The Scientific Basis of Categorization Studies

In my previous post, I quoted some work by George Lakoff about the category mother, and extrapolated it to the case of gender categories. I have a scientific caveat to make. Lakoff was trained by Noam Chomsky, and although he broke publicly with Chomsky in the 1970s, he still uses Chomsky’s methods of introspection and grammaticality judgments. When Chomsky wants to prove a grammatical point, he invents sentences in English and classifies them as “grammatical” or “ungrammatical,” and builds his arguments on those judgments. When Chomsky’s students study languages that they’re not native speakers of, they invent sentences in those languages, find a native speaker and ask that person for grammaticality judgments. This method assumes that grammaticality judgments (a) are valid and unbiased, and (b) hold for every other speaker of the language, assumptions that are not justified.

Lakoff does something similar with his list of “but tests” that are judged as “normal” or “strange,” and I repeated this in my discussion. These informal judgments are useful for speculation, but they have the same problems as Chomsky’s grammaticality judgments. However, the notions of radial categories and prototype effects are based on more than this. Eleanor Rosch herself did reproducible psycholinguistic laboratory tests, and most of the Lakoff work that I’ve described can be accounted for with tests like these.


Describing gender categories: clusters and radii, Rosch and Lakoff

A while ago on the My Husband Betty message boards I posted an analysis of the category “woman” in contemporary American culture, and where transgender people fit into it. A couple of months ago there was another discussion about this issue, and since then I’ve wanted to rework my original post and make it available here. In my view, a lot of discrimination against transgender people has its origins in overly rigid views of gender. I have no illusion that posting my analysis here will suddenly enlighten bigots around the world, but I hope it will be helpful to some people. On the other hand, it’s not quite as helpful to the transgender movement as some might like.

It’s important to note here that this is a descriptive analysis. I think it’s a waste of time to present the way you want things to be before you figure out how they are. I am trying to describe the way that people understand gender, and after that I will talk about how it could be different. Please don’t take my description of an attitude or belief as an endorsement of it.

My analysis is based on the categorization theories of Eleanor Rosch, as presented in George Lakoff’s excellent book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. In Chapter 4, Lakoff shows how it is more useful to describe the category of mother with a “cluster model” than with the classical categorization model that uses necessary and sufficient conditions. For example, Dr. Johnson defined a mother as a woman that has borne a child; Lakoff calls this the “birth model” of motherhood. But Lakoff identifies four other models that are in wide use: a genetic model, a nurturance model, a marital model and a genealogical model. He invents a series of more or less plausible sentences with the phrase “real mother” in them, each one affirming one of the five models and rejecting the others.

Critically, mother includes mutually exclusive subcategories like surrogate mother and foster mother. Some people may try to be fundamentalist and dogmatic about the birth criterion, but most agree that both of these kinds of mothers are still mothers in the end. (more…)

Helen and Betty on Dr. Keith

Helen Boyd and Betty Crow were on the Dr. Keith Ablow show last week.  YouTube links thanks to Kiss of Athena and Helen’s blog.

I know they were both nervous about being “ambassadors of the trans community” on the show, and being able to get any kind of coherent message out while sitting in those chairs under the lights.  I think they did a great job, and I’m glad they got the word out that it’s possible to put your relationship before the trans and still be satisfied with your life.  I’m also impressed with Dr. Keith himself: he seems like a genuinely caring and open-minded guy.

What We Do Know

Principle One of transgender-ness is “Nobody really knows what’s going on.” I figured that out a long time ago, and it’s still true. I’ve written an article about how hard it is to find out about transgender issues, and the difference between saying “there are people who are like this” (scientifically justifiable), and saying “everyone who’s this way is also that way” (not scientifically justifiable without representative sampling). Maybe some day we’ll find out some Big New Discoveries, and then it won’t be as true. But there are limits to how much we can know about people, so we’ll never completely understand what’s going on, any more than we understand love or ham radio.

But. It’s not that we don’t know anything. We can make a lot of “some” statements, a lot of existential observations. I’ve made some complicated ones in Principles Two through Seven, and even ventured to make a categorical statement (about people in general, not just transgender people) in Principle Eight. Now I’m going to make a bunch of other “some” statements that I think are relatively uncontroversial, within the trans movement and outside it. This is pretty much Trans 101 stuff, that I hope everyone can agree on, even anti-trans bigots (although they might choose different words).

I’m not going to talk about feelings or beliefs here, or sexual activity, or relationships, because those areas are much trickier. I’m also going to try and stay within a reference frame that’s accessible to outsiders, and avoid doing framing tricks like “I was never cross-dressing, because I was always really a woman inside.”

  1. Most people can be unambiguously classified as male or female based on their physical sex characteristics.
  2. Some people cannot be unambiguously classified as male or female, and some people who were thought to be unambiguously one sex are later discovered to have characteristics of the other sex.
  3. People assign each other to genders, sometimes on the basis of sex characteristics, but often on the basis of social cues that signal membership in one gender or another.
  4. Some people cross-dress. By this I mean that some people who are assigned to one gender sometimes intentionally present social cues signaling that they’re a member of another gender. This usually involves clothing, but can also involve other forms of grooming, and modification of voice and body language.
  5. Some people pass, at least some of the time. They were assigned to one gender, but sometimes other people categorize them as a member of a different gender. This may be the intention of the person passing, or not. It may be true for any length of time, from a split second to an entire lifetime.
  6. Some people cross-live. They were assigned to one gender, but they intentionally present the cues of another gender, and are accepted as that gender, to a greater or lesser degree, all the time, for a long time.
  7. Observations 1 through 6 have been recorded throughout history.
  8. Some people modify their bodies, or arrange to have their bodies modified, to have less of the sex characteristics of one gender, and more of the characteristics of a different gender. This has been going on for a long time, but in the past hundred years technology has advanced and now people can achieve a greater resemblance, often with more comfort and less danger, than before.

I think at this point that this is pretty much all that can be said about transgenderism without getting into the problematic areas of feelings, beliefs, sexuality and relationships. If you think there’s something I’ve gotten wrong, or left something out, please feel free to email me or post a comment.

You may notice that I’ve left out things like the stria terminalis; I’ll probably have to address that at some point, but right now I’ll just say it hasn’t been proven.

I’m not completely sure what the point of this is, but I felt it would help me to have as “theory-neutral” a description of transgender phenomena as possible.

Ten Favorite Singers

I felt like writing about singers, since singing is a good way to practice your voice. I also was listening to some great women singers recently and figured I’d share. Here are ten women that I like; I’ve picked five that I feel are fairly traditionally “femme,” and five that are less traditional. Most of them have sent shivers up my spine at some point or another. Here are the less traditional ones.

  1. Kate Pierson (The B-52’s). She’s got an amazingly powerful voice (“Roam”) and works well with Fred Schneider (“Good Stuff”) and Michael Stipe (“Me and Honey”). She also loves wild clothes and has settled in my hometown. See also Lady Miss Kier (Deee-Lite).
  2. Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders). I was a bit put off by her worldliness (“Middle of the Road”) when I was younger, but she has a good feel for the poignant (“My City was Gone”, “Back on the Chain Gang”). See also Terri Nunn (Berlin).
  3. Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs). “Like the Weather” was the first song I heard her on, and it’s an odd song because her voice is so much higher and cheerier-sounding than most of her other work, as she’s singing about being so depressed she can’t get out of bed. Her “Unplugged” cover of Roxy Music’s “More than This” is a classic. See also Dolores O’Riordan (Cranberries).
  4. Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde). Napolitano has seen it all and knows how fucked up it all is (“Free”). But she can still be romantic (“The Ship Song”) and tragic (“Tomorrow, Wendy”). See also Amy Ray (“Indigo Girls”).
  5. Janis Joplin (Big Brother and the Holding Company). My parents were big fans of Joplin when they were together, but by the time I was old enough to remember music, they’d both gotten rid of all their albums. Too bad, she was amazing. At first I thought all she did was scream, but now I really hear her emotional range (“Piece of My Heart”, “Me and Bobby McGee”). I also believed all that bullshit about her being ugly. In the past few years I’ve seen photos and videos of her, and I honestly think she’s one of the most beautiful women from the Sixties.

Honorable mention: Aretha Franklin, Maria Bethânia, Monique Powell (Save Ferris), Edith Piaf, Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes), Shirley Bassey, Claire Torry (Pink Floyd), Macy Gray. Now for the more traditional singers. (more…)

The Abbé de Choisy, first pass

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of the history of France, and occasionally I encounter a famous French transgender person (in the umbrella sense of “transgender”). Today I came across mention of the Abbé François-Timoléon de Choisy. This is the first I’ve heard of him (I use the male pronouns because he lived as a man for the later part of his life), but I’ll peruse his Aventures de l’abbé de Choisy habillé en femme at my leisure and report back here. Sadly, his later memoirs are not on line, but they may be worth buying to get an idea of what non-transitioning transgender people can do when they get old.

One thing that really galls me is that when I searched for reference to Choisy with the word “transgender,” I came up with a bunch of links that read (emphasis mine):

1676 MTF transsexual Abbe Francois Timoleon de Choisy attended Papal inaugural ball in female dress. His memoirs, published postmortem, offer the first written testimony of cross-dressing.

It turns out that these are all copied from a publication by Lambda Legal called “Bending the Mold: An Action Kit for Transgender Youth,” with this note at the end: “Special thanks for assistance and source materials goes to James Hoagland,
T. Aaron Hans, Pauline Park, Kay Brown and Leslie Feinberg.” On a cursory reading, the information and recommendations in “Bending the Mold” seem fairly straightforward and unproblematic. But it really steams me up that someone would claim as a “MTF transsexual” someone who lived over two hundred years before the word was invented, lived as his birth gender for the last two thirds of his life, and never had any permanent body modifications. Maybe something in his memoirs will provide some support for an argument that he was a “true transsexual” (blech) on some level, but come on. Way to put the screws on those trans youth, eh?

Anyway, rant’s over. I’ll update you on our friend the abbot once I’ve had a chance to read more.