On the Nature of Gender

On the Nature of Gender September 26, 2013

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.


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