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Semantic hegemony, if you know what I mean

  • Posted on July 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Sometimes things collide and I feel a small blog coming on. This one involves the proposition that, if gender had never been defined as strictly binary, and anyone could live anywhere in the spectrum they wished, would fewer people feel the need for a solely binary solution to their own gender identity?

A paper (‘Psychotherapy for Gender Identity Disorders’) by Az Hakeem was noted today, which proposed a form of group therapy to reduce gender dysphoria, where the author suggests that a body/mind disagreement can as equally be resolved by treating the mind or perception. His thesis that trans* people are more gender binary than cis folk is somewhat disingenuous of course, but he also proposes that sex is scientifically verifiable, whereas gender is a social construct.

Then a friend was enquiring about implications for reversing transition (which some do; it is why full transition is taken so cautiously and painfully slowly). Let’s face it, the road is very rough and the hatred and bigotry one meets requires an enormous resilience. Which is why I reckon I have never seen such generosity and such strength as I have among trans* people.

And then a relative (I have a very small extended family) that I was keeping in touch with over my own transition revealed a depth of bigotry such as I had not as yet encountered. One email a few months ago (no reply), then a helpful follow up yesterday, evoked thinly disguised hatred (or fear, I suspect) and a very commanding last word between us forever.

Finally, New Zealand is adding to the list of countries including a third gender on passports (Mx or X is used), which immediately presents non-binary or transitioning people as ‘other’, which, unless you are out and proud, and everyone is freely using a third gender in the day-to-day, is really not what you want.

And it’s all about semantics. Shared meaning and understanding.

As my last blog, words are everything when communicating. Lewis Carroll plays with this a lot in Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass). Here is Humpty Dumpty:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

So when we talk about gender (sorry, I do, rather a lot because it’s a conundrum to me too – I had much the same education as you) we fall immediately into what the user of the word means. All words are made up, so the problem arises when different people don’t agree about the meaning or definition of a word, and whether complimentary terms are absolute or relative (eg, black/white versus light/dark). The result is that for me to really mean ‘dark’ I might feel obliged to use the term ‘black’ (or vice versa if I want to be less absolute).

Male and female are the chief cultural terms for gender, and the rest are constructs (andro-gynous; gender-neutral/queer etc.) so it is rather difficult if you are comfortable in the middle (non-binary) but have to fill in forms with M/F. And then you ask why the telecomms company actually needs to know, or the DVLA (are we really all gender-stereotypical drivers?). And then you ask what gender is anyway (covered in earlier posts here). The etymology of the term isn’t helpful, but meaning ‘kind’ (ie, distinguishing men and women) goes back to about the 14th century, but only came to be really useful when the term ‘sex’ started to get embarrassingly common in the 20th century in terms of activity. So it isn’t really very specific.

Who wins, Humpty?

You could be heading for a fall when the egg-heads disagree with little Alice. Is it an academic thing, defined by researchers? Or is it a colloquialism? And oh dear, when you prefix it with ‘trans’ you really stir things up, because what one trans* person claims it for is not the same for another. So the construct of gender is not so much a mental or psychological status as a social consensus on behaviour and presentation.

So back to our little coincidence of events today. How can we decide whether gender dysphoria, that feeling of mismatch between an assigned binary term (absolutist male or female) is a mental disorder, a physical disorder, or simply over-prescription of the need to associate sex-identification (physiological) with gender identification (social – no, not psychological!)? Tricky ground, and one that elsewhere has created very strong feelings. Is there a disorder at all, or is it just that because we don’t accommodate the non-binary or ambiguous or mixed presentation and behaviour, we artificially create a problem that need not exist?

Well, I have met enough different people to think that there are firm clinical and/or genetic roots for real ‘gender dysphoria’ at a profound physiological level – a clear awareness that the body does not fulfill the needs and expression of the psyche in terms of sex-differentiation. But also enough to feel that trans-binarism is not the only answer, and is entirely unsuitable for others. Women behave and dress as men frequently, but we go ape when a man dresses and behaves as a woman (even well, so let’s leave out the bizarre) – this is not, in my mind, a clear case of gender dysphoria, but social and cultural dysfunction. People should be free, but not obliged, to identify as non-binary, and free to live anywhere else in the spectrum they feel most appropriate, and that should be respected.

When someone undertakes the real life experience of their preferred (non-assigned) gender they really are finding out what it would be like to always be ‘the opposite’, and it may not fit well enough. And for others, even full transition with complete surgery is not enough for them to overcome feelings that they were ‘born wrong’. So freedom to identify in a fluid way is the socially mature way to regard gender. And finally, if we can sort out the use of ‘gender’ and ‘transgender’ flexibly enough through not needing to be prescriptive, we need to discard absolutism.

The case of my family member (‘relative’ seems strangely appropriate now), in all likelihood, is seated in religion. God made man and created them male and female. Well, did god create me? So whose fault in quality assurance am I? Old Testament absolutism is so riddled with fallacy that I shan’t discuss it here, except to say that the world’s major religions are founded on peace and love, and those who betray that ideal on spurious interpretations of ancient literature, may have to choose whether or not to shake my hand at the pearly gates as Saint Peter (and god) look on! What if they do, what if they don’t … ?