FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Reflections On Androgyny (3) 11 September 2009

There are many criteria according to which sex and gender can be defined, and distinctions between – loosely speaking – masculine and feminine polarities can be drawn up and also put into question. Where combinations of masculine and feminine are present, some are defining of androgyny, and some are not. The table below is an attempt to set out just some of the possible different levels of gender distinction, and examples of types of personality (e.g. androgyne, transsexual, ordinary man or woman) that could be seen as demonstrating combinations of the genders as thus described.

Level of description Terms describing gender polarities Names for / types of combination
1 Anatomical sex Male / female Intersex; hermaphrodite
2 Neurological sex (i.e. relating to brain structure) Male / female Can include intersex. Also, transgender; e.g. transsexual (male brain in a female body or vice-versa), androgyne, etc.
3 Affective gender identity (relating to emotional, subjective, imaginary / fantasy identification with particular gender(s)) Male / female; masculine / feminine Non-transsexual transgender individuals: those who are able to live with their gender diversity and are more or less happy with the ‘gender’ of the body they were born with. This could include so-called ‘she-males’: men who have had hormonal and/or surgical treatment to give them the appearance of a woman but have not (or not yet) had the operation to remove their penis and shape a female organ. These are usually pre-op transsexuals, in fact; but some choose to remain permanently as hybrid male-females, and are to that extent not full transsexuals. Also, androgynes can belong to this category.
4 Social gender-role identity (related to the gender role(s) in society and relationships that an individual identifies with) Male / female; masculine / feminine This includes persons that identify with, and willingly embrace, social roles that were traditionally reserved for, and which society still identifies to some extent with, the opposite ‘sex’; e.g. women in business or in industrial jobs requiring physical strength, and house-husbands and full-time fathers
5 Social presentation or persona (the gender effect of the way the individual presents themselves socially; e.g. appearance, clothing, personal adornment (make-up, jewellery, etc.), mannerisms, manner of speech, etc.) Male / female; masculine / feminine Camp or effeminate guy (gay or straight); butch lesbian; transvestite man or woman; masculine-looking straight woman; etc. She-males (referred to under No. 3 above), and pre- and post-op transsexuals can also come across as gender-ambiguous in this way.
6 Physique (actual bodily appearance, abstracted from social presentation) Male / female; masculine / feminine Physical androgynes; intersex people can also look androgynous / ambiguous in relation to sex / gender. Also she-males; pre-op male-to-female transsexuals; and female-to-male transsexuals, who remain without a natural penis but in other respects appear male / masculine.

In the above table, one immediately noticeable thing is that where the terms ‘masculine / feminine’ are used to denote gender, the terms ‘male / female’ can also be used to describe the individuals concerned, depending on context. (See my discussion on the interchangeability of these terms in my previous blog.) For social gender-role identity, in the examples given, one could refer to the career-orientated businesswoman as fulfilling both a traditionally ‘male’ role (associated with men) or a ‘masculine’ role (associated with a male / masculine culture). Similarly – but perhaps with more far-reaching implications – people in ‘level 5’ whose social presentation is at odds with their biological sex can often seem to us to be of the opposite sex as well as gender. E.g. male transvestites – and even more so she-males – can be so effective at creating an illusion of femininity that straight men start relating to them as female, not just as feminine, even though the rational part of their brain knows they are male.

Another observation to make is that individuals can be – but are not necessarily – gender-ambiguous or polygendered on more than one of the levels described in the table. E.g. a hermaphrodite (a traditional name for an intersex person) can also be neurologically androgynous (having a brain that has developed in a combination of a typical male and a typical female pattern); affectively androgynous; ambiguous in both their social gender-role identity and social presentation; and physically androgynous (in terms of the appearance of their bodies when naked). However, it is rare for an individual to be mixed-gendered on so many levels. On the other hand, in our increasingly gender-egalitarian Western society, it is perhaps increasingly rare for an individual not to exhibit a single type of gender duality to any degree (not even that of ‘level 4’, for instance).

Incidentally, the multiple ambiguities of the intersex / hermaphrodite condition have been neatly illustrated by the recent controversy over the South African athlete Caster Semenya, on whom what is referred to as ‘gender tests’ have been carried out to determine whether she is entitled to keep the gold medal for the women’s 800 meters she recently won at the World Athletics Championship. Several of the levels of gender ambiguity have been present in her case:

  • Level 4 (social gender-role identity): demonstrating ‘male’ strength and aggression in competing and winning at her chosen sport
  • Level 5 (social presentation and persona): the pictures of her that I have seen definitely suggest an ambiguous overlap of feminine and masculine presentation: no make-up or other attempts to ‘feminise’ and soften her appearance; a rather masculine voice and manner of speaking
  • Level 6 (physique): here again, her actual bodily appearance – abstracted from social-cultural symbols of gender – is quite ‘masculine’: muscular torso, flat chest, body hair; although, as I discuss further below, ‘normal’ women tend to have far more body hair than is generally realised. The difference is that, unlike Caster Semenya, most women rightly or wrongly take often quite considerable trouble to remove or disguise such hair; an endeavour that belongs to my level 5: social presentation and persona.

Today, there have been unconfirmed reports that the tests have indeed revealed that Semenya is an intersex individual: having parts of both the female and male sexual organs, although the organs of neither sex are fully formed or fully functional. If these reports should turn out to be true, then the fact that, biologically, Caster Semenya is both male and female – or neither male nor female – has thrown the whole conventional gender-classification system into complete disarray; and the IAAF – the international athletics-governing body – is unsure whether to allow her not only to keep her medal but to continue competing in future, which seems grossly unfair. The least you think they could do under the circumstances would be to allow to compete as a man in future. If such a suggestion is not too insulting to her, that could galvanise her into demonstrating that she was a worthy champion by even beating the men.

Note, however, that the levels at which Semenya’s ‘sex’ initially appeared ambiguous or even ‘male’ were those most clearly associated with cultural and social norms (levels 4 to 6), rather than the biological and psychological level at which hermaphroditism and androgyny, as I’ve defined it, are properly determined. If today’s reports are to be believed, it turns out that Semenya is indeed intersex (level 1). But what she is at level 2 (neurology / brain structure) is anyone’s guess; and at level 3 (affective gender identity), all the reports suggest that she is, or has been up to now, completely happy in her identification as a woman.

To return to the question of social gender-role identity in modern liberal societies, there is a big difference between embracing the ‘other gender’ and transgenderism proper. The house-husband who willingly stays at home to look after the kids while his wife goes out to work as the breadwinner would normally at most be described as expressing his ‘nurturing side’ or ‘being in touch with his feminine side’. Many same-gendered persons in the West today would accept the basic proposition that there were aspects to their personality that were typically of the ‘opposite gender’. Crass examples: men who prefer domestic crafts (e.g. knitting or crochet) to football (‘feminine’-type behaviour); or women who’d rather be sitting with the boys and watching the match over a tin of lager (‘masculine’). But that doesn’t make them in their totality, or even to a significant degree, feminine and masculine respectively, let alone ‘female’ or ‘male’.

A transgender person, on the other hand, does feel that their ‘other’ gender identity (the one that is associated with the opposite sex from their own sex) does represent a core – if not the core – of their identity with respect to gender or, more narrowly, sex. And this is what justifies the use of terms designating biological sex to refer to their gender. The terminological distinction is that by referring to gender as ‘male’ or ‘female’, one is describing something real or authentic about an individual: their objective bodily reality, as in the case of anatomical sex; or something that is a core characteristic of their personality, psyche or self-identity, as in the cases of neurological or affective androgyny. By contrast, the terms that are more associated with social gender or appearance (masculine and feminine) relate more to social stereotypes and cultural symbols of sex / gender – with the proviso that, as I’ve said, these cultural symbols can be so powerful (as in the case of male transvestism) that persons who transgress them can often genuinely appear to be transformed into the other sex.

Another example of this, while I’m thinking of it, would be our biologically inaccurate idea that women are naturally devoid of body hair (i.e. that hair on the face, legs, chest, etc. is not just ‘unfeminine’ but actually male). And this is because the absence of hair in these places is a Western cultural symbol of femaleness – in just the same way as wearing dresses, bras and knickers. In other words, the cultural symbols of gender are so powerful that we take them as bodily signs of anatomical sex. The net result of this cultural myth about women is that huge numbers of them develop extreme complexes about their body hair being unnatural and unfeminine; whereas in reality, it is completely normal and female.

In my next blog entry, I will discuss some of the specifics of neurological and affective androgyny, which is where, incidentally, I would situate my own.


Feminine Guys Are More Attractive 27 March 2008

An interesting addendum to my comments in my post yesterday on the Providential and Evolutionary Purpose Of Homosexuality about women who are attracted to gay and / or feminine men : saw this article on Yahoo! news today. It appears that statistically more women prefer ‘feminine’ partners than macho ones, as they think they’ll be less dominant, more faithful and better fathers.

Still, it’s only one study, I suppose; and the finding is not universal for all women and cultures.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 8 August 2007.)


Providential and Evolutionary Purpose Of Homosexuality

I’m sure there must be a respectable scientific theory about how homosexuality fits in with the evolutionary world view. My brief web search didn’t throw one up, however; there’s not even a learned article in Wikipedia. On the face of it, homosexuality appears to contradict the theory that we all have an innate interest in breeding in order to perpetuate our genes.

But there are two cultural assumptions in a statement such as this: firstly, that everyone does naturally wish to reproduce; and secondly, that you can draw a neat dividing line between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The theory that we are pre-programmed to try to disseminate our gene pool as widely as possible throughout subsequent generations could be said to exemplify and re-formulate in the modern scientific vernacular the age-old cultural beliefs and values that emphasise the critical importance of having a family – in some cultures (for certain men) several families.

Equally, the view that homosexuality might run counter to the normal functioning of natural selection is already in itself a manifestation of this sort of selection: the assumption is being made that heterosexuals will generally have a preference for heterosexual partners and, similarly, that there will always be a preference for same-sex partners on the part of homosexuals. In this way, inherent in the theory itself, there is a sort of ‘de-selecting’ of homosexuality from the description of normative ‘natural selection’, and a preferential selecting of heterosexuality as the type of sexuality that best fits the theory and the cultural preconceptions about reproduction. Hence, the theory of evolution itself mediates a culturally procreation-centric (’heterosexual’) view of sexuality.

But if the homosexual gene – if such a thing exists – has managed to perpetuate itself over the course of millennia (and recent evidence suggests it’s not about to die out), then either or both of the following propositions must be true: 1) not all sexual attraction, and sexual action, has the urge to reproduce as its core motivation, driver or underlying impulse; 2) homosexuality must have some positive purpose that could be explained in evolutionary terms as being connected with ensuring the survival of the species.

In relation to the first of these propositions, it’s ironic that evolutionary theory and traditional Christian doctrine (so often, but not always accurately, viewed as antagonistic belief systems) are in this respect the strangest of bedfellows. Certainly, the Catholic Church views reproduction as the fundamental natural purpose of the sexual instinct. It is seen as the duty of the Church to ensure that this instinct is expressed within a social, cultural and sacramental context (marriage) which most effectively suppresses that instinct’s innate tendency towards selfishness (the selfish gene) and helps to lead the individual into a more self-giving, loving existence of the kind to which all souls are called in Christ. It is because homosexuality does not – or at least, appears not to – fit this description of the procreative purpose of carnal desire that the Church refers to it as unnatural or disordered.

But you could look at this differently. It’s possible to view the sexual / reproductive instinct as expressed in conventional marriage as in fact being a rather selfish way of life: a life that places the satisfaction of the sex drive and the urge to reproduce at its very centre, albeit that the tendency of this instinct towards anarchic selfishness is restrained. Having a family is obviously a huge responsibility and a tremendously challenging task. But it’s also fundamentally what people choose to do for themselves; and it naturally involves putting themselves and their families first with respect to their needs, comfort and protection.

By contrast, gay sexuality could be seen as beginning to enact a movement away from selfish / reproductive desire towards love as the primary motivation for choosing to be with someone. Let’s say, rather, that gay sex – freed from the instinctual selfishness of the reproductive instinct but also from the social restraints upon free-flowing sexuality – tends to veer towards the extremes of either stable, loving, faithful relationships that are often more enduring than marriages; or else towards a self-centred, loveless, promiscuous way of life. Either way, homosexuality appears to be a form of sexuality that resists a description as being fundamentally concerned with reproduction and genetic self-replication. In Christian terms, one might say that homosexuality inherently implies a call to a higher love even than that which is expressed in Christian marriage: love for its own sake, distinct from the drive to reproduce, albeit only perfectly expressed in celibacy.

If homosexuality implies a natural tendency or spiritual calling towards altruistic love, perhaps this helps to explain why some heterosexuals are attracted to homosexuals; or – looking at it in evolutionary terms – why homosexuality might be a characteristic that it could be in the genetic self-interest of the individual or the species to perpetuate. It’s certainly an observable phenomenon that there are many women who are attracted to gay men: those that they know to be gay as well as those they don’t. I’m not sure whether the reverse phenomenon is equally as frequent: straight men being attracted to lesbians. The male sexual fantasy of lesbian sex is a well known cliché; but this is rather different from actual attraction or otherwise towards Lesbian women in the real world.

But as far as women being attracted to gay men is concerned, it’s not unknown for this to result in marriages and children – whether the gay man later comes out and the marriage breaks up, or not. Some of the men involved in such scenarios must deliberately suppress their homosexual leanings (in the sense both of not discussing them and of actually succeeding, if only temporarily, in denying them and displacing them onto attraction for their wives) in order to fulfil their own instinctual drive and desire to have children. Others may not be aware of their gay side and this surfaces only later – after the man has fulfilled his urge to reproduce.

This may sound somewhat fanciful. But there are many examples of this sort of situation, including in the Church: one thinks of the much-maligned Anglican Bishop of New Jersey, for instance. I know from my own experience that it’s possible to be largely unaware of one’s homosexuality for part of one’s adult life. When I was in that condition, I had a relationship with a woman (who, incidentally, definitely appears to have an inveterate tendency to be attracted to gay and / or feminine men) that might well have resulted in children. And I strongly suspect – again, partly based on personal experience – that the phenomenon of men who are less able to suppress their gay side after having raised a family is much more extensive than is commonly thought: still a largely hidden issue, as the men concerned very often continue to hide their homosexuality from their partners and families.

Looking at this from the perspective of natural selection, what interest do homophile women have in choosing gay men as the fathers of their children? Firstly, following my arguments above, gay men may well be perceived by such women as less selfish and aggressive in pursuing their own reproductive agenda: less alpha-male-like and, by that token, less likely to be unfaithful, misogynistic or exploitative – seeing women as mere brood mares. Secondly, if gay men are perceived as being more feminine than heterosexual / alpha males, women might choose this characteristic as it makes it more likely for their own feminine traits / genes to prosper and be reproduced in subsequent generations. This does not necessarily run counter to the interests of species survival, as femininity in men is not to be confused with homosexuality: gay men are often feminine but not all feminine men are gay. Therefore, when a woman chooses a gay partner, she might be choosing him for his feminine / female-friendly characteristics which, even if her partner subsequently turns out to be gay, could result in sons and grandsons who carry the feminine genes without the gayness.

In a more general sense, these scenarios suggest that unselfishness and a relative absence of procreative drive could in fact be genetic characteristics that it might be just as important to perpetuate through the generations as the self-replicating selfish gene. The perpetuation of homosexual characteristics may be one way in which humanity resists and mitigates the effects of instinctual selfishness, which has such potential to be a force for destruction in the world. Equally, it is far from clear that the alpha-male drive to spore as many offspring as possible from as many women as possible is a very desirable trait in an over-populated world where the human race appears not to have too many problems in multiplying.

It strikes me as ironic, for instance, that a country like China goes to enormous lengths to keep its population level down with policies such as one child per couple (to the extent of carrying out forcible abortions of subsequently conceived offspring), while at the same time it has a rather repressive attitude towards homosexuality. Perhaps it would be better to let men with homosexual leanings freely express their gayness, rather than applying cultural pressure on them to sire a male heir, resulting in the killing of unwanted female foetuses or, on occasions, of actual baby girls. This could be seen as an example of a culture that has traditionally sought to foster the alpha male, while at the same time, this has created a population crisis resulting in desperate and immoral measures of control.

Equally, this example suggests another way in which homosexuality could be said to serve a positive purpose with respect to species survival; and in this respect, one could say that gay men are complementary to alpha males. If a certain proportion of the population is gay, this increases the ratio of heterosexual men to women who are seeking prospective fathers for their children. This makes it easier for men to find prospective mothers and, in the case of the inveterate alpha male, multiple mothers for their children. Equally, a reduction in the number of men chasing the available ‘breeding stock’ of women could be said to reduce the probability of conflict between rival men, which might otherwise – in extreme cases – even result in the deaths of some of the alpha males. This is perhaps another example of where homosexuality can be seen as serving a ‘vocation’ to reduce the overall levels of aggression in society and to mitigate the destructiveness of the reproductive instinct.

To what extent do these evolutionary benefits of homosexuality really correspond to a vocation, and can they be said to have a providential purpose? From a Christian point of view, any real human and social benefit must be seen as an expression of divine Providence: a manifestation of God’s presence and action in the world. If you accept that the benefits from homosexuality I have discussed are indeed real, then it follows that Christians must see them as providential. This does not mean that homosexuality per se must be seen as morally good. Like many aspects of human life, it is morally neutral, and it will be judged, ultimately, in relation to how each gay or bisexual individual chose to live out their calling: as a person with homosexual tendencies and as a person made in the image of Christ.

But the fact that, to some extent, homosexuality places the individual outside the human thrall to the reproductive drive (at least, in its more obvious, selfish manifestations) is at least a reminder that we are all called to a love that transcends our own personal and, indeed, familial needs and ambitions. It also acts as a corrective to the narrower understanding of human evolution, in that it suggests that sometimes it is not always the selfish gene that prospers.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 7 August 2007.)