Why the question mark? Because some people belief it is a cause for cissexism in our world, and promote the notion to get rid of it. Some seek to “blow” it away with gender bending expression. You will find some of them populating queer movement groups.1 I am not writing from this perspective. But, I will try to elucidate it in this post. But, the post is not primarily focusing on the queer movement. It will be an exploration of the overwhelming prominent view that society sees—the gender binary.
[Note – I write as a binary transgender woman, so I will admit that there will be certain biases, that one could probably discount, but I do believe this has to be noted. I believe this is intellectually honest: a hallmark of philosophical discourse. And this post is mainly in the a philosophical vein. I also hope it might be a piece of advocacy.]
Our society has been gender divided for as long as we have records. Except for some exceptions it had long been decreed that you were either a male or a female, especially in what would become the “western”† part of the world (i.e. Europe or cultures that derive from Europe, like the United States and Australia). This was based on the sex you were assigned at birth, and began to be mark on birth certificates when they arose in our culturally. Other cultures (e.g. the Americas and South Asia) accepted to a degree those that would be seen as transgender people from a “western” eyes perspective today. The exceptions appear to be in certain groups of the human population which recognized more than two genders. Culturally they played certain roles, which has deteriorate somewhat, and are now subject to greater discrimination or loss of privilege.
In the past there may not have been a known divide between sex and gender. This is because for the majority of human beings they match up fairly well. Still in history you will find individuals where there was a mismatch between sex and gender. In more recent times it was recognized that there are “transsexuals,” who were given proper medical treatment (hormones and surgeries), if they met certain limited criteria (i.e. gatekeeping). “Transsexuals” is how they were labelled if they were receiving medical treatment. Today it is more acceptable to refer to them as a transgender person, which include those who do not choose to transition at all, or do not seek medical treatment.
Today, however, accepted science see that gender and sex do not have to match as they are two separate “human” traits. Sex is based on sexual characteristics at birth. Sometimes it happens when there is no clear determination, these individuals most commonly are referred to as intersex persons (although, some do not like the term). So, sex is usually something that can be determined at birth. There are some conditions where the appearance is deceiving. They look like one sex, but their internal sex organs are different. These usually come apparent at puberty, but not always.
While, sex is not generally to complicated. For the most part it is decided appropriately at birth. Gender on the other hand is rather complicated in some individuals. Again for most their gender aligns with their sex assigned at birth. But, for a certain small population of people it does not. Then you are dealing with transgender or gender diverse (often call non-binary) individuals. This disconnect between assign sex and gender can occur at any point in life, but is rooted in a person’s biology.
There are some that discover this difference when they first become aware of gender. In others it occurs later in personal development. But, this is most likely by the time puberty is reach. However, in some individuals their gender remains submerged for some reason. I myself did not realize I was a woman until I was 59. It could have been possible that this recognition could have occurred earlier in my life (see my series of posts on Looking back through the Gender Fog – Trying to look back through the gender fog (part 1)).
I describe the above plain and simply. How gender plays out in real life is much more debatable. There are some that cannot accept the existence of transgender people. There can be multiple reasons for this. One is religious belief. But, there are others that will claim since gender is a social construct (also claimed) transgender persons don’t exist either. If they would be consistent no one has an inherent gender. They arrived at their gender through socialization. Both of the above groups can be quite oppositional to transgender people, especially transgender women.
But, is gender really a social construct. There are some in academia who declare this without, I believe, adequate evidence. Some of these constructs are quite incoherent and are based on an individuals own thought processes, not really rooted in scientific study. In ways gender does appear to be socially constructed. Gender expression and gender roles have a very large social component. But gender as a social construct can’t cover all instances. The tomboy girl or the feminine like boy who do not identify as a gender opposite their assigned sex shows this. Some social constructivists are consistent enough, as they see that no one really has an inherent gender, but not the ones who disallow transgender people as valid. This is inconsistent because without an inherent gender any gender identity should be just as valid or invalid as those within the gender binary criteria.
So, what really goes into the gender that people identify as? There is some evidence for a genetic or a hormonal interaction in the womb as causal factors. These are not mutually exclusive. Still, while this evidence certainly leans in the direction that gender is biologically determined, it does not meet the scientific criteria for proof as I see it. It is my feeling, which leads me to think that there is a large biological component to gender identity, but there could be some environmental triggers. What these might be is probably variable. I see it as similar to those who are biologically susceptible to certain mental health conditions, like schizophrenia. Studies of identical twins raise apart show environmental influence as the twins mental health sometimes differs.
But, the gender binary is more than biology and/or sociology of the individual. It is also political. This is because there is no escape that we live in a male-dominated society with a cisheteronormative bent. At the moment our transgender and gender diverse community in the United States is under attack from law makers in many states. They are enacting, trying to enact, or considering making discriminative legislation, which include bathroom exclusion and banning transgender individuals from participating in sports. Most of these states have no laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender persons like housing, employment, and health care.
So far the damage is limited as most of these laws that have actually past are now in the hands of the courts. And, the Supreme Court has declared that you can’t discriminate based on gender identity in the only transgender case they have heard so far. The court has change significantly since that ruling with Justice Amy Coney Barrett now on the court. What will happen to the next transgender case. I can only cross my fingers and hope that they will not allow some law which discriminates against transgender persons to be declared constitutional. The slight advantage we might have in future cases is that the first case has set a precedence, so discrimination against transgender people is unconstitutional. The blip here is these cases involved employment under Title IX of the of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as sex discrimination which is explicitly prohibited based on sex. Would the court use this determination to extend it to cases that prohibit access to bathrooms. I feel this is an open question waiting to be answered.
Obviously the gender binary is an inaccurate way to present gender. Not everyone identifies as either male or female or any gender at all. And, with cisheteronormativity it would exclude transgender women and men as well. It would be best to look at gender as a spectrum. Spectrum here is not necessarily linear as it implies privilege to those identifying as male or female, whether or not they are cisgender or transgender persons. A nonlinear spectrum gives personhood to all persons no matter what their gender or non-gender might be, or whatever their transgender status might be. The gender binary under cisheteronormativity is exclusionary and should thus be disregarded in this case. Exclusion demeans the person being excluded. To avoid any hint of linearity to the gender spectrum, I have used gender umbrella, but I stopped when I felt it excluded agender or others who reject gender (spectrum or no spectrum).‡ Maybe, we should not seek to peg anyone anywhere when it comes to gender.
Some would say that we should abolish the gender binary by getting rid of gender all together—live in a non-gendered society. This way they feel that it makes any form of sex or gender discrimination as having no foundation. In another words we should be gender blind. I doubt that this could actually ever work. Society is just too entrenched to make this sort of change. But, who knows—the future is always open. And, so those who desire this outcome should still do what they can to abolish the gender binary. I could live with that. Maybe? But, personally if transgender persons are included in the gender binary I am comfortable with identifying myself as a woman. In fact it is more than comfortable; it is where I feel I belong as a person. I have worked hard to get where I am in my transition (still in process) to have my gender abolished along with the gender binary. As long as society is open to all gender identities I stand at the female end of the spectrum, and I am proud to do so.
[Note – I have written more in another blog post about “gender.” I wrote fairly early in writing with this blog (Have You Been Gendered?). I would note that some of what I wrote in that post may differ from this one. However, do not assume that this post supersedes the other even if it is the latest of what I wrote on the subject. There are reasons for my viewing difference in what I wrote as nonproblematic. However, that would take me far off topic. When I (or if) I get back to writing on my philosophy blog I might take up living with contradictions. As to what falls under philosophy as I claim this post does, see this post – https://aquestionersjourney.wordpress.com/2017/06/24/what-is-philosophy/.
† I am using scare quotes “_” for words that I believe cause division. I defend using them at all because most of my readers will easily understand them, except for the more astute reader who see the issues surrounding such usage. I do not put sex and gender in scare quotes as it would be unaesthetic.
‡ A circular or spherical spectrum might be a good approach, where those of no gender at all would reside outside the spectrum, hence represented, but still be seen as independent of gender.
1 You can find and explanation and a critic of these groups (in 2006) in the last chapter of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd edition by Julia Serano.
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