Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Squirtle Used Storm of Links! The Gender Neutral Edition

So, in my wandering about the intarwebz, I came across a thread entitled 'Why Men Have It Easy".  This was a list, which contained such items as "you know stuff about tanks", "you can go to the bathroom without a support group", "three pairs of shoes are enough", and "everything on your face stays its original colour".

This list is a joke, but it did get me thinking.  All of these things are choices.  They are not inherent to being a woman, or to being a man.

(Before I get into discussing gender, I would like to point out that I am, as far as I know, biologically female, and have always identified as such.  So, I apologise for any bias due to this.  Now back to your regular programming.)

Culturally, though, these stereotypical beliefs are still held.  Manly men are supposed to act and look a certain way.  Feminine women are supposed to act and look another way.  It's all bullshit.

Human gender may seem simple on the surface.  XX chromosomes = female, XY = male.  However, according to Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) approximately 1 in 59 people, or 1.7%, are born intersexed, that is, neither fully male nor female (in the biological sense).  To quote from the book (with this specific quote being found on wikipedia);

While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies [...] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females. The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits. [...]
Modern surgical techniques help maintain the two-sex system. Today children who are born "either/or-neither/both" — a fairly common phenomenon — usually disappear from view because doctors "correct" them right away with surgery.

1.7% may not seem like many.  But there are other things that many not make someone traditionally male or female.  For instance, Chimerism.  A chimera is a creature which is made up of cells from two different beings, is the simple explanation (a more complicated, scientifically-worded explanation can be found at the top of this article).  In human beings, it can occur when a pregnancy begins as twins, either fraternal or identical (although, it is far, far harder to spot with identical twins, as the DNA is so similar).  If one twin dies before a certain point, its cells can be absorbed by the other twin, resulting in a person who has the organs or body parts of their dead twin.  This is often not discovered, so we have no idea how prevalent it is.  It is generally found by genetically testing different body parts of the same person, which is not often called for.  Incidentally, this is quite common in marmosets.

A few famous cases of Chimerism in humans include those of Lydia Fairchild and Karen Keegan.  Both women found that their children, genetically speaking, were not their children.  Returning to the topic of gender, I keep finding reports of a teenage boy, treated by Scottish doctors in 1998 for an undescended testicle...which turned out to be his dead sister's ovary, but no one seems to have a source on that.  However, anecdotal or not, it does illustrate the fact that, for all you know, you may well contain DNA from another person, who may or may not match your gender.  In fact, if you've ever had a successful allogeneic bone marrow transplant, then you definitely are; your blood, genetically speaking, belongs to the donor.

My point here is, you may not even be one person, so how can you pin down gender?

This may not seem relevant to everyday life - unless you stray far from traditional gender norms.  Gay men and women still face prejudice, for instance, nevermind those who identify as something other than their biological gender.  I would recommend taking a look at Transgender Day of Remembrance, but please be warned that the accounts of those who died over the previous year are harrowing.

To link back to the start of this article, a 16-month-old toddler was violently killed by his mother's boyfriend for "acting too much like a girl".

I don't understand people who can think like this.  Gender stereotypes are a cultural thing, they're not genetic.  The ideas we hold about how to "act like a girl" are a mass delusion; they don't exist outside of our minds, they have no objective value.  Ideas like, 'pink for a girl, blue for a boy' (something that has been the case for less than a hundred years, incidentally).  Or -

I was going to say something about clothing here, but I have no clue how to phrase it.  "Men wear trousers, women wear dresses"?  Obviously not the case; consider kilts, robes, women's jeans.  "Men wear clothes designed for men, and women wear clothes designed for women"?  Yes, I think we can safely say that that's an embedded cultural stereotype.  But, seriously; the person the designer had in mind does not have to have anything in common with the person who eventually wears the outfit.  Taller, fatter, thinner, different skin-tone, even different gender (hey, they might not even be one person, or have a gender, you don't know).

Anyway, as I was saying.  Ideas like, "women paint their nails, men don't", or "men should play with toy cars and trains, and should women have dolls" are bullshit.  They are nonsense.  They have no place in a civilised society.

How can someone kill someone else over that?

A more famous example is that of Brandon Teena, who was portrayed by Hilary Swank in the film Boys Don't Cry.  When acquaintances of Teena found that he was biologically female, he was raped and later murdered.

The following video is an animated version of a letter from a transgendered woman to her father, and, while not exactly happy, shows great strength.

The only time gender should be relevant is in matters regarding sexuality or fertility, both of which are really only to do with yourself and the person you've chosen to share it with.

Of course, that may not always be practical, for instance, in the everyday case of using a public bathroom or changing room.  Or in the case of sports; you may remember the controversy over Caster Semenya, who inspired debate over whether or not she was fully female.  Perhaps sporting events should be separated by something other than gender?  In some cases, perhaps height/weight/body fat percentage would work?  I'm just throwing out ideas here, I'm not seriously suggesting ways to reconfigure competitive sports (though I do think reconfiguring competitive sports to be less gender-focused is worth thinking about).  As for toilets/changing rooms; perhaps lose the urinals, and have stalls with a shared washing area, something like that?  Our society is highly gendered, and I don't have a solution for the things I'm mentioning.  At this point, I think raising awareness, and thinking about it, is a good start.

Another issue is how to address people whose gender may not be readily apparent.  I think the best solution there is simply, if you don't know, ask, and, if you are asked, don't take offence at a honest mistake (happily, most of the non-typically gendered people I've met tend to be very accommodating about those mistakes).

Returning to the issue of pink for a girl, and blue for a boy, there is some evidence that children are treated differently from birth due to gender.  The Baby X Study indicates that  people treat infants differently depending on whether or not they are introduced as male or female.

Incidentally, in that first thread I mentioned, I was accused of wanting people to all be the same when I pointed out that the list was offensive.  Insisting that not every man or woman has to subscribe to a list of stereotypes is not wanting everyone to be the same, and nor is supporting the idea of acknowledging fluid gender roles.  It's about as far from wanting everyone to be the same as you can get.  People are individuals; not genders or races, although cultural ideas about these things will shape them dramatically.

Furthermore, sexism is not simply spouting the idea that one gender is better than another.  It also applies when insisting that someone of a certain gender has to act a certain way, or they're "not real men/women".

An interesting book I read a while ago was Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, the true story of Vincent's year spent disguised as a man.  During this year, s/he joined a male bowling team, worked as a salesman, stayed at a monastery, visited strip clubs, and dated women (Vincent identifies as a lesbian, and revealed herself to her dates if they reached a third date).  Her account of the differences she noticed is incredibly interesting.  Her world is very different to mine, in many ways; she's from an older generation, and another country, with different cultural norms and attitudes.  However, some things were similar, and her findings where interesting even when they seemed to apply less to my world.

She made the point that people who identify as male can often be just as trapped by gender norms as those who identify as female.  Many of the men she met, for instance, felt unable to express their feelings; for most, the only emotion which it was appropriate to voice was anger, except in the case of sporting events.

I would like to live in a world where people are people, and everything else is a secondary concern.  After participating in the Slutwalk, and meeting so many strong people, of varying genders, I think it's possible to build that world; not easy, but possible.

Speaking of changing the world, let's end on this article, about parents who are choosing to raise their children without advertising their gender.

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