FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Reflections on Androgyny (2) 16 August 2009

Filed under: androgyny,gender,gender roles,intersex — John @ 7:04 am

I realise that when I used the word ‘closet androgyne’ to refer to myself in my last entry, that could have been construed as meaning I was a transvestite! I have in fact experimented in a minor, and indeed ‘closet’ (i.e. secretive) manner, with cross-dressing; and it is possible that I might do so on a more regular basis if my personal circumstances allowed. But this is not something that I generally feel a compulsion or irresistible need to do. Transvestism could be seen as a form of transgender behaviour. In the 1980s, people such as Boy George who blurred the boundaries between the genders / sexes by their flamboyant, public cross-dressing were indeed called ‘gender benders’ – a term which also neatly captured the ambiguity about whether they were also to be viewed as gay (‘bender’ being a slang term for ‘gay’ at the time). The same ambiguity is conveyed by the more contemporary term of ‘gender queer’.

Transvestites are in fact usually not androgynes, in either the physical sense of the term (having a bodily appearance that is ambiguous in relation to their sex or gender – when stripped of their cross-dressing apparel, that is, e.g. clothing, make-up, props, etc.), or the psychological sense: having a mixed or neutral gender identity. There can be a variety of motivations for cross-dressing. Very often, the male cross-dresser is in fact straight and masculine-gendered, and is acting out fetishistic fantasies about his ‘ideal woman’ or his ideal of himself as a woman: instead of, or as well as, projecting his ideals and fantasies onto real women, he turns them in on, or attempts to actualise them in, himself; but the ‘desire’ as such is heterosexual. Then there’s also a well established gay-transvestite scene, often involving highly theatrical drag acts. The relation of desire that such acts play upon could be seen as one where the conventional female / male pairing is replaced by a feminine-male (transvestite) / masculine-male (masculine-looking and/or straight-acting man) duo. I am told (and I really don’t have any direct experience of this; but if I did, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it) that gay transvestites / drag queens are often the object of sexual advances from ‘straight’ men, who – if that epithet is to be applied accurately – clearly view the drag queens as female, even though they know they are men.

In the above discussion, I have deliberately blurred the distinctions between terms such as man / male / masculine and woman / female / feminine. The basic distinction that is usually made is that male / female are the adjectives referring to the anatomical or biological sex of an individual, i.e. whether they are a man or a woman; whereas masculine / feminine relates to psychological and social gender (how an individual perceives themself or is perceived by others in gender terms). But in reality, this neat divide – and ultimately the gender divide itself – is difficult to uphold rigidly. Indeed, it’s not even maintained officially, in the sense that politically-correct considerations now require questions in official forms and such like to ask about a person’s ‘gender’ rather than their sex but still only give the options ‘male’ and ‘female’. But ‘male’ and ‘female’ are supposed to refer to sex not gender, and, in fact, the forms or questionnaires involved are trying to determine an individual’s biological sex, not their subjective / social gender identity. For instance, I don’t think the public-sector organisations requesting this information would be too happy if a transgender male ticked the ‘female’ box on the basis that his gender identity was not the same as his sex.

On top of which, these forms somehow omit to offer a third option for gender, such as ‘other’, which is what would be required for an androgyne! When confronted by online forms asking for my gender, for instance, I usually try to avoid providing an answer if all I’m offered is either male or female; but when you hit the ‘submit’ button, you’re told that the gender question is of course a ‘required field’!

This sort of cross-over between terms that are meant to refer to anatomical sex and those that relate to gender illustrates the argument that even the signifiers of supposedly objective, scientific distinctions (e.g. the distinction between men and women) to some extent mediate, and are articulated through, contingent socio-cultural distinctions: the option of ‘male’ or ‘female’ being described as that of ‘gender’ rather than sex. And indeed, the offering of only the choice between either ‘male’ or ‘female’ effectively enforces a binary opposition that is socio-cultural in origin rather than scientific. This is because, if the question was really designed to elicit one’s biological sex scientifically, it is now generally recognised that a third option would need to be provided: intersex. Intersex people are those who are born with a combination of often only partially formed male and female organs, and variations of the standard XY (male) and XX (female) chromosomal patterns. Our society and culture prefer not to acknowledge this ‘third sex’; effectively, the ancient cultural antinomy between male and female (i.e. anatomical sex as culturally understood and articulated) supersedes and overrides a more objective, scientific description. There is no official status for intersex people: right from their birth certificates, they have to be referred to as either male or female; and so they – and, indeed, everyone else – continue to be thus classified throughout the rest of their lives.

While this represents an injustice towards intersex people, it also doesn’t ‘do justice’ to androgyny: while the cultural (gender) distinction between male and female ignores (biological) intersexuality, it also denies androgyny as a cultural, gender phenomenon. This is in reality completely illogical: if it can be accepted that people can be made up of combinations of male and female in the anatomical sense (and, by extension, the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not exhaustively describe the realities of sex and gender even from a scientific point of view), it seems contradictory not to recognise that people can also be a combination of male and female in a psycho-social and cultural sense – particularly as the very terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ are culturally relative to begin with. But, of course, while in fact being relative, these terms articulate concepts that the culture takes as being absolute and grounded in objective truth.

In my next entry, I’ll look at some of the many different criteria by which sex and gender can be classified and differentiated. This will enable me to suggest a positioning of androgyny somewhere in the middle of a scale running from intersexuality to conventional forms of ‘same-gendered’ identity (male-identifying men and female-identifying women) that still integrate aspects of the ‘other gender’.

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2 Responses to “Reflections on Androgyny (2)”

  1. K Says:

    I greatly enjoyed your Reflections on Androgyny (and the rest of your blog, too), especially since I’m currently reading “Whipping Girl” by Julia Serano. You explain the same material from a different perspective and with more openness.

    It struck me as unusual, though, that you avoided the terms “man” and “woman.” I would like to learn about your views on these words, how they differ from male and female, and why you didn’t use them. Just curiosity, seeking out others’ ideas as I work on my own gender journey

    • John Says:

      Sorry for the delay in ‘approving’ and replying to your comment, Kleo. I visit my own blog rarely these days, although the issues I discuss are as live as ever for me. I would tend to use ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as referring to the anatomically male or female features of a person that they are born with, as opposed to how they choose to modify nature in line with their personality. An MtF transsexual is a man in that sense; or, to be more precise, ‘originally a man’. Of course, neither term is appropriate for an intersex person, who possesses anatomical characteristics typical for both standard sexes, or intermediate to those of a man or woman.


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