Articles / Categorization

The Sixteenth Gender

In my recent post about gender categories, I focused on describing the way people tend to view gender categories, and why. In my last post I discussed the empirical basis for Eleanor Rosch’s theories of categorization. In this post I’m going to be prescriptive. Unlike cranky prescriptivists, I’m going to justify my positions in terms of my personal agenda and priorities. You will probably agree with my prescriptions to the extent that you share my priorities.

One of my priorities is honesty: honesty with yourself and honesty with others. Other priorities are freedom, fairness, safety, respect and caring. I also like consistency, but not foolish consistency. I dislike and distrust innatism (also called nativism). A good set of gender categories will balance these priorities, giving people the freedom to live their lives as they wish, while being fair and honest to others. It will be reasonably consistent and avoid innatist assumptions.

There are really three possibilities for the gender assignment of “gender-non-conforming” people, which would include not just transgender people, but also intersex people and other people who are hard to put into one category or another. A given person is either in one gender (a man or a woman), both, or neither. I’ll take up these possibilities in order of how I feel about them.

In this post I’ll start with the possibility I like the least: “neither.” One thing that drives me up the wall is the often-repeated platitude that gender-non-conforming people form a “third gender.” Are you seriously telling me that a male-to-female transvestite, a studiously androgynous genderqueer and a butch lesbian are all part of the same gender? If that’s the case, then it’s a completely meaningless category, because there is not only no common principle (to fit the classical category model), but no prototype either. All that we have in common is the difficulty that other people have in categorizing us, and some of the experiences that result from that, but that’s not enough for a gender. The “third gender” idea is a nicer version of the bigot’s categorization system that puts us all in a category of “freaks.”

Another system within this possibility is the idea of a plethora of genders, that could theoretically be expanded to infinity, so that left-handed FTM non-ops on hormones with top surgery and goatees form their own gender, separate from the left-handed FTM non-ops on hormones with top surgery and sideburns. (Where to put the ones with sideburns and goatees is left as an exercise for the reader.) These systems all ignore the fact that most people, including most transgender and intersex people, really want to be one gender or the other, at least at a given time. It is not very respectful or caring to deny us this without a good reason.

In my previous article I made it clear that categories exist within a particular culture, and my focus is American culture in the early twenty-first century. However, there are categories in other cultures that are claimed by some to be a “third gender” (more information in this Wikipedia article). The fa’afafine of Samoa and the muxe of Oaxaca are examples. Usually they are born male and take on female roles, but some, like the sworn virgins of the Balkans, are assigned female at birth and take on male roles.

It might be possible to advocate the adoption of gender categories like these in America, but honestly in reading about them I find them neither fair nor free, respectful, safe or caring. Usually the male-born “third gender” individuals are accepted as a kind of second-class female, allowed to participate in some female activities but excluded from others. They are also expected to only be sexually involved with men. Their status and safety vary from culture to culture, but they are almost always lower-status and more vulnerable than men or women. Personally, life as an Indian hijra or a Brazilian travesti sounds to me horrible and degrading, and I would much rather be either a man or a woman in those societies than their “third gender.”

I remember once seeing a person named Toby on some television talk show who carefully balanced gender cues and adamantly resisted any attempt to be categorized as male or female. If an individual really wants to be a gender other than man or woman, or no gender at all, I’ll do my best to respect that. I’m mostly objecting to attempts to dump all transgender people in a catch-all “third gender” category.