January 11, 2007


by PG

Reading an excellent post to which Denise pointed, as well as thinking the matter out a little at ChaliceChick, has led me to wonder whether I lack respect for transsexuality. I know I respect transsexual people, but that of course is not the same thing; I can respect Bush supporters while thinking that supporting Bush is the wrong thing to do. My comment at CC's was,

I'm not clear on how being trans is an "inborn characteristic," given that gender is a social construct. You are born with a set of genitalia that give you a physical sex, but the set of characteristics accepted as "masculine" or "feminine" is socially taught. If we had a gender neutral society in which everyone wore skirts, no one wore makeup or had shaved legs, and the genitalia of people you found attractive was no one else's business, there would be no such thing as "transgender."

Because of the society we have, people whose physical sex doesn't match with the set of gendered characteristics need to be able to make them match, but a trait based on social constructs isn't really "inborn." (However, a preference for having sex with a person with a vagina instead of a penis can be inborn, and of course the vaginas and penises are inborn, so sexual orientation qualifies as an inborn characteristic.) I think we are inching toward a gender-neutral society in which a person with a penis who wants to act and be treated in a way we'd now identify as "feminine" can do so without getting the penis cut off, and my bias is in favor of that rather than the status quo.

Also, we aren't tolerant of things just because they are "born that way and can't help themselves." I'm not going to tolerate pedophilia just because it's an inborn characteristic -- as it may be, considering that there are people with pedophiliac desires who squelch them because they realize intellectually that they're wrong, so it's unlikely that such people would "choose" to have those desires. We tolerate that which does not harm others, and I see nothing harmful in a same-sex or sex-neutral sexual orientation, nor in someone's preferring a gender that our society currently considers not to "match" that person's genitalia. Therefore there is no reason to squelch those desires.

Based on this remark, I suspect my feelings do run along similar lines as those of the transphobic feminists Winter critiques, albeit without their Tom Coburn-esque bathroom terrors or demands for female-only spaces. Such spaces made broad sense when women needed communal areas in which to draw strength from other women for dealing with the patriarchy, but in all honesty I didn't have a single moment this week when I thought that I would feel better with no men in the room. There are some times when this is different, but at this point, women-only spaces often just give the middle-class heterosexual white men whom Winter neatly lampoons another thing to whine about: "Why do they get that and we can't keep our golf club?").

That is, I don't find transsexual people at all threatening in themselves, but I am a little troubled by the necessity of literally reifying the sex-gender connection by altering one's genitalia, taking hormones, etc. This enaction of the oppressive social rule that XY = masculinity and XX = femininity on the body seems like something that shouldn't have to happen, even though it's obviously something people can do if they want. My position on this seems to be similar to the feminists who think abortion is OK in our current society, but will be unnecessary in a utopia where pregnant women all have excellent prenatal healthcare and postnatal childcare and monetary support. In other words, they treat abortion as a necessary evil that will not exist in an ideal future, and thus not really a constitutional right, as its legality is contingent on an uncaring society.

In my ideal future, we all can go to the same bathroom, wear what we want, behave as we want (as long as we don't behave in a way that would get us smacked regardless of gender; being a masculine-acting person with a vagina does not mean you may spit on the sidewalk or grab strangers' backsides) with no limits based on chromosomes or sex characteristics. If two people with penises want to shack up, great! get married, pay the tax penalties, raise kids and gradually stop having sex.

Policy-wise, just as the abortion-uninclined feminists would allow abortion to be banned in their utopia, my kind of trans-phobia -- a fear not of transsexuals, but of perpetuating what I believe to be a false link between sex and gender (sort of like my cheerleader-phobia, except that I'm actually afraid of cheerleaders) -- implies that in the ideal future, transsexual surgery and other medical assistance will be treated as cosmetic and not covered by standard insurance. Of course, this is the reality for many trans Americans, but while we're talking about The Way Things Ought To Be in the future, I may as well assume TWTOTB in the present. As long as someone still possessing outward signs of masculinity but described to be "passing" as female, or vice versa, is subject to insult, discrimination, assault and murder, bringing sex and gender into conformance with each other is a legal necessity. Yet it is not a right, because it is conditioned on an intolerant society.

Winter makes a particular outstanding point in passing:

You know, perhaps transgender people offer an even more radical proposition, not only in proposing that gender can be cut loose from the biological body, but that gender can be something other than a source of oppression. Should we only be viewing gender as something to be destroyed, or should we be listening to transsexual people and considering the possibility that it's time to radically rethink our feminist ideas about gender in the light of what they have to tell us.
I think gender can be tremendously fun, and I know people who like playing with it. I have lowered everyone's expectations of me sufficiently that I can go along in a fairly neuter or even what some might consider masculine fashion for a while, and then shock my friends with an outburst of femininity -- sometimes to the point of high heels. But changing the biological body to comport with that of the traditional man or woman goes beyond fun (and if it's merely fun, it certainly should be treated as cosmetic). You can mix-and-match gender characteristics, but I doubt that most sex-transition professionals would happily countenance the bearded lady who changes her genitalia and adds breasts but refuses hormones. Saying that she sees herself that way seems more like BIID than GID.

On the other hand, there are bodily integrity concerns that result in what some might mutilation that I do take seriously even in a utopian society. For example, in the fabulous feminist future in which women receive great support of all kinds during and after pregnancy, I still wouldn't ban abortion because I see carrying a fetus and delivering a baby to be so tied to bodily integrity that to force an unwilling person to do it seems to me a kind of temporary slavery, particularly when coupled with laws that penalize a woman as a murderer if she consumes substances that lead to stillbirth. Those who say that abortion is an immoral interruption of the natural process would see the abortionist as even more in violation of the Hippocratic Oath than physicians who perform sex changes or limb removals, because the latter affect only the consenting patient while the former affects a non-consenting party. And pregnancy is, as the abortion opponents like to remark, only a temporary "inconvenience," while being stuck with breasts or other body parts one doesn't want is a lifelong one.

I'm not sure why I regard the ability to stop being pregnant as a no-matter-what right (I specify "stop being pregnant" because if we can transfer embryos or fetuses to willing adoptive uteruses, I would have no problem with making the killing of fetuses illegal; it is the impingement on the body, not on intellectual and emotional concerns about the existence of offspring, that I take most seriously), while sex-change insurance coverage is conditioned on intolerance, and mutilation gets no respect from me at all. It may have to do precisely with the existence of that other affected entity: the wannabe transsexual in a gender-neutral society at least can do almost everything that she would like to do even while she retains male hormones and genitalia; no social change can alter the fact that the unwillingly pregnant woman is slowed and weighted both literally and with responsibility, her body expanding out until the day she either will go through a great deal of pain for vaginal delivery, or go under the knife and anesthesia of the C-section. Perhaps this distinction is inspired by a bizarre, quasi-Burkean kind of conservatism that is willing to intervene to prevent further change, but not to make changes.

January 11, 2007 02:15 AM | TrackBack

Thanks for the thoughtful post, PG. I'm composing a responsive post, but am rushed now to the hospital to visit my girl.

The essential question in my post is: how do we know that gender identity is NOT inborn (assuming we know, as you assert, that sexual orientation IS inborn)?

Posted by: Denise at January 11, 2007 08:45 AM


I hope your Girl does better -- I'm sorry to hear she's not well, especially with your mom having been in the hospital so recently.

My view of gender as socially constructed pretty much precludes the possibility that it is inborn. Sexual orientation can be inborn because physical sex is inborn. Though physical sex doesn't always fall in the male/ female binary, it is *far* more likely to do so than people are to fall into a masculine/ feminine binary. Intersexed babies, or ones with ambiguous or underdeveloped genitalia, are fairly uncommon, whereas tomboys are not. I don't think we're going to see a higher per capita number of people whose physical sex is indeterminate, but as gender becomes less important in our society, we will see an increasing percentage of people who do not identify strongly with either gender, or who identify more with the gender that traditionally didn't correspond to their physical sex.

When you were asking in your post about children who incline to a gender not associated with their physical sex, whether parents should push them to do what's socially accepted or should let them be as girly/ boy-y as they wanna be, my thought is that it's a pity children have to think in terms of "I'm a boy/ girl." Why can't we just let them be who they are without defining it for them before they even can talk? I know that's idealism (and of the type that scares my family and anyone who might be raising children with me), but I hate the thought of a small child who feels like there's something wrong about him because he's always told to be a little man yet he wants to play with dolls and grow out his hair.

Perhaps because I was raised in such a female-dominated household (no brothers, Dad mostly at work) I didn't have to think about myself as a girl until I went to school and encountered these children who played more roughly and were admonished by the teachers more often. With no boys at home, femaleness just was what there was, and I defined myself in contrast to my sisters rather than against a male. Despite the strong gendering of Indian culture, my parents always thought I should be the smartest person in my class and would have been fine with my being the best athlete (sadly, not to be).

That's obviously just my individual experience, but I wanted to lay it out because the other posts you linked to (nexy's and Kelly's) are very much based in their own experiences. And I do think the medical necessity of sex change is relevant for public policy if it's legally required to be covered by insurance, provided for prisoners, etc. To that extent, I would feel irresponsible if I said, "Well, it's just your individual choice," like getting a tattoo or a piercing -- it's more significant than that. People don't get killed because they're discovered to having the "wrong" piercing. Yet in the absence of social disapproval of the sex-gender "mismatch," I don't see a compelling reason that such a procedure shouldn't be treated as essentially cosmetic -- something one does to fit one's image of oneself.

Posted by: PG at January 11, 2007 11:58 PM
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