Maura has pointed out that the activities which I was not able to comfortably participate in as an adolescent girl are not essential to femininity, that they are superficial and culture bound. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the superficial, cultural expressions of femininity are not actually irrelevant. These are the social activities that women perform in order to socialize one another. Feminine social grooming takes place at the mall, in the cafeteria, at sleepover parties where girls give each other makeovers, and so forth. Girls get together as girls and they learn from one another how to be feminine, how to present themselves as feminine in the wider culture, and how to think and identify as women. Basically, there’s a set of techniques for developing the self, a stylistics that communicates and signals femininity to other people. When a woman develops a feminine aesthetic that is acceptable to her culture, it also produces a corresponding sense of comfort within her own psyche. Her femininity is constantly reinforced and buttressed within the social sphere, and this contributes in a substantial way to her ability to relate to herself and to other women in a way that is conceived as “feminine.” This whole process happens very naturally for women who are “cisgendered,” that is, who are largely or completely comfortable with the identity between their physical sex and their social/psychological gender.
There are any number of reasons why this might not happen for a particular woman. Sometimes it’s a matter of social opportunities, isolation, exclusion and so forth, in which case I would say that a person is accidentally queer – they have gender confusion as a result of having been left out of the loop during the process of gender-socialization in childhood and adolescence. On the other hand, I think that there are characteristics that are related to femininity in all cultures which some women lack. Excitement and apprehension about the development of female sex characteristics is, for example, a more universal feminine experience; it’s normal for a girl in any culture to have a desire for womanhood and to work that out in the context of a female social sphere where her feelings are validated, shared and possibly given some sort of ritual catharsis. That’s why I think that there’s some basis for gender-queerness that goes a little deeper than mere socialization. If it were just that I found the cultural expressions of femininity in postmodern North America alienating and dull, that would be a fairly superficial matter. The problem is that there are certain elements of female development and female psychology that are generally included in notions of “essential” femininity which I happen to lack.
The lack of interest in my nascent femininity during adolescence is one example. Another is the fact that I’m generally oblivious to social cues and body language. Most people who try to describe essential femininity will include the idea that women are more sensitive to other people’s emotions and to the subtextual cues in social interaction. One of the classic examples in the Catholic world is of Mary noticing that the wine has run out at the Wedding at Cana. She sees this and intervenes to remedy the situation before it becomes socially embarassing. It’s generally felt that this kind of awareness is one of the great strengths of femininity – and it’s something that I don’t have. Now I happen to know that the reason I don’t have it is that I come from a family where practically everyone can be pegged somewhere on the autism spectrum. If I was at the Wedding at Cana, I wouldn’t notice anything: I’d be suffering from massive information overload and would be only vaguely aware of my surroundings at all. In a social situation there’s simply too much information to process, so my mind either fixates on a single person or a single activity and becomes completely oblivious to everything else, or else I sort of sink into a cloudy haze where I’m not even conscious of what I’m doing or saying. In a private conversation, I’m almost completely blind to the subtle cues being given off by the other person – this is another classic high-functioning autistic attribute. My ability to process or read other people’s emotions is exceedingly primative, and I often get it wrong. I miss massive clues and I’m unaware of subtle shades of meaning. In this respect I’m more incompetent than a lot of perfectly “masculine” men. Needless to say, the inability to participate in conversation and social life in this respect serves as a massive impediment to full inclusion in the female social world. I come across as weird, masculine, “queer.” This creates a sort of self-perpetuating cycle, where because I’m inept at being included, I am excluded, and because I am excluded I become increasingly inept.