Doesn’t God decide?

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I had a comment on an old entry in this weblog today, which really encouraged me to write back. I’m still quite ill, but hope my anonymous commenter doesn’t mind me copying her/his text here, and my reply. I wrote enough that it stopped being a reply, and became an essay, and I don’t expend that much energy without physical cost just now. So, it’s not profound, but here it is.

My commenter:

Hello, I just stumbled onto your page while looking up the dangers of manganese in showers!??? Anyway its very interesting and eloquent. May start watching it.

It’s certainly very surprising that feminists can be so needlessly offensive to an oppressed group. However I can’t say I find the basic argument that maleness and femaleness should be defined by biology, rather than personal identity, to be objectionable. To use your own comparison of race, do you think being black is about identity rather than biology/race? Is a person black if she or he believes herself or himself to be black? I don’t want to offend you but I do think sex/gender is defined by biology, in exactly the same way that I think being black is about race.

I just think that in an ideal world then people would not make a thousand and one assumptions because of a person’s gender. If being male or female was no more fundamental to a person’s identity than having a wide face or a thin face, or having a good sense of balance or a poor sense of balance, or having blood type A+ or A-. I’d love it if we had a gender-neutral pronoun to replace his and her. I think that ideally, gender would be just a physical variation which isn’t crucial for defining one’s sense of self.

- superfreak

Superfreak, firstly it’s a nice surprise to get a thoughtful comment on an old article – thanks! You’ll have gathered if you read newer articles that my physical health is in a mess just now so I’ve kind of ground to a halt here – but will try and pick up the trail soon. Your comment encourages me to do so, and I may even repost it as a new entry to try and restart my weblog – I hope you don’t mind. I don’t know if you’ll be back to read this, but anyway…

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No, your comments don’t offend me in any way. Any thoughtful comments, including those I disagreed with, couldn’t ever be offensive. How could they be? It’s a pleasure to get a response. But in fact I couldn’t agree with you more: I too believe sex and gender are determined by biology, indeed as you say, being black in terms of skin colour is about race (see catch below). The key here, is that they are determined at different stages in the biological process, as recent research is showing. Briefly and probably inaccurately (I’m not a biologist!): sex (if I can use that to mean body-parts, vaguely, in fact confusingly what biologists call “gender”) is determined by the foetus’s response to floods of hormones early on – all foetuses starting with a female shape – with the ones that react to androgen (because of XY chromosomes) turning male, forming testes, which continues the masculinising process, etc. Google for AIS to see what happens when a male foetus doesn’t react to androgen. Gender, in the way society/sociologists/the transgendered community use it, is about who you are – in your brain/mind. Again, there’s mounting evidence that this part (whether you feel like a boy or a girl) is formed by the effect of chemicals in the womb at a later (separate) stage of foetal development. The key here is that I’m agreeing fully with you: I think we’ll find gender identity is highly defined in the womb, but the gap between your slash in “sex/gender” is important. It makes it conceivable that people like me exist (and lots of us do) who can have one physical sex and the other internal gender identity – which really means a female brain in a male body, or vice versa.

Sorry this reply is so long. I hope you or someone reads it and finds it explanatory of at least my position, and many others, and I hope some of the rest of my weblog explains this a little too, rambling as lots of it is. As to your last paragraph, I agree strongly too. Gender role is a very separate thing from identity, an (understandable) invention of society, and it’s terrible when people are forced to act in a role they may be uncomfortable with, because of how their bodies look. Transgendered people feel this more keenly than anyone: it really hurts, and has for all of my life, and in our gender-inflexible society can kill. I’d also reflect this back to your comments on being black: like being “inuit”, or “gay”, or countless other things, these indicate strong biologically-determined identities: but can also quite separately refer to what I would see as analogies to gender role: they define who I feel I identify with, where my “home” is. And very important social roles can exist without biological pre-determining factors too of course: being “rastafarian”, or “pentecostal”.

You say in your last sentence:

I think that ideally, gender would be just a physical variation which isn’t crucial for defining one’s sense of self.

I’m not actual sure what my response is to this: I’ve often thought I’d like the world to consist of gender and sex-neutral blobs, when at my lowest and most pessimistic with regard to my own position. But I also often think sex and gender are wonderful things: giving us a sense of me-ness, of gentle polarity and definition which I’d rather have than blobness. And people don’t invent things on a whim: horrified as I am by modern (largely western) society’s christian and post-christian resistance to gender variation, unlike many other society’s acceptance of people like me as being natural variants rather than being wrong, bad or mad, gender roles seem to have evolved in every society we know of. There must be a reason for these roles being so deeply embedded, as well as the general need for sex differentiation for evolutionary diversity, and, being so pervasive it’s probably good for us in general, although of course good things can be used for bad so so often. This is however the least strongly emphasised paragraph I’m writing here, as I’m not sure what I think: certainly, the ubiquitous evolution of some social trait in all societies is no evidence of its moral worth.

It occurs to me in retrospect that resistance to gender role prison is what this weblog was supposed to be about from the start: saying I’m sick to death of acting out a male gender role when my gender identity is so clearly female. But I’m aware many others non-transgendered (cisgendered) people fight a similar fight with societal expectations. That’s why it’s so disappointing when those others who reacted against the same policing, referred to in the original article, deny us the same freedoms.

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Finally on gender-neutral pronouns! There have been a zillion attempts at this, but as a (very!) amateur linguist I’d say it’s very hard to force new terms into language – its progress is too organic. Memes sometimes catch, for very interesting reasons, but you can’t just invent a new one and hope that it catches on (see my whimsical attempts at doing this with terms like jeebo/beejo!). For some interesting history of attempts at creating gender-neutral pronouns, see an FAQ here. Lots of people do persist in trying to use terms like “hir“, but for me, the good old “they” works well enough. Prescriptive linguists of 50 years ago thought it improper to use plural terms about singular objects (“a person walked into my shop today: they wanted some flowers”), but linguists of today generally tend to be more descriptive, and say it’s perfectly acceptable and a good example of the flexibility of language. Jane Austen used it..!

Images taken from the film “Ma Vie En Rose”/”My Life In Pink” by Alain Berliner, which is probably a better way of understanding being like me than the above article. It’ll probably be in your local DVD outlet for rental.

4 thoughts on “Doesn’t God decide?”

  1. Okay I just finished my very long reply only to discover you’d made it a whole new entry as suggested. Thanks, I’m very honoured :D. And yes I’m perfectly happy that you relayed my comments. I’m really glad you weren’t offended by my comments and are happy to engage in constructive debate. Gender issues are of considerable interest to me so it’s great to be able to engage in a constructive debate with someone from a very well-informed but somewhat differing perspective.

    Okay, this is how I understand what you are saying (please correct me if I’m wrong): a person’s sex is determined by their physical characteristics, outside of the brain – i.e. their chromosones and their genitalia. A person’s gender, on the other hand, is defined by their brain structure. People can have male or female bodies (lets say the brain is separate from the body) and male or female brains which usually correspond but sometimes don’t.

    Hmm, I’m afraid I disagree with your definition of gender. For the following reasons:

    1) The article you mention is extremely tentative and does not yet provide evidence of a distinctive male or female brain which determines gender identity. Not to say that persuasive evidence won’t arise in the future – I’m just saying it isn’t around yet.

    2) The majority of studies on brain gender differences find that the phenomenon of males-by-sex with “female” brains and females-by-sex with “male” brains to be extremely common. They often focus on how women tend to be better at socialising and empathy and men at “systemising” and spatial awareness. But clearly there are many men who are very good at empathising and many women who are very good at more technical tasks. For example, how many men and women would come out with brain types of their opposite sex on this quiz or in this quiz? If you were to base gender on brain types then you would get a situation whereby probably around a third of the human population have a gender which is opposite to their sex, regardless of how they themselves identify.

    3) It doesn’t correspond to my own experience. Biologically I’m male but from the age of three or four I strongly identified as a girl. I played with barby dolls, My Little Ponies and so on, I liked the colour pink, pretty ribbons and I loved wearing dresses, I sought out women’s company and often shunned men’s, I played with girls, nearly always imagined myself as a girl or a woman in roleplaying games, imitated women’s mannerisms, enjoyed putting on make-up and preferred to be referred to in female terms. I remember being convinced that I was really a girl and that some mistake had been made around my birth. However when I was seven, for a variety of possible reasons, my gender identity changed and I started identifying as a boy (and although I adjusted my interests, I don’t think my personality changed much). This felt and still feels natural to me and I don’t feel like I am putting on a mask. My experience makes me very dubious of any theory of gender which claims that there is a definite male and female brain which determines gender identity. I also read somewhere that “gender dysphoria” in children is relatively common, but that most such children end up changing their gender identity to accord with their body. According to the theory that gender is about brain structure, me and countless others have a gender that is the opposite of both our biological sex and our identity.

    My own current theory is that there are brain differences associated with the sexes, but that these differences are slight and that there is a very large minority of males and females who have brains which, to varying extents, have characteristics more often found in the opposite sex. I think that the individuals within this substantial minority develop in a myriad different ways with regard to their gender identity, sexual preference and behaviour. I also think that environmental influences have a huge impact.

    I do actually know what you mean about the gender-neutral blob. When I first came across a vision of a gender-free society I was repulsed. Like you say, gender identity helped form my own identity and I guess I didn’t like this attack on my own identity. However, on further reflection this vision has come to appear more attractive because it seems more honest. Here’s my reasoning… In my view gender cannot be based on biological sex, because there is no personality, behaviour pattern or identity which either sex can lay exclusive claim to; but neither can it be based on brain structure for the reasons I give above. That leaves identity: a person’s gender is simply whatever gender they feel they are, even though there may well be nothing physical or emotional which distinguishes that person from anyone else of their physical sex or makes them closer to the opposite sex. To my mind, this makes the whole notion of gender pretty meaningless. As meaningless as if we were to believe that a white person who considers himself black really is black. If we accepted that, we would have to invent a new term to describe people who are racially white but identify as black, even though in an ideal world the term “black” shouldn’t carry any connotations other than a person’s colour and genetic heritage.

    I’d also reflect this back to your comments on being black: like being “inuit”, or “gay”, or countless other things, these indicate strong biologically-determined identities: but can also quite separately refer to what I would see as analogies to gender role: they define who I feel I identify with, where my “home” is. And very important social roles can exist without biological pre-determining factors too of course: being “rastafarian”, or “pentecostal”.

    I don’t think any of these categories are really the same as gender, sex or race. Being Rastafarian or Pentecostal is defined by what you believe and what religious practices you perform, being gay is defined by whether or not you are sexually attracted to the opposite sex/gender. Inuit is more difficult because cultures are often conflated with races. Whether you are racially Inuit is defined entirely by biology, but whether or not you are culturally Inuit is not.

    Rather than have a meaningless definition of gender, I would rather do away with gender completely, leaving only biological sex. Surely this would be the most honest way for people to simply be themselves. Men and women could freely identify with the attitudes, experiences, personality and clothes of people of the opposite sex without it being a threat to their identity. It would surely lead to much greater equality between the sexes and much more honesty and freedom with regards to who we really are. I know it’s not likely to happen any time soon, but I prefer to keep a social ideal in mind if only to guide my thinking.

    With regards to the universality of gender roles – I actually sympathise with all your thinking here. I am open to changing my mind on this. However, I imagine how gender roles could have developed without them having universal, lasting benefit to people. I think these thoughts are worth considering:

    1) Humans are thought to have descended from a relatively small band of original humans. So it seems entirely possible that sex roles could have been dispersed across the entire human race simply because this single group had been socialised into gender roles (which they in turn probably inherited from their pre-human ancestors).

    2) For the vast majority of our history, humanity has lived as hunter-gatherers. A division of labour along gender lines makes a lot of sense in this kind of society. The fact is that men are in general stronger than women, so they will tend to make better hunters, manual labourers and warriors. Likewise, only women can feed children with breastmilk, and in those societies it was necessary considering the high mortality (and difficult to avoid considering the lack of contraception) for women to be pregnant most of their lives if the community was to survive. If women are mostly pregnant it makes sense for them not to be involved in fighting, hunting and hard labour, and if there are always loads of babies and toddlers about it makes sense for the women to look after them, since the children are not going to be able to keep up with the men’s work and they are helped by ready access to their mother’s milk. These advantages to gender roles don’t apply in our society (thankfully!!) because most women will only spend a fraction of their lives rearing babies and toddlers and most work does not require much brawn.

    3) Old habits and taboos die hard, even when they don’t make any sense. Experiments on animals show that they can very easily be socialised into having arbitrary taboos (such as not touching a particular kind of food) even when none of the animals have personally experienced anything bad from breaking that taboo. Often they would rather starve than break that taboo. Are humans so different? I think taboos which undermine categories of identity are particularly hard for humans to break, or see broken, because they undermine our whole worldview and our sense of reality.

    4) Dominating weaker groups is unfortunately a near-universal aspect of human society. It happens between races, classes, individuals and the sexes. It isn’t hard to see why most of the ideas of gender difference benefit men and how men, as the more powerful force in society, would want to perpetuate such an advantageous arrangement.

    As a sidepoint, I would point out that what most transsexual activists of the modern liberal world want to achieve seems different to both the gender ideas of Christian/post-Christian society and the gender ideas of many non-Jewish/Christian/Islamic societies which are accepting of transsexual people. As far as I know, the gender ideas of such pagan (for lack of a better word) societies mostly seems to be based on the idea that there are male and female people, and then there are various different kinds of androgynous people, whether they are called “two-spirit

  2. Superfreak – thanks for such a thoughtful and interesting response. This is just a stopgap to say you may have to be patient for a reply, as my physical condition’s worsened and my thoughts won’t be cohesive enough for a good response yet. But chains of thought in response are clanging around in my head. Reply when I can.

  3. I use “they”.
    A side issue:
    It’s certainly very surprising that feminists can be so needlessly offensive to an oppressed group.
    As a feminist I consider the struggles of transgender people to be part of the same struggle. I’ve always been quite surprised by the assumption that everyone who identifies as feminist must think the same way. Um, no.

    the ubiquitous evolution of some social trait in all societies is no evidence of its moral worth.
    Absolutely. (and…I wish I could write like you!)

  4. You’re so kind Splodge – see my weblog for an interesting
    detailed response from the original commenter, which I’m not up to
    responding to yet, but will. As before I’ll post your comment there
    too from livejournal – hope that’s ok.

    I also want to be careful to restate as before that I don’t think
    for a second the response in the original article represents
    anything but a tiny leftover minority of feminist response. Although
    things like the response to transgendered women at the Michigan Womyn’s
    Music Festival
    seem disturbing. But what reasonable-thinking
    person isn’t a feminist in the sense of equality of rights these
    days? I often worry about the seemingly backwards step of many
    transgendered people in terms of gender role presentation
    as I’ve rattled on about before on my weblog, but transfeminism is
    thankfully a rising tide I think.

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