I'm starting this post with an apology, because what I’m about to say may well sound offensive to some people, but please bear with me because that’s not my intention.
When I was growing up the idea of gender was a very black and white one; if you had male bits you were male and female bits you were female. That’s not to say that men couldn’t dress and live as women if they wanted and vice versa, just that as far as I’d always been taught gender was a physical thing and so could only be defined in those terms.
Of course that doesn’t mean I had a problem with people identifying with something other than their physical gender, or even changing their body to match the person they are on the inside, but as someone who was fortunate enough to be born into the right body the whole idea of being transgender is something I couldn’t fully comprehend.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the cinema to see The Danish Girl, and to say the film touched me to my core would be putting it lightly.
I’ll pause here to suggest that if you haven’t seen the film, you give it a go… it’s beautiful shot and told, powerfully written and the two lead actors are absolutely phenomenal. But back to the point...
Of course movies, even those based on true stories, are only ever movies, and of course I’m sure that the true story behind this one is different, and even more powerful and inspiring than the film. But even with my limited exposure to it, the story of Lili Ebde has suddenly changed my whole understanding of gender, and so of the world in general.
I’ve heard people talk before about gender being fluid, and as much down to an inner feeling than a physical form, but I’ve never really “got” it, until now.
In retrospect I’m not really sure how… from the age of five a classmate of mine was, for all intents and purposes a boy, despite having been brought up and named as a girl, and I remember even at that age wondering why people thought it was so weird for her to prefer football and cars to dancing and dolls. But in my mind that was more about equal opportunities than it was gender.
Later, in my first ever full-time job we were all taken into meeting rooms one day to be told that from the following week a formerly male colleague would be coming into work as a woman as part of his preparations for a sex change operation. And again, that was fine, but I still thought of the male and the female two very separate and distinct labels.
And I guess that’s the problem here… labels. We humans all like to be able to label ourselves, and personally it’s something I’ve thought a lot about over recent years, trying to understand how I would label myself for me, without thinking about labels in relation to other people, or to how they see me.
And yet even when I’ve focused only on the labels I have for myself, there’s one that I couldn’t argue with anyone else on – the label of woman.
Personally It’s not one I’d want to argue with either; I’m a girly girl and a proud woman in every sense of the words. More than that, over the last year I’ve done a lot of digging into my woman-ness (or my lady landscape as the lovely Lisa Lister calls it) and become more comfortable with and proud of myself as a woman (which is a post – hell, maybe even a whole book – for another day...), my place amongst women past, present and future, the cycles of my body, the Divine Feminine, and many many other things.
In that time I’ve come across plenty of women who no longer feel entitled to that label because of something that’s physically happened to them – a loss of their breasts, infertility, menopause or something similar – and with every one I’ve both empathised with and stood firm on; no, you are a woman, no matter what has or happened to your body.
But what if you know inside that you are a woman but have a physical body which not only doesn’t currently fit with society’s definition of a woman, but never has? How would that be?
If I'm honest, until I saw the movie it’s not something I’d ever really thought about, but suddenly I get it… Being a woman - or a man for that matter - is no more about physical make up than it is about the clothes you wear, TV shows you watch, sandwiches you eat or people you’re attracted to. It’s about who you are inside and about the truth of your very heart and soul.
Within myself, no matter what other labels I or anyone else may give myself, I have always known that I am a woman, and I’m fortunate that my physical body matches that description. But that’s not the only kind of women there are.
And so just as I’ve dismissed so many labels before I’m now pooh-poohing the basic labels associated with gender and recognising that each of us and who we are is way more complicated than a binary label of one thing or the other.... maybe it's time for everyone to be recognised for exactly who they are, regardless of what society tells us!