After publishing my Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine post, I checked the things automatically linked to it by WordPress and found a fascinating and brave post. I was going to add a comment of support, but the comments had been turned off. Not long after the whole blog disappeared. The writer, a trans woman, had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog had been subject to a lot of abuse, surprisingly from other trans people. I found a draft of this post languishing in the nether regions of my blog and decided to finish it off. I have lost contact with the blogger, so if you read this, please drop me a line.
Many people, trans and otherwise, criticise the binary model of gender. It used to irritate me no end at university when students designed experimental studies and just threw in ‘gender differences’ without justification. This underlying assumption that men and women do everything differently was rarely challenged in our psychology department. I began to disparagingly refer to such gender differences as ‘counting shirts and blouses’. I took great delight in challenging fellow PhD students looking at gender differences. My own PhD was on gender stereotypes and intolerance of ambiguity. Knowing full well what the answer would be I’d ask ‘Are you taking a social constructionist view of gender?’ On one occasion, one student became very animated as he karate-chopped the air shouting ‘No!Men and women! MEN AND WOMEN!” This tale was retold often in later lectures and tutorials, and much to the delight of one of my colleagues Dr Petra Boynton.
Some of the key influences on my early research were Martine Rothblatt and Kate Bornstein (both trans writers) and Mark Simpson, the writer who coined the term metrosexual. As an undergraduate I’d quoted from a Simpson piece in Deadline magazine (in 1994) with the provocative title ‘Coming Over All Queer’. It raised a few eyebrows in our rather conservative degree programme. These writers more than any helped me to the conclusion not that there was more than binary but perhaps more importantly, we don’t necessarily have to put a label on it.
I’m a natal male and I spent my formative years in a state of gender confusion as I described in Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine. Much of the ‘confusion’ caused me distress but I came to I interpret it and my lack of conformity as something special whereas no I realize that it was quite ordinary and quite common. We are all gender deviants because ‘true gender’ does not exist. Bornstein is on record as saying that she might not have made the transition from male to female had she known at the time that there were other options. This was also what the trans blogger was saying.
At a certain point in our cognitive development we achieve gender constancy. This is the certainty that boys become men and girls become women. Up until then, it’s quite ordinary to assume that people can swap back and forth between genders. The milestone is on average around five to seven years. So we can’t count as reliable evidence, any early childhood memories of gender identity confusion or discomfort. It happens to us all.
Confusion surrounding gender is exacerbated because the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are so often interchanged, when they are not the same thing at all. Sex is the biological designation based on physiology, whereas gender is the social interpretation of sex. Gender is not natural. Further problems occur because we deny any other options but binary gender. However, if we examine the biological evidence, there is not a neat divide between the sexes, there are definite shades of grey. This greyness is intensified when we consider the social interpretation of gender. Do all men have the same gender? Do all women have the same gender? Don’t factors such as age, ethnicity, education, upbringing, socio-economic class, sexuality all colour our gender to varying degrees?
We all have the right to feel comfortable in our own ‘gendered’ skin, but the chances of being able to do this are limited simply because we have limited options. It’s not gender democracy if you only get to vote for two parties in the same system. Maybe the reason why I shelved this heretical piece was that I couldn’t figure out a way to word it without sounding like a homophobe, transphobe orbiphobe. In truth, I am a binariphobe. I think the rights of people transcend socially constructed boundaries. I don’t believe in homosexuality or bisexuality or heterosexuality. Fundamentally because I don’t recognize the either-or imperative. Biology has not produced a dichotomy. We did that. Reproductive differences and genital shape do not make a gender. Real life is much more complicated than (karate chops air) ‘Men and Women. MEN AND WOMEN!’
The trans blogger made the point that many trans people decry binary gender because they were born into the wrong one. It’s a challenge to suggest that maybe they weren’t. Maybe the gender you got was your unique gender. Many people have made the choice not to succumb to the Procrustean system and inhabit a gender place in the ‘grey area’ (or ‘Technicolor area’). Some people have become their own immaculate conception. Their gender, sexuality and physiology do not line up according to the black-and-white rule. They have made a decision to occupy the middle-ground, which is, after all, where we all are anyway. I think it’s more important to respect and value people’s spot on the gender continuum rather than fight for a system that limits diversity and our options.
After completing Kate Bornstein’s gender quiz in My Gender Workbook, I was thrilled with my designation of gender freak. Throughout the quiz I was dreading the prospect of being ‘normal. It’s a shame that the trans blogger was ‘persuaded off’ the blogosphere by a few people who see it as their ‘god-given’ right to police binary gender boundaries. It’s a great fear that if we let go of labels we will all disappear. Without gender binary divisions the concept of transgender would be less meaningful. Making a transition from one state to its polar opposite reinforces binary gender as much as it challenges it. Again the same applies to sexuality. We can only swing both ways if there are only two ways. Sometimes we fight for something that’s at the root of the oppression.
I recognize that I am still more traditionally gendered than I would like to be. I’m still working on it. There are still options open to the ‘other side’ that I would like to enjoy. However the barrier has much more to do with social convention than it does with the shape of my genitals.
Kate Bornstein’s Memoir: Queer and Pleasant Danger
Poem: Anatomy of Doubt
Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine