Articles / Categorization

Either/Or

This is the third in a series of posts about gender categories. In the first post I discussed the categorization theories of Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff. In the second I took on the question of whether transgender people are men, women, some combination, or neither men or women, and discarded the idea that transgender people form some kind of “third gender.” In this post I will examine the idea that all transgender people are either men or women, and that there is no overlap.

There are two ways separating transgender people into men and women. One is to assert that each of us is either a man or a woman forever, and that this is determined before birth and unchangeable. The other is that our gender is dependent on a specific feature, and if that feature changes then our gender changes. I dislike the first approach intensely, and I find the second approach problematic.

In the first of these posts I discussed how there are two categories (man and woman), and it’s natural that people would prefer to be able to sort every person in the world into one of those two. The categories are so complex, it’s also understandable that people would prefer to have a single criterion for sorting. Sadly, the natural world eludes any attempt to pin down a single criterion. The most popular criterion is genitals, followed by chromosomes, since they’re the areas with the least overlap, but there are plenty of intersex cases that defy categorization on both criteria. There is also the difficulty that chromosomes are uncategorizable without special equipment, and genitals are also commonly kept hidden. Secondary sex characteristics like breasts and hip width are subject to a lot of overlap, and breasts can be developed with hormones.

Popular within the transgender movement is a notion of gender identity, an innate, immutable characteristic that is claimed to determine someone’s “true” gender (and thus, often, their destiny); it is often claimed to be an indication of someone’s “brain sex.” It is argued that all transgender people (or sometimes all “true transgender” people) have a mismatch between the sex assigned to them at birth and their gender identity. The problem with this is that there is no direct way to measure gender identity (or brain sex) at all; it is entirely based on individual claims. Thus, even though it is claimed to be immutable and eternal (justifying claims of destiny), it can change if the individual changes his or her mind. This can result in someone being classified as “just a cross-dresser,” and therefore innately a man, one week and a transsexual, and therefore innately a woman, the next week.

Even if there exists some category of “brain sex,” and it some day becomes possible to measure this directly rather than relying on subjective reports of gender identity, it seems highly unlikely that there is an exact match between on the one hand everyone who has a mismatch between their assigned gender and their brain sex, and on the other hand everyone who has changed genders or plans to change genders (or who “should” change genders, or who has a reasonable expectation of being satisfied with a gender transition). There will still be people born male who “successfully” transition to female without a “female brain” and people born female who lead contented lives as women despite having “male brains.” If this “brain sex” exists, it is of limited value in classifying people as male or female.

The idea that category membership depends on a mutable characteristic is also difficult to work with.  Obviously governments like it, because they can choose an easily verifiable characteristic and one that’s hard to change and even harder to change back, like genital appearance. But many transgender people have pointed out that their genitals have relatively little to do with their interactions with other people and that 99% of the time it’s just as easy (or just as difficult) to deal with people and be accepted in a given gender role with mismatched genitals.

These hard-and-fast criteria have a very hard time dealing with issues of passing. If someone assigned male at birth passes for female, people who don’t know of her birth gender will treat her as a woman, and in most ways it is impractical for people who do know her birth gender to treat her as a man. Attempts to regulate gender privileges based on a single criterion wind up being attempts to outlaw passing.

Since I’ve wound up expressing dissatisfaction with the “third gender” approach and the “either/or” approach, you can probably guess that I prefer an approach where people are seen as being a mixture of genders. In a later post I will explain how this would work, and why it would be preferable to the two other possibilities.

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