Monday, February 23, 2009

What Are Women and Men Anyway?

I don't write all that often about transgender issues here. Neither gender theory nor biology are areas in which I have special expertise. Yet, after Seda shared her coming out story here, I decided to explore the concepts of gender, biological sex, and transgenderism further than I previously have. My curiosity about these issues was further peaked when I saw "marriage defense" bloggers continually call Seda "he," "confused," and mentally unwell. Seda recounts some of these conversations at her blog here and here, and something she asked struck me:

"Does it matter why or how I came to be this way, if being this way not only gives me the peace and joy I live, but enables me to better parent my children, relate to my friends and loved ones, and contribute to a peaceful and functional society?"

No, as long as someone is happy and able to contribute good to society, it doesn't matter to many people. Yet, others are thoroughly convinced that gender dysphoria is a psychological pathology and/or some sort of harmful mental confusion. Others, even gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and gender nonconformists, reject a condition that they do not understand. I have said before that when it comes to gender and sex, there are many more questions than answers. We should all be wary of claims of absolute knowledge with respect to these issues. Issues of gender and sex are not self-evident truths, and expressing them as such only leaves out a heck of a lot of people who do not fit neatly into little blue and pink boxes.

What is it that makes us women? What is it that makes us men? Anatomy? Chromosomes? Hormones? Psyche? Is there even one trait that every single woman shares with every other woman on the planet that they do not share with any man, and vice versa? Once I started thinking about these questions, the answers were not as readily apparent as one might at first believe. Once I started reading more about these issues, I also saw that more knowledge only raised more questions.

Are mammary glands the trait that separates women from men? Gynecomastia, for instance, is a noted phenomenon, often having no known cause, which results in the development of mammary glands in males. Is genitalia what separates women from men? Yet, some genetic males, as another example, are born with ambiguous genitalia that moreso resembles a large clitoris rather than a penis. Is it our genotypes that separate us? Some people who have female genitalia nonetheless have an XY genotype. Is it our sex-differentiated brains? Psychologically, women tend to have "empathizing" brains while males tend to have "systematizing" brains. But again, the key phrase here is "tend to." Clearly, there are overlaps and many instances in which men are the ones with empathizing brains and women the ones with systematizing.

What exactly is it that makes us men or women, or both? Observable "anomalies" like above shed a very bright light on the failing of an overly-simplistic sex binary. I had my special friend hammerpants help me make a graphic, below, that illustrates some of these complexities. This graphic is similar to the ideas that some gender theorists and biologists have about the different ways of categorizing sex:


Numbers 1 and 2 are how many, if not most, conceptualize sex. Not only do many people not recognize a distinction between sex and gender, many people assume that pretty much everyone is a 1 or a 2 with everyone else falling into some sort of anomalous "other" category. In many ways, the 1s and 2s are the lucky ones because all of their sex "categories" are concordant. Everything about their bodies tells them that they are clearly either male or female. Yet, what are the "everyone else's" who is not a clear 1 or 2? Even though they are not a 1 or a 2, society or they themselves force themselves to be a 1 or a 2.

It may be easy to dismiss someone as "confused" for experiencing gender dysphoria, but in light of the uncertainties and the seeming arbitrariness of human-made categories, I think that stigmatizing transgender people as pathological is premature, if not completely unwarranted. Furthermore, such a stigma probably inflicts more injury and creates more hardship for people who already have to struggle with not fitting into the neat little boxes we are all supposed to fit into. Biological sex and gender are not simple. Many people, especially conservatives, think it is simple: Man as XY penis. Woman as XX vagina. Oooga-boooga grunt grunt. But wanting things to be simple does not make them so in reality.

Tomorrow, I am going to post my review of Deborah Rudacille's The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights and will be exploring these ideas further. Rudacille does an excellent job of presenting research in this area and of presenting the voices of transgender persons.

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