The raven himself is hoarse

There was a time when I thought I finally had a handle on gender: it’s a spectrum, right? It’s not defined by biology or chromosomes -it’s how you think, how you feel, who you are. It should not merely be assigned, it should be assumed. And just when I thought I was escaping from the biases of another era, and beginning to see the wisdom in Bell Curve thinking, I found myself wandering in yet another labyrinth. It was only a matter of time before I met the Minotaur, I suppose.

But it all made sense: we are what we feel inside, no matter our outward assignation. And, let’s face it, none of us is always the same person -we evolve both in time and place; who we are at work, or in public, may not be the same as who we are at home and with friends. I am large, I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman confesses in his Leaves of Grass.

I am old now, and have never felt the urge to leave my tent; I do not feel imprisoned, nor deprived, and yet I can understand that others may wish to leave the flap unfastened. My own multitudes are those of ideas, not identities -sexual or otherwise- but as I say, we are all different and I have no problem with that.

Still, I enjoy opinions and ideas that trespass on Shibboleths, so I was intrigued when I came across an essay about the gender spectrum by the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, from the University of Warwick: ‘

As she writes, ‘The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education – what feminists call ‘gendered socialisation’.’

And, in what Reilly-Cooper sees as the radical feminist view, ‘[G]ender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.’ That view, by the way -although I have difficulty with it- is the one which I had finally come to understand: imposed gender is a caste system, a hierarchical one in which males occupy the highest rank, and socialization proceeds accordingly. ‘So, for the radical feminist, the aim is to abolish gender altogether.’

The author, however discusses another view of gender -the queer feminist view- that  ‘what makes the operation of gender oppressive is not that it is socially constructed and coercively imposed: rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders.’ The choice isn’t simply a binary one -gender is a spectrum.

But now Reilly-Cooper’s training as a philosopher enters. ‘If’, she posits, ‘gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.’ Even the binary of Tall/Short is relative, because nobody is absolutely tall -it is merely a comparison between that individual and the average height in whatever population we are considering.

And, ‘If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would fly in the face of the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their gender. Your gender would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities present in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your own individual self-determination.’

An interesting conclusion, especially if you expand the concept. If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum. I think of myself as a man, and yet someone is likely to be further along the spectrum towards manhood, and would therefore be more of a man than me… Whoaa.

The author takes it further, of course: ‘In reality, everybody is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others still. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a new false binary.’ Or, if you want to ‘identify as pangender, is the claim that you represent every possible point on the spectrum? All at the same time?’ And if you don’t ‘accept that masculinity should be defined in terms of dominance while femininity should be described in terms of submission… whatever you come up with, they are going to represent opposites of one another.’

I love the way philosophers approach things, don’t you? The next question she asks is ‘how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? Just how many possible gender identities are there?’ Her answer: ‘7 billion, give or take. There are as many possible gender identities as there are humans on the planet… But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense or adds anything to our understanding to call any of this stuff ‘gender’, as opposed to just ‘human personality’… The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not simply a label to adopt so that you now have a unique way to describe just how large and multitudinous and interesting you are. Gender is the value system that ties desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function.  Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should – and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other – which we should – what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff ‘gender’? What meaning does the word ‘gender’ have here, that the word ‘personality’ cannot capture?’ Bravo!

So, should the default then, be ‘cis’ (i.e. personal identity conforms with birth sex)? She has an answer to that one, too: A ‘desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman’… Once we recognise that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to concede that nobody is deep down cisgender.’

And remember, ‘To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless… The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on ever more gender categories that define the complexity of human personality in rigid and essentialist ways. The solution is to abolish gender altogether… You do not need to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender to be free to dress how you like, behave how you like, work how you like, love who you like. You do not need to show that your personality is feminine for it to be acceptable for you to enjoy cosmetics, cookery and crafting.’ Amen.

Somehow, I feel that Reilly-Cooper has allowed me to peek under the canvass just a little -sort of like what I used to do when I was a kid and the circus came to town. I’m sure it did not go unnoticed, but nobody seemed to mind that I was fascinated with what was going on, and that I wanted to know how it all worked -and maybe even be invited in to ask some questions.

After all, curiosity is what leads to understanding -and isn’t it better to be interested than indifferent? Or worse, intolerant?

Different Flavours

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy –so says Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I suppose as one ages, there is a tendency to become, if not indifferent, then less surprised at the plethora of variations that exist when they are sought, less amazed at the range of combinations just waiting for discovery. Like ice cream, the world does not come in only one flavour.

But perhaps it is not just the array that so bedazzles, but that we could ever have presumed to define what is normal in anything other than in a statistical way. A Bell Curve distribution confronts us wherever we look –reality is a spectrum no less than the rainbows we all profess to admire. So, then, why is it that in some domains we are less than accepting of mixtures, less tolerant of difference? Why is there the overwhelming need to categorize things as either normal or abnormal? Natural, or unnatural? A macrocosm of only us and them?

Is it just the benefit of retrospection that allows me to notice that no one of us is the same? Or a corollary of Age that lets me thank whatever gods may be that it is like that? That not only do we differ in our tastes and thoughts, but that the discrepancies in our appearance, if nothing else, allow us to recognize each other?

At any rate, I have to say that, as a retired gynaecologist, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover a world I thought I had left behind –intersex. It was an article in the BBC News that caught my attention: In my day, however, we still hewed to the label ‘hermaphrodite’ if both male and female gonads were present, or even more insensitively, to something like ‘disorders of sex development’, with the medical community taking it upon itself to assign and surgically ‘correct’ the anatomical features at variance with some of the more prominent features of the melange. All this often before the person was able to decide whether or not to identify with either or both traditional sexes. I don’t for a moment believe that this was done malevolently, however, and I think we have to be careful not to apply current sensitivities to another era. Historical revisionism is always a temptation…

But the spectrum of variation is so wide in both anatomy and physiology, not to mention time of discovery, that assignation of gendered roles is fraught. For some, the worry has been that of acceptance –acceptance of any divergent anatomy, any dissonance, by society at large, but also acceptance by the individual themselves (even pronouns become problematic –assigned as they usually are by gender).

It is common nowadays (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) to use the (hopefully) neutral term of intersex to define people who ‘are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.’

Of course attitudes are as disparate as societies themselves. Not all have been as tolerant or accepting of difference as one might hope. The BBC article, for example, describes the attitude in some rural areas in Kenya that a baby born with ambiguous genitalia should be killed. ‘Childbirth is changing in Kenya. Increasingly, mothers are giving birth in hospitals, rather than in the village. But not so long ago the use of traditional birth attendants was the norm, and there was a tacit assumption about how to deal with intersex babies. “They used to kill them,” explains Seline Okiki, chairperson of the Ten Beloved Sisters, a group of traditional birth attendants, also from western Kenya. “If an intersex baby was born, automatically it was seen as a curse and that baby was not allowed to live. It was expected that the traditional birth attendant would kill the child and tell the mother her baby was stillborn.”’ The article goes on to say that ‘In the Luo language, there was even a euphemism for how the baby was killed. Traditional birth attendants would say that they had “broken the sweet potato”. This meant they had used a hard sweet potato to damage the baby’s delicate skull.’

‘Although there are no reliable statistics on how many Kenyans are intersex, doctors believe the rate is the same as in other countries – about 1.7% of the population.’ But the thrust of the article was really to discuss how  Zainab, a midwife in rural western Kenya defied a father’s demand that she kill his newborn baby because it was intersex. She secretly adopted the baby –and indeed, even a second one a couple of years later. ‘In Zainab’s community, and in many others in Kenya, an intersex baby is seen as a bad omen, bringing a curse upon its family and neighbours. By adopting the child, Zainab flouted traditional beliefs and risked being blamed for any misfortune.’ But she represents a slow, but nonetheless steady change in attitudes in rural Kenya.

‘These days, the Ten Beloved Sisters leave delivering babies to hospital midwives. Instead, they support expectant and new mothers and raise awareness about HIV transmission. But in more remote areas, where hospitals are hard to reach, traditional birth attendants still deliver babies the old-fashioned way and the Ten Beloved Sisters believe infanticide still happens.’ But, ‘It is hidden. Not open as it was before’.

I suppose it is progress… No, it is progress –however slow, and frustrating the pace may be, as long as there are people like Zainab there is hope. But it still leaves me shaking my head.

For some reason Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, springs to mind, in a paraphrase of its last verse: I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a yellow wood and she, she took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference