FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Transgenderism: Identity and Language 4 July 2011

Given my training in languages and literary-critical theory, I’m very conscious of the degree to which much of the discourse on gender issues revolves around defining the (politically, epistemologically) correct language to use about gender issues themselves. There is, for example, a big debate in, shall I call it, the ‘LBGTQI’ community about whether ‘transsexualism’ should be classed as a sub-category of the ‘transgender’ umbrella term.

I myself have had my own issues with the term ‘transgender’, as part of my long-running efforts to define myself in gender terms, which have seen various designations come in and out of favour. For the time being, I am using ‘androgynous’ rather than ‘transgender’; although I regard androgyny as being a sub-category of transgender. I have attempted to define what I mean by ‘androgynous’ / ‘androgyny’ / ‘androgyne’ in previous posts, so I won’t go over all that ground again. Suffice it to say that my own version of androgyny is psychological rather than being physical (i.e. having an outwardly gender-ambiguous appearance) or relating to my social gender role (i.e. acting in ways that cross the conventional social barriers between masculine and feminine).

But what does that mean? This is where I could go into a lengthy discourse trying to tie down the specifics of the way I identify as both male / masculine and female / feminine, or neither strictly male / masculine nor female / feminine. And that could all get very intricate, nuanced and self-absorbed. And that’s my point really: discourse that questions conventional gender dualities, particularly in a personal context, often becomes completely wrapped up in self-referential and jargonistic terminology, and nice distinctions, that can leave those of a more non-gender-questioning turn of mind completely floundering if not indifferent.

But that comes with the turf, so to speak. The reason why gender discourse can become so convoluted and terminologically fragmented is that it is trying to overcome the oppositional dualities that conventional language sets up: male vs. female, masculine vs. feminine, ‘cissexual’ vs. transsexual, etc. And we’re not talking here only about social or linguistic conventions that relate to the ‘content’ of language (i.e. what words ‘refer’ to) but about how language itself structures social-gender identity, or, conversely, how social gender is formed through a process of ‘linguistic identification’.

In the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, what I’m referring to is the process of identifying with / through the ‘Symbolic’, which essentially means language and other symbols / signifiers that have a conventional, ‘fixed’ social meaning. Language and the Symbolic order is inherently structured around binary oppositions: the presence or absence of the signified. E.g. ‘male’ is defined through a matching of the signifiers of the ‘male’ (i.e. ‘man’, ‘boy’, ‘he’, ‘male’ clothes) with their socially determined signified (an actually ‘male’ person or body), as opposed to a ‘non-match’ (a ‘female’ person). In other words, ‘male’ is the opposite of its opposite (‘female’), and so is defined in that opposition itself. Indeed, the opposition between ‘male’ and ‘female’ could be regarded as the primordial or archetypal binary that provides the template or foundation for all others. In this way, linguistic / conceptual binaries represent the means through which society both symbolises and structures itself, and inscribes biology (and biological behaviour) as meaning (i.e. as relationship). In particular, and primordially, this is what determines that ‘sex’ (and sex identity) is always already gender: pre-inscribed into the Symbolic as a function of being known and symbolised as anything at all, as opposed to being altogether beyond language, and therefore beyond knowing or telling.

Any discourse that questions such a fundamental, linguistically pre-structured opposition as that between male and female is automatically questioning the whole way language works: separating things into ‘logical’ opposites – one thing not (capable of) being its opposite. In this way, re-definitions of gender that seek to go beyond the conventional binaries end up having to define new Symbolic nodes: new signifiers that denote a convergence of concepts that are usually held to be mutually contradictory but which, by that token, are inevitably defined in relation to those binaries even if they posit their transgression. And so, for example, my concept of androgyny, which is: neither strictly both male / masculine and female / feminine, nor neither male / masculine nor female / feminine, and hence, though it is beyond the ‘sex’ binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and beyond the gender binary of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, nonetheless can define and articulate itself only in terms of those binaries even while acknowledging that they are inadequate to explaining what it is. The ultimate binary to which I am bound is that I can say what it is only by saying what it isn’t: neither the presence nor the absence of the conventional gender binary – or, in other words, the absence of either presence to or absence from conventional gender polarity.

The problem is how to inhabit that space of being ‘beyond’ or opposed to the conventional social signifiers, but to do so ‘socially’: i.e. how to symbolise and express one’s gender difference in a manner that does not differentiate oneself – separate oneself – from society and from relationship with others. In other words, how do I express my androgyny – which is, as I’ve said, very much ‘in the mind’ – authentically in terms that conventional society can understand, relate to and – hopefully – accept?

Well, that’s a question not only for another time and another post, but an existential question that only time and my life journey can (begin to) answer.

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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.