On the Nature of Gender

What set this blog off was my weeping with joy for Cassidy Campbell. Seeing how beautiful Cassidy is, I thought to look at some of the online transgender groups. Seeing all these exquisite teenagers, whether they call themselves boys or girls, I could weep, knowing what hell they must have survived, and rejoice for their courage and the fact that they have now been able to make their own choices, thank the Gods. The walls of bigotry are crumbling faster in this country now that I think anyone could have guessed even ten years ago.

 These issues of personal freedom are especially relevant for most Pagans. I am proud of the fact that the Covenant of the Goddess was, as far as I know, the first national church inAmericato have openly gay and transgender First Officers. I would like to offer some thoughts about these issues, in hopes that someone might find them useful. Just in case some of my more militant friends have questions about my opinions here, let me assure you that this is not a straight person offering dumb advice to gays. Aside from the fact that I don’t believe any humans are 100% straight, or 100% anything, I have a dog in this fight, although I don’t care at this moment to discuss what breed it is.

 Any discussion of sexuality and gender must play against the backdrop of the “traditional” concept of marriage, which was based on the assumptions (a) that there are only two types of humans, men and women, (b) that all men have masculine personalities along with male biology, (c) that all women have feminine personalities along with female biology, and (d) that the only possible, socially acceptable, and even divinely ordained type of marriage is lifelong monogamy between one such man and one such woman. Clearly these assumptions are being rapidly unassumed in American society right now.

 Let me define some terms, just for clarity. First, whatever others may do, I will use male and female to refer to the biological body parts needed for physical reproduction, whereas I will use masculine and feminine to refer to a person’s psychological structure or personality, which includes gender identity.

 In dealing with gender and sexuality, we are dealing with at least a four-dimensional matrix, which is one dimension more than we can visualize. These are gender identity, sexual physiology, types of marriages, and libido level.

 1. It is now clear to any well-informed person that gender identity is not dictated by biology, any more than personality is. Gender identity is an aspect of personality, which is almost entirely learned, like everything else that constitutes culture in the anthropological sense. There is no genetic basis for gender identity. Just as there are many different types of personalities, we will probably find that there are many more gender identities than just “male” or “female,” once we can become open-minded about the whole issue.

2. Sexual physiology, meaning the body parts and differences needed for our mammalian reproduction process, does obviously have a genetic basis and includes the male and female sexes, of course, but there’s more to it.Europenow allows babies to be registered as male, female, or other. Surgery that arbitrarily assigns one sex or the other to an infant is on its way toward being banned, as being medically unnecessary and as violating the child’s right to make an informed choice later in life. Even if only one child in 1,000 is born with “ambiguous genitalia,” out of a world population of 8 billion, that’s still 8 million such children.

3. Type of marriage, meaning primarily size of group, but also the rules about sexual activity. The “traditional” ideal of lifelong monogamy has not been realistic for a very long time. Genetic studies have shown that only about 10 percent of the population has the genes that allow lifelong monogamy. The majority of Americans engage in serial polygamy. Some courageous people have been practicing consensual nonmonogamy and/or constructing marriages of more than two people. I hope we can look forward to all of these various kinds of marriage becoming equally legal.

4. Libido, that is, sexual drive, can range from near zero on up. I have no idea whether a maximum level has ever been defined or measured.  This variable probably correlates with some of the diversity in Dimension 3, but never exactly. For practical purposes, one can distinguish between low, average, and high libido.

 The old terminology in the quest for understanding ourselves was nature vs. nurture; that is, how much is built-in that we come with and how much is learned. One great accomplishment of anthropology was demonstrating, by studying many different cultures, that many European assumptions about what are universal traits of humans were simply wrong. Humans are far more diverse than is obvious within any one culture. Furthermore, we now know that our brains are not hardwired when we are born; instead, they are softwired. They grew new synapses and circuitry as we learn. Developmentally challenged infants, such asDowns babies, who were once ignored, now develop into functional adults if they are given the care, stimulation, and challenges that enable their brain circuits to grow. 

 Of course, we are not 100 percent flexible, but the invariant aspects of human nature turn out to be very minor. These days a computer analogy works well. Our brains do come with hardware, but almost all of our personalities, behavior, and abilities are equivalent to software. As Locke argued, babies are born not with innate knowledge but like blank slates, so that everything we know we learn by sensory experience. He was and is right about that, yet there have been refinements. We can consider that the brain’s hardware is what gives us that blank slate to write on. We come with the ability to learn a language, but not with a specific language.

 The major refinement I am referring to is Kant’s deductions about the nature of our perception—but I will skip discussing Kant here and simply propose that the relevance of his work for understanding gender identity is that our habitual distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine, is just like our distinctions between time and space, cause and effect, inner and outer, self and other. These are all arbitrary assumptions that our minds impose on reality in order for us to cope with it and survive as mammals. We can and have begun to unmake those assumptions.

 To assume that people can be sorted into heterosexual and homosexual is far too simple, as is sorting couples into heterosexual and same-sex. Taking gender identity and sexual physiology as separate variables, one can devise the following scheme.

 A person with (A) masculine personality or (B) feminine personality

may have (C) male physiology or (D) female physiology,

and may look for a partner with a (E) masculine personality or (F) feminine personality

and with (G) male physiology or (H) female physiology.

 That provides 16 different combinations. Two of these, ACFH and BDEG, are the “standard” Western model of heterosexuality. The four combinations that contain factors CG would be classed as “gay male,” and the four that contain DH would be classified as “gay female”. The remaining six, which would include either CH or DG, would appear outwardly to be heterosexual and could engage in the usual sort of biological reproduction. But, more importantly, we are here looking at 16 different psychological and relationship patterns, many of which are radically different from all the others, and few of which are understood well, if at all, because of our society’s longstanding prejudices. And if we include bisexuality in the model, that gives (I think) 24 different combinations.

 Taking these 24 combinations and multiplying them by, oh, say, ten different kinds of marriage and three levels of libido, we arrive at 720 different patterns—which is probably still an underestimate of human complexity.

 Thinking about those beautiful teenagers, I love a slogan I have seen: “Some girls have penises. Some boys have vaginas. Get over it.” Yes. I recently saw an interview with a young couple who were exactly such a girl and a boy. They were beautiful. And I think about the issue of unnecessary surgery. If a person’s gender identity demands the physical transformation into the opposite sex, that is an absolute right. But how much, in any individual case, might that demand result from the social pressure that equates personality with physiology? If, and I hope when, society can calmly accept the fact that, with some couples it is the masculine personality that gives physical birth, then I think fewer transgender teenagers will want to have the surgery—and fewer is better. Any surgery is risky, and medically unnecessary surgery can therefore pose an unacceptable risk.

 I hope we will begin to evolve concepts and names for some of those 720 varieties of humans. The more such names we have, the less pressure there will be for anyone to conform to just one or two or a few of them. Forcing any sort of sexual conformity in our society is just as un-American as forcing a religion down people’s throats. Yes, of course, right now it’s the same sort of people who want to do both, but we do have a chance to vote them all out of office.


  • Signy

    Good article, though there are a few things that I feel I must point out. First, biological sex comes at least as much (almost certainly more) from the brain than the gonads. Thus it’s not transformation into the opposite sex, but into the same sex. It’s also important to recognize that the condition often called transgender affects different people differently. While some may not want surgery, others need it. It’s not a choice for them, it is a medical necessity. This has been acknowledged by doctors experienced in this area of medicine. The implication that surgery is only ever a choice just prevents those who need it from getting it, especially in the USA where the health industry loves to come up with different things to exclude from coverage.

  • KateGladstone

    “These are all arbitrary assumptions that our minds impose on reality in order for us to cope with it and survive as mammals.”

    I’m an ignorant person, in many ways, so please let me ask a question that this raises for me (and perhaps for others). It’s a question that got me thrown out of a class as “stupid,” once, just for asking it (privately, and in writing), and 32 years later I’m still trying to figure out how that question earned that response.

    My question: if time, space, and so on are simply “arbitrary assumptions that our minds impose,” then on what grounds do we trust our decision (or conclusion) that this is the case?

    • Robert Mathiesen

      In a word, all our acts or trust rest on shaky grounds, and if we are lucky, or very good at assessing indeterminate risks, we survive anyway, though our footing remains uncertain.

      Some of this was discussed rather insightfully almost a century ago by an anthropological linguist (and closeted esotericist) named Benjamin Lee Whorf.

      The many languages of mankind cut reality up into named pieces in very, very different ways from one another. The differences are less pronounced if the languages are relatives, having descended from a common ancestor only several thousand years ago. When languages are not closely related at all, the differences can be enormous, making *literal* translation from one language to the other nearly impossible. (Note, please, thre emphasis on “literal” in that sentence. Loose translations are easier, and very loose translations are extremely easy — and highly misleading!)

      The ways in which one’s own native language — English, in our case — cut up reality into named pieces always feel natural, as does nearly every custom we learn in early childhood. This is an enormous illusion, though an illusion with which one can do a great deal of productive work as one interacts with the physical world and with nature. Other people have other native languages that cut up reality into different sets of named pieces. These other ways of cutting up reality feel natural to them, and they can work just as productively as we can as they interact with the physical world and nature.

      So we as a species have all these different ways of cutting up reality into named pieces, each of which feels natural to the people speaking that language natively, and each of which can be used to work with equal power and productivity in real life. These differences also affect how one thinks about sex, reproduction and child-rearing, and every one of the social institutions our species has created around these biological facts. There is no single, true “natural” way to divide humanity up into a small number of “sexes” and “genders,” or to create social institutions around sex, reproduction and child-rearing.

      And anyone who argues to the contrary using our own terminology as a jumping-off point is like a child who gazes at the clouds and sees in them such things as a puppy, a cradle, a gun, or a dinosaur. It may be fun, if it is just a game; but if it has real consequences, such arguments from terminology are intellectual toxic waste, *whatever* the conclusions one happens to reach. Some toxic waste can be politically useful, either for good or evil ends, and so it is with some such arguments; but it remains toxic waste nonetheless.

      • KateGladstone

        Re the premise that each and every one of the many different ways of linguistically carving up reality “can be used with equal power and productivity in real life” — would you then argue that the chemical vocabulary and concepts of, say, 1713 and 2013 “can be used with equal power and productivity in real life”? In other words, are you saying it’s just as powerful and productive to be an 18th-century chemist whose carving of reality posited a thing called “phlogiston” (that was believed to depart from a burning object) as it is to be a 21st-century chemist whose very different carving of reality posits a thing called “oxygen” (that is believed to enter into a burning object)?

        If my cultural/linguistic carving of reality subsumes a circular saw and a bicycle under the same concept (giving both the identical name, let us say “whirlmachine”), and I buy one and try to ride it home, I will not be very powerful,or very productive for very long if I bought the kind of “whirlmachine” that I failed to distinguish from the other kind of “whirlmachine” that really _would_ let me arrive home living and in one piece.

        • Robert Mathiesen

          No, I am arguing that the Navajo Nation, speaking Navajo exclusively, might have come up with a science of chemistry (concepts and the words for them) that cannot be put into 1:1 correspondence with our European science of chemistry, but nonetheless could suffice to create analine dyes, or the drug niacine, if ever they saw any good reason to bother doing such things.

          • Robert Mathiesen

            It’s very late at night here. I should have written: “… suffice to create the molecules that we happen to call analine dyes …” etc.

          • KateGladstone

            What, if anything, guarantees that all “carvings” ARE equal?

          • Robert Mathiesen

            Equal in what way?

            Each language plays the same central role in shaping the world-view of its native speakers, of course. In that respect they are all equal.

            Each human language is also nothing more than a jerry-rigged, somewhat adequate set of tools for constructing a society and culture and for dealing with the beauty and terror of the physical world and the biosphere. Each human language is a product of extremely messy development over millenia, and that development takes its products no closer to perfect comprehension of reality than Darwinian evolution takes the species of living creatures to some ideal of the one perfect life-form. In that respect, too, they are all more or less equal.

            In a classroom, all C students are *more or less* equal to one another, and the differences between them are smaller than the differences between any one of them and a hypothetical A+ student (who may, in fact, not happen to be found in that particular classroom). All known human languages are these “C students” (so to speak) when confronted with the problem of mapping reality in all its finest details: the massive structural differences between them guarantee that they are all “C students.” No known human language seems to be an “A+ student.”

            Sure, Hopi may (as Whorf argued) be somewhat better adapted than English, in its grammar, to discussions of the physics of the dual wave-particle nature of light. But it’s also relevant that the Hopi found no need in their world to elaborate such a physics. Science is not the goal and purpose for which human language evolved, but bare survival and reproduction. All else is simply biological superstructure.

          • KateGladstone

            Interesting … So, how WOULD we create an “A+” language? What would it be like — and how would we teach ourselves (and posterity) to speak it?

          • Robert Mathiesen

            I suspect it’s not possible for human beings to create an “A+ language.” Our hard-wiring (brain and sensorium) isn’t up to a full comprehension of reality. (Also, created languages don’t hold up well in speech communities over the long haul; the transmission of language from one generation to the next is such as to guarantee change over the centuries, and extreme change over the millenia.)

    • Robert Mathiesen

      PS I very much like what Aidan is doing here with his 720 different patterns, but then he and I both have the same native language. And so we must not think that our results will ever be wholly independent of that language.

      • KateGladstone

        If you accept your own premise that “we must not think that our results will ever be wholly independent of [our native] language,” then you must not think that _this_premise_itself_ is “wholly independent” of that accident.

        • Robert Mathiesen

          Indeed, I don’t think that the premise is “wholly independent.” But since *no* argument through the meaning of words is ever going to yield more than a rough, crude approximation to reality, and all the ground on which we might stand as we seek truth is shaky ground — even the very “Ground of our Being,” as theologians have sometimes called it, is shaky and unreliable ground –, it’s the best we will ever be able to do with respect to the world of our perceptions. But that’s “close enough for government work,” as the quip goes. (There is, of course, also the direct, unmediated perception of mystics, but what it yields is ineffable.)

  • Guest

    As a transgender Pagan and activist I have to make a serious objection to a few things in this article. Before I do, I want to say that I understand that you mean well and almost certainly have no ill intentions in providing any of the information above. Just to clear up beforehand that I’m not calling you a bad person for getting this wrong. Unfortunately some of the things you’ve said ARE wrong, and some in very dangerous ways.

    When you talk about “the surgery” I know you mean bottom surgery, because this is what cisgender (not transgender) people tend to believe is the meaningful surgery. It is not “the” surgery for any of us. There are often dozens of surgeries, some less major than others, that accompany transition. It is also not a medically unnecessary surgery. I am not familiar with your background in medicine or psychology so I won’t get into the complexities, but every surgery and procedure that a trans person feels is neccesary to achieve their personal gender presentation deserves to be recognized as valid. Far from being unneccesary, for people that have bottom dysphoria (a psychological term encapsulating the emotions involved in recognizing that your genitals do not match your gender) bottom surgery is a life-saving necessity. It is in fact a medical necessity that studies have shown has a lower rate of regret than life saving heart surgeries.

    Imagine for a minute telling someone that the cardiac surgery that they need to live for even another day isn’t important because society can adjust for them. Of course you recognize this as perposterous because you recognize that a working heart is necessary to live. Trans people have an incredibly high suicide rate because of dysphoria, and an incredibly high homicide rape because of transphobia. Both of these are real whether we acknowledge them or not. nd it is important to recognize that our need to reduce the former is a real NEED and not frivilous

    It also isn’t about people designated female at birth being able to give birth or not. Hormones (when we pursue them) often render trans people sterile long before bottom surgery, and even if they do not our decisions about or bodily autonomy should not be subject to other’s views that a female body is for breeding.

    I ask that you please refrain from refering to ANY procedure trans people pursue as unnecessary in the future. This is the language that quite literally kills us, as it leads to our dehumanization. It does this regardless of how you mean it to sound.

    • aidanakelly

      I’m sorry if my thoughts seemed offensive. I did say, “If a person’s gender identity demands the physical transformation into the opposite sex, that is an absolute right.” ABSOLUTE, okay?I also asked, “But how much, in any individual case, might that demand result from the social pressure that equates personality with physiology?” I don’t know the answer to that question, and I would not assume that you do either, but would you agree that it’s an important question?

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I think an alternative to trying to quantitatively carve up humanity into hundreds of categories based on theoretical dichotomies of sexuality and gender, is to treat understanding human sexuality and gender as a qualitative work akin to biography and ethnography. Saying that I’m gender non-conforming, bisexual, pansexual, and queer are overlapping descriptive adjectives, similar to the the fact that I have grey and brown hair, come from the midwest, use German-American colloquialisms, sometimes read comic books, and have all of the Wax Tailor CDs in my car.

    The one hitch is that the adjectives related to gender and sexuality are usually more politically relevant than the particulars of my language, geography, and hobbies.

    But this also takes into account the fact that gender and sexuality are, in part, socially constructed in different ways across different sub-cultures.

  • Aine

    Any surgery a trans* person needs is necessary. The many surgeries a trans* person may seek to have are absolutely none of your business. It’s their body, not yours.

    There are a number of problems that have been addressed by others below. The next time you want to speak about gender, please learn a bit more. You continue to use an ineffectual binary (there’s more than two genetic genders, not to mention the many variations of genitalia that are present in humans). I am, as a gender variant individual, pretty grossed out by this piece. Whatever dog you have in this fight, it’s not one that excuses the many problems in this piece.