Definitional Nonsense

In many societies, gender has historically been understood as a neat, orderly, and intuitive model. The concept of “man” referred to people who had the same kind of male body, presented in a way that was regarded as male, and took male-designated roles. The concept of “woman” was defined in the same way. These two categories were considered to be permanent, inescapable, and complete: everyone was placed into one of them, and migration between them was unthinkable.

Under this model, explicit definitions of gender involving anatomy, genetics, and sex assigned at birth were associated with whatever clusters of traits were typically exhibited by men and women. And just as it was assumed that someone who was assigned male or female would present themselves in a certain way according to their gender, it was also assumed that everyone who presented as a man or woman had the same anatomical and genetic makeup.

The recognition of transgender people as a discrete phenomenon has changed all this. We’ve come to realize that it simply isn’t accurate to view assigned sex, physical anatomy, sex chromosomes, gender identity, gender roles, and gender presentation as always being in alignment and falling into only one category. Because of this, the traditional definitions of gender have ceased to connect to the reality of the identities, expressions and roles of men and women. Not everyone who was assigned male lives as a man, and not everyone who was assigned female lives as a woman.

As body-based definitions have fallen out of step with people’s identities and lives, our intuitions about what makes a man or a woman have failed us. Just as the previous model provided an apparently easy way of classifying men and women for physical, legal, and sexual purposes, the breakdown of that model has implications for all of these areas. When the beliefs of the past collide with the reality of the present, we find ourselves faced with unexpected and confusing results, many of which turn out to be sheer nonsense.

Ashlyn Parram
Recently, 16-year-old Ashlyn Parram was told that she could not take her GCSE exams unless she changed into a boy’s school uniform. When she provided the headmaster with a copy of the UK’s Equality Act, which prohibits such discrimination against transgender people, she was made to sit 40 feet away from the rest of the students. Were it not for her personal medical history, which presumably was not scrutinized in the case of any other students, there would have been no clear reason to see this girl as anything other than a girl. There would be no obvious cause to single out this one girl and demand that she must wear a boy’s uniform or sit apart from everyone else.

Here, the adherence to definitions of gender based on bodily history and birth-assigned sex has led to the plain absurdity of treating a girl who identifies, presents, and lives as a girl as if she were something other than female. And in their haste to stop someone they saw as a boy from wearing clothes designated for girls, they very nearly ended up putting a girl in clothes designated for boys. Their insistence on rigid definitions disconnected from the reality of gender would have led to a situation much like the one they initially sought to prevent. Confronted with the dilemma of either recognizing that anatomy and medical history aren’t the final word on gender, or actively mandating cross-dressing, they seemingly preferred cross-dressing.

Similar problems arise from the opposition to laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. Such ordinances have commonly been derided as “bathroom bills”, and campaigns against them unfailingly rely on the alleged threat of “men in women’s restrooms”. The “men” they seek to keep out of women’s restrooms are typically transgender women, as viewed through the model of gender which regards assigned sex as definitive. In one of the most notable examples of such campaigns, the Massachusetts hate group MassResistance covertly filmed several trans women entering the women’s restroom at a convention, which they described as “the insanity that will descend on all of America… unless this sexual radical movement is stopped”.

Trans men
But let’s suppose that the people fighting against these bills did get their way on this, and everyone was required to use the restroom matching their sex as assigned at birth. What would happen? Not only would trans women have to use the men’s room, but trans men would have to use the women’s room. MassResistance would have a field day: they’d get to see actual men going into the women’s restroom. Is that really the result they’re looking for – male-identified, male-presenting men walking into the women’s room? If they didn’t know these men were trans, it would be “sexual radical insanity” all over again.

Certainly they might profess to believe that gender is fixed at birth and forever unalterable, but when faced with the real-life outcome of their desired policy, they could very well reconsider whether this is a good idea. In seeking to prevent men from using the women’s room under their narrow model of gender, they would actually be forcing men into the women’s room in reality. Again, when given the choice between updating their understanding of gender, or imposing an outdated model upon a world it no longer fits, they’d rather create the same issue they thought they were trying to prevent: there would be both men and women in the men’s room and the women’s room.

Many jurisdictions have placed themselves in a similar situation by both banning same-sex marriage and either refusing to recognize changes of gender legally, or first requiring people to undergo major surgery. As a result, a trans woman who’s still legally considered male is actually banned from marrying men, and can only marry women. For trans people whose genders are unrecognized, same-sex marriage isn’t prohibited at all – in fact, it’s their only option. This probably isn’t what was intended by people who oppose both marriage equality and legal changes of gender, but there’s really no way around it: for the intent of a ban on same-sex marriage to be applied to trans people, you first have to recognize their actual gender.

How we define gender is obviously relevant to our understanding of sexual orientation as well. For instance, people have often wondered how a cisgender woman could have a relationship with a trans woman who has male genitals, and identify as a lesbian nonetheless. The question itself assumes a definition of gender that relies exclusively on anatomy and assigned sex: lesbians are women who prefer women, but someone with male genitals can’t be a woman, therefore a woman partnered with someone who has male genitals can’t be a lesbian.

Under a model of sexual orientation centered on assigned sex, this logic is certainly valid. But how well does it reflect the reality of people’s sexual identities, preferences and behaviors? This assigned sex model defines straight men and gay women as being attracted to cis women and trans men because of their anatomical similarities, and defines gay men and straight women as being attracted to cis men and trans women. While it may be internally consistent, it doesn’t account for the actual patterns we observe in sexual orientation.

If the identities of gay and straight were used to refer to the definitions of this proposed model, we would expect gay men whose partners are trans men to prefer cis women and have an ongoing pattern of relationships with them as well, simply due to their anatomy. Likewise, we would expect that lesbian women whose partners are trans women would also consistently enjoy relationships with cis men, and straight men whose partners are trans women would commonly have relationships with cis men as well.

But this is generally not something we see happening in reality. Straight men and lesbians do not have relationships with men, but with women, and their inclusion of trans women as partners is consistent with that, not contrary to it. The use of “straight” and “gay” in a purely anatomical sense does not help us to understand the true sexual proclivities of the people who identify as such, because that just isn’t what they’re talking about. A woman who primarily prefers women is a lesbian, regardless of the details of her partner’s genitals, because trans women are women. Here, the flaws in traditional definitions of gender can compromise our understanding of sexual orientation as well – but updating our concept of gender provides clarity.

Ultimately, the strict adherence to archaic models of gender often seems to be self-defeating. By insisting that men will always be men and women will always be women no matter what, its proponents have made their own categories of “man” and “woman” increasingly meaningless for practical purposes. When so many women would be considered “men”, what does saying that someone is a “man” by this definition even tell us? Their terms for people’s genders no longer describe people’s genders.

While their use of that word may have once been exclusively attached to certain traditionally “manly” roles and expressions, they’re now using it to mean almost any kind of identity and presentation of someone who was assigned male at birth. There’s nothing wrong with decoupling our destinies in life from our genders, of course – but if that was their intention, I doubt they would be so strenuously insisting that I’m “really a man”. And while many regard such accusations as deeply offensive, I’m more inclined to see them as simply being wrong. They’re just victims of their own conceptual confusion.

Definitional Nonsense
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25 thoughts on “Definitional Nonsense

  1. 1

    “she was made to sit 40 feet away from the rest of the students”
    Is it really that easy to recruit people to my Trans* Agenda? Sit next to them. Muahaha! *rubs hands together maniacally*

    1. 1.1

      i once converted 12 of my fellow students while sitting silently in class. my trans* rays washed over the brains of the students closest to me and they instantly became trans*.

      we shall own this planet!

  2. 3

    I’d be offended by people feeling the need to sit 40 ft away. Luckilly somehow there’s enough room that the rest of them can squeeze to the other side of the room.

  3. 4

    A very well-put explanation. I used to hold to the “binary” model but have come to understand that reality is much more multi-faceted than that. Thank you for a thorough explanation.

    One question – at the beginning of your post, you state that “many societies” have historically viewed gender as a simple binary state. Are there societies where this was not the case?

    1. Rob

      Some native american cultures have a defined gender role for “two-spirit” individuals. They are generally regarded as having an expressed gender in-between make and female.

      “Hijira’s” are a sub-culture in south asia that has a culturally defined role.

      My understanding is that both of these cultural practices saw a decline after contact with europeans…

  4. 6

    “made to sit 40 feet away from the rest of the students”

    I wasn’t made to sit that far away from the other students when I was taking my A-levels, and I had chickenpox. (And since the link goes to the Daily Heil, I can’t imagine there’s anything positive, sympathetic, or reasonable in their treatment of the story.)

    OTOH, at least some of the UK’s aging institutions are dragging themselves round to a reasonable view of things – the University of Oxford has made its dress code for formal academic occasions[1] gender-neutral.

    [1](matriculation, etc). Yes, Oxford can be a bit old-fashioned at times, but at least it’s now old-fashioned in gender-neutral fashion.

  5. 8

    We could fix this by getting rid of urinals. Could even still put up men’s and women’s signs, what with social pressure and all, there aren’t many cis men that would use a busy “women’s” room and it’s already acceptable for women to use the men’s room some of the time. That would also solve the problem of the urinals that go all the way to the floor. Fuck those things for all of the piss that has ever splashed on a shoe.

    1. 8.1

      Or better yet, we could fix that by putting both a urinal and a sit-me-down in every cubicle. That way, those of us who prefer to stand could do so without risking getting the seat wet.
      Some music festival portable terlets already have this – a sort of sideways-angled urinal in the side wall.

  6. 9

    The school’s behavior is inexcusable, and given that the law appears to be on the ethical side for once in this case, the administrators involved should be directly penalized.
    That said, I really do not understand why so many people have such a hard time with concepts of gender. Someone is whatever gender they say they are, via verbal and nonverbal signals, with verbal signals taking precedence. The first trans* person I (knowingly) met clearly presented as female, and I didn’t initially read her as trans. She told me later that she was trans and that we’d met before she came out or started her transition, but I didn’t realize it was the same individual. But, she’s a woman, so I refer to her as such. When I first met my husband, he had only just come out and was extremely female-bodied, and after we were introduced by a mutual acquaintance I said “she seems nice.” He replied “He, not she. He’s trans.” I said “OK.” and that was that. Some people I’ve met alternate, or prefer neither gendered pronoun, and that’s still no skin off of my nose. Your gender is your business, and mine is mine, and everyone’s good. I really don’t understand why so many cis people make such a damn big fuss over it.
    (For the record, I am myself a cis male.)

  7. 10

    I’m a little new to thinking about Trans Gender and Gender Identity so if someone could help me out that would be great;

    What is the difference between a girl identifying as a boy and an african american identifying as white?

    Of course people can identify as anything they want and I dont have a problem with it but is their a point when we say “No, you are clearly not a dolphin/white/boy”

    I know there is a difference between gender and race or species but I jst wanted a comparison between claiming to be something and clearly not being that something, even if you spent your days naked and swimming in a pool breathing through your nose and eating fish….your still not a dolphin but you identify and live as a dolphin and for all intensive purposes…you are a dolphin but your not, it doesnt do any harm to identify as a dolphin and I think you should be able to if you want but at some point, government forms, legal forms, putting down dolphin as your species is not going to be acceptable.

    I’m really not trying to offend, I know we got some zealots out there, jst some refference material or book to read would be great!

    1. 10.1

      First: In the process of embryonic and fetal development, do humans and dolphins undergo a process of differentiation between human and dolphin, remaining human (or dolphin) unless specifically triggered to develop as a dolphin (or human)? Does the human/dolphin brain also differentiate between human and dolphin, sometimes incompletely? Have there been identified (and surprisingly common) cases of “inter-species” conditions similar to intersex conditions, where people or dolphins have been observed to have partial features of both humans and dolphins, or have human DNA with a dolphin-appearing body, or dolphin DNA with a human-appearing body? If any of this actually happened, your analogy would be sound – and it would be cause for recognizing that, yes, it is possible that some “humans” might actually be more dolphin than human.

      Second: White-appearing people being considered black is something that has indeed happened before – not necessarily by their own self-identification, but by society’s classifications at the time. See: One-drop rule, hypodescent. It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that someone of mixed racial heritage would identify as any one of those races, no matter how they may appear. What we first think of as the concrete realities of race often turn out to be a social construct and a matter of cultural convention.

      1. Hey Zinnia,

        I never said it was a sound analogy mate, I wanted you to highlight the reason why Trans species is rediculous and trans gender is completely normal but thanks for spending a paragraph ripping into anyway

        I didnt claim it was a sound analogy but I think what I did get from your comment was that Trans gender is a valid category and trans species is not because of gender ambiguity

        is that about right? and therefor without this possibility of gender ambiguity we would accept the claims of trans gender just like we wouldnt accept the claims of trans species

        I may have mis-read or mis-interpreted what you meant.

        Thanks for the response

    2. Rob

      The arguments and argumentative tone of your post does go a long way to offend and places the OP in a position to defend themselves – if you truly are interested you should make an effort to be as non-confrontational as possible to actualy get the response you deserve.

      Your confusion stems from a fundamental misunderstanding. You’ve transposed the qualities of ‘sex’, an intrinsic, quality that describes a person’s outward physical features, and ‘gender’, an internal quality that most often explains a person’s behaviour.

      The ‘popular’ view is that these qualities: sex, gender, and sexual orientation (included for completeness); are often viewed as one single entitiy wheras in real life they are 3 separate entities.

      Sex is defined by a persons genes, or more importantly – in society – by whether they display the sexual characteristics of that sex. Men have a penis, wide shoulders, a deep voice, and (usually) thick facial hair – Women have breasts, a vagina, smoother skin and less hair.

      Gender is a little more nebulous to define, I’ll choose to define it right now as a set of behaviours that someone has that might identify them as being male or female. That’s a bit of a myopic view but it works for this explanation.

      If you have a penis and act male, or a vagina and act female, your expressed sex matches your mental gender and you are part of the ‘normal’ gender binary – you are ‘cis’-sexed (that is ‘the same’). What if you have a penis and act female or a vagina and act male? What if you have an inter-sex condition?

      It’s hard societally for someone to display as male and act female (or female and act male), so often those people who expierence that mismatch (gender dysphoria) usually attempt to change their expressed sex to visually match the gender they are expressing.

      Sex generally falls into one of three categories, Male, Inter-sex, and Female; because our genes dictate a Male or Female body plan (default=female) and produces hormones to make it work.

      Gender is much broader: Agender (neither), Male, Androgyne (Both), Female, Genderqueer (a sliding scale between M&F) (There’s more that I left out). Gender is tough to properly define as behavioural, specifically when you begin to recognize genders ourside of the typical gender binary. How do you chose which behaviours are exclusively one or the other, how can you say that that behaviour is specifically male or female – could it not be a quality of an androgyne? It’s far more easy to say that gender is the persons ‘mental image’ of their ‘ideal’ sex.

      Anyways, I hope that succinctly answers your question. A human cannot be a dolphin, but a white-person can be black if they behave that way.

      1. Thanks for the response, im still reading it.

        I just wanted to respond to you first part about how confrontational it was….I get this all the time on this blog site and I really appreciate you taking the time to respond in a somewhat nice fashion but for fuck sake man, its soo annoying, you have to bend over fucking backwards to avoid getting people angry and for them to take you seriously.

        I didnt think my comment was overly argumentative but maybe it was, I will re-read it and read your comment.

        Again thanks for the response, much appreciated

      2. Thanks, that was actually a great response.

        So we seperate sex and gender where;

        Sex is our biological determination


        Gender is our state of mind based on environment, social constructs, etc

        is that close or have I missed the mark?

        again, not being a smart ass, repeat, I am not being a smartass and I realise this question may seem obvious but its an extreme example that we can use because it is black and white, again, I am not being a smart ass, this is a honest question

        Why dont we seperate Race and Species based on biological determination and your pyschological state in the same way?

        I know sometimes males can be born with female parts or chemical imbalance or whatever but all that aside, I assume that if this never happened we would still want to respect and accomodate trans gender people

        Or is trans gender in a way qualified by the fact that their can be gender ambiguity IE. without this possibility of gender ambiguity we wouldnt take trans gender people seriously (I’m not supporting that obviously, you should respect peeps regardless but its an honest question and your response to the last one was quite good, as well as Zinnia’s)

        jst to clarify;

        If someone said they identified as a dolphin – a liberal society may accept them but would still know they need help in the head

        But if there was species ambiguity we would accept them and not think they needed help in the head but rather that was just who they were

        Also, is there a concept of “Fakers” or “Confused”? I know that seems harsh and that you should accept peopels claims at face value, also if thats what they feel inside then thats what they feel inside but what if someone feels they are truely a dolphin inside – do we call them out because we know they cannot possibly be a dolphin even though thats what they turely feel inside or if enough individuals were trans species (For lack of a better term) would we accept and encourage it.

        We would never think to ask a transgender to justify themselves but we would expect trans species to justify themselves or is it a case of anyone can say they are anything and as long as they dont hurt anyone they can claim to be a box of crayons for all we care

        Again, extreme examples to make it easier for my simple mind and I really appreciate the response

        1. Rob

          I think you’ve got the gist of it.

          There are more liberal definitions that rely on ‘Displayed’ sex or on ‘expressed’ sex rather than genetics but on a simple level, yes. Sex is a Physical characteristic and Gender is more mental.

          It’s not about any percieved or actual ambiguity in a given person’s sex. Though it happens, the fact that it exists is not required to allow for the existence of transgendered individuals.

          Maybe try and look at it this way:
          I think that one of the defining characteristics of a transgendered person is the disconnect between an ‘expressed’ sex – the sex they display as to society – and their gender. In the contect of this definition, someone who’s expressed sex doesn’t match their gender is transgendered. A simplistic example: if I display as Male (I have a penis) but identify as Female – I am Transgendered.

          There are a number of people that identify with/embody animals or anthropomorphic ideals – they are collectively referred to as ‘Furries’.

          1. Thanks Rob, you have been really helpful. Its a little hard to get your head around if you are new to this.

            Can I ask you for one more thing mate, can you recomend a book that might help with my understanding as at the moment I feel a little too much like a texan conservative in comparison with the views beign expressed here.

  8. 11

    Bathroom bills? Are they for real? I mean, where I live, there’s frequently one toilet assigned “gents” and the other “ladies and disabled”. So the ladies are intended to be used by some men. And if your toilet is occupied, many people just go and use the other. I don’t mind sharing a toilet with anyone who leaves it reasonably clean.
    The school was just… er… I’m out of words. She wasn’t mocking the exam, she was dressed properly for the girl she feels to be. We don’t have uniforms in our schools, and when I was studying, there were a few boys who wore skirts – just because they wanted to, and the only comments I heard were “hey, they look good, don’t you think?” They did. Sure, for a formal occasion these boys turned up in a suit, and I’m not wholly sure if being trans would go just as smoothly, but the worst I’m able to imagine is a sentence or two of disapprovement. Not a penalty, and certainly not institutional segregation.
    And the straight/lesbian issue? First, I don’t understand why “straight” or “lesbian” should be a matter of identity. I don’t define myself by being straight but rather think of the fact that I’ve only always fallen in love with a guy as something that happened to happen. And it’s not like I could fall in love with just any man either. How do you say in one word “attracted to honest, warm-hearted short guys with big nose and long hair and glasses who are smart and have interesting things to say”? And that’s far from all criteria, a lot of which I’m sure I’m unaware of.
    Second, language doesn’t shape reality, reality shapes language. Sometimes we don’t have a proper term for something we haven’t encountered yet. So we say it in the best way we’re able to. Sometimes we’re not sure which it would be. Is a woman who loves a woman in a male body lesbian or straight? I don’t really care. She loves her girlfriend. “Lesbian” is just a shortcut of speech.

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