(Probably helpful vocab list: For the purpose of this post, cis = cisgender = someone with the same gender as the one assigned to them at birth. Trans = transgender = someone who does not identify with the same gender they were assigned at birth. Agender = someone who does not identify as any gender. Also, I'm sometimes going to be awfully vague in this post for the sake of anonymity. With that said...)
What is gender anyway?
It's a topic that my friends and I, in our attempts to have interesting conversations*, had spent many a days arguing over. Obviously gender exists, because, well, transgender people exist. If they feel strongly enough to risk all the terrible social backlash in order to live as what they identify as, there must be something driving them. Yet is gender a purely socially-constructed phenomenon? Or does it have some underlying biological causes? Querying my probably-agender** friend gave me no answers.
A sample excerpt from our conversations:
Friend: "Well, I don't feel like a man, and I don't feel like a woman. So I must be agender."
Me: "But what does it feel like to be a man? What does it feel like to be a woman??"
Friend: "I dunno. I don't feel like either, so I can't answer."
Me: "But how do you know that you don't feel like either if you don't know what being a man or a woman feel like D:???"
After talking in circles for a while, my friends and I (one probably-agender, one cis, and one what-even-is-gender-anyway), having had this conversation n+1 times before, decided that this isn't going anywhere. We needed more data! Because it's a lot more interesting to talk to people directly instead of looking up YouTube videos of trans people talking about their experiences, we wandered over to some alley in our Hovse, where we found some people who'd be okay with being quizzed about these things.
"Why are you the gender you identify as?" We posed this question to our super-not-biased sample.
As for the results? It seemed like a lot of people are the gender they identify as because it's what they've been assigned at birth, and they didn't feel any need to change it. Because they have been identifying as that gender for all their lives, they feel attached to it. This actually doesn't give us any answers -- assuming that gender has some sort of biological basis and agenderness is a thing, this response could either mean that they are agender but have been socialized into their assigned genders, or that they are cis. This doesn't help differentiate between cis-ness and agender-ness at all...
One of the more interesting data points said that they were once uncomfortable with their assigned gender due to disliking the societal pressures placed on the gender they were assigned at birth.*** They tried to distance themself from the stereotypes of their assigned gender as much as possible. However, after coming to Tech and meeting the awesome people here, they realized that they had the freedom and ability pursue their passion on top of being their gender. Happy end!
We also managed to grapevine our way to someone who is actually transgender! According to them, being the gender that they are feels "correct"****. They actually weren't completely sure that they were trans until they had been taking hormones for a while. It was only then they decided that this is who they are and who they want to be. They realized that being this gender, instead of the one they were assigned with, is right. Another happy end!
With all that's said and done, I still have no idea what being of a certain gender feels like. In the end, human emotions are so diverse and complicated and so personal that it might just be impossible to cleanly categorize them. Or maybe I should actually just go look up YouTube videos of trans people talking about their experiences.
Oh well. That's what makes life interesting, right?
*this also lead to several discussions revolving around how romantic feelings differ from platonic feelings. Protip: Wikipedia is completely useless for explaining the difference between romantic feelings, platonic feelings, and sexual feelings.
**according to the friend, they're probably-agender instead of agender because they don't actually know what having a gender feels like.
***Caltech has a Feminist Club if you're ever sad about the stereotypes and norms society places on men and women~ Come if you want to complain about how men can't wear dresses in public but women can wear pants, have ideas for events like Take Back the Night, or just want to eat free food while hanging out with cool people.
****This matches up with a lot of what people say in the internet. The general definition seems to be "if you think you're a man, you're a man; if you think you're a woman, you're a woman; if you think you're neither, you're neither" which... doesn't really help because I have no idea what I should base my thoughts on.