Sex Education for the Real World…

 


Being Transgender: the Politics of Sex and Gender

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Posted March 3, 2017 by Ndidi Yasdnil in Love. Life. Erotica.

transgender symbol with a green background Several weeks ago, Milo Yiannopoulos, the-then-darling of the so-called alt-right, made his controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher for the usual banter Maher engages in with his guests. Much of the controversy was not about what Yiannopoulos said but rather with what Maher did, which was to find common-ground with the self-proclaimed troll, who has described BLM as a terrorist organization, denounced feminism as a cancer to society, and denied the existence of white privilege, among other indefensible remarks. There is much to be said about the appalling spectacle, but one thing that stood out to me was the post-show discussion about transgender people and bathroom policies. The audience’s reactions to Yiannopoulos’ claims about transgender people and Bill Maher’s unbearable passivity were particularly egregious. By way of illustration, Milo’s description of trans women as men “confused about [their] sexuality”, from whom cisgender women and girls must be protected, in his view, was met with loud applause. Maher even described Milo’s remarks as “reasonable”. The more incendiary claim about transgender women being the predominant perpetrators of sexual assault was barely met with a rebuttal. And while all of these claims are demonstrably false, the audience’s responses to them were not at all surprising, considering that we live in a time in which 7 transwomen have been killed since the start of the new year at the time of this writing, the average lifespan of a trans woman of color in the U.S. remains 35 years, and the federal government has recently removed protections for trans students in public schools. Is it really surprising that even in a nominally ‘progressive’ space, transgender narratives are done violence?

Much of the hysteria surrounding the subject of transgender lives and identities stems from confusion and ignorance about (biological) sex and gender more generally. In the U.S., sex and gender are often treated as synonymous terms in casual conversation, which is a reflection of our institutions. The many forms people are required to fill out for various purposes in life often designate referents of sex, ‘male’ and ‘female’, as gender descriptions and referents of gender, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as descriptions of biological sex. While the sex-gender distinction I employ here is not universal, it is more adequate than what we can call the sex-equals-gender view in explaining the full range of human experiences, transgender or otherwise.

Specifically, the sex-gender distinction illuminates the arbitrariness with which societies have delegated roles on the basis of gender and sex. Historically, many feminists have understood ‘woman’ as a term that denotes social and cultural facts such as ‘social position’, which they distinguished from anatomical features. The general upshot of this view is that it is possible for women’s status in society to change; the inferior position of women in society is not an unchangeable given. In Simone De Beauvoir’s words, “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The usefulness of the sex-gender distinction becomes even clearer when we recognize that what it means to be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine, means different things across time and culture; at the Smithsonian, for example, there’s a photo of a young FDR in a dress, which was typical for American boys then. It wasn’t odd for ancient Egyptian men to wear eyeliner. Other present day societies, such as the Bugis of Indonesia, recognize five genders, in contrast to the Western binary. Of course, biological sex is itself a construct, as the existence of intersex people attests, but this fact in no way undermines the usefulness of differentiating gendered social expectations from anatomy.

But gender isn’t merely about social roles and expectations; it is also about identity. Briefly, gender identity refers to a person’s subjective experience of their gender, which may or may not correlate with the sex (and gender) they were assigned at birth. Given the myriad ways human beings have structured their societies around norms of sex and gender, it is no wonder that in a society that limits gender expression and identity to a mere binary that many individuals naturally feel out of place. To be trans in western society, is to, at a minimum, identify with a gender experience that is not conventionally associated with one of the two prescribed sexes one has been assigned. Considering the many gender descriptions that fall under the scope of this definition, transgender is often, though not always, treated as an umbrella term for these multiple identities: these include genderqueer, bigender, agender, androgyne, transmasculine, transfeminine, non-binary, among others.

Once we properly contextualize our understandings of sex and gender, it’s hard not to see that many of the common-place views about transgender people have no place in respectable conversation, let alone political discourse. One notorious example is the debate over pronoun usage when addressing transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. It’s common for transphobic people to dismiss the idea of respecting people’s preferred pronouns on the basis of the need to preserve ‘natural’ distinctions; transgender people are somehow making up their preferences in a way that cisgender people are not, in their mistaken view. As already discussed above, gender is, in a sense, all made-up, but that isn’t to say it is not real. The concept has real and material affects upon our lives, and that should be taken seriously. It is simply wrong to misrepresent or deny experiences that are not your own. To this point, Milo’s description of transgender women as ” confused about [their] sexuality” is highly disingenuous, at best. The assumptions that underlie judgments about the sexuality of trans persons are straightforwardly heterosexist and often are inconsistent. It’s astonishing how many times the same people who think trans people (read women) are gay also think that trans women are lusting after cis women and girls. The way a person understands and expresses their gender is not their sexuality, and their choice of which restroom to use has nothing at all to do with ‘sexuality’. It is particularly reprehensible that Milo, a gay man, uses the word “sexuality” in the same sentence as “girls” and “women” to conjure feelings of disgust and resentment toward people who are subject to threats of violence and death far more than the general population.

What Maher and Yiannopoulos fail to understand is that words sometimes have life and death consequences, and there are certain things over which we can’t agree to disagree.




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