For whatever reason, I’ve always cared about the people we used to call “transsexuals”, as in those who deeply feel they are not in the right body, and in contrast need to live as the sex they identify with. Contrary to the ridicule that these people often faced, I felt they exemplified a personal courage and dignity that was really noteworthy.
10 – 15 years ago, on an internet LGBT group that I belonged to, we had a few discussions with one of the transwomen on the group, about how she felt ambivalent about the term “transsexual”, as it could lead to the misunderstanding that it was all about sexuality rather than gender identity. But she was also really ambivalent about the rise of the umbrella term “transgender”, as it included so many different kinds of people, and might suggest they had more in common than they actually did. That seemed quite a valid concern to me, as the issues of someone living 24/7 as the “opposite sex” could be quite different to those of a transvestite, or people who are physically intersex, or feel they are neither exactly men nor women inwardly. A sense of gender is a personal thing that goes very deep, but it makes complete sense to me that a transitioned transwoman would have a lot more in common with other women than with say a transvestite man, or a drag queen. A transwoman or transman could have a quite traditional sense of gender, it just wouldn’t fit their body of birth. Another kind of transgender person might be a living abolition of traditional gender. If the term was meant to be about gender, why does it group diametrically opposite people together? Words are funny things.
We used to think it was important to try and understand the differences between people, especially in this kind of area which was so open to misunderstanding and misrepresentation, that even as a youngster it would have seemed crass to not know that a transvestite was different to a transsexual (as they were called then). But in the meantime it seemed like politics had decided otherwise. For all the people that the term “transgender” is meant to serve, it would be up to them to say if it has worked for them, but I suspect there wouldn’t be just one answer to that.
Now though this use of language affects a small series of minorities primarily, in another sense it involves everyone, because language is how we communicate, and a good deal of how we understand each other. When you are a minority you have to work on language consistently and ultimately consensually, even if with a degree of assertiveness at times. It’s fine to say “the real word for me is ‘gay’, not ‘faggot’ or ‘pervert'”, but it’s up to society at large to make sense of that and accept it. Because, contrary to pseudo-Marxist swagger, minorities don’t “seize power” from majorities, they persuade them, enter dialogue, or take advantage of social shifts and changes that are occurring anyway. Sorry Stonewall Riots, but if American society hadn’t been ready for it, you’d be a stain on the pavement. That’s how life actually is.
gender versus sex
For years we have been trying to clarify a distinction between physical sex and gender, and this makes a lot of sense to me. Physical sex is a biological quality that your body has. It is overwhelmingly binary, male or female, though there are exceptions, more than we generally imagine, and people with these intersex physical characteristics need representation, acceptance and rights like anybody else. But physical sex, male, female and intersex, are biological characteristics, not matters of identification. No one gets any choice on it, any more than you do on being born with legs or not.
Gender on the other hand is very much a psychological thing (at least this is what we have been saying). Gender is our psychological sense of being a man or a woman (and some would say all manner of other categories)¹. Gender is a matter of identification, because it is a matter of consciousness and self-recognition*, not of physical organs and biology. In the vast majority of cases it overlaps with biological sex, and so in a sense is invisible. We have gained our awareness of gender from the exceptions to this rule, because that is where it become visible, no longer camouflaged by the overlap. It’s a way of looking at sex and gender which takes into account both the general rule and the exceptions, and so has a cognitive elegance and functionality to it, quite aside from issues of compassion and empathy.
This doesn’t mean that all men (by both gender and male sex) are masculine, or happy with being men, or fit the social role of men, or never wanted to dress up as the princess as a kid (or as an adult). When we are talking about gender we are not talking about how masculine or feminine you are, or what clothes you’d like to wear, or how you want to have your hair, or if you want to wear make up or not, or if you are happy with the role society has assigned your physical sex. We are talking about whether you basically feel you are a man or a woman, girl or boy, or (according to some) something else entirely. There are men and women who are really not happy being men or women, because life is pretty shit when it comes down to it, but they are still men and women. They do not have gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a real thing, and only some people who aren’t happy being a man or a woman have it. It’s much, much deeper, and by all accounts more distressing, than not liking being a boy. I hated being a boy as a child. I really would have rather been a girl. I resented and was disheartened by just about everything associated with being a boy and becoming a man. I was a very shy, dysfunctional sissie that identified with the girls, absolutely no question, but not as a girl. There was never any question that I was a boy, I just didn’t like the fact that I was a boy. I was not transgender. I was just an atypical boy. So you see what I mean, when I say psychological gender is not the same as all those things we associate with boys and girls? It’s an underlying reality for a person, and they don’t have to like it for it to be so. Being transgender isn’t about not liking stuff, or being “masculine” or “feminine”.
the dreaded binary
I personally have little doubt that there are more than two genders in this psychological sense, but to claim that gender is somehow “beyond the binary” of male and female (or men and women) is I think fudging the issue. It’s not for nothing that gender and sex are associated so closely in our language (indeed, they have been historically equated). All of our language around this area is suffused with reference to maleness and femaleness, maybe further abstracted to “masculinity” and “femininity”, but how ever you slice it, the elephant in the room is binary, and it holds with varying degrees of divergence for the majority of human beings, across all cultures. As I heard Christina Hoff Sommers say: if you look at a sample of men and women, probably everyone diverges in this or that way from the stereotype of men and women, and a significant minority diverge to a major extent (she suggested 20%), but the generalized trend holds. And from what I remember of reading of cultures that accepted and valued gender variance (such as some Native American tribes), the terms for 3rd and 4th genders tended to come down to things like “man-woman”. The modern umbrella term of “two spirit”, while it refers to something beyond the binary, itself references the binary of men and women – Two Spirit. Our understanding of gender is founded upon men and women. It might fly far, but its feet are always going to be of clay. Rooted in flesh, one way or another. Why else would people go through such trials to transition physically?
non-binary, and the loss of distinctions
Recently there have been some things in the news about non-binary gender identification. One young person came out as non-binary to President Obama on his latest visit to the UK. There have been a few articles on the subject such as the BBC website’s “I’m non-binary. This is how I feel“. I don’t honestly feel any more enlightened though.
“I was reading an article by [the actor] Richard O’Brien and he spoke about how he identified with both feminine and masculine things. He said it was about 70/30 in his head and that was the first time I’d come across someone identifying as outside of a binary gender term”
Please no. Please don’t tell me that young people imagine that identifying with both masculine and feminine things makes you anything other than an ordinary human being? Is this what gender has come down to now? Has post-modern queer theory finally bamboozled people into imagining that gender is stuff you like and don’t like, girl and boy things you “identify with”, a matter of how you feel? People who just don’t relate to being men or women? The list given on this website isn’t exactly encouraging. It’s as if all pretense at anything that would be rationally and collectively understandable has been foregone in favour of infinite personal reality. This is a child’s idea of sexual politics. I wish these people well, but what is it they want from the world? It already doesn’t really care.
In all honesty, if you’re under 35 and you haven’t had an unusually hard life, you likely don’t yet know what being a man or a woman really means. None of us did, whatever we told ourselves. And no, people don’t relate, they don’t like it, they don’t have any choice. Gender isn’t a matter of choice or preference, and it doesn’t give a shit about how you feel about it. And that is so whether your gender fits your body or not, both situations equally real and unavoidable for the person. Life is fucking hard. I’m just starting to worry that some of these kids are mistaking gender issues for ambivalence at the unpleasant prospect of growing up. Because it really is fine being anything you want to be, providing you take responsibility for yourself, but if it isn’t serious, and it isn’t on for the long haul, then don’t call it a gender identity. That shit is way too serious and weighty, and it does not go away.
What worries me is that in the age of Tumblr and SJW slogans, gender issues are being trivialized, turned into teens and twenty somethings realizing that they aren’t comfortable with being girls or boys, that they’d rather be called “they” or “ze”, a kind of boycott of traditional gender roles, which however understandable, is not even really touching on serious gender identity and gender dysphoria, which is a condition which really does affect people seriously², sometimes with fatal consequences. We went through years of effort to try and make a distinction between gender and physical sex, which would facilitate some understanding of these issues by the public. Just that small thing, to give transfolk a window into our shared life as a society, from which discriminatory laws could be changed, and needed services provided. And it just feels to me like it’s being undermined, as gender gets collapsed back into masculinity and femininity, stereotypical behaviours and roles, and whatever you feel it is today. Even the person who came out to Obama said she identified “between male and female”. But male and female are conditions of bodies, so unless they meant they should have been born a hermaphrodite, it doesn’t even make any sense. Unless that person really believes that males and females are meant to exemplify traditional “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics, and to be otherwise is to not be a male or female. What would that be saying?
It sometimes seems like the most conformist attitudes are putting themselves forwards again, as progress, deserving of a special hearing, oblivious to the consequences, immune to examination. It’s how they feel. It’s like a vanguard of infants. And meanwhile real life really isn’t changing.
I guess we’ll see, with time.
screen capture of tumblr search on “non-binary gender” – electronically altered to blur out user names etc
¹ I strongly suspect that the individual sense of gender varies in strength though, so some people have a lot of sense of identification, and others have relatively little, whether or not it harmonises or conflicts with their body. I experienced this as changing over the course of my life.
* if we stuck to the assertion that gender and sex are the same, then we would just have to come up with another term for the purely psychological aspect of identifying as a gender.
² including very young people and children – this is a matter of clinical judgement, but I do feel that there is a condition which can be identified very early on with some people. I don’t share the view that all of these children are deluded, or being railroaded by their parents. [Note added 29th April 2016]