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.
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, 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…
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.
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.