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Further Reading

FEATURE: Sex

Gender Benders

Is My Sexual Identity an Accident Just Waiting to Happen?

by Robin Phillips

When I first viewed Norval Morrisseau's painting Androgyny, I was taken aback. With characters that can be deciphered as neither male nor female, or perhaps as both male and female, the painting is understandably confusing to the casual observer. However, if you read the explanation under the painting, things make more sense. This acrylic on canvas apparently depicts the Okanagan tribe's understanding of gender. "In the Okanagan, as in many Native [Canadian] tribes," the commentary tells us, "the order of life learning is that you are born without sex and as a child, through learning, you move toward full capacity as either male or female. . . . There is a commonly held belief among the First Nations that we, as human beings, are both male and female."

Qualms & Questions

Now I don't know about you, but after reading that explanation, I began to get seriously insecure in my ­masculine identity. After all, I had always assumed that my maleness was an unalterable fact about me, rather like the color of my eyes. But if the understanding articulated in this painting was correct, then I had had the chance as a child to move toward full capacity as either male or female. Apparently, I had simply opted for the former.

No sooner had I grasped this point than another question immediately popped into my mind. Could someone like me, who had "moved towards being male," later move away from being male? Might I one day wake up and find that during the night I had inadvertently slipped into a state of womanhood?

I was not reassured when I came across the curricula of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a leading distributor of sex-education material for the American public schools. In its "Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: K–12," SIECUS states that gender identity "refers to a person's internal sense of being male, female, or a combination of these," and that, for many people, this sense "may change over the course of their lifetimes."

I realized that if SIECUS was correct in its contention that people's gender identity could "change over the course of their lifetimes," then I would have to keep a careful watch on mine. You see, I have a habit of losing things: yesterday my pocketknife, today my sandwich, tomorrow—who knows?—maybe my gender. If I were going to succeed in preserving my masculinity, I thought, I would need to be proactive about it. Consequently, I resolved that, every morning when I woke up, the first thing I would do, after checking the time, would be to check my gender. I'm happy to say that it's still there.

Experiencing my own gender as something somewhat static, however, led me to wonder whether gender really is as fluid as the Okanagans (allegedly) and SIECUS (unequivocally) would have us believe.

Gender Gymnastics

It turned out that I didn't have to answer this question myself. I recalled that it had already been answered for me some years ago by that prestigious body, the British Parliament. At that time, I was working as a journalist for a media organization in England. My boss asked me to research a story about a "Mrs. C" who had gone through seventeen years of marriage without realizing that her "husband" was really a woman. This "Mr. J," who had had her breasts removed years before and used a homemade apparatus during sex, had been able to successfully deceive the entire family for nearly two decades. When Mrs. C inadvertently stumbled upon the truth, namely, that her "husband" had actually been born a woman, the deception—as well as the marriage—was terminated.

Mr. J then sought to be granted equal parental rights with Mrs. C over their daughter (conceived with donor sperm). But the court ruled that, since they were "married" in 1977, before passage of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (which allows a person to amend the gender listed on his birth certificate), Mr. J was still legally a woman at the time of their union. Therefore, their marriage was invalid, and Mr. J had no parental rights.

Mr. J did subsequently make use of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, so that she is now recorded as having been born male. The Act declared that a person who was legally female at the time of birth could apply to be recognized as having been legally male at the time of birth, provided that this recognition occurred after the 2004 Act. So Mr. J could now legally enter into a marriage with a woman. Hmm, okay.

Furthermore, while the UK's Gender Recognition Act 2004 contains a provision permitting one member of a union to seek an annulment after discovering his spouse's original gender, the Act does not prevent "marriages" being entered into under false pretences. Indeed, the Gender Recognition Panel—the governmental body established by the 2004 Act to assess eligibility for gender change—has written in a personal letter to me that "it would be entirely the person's choice as to whether they would choose to tell their spouse/partner their original gender." All I can say is that I'm so glad my English marriage occurred prior to 2004!

The Deconstruction of Gender

All of this raised yet another pressing question in my mind: If gender polarity really is that fluid, then do the categories of male and female have any objective meaning at all? To find the answer to that question, I turned to books written by gender scholars. Surely, I thought, they would have the answer.

And so they did (or claimed to), and their answer was a resounding no. Far from having any objective meaning, gender, many of these books claim, is in fact illusory. For example, in Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin asserts that "the discovery is, of course, that 'man' and 'woman' are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs . . . demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both."

Family therapist Olga Silverstein expresses similar sentiments when she urges "the end of the gender split," for, according to her, "until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role . . . we will be denying both men and women their full ­humanity."

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir is even more blunt: "Women are made, they are not born," she asserts. And since women have been "made" by society, the corollary to becoming more enlightened is that we should strive to unmake the female.

This is exactly what the influential psychologist Sandra Bem has suggested. She would like to see the concept of androgyny so absorbed by the culture that, as Melanie Phillips puts it in The Sex-Change Society, paraphrasing Bem's views, "concepts of masculinity and femininity would cease to have distinct content and distinctions would 'blur into invisibility.'"

Susan Moller Okin is equally wistful when contemplating a future without gender. She thinks that "a just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes."

If we take the above statements seriously, then we'd have to say that Nietzsche was wrong when he posited the Übermensch as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process. Rather, true utopia will be found in neither the superman nor the superwoman, but in the liberated unisex being that will emerge out of the liquidation of gender.

Other, less radical gender scholars have taken the view that while gender does have coherent meaning, there is no necessary relationship between one's gender and one's biological sex. Thus, it is now standard orthodoxy among sociologists that not all members of, say, the male sex are members of the male gender. (They can produce Venn diagrams to prove this, by the way.)

Towards a Unisex Utopia

One might think that these ideas are simply the abstract musings of academics with too much time on their hands, but alas, they are not. Indeed, the ideology of gender liquidation has filtered down to the most practical areas, as activists throughout the world work with untiring energy to eradicate the "sexist" distinctions between men and women.

The pervasive efforts to achieve a gender-neutral vocabulary is the most concrete example of the attempt to eliminate anything and everything from our culture that threatens to remind us that women are women and men are men. Hence, the publication of such books as The Elements of Nonsexist Usage, or the thousands of pounds the UK government spent educating its employees on how to avoid "gendered" terms such as "seamstress." (The author of The Elements of Nonsexist Usage had to seek long and hard for a gender-neutralized substitute for "seamstress," reported Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail. Eventually someone came up with "sewer.") Not to be outdone, the European Union earlier this year distributed its own "Gender Neutral Language" booklet to members of the EU Parliament, urging them to avoid gendered terms such as "man-made" and "Frenchmen."

Careful as we might be with our language, there remain a host of facts that continually threaten to remind us that men are men and women are women—such as the fact of pregnancy. Aware of this problem, the British Department of Health issued a guide to pregnancy in which men are told that "expectant fathers can suffer morning sickness too," as well as postnatal depression.

Not to be bested, extremist feminists in Sweden have argued that men should sit down to urinate to bring out their "gentle" side. After all, isn't it grossly unfair that men keep doing something that women can't?

Yet even if men did agree to sit down to urinate, they would still be reminded of their manhood by having to use the men's room. However, if activists in England's Manchester University had gotten their way, even this final reminder would have been eradicated. Last year a dispute broke out when one of Manchester's transgender students tried to get the names on public lavatories changed to allow for those who were neither male nor female in orientation, but kind of in-between.

Reductionist Materialism

Many ordinary people may find this gender ambivalence as odd as I did. Yet it is, in a strange way, supported by the naturalistic materialism that has become mainstream since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Such materialism sees that "there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values—in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life," as Julian Baggini puts it in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.

To the degree that materialism reduces human beings to physical particles, it is hard to see how the differences between the sexes can have any ontological fixity outside pure anatomical fact. On such a view, any description of gender differences, other than purely physical ones, is bound to be merely arbitrary. But why even stop at gender: If everything is nothing more than a random collection of atoms, then is there any real difference—other than degree of complexity—­between a human being and anything else?

When someone asked Harvard professor George Wall who Shakespeare was, Wall, a thoroughgoing materialist, replied that Shakespeare was a random collection of molecules that existed four hundred years ago. Rarely have the reductionist implications of materialism been stated with such bluntness, even among the votaries of materialism, but Wall's statement is indeed the logical corollary of a materialistic anthropology.

Unhelpful Spiritualities

Despite maintaining its stronghold in most science departments, materialism in the West is on the decline, and its place is being taken by a new openness to transcendent, non-materialistic categories. People hungry for significance and purpose in their lives are making room in their thinking for realities that are beyond, and not reducible to, the chemistry and physics of matter.

From the growing interest in New Age and Eastern religious movements, to neo-paganism, to postmodern spiritual eclecticism, to the existential idea that meaning is created by individual choice, to various combinations of the above, there is now available a host of ideas, practices, and methodologies that provide an alternative to the reductionist hammer of naturalistic materialism. However, unlike traditional religions, these alternative spiritualities tend to be self-directed and to resent all external forms, structures, or objective organizing principles, including the constraints of consistency.

Not surprisingly, then, this emerging network of spiritualities has helped reinforce the idea of gender as something that each individual subjectively defines for himself. What masculinity (or femininity) means to me may differ from what it means to you, and we are each free to autonomously work out our own understanding of these concepts. This was reflected in the dispute over the Manchester toilets, when a student said:

If you were born female, still presently quite feminine, but defined as a man you should be able to go into the men's toilets. You don't necessarily have to have had gender reassignment surgery, but you could just define yourself as a man, feel very masculine in yourself, feel that in fact being a woman is not who you are.

Liquefying Gender

Thus, the new spiritualities, underpinned by the epistemology of postmodern relativism, liquefy gender as thoroughly as their materialistic predecessors did, not by reducing them to meaninglessness, as materialism does, but by reducing their meaning to something self-actuated by the individual. Having to submit to an outside narrative of what it means to be a guy or a gal is seen as a stifling imposition on our freedom—the freedom each of us should have to work out our own gender with fear and trembling.

So while my gender may not be in danger of slipping away during the night (at least I can sleep soundly now!), it could slip away during the day by an act of simple volition or perhaps even forgetfulness.

Oh, boy!


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