Note: My views have slightly altered since writing this. I would say ‘gender’ is best described as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Also, please read my follow-up post
On the 24th of September, I chaired a panel discussion for SohoSkeptics about ‘gender’. For some time, there has been a huge “war” raging with trans* activists on one side and radical feminists and lesbians on the other. I hadn’t realised there was a huge battle going on until people I know (two male comedians, one female writer) got attacked for inadvertently saying things that offended people. I say “inadvertently” because none of those people are actually bigoted idiots, instead they were simply unknowledgeable about the current status of words that until recently weren’t considered by some to be offensive. After the third explosion of anger, I decided it might be interesting to have a public discussion about it.
When I started to think about the panel discussion at Soho Skeptics, I was very clear that I wanted it to be a calm discussion. The end of the blurb said, “Soho Skeptics is going to attempt to find some common ground in a night of personal stories, discussion and comedy.” Other people said it was going to be “a debate”. A couple people thought we were going to somehow be debating their right to exist.
My aim with the panel was to show that everyone is an emotional, passionate, genuine and sometimes flawed human being… i.e. “normal”. It was intended as bridge building and a night for everyone to learn. All positive, good intentions.
On the night, the panel went really well. Some people were annoyed that it wasn’t a screaming row; others were peeved that we didn’t talk about “this” or “that”; others thought Julie Bindel caved in and was, in effect, too nice; others thought Julie was horrible and nasty… But really, it went well. I think we showed that people, supposedly on opposing sides, can get into the same room and talk without jumping down each others’ throats. And that is a good thing…
Still the next morning, a few people who didn’t attend decided that the panel was something else entirely.
At the very start of the discussion, I decided that I would define some words. I knew that many of the attendees weren’t knowledgeable about the issues and that they may be a bit lost if they don’t understand some of the terminology. One of the big problems, as I see it, is the conflation of the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Technically and non-controversially, they mean two different things.
At the very start of the panel, I defined ‘Sex’ as:
The female is XX and has ovaries; the male is XY and has testes.
From the book Developmental Biology, 6th Edition, by Scott F. Gilbert:
“A male mammal has a penis, seminal vesicles, and prostate gland. A female mammal has a vagina, cervix, uterus, oviducts, and mammary glands. In many species, each sex has a sex-specific size, vocal cartilage, and musculature. These secondary sex characteristics are usually determined by hormones secreted from the gonads.”
I reminded everyone that we are mammals and need to remember that we aren’t something special.
And I defined ‘Gender’ as:
During the panel, I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender. Again, we are mammals. There are Male and Female marmosets and Male and Female humans. There aren’t, of course, Woman and Man marmosets. One is biology, one is culture. I think it’s very important to be accurate when using these words… something that neither side seems to put enough effort into doing. Female and Woman are different but related labels and the words should be used correctly.
The Male and Female categories don’t vary around the world. A Female baby born in the US will have the same biology (reproductive capacity) as a Female baby born in Saudi Arabia. Because of the differences in culture and the expectations, restrictions and opportunities those different cultures have for Females, those two Female babies will grow up with different interests, skills and abilities as well as different views of the world and themselves as Women… Females are the same the world over. There are, however, many, many different ways of being a Woman.
After the audio recording of the panel went online, I was expecting some crap from people who were incapable of seeing the event for what it was i.e. an “attempt to find some common ground”. So I wasn’t surprised when this happened:
Yes, I am a bigot because I like to stick with the scientific definition of ‘sex’…
Because I knew very little about any of them before any of this, I have been reading up on the Radical Feminist and Lesbian and Trans* Activist positions for many, many months now. After all that time, I still genuinely can’t understand why some trans* activists have the idea that biology is socially constructed.
“GENDER ASSIGNED AT BIRTH
Let’s start at the beginning. A baby is born. The doctor says “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” based on the appearance of the child’s genitals. […]
“Cisgender” is the term for people who have no issue with the gender that they were assigned at birth. […]
Transgender people cannot accept our assigned genders. We know ourselves to be something different than what we were told to be. […]
Sex is as much a social construct as gender, as much subject to self identification, and besides all that, quite easy to modify. Surgical and hormonal techniques are only becoming more sophisticated. If there ever was a need to consider biology destiny, that time is surely past.”
Maybe I’m reading it wrong and they are using different definitions for the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ or, perhaps, conflating them. All that happens at birth is a doctor (or, in my case, my husband and midwife on my livingroom sofa) will, based on a quick look, tell you whether the baby is male or female (And, yes, I know about Intersex conditions). No one says, ‘You must now dress this baby in pink or blue.” or “When this baby grows up she must make 14.9% less per hour than that boy baby over there.” or “This baby must grow up and never cry and use violence to sort out his problems”.
Which genitals a baby has does not say a thing about what kind of person they should be- whether it’s masculine or feminine, or tender and emotional, or aggressive and logical- it can only tell you their biological sex. There is no “gender assigned at birth”. Gender is acquired by constant social conditioning that starts immediately after birth… but isn’t an inevitability at birth.
Neither do I understand why trans* people think that non-trans, or ‘Cis’ people have “no issue with the gender they were assigned at birth”. IF they are using the world ‘Gender’ correctly, then the whole entire reason Feminism exists AT ALL is because a lot of Females have a REALLY, REALLY big issue with “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for” them. This is why a lot of feminists reject the label ‘cis’.
From Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender which you really must read if you are even remotely interested in this topic:
“A marvellous poster, put out by the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage in the UK, depicts a husband returning to ‘a suffragette’s home’. The room is in cheerless disarray, the weeping children have holes in their socks, and a fuel-less lamp emits not light, but smoke. The only evidence of the errant wife and mother is a ‘votes for women’ poster on the wall, on which is pinned a note bearing the callous words, ‘back in an hour or so’.”
So, females have long had a big issue with the gender roles they are forced to play…
In a study (“Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals” by Daphna Joel, Ricardo Tarrasch, Zohar Berman, Maya Mukamel & Effi Zive) that was published on the 5th of September this year the researchers looked at the “gender identity” of non-trans people. There were some interesting results:
About 33% of Men, 38% of Women […]felt both as a man and as a woman.
41% of Men and 46.8% of Women experience themselves to some extent as two genders.
About 30% of Men and 45% of Women expressed a dislike of their sexed body.
36.6% of our [non-trans] subjects reported that they sometimes feel as the ‘other’ gender , 63.7% reported that they sometimes wish to be the ‘other’ gender, 49% did not always wear clothes ‘appropriate’ to their sex and 41.9% were sometimes discontent with their sexed body.
To me, it doesn’t seem that ‘Cis’ pertains to a lot of people based on its current definition.
So, what is “A Woman”?
And what is “A Man”?
When someone decides to “change their sex”- the “surgical and hormonal techniques” mentioned above- they aren’t actually changing their biological sex, they are cosmetically changing their outward appearance. Just like someone who dyes their brunette hair blonde and has to keep dying it because their actual hair colour is brown, if they were born an XY Male, they don’t ever, ever become an XX Female no matter what hormones they take or surgery they have or how long they live as a Woman. They just don’t. To think about it a different way, an XY Male with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or Hemophilia or colour blindness is not going to be “cured” by having sex reassignment surgery.
Stating that XY Males never become XX Females is not a value judgement on their trans* status at all. It is not bigotry. It is biology. And being a genetic Male doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is or, more importantly, should be a stereotypical Man, nor does it say they should be any kind of a Man at all.
For example, look at XY Males with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Here are a few:
From NHS Choices:
“Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) affects the normal development of a child’s genitals and reproductive organs.
A child born with AIS is genetically male, but their genitals may appear to be female or somewhere in between male and female.
AIS is a very rare condition thought to occur in around 1 in every 20,000 births.”
From Lise Elliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain:
“More interesting is the fact that males with [Complete] AIS regard themselves as unequivocally female. They play like regular girls in childhood, develop breasts and puberty, are sexually attracted to men, typically get married, and often become mothers through adoption. About their only distinguishing feature is height, which tends to fall in the normal male range. But while individuals with AIS prove the great potency of prenatal testosterone on bodily development, they are less helpful for the understanding of psychological sex differences, since they both appear to be and are treated like girls from the moment of birth.”
So, why is it deemed perfectly acceptable to say that women with AIS are “genetically male”, but not say that transgender women are “genetically male”? They are both correct statements, but one of those groups will probably now spend a lot of time and effort harassing me for even asking the question… and the other will get on with happily living their lives as women.
Genetically, transwomen and women with AIS are male. That is reality. Again, I don’t understand why this is an unacceptable statement for some vocal trans* activists. Surely, if one’s aim is to break down the barriers between genders and therefore make it perfectly acceptable and normal to be “gender non-conforming”, should it not be desirable to just say ‘Yes, I am genetically male… and…? Do you have a problem with that?’ rather than promote the idea that one’s biological make-up suddenly, mystically transmogrifies because of “thinking really hard about being a woman”? If one really believes there is nothing wrong with being “gender non-conforming” (as I do), then why the desire to pretend that biology isn’t a real thing? For me, as someone who values rationalism, this argument touted by some trans* activists veers into the same territory as Transubstantiation or Lycanthropy which, frankly, isn’t a very strong position to take in a debate…
I suppose one way I can see the reality of Biology as controversial is that if you believe that there is an innate Gender– so though you were born XY male you believe you were born with a “female brain” and that a sense of Girl/Woman-ness has existed from the moment you popped out- and you believe that your biological sex has no bearing on how the world sees or treats you so you think it is irrelevant.
That, I’m afraid, is problematic.
It is very obvious, as I pointed out, that Women differ around the world. Their ideas (or, if you will, their ‘identity’) of who they are, what they are capable of, what their roles are, how they should behave and how they should look in their society differ, as well. For example, Plains Indian women did not have the same roles as women in Georgian Britain even though they lived at the same time.
There is not some Universal, immutable, innate feeling of Woman-ness. ‘Woman’ is a cultural role that is created by how a person is treated by her society, it’s not created by the mythical “female brain” (again, please, read Delusions of Gender)… The way she is treated, what she is told she is capable of, what she is told her place is in society creates an internal idea of who she is as a person. Your environment, your interpersonal relationships and your experiences create the thing you think of as “You”. (Unless, of course, you believe in a Soul. If you do, then read what Sean Carroll has written about it… I’ll wait…)
As seen in the Queering Gender paper, this “You” can have traits, mannerisms, interests, desires that don’t fit into what our culture currently feels is appropriate for your sex, so you can think this “You” is somehow “not right” or is partly “the opposite sex”. “41% of Men and 46.8% of Women experience themselves to some extent as two genders” It is not unusual. Neither is it unusual for people to want a body or even a body part of the opposite sex. Sometimes the imagined body part will give the person permission to fantasise about behaving in a way that isn’t accepted for their sex – so a male may think about having breasts because they would make him feel sexy and sensuous or a female may think about having a penis because she could then go out and have lots of sex without consequences. Again, this is not unusual. But those aren’t innate feelings, they are reactions to our social construction of what is acceptable behaviour for males and females.
It is also not unusual for Males in many different cultures and throughout history to adopt a role closer to that of a Woman, though more often than not it is considered to be that of a ‘Third Gender‘ which is neither Man nor Woman. The Hijra of India, Kathoeys of Thailand, the Fa’afafine of Samoa, the Travestis of Brazil,even Native American Berdache are all examples of Third Gender people.
To say, however, as many trans* activists do that a genetic male can “identify” as a genetic female, and therefore that genetic male is the exact same as a genetic female, means that the biological needs and the social rights and protections females have are no longer relevant. Like the discussion about how we shouldn’t say that abortion is a Women’s Issue because, though most people who can get pregnant are the 3.5 billion Females on the planet, some transmen and “genderqueer” people need abortions, too. So it’s Everyone’s Issue? So, even the rightwing anti-female religious fundamentalist Males who say “Abortion isn’t a Women’s only issue” get to have a say, too? Really? Cos how do we exclude them from claiming control over our bodies if it’s “Everyone’s Issue”? I think that whole discussion is incredibly short-sighted, ill-informed and, frankly, dumb.
There are common experiences that most Females share: our menarche, our periods, the spectre of pregnancy, giving birth, lactation, menopause, etc… I share most of those things with the vast majority of Females on the planet. Those things are what classify us Female Mammals. There are other experiences that Women around the world share: sexual assault, rape, male violence, being denied education, being forced into marriage as a child, being forced to give birth, being prevented from working outside the home or earning less money for doing the same job, dying in childbirth because of the lack of basic care… These are things huge numbers of Women have in common because of the way our societies view people who have the potential to get pregnant, ie Females. As far as I’m concerned, if it happens to one Woman, it happens to us all.
Males are not born to be violent, abusive oppressors just as Females are not born to be weak, abused and oppressed. These things are socially constructed, culturally conditioned, they are NOT innate, they are NOT immutable. They can, and should, be fought against, challenged and changed…
This is the foundational idea underlying feminism.
There is a reality – in this case Biology (Sex) – that exists outside of our experience of the world- Culture (Gender). One is a real, measurable, testable thing. The other is… culture. Like with Science and Religion, there is no conflict between them as long as the proponents of the cultural creation don’t insist that it explains reality.