1,500 words ain’t enough when it comes to these two.
So, back before I started my Tumblr, I used to see this post on Facebook pretty regularly. Every few weeks, it seemed another neoliberal feminist would share it. Basically, it was all about a triumvirate of definitions that went something like this (& here it is from the APA, Planned Parenthood, Tolerance.org, & the eminently search-engine optimized TeenHealthSource.com):
- Sex is how you were born.
- Gender is how you feel.
- Orientation is whom you love.
I always thought it was really wonderful that people, many of them straight & cis as far as I knew, were trying to plug in to LGBTQ issues, to offer their support and plant these ideas in the newsfeeds of gods know who.
I still believe the differentiation of gender & orientation is a huge landmark of progress in the LGBTQ movement’s influence on our culture. People suffered and fought to bring homosexuality as far as its come on the grandiose level of society. Understanding and accepting that a person’s gender is not an automatic deciding factor in their orientation is a huge step towards understanding and accepting people. The dissolution of toxic heteronormativity is an on-going project that we can all participate in by remembering this and living our lives by it.
So, yes, setting out gender and orientation is useful. What I don’t understand about these posts now, after my radicalization at the hands of trans Tumblr, is the distinction it draws between sex and gender. On one hand, sex is something you do, gender is something you are. But that’s not what they mean in these posts. What do they mean? How have they turned these formal synonyms into something distinct?
The most common reason seems to be some kind of borderline fanatical devotion to scientific empiricism. We live in an age (and many of us in nation-states) founded on fact and reason, of statistics and reality. This is the whole Enlightenment bag that wound up in the United States’ founding documents. Maybe that’s why people so firmly believe that the physical matter of your reproductive organs–something that can be empirically observed–is something that can be used to scientifically classify you. (Kind of seems like the reason people always want to ask trans folks about what’s going on down there.)
But fact, reason, stats, reality; these are all tools of the heteronormative patriarchy that has ruled scientific (and philosophical) discourse for centuries. What we think of as science, in my estimation, is a system of approaching our perceptions. As with most systems designed for interpreting the sensory data we as tender apes have access to, the danger in accepting science at face value is that we lose our ability to recognize it as another form of input that we perceive.
Its objectivity earns our acceptance despite the fact that we know humans (i.e., those who practice science) are subjective creatures. In other systems, this leads to faith and beliefs. In science, it leads to hypotheses and conclusions.
These sorts of thoughts–faith, beliefs, hypotheses, conclusions–are necessary ideas that help us operate in the world. Without them, we might never be able to act. But the true crime of the scientific proselytizer is that, in preaching a definitive truth, they violate their own commandments. That is to say, the scientist with data is no less prone to dogma than the preacher with scripture.
But what does all this arcane language about truth and belief have to do with the separate definitions of sex and gender? Let’s hear what Kate Bornstein has to say when she discusses how we read an individual’s gender:
“So sex (the act) and gender (the classification) are different, and depending on the qualifier one is using for gender differentiation, they may or may not be dependent on one another. There are probably as many types of gender (gender systems) as could be imagined. Gender by clothing, gender by divine right, gender by lottery–these all make as much sense as any other criteria, but in our Western civilization, we bow down to the great god Science. No other type of gender holds as much sway as:
“Biological gender, which classifies a person through any combination of body type, chromosomes, hormones, genitals, reproductive organs, or some other corporeal or chemical essence. Belief in biological gender is in fact a belief in the supremacy of the body in the determination of identity. It’s biological gender that most folks refer to when they say sex. By calling something ‘sex,’ we grant it seniority over all other types of gender–by some right of biology.”
To paraphrase, Bornstein is writing what our classifications of biological sex result in: a specific form of gender essentialism. Gender essentialism is a belief in an inherent difference between men and women, but is typically employed as a belief in the inherent difference between those born with penises and those born with vaginas as it usually operates off of the biological sex paradigm. The differences betweens these two categories form the essence of gender. (What this means for intersex people is a complicated issue. In fact, the entire intersex experience of sex and gender is nuanced in ways most of us can’t speak to.)
Aside from its obvious applications in the medical community’s compulsory gender assignment practices, gender essentialism enjoys great popularity among (and is the main reason I get nervous around) second-wave feminists. It may be what’s at the core of the man-hating stereotype (because hating one group is easier if you view yourself as essentially different), and it’s definitely what’s at the core of trans-exclusionary radical feminism and the trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) who espouse it.
The tragic irony in this is that the belief in the power of biological sex in defining an individual reinforces patriarchal heteronormativity. Upholding a difference between those assigned male and those assigned female plays into the notion that these two categories exist for the explicit purpose of defining whom it’s appropriate to be attracted to based on the notion that sexuality (and its biological objective: reproduction) is the primary arena in our lives where gender is expressed.
But this is ultimately the notion of sex we confuse with gender: sex (the act) is conflated with gender (the classification) based on our culture’s normative alignment of these separate things as definitively dependent. And that alignment is a product of hundreds of years of patriarchal demarcation of the world and its people, of sorting men from women for exploitative purposes.
Even as the sex/gender/orientation trinity recognizes the independence of gender and sexual orientation, it borrows from the same theories that once made these aspects of personality seem inherently related to confuse sex (the act) with gender (the classification).
Bornstein expounds on this when she writes:
“It’s not like gender is the only thing we confuse with sex. As a culture, we’re encouraged to equate sex (the act) with money, success, and security; and with products we’re told will help us attain money, success, and security. We live in a culture that succeeds in selling products (the apex of accomplishment in capitalism) by aligning those products with the attainment of one’s sexual fantasies.”
-Bornstein, Gender Outlaw (First Vintage Books Edition, 1995, pg. 31)
The real danger in these confusions is how they influence our attitudes and behaviors. Just as the conflation of sex with success makes us view those who can’t get laid as tragic or comic figures worthy of pity or ridicule, the conflation of sex with gender leads us to view those who defy our cultural standards as deranged or hilariously insane.
For trans people, the assertion that what people call biological sex(/gender) is still an inherent part of an individual’s identity is a refutation of any gender identity that doesn’t align with this notion of scientific delineation. Separating sex and gender along the lines of the sex/gender/orientation triumvirate does little to affirm the belief that gender is something outside of science’s current purview. And, given the scientific discourse around trans experiences and trans bodies (evolving and improving as it may so very gradually be), privileging biology’s definition of identity is tantamount to (1) denying trans people the right to define their own gender and (2) refuting their beliefs based on their perceptions thereof.
This is why assigned gender is a much more useful concept, regardless of whether you’re a doctor, a philosopher, or just someone who finds yourself discussing these things. Assigned gender recognizes the agency of gender non-conformists to set their own terms of identity by negating the supremacy of biology. It actually points the finger at scientific dogmatists by asserting that their definition of identity is what’s flawed and that they are the ones who are confused about what constitutes identity, especially in terms of gender. And it gives trans people the ability to define gender by something other than biology.
Trans women are allowed to say they’re biologically female. Trans men are allowed to say they are biologically male. Non-binary and genderqueer people are allowed to say they’re biologically neither, both, or a mix. Telling them they’re wrong is saying you prioritize patriarchal scientific dogma over the experiences of people who are experiencing gender instead of imposing it.
And if you’re the kind of person who wants to tell trans people they’re wrong about their gender, did you really just read this?