I discovered Prudence, the agony aunt of the website slate.com, a few years ago. It was anything but “Ask Dear Eliza". The woman who answered readers' questions on behalf of the Dear Prudence persona was Mallory Ortberg, author of The New York Times bestselling book Texts from Jane Eyre, among others, and co-creator of the entertaining feminist website The Toast.
Her advice was to the point, precise and secular, and sometimes the letter writers were reprimanded. It was voyeurism at its best, and I started looking forward to Mondays and Thursdays when new installments of Dear Prudence would be published.
In late 2018, Ortberg underwent a transformation. His name was now Daniel M Ortberg, and the advice remained razor-sharp. I started following Daniel on Twitter and learned that he married Grace Lavery at the end of 2019 and would henceforth be known as Daniel M Lavery.
Any friend of Daniel's was a friend of mine, and my “encounter" with Grace exceeded all my expectations. She is a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in Victorian literature. She is a respected intellectual and writer, and if social media is anything to go by, she is the world's most popular transgender academic.
My admiration for the Lavery couple is not the only reason I consider myself pro-trans. I have always detested all forms of discrimination and people who impose their values on others. When dealing with transphobic individuals, I instinctively know we are on opposing sides. But recently I have come to realise two things: first, the disruption of our understanding of gender is probably one of the greatest social and cultural shifts during the past 50 years; and second, my knowledge about it is rather scant, and I only know enough to suspect it is much more complex than most people realise.
If I want to engage with people who, for example, confuse gender with sexual orientation or who dismiss the entire phenomenon as attention-seeking or a trend, I will need to improve my vocabulary, among other things.
Sex vs gender
There is great excitement in our family because my generation's first grandchild is expected soon. “Is it a little girl or a little boy?" I asked the soon-to-be grandmother, according to custom.
It's a little girl who is expected in July in Manchester, England. This means the sex “female" will be assigned to her based on her external genitalia at birth. (Other biological markers can provide more information later on, including chromosomes, hormones, reproductive glands, genes, and the structure of the brain and skeleton.)
Furthermore, it means she will be raised in accordance with the gender that is traditionally associated with her biological sex. Her millennial parents probably won't dress her in pink from head to toe, but the expectation is nevertheless that dolls, ponytails and party dresses will be involved. We are all looking forward to it.
However, according to reliable sources there is an estimated 1-in-250 chance that this baby doll's gender will not correspond with her biological sex. If that is the case, it is already twice as likely as a decade ago that she will recognise, announce and live out her (or their, to use the gender-neutral pronoun) nonconformist gender identity.
The mind shift that her surprised parents would have to make in such a case is that sex and gender are not the same thing, and that they usually, but not necessarily, correspond to one other. Sex is based on biological characteristics, while gender describes how someone perceives themselves and lives in society. This develops within various social contexts — the family, the community, and society's political, religious and cultural value systems. It is, therefore, a social construct that offers more than just the two options of male or female.
The idea that gender is binary (therefore male or female) has long been debunked by scientists. There is widespread acceptance of the concept that gender exists on a spectrum and is bimodal rather than binary. Now I have to explain what bimodal means, and once again I'm annoyed that my parents insisted I take history instead of biology at school.
High school history in the 1970s was, after all, a bloodthirsty fairy tale aimed at recruiting supporters for the National Party government. Now that I think about it, the most interesting thing about my history class was that the teacher, Mr Hanekom, had an extraordinary love for ballet and flower arrangements (and absolutely no interest in the Border War).
If he hadn't been married to the choir teacher, Mr Hanekom would have been under suspicion of those behind the Boereworsgordyn. Tongues wagged anyway, since there was no “Hanekom baby".
Thanks to my father's enthusiasm for sharing his interest in art history with us, I was acquainted with hermaphrodites in Greek and Roman art at an early age — perhaps better preparation than biology classes offered during those years for understanding the difference between binary and bimodal. I am also indebted to Cade Hildreth, a former American Rugby Player of the Year who identifies as genderqueer, for the metaphor below:
Imagine gender as two hills, one representing masculinity and the other femininity. In the binary model, they are completely separate with no overlapping characteristics. It is therefore unacceptable or even inconceivable for anyone to exist between these two hills, and the mental health of any individual who falls in that area is inevitably questioned. Parents confronted with the physical ambiguity of a newborn's sex (something that occurs at an estimated rate similar to people with red hair) usually agree to procedures that resolve things one way or another.
In the bimodal model, there are also two hills, but in this case each hill represents a group of characteristics — from height to body hair — associated with the descriptions “feminine" or “masculine". This allows space for people who fall between the hills to be welcomed in society, because to varying degrees they display characteristics attributed to both men and women.
A similar landscape applies to gender, and the valley between the hills teems with an astonishing variety of gender identities that I will attempt to logically categorise below.
“Transgender" is often used to refer to all nonconforming gender identities but falls short when it comes to understanding concepts such as gender fluidity. Furthermore, many people exclusively associate it with transgender men, like my friend Daniel M Lavery, or with transgender women such as Caitlin Jenner, the former Olympic athlete whose gender transition made headlines worldwide.
Let's start instead with cisgender, which means your gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to you at birth and which applies to most of us. In contrast, transgender means the gender you identify with does not match the gender on your birth certificate.
If you identify as non-binary or genderqueer (the preferred term), it can refer to a wide spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively male or female. For example, you can identify as both male and female (bi-gender) or as without gender (agender). Your experience may determine that you are gender fluid, moving back and forth between genders, or you may identify as third gender, which means you do not burden your gender with a label.
The language used to describe this broader understanding of gender is still evolving. The Human Rights Campaign, a 50-year-old organisation campaigning for LGBTQ rights in the US, uses the term gender expansive to describe a wider and more inclusive range of gender identities and expressions.
The difference between gender identity and gender expression also deserves brief comment. Identity refers to how you experience your gender identity, while expression is about how you communicate your gender to others through your appearance and behaviour. Although the two often go hand in hand, people may choose not to publicly express their gender identity for various reasons.
Now that we have a handle on the language, the question arises whether new words necessarily mean that the phenomenon itself is new. Research definitely indicates that the percentage of people identifying as gender nonconforming has increased sharply during the past decade, especially among those under 25. Some reasons given for this include more tolerant secular cultures allowing greater visibility of transgender people and the fact that current surveys collect more inclusive data on gender identities.
Nevertheless, many people still believe that humanity has always been exclusively binary in terms of sex and gender and that gender nonconformity is a recent phenomenon that should not be tolerated. However, history tells a less one-dimensional story.
It’s an old story
For a summary of gender history, I turn to the website of the award-winning news magazine Foreign Policy, published in Washington for the past 50 years.
The concise history is presented as a timeline that begins around 380 BC when the Greek philosopher Plato wrote his Symposium. The character Aristophanes tells a creation story in which three genders exist — men, who come from the sun; women, who represent the earth; and a third, androgynous sex, a descendant of the moon.
The timeline jumps a century or so to 200 BC and the appearance of Manusmriti, a controversial document containing Hindu laws that refer to a third gender of children believed to be born after neither the father nor the mother had the upper hand during conception.
A few more leaps take us to the Balkans in the 1400s, where “sworn virgins" (called burneshas, meaning “he-she") make their appearance. These are women who commit to sexual abstinence to be able to live as men and thereby gain certain rights and privileges.
Come along to India in 1871, where the British colonial rulers, through the Criminal Tribes Act, outlaw the country's hijras — a community of intersex and transgender people who have long been tolerated and even welcomed in South Asia according to ancient texts but who, according to the dismayed British, disrupt social order.
We then travel to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the longtime home of a gender-bending community known as muxes, where a festival called Vela de las Intrépidas is launched in 1971 to celebrate ambiguous gender identities.
It's a long and wide-ranging story, but for interest's sake let us return to the subcontinent where the high courts in Pakistan (2007) and India (2014) once again recognised the right of hijras and others to identify as a “third gender". (Passports with a third gender option have also been available in Australia since 2014.)
By 2014, Facebook expanded its gender options to an impressive 50, including the inclusion of cisgender. So now you have the opportunity to indicate that your gender identity does indeed align with your biological sex, rather than cisgender being the default position.
However, references to visibility and tolerance should not lead you to believe that transgender people are embraced by everyone in most communities. Research shows that they are exposed to extensive social stigma, discrimination and sexual violence; that they are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty and twice as likely to be homeless and unemployed. Depression and anxiety are also disproportionately prevalent in this community, and in America the suicide rates for transgender people are nearly 10 times higher than for the general population.
Opposition comes from various quarters — from gender sceptics who take the whole story with a pinch of salt, to fence-sitters who “accidentally" address transgender people using the wrong pronoun on purpose, and finally the transphobic individuals who do not hesitate to manifest hatred and prejudice. In addition, nonconforming gender identities are often confused with sexual orientation, causing people who already oppose homosexuality to be convinced to reject the transgender community.
Strangely enough, the conservative Islamic country of Iran is extremely tolerant towards transgender people, and sex reassignment procedures are even subsidised by the state. However, homosexuality is still considered a transgression punishable by execution for men and flogging for women.
Dr Karen L Blair, a psychologist who frequently writes about gender identity, believes she knows why some people feel threatened by this phenomenon. She refers to research by St Louis University to determine which type of gender identity instils the most fear in people who are strongly attached to the binary concept of gender.
It was clear to the researchers that people for whom a fairly rigid definition of masculinity or femininity is central to their personal identity, feel threatened by other gender identities because it challenges the boundaries of their own personal identity. But what apparently upsets this group the most is a transgender man who appears masculine and is indistinguishable from a cisgender man, or a transgender woman who looks and acts just like a cisgender woman.
Such cases raise the possibility that there may indeed be more than two binary genders, and that it is therefore possible to change one's binary gender. What makes it so unsettling for this group is that it raises questions about an important aspect of their personal identity. Their vehement reaction is therefore an attempt to batten down the hatches around their own identity and fortify the boundaries.
I now feel somewhat better informed, and I hope you do too. Readers who have more knowledge or experience on this subject are welcome to share it here, as there is still much to learn. We don't have to agree on everything, but life is too short — and too interesting — for intolerance and fussing about Adam and Eve.
♦ VWB ♦
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