My last post “Perceptual Narrowing and Culturally Mandated Emotional Crippling of Children” described how our society stunts our development and domesticates us into docile, obedient subjects by flooding our senses with gender. One of the outcomes of this process is that we can only see two sexes—male and female—when the truth is that we are simply blinded to the broad spectrum of human sexual diversity.
People with XXY chromosomes, androgen insensitivity, ambiguous genitalia, and other visible, physical manifestations of both male and female characteristics demonstrate that humans are not a completely sexually dimoprhic species. These “intersex” people are often treated by the medical community as defective, and frequently subjected to genital mutilation (a.k.a. “surgery”), but there is no evidence that they are not just healthy members of the human tribe. It is only the perceptual narrowing of gender that limits our understanding of them to being between the two “real” sexes. The truth is that they are just one of many sexes which are miserably crushed into obscurity by the collapsing of human sexual diversity into an oppressive binary hierarchy.
When I first started digging into my repressed transgender feelings, I wanted to believe that the apparent sexual dimorphism of behavior and psychological characteristics in our society was one hundred percent socially constructed. I figured all men must be like me, squashing their personalities, and nervously avoiding the trauma of their socialization, but simply unaware of it. I figured I just must have been one of the (un)lucky souls whom Socrates had imagined to be dragged outside the cave:
Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
Glaucon: Certainly, he would.
Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”
Glaucon: Yes, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Socrates: Imagine once more, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
Glaucon: To be sure.
Socrates: And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
Glaucon: No question.
–Plato, The Republic, Book VII
I must admit that way of thinking was not only incredibly arrogant, as it assumes people who identify comfortably with their gender assignments are in the dark; it was also contrary to some pretty convincing evidence that sex-typical and atypical behavior and gender identity are at least partly biologically determined. An example of such evidence comes from children born with cloacal exstrophy, who are typically male in all genetic and morphological characteristics, except for the abdominal organs which are exposed, and the penis which is split in two. In the recent past, these children were assigned, with surgical reconstruction, to the female gender, but even with no knowledge about their history, they invariably refused their birth assignment and insisted on living as boys and men. It’s possible they were intuitively clued into their parents’ awareness of their history, but it’s certainly more plausible something about their biology led them to shed their female gender assignment.
Is it possible people who have typically concordant sexual genetics and morphology at birth, but later identify with the gender usually assigned to the opposite sex have some other biological factors which contribute to this result? Some hypothesize that different levels of androgens present during different phases of prenatal development might play a role in the etiology of transgenderism. One study found that among an (admittedly respondent-driven sample) of five hundred XY persons exposed prenatally to synthetic estrogen to prevent miscarriage, over 150 respondents or thirty percent identify as transsexual, transgender, gender dysphoric, or intersex. After learning this, I asked my mom if ne took any hormone suppositories to prevent miscarriage during nir pregnancy with me and ne said I was indeed exposed to progesterone. Sure, it’s a different hormone, but could it have a similar effect?
A lot of radical feminists cannot accept this possibility. Accepting that there may be any biological basis to gendered behavior and psychology would potentially overturn a lot of their valuable work because it would imply that gender is at least somewhat natural and not one hundred percent an oppressive tool of the patriarchy.
I am sympathetic to these perspectives. The ones that come without the hate speech against trans people, at least. I’m not a fan of the “TERF” term because it implies there is something wrong with radical feminism itself, when there isn’t. Interestingly a lot of people seem to think that second-wave feminism was transphobic, and that and modern, third-wave, liberal feminists have come around on the issue of transgenderism, but that is not true. Some haters also accuse transgender people of appropriating intersexuality for their own ends, but it seems feminism was the first to take that approach.
Just because some of gender is loosely related to biology does not mean that it is not harmful to women to coerce people into two distinct, non-overlapping, and hierarchical genders based on their genitalia alone. Transgenderism and radical feminism are completely compatible with each other, if one applies a multisexual analysis. The most cogent writing I’ve read on this subject comes from Andrea Dworkin in nir first book Woman Hating (1974):
We can presume then that there is a great deal about human sexuality to be discovered, and that our notion of two discrete biological sexes cannot remain intact. We can presume then that we will discover cross-sexed phenomena in proportion to our ability to see them…
However we look at it, whatever we choose to make out of the data of what is frequently called Intersex, it is clear that sex determination is not always clearcut and simple…
We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast fluid continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete…
Transsexuality is currently considered a gender disorder, that is, a person learns a gender role which contradicts his/her visible sex. It is a “disease” with a cure: a sex-change operation will change the person’s visible sex and make it consonant with the person’s felt identity. Since we know very little about sex identity, and since psychiatrists are committed to the propagation of the cultural structure as it is, it would be premature and not very intelligent to accept the psychiatric judgment that transsexuality is caused by faulty socialization. More probably transsexuality is caused by a faulty society. Transsexuality can be defined as one particular formation of our general multisexuality which is unable to achieve its natural development because of extremely adverse social conditions. There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency (see p. 185) as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here.
1. Every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition.
2. By changing our premises about men and women, role-playing, and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.
3. Community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.
It’s clear to me that (2) is happening, at least in my neck of the woods. But the idea that I could be a part of three (and avoid being a transsexual) appeals vastly more to me. This book and Refusing to be a Man by Andrea’s husband John Stoltenberg have been incredibly important influences on me and this blog. I think a lot of people are afraid of the idea of “community built on androgynous identity” because they imagine that would mean a gender gestapo that purged everyone of any and all gender expression. The key here is that Andrea refers to a “fluid androgyny.” There is room for all sorts of gender expression in this hypothetical androgynous community, and I’m hopeful that the genderqueer movement will bring about precisely the gender anarchy and equality of which Andrea dreamed.