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Sex and Gender; two troublesome words

  • Posted on January 24, 2016 at 2:29 pm

I read an academic article about centring gender identity this week, that was interesting, not least because it assumed a clarity about sex and about gender that in most circles doesn’t exist. And then this morning I continued reading about sex and gender in more feminist circles, on serious blogs, not TERF rants. I always try to understand because I also expect a degree of understanding. We are all human, we all deserve respect.

We all relate more easily our bad experiences than our good, and whenever someone has faced abuse, met a very male-acting trans-asserting person, or simply really opened their eyes to this patriarchal society and culture of ours, they will rightly feel defensive, and the incidents will be key to future expectation. I too feel much safer in women’s spaces, I too feel insecure where there is testoserone around. And whilst I may have been brought up and taught as a boy, I do not feel totally socialised in that way, because so much of it went against the grain. I guess I did mimic it a fair deal to get by, but it was always uncomfortable and I was ready to see the impact of it on women, socially and in the workplace.

This world suffers from patriarchal rule. I mean suffers, not just needs greater equality and fairness, but suffers. Our planet groans more because of it, and we tolerate its destructiveness. There are women who play into it, take advantage of it and imitate it. But it is what it is, and it is bad for us all. And none of this is a basis for debating the rights of humans on grounds of self-identity. Not every culture and language even has ideas of sex and gender in the way English-speaking people do. Yet we get tied up in mutually defensive, and sometimes aggressive, dialogue over sex and gender as if they were something as absolute as mass and energy.

Probably most people have never ‘met’ a trans person, because we just don’t all look, sound or behave obviously so. Which means that most antipathy towards us is based on bad experiences of an unrepresentative few people who stand out for their inauthenticity or bad behaviour.

We have several essential problems that we fail frequently to acknowledge.

The first of these is behaviour

What we expect from people sharing our society is certain forms of behaviour. Some make us uncomfortable: a homeless beggar; someone gesticulating unexpectedly through mental disturbance, brain injury or non-development; drunken loudness; crowd-generated fervour. Some behaviour is distanced, such as influential voices, or merely online trolling, down to simply abusive or ignorant comments on a news article. Discomfort easily becomes fear, and we can distance ourselves, fight back, join a group for mutual shared strength, or face it and deal with it in other ways.

Some behaviours are associated with sex and gender. Some are causal: hormones create drives and emotions, for example. Some are correlated but not causal: group behaviours to belong to the in-crowd, or not to stand out. What we cannot say is: ‘women behave like this’, or ‘men behave like this’, or ‘lesbians behave like this’ – or even ‘trans men (or women) behave like this’.

Because they don’t. There are violent women, effeminate men, femme lesbians, aggressive trans women, asexual non-binary people, quiet introverted pansexuals. Everything you can assume as defining any sex, gender and sexuality, is defied by countless atypical people. Some people are kind and nice to know. Some are lazy and otherwise harmless. Some are psychopaths running global organisations, and some are lurking around a corner to do you harm.

And probably none of these behaviours is defined as being entirely due to sex or gender. Being male can derive philanthropy just as it can (though more frequently perhaps) misogyny. But for goodness’ sake, bad behaviour by some individuals describing themselves as transgender does not make being transgender a bad or threatening thing. It is the behaviour that threatens, not the underlying sex, sexuality or gender identity.

The second thing is expectation

Expectations are cultivated socially. We develop them from experience, which means we can nurture bad expectations from bad experiences. We share and cultivate these, because it feels more safe and comfortable when we have shared experiences and expectations. Then we have group thoughts from which it is harder to escape and disagree. Sometimes we must have a bad experience, develop an expectation for safety, then relocate the expectation in reality so that we can be both safe and open to new and more positive experiences.

Sometimes expectations become assertions, rules, dogmas, doctrines, even laws. And sometimes – may be a lot of the time – this is good. We come to have an agreed floorplan for constructive, safe, mutually supportive living together, and we call it culture. And sometimes that floorplan has mistakes, or cracked tiles, and slippery rugs.

We embody these expectations not just in our legal frameworks, but in other socially-cohesive ones. I am still surprised how much of my readership here pulls out the blogs on the role of religion in LGBT phobias. I have been through the experience here, from dragged-to-church, to skeptical, to thorough-going evangelical, to even more thorough university biblical analysis, to reasoned atheist non-materialist. So I know what it means to live as male, as female, as almost fundamentalist, and atheist. I think I know myself and many things from the inside, rather than hearsay. And just as I assert that there is a fundamental role in testosterone creating the world we live in, so I assert that there is a fundamental role in the religions we have created. Both T and R are imprinted on everything we do and the way we do it, and in my view, we need to be much more aware of this, of its impact, and its consequences, as well as be more wise to moving beyond both as defining our contemporary civilisations.

Without these religious-ethical expectations even our laws would be different in many ways, not least in those relating to sex and gender expectations. Countries in the world where being gay, lesbian, trans, or simply a free woman, are proscribed by law, do so on the basis of some ancient religion. The religion lays down expectations, resists reason, and fossilises attitudes. So much so, that secular cultures like this in the UK, carry an unconscious tradition rooted in christianity with attitudes and expectations, and beliefs about unethical behaviour that focus on specific things. We have a greater antipathy towards anything to do with sex and gender, than we do towards anything to do with power and connivance.

The third thing is language

Just as money began as a means and became a commodity in itself, so language did the same. We talk, write, think, using words for a substantial part of every day of our lives. We rely on words meaning something fixed in order to communicate clearly and efficiently. Languages, sadly, are not like that. They do not translate as easily as we would like, one to another. Sometimes five words in one translate as just one in another, losing vital nuance, or becoming ambiguous. Sometimes the culture behind a language does not share the concept. When one language dominates, so a concept can therefore also dominate. It’s never that my language represents an erroneous or superfluous concept, always that your language is impoverished because your culture is ignorant or less refined.

Sex and gender are conceptual, and not the same in every language, even in Europe. We neglect semantics, because we take language for granted, but worst of all, we assume that the word creates the thing, and that one use for a word makes it definitive. Learning how a word came about does not give it its contemporary meaning in use (gay and queer are two obvious relevant examples), and frequently a word becomes more important because its use becomes too burdened by conceptual disagreement. It isn’t just a heliocentric and evolutionary science that shakes society and religion, but contemporary observation of gendered roles. I recently replied to a friend who asked if there was any test for either sex or gender, with some quick thoughts about this.

I think that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are words given to poorly defined concepts. The initial concept of sex derived from observations about the means of reproduction and was simplistic and basic. It divided those who gave birth from those who did not. Thus many creatures tend to carry natural roles (though sometimes opposite like seahorses) where one stays safe with babies while the other gets food. As societies developed in sophistication, so the roles became formal expectations. Put basically, sex ensured survival and required no nuance.

Roles, however, confer different privileges and empowerments. Hunters also defend and acquire territory, and adopt authority as a result. Thus begins patriarchy. Within this, unfairness, coercion and advantage are noted, and as society becomes more complex, equality rears its head. Society and culture develop as philosophies, which in turn are questioned. Ultimately, sex as a division is no longer satisfactory. Female is not necessarily mother, male not defender/aggressor, but husbander, in agriculture for example.

The words and ideas for this alternative layer to sex are different in different cultures and languages. Thus it is a construct centred around sense of place in culture or society. It is regulated by norms which are informed by established notions of what sex currently means. The words don’t help us in any way. They are misused to discriminate and advantage, perpetuating, for example, patriarchy.

Sex as a concept still tries to distinguish biological capabilities, while gender tries to counter this absolutism and explain how people are dislocated from it. Sex tries to maintain traditional rules, gender to create new ones. Both superimpose contemporary ideas on the simple origin of species perpetuation. What we lose in this is that we are all the same species, developed socially sufficiently to live equally rather than divisively such that child-carrying doesn’t define social place, nor physical strength and drive.

There is no scientific test for gender because there can be no simple definition. Feeling trans has two components: being socially mislabelled and misplaced, and feeling that the child-bearing or physically powerful aspect given by the body doesn’t agree with the inner awareness of how the mind feels that should be. There is no scientific test for sex because it can be indeterminate.

What is important is that it should not be so important to find a definition let alone enforce it, for either sex or gender. Both exist only so long as we keep words for them. My argument is that we are dealing in semantics rather than tangible realities.

I think sex and gender aren’t just ‘physiology versus social construct’, but are two troublesome words in need of care. Talking spectrums isn’t necessarily the let-out we need either. I still find tomatoes in the vegetables section of my supermarket. Fruit and veg aren’t a spectrum, but some are badly misrepresented by what we have become accustomed to. But we like them all the same.


Behaviour, expectation and language all bias us in all manner of ways towards and away from others. Much of the time it is unconscious bias, but we too easily define our ideas about other people in our own terms, reinforce each other’s biases, and end up disrespecting individuals and thrusting them into unsafe places. It may be a trans woman with no refuge, a trans boy being bullied, a feminine feminist being excluded, or a butch dyke being shoved out of a public women’s lavatory. Or all too often, a trans person being pushed by expectations, to suicide.

We must be careful what we assume from our experiences, or what we have read, or been taught or cultivated into. In protecting our own ideas, however precious they are to us, and however many others share them, we may be making the world a less safe place for someone else. Whether you are a trans blogger, a feminist essayist, a frequent article-commenter, or just sharing on Facebook and tweeting, we must recognise that we are all just using language as a proxy to relate our beliefs and best understanding, biased by our experiences.

Identity III: the language of things

  • Posted on October 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm

I have gone back to school. Last week I was in college for adult language learning, my first German class. I jumped in mid-way, because I have some ability, a small vocabulary and not enough for much meaningful conversation. And so I tend to work out different ways of saying things, using the words I do know. It must sound very odd. I also find that in German, the words for transgender, transvestite and transsexual are not used or available in the same way as in English. Maybe as I learn, joining online German trans groups could help me understand better. The trans people will be very much like me, but with a language and vocabulary to express and describe themselves, somewhat different. Language is a big barrier to clear self-description across language boundaries.

Is my identity limited by language, given that language follows concept? I can’t find words for a concept that does not yet exist. I can invent them, as new concepts arise, and this happens all the time. Language in turn creates an environment of meaning. It doesn’t describe facts, it expresses interpretation. Snow is snow, but in the Scots language there are 421 words for it. The reason? To give more meaning to the experience so it can be shared more accurately. It is still crystalline water, white, pretty, and blocks roads. I am not Scottish, so I wouldn’t understand many of the words, and would be unable to communicate the state of the day’s snow clearly. If I was belligerently English I could insist that snow was snow and that was enough: stop confusing things!

I find the same with gender language. Male/man/boy, female/woman/girl are like snow. Sometimes I speak with another (cis) woman I know, and we arrive at me saying: ‘but I wasn’t born a boy!’ Their response reveals a lack of vocabulary. Of course I was born a boy and I changed. But changed what? Sex or gender, neither or both? All I know is that I was born with male reproductive physiology and a female sense of self, reflected in my behaviour and sense of belonging. The difficulty of naming ‘what’ I was/am then becomes a difficulty of accepting my authentic identity. I changed a physical part of myself, but I didn’t change myself. I need not even have done that, had I been happy to continue as I was. So what do we call a man with a vagina or a woman with a penis? We can refuse the identity, block it out, and insist that man and woman are defined by external genitalia, stay blind to intersex conditions and variety, and continue with the difficulties. In this way we steal anyone’s identity and agency for no better reason than that our words have failed to keep pace with concepts. And a large proportion of people and cultures and governments and ministries indeed are stuck right here.

Language divides everything

Look at the surface of a river, watch the spray, get in close to the spray, the surface of a droplet, the evaporation of water molecules from it, zoom right in on the molecules and see the subatomic particles in their statistical clouds among those of the atoms and molecules of various gases comprising the air, work out where the oxygen atoms or ions really belong, zoom out and see the moist air currents, as part of the gaseous mass through which you are looking at the water and tell me: where does the ‘river’ become the ‘air’, or the air the river? Perhaps the air without the river wouldn’t be the same, and the river in a vacuum would simply have evaporated away. By all means swim in the river, breathe the air, paddle your kayak, or photograph or paint it – but be careful that your idea of identity isn’t a definition of reality that you insist on imposing on others, instead of observing with a readiness for surprise.

When does she become he? As I was thinking about my arguments on identity, this article came up, and it plays the same mind game as the river. Testosterone and oestrogen, cholesterol and progesterone are similar molecules, but make significant changes to our bodies, especially before birth and consequently again at puberty. We may or may not be chromosomaly sensitive to them, or produce the ‘right’ quantities. There is no way of telling gender by looking at any one of us, any more than you can decide where the river and the air meet or divide. With such complexity, why do we confer identity on people, for the convenience of our language? The article says very well what I was going to write, so I won’t repeat it, other than to encourage you to read it. Like the river picture above, it simply picks apart each characteristic that gets used to define male or female, and shows it to be insufficient through variety. The conclusion is that the organ that best defines gender is the brain.

Brain, or mind?

The implication for the anatomists might still be that instead of examining a baby’s genitals, we routinely scan its brain. Surely the brain structures give a better hint, if the argument is right? Maybe; maybe not. Suppose you scan the infant brain, and compare the result (probably ambiguous for many or most) with chromosomes from various and several parts of the body (in case of mosaicism) for Xs and Ys, and add an SRY gene test for androgen insensitivity? Would that help? The consequence could be babies with penises being declared ‘probably female’, those with vaginas ‘probably male’, a lot of question marks, and perhaps still a majority being quite conclusive. But for what purpose?

The elusive element remains the mind. The mind we still think of as being centred in the brain, and this may be right or wrong, but however mechanistically we think of mind-as-consequence, we are a long way from scanning a brain to find the mind. Thoughts and intentions, yes, but the origins of these, no. Is sense of identity a brain thing or a mind thing, or, as the river and air, not clearly divisible and dependent on both, and on culture, society, philosophy, and therefore ultimately, available language?

Identity, definition, what you are as distinct from where you are, may not be a thing, a word, but you still know what you are you in the midst of whatever everything else is (including that you are neither, or not solely, male nor female).

Be careful. You might not be right!

So be very careful not to limit another person’s identity by your own language limitations. And if I say I was born a girl, fight the instinct to say: ‘but you did have a …’.

Something I wrote quite a while ago says it nicely in far fewer words:

Well, really? Reality and freedom of speech

  • Posted on February 21, 2015 at 4:04 pm

OK, so last blog was a bit weird and surreal, but what I was trying to get at is that we create and impose realities that simply fix ideas, and in the course of this lose touch with the dynamism and possibilities of life. We should allow things to appear surreal in order to let the subconscious speak, and learn how to be free to change and change again.

This week has seen yet another furore about prominent feminist voices of a particular kind, and the legitimacy of being free to impose the fixities of their reality as some kind of authority, when those views directly harm others. Then, when those who have been oppressed by this view of reality shout and kick back, they are seen as being the aggressors. Plenty of other and better bloggers have taken the circumstances apart, framed as an issue of free speech and debate within university circles, where debate is an essential part of life. But I remember student protests at racist speakers when I was studying, because hate speech and reducing others on grounds of a ‘difference’ regarded as socially excluding, is not a good proposition for debate. Unfortunately, these people write in prominent places too, places regarded as authoritative and informative, where readers (even critical readers) are persuaded by the personalities or reputations.

In this case, the argument returned to whether sex and or gender (interestingly, not sexuality) are essential: i.e., whether they are mutable or fixed, psychological or unchangeably biological according to visual interpretation. In a society where the gender and sex binaries rule, this does matter. She is a real woman, he is a real man. She is a real woman because she has the right bits and experiences in life. She is not. She is a man with a vagina and breasts because you can’t change from one into another. She is a woman born without a uterus, he is a man with a micro-penis, she is a man because she does not have clear XX chromosomes, he is a woman because he does. She is a traitor to women everywhere because she is living as if she was a man, he is a rapist because he thinks he is a woman and goes to the women’s toilets to invade their space. They are all pretending, because instead of looking in their knickers and being honest they are talking about ‘identity’ as if it were distinct.

And worst of all, it isn’t for them to say. The debaters, thriving on controversy and profile as popular voices, are who decide what anyone’s legitimate identity is. Because reality is … what?

It all sounds rather mediaeval that a fixed world view by some can oppress anyone defined by them as different. And yet it is very strongly there. My gender is not a subject up for third party debate, especially in universities where real research is done that is revealing the fragility of established ideas.

It is mid-February and 11 trans* women have been murdered this year for being trans. The suicides are not counted, we just strongly hear of those leaving explanatory suicide notes online. The statistics don’t change much year by year. That means societal pressures are leading almost half of all trans people to at least attempt suicide. Maybe three-quarters seriously consider it. And all because what? Because we stand aside when those with strong views and opinions about the illegitimacy of gender broadcast them. Essentially, when someone with a powerful or popular voice, affirms or asserts that the identity of another person is not real, they are being violent. Violence is not a reasonable defence for freedom of speech.

I will never forget the night it hit me, in my marital bedroom, that I faced the rest of my life never being real. Not-a-man-not-a-woman, ever, when there were no socially legitimate normal alternatives. I was being cast into outer darkness because my naked body was showing one thing, my being was shouting another, and I was no longer wanted, let alone loved, for either. For anything. Not for being myself, and not for being honest. Whatever nice words were being offered, this was the base truth. I was no longer real, and would never be real again.

Nor will I ever forget the darkness and desperate emptiness that this realisation presented me with. I’m over it now, but it was a place no-one should ever find themselves.

Self-understanding among trans* people is diverse. Some like to be affirmatively trans* all their lives, many disappear from their trans* groupings and social circles, knowing others, being friends, but making nothing of their transition pasts. Even after full surgical transition, some will honestly say that they are not completely the gender they live in. They create a clear presentation in a binary sense, as a convenience to avoid questions and hassle – which is not the assertion other trans* people will make, that they are definitely ‘in the binary’.

So it seems some of us live in a binary gender identity simply to adopt a reality that is fixed by society, by all those around us. Let’s face it, in most cultures, your are pretty much obliged to cast your identity in a binary way. Your only way to avoid being the conversation, is to live someone else’s reality, not your own. I guess in some ways I do. I always said that I know much more definitely what I am not, than what I am. I think this is because saying what you are presupposes that you know what someone else feels like, to be that thing. Maybe nobody can explain why they ‘know’ they are a woman, though they have plenty of explanations for why they are not a man. We can list attributes and comparative traits (not all of which every other woman will share), but these are just clues and indicators. Surely everyone just says ‘I am me’, and everything else is a comparison for the sake of others. ‘I am me’ is the most real it gets.

And then Nature journal published a paper this week published Sex redefined. Claire Ainsworth explains the current research which shows that there are too many competing definitions of sex and gender, in physiological terms. Our bodies are frequently contradictory in the common signs of gender or sex (the word sex remained binary until now, whilst the word gender has split into a spectrum). Sex has been presumed to be the means by which one person can categorise another, whilst gender has come to mean self-identity, because it has relied on the four physical attributes of anatomy, cells, chromosomes or hormones. The big trouble, the reality, is that of those four, they just don’t all point simultaneously in the same direction. Each tells its own story, and they simply don’t always agree, to the point that the author states that intersex conditions are not the usual statistic of 1 in 2,000, but more like 1 in 100. Most of us will never know, because we feel OK with the outer physical presentation compared with our inner feelings. But one per cent means an awful lot of people must be squeezing themselves into a social reality that limits them, or makes them dissatisfied or uncomfortable with their appearance or feelings compared with the standardised attributes of ‘man’ or ‘woman’.

And this is the emerging truth about human sex and gender, that the binary clarity is actually and scientifically speaking, wrong. Now if light dawned, and the binary suddenly lost its significance, it wouldn’t mean people stopped falling in love, or that those born with a fertile uterus would stop having babies, or that we would be thrown into confusion (oh, my goodness, I suddenly don’t know who is what!). Maybe we would understand the pointlessness of ‘Title’ on all the forms we fill in, and maybe we would lose the presumed superiority of the ‘male gender’ and find a more natural equality. And maybe people who speak in university venues would understand that transsexuality just happens, and is real. After all it is the university research (and not just the sociologists) that says so.

As my last blog, isn’t it time to understand that what we take to be real could change into a new reality? Maybe then we would talk about kindness rather than fighting over freedom of speech.

Midas disenchanted

  • Posted on December 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

‘I am not a lesbian …’, she said, as she lay in my arms, aglow.

‘No’, I replied, ‘I don’t make you anything. You are a lover.’

Midas sulked. We had found gold, because we had touched each other without enchantments, neither to gain nor to grasp, not to enrich ourselves nor possess, but to share what we had to give. We did not turn each other into anything; only lovers.

From the beginning of this blog, I have known that for very many people, simply to know me is almost too much. I evoke a response by being present. I disturb expectations with my confidence, with my presumption that I belong wherever I go. I confuse by not enacting that I am different. I am who I am, not changed, but released; but I am also an influence, a provoker of response, simply by being there.

Just over three years ago I would walk on the side of the street in the same direction as traffic, so that no-one driving would have time to look at me and decide I was not a woman after all. Once, when I didn’t, I was shouted at from a car. The story is Hey, Mr Transvestite, where I learned that people’s responses said more about them than about me. Always. Even my then wife, who would no longer undress fully in front of me, because of the implication of having a woman in her bedroom, even if I did not look like one, at the end of each day.

And so I learned to think of Midas, of the awful truth, that anyone who touched me would be changed, would be afraid to touch.

Over the years I have missed touch more than anything else, but yes, I have changed people. Those who have said that at first it was hard to be with me, but who came to see that I was real and honest. Those who decided that I am unacceptable, and in whom something of themselves has fossilised. And those I have met for the first time with my subsequent complete confidence in being alive, who may have been surprised that I dare be ‘normal’. Or who did not, or do not, know my past, and then come to find out, with a realisation that I am authentic, not acting, trustworthy.

Yes, I change people, but none of this is about me.

This last week, I and a woman I really like and trust, fell in love. Without expectation or condition, we could never have matched up in online dating, only in meeting minds and finding that unspoken connection. Guided? I feel so. But the most wonderful part of it all has been having no need to explain in order to be touched and experienced. We left the labels on the floor by the door. She is. I am. We are. And together we experience togetherness in a way I feel I have never known. Maybe because I have never been so honest and uncomplicated. Maybe because I ask nothing but honesty in return. Mostly, because there is no strength in anything without honesty and complete vulnerability, and I would rather give of myself out of this, than make deals on anything less.

The advantage? Well, maybe hundreds of pages of this blog, in which I have bared my soul, and at times my body, almost. I can have no pretence, and I no longer can bear to. So I have few secrets from my lover, who has read so much.

And yet we still face the shadow of Midas, sulking, disenchanted. Am I a woman? Or am I just forever trans, suspect, ambiguous? Which, if either, of us is lesbian to other people? What does this mean to friends and family? The chain reaction goes on, because to us we are simply what we are together, and only when we part and move with others does any of this matter. Midas’s shadow is out there, with all the wrong values, whilst we have found something far beyond gold.

Dieses Blog ist für dich, mein Herz … Midas ist tod.

Birth certificate; without the patina

  • Posted on October 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Suddenly I’m looking at a piece of very eco recycled letter paper, from a very eco recycled-paper envelope. It’s been addressed by hand, for my personal attention. Inside, it’s headed Passport Office. I’m puzzled. I changed my passport two and a half years ago. I’m almost ready to take offence at further hoops. I thought they were over. The compliments slip is signed ‘Kind regards, Leila’. I hadn’t realised that the General Register Office is part of passports now. I flick the soft pages through. Like an offer with a prize, there is a draft certificate, ‘made out to you,…