Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More Fun Thinking Beyond the Binary

Our anti-equality friend The Playful Walrus recently posted a piece regarding an after-school program that explores gender outside of our culturally-constructed binary. The Walrus is rarely one for depth in his pieces and I don't say that to slight him. It is his schtick to, on his various blogs, respond to newspaper letters to the editor and articles in the form of one-liners and rhetorical questions in a manner that perhaps those who agree with him consider to be witty or insightful. While that approach may be fun, I tend to be of the opinion that real-life is deserving of more nuance and depth than one-liners, and this post, I hope, will demonstrate some of that nuance.

At the end of his series of mini-rants about an after-school program using tax dollars to promote an agenda that he does not agree with, we finally get to the substance of Walrus' issue with a program that encourages teens to re-think gender and biological sex. His issue with the program has to do with his need, and it's one that many social conservatives share, for the maintenance of clear and distinct lines around what is Male and what is Female. He writes:

"Look, people are born male and female, the species perpetuates itself through the two sexes interacting. Sure, some people of each of those two sexes have no interest in sex, or are attracted to people of the same sex exclusively or in addition to people of the opposite sex. Yeah, there are instances when baby is born with some abnormal genitalia. But there are two basic genders – period. I saw picture of a baby born with a third arm. Instead of starting an activist movement to 'honor' this new category of identity, they amputated the arm" (emphasis added).

I suspect that many social conservatives strongly value certainty in life and that's understandable. Life is full of uncertainty, and that can be scary. Religious "truths," tradition, and "old-fashioned ideas" provide a sense of certainty, safety, and meaning to many people's lives. And, when tradition happens to benefit, and does not harm, a person's identity within a dominant group, it tends to be quite easy to insist that everyone should keep following certain traditional views because they "work." So, within this (to them) self-evident socially conservative worldview, only biological males and biological females exist, with all or most people being inherently heterosexual. While many social conservatives will admit that biological anomalies exist that render some people's chromosomes non-XX/non-XY, they will usually only go so far as saying that these variations are Tragic and Too Rare Too Matter. When social conservatives admit that non-heterosexuality might be something that people are born with, as opposed to something that people for some reason "choose," many of them fully expect non-heterosexual to nonetheless opt for heterosexuality anyway.

Rather than accept difference, many social conservatives will acknowledge it, mark it with a badge of inferiority, brand it as pathological, and insist that Others "amputate" their differences and assimilate into statistical normalcy with Everyone Else. We see this in the ex-gay movement, in Evangelical Christianity, and in the refusal to call transgender people by their preferred gender pronouns. Accordingly, in Playful Walrus' amputation analogy, which one of his fellow bloggers calls "perfect," he insists that others literally remove that part of them that is different from the statistical norm so that he and other who are invested in certainty will not have to re-think things. In this particular case, we see how these folks are invested in maintaining the sex binary and unwilling to re-evaluate their gender theory in spite of evidence things are not quite so, to use a cliche, black and white.

This worldview in which certainty reigns supreme is often contrasted with the view that reality is much more gray, much less tidy, and remarkably less certain than the above view. I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I tend to agree with this latter view. Unlike the tidiness of certainty in general and male-female complementarity in particular, I think it is more apt to observe that human beings exist along a gradation of male and female, in terms of both gender and sex. In terms of gender, meta-analyses show that men and women are alike on most, but not all, psychological variables. The significant differences, in the domains of physical strength, sex drive, and aggression, are likely attributable to the influences of testosterone and social conditioning. Thus, I would go so far as suggesting that it's impossible to know what the essence of being a woman, or a man, is in terms of gender. Surely, it is more than testosterone, something that any woman could inject herself with, that makes a man? In any event, I do not think it is accurate to conceptualize Male and Female as discrete categories of gender, given all the variation in gender expression that is plainly observable in human beings.

In terms of biological sex, I have explored the questions that arise with respect to even defining biological females and biological males. Far from mere "instances where baby is born with some abnormal genitalia," a myriad of hormonal, anatomical, and chromosomal conditions exist that shed light on the inaccuracy and insufficiency of the sex binary. I know that many people believe that XY Anatomical Males constitute the Real Male, XX Anatomical Females constitute the Real Female, and those who do not fall neatly into one of these two categories are errors. Yet, aside from the rudeness of suggesting that some people are mistakes, in reality, I think it is worth exploring whether it's even accurate to say that these Others are flawed males and flawed females. What if, instead, it is more accurate to say that all people exist along a gradation of sex and gender, and that some people are more "gray" than others? What if, biological sex and gender are often, but not always, concordant? And then, therefore, what are the implications of "amputating" or "correcting" that which makes someone Not Completely Female or Male? What if, in doing so, we amputate that which makes a person that particular person?

To those invested in the gender binary, variations outside of Definitely Male and Definitely Female are tragic and rare. These cases are statistically uncommon (but more common than people think); yet, the only tragedy is that doctors, parents, and sex binary-dominant cultures have entitled themselves to make these personal decisions for other people. Approximately 1 in 2000 babies are born with "ambiguous genitalia," a micropenis or enlarged clitoris, and doctors now advise caution in "correcting" this "condition." It actually turns out that amputating "extra tissue" to make a child fit into a neat category to make things easier (for other people), has actually turned out to be the "wrong" decision in some cases. Furthermore, those invested in providing patient-centered care, as opposed to those invested in maintaining a simplistic sex binary, suggest that body parts should not be "removed" or altered until the child is mature enough to make an informed decision for him or herself.

Note that my argument here is more than a matter of political correctness or semantics. My argument is that conceptualizing sex and gender as Wholly Male or Wholly Female is not an accurate reflection of reality. The Intersex Society of North America advocates against recognizing any sort of third gender, but their reason is not that such a categorization would be inaccurate, but rather because doing so would "unnecessarily traumatize the [intersex] child." Instead, the Intersex Society points out that, in reality, "nature presents us with sex anatomy spectrums" [emphasis added] and that, to maintain order, human cultures simplify all people into Male or Female. Furthermore, it is not nature that decides "where the category of 'male' ends and the category of 'intersex' begins, or where the category of 'intersex' ends and the category of 'female' begins. Humans decide."

Knowing this, we can see how this conversation is not as simple or "self-evident" as is commonly thought. For one, if sex and gender are gradations, as opposed to discrete categories, at what point do we truly know whether to call a person male or female? Shouldn't that decision be up to each individual person, and not doctors, parents, or people with political agendas? With these complications in mind, I have no problem knowing that my precious "tax dollars" are going towards an after-school program that teaches teenagers that it's okay to think beyond the simplistic sex/gender binary.

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