoring the gender that people identify with to push her own ‘agenda’.

    • cnlester says:

      I’m all for challenging people to think about the way we’ve been taught to think about gender – but there’s that and just being rude. Respect seems the key point at the end of the day?

    • cnlester says:

      Insofar as I think it’s okay to ask people why they’d prefer a certain pronoun choice (depending on what kind of conversational level you’re on, obviously – not a stranger) – but not then respecting that choice isn’t really on.

  • This is beautiful. Thank you for this. I have a small son and I worry everyday about what it means for him, even more then what this binary process means for my daughter, actually. I worry that the world is limiting him in ways he cannot possibly hope to overcome and nothing I say or do can drown out the lie of that. I hope that it is not true. I encourage him to think not about boy things but about things that interest him, and do everything I can to teach him to broaden his mind beyond these two streams and give him the inheritance of emotional freedom. It’s a lofty and impossible inheritance that I can’t possibly give either of my children alone and can’t possibly stop trying to give them anyway.

  • V says:

    This is great. I was a little worried at first that this post was going to perpetuate gender based stereotypes, but it did neither. I think we as people all have a lot more in common than we realize.

  • naomimayr says:

    Reblogged this on Opulent Serendipity and commented:
    This blog post is extremely interesting as it raises strikingly important issues around gender and the impacts that many gender stereotypes are having on society

  • I like this. I’m a raging hetero. Straight as a pole. But I wear nail polish, tight jeans, and my hair is quite long. I’m also a bit odd (stare at things for too long – a face as expression-full as a baby’s), which doesn’t help. Didn’t have an easy time growing up. That’s changed somewhat, but only because tight jeans and long hair are now in the mainstream fashion. 8 years ago (hell, 3 years ago) I was a homo (read: bullied), now I’m a kind of cool (at least ostensibly)… purely for what I fucking wear. I also cry a lot and am bad at keeping secrets. Seems a bit odd that a flaming hetero, white male would experience the brute backhand of gender norms – but there you have it. This bloody system of ours needs to focus more on people, and less on their gift-wrapping. Won’t someone think of the children?

  • myblogmyfeelings says:

    What is cis?

    • kazerniel says:

      Cis (=cisgender) people are people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Basically people who are not transgender.

  • I learned so much from this article. I actually only just learned of cis gender the other day and everything you’ve articulated here goes a long way to putting it in perspective for me. It’s really not only the oppressed who are hurt by the system. We’re all hurting in our ignorance and naivety and in not fighting the system from the other side, we’re only perpetuating the harm of which you, and so many others, have clearly been a victim. You’ve put it so beautifully here and I’d like to thank you.

  • adamf2011 says:

    Interesting perspective. On the other hand…my feeling is that any system of social norms could present challenges and summon up dissonance within those who don’t easily/naturally fit into that way of doing things. Also, I’m wondering to what extent the people who’ve opened up to you about their inner lives are truly representative of the general population — that is to say, it may be that those who have the greatest difficulties fitting themselves into the roles of “men” and “women” are the very same people who were most interested in, and most willing to, confide in you.

    Not that such considerations in any way negate the difficulties and sufferings that you discuss in this post.

    • cnlester says:

      I think that’s a fair point, and certainly could be a part of the issue. What stands out for me, though, is that this is the overwhelming majority of cis people I’ve met – not just people who’ve taken me deeply into confidence, but people who open in small ways in conversation.

  • nice post. yeah I understand that it’s not easy as it seems.

  • Reblogged this on Naomi Indah Sari and commented:
    Four things about men & women. read this!

  • Harsha MP says:

    Quite an interesting article!!

  • llordsauron says:

    Great piece. The binary system does really hurt everyone. With my sisters, i become ‘cuteness overload’, and with my friends, i become ‘the dude’. I have always wondered why cant people just flaunt their natural self nonchalantly. But, then even i am afraid. its natural, i guess, trying to show that one is apathetic and cool. Our world is a far way from these micro level changes in gender roles and acts.

  • I can’t wait to share this with my teenager, who recently talked to me for the first time about being gender fluid – a concept I had not considered before. My kid asked me not to use specific pronouns, and rather to use “they” or “them” which to my much-ingrained proper English-speaking mind is finding difficult. My teen and I have both suffered some ginormous emotions the last couple of weeks, thinking it through. My greatest pain is a worry that our relationship is no longer what I thought it was; and that future milestones I had been expecting are now probably never going to happen. A powerful perceived loss.

    It’s an example of how our gender system hurts everyone. If I wasn’t so hung up on binary gender in the first place (which I’m NOT, I’m rather open-minded, but of course everyone has room to grow), I’d be more easily able to perceive the benefit of being allowed into such an intimate place in my teenager’s internal life. I am, ultimately, grateful that our future relationship will be more authentic.

  • diversityhub says:

    Reblogged this on Diversity Hub and commented:
    If you are one of the many who doesn’t quite fit their gender stereotype, then this is worth a quick read,,,,,I’m not quite tall enough?

  • stefangray says:

    Hi Cnlester, you made a typo in the last sentence of the first paragraph. I think you meant to write “They’ve”. Great piece by the way!

  • i loved your way of expression

  • Iman says:

    I agree with you about these four things

  • Am genderqueer myself, though I’ve only started using that label regularly in the last five years or so, and I can attest to your experience not being unique–at least with cis guys (all along the Kinsey scale.) Being “one of the guys” and yet not a typical sexist dudebro meant a LOT of guys have felt comfortable confiding in me. Best as I can tell, they don’t see me as a potential sex or romantic partner, or as an enforcer of impossible standards of masculinity, so they don’t worry about trying to impress me with their perfect manliness. The shields can come down, and they can open up and talk to me in a way they can’t with most others. They know I won’t punish them in any way for showing “weakness.”

    I haven’t really had this experience with women, though, particularly with cis femmes. I’ve found many see me as at least slightly threatening somehow. Best as I can tell it’s not because I present somewhat masculine and therefore trigger the same guarded reactions they have with men, but because my very existence triggers some cognitive dissonance. They start questioning the things they’ve taken for granted about being female and femme. They see that there is life–a good one–beyond the daily grind of physical self-hatred and social deference. It’s not that they question their identity as female so much that they start questioning whether the way they choose to express that identity has been imposed on them by hostile outside influences, rather than springing up innately or being actively chosen.

    This isn’t dissimilar to how many women react when they first start learning about feminism, of course. It’s downright scary to realize exactly how much the deck is deliberately stacked against you, and I understand the impulse to want to stick one’s fingers in one’s ears and run away. It’s just unfortunate for me that when that reaction happens because I myself embody that reality, they tend to shoot the messenger.

    Women who are already well-versed in feminism (beyond the commercially created “girl power” nonsense used to sell sexist products) generally don’t react this way to me. They already understand that gender identity comes in more than pink and blue, so I’m not slapping them in the face with that idea. On occasion, a self-identified feminist will argue that in rejecting artificial constructs of femme, I’m somehow a sexist, but I’ve learned to avoid those people and their essentialist BS.

    Why cis masculine men don’t react the same way to me I don’t quite know. It could be that they still see me as basically female, and therefore don’t find me threatening to their learned paradigms. I suspect that if I had been male-assigned and was demonstrating an existence that didn’t require the negatlve hallmarks of masculinity, they might react poorly. I think a lot of homophobia and transphobia in cis/het men is rooted in sexism, particularly the notion that anything remotely feminine is inherently weak and inferior, and somehow earns violent subjugation. A man who embodies qualities of gentleness, nurturing, emotional sensitivity, etc. triggers a recognition their own natural qualities of that, and that makes them feel weak and like they could be targeted. Badabing, fear response, and all the potential violent reaction that comes with. I do know that some particularly sexist men lose their shit at the idea of a “woman” who embodies qualities of strength and confidence they believe are reserved for men–the threat they feel there is just one of competition, I think–but aside from them, most men have dealt with me pretty well.

    I think most people think about the artificialness of the extremes of culturally constructed gender. They just have it buried pretty deeply in many cases, the same way most people try not to think about the animal that provided the meat on their plate. Consciously acknowledging damaging constructs can require upending one’s entire way of life, and most people aren’t in a position to do that. But I do hope that the existence and increased visibility of people whose gender isn’t usually included on forms will help spark some of that acknowledgement on a higher level of subconscious–and perhaps with that, some subtle changes that can eventually benefit us all.

  • MarshaM says:

    Thank you. I am Cis and (so far) straight, but I had to think about not being what society expected me to be from the time I was a little girl in the late 60s and early 70s. I come from a line of strong women, so my maternal line never questioned it when I preferred mud puddles and rowdy rough and tumble to frilly dresses and dolls, but my father never got me at all. He had very clear visions of what he needed me to be, and I was never close. Oddly, possibly due to my maternal support, I found my deviance from his expectations mildly amusing and not oppressive at all. My father wanted me to wear pretty things and play daintily, to worry about my fingernails, and lay for hours in the sun getting tan. To be decorative and not very useful. Me? I was climbing trees, building forts, skinning my knee,tunneling in snowbanks to make forts. I went through a phase of out-boying the boys – determined to be stronger, rougher, braver and always always tougher! Possibly because they and society said I couldn’t/wasn’t/shouldn’t.
    But I was always aware that I was not quite what society expected of me. And I never quite grokked either “typical” men or women.
    Still don’t.
    I also cannot understand our society’s obsession with he contents of strangers’ underwear or what said strangers do with said contents. IMO the only time these things are my business is if we both want to sleep together. Then and only then do such things become topics of discussion. Unless someone cares to share, of course.

    Thank you for your sharing.

  • Pi224 says:

    This post speaks honesty. And truth. I like both. But, I have nagging question that, if answered in a certain way, could change my opinion entirely. When you say “patriarchy” do you mean it in way that men rule society, with out the input of women, or do you use it to describe society as a whole, without regard to gender.

    • cnlester says:

      I mean the system currently in place in regards to societal control and order, run along a strict ideology of what sex and gender means – Shakesville has some really good definitions and analyses.

      • Pi224 says:

        Thank you for explaining this to me. I had never heard the word used with this meaning before, I guess I do have to catch up on these definitions.

  • Amlakyaran says:

    very nice post…

  • mintvalf says:

    Reblogged this on mintvalf.

  • scponce says:

    Wow. I loved reading this. I realized, you are right, my friends who are trans (male and female) are often confided to by other people because they are somehow in the middle. NICE.

  • I agree with you regarding the social unconcious and concious imposition of a definition, so as man or woman, that is supposed to be the guide of how someone should be and behave. Myself have sometimes problems about not feeling femenin enough, for example, but then I realize that Im a beautiful woman, that the term “femenin” shouldnt go along the expecties of society towards women.
    Nice to read your thoughts. Hope we can share more.
    Regards from Spain.

  • naomiharvey says:

    This comment has only a vague link to this post, possibly, but reading this made me think of my sister. She has a little one year old boy and he has a mountain of little boy toys. She recently had a report from his nursery to say that he likes to play with a doll and a pushchair. Apparently they are his favourite toys. I know quite a few people who would want to take steps to encourage their boy to play with other toys instead. Not my sister. She went out and bought a doll and a toy pushchair so he could play with them at home too. No worrying about ‘turning him’ (which is a ridiculous notion anyway) just wanting to give him toys he enjoys playing with. I have to confess, I’m rather proud of her for that.

  • Thanks for the view from between the worlds. I live a similar existence in the race/color realm. Along with the obviousness there, I also experience a glaring invisibility as well. It’s quite a strange place to inhabit sometimes…

  • brennalayne says:

    Great post! Your opening discussion of the tendency of cisgendered people to confide in you is really interesting, and reminds me of the function that transgender individuals served in many American Indian cultures. Instead of being ostracized, a man who dressed as a woman, for example, was seen as sacred, because he, unlike most others, was able to transcend the limits of his sex and exist in a liminal zone between male and female. This post also reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, with its many layers of human sexuality and gender identity. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  • Suraj Baliga says:

    Nice read thanks πŸ™‚

  • a p a r n a says:

    One of the really good posts I have come across in ages.. πŸ™‚ thanks for inspiring a new thought!

  • Definitely something to think about! A mind boggling perspective!

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