Friday Philosophy: Learning to Count Past Two

If I were not exhausted and didn’t have an afternoon meeting…or if maybe sometime during the week I would have seen this coming and managed to set aside some time to write about it, this is where I would have posted a piece about the talk about the removal of protections for transgendered people from the Employment Non-Discrimination  Act.

But I am tired.  Oh, so tired.  As Fanny Lou Hamer said,

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired

Since I am having a meeting today to discuss trying to get my stuff published in book form, I have no time.

So I went back in the stacks.  Way back.  This was presented first to a Psychology class at the University of Central Arkansas in the mid-90s.  The professor who invited me to give this and several other lectures did not earn tenure at UCA.  I’m sure there was no connection.

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by

Learning to Count Past Two

I read a paper by Jamison Green which includes some interesting thoughts about baring yourself to people.  It includes the following, which I include as an example of transgender humor:  It certainly beats the so-called “jokes” about Ann Coulter…

Stepping in front of the class we become laboratory rats, frogs in the dissection tray, interactive multimedia learning experiences.

‘How old were you when you first realized you were a frog, Mr. Green?’

‘How did your parents react when you told them you were a frog?’

‘Do you date? Do you tell your partners you’re a frog?’

‘So how does it work? I mean, uh, can you, like, do it?’

Well, I’m not a frog.  I’m an educator.  It used to be that I educated only about mathematics.  Lately I’ve been teaching computer programing.  But I also teach about many issues surrounding the question of diversity in human society.  My purpose in this series is to teach about gender.  Some of what I write may sound more like politics, but that’s because being who I am has been politicized by this society.

Gender is perhaps the first abstract concept that a human learns.  Long before we have any knowledge of anatomy, we have been taught in many subtle ways, and in some ways that are not so subtle, the difference between boys and girls.  Indeed, the first question that a new parent is asked about their new baby is, “Is it a boy or a girl?”  No other option is provided or even acknowledged.

From birth children are interacted with differently based on their sex.  The sometimes unconscious, and sometimes very conscious, intent of this difference in treatment is to make sure that children will “fit in” to society at large.  Parents are inculcated with the belief that what is ultimately important is that their child “be normal.”  The effect, however, is to limit the behavior of the child…to place gender barriers around them.

If sex, which I use as a descriptor of an individual human’s bio-chemistry, were a binary function, perhaps there wouldn’t be any problem with this arrangement.

I will use “gender” to refer to an individual’s personal view of hermself. If gender and sex were equivalent, then I wouldn’t be writing this.

If those were true, at the very least, there wouldn’t be a problem which would likely be noticed.

But sex is not two-valued.  The Intersex Society of North America estimates that 1 in every 2000 births results in an intersexed child…what used to be called an ‘hermaphrodite’, which intersex friends of mine have informed me is a term which they wish would vanish from our vocabulary (as one of my friends once said, “This has nothing to do with Hermes and Aphrodite”).  I’ve heard other intersexed people discuss a study in which exit interviews with delivery room nurses supposedly revealed that as many as 4% of the population are born with at least somewhat ambiguous genitalia.  Additional human babies are born with karotype XO, meaning that they are lacking the chromosomal sex determining factor entirely.

Sex and gender also seem not to be congruent.  The existence of transsexual people like myself and the many other gender-variant people that some describe with the umbrella term “transgendered” cannot be ignored when examining gender.

It has been suggested, the accusation has been made, that transpeople are delusional, that the tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of us apparently suffer from some severe group neurosis, if not mass psychosis, or are in the grip of some malevolent force, if not being ourselves the embodiment of that evil.  So strong is the cultural imperative to be either female or male, either girl or boy, either man or woman, that derision, humiliation, marginalization and vilification of transgendered people is considered “normal.”

Is it believable that the multitude of us, relatively tiny though that multitude may be, are all neurotic or psychotic?  Is it believable that we are the pawns, if not the source, of evil?  Or is it easier to believe that the descriptive system for gender is inadequate.  Given those options…and I don’t deny that other viewpoints may exist…and the demonstrable fact that sex is not binary, application of Occam’s Razor leads me to opt for the failure of the binary gender classification scheme.  [Occam was a philosopher of olden days. Occam’s Razor is the principle that “All things being equal, the simplest answer to a question is the best one.”]

I didn’t readily understand all this in my formative years.  No child does.  All we know as children is that there are boys and there are girls and that they are different, that they are to be treated differently and that they are expected to behave differently, and this behavior is expected to fall within those culturally acceptable limits I mentioned;  that is, they must be classifiable into one of only two allowable “gender roles.”  Violators are persecuted to the full extent of cultural oppression.

But even in the face of that oppression, there are people upon whom this gender conditioning just doesn’t take.  To answer an unasked question: No…it is not easy to overcome.  For some of us it takes a very large portion of our lives before we reject that Pavlovian conditioning, but eventually we do.

The very language we speak fails to acknowledge that any variation from binary gender is even conceivable:  we all know pronouns for female humans, for male human and for things, but what are the pronouns for non-female, non-male humans?.  The language does make an admission that there are people who supposedly fail at the supposedly “natural” gender-roles they are assigned:  we have the words sissy and tomboy, faggot and dyke, for example.  The logical inconsistency of the concept that a human may be a failure at what is supposed to be natural boggles my mind.

If my gender destiny was determined as soon as the doctor made a choice of what to put on my birth certificate, then how did I manage to escape that destiny?

One might, I suppose, follow the semantic trail and reach the conclusion that I and people like me are being “unnatural” (which unfortunately is synonymous with evil in the eyes of some).  But then what does “unnatural” mean?  For far too many people, “unnatural” doesn’t mean “not of nature” but rather means “not specifically approved of in the appropriate religious literature.”  Given that definition, gender becomes culturally relative, for in many creation myths, gender-variance was not only acknowledged as existent, but was actually revered.  Gods have been known to change sex and to change the sex of humans.  Indeed the god of the Old Testament is said to be both male and female.  Are not transgendered people then created in this image?  One has to ask how being gender-variant manages to gets labeled as “sinful” by the religious given this context.

No…nature is not to be blamed here.  Rather it is the case that we live in a society in which diversity is found to be threatening.  When people have difficulty determining our gender…when they become confused about the use of pronouns…when they have to think for any period of time, no matter how small, about the inexactness of binary sex and gender…the reaction inevitably encouraged by their conditioning is anger and hostility…if not outright hatred and sometimes even violence…directed not towards their own inability to cope with our existence, but directed towards us…the people who in their eyes caused the mental or linguistic dilemma.  Acknowledging the existence of people who are differently gendered as fully functional, fully participating members of the society requires work on the part of the rest of society, work that too many members of that society are incapable of doing…or perhaps more pointedly, unwilling to do.

I tend to think that too many “traditionally-gendered” people believe that if they acknowledge that there are…or even, can be…functional people who are perhaps neither gender, or perhaps both genders, then their own interpretation of their personal gender comes under scrutiny.  I can tell you from personal experiences that examinining your gender can be quite painful.  But it can also be intensely liberating.

Do people perhaps believe that the existence of people outside of the culturally approved genders means that the categories “man” and “woman” will no longer exist?  Surely that’s not the case.  The traditional classifications that currently hold sway for the vast majority of humanity will undoubtedly still be numerically dominant.  But certain concepts would become somewhat nonsensical.  For example, homosexuality would still exist, but what would it mean to be heterosexual if there is more than one “other” sex/gender?

And if heterosexuality becomes passe as a concept, what happens to the cultural advantage we assign to being heterosexual?  What happens to human interaction if we cannot automatically assume that we know how a person gender-identifies…if gender becomes blurred or fluid.  Would male advantage remain the law of the land?

Perhaps some people do have reason to fear us.

Gender-variance and multiplicity of gender were part of human history, they are part of the present, and they will be part of the future. The question is how human society will adapt to that existence.  We gender-variant people are waiting for an answer.


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    • Robyn on September 29, 2007 at 12:01 am

    The Verizon guy is here trying to fix the access for our downstairs neighbors.  I’ll write a report about my meeting with the Dean and post it in a bit.


  1. that the number of gender-variant people reported is inaccurate, and that it wouldnt be such a ‘tiny multitude’ in a societal/cultural environment where people felt freer to be themselves despite conditioning…

    • Robyn on September 29, 2007 at 1:26 am

    I just wrote this elsewhere.

    If the past is any indication…

    …and it usually is, coming back for us later will be forgotten.

    I hope you are going to hold people to their word.  But I am not holding my breath.

    There is no next step we should wait for after this.  The national protection was supposed to make up for all those times we were dumped in the states.

    When they said they would help us later…NOW is that “later” they were talking about.

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