This is the second in a series of articles about gender. I am one of the founders of the field of gender and have worked in that field nurturing its various crops for many seasons. Thus, I have strong opinions on gender transitioning and I believe that I have earned the right to speak authoritatively on the subject. Although there is much mischief afoot in this regard, including the paradoxical attempt in the academy to silence debate and discussion, there is no progress in ideas or actions without diversity of perspectives and critical thought. We must expose this complex issue to the light of day.
The rigid and traditional gender system of the Western cultures is only that and not science nor handed down from on high. Many of us have worked long and hard to demonstrate that it is a social convention and not a scientific reality. Anyone who is interested can review the forty something years of research and writing in the various disciplines, including the social sciences and the “harder sciences".
I will summarize that work for those not academically inclined. Gender has been shown to be a socially constructed set of qualities named masculinity and femininity, the borders of which are carefully policed in most patriarchal cultures. They can be and are changing with the times. We no longer need all men to fight lions and tigers and all women to have as many babies as their bodies will tolerate and to stay at home to raise and nurture them. This is evolution. Times change; society changes; and technology updates “reality.”
Gender is infinitely malleable and constantly subject to revision. It is not necessarily attached to any sex or any particular body. Sex is not malleable and is part of the realm of biology, not psychology. Gender can be changed. External appearance and behavior can be changed. The reality of the human body, at this point, cannot. Rearranging external features with medical intervention is just that.
The term transgender is problematic in at least two important ways. The goal is not to transition from one gender to the other in a binary fashion. It is instead to uncouple gender from biological sex. It is not, as one example, to permit men who want to be feminine in the traditional sense, to reinforce the binary, as most do after transition.
Secondly, the transgender approach conflates biology and psychology. The name is correct, the interpretation not so much. That is, anyone can modify their gender. No one can modify their sex. Surgery and hormone treatment only modify the appearance of gender and cater to visual interpretation, as many blind people have taught me. The biology, the DNA and even most of the medical treatment remain forever married to the sex of the body.
The surgery and medical treatment are a tromp d’oieil and not a sex change. The problem is that you can’t repair gender by changing sex precisely because you can’t change sex. If you could, that would be transsexual, not transgender. The problem is a cultural one and not a medical one.
In earlier and non-Western cultures, they did not revert to medical and surgical options. They simply allowed for non-binary fluidity. We have yet to see the unintended consequences of messing with Mother Nature in ways we do not fully understand. I am fully in support of people living with whatever gender characteristics they wish and of the fluidity of these qualities. If this is what transgender is, then I support it. If, on the other hand, transgender means transcending biology, I cannot.