A queer exploration of all things gender

Archive for the ‘Transgender’ Category

Shameless little mini-plug, but it involves a lot of my voice, so.

Last night by a string of happy coincidences, I was invited to be part of a panel answering questions on issues of welfare and gender in Cambridge! It was super enjoyable, so thanks to the lovely people who got me involved.

For those who also may know her, the other guest speaker on the show was the wonderful Ruth Graham, feminist extraordinaire and currently Women’s Officer for Cambridge University Student Union.

The show can be heard by clicking here.

The link should be active for the next six weeks or so, I guess until 22/03/2012.

Scroll down a little bit, and look on the right for the box labelled ‘Listen again’. Click the link that reads ’20:00 08/02/2012′ and there you go!

The show also features a really brilliant interview with Sarah Brown, Cambridge City Councillor and the only openly Trans politician in the country. Another small interview with Sarah can be read in Diva magazine from last year, here.

The essentials – Trans 101, but not as you know it

This post is particularly exciting for me, because of how important I feel it is. Also because of how unexpected its formation has been.

The other day, I was talking to one of my queer companions-in-arms about an idea I had. I expressed how keen I was to write a piece explaining what ‘transgender’ actually is. I wanted to carefully explain out definitions of words and terms like ‘MtF’, ‘FtM’, ‘cis-gendered’, and other terms that may leave the average Jo(e) mystified. As I try my best to be a good ally to the transgendered population, I hoped that my little platform might be good in raising some awareness, and I expected my friend to agree with me.

I was being a bit mentally lazy at the time, and rather narcissistically was looking for a verbal pat on the back, but this wasn’t what I got.

I was a little surprised when she ‘ummed’ at me, and seemed rather uncomfortable about the idea. Her concern was that in speaking about trans people, for trans people, I risked preaching in a way which didn’t offer room for variation – seriously problematic for any trans person who could have a hypothetical problem with what I might’ve said. I’m not trans. I’m not a member of that group of marginalised people. I possess what is termed ‘cis-privilege’ – certain automatic social advantages simply due to not being trans.

It’s not up to me just to do a job of writing. It’s up to me to do a good job. Or I just put stuff out there that it’s then up to someone else to fix.

This obviously isn’t something I have any control over. It also isn’t something to get upset about if someone points out that it’s something I possess and should bear in mind. Indeed, the usefulness and fairness about what is said about trans issues by a non-trans person can only be improved by the recognition of cis-privilege. Whilst LOADS of people still don’t know about this sort of stuff very much, I’m sure there are plenty of trans people who are pretty tired of non-trans people trying to tell an audience who and what they are – either because they do a crappy job, or because of the principle of having someone speak as though they are ‘the expert on you’ – when you might want, er, a voice of your own, thanks.

This made me really worried! I didn’t want my good intentions to go unrealised because of a property about myself that I cannot help. So I decided to change how the post was going to be written. Welcome to the first collaborative post on GenderBen!

Below you will find two accounts, submitted very kindly by Amy Boyd (whose G+ page can be found here), and Jack Pinder, who is also one half of the up-and-coming Indie Rock duo Silence Kid. You can check them and their music out on Facebook, Tumblr, and if you like what you see and hear and wish to support some young, impoverished, queer musicians, they have a kickstarter project here.

Everything written by these individuals is entirely their own, and has not been edited by me in any way.

First, we have Amy’s post.

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What Does “Transgender” Mean?

At first, I didn’t know where to start. How do I explain to people who might never have heard of transgender people what it is like to be transgender. I thought, “I don’t know what it’s like to not be transgender!”.

And it’s true. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt unhappy with being male.

To not be transgender, like the vast majority of people, is just how life is. They are born with male genitals and assigned male. They are born with female genitals and assigned female. They grow up as that gender assigned to them on day one. For them, everything is great and nothing feels wrong.

Transgender people aren’t like that. Nobody stops to think, “what if the baby has male genitals but actually has a female brain”? For millions of people, this isn’t a “what if” scenario. It is reality. Transgender people have the brain of the opposite sex. Brain scans show it. Those unlucky babies are brought up how society expects them to be brought up, based on their genitals at birth, not their brain.

Some feel from a very early age – 5 or less in some cases – that their brain is different to their body. For others, it takes a while for the feelings to develop – as late as the teenage years.

It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to want to be a girl or a girl to want to be a boy… It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to play with barbies or a girl to play with action men… It’s not OK, says society, to be different to everyone else…

So we hide those feelings, or try to for as long as possible. Hiding these feelings hurts. To the average man reading this: imagine being expected to play with dolls and try out for cheer-leading squad and read Vogue and wear dresses and date boys. Can you imagine doing that? To the average woman reading this: image being expected to jump in mud and get dirty and play football and lift weights at the gym and date girls. Can you imagine doing that? Would you do that? Would that hurt?

Trans-girls and trans-women are born with male genitals and a female brain, assigned male, later feel these feelings of not being right, and finally transition to female. Trans-men are the opposite case: babies born with female genitals and a male brain, assigned female, and transition to male.

My Transition

It took a while for me to understand that I was transgender, because until I was 19, I didn’t know what the word meant. Sure, I have saw drag queens, and what movies and TV shows portray as “men in dresses”. But a man actually becoming a woman? That is such a taboo topic that nobody ever speaks about it. Certainly, nobody spoke about it in front of me.

It was my luck, I suppose, to stumble upon an article about transgender people. Suddenly I realised, I’m reading about myself. The people in the article echoed my own thoughts: “I hate manly things. I hate sports. I hate cars. I hate getting dirty. I hate not being able to express myself in the way I want to because I’ll be laughed at and told to stop, I hate having this stupid penis attached to me… I hate being male. I’m not even tall enough or strong enough to be considered a man. My name “Michael” doesn’t suit me. Everyone is Michael. I want to be unique. Why can’t I have a nice short feminine name? I like feminine clothes. I liked those two guys at school… wait, am I gay? Were those feelings of attraction? I thought I just liked them because they were nice people. I always wanted to be a girl anyway.”

And that was when it stuck me. “I always wanted to be a girl anyway.” So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?!

I needed more information first to be sure I wasn’t utterly deranged. I needed to know that being transgender was different to being a drag queen or a cross-dresser or one of those people you see on Britain’s Got Talent with 10-foot-high hair and a dress and a full beard.

I turned to Google searches, Wikipedia, YouTube and studies. They all confirmed that how I felt is a real thing – Gender Identity Disorder, or Gender Dysphoria. And the only “cure”, if it can be called as such, is transitioning.

Within a few days, I ordered hormones drugs over the Internet. About three weeks later they were delivered and I started taking them.

It only took a few weeks for me to notice something amazing: the suicidal feelings I had been feeling, dating back to when puberty began, disappeared. Actually, nobody knows this, but before I started “hormone replacement therapy”, I was completely suicidal and had only two options left: kill myself, or travel the world for as long as possible on my savings and then kill myself at the end. I was going to do the second option. I got passport photos taken. I printed out the passport renewal form. I had figured out to where I would go first: Khao San Road, Thailand. Thank you, luck, for letting me run across that article on the Internet about transgender people before I followed through. I have those passport photos in my safe at home. Every time I look at them, all I see is an extremely depressed version of me.

Transition – It’s A Gradual Process, Not An Instant Change

I would like to think I had a realistic timeline of how long it would take to “pass” as a female. I’m still not there yet, but 14 months of hormone replacement therapy has had a big effect, physically and mentally.Mentally I am much happier, more stable, more confident and stronger. On the flip-side, I cry more and have mood swings. Hormone replacement therapy really is like going through puberty a second time.

Physically my face and body have changed to have female “secondary sex characteristics” like fatter cheeks, wider hips, needing to pee every five minutes, softer skin, less body hair, lighter body hair, and so on.

I’ve also done things that drugs can’t do like permanent facial hair removal (expensive!), growing my hair out, making my eyebrows more feminine, generally taking care of myself, making my wardrobe more androgynous, and most of all learning. There is a lot to learn about this whole “being female” business.

Today, I am 20 years old. I recently moved back to London and since then have felt free enough to try making lots of progress in my transition.

I don’t know how much longer it will take. 14 months of hormones got me to the androgynous phase. I hope another 14 months will get me to the “definitely looks like a girl” phase.

And then I can be Amy.

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Transgressive Gender for Dummies: An Anti-“Trans 101”

Hey! My name’s Jack, and I’m a 22 year old trans guy from Baltimore. Ben asked me to write a “trans 101” of sorts for this blog, so here goes.

There are probably a million and one reasons why someone would want to read, or find themselves reading, a “Trans 101”, or an introductory guide to transgender issues. Maybe you’re grappling with, settling into, or exploring your own gender identity. Maybe you’re a confused parent, or a friend of a trans person who you want to be a better ally to. I’m hardly the first person to create an introductory guide like this but the way I’m going to go about doing this isn’t exactly typical. I don’t plan on making an easy list of definitions of jargon or some kind of handy cheat sheet to refer to when you forget what MtF means. Instead, I’m going to strike at the root of the problem, the very reason you don’t know these words in the first place: everything you know about gender is fundamentally wrong.

Sex=/=Gender=/=Sexual Orientation

First, let’s talk about why sex and gender are not the same thing. Here is an example of a well-intentioned but misguided and incorrect understanding of gender:

Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head!

Sex is biology; it’s what you were born as, what chromosomes you have and what genitalia you have. On the other hand, gender is whatever you “feel” like you are.

 

People say things like this with the best intentions, and probably genuinely believe that this is a progressive framework for understanding gender identity. Really think about this, though. How many variables make up what we think of as sex and what we think of as gender? Biology itself doesn’t even play by the rules of the gender binary—check out Ben’s amazing post about the genetics behind intersexed individuals. There’s your internal genitalia, external genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones, the pitch and tonality of your voice, your wardrobe, hair, mannerisms, and a million other factors that decide whether or not the guy at the deli calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. If every single one of these variables lines up as exclusively “male” or exclusively “female”, you are cisgender and pretty dramatically socially privileged over people who are not because of that. If not, congrats! Your very existence reveals the fallacy of the socially constructed gender binary. You can call yourself whatever you damn well please, but others in this category use words like transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, ftm, mtf, mtm, ftf, genderfluid, agender, pangender, and neutrois. This is hardly intended to be an exhaustive list on non-cis gender identities; the point is that if you aren’t cis, and even if you don’t think of yourself as male or female, your identity is legitimate and real and it is up to you, and only you, to label it.

Now let’s talk about gender versus sexual orientation. To put it simply, gender is what you are, whereas sexual orientation is about who you like. Sexual orientation can of course be extremely complex and nuanced and a ton can be written about it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here, because an individual’s sexual orientation has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THEIR GENDER IDENTITY.

I make this point because you may be approaching this Trans 101 with the idea that trans-ness is some sort of extension or expression of homosexuality. This isn’t true but it’s a pretty understandable misconception, thanks to what has become the generally accepted lexicon of these issues. When people talk about LGBT (that is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) issues, 99% of the time, they’re really only talking about the LBG. The word “queer” also has a tendency to complicate and confuse things because it is an umbrella term that encompasses both non-heteronormative sexuality (Queer for You-The Degenerettes),and gender expression. Personally, it’s a word that I like and identify with because I’m queer in both senses of the word.

Another reason why I’m abstaining from creating a list of definitions with this post is that when it comes to gender, words are personal and powerful. To define the term FtM, for example, as “Female to Male”, or “an individual who was assigned female at birth who now identifies/has transitioned to/lives as male” is terribly incorrect and erasing to people who identify with that term but that definition does not apply to, as well as people who that definition applies to but do not identify with that term.

Think about every film or tv show you’ve ever seen about a transgender person. They all had the same plot, right? We’re used to hearing transpeople say “I’ve always known,” and something about this seems to be comforting to cisgendered people. If you’re cisgendered, chances are that YOU’VE always known what you are, so this makes sense to you. The expectation of gender consistency throughout one’s life is easy to take for granted. It’s a part of the trans narrative, and it’s actually pretty harmful and repressive. Cut-and-dried definitions of very nuanced and complex human identities reinforce this oppressive narrative.

Consider all the ways it is possible for a non-cisgendered person to deviate from this narrative! Anyone can discover new things about their gender identity at any age, and one’s gender journey need not fit cleanly into a Lifetime movie storyline. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-cis person the next time you question the validity of their identity based on the way they’ve chosen to transition or express their gender. Could you afford a $7,000 surgery? Could you ask your family to refer to you by pronouns besides the ones you’ve used since birth? Would you be okay with the side effects and risks associated with hormone replacement therapy? If you realized you weren’t cisgendered, would you come out about it immediately?

As someone who deviates from the gender binary, the trans narrative kept me from coming out to my friends and family and getting the therapy I needed for entirely too long. My fears were completely justified; when I did come out, friends and family refused to believe me and treated my transition like some sort of passing phase I was going through. This is the social function of the trans narrative, to create “symptoms” that are so specific that hardly anyone could fit the bill.

If you want to be a better ally to a trans person, this is what I have to say to you: do everything you can to not reinforce this narrative. Never assume anything, and never police anyone’s gender journey.

Yes, there is jargon you should probably know, but to paraphrase your sixth grade English teacher, if you don’t know what something means, look it the fuck up. More important than words, though, is attitude and understanding, and I hope I was able to at least lay the groundwork for that with this post.

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I was going to add my own two cents on this topic, but I really feel like Amy spent one cent and Jack spent the other far better than I could. I hope you found these heartfelt and eloquent accounts as informative and important as I do.

When reporters write on transgender – common and subtle problems

The subject of this week’s post was inspired when a couple of friends contacted me separately to bring a particular news article to my attention. To each of you – thanks for your interest! And for making choosing a topic for this post that much easier.

The article to which I was directed was published on the 11th December on the website of The Boston Globe Metro, and can be found here.

But before we get onto that, let’s talk about today’s topic title more generally. For the longest time, it was basically impossible to find mention of trans people in mainstream media. It was a topic that made people uncomfortable. People didn’t generally want to hear about ‘that sort of thing’, either finding it irrelevant, uncomfortable, morally outraging, or any combination of these things. Without going off on a massive tangent on this background of LGBT in media, things are slowly changing and finding pieces of mainstream journalism looking at transgender issues is no longer like finding a four leaf clover by the light of a blue moon. However, the problem with more people taking notice is that more people can – to paraphrase Hugh Laurie’s Prince George from Blackadder III – be absolute arseheads.

Aside: Why did society start having a problem with men wearing wigs and make-up anyway?

Many, many incredibly shitty things have been written about trans people. A (perhaps) surprising amount of this has come from feminist and gay/lesbian sources, with (simplistically speaking) some of the former considering trans men to be ‘traitors’ to womanhood, and trans women are ‘just men invading female spaces’. I wish I was exaggerating. A particularly infamous piece of damaging refuse can be found in the form of the 1979 book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which contains this charming quotation:

All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves … Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

In a similar vein, the lesbian feminist journalist Julie Bindel has written some really horrible stuff about transgender people. She was nominated for Stonewall’s 2008 ‘journalist of the year’ award, not exactly a great message sent out from this huge LGB charity (note the absence of the ‘T’).

This offensive horror was printed with Bindel’s 2004 article (linked to above) in ‘The Guardian Weekend’, 21st January 2004. The gist of the article argues that transwomen are not real women, and their experiences as women are invalid. The badge reads ‘I’m a girl’. 

So yeah, this stuff is pretty unequivocally offensive – but you could easily be forgiven for asking how this relates to the original link to the news story ‘Led by the child who simply knew’, at the top of the page. I’d like to add, that in writing this piece, I conferred with a few trans and non-binary friends, to see what they thought of this article. I did this because of my cis-privilege. Having this doesn’t make me a bad person, but it is undeniably there, and important to bear in mind when I’m talking about transgender experiences. If I simply bust out a load of opinionated stuff on such issues without ever actually discussing it with someone it affects directly, I would be in danger of speaking for a minority group I cannot claim membership of, and in fact risk silencing that group despite my intentions. So yeah. Obviously the people I spoke to could only talk for themselves, but at least I can say I haven’t made sweeping and unchecked assumptions about how this article may be received.

The problems here are less loaded with malice. More comparable to the accidental but nevertheless cringeworthy racist comments that elderly grandparents can sometimes pop out with. It’s not okay, but to some extent we can understand why it happens, due to lack of a certain specific bit of education. To borrow a term from the (fabulous) writer Julia Serano, the original article engages in oppositional sexism, which Serano defines as:

[T]he belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.

Right from the start, we catch phrases like “Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.” – would he be less so if he didn’t? In the case of his twin, Nicole, is her being female only justified through the presentation of stereotypical feminine behaviour and traits?

It’s not wrong to talk about Nicole’s experiences. If she likes pink, and mermaids, and Barbies, that’s great! But it’s important to not imply that this is what makes her female identity ‘real’. Little boys can like these things too, and not be any ‘less’, even if some people might argue otherwise.

See, Barbie can be fun for some boys too…

It’s also problematic that the name Nicole was given at birth is repeatedly used, and that she is referred to as ‘he’ repeatedly. As a baby and small child, she clearly wasn’t in a position to understand or communicate any gender identity. So why now her personal identity is clear, are inaccuracies of the past referred to? Gender identity isn’t immutable, but to frame the experience as ‘he’ was a boy who ‘became’ a girl implies both choice, and that being defined as ‘boy’ was the natural state of affairs – creating a hierarchy whereby genitals trumps identity. Not good!

The old cliché of “a girl in a boy’s body” is also touted. What is it that makes a body that of a boys? Lack of breasts? Oh hang on, little girls don’t have them. How about the other physiological markers? I’ve already talked about how this doesn’t really get one anywhere. Nicole identifies as a girl. Therefore, she has a girl’s body. Even if people ‘know what you’re talking about’, it’s potentially rather offensive to call a transwoman ‘biologically male’, or vice versa.

The article does do a valuable thing in providing some insight into the experiences of a trans girl and her family. The quotations from her parents about the experience help make the story relatable to people for whom this is totally alien territory. Whatsmore, Nicole’s self expression wasn’t smoothed down to being textbook-feminine:

“I would say my brother got lucky with me. Because we grew up with only boy neighbors, I developed a liking to shoot-’em-up and military video games,’’ she says. “I could have come out a lot girlier.’

It is important to recognise that the breadth of experience amongst trans people, just like cis people, is immense. Not everyone ‘knows’ from such a young age like Nicole, and that’s okay. Not everyone detests the bodies they were born with and want surgery, and that’s okay too. There aren’t ‘more’ or ‘less’ valid experiences of transgenderism. Unfortunately, breadth of experience isn’t something the mainstream media seems to have represented well just yet. There’s only a certain degree to which papers are prepared to challenge their majority readership. This article seems to me to be more sincere than simply a voyeuristic look at an atypical child, but could also be vastly improved upon with just a certain specific bit of education.

What Tinky Winky says about gender…

You may be familiar with the colourful, fuzzy little oddballs the Teletubbies, whose BAFTA winning performances entertained young children since 1997. For anyone who isn’t acquainted with this ambiguously alien quartet of characters, or for those who simply enjoy looking at bright colours, this is what they look like.

Come and play with us, forever…and ever…and ever…”

In the programme, each Teletubby had his or her own special item. For Po (the red one) it was a scooter, for Dipsy (the green one) it was a rather epic black-and-white mottled top hat. Laa Laa (the yellow one) had a massive orange ball, whilst Tinky Winky had:

“I keep a brick in here, do not cross me, bitch.”

The producers of the show refer to Tinky Winky’s bag as his magic bag, as the inside is bigger than the outside. Most people who saw it, particularly the media, immediately thought ‘handbag’. As Tinky Winky is voiced by, and recognised by the producers to be male, this actually managed to have a political reaction. And more than once! Oh social conservatives, you so crazy. The idea that a character designated (pretty arbitrarily) as male should carry a ‘social marker’ of femininity caused reactions from quite a few people.

As you might expect, the reliably morally outraged evangelical Christian right of America spewed its disapproval – in this instance out of the hatch of Jerry Falwell (who, to give a 60 second summary of his relevant social views, can be heard dishing out blame to abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian folks for 9/11  here). To quote from a BBC news article from 1999 reporting on Falwell’s views:

In an article called Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet, he says: “He is purple – the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.” He said the “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality are intentional and later issued a statement that read: “As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”

Then in 2007, the spokesperson for children’s rights in Poland, Ewa Sowinska, ordered psychologists to ‘investigate’ whether watching the programme might promote a ‘Homosexual Lifestyle’ (rumble of thunder) to children.

Other folks were also eager to out the purple…space baby thing, but with entirely different motivations. various LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) organisations believed and supported a gay interpretation of Tinky, and indeed specific claims of Tinky being transgender have also been raised.

Now, my point isn’t just ‘haters you suck, gay/trans Tinky is win’. The consideration of sexuality by Falwell and Sowinska is quite obviously backwards in being based on absolutist moralising about sin and delinquency – whilst the support from LGBT groups and people in relation to the interpretation of Tinky’s traits is also pretty easy to expect. But why do people feel the need to make these ascriptions of gender and sexuality in the first place?

If Falwell was really concerned that this asexual character aimed at entertaining those who’re 0-5 years old was a degenerative influence as indicated by his colour and shape, there’s probably plenty of other targets he also missed in trying to protect America’s youth.

“My my darling, the garden is looking very homosexual this morning…”

People like to see patterns in things. In the last post about defining biological sex, I mentioned some of the things people look for in everyone they meet in order to make the (socially coded, and enforced) judgement as to whether someone is male or female. This need has even extended to the non-human secondary-sexual-characteristic-less Teletubbies, as Tinky Winky and Dipsy are officially labelled as male, with Laa Laa and Po as female. There are none of the typical cues from their physical forms to see this however (nudges and winks about Dipsy’s aerial aside), but Tinky’s voice ‘reveals’ him to be ‘male’.

Now unless I missed the episode where Tinky Winky goes to a gay bar and hooks up with a trucker, the judgements on sexuality – whether from under-educated homophobes or from optimistic advocates – rests, in this case, entirely on stereotyping. Maybe without articulating it so barely, it’s clear that people have gone ‘male + female traits = you’ve got a gay/trans!’. The conflation of sexuality and gender identity has got a LOT of interesting background and historical precedent, but it also almost goes without saying – people viewed as ‘men’ exhibiting traits commonly viewed by most members of a society as ‘feminine’ are not necessarily gay or transgender. Likewise ‘men’ exhibiting masculine traits aren’t necessarily straight or cisgendered. ‘Women’ who are ‘masculine’ are not necessarily gay or trans, and ‘women’ who are ‘feminine’ aren’t always straight or cis.

The clichéd statements of ‘oh! I never would’ve guessed’ or ‘Yes, I’ve thought so for a while’ are things that many gay people may have heard one or the other of when coming out, depending on how their characteristics are judged by their peers. Traits that people commonly use to decide whether someone is masculine or feminine can be described as hegemonic. A hegemony is the dominance of one group by another, so for instance, ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – which could be described as big muscles, aggressive attitude, great physical strength, involvement with sports, etc. are all obvious things that could be referred to when someone casually describes someone as ‘masculine’. It’s the obvious, stereotypical understanding of having qualities associated with being male, rather than other experiences of masculinity, such as how some gay men may consider their experiences, or the experiences of men from different cultural backgrounds. Likewise preoccupation with fashion, make-up, and babies, a delicate and dainty physique, and an empathic, caring nature may all be described as ‘hegemonically feminine’.

Not hegemonically masculine, but does this make Tinky like Winky?

Judgement of people (or Teletubbies) in terms of these hegemonic understandings may often have correlation (plenty of men are involved in sports, plenty of women do like make-up, plenty of gay men do like fashion), but it is still hugely flawed, and never fair. The particularly sad thing is, is how much ‘policing’ of deviations from this so-called ‘normal gendered behaviour’ goes on. Whether it’s full-on verbal or physical abuse from strangers, or comments from friends like “why have you got that?”, a man (or someone judged to be a man by looking) can’t go out with a bag like Tinky Winky’s without strongly risking being questioned, and definitely will make people who see him question why, or question his sexuality to themselves. In the interests of true freedom of expression and personal growth, this ‘gendering’ of traits, behaviours, and activities is something I believe should be resisted. Let your little boys carry red bags and wear tutus, let your little girls play rugby, and don’t let these things inform whether you think they like other little boys or other little girls – or whether they are indeed, as you may have judged!

Is there a clear way to define a ‘biological’ sex?

One of the most fundamentally obvious things people might think when they’re asked what ‘Gender Studies’ actually is, is that it may look at differences between men and women… in some way. An interesting question to ask might be what actually is it that makes a man ‘a man’ and a woman ‘a woman’? It’s not as obvious as one may think.

When this question was first asked in a legal context (roughly 50 years ago), three factors were used to define ‘biological sex’: the chromosomes of an individual, what gonads (ovaries or testes) they possess, and their genitals. This is overly simplistic as it turns out that many different combinations of these three factors exist than the two categories everyone was assumed (or expected?) to fall into.

The rest of this post will contain science. For anyone apprehensive, I dare you to read on. I double dare you.

We are all told in school that with regards to chromosomes, men = XY and women = XX. For many people this is true. On the Y chromosome, which is a small, stumpy little thing, lies a gene called SRY, which stands for ‘Sex Determining Region Y’. It is responsible for unspecified gonads in a foetus to develop into testes. Seems pretty straightforward. However this area of the Y chromosome can in rare cases cross over to an X chromosome. If this X chromosome is then inherited, an individual who is XX but in all other ways ‘male’ (gonadally, genitally, and in appearance when older) will result. If the SRY-less Y chromosome is inherited, then the foetus will be XY, but otherwise ‘female’. Because sex on a birth certificate is decided just from someone taking a cursory glance, these conditions may be undiagnosed until the age of puberty, or sometimes not at all.

Individuals who possess a SRY gene will develop testes. Testes then produce testosterone, which is responsible for the development of typically male external genital structures (penis and scrotum) and internal genital structures (the bits needed for reproduction inside that aren’t the testicles themselves – mainly specific tubes).

Before sexual differentiation, all foetuses possess two structures where their internal sex organs will be, called the Müllerian and Wolffian structure. Testes produce a substance called ‘Anti-Müllerian Hormone’ (AMH), which causes the Müllerian structure to regress. The testosterone produced by the testes causes the Wolffian structure to develop into male internal structures. Lack of testosterone prevents the Wolffian structure from developing and causes it to regress, and lack of  AMH allows the Müllerian structure to develop into ‘female’ parts.

The ‘triggering amount’ of testosterone needed to cause penis and scrotum development is lower than the amount needed to make Wolffian structures develop – so if a foetus has a condition that results in lower levels of testosterone (and there are quite a few that can), the result will be someone without the corresponding male internal organs to match the external ones.

Whilst there are many, many different genetic conditions that can make fitting clearly into a ‘social sex box’† problematic, there are a couple that illustrate the potential ambiguity in defining sex very well.

The first of these is called CAH, or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. This is a mutation in a gene which causes a particular enzyme the body normally produces, to not work. This enzyme is essential for the production of the substance cortisol, and so people with CAH cannot produce cortisol. The result of this is that the hypothalamus (the region of the brain which monitors certain hormone levels among other things) says:

“There is no cortisol! Release precursors!”

Various human brains (paraphrased)

In normal circumstances such precursors would get made into cortisol – but because the enzyme responsible doesn’t work, the precursors end up getting made into testosterone and other ‘masculising’ hormones – giving XX foetuses male genitalia. Due to not actually having testicles, no AMH gets produced, so female internal structures still form. Sometimes the genitals of such individuals are judged to be ‘ambiguous’, and tests are done at birth that reveal the condition. Some however look like entirely unremarkable boys, and may go completely undetected.

Another interesting condition is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, AIS. This is a mutation that occurs on the X chromosome, and happens in a gene that encodes a receptor (protein that senses when a particular thing is present) for testosterone. This means that in XY foetuses, even though testes are produced normally, and testosterone is then produced normally – none of the rest of the body can detect that the testosterone is there…so female genitalia develop. AMH is produced which prevents Müllerian structural development, but the Wolffian structures can’t develop either as the testosterone can’t be detected. AIS babies show no signs of being anything but female, though are XY and have testes. There’s no clearly agreed reason or way to decide whether possession of one trait or another is what indicates a foetus or babie’s ‘true’ sex, if such a truth can actually be said to exist.

AIS can be ‘complete’ or ‘partial’, with the ‘partial’ condition resulting in ambiguous genitalia. To quote from the book ‘Brain Gender’ by Melissa Hines:

The direction of sex assignment of individuals with PAIS depends to some extent on the appearance of the external genitalia; those judged to have a penis too small for success in the male role may be surgically feminized and raised as girls, whereas others are reared as boys and treated with andogens to try to stimulate penile enlargement and development of other male secondary sexual characteristics. In this syndrome and others involving undervirilization in XY individuals, however, additional considerations, such as the desire of the parents for a son versus a daughter can also influence the direction of sex assignment.

It’s fair to say that the result of accident or injury resulting in penile loss wouldn’t result in an individual who would be unable to have ‘success in the male role’, regardless of the fact that they have already been raised and socialised as male. This discussion hasn’t even touched on the importance of how personal understanding and identity of one’s gender can reflect on how one is defined. If an individual ‘feels’ strongly that they are a given sex, how is this necessarily any less biological? Whatsmore, is there even reason why choice of identity (particularly beyond the strongly binary male-female that is enforced by much of society) is ‘less valid’ as a way by which sex can be defined? It’s easy to get into some very tricky philosophical areas related to this, and certainly the arenas of biology and socialisation are virtually impossible to disentangle from each other.

When it comes down to it, none of these factors are how people judge the sex of people they see day-to-day. We look at what clothes people wear, their size, build, and where they have hair. We listen to what they sound like, and what their name might be. Most people rarely question what they’re presented with assuming they can easily put a person into one box or another. The questions asking why people feel the need to do this, and why people react the way they do when they can’t, are further huge areas to consider!

†If you’re into that sort of thing.

The Beginning

Hello lovely readers. You are here because you find gender to be an interesting enough topic that you fancy having a bit of a read and seeing what this is about. Alternatively I, or someone else has prodded you into having a look.  For actually coming to this blog, you officially win at the internet. Please feel free to print off the image below and wear it at all times as a mark of your success.

The reason you win, oh worthy reader, is because gender is, like, important and stuff. The big amorphous field that is gender affects virtually any social issue you might care to name in some way or another. This means that it can be very multi-disciplinary which can make it hard to know where to start, and many authors who even when regarded as important or useful (if you’re already academically equipped to actually use them) are as dry and inaccessible as a quantum mechanics treatise in the Sahara*.

I hope to address this issue by talking about all kinds of things. Some topics will naturally strike more of a personal chord than others, but the aim is to pique interest. Both the abject ridiculousness and amazingness of people may perhaps then be a source of amusement, shock, disgust, arousal or wonder. Anyone reporting all of these sensations simultaneously will gain my respect.

*Unless you are a physicist, or camel, or both.

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