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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Both Biology and Psychology Matter

Even today, some of the biggest barriers we have to break down are those strict dichotomies between sexes and genders. The idea of males doing feminine things or vice versa still makes us uncomfortable, even if we have no problem understanding varying sexual orientations, since those are understood in our minds as inborn and immutable. But there is still a strong tendency to believe that our genders are conditioned and even determined by our assigned sex. If we have male or female genitals, we commonly, almost automatically, identify with masculine or feminine gender stereotypes and behaviors. But this isn’t so rigidly true, even if many people tend to follow this pattern, which is referred to in gender studies as “cisgender”. Anatomy and biology do not absolutely determine one’s gender identity or psychological makeup in terms of gender roles or enjoyment of perceived masculine or feminine activities that conflict with their assigned sex and associated gender. Our perception of ourselves as male/masculine, female/feminine, transgender, etc is a combination of many factors, which I’ll give at least a cursory investigation into, though I’m certainly not well versed in the vast amount of studies that exist in this likely growing discipline.

It’s important to continue advancing the distinction and nuance of the terms “gender” and “sex”. Gender used to be considered identical to sex in common parlance, even on surveys, but this was before psychologists began to distinguish between our biological sex and genitalia, such as the penis, testes, vagina and ovaries for obvious differences between the sexes, and our psychological state and perception, which reflects socially constructed ideas about what constitutes masculine and feminine behavior and tendencies. Intersexed people or those with what are called ambiguous genitalia are potentially more prone to having confusion about their sex, not to mention their gender. The problem people with otherwise normal genitalia have is the conflation of our biological sex with our psychological gender and otherwise using gender in the mistaken sense of sexual characteristics instead of what can be shared in some sense by both males and females. Males can do feminine things occasionally and even identify with the feminine gender from a young age and vice versa for females in regards to masculine things. This does not mean these people are insane or destructive, but merely that they have a disordered relationship between what people identify them as in terms of what I would call sexual gender, those physical traits that we distinguish as male and female; and psychological gender, those ideas that group us into what are commonly a binary of male/masculine and female/feminine, though there is always room for inclusion of third gender understandings, not entirely female or male, but almost androgynous. It doesn’t have to inspire fear or such negative emotions in us, but merely open up our perspective to the diversity the human condition has in terms of our ideas about what constitutes men and women, as well as what is feminine or masculine, or even if these binaries make complete sense in today’s changing world.

There are a lot of terms to throw around related to the study of gender as a whole, but for the purposes of discussion, I think it’s best to simplify this to a few key ideas: gender identity, gender role and transgender. Gender identity is one’s personal concept of gender, both psychological and biological. There is a wide spectrum of genders in society, some including not only a third gender, but genderless and androgynous ones, among others. One’s gender identity is something that is conditioned in part by society’s expectations of oneself, but also chemical and physiological traits that one is born with unknowingly or without a desire to change. A man may have a higher pitched voice than normal and vice versa for a woman’s voice. These create a variability with how one is approached. A higher pitched voice for a mature male is not considered masculine and a deep voice for a woman is similarly so. With this in mind, these individuals may begin to consider whether they are strictly male or female as a whole. This doesn’t even cover the entire topic that could be devoted to intersex and sexually ambiguous individuals who have gender confusion primarily because of how genetics worked before they were born in one form or another. This topic applies to those people who had a sex assigned to them at birth, but feel that does not adequately describe them or fully encompass what they are as a person who is both a body and a mind in or out of synch with each other.

Gender roles are related to gender identity in that the former are at least partly informed and motivated by the latter. Whatever one’s personal sense of being a man, woman or other gender is, this effects what kind of behavior you will do, which may or may not fit with social norms of what is considered masculine or feminine, since a common, though not strictly so across the world, structure is a binary one where the two genders have some overlap, but some actions and habits are not considered feminine at all, such as having a career and choosing to not have children for a woman in this day and age. A man or woman crossdressing is still considered something abnormal and even aberrant, but it isn’t so cut and dry. It doesn’t even mean the man or woman in question is homosexual, but that they understand and express their gender in this way. They certainly don’t intend to hurt people; this may explain why many times they hide this practice from family and friends, for fear of conflict rejection, and ostracism. But this sort of behavior is hardly so damaging that we should treat those who do it as lesser people.

Being transgender is a variable identity, since it exists on a sort of spectrum, ranging from simple dissonance of one’s assigned sex and one’s gender ideation as a whole to even rejecting the binary entirely, identifying with both sexes and genders. Some might call it special treatment if you allow transgendered individuals to use the opposite sex bathrooms, since it gives them privileges without them deserving it, or some variation of a claim that they are abusing the system. It is not unjust or unfair to permit someone who identifies as the opposite sex to use the opposite sex bathrooms even if unisex ones are available. The concerns of rape are unfounded if we interpret that the people who have severe gender identity disorder are not taking advantage of the permission, but simply trying to integrate into society as a person of the opposite sex, sometimes because they are required to do so for a year in order to be approved for a sex reassignment surgery. Crossdressers are not afforded the same privileges, however. Being transgender in the sense of wanting to change one’s sex to match one’s overall sense of self as a person is not on the same level as dressing as the opposite sex for reasons that don’t reflect the same level of need for accommodation. It’s not even remotely unfair to say a crossdresser who is not trying to live as the opposite sex and gender cannot go into the opposite sex bathrooms as if it is normal. Unless you are crossdressing for that previously stated purpose of sexual integration, then it is not the same category of consideration legally.

Of course there will be distinctions in one form or another about what is manly or womanly and those who stand out may be ridiculed or singled out. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of these people, but proud of their diversity and uniqueness in a world where people are far too often uncertain or pressured into their gender identity and roles and treat those who differ with some measure of contempt or disinterest. We certainly shouldn’t be negative towards a group of people who have a great deal to offer in terms of culture and psychology, since they do not take their anatomy as the only means by which they see themselves as a person, but they look inside. We shouldn’t condemn those who are different, especially if they aren’t hurting anyone but those that are insecure themselves because they aren’t willing to admit their own uniqueness. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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