Subject: The Sex/Gender Connection
Date: Fri 17 Jul 1998 - 18:04:45 BST
I know that in this culture, sex and gender are linked. That's one of the key
tenets of heterosexism, that female means woman annd male means man. We have
grown up using the words woman & female interchganably, and the same with man
That means that when we tallk about gender shift, for example, changing role
from man to woman, we often times assume that is the same as changing from
male to female. People use Male-to-Female to indicate all people "identified
as male at birth or soon thereafter" who take on women's roles, identifying
them as transsexuals, even when they may not choose surgery. This is just an
extension o the classic vocabulary about trans, the Christine Jorgensen/Harry
Benjamin nomenclature of transsexuality, people who change sex to take on
Feminist study about all this, though, has brought a new paradigm, a new way
of looking at this.
"Women are made, not born," said Simone DeBeauvior. "Women, it is true, make
human beings, but only men can make men." said Margaret Mead Both of these
notions separate birth sex from gender role, saying that sex is biologically
determined and reasonably fixed at birth, while gender is socially created.
To me, this is a very powerful notion and is at the heart of all my thinking
about transgender. I agrue that biology is not destiny, that we create the
roles that heterosexism links to sex, and that means we can recreate them. To
me, it means that we can have men born female and women born male, because men
and women are constructions layered on top of sexist expectations and
The notion of transsexualism, at least in the context that it believes that
"changing sex" is required to change social role, is the notion that people
like Judith Lorber in "Paradoxes Of Gender" feels works to reniforce social
role sterotyping rather than to erode it. The main complaint that feminist
scholars have about transsexualism is the notion that one must be female to
do women's work, to play the role of a woman in culture.
I also know that it seems like an easy sell to say that "I changed sex,
therefore changing role is obvious." After all, that refinforces all the
heterosexist assumptions that female and woman is the same thing, plays on it
and into it. It justifies our choices and shows that we are now normative
female & woman, cured of our gender dysphoria by changing the sex of our body
to match our internal "gender identity." In this model, gender is fixed
inside and sex is malleable, completely the opposite of the feminist model,
where sex is fixed and gender is performed.
I believe that most people believe that while roles can be changed, sex can
not. I remember a woman telling me "Well, I don't mind her living as a woman,
but when she leads workshops and rituals about menstruation, I find that
offensive -- she has never menstruated in her life!" Another friend told me
"What I love about butches is how they think like a man while their body acts
like a female. I love when they tell me 'oh, you got me so hard! feel how
wet i am!' I guess that's what I don't get about MtF TS -- their body never
really reacts like a female, at least in my experience." Both these women
born female are willing to believe that transgender is an expression of the
truth of someone's heart, and cool with people changing their bodies any way
they want, but they just don't see MtF TS as female.
There used to be lots of talk about when and if MtF TS should be allowed in
women's space. What is the defining point? Does penile status define if
someone is a man or a woman? After all the discussion, there seemed to be a
consensus that while most women would rather not see a penis in women's space,
the key differentiator was experience. If the choice was between someone who
has lived as a woman for twenty years with a penis, and someone who went to
Thailand and had surgery in a matter of weeks, the one with the experience
would be more a woman. (BTW, BBC World Service carried an interesting little
interview with an Aussie MtF in Thailand yesterday)
Do genitals define a human? I hope not -- after all, that seems to be to be
the meaning of the cry "Biology Is Not Destiny" -- we are not defined by the
shape of our crotch, but rather by the content of our character.
Is gender constant and sex malleable? Is gender constructed and sex fixed?
Is everything fluid, under negaotiation at all times?
For me, anyway, I'll stick with the feminists on this one. We are born the
way we are born, but we make of that what we can based on the interaction of
our wild dreams and the social pressure of taming. Gender is constructed and
sex is fixed -- even the bits of our heart that call us to transgress gender
(or be gender noncomformists) are determined in our hearts.
Nature or Nurture? What are we issued and what do we make of it? Do we get a
gender and make a sex, or do we get a sex and make a gender, or are we given
nothing and make all of it up as we go along?
I find that the most effective and productive theory is the one that Mead and
DeBeauvor have stated, the one that allows us to break the fixed sex/gender
linkage of heterosexism and define how people perform their gender role in
society without onerous assumptions about what it means to have a penis or a
I believe that the key challenge we face is changing our mind, seeing our role
and our world in a new way. I have said in the past that "transgender is
about totral transformation, or about nothing at all -- transformation of the
body, heart, mind and spirit to create new ways of being in the world."
Biology determines our sex, how are born into the world. Our choices (and
those made for us when we are children) determine our gender, how we act in
the world. We can't change our sex, even if we can change our body ( and I am
not against body change in any way) but we can change our role, our choices,
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