The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:49:36

Beyond Male and Female?

Devra Torres, Feb 15, 2015

Advocates of gay marriage had one more obstacle to overcome. They were making steady, even dramatic, strides, having happened upon some winning sound bites (“Love is love!” “Marriage equality!”). They had pointed out that only a bigot would object to a black man marrying a white woman. 

That was once deemed unthinkable and scandalous. And now look! Look how we all agree what an embarrassing remnant of the bad old days that attitude is. Love has conquered all. Oh, it takes a while sometimes, but society eventually comes around to embracing what used to be taboo. It’s the same with gay marriage.

Or so the story goes.

Lots of people accepted this narrative wholeheartedly. Others didn’t, but it hardly mattered, because they weren’t about to say so in public. Some were scared to sound like fundamentalists or prudes. Others, more pragmatic, just feared for their careers.

But a few still weren’t buying it, or even pretending to. This small but stubborn segment of the population kept insisting that whether you’re a man or a woman is central to marriage in a way that race is not. The holdouts weren’t all fundamentalists, either. Some couldn’t get past the sheer biology of the thing. Others persisted in their belief that intentionally depriving children of a mother or a father was a bad idea.

Suddenly, though, we’re in a new stage of the conversation.

We’ve gone from “Why can't a man marry a man?” and “Why can't a woman marry a woman?” to “Who’s to say who counts as a man or a woman anyhow?” and “Isn’t all this excessively ‘binary’ discourse missing the point?” 

The argument used to be that the distinction between males and females was irrelevant, because it was less important than the love between (presumably) two people. But now it’s not about males and females anymore. It’s about gender identity.

The thing about gender identity, though, is that it’s practically unknowable. It’s fluid, tricky to pin down. Your may have the physical appearance, the genetics, and the psychological identity of a woman.  That’s one possibility on the spectrum. Or you may have just one or two characteristics that "match." You can’t make assumptions based on somebody’s appearance, genetics, or behavior. You might identify as any one of 51 genders, according to Facebook (although there’s a lot of redundancy: I looked up their definitions, and they seems to boil down to male, female, sort-of-neither, sort-of-both, and formerly-one-but-now-the-other).

It would be hard to exaggerate this mainstreaming of gender confusion. The view that the difference between men and women, as the saying goes, consists of a few anatomical details “that only matter on special occasions”--that's old-fashioned. Our children, along with the rest of us, are being earnestly assured that being a man or a woman is something that can be altered with surgery, hormones, and voice training. That those extremely rare cases of people with ambiguous anatomy, or ambiguous chromosomes, are kind of unusual, maybe, but just one more place to be on the gender spectrum. And cases of gender dysphoria—a man feeling trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa (also very rare)—can be solved by “transitioning.” That gender is a mystery, to be puzzled out by weighing genetics, appearance, desire, perceived identity, and so on.

I'm all for avoiding reductionism, labeling, and false dichotomies. Sometimes it feels like that's all I write about. And I'm all for listening to people's own accounts of who they experience themselves to be. It's way too easy to assume you know them better than they know themselves, to label them as enemy or ally--or to exploit them by treating them as Exhibit A in some point you're trying to make. It's not open conversation that's the problem. 

What I'm talking about is the propaganda, the slow-building impression that maybe very few of us are simply men or women, and that calling someone "he" or "she" makes it so.

Just in the last few days, I’ve run across this story of a woman who’s genetically “mostly male” but gave birth to twins through IVF and this story about a man living as a woman married to a woman living as a man and how they plan to tell their children that “sometimes men have babies”; and of course every trip to the supermarket checkout line brings me face to face with Bruce Jenner, who’s “transitioning” from his “assigned” gender to a new one. Yesterday, logging into my email, I saw a story about a little nine-year-old girl whose parents, on the advice of their doctor, were preparing her for gender reassignment and pleading for understanding and support in a video they’d made. 

I can't think of a better description of all this than what Rabbi Guilles Bernheim calls "the irreversible scrambling of sexual identity." You can read my posts on his very perceptive work here and here, and you can read his own words in full here

There's a good case to be make for "male and female He created them." But not until we get past a lot of manufactured perplexity.