But I always felt that my SELF, my soul, perhaps, was simply housed in a female body. Some people are born male, some female. Some people are born into a body that belongs to one race, others another. Some people are tall, some short. Some have big noses or crooked teeth or birth defects. We are born into a particular body, and there isn't much we can do about it. These characteristics are part of us, but don't define us.
When I was asleep, when I dreamed, I was simply me. Male or female wasn’t relevant unless the storyline of my dream demanded it, and I could be either. Actually, I was probably male more often than female, just because action roles are more often written as male. But gender expression really wasn’t essential for "me" to be “me”.
I thought everyone felt like that. Although some people bought into the girly-girl or macho-boy roles wholeheartedly, others rejected it in whole or part. The result felt like a continuum of compliance, not essential variation in gender identity. At its core, I thought the "men are from Mars, women from Venus" dichotomy was garbage.
Imagine if someone told you that tall people are INHERENTLY different from short people; that tall and short people really can't understand each other, and everything you do or say in society is dictated by your height category. I think - I hope - you'd laugh at the absurdity of the idea. Oh, yes, height certainly has SOME psychological effect on you, and in some cases a major effect, but it doesn't pervade every aspect of your being or define who you are. That was my attitude.
Then a friend of mine came out as transgender. It was not an easy process. It involved a lot of self-examination, angst and personal sacrifice, along with family problems, and workplace issues. For my friend, this wasn’t a matter of accepting or rejecting a societal role; it was much more inherent to her being than that. It made me realize that A) she had a really strong gender identity, and B) it did not match her body.
The more I thought about it, the more I had to accept that other people, perhaps most people, had just as strong a gender identity, but they didn't have such a struggle because they happened to be in a body that matched their gender identity. For them, gender isn't just a societal role, to be accepted or rejected. Gender IS an essential part of their being. My insistence, over the years, that there really is no essential difference between men and women, is wrong. Or at least, may only apply to a small number of people.
You may think that this is only a minor revelation, that my earlier perception of gender was quaint or quixotic. But this revelation shook me profoundly. We all create a mental model of how the universe works. When a new idea or phenomenon occurs, we fit it into that model, and if necessary, adjust the model. The more our model can absorb without adjustment, the more we effectively understand the world, and the more accurate and reliable our judgements become. To change my understanding of gender from an incidental characteristic to a basic component of human nature means that there is a ton of stuff I have to reevaluate.
Note that this is entirely different from gender-based sexual attraction. THAT I still think I understand. I like men, and I’ve never felt sexually attracted to a woman. In terms of societal norms, this is lucky, as I'm in a female body, and being attracted to men (being cis-gendered) is what society expects of me. However -- and this might be seen as a contradiction -- my sexual attraction to men is much stronger than my gender identity. I have no doubt that if I inhabited a male body I would be gay. I say that with the same certainty as I say I am not inherently female or male. I am just me.
My world-model needs work.
Postscript: I wrote this after reading the comments on a post about being agendered (not identifying male or female). I found myself wanting to relate my own experience with the concept of gender identity, even though it's not recent. I have no answers; I'm still working on that model.