Within the realm of gender studies, sex and gender are generally understood to be two related but distinct facets of personal identity which contribute both jointly and independently to an individual’s experience in the world. Expanding to include the larger world, the sex/gender relationship is understood in conflicting ways, and many of these ways imply judgments about how identities are formed and which facets of identity determine an individual’s self expression. From plain old Biological Essentialism to Emi Koyama’s “Reverse Essentialism” to what I will call Janice Raymond’s “Gender Essentialism,” I’d like to explore the conflicting ways that the interaction of sex and gender gets imagined, while thinking about how these imagined schemas affect the lives of real people.
As all who will be reading this blog know already, “biological essentialism” is the theoretical position which takes for granted that biology- in this case sexual anatomy- determines a person’s reality, including their gender identity (and often sexuality as well). A person who subscribes to biological essentialism would assume that a person’s biological sex would determine her/his gender identity, sexuality, and physical/mental capacities. This theoretical position is often chosen by those who believe in the naturalness of conventional understandings of gender, and thus within this theoretical perspective a male-bodied person would be assumed to be heterosexual and to have a masculine gender identity.
In Emi Koyama’s “Transfeminist Manifesto” she devotes a short segment to what she titles, “Deconstructing the Reverse Essentialism.” She writes,
“Trans people have often been described as those whose physical sex does not match the gender of their mind or soul. … To say that one has a female mind or soul would mean there are male and female minds that are different from each other in some identifiable way, which in turn may be used to justify discrimination against women. Essentializing our gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological essentialism.” (5).
While it is undeniable that a simple sex/gender separation makes easy work of why some individuals may feel compelled to alter the configuration of their bodies, this cut-and-dried logic essentializes conventional conceptions of masculinity and femininity and roots them in some identifiable terrain other than physical anatomy. In other words, the heart of what it means to be a man or a woman (which are assumed to be consistent and meaningful categories) resides in an insulated core of gender identity which is acted upon by neither biology nor socialization. This talk of essentialized understandings of gender remind me of a) Koyama’s discussion of gender clinics’ naturalization of gendered behavioral roles-to the point where would be-MTF trans people would talk about their proclivity for sewing when petitioning for GRS and b) all the news coverage several years ago about the differences between the male and female brains. Here’s a link to an article from 2008 that I found on a Psychology website on the subject: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200803/male-brain-vs-female-brain-i-why-do-men-try-figure-out-t-0. Try not to be too offended by the assumptions that all men treat people like robots and all women talk to inanimate objects- these are only the least harmful of the consequences of essentializing gendered personhood.
Finally, I’d like to return to the way that Janice Raymond, in our assigned reading last week from her Transsexual Empire, conceives of the relationship between sex and gender. For the purposes of this blog post, I am calling this “Gender Essentialism,” for lack of a better term, although this schema differs importantly from the one that the brain scientists are arguing for and that Koyama critiques. In her chapter “Sappho by Surgery,” Raymond writes that true women are necessarily “encumbered by the scars of patriarchy that are unique to a woman’s personal and social history.” (133, Transgender Studies Reader). Later she asserts that there are important differences between men and women which “may spring… from the total history of existing as a woman in a patriarchal society.” (139, Transgender Studies Reader). Clearly, she intentionally avoids a logic of biological essentialism by claiming that socialization rather than biology determines a person’s true gender identity; however, this is a less-than-significant move once it is added that she believes gendered socialization is based upon an individual’s sexual biology at birth. Essentially (no pun intended), biology=socialization=gender identity.
Each of these understandings essentializes some aspect of the relationship between sex and gender and ultimately restricts the number of sex/gender combinations existing in real life which are granted (arbitrary) legitimacy. As Koyama elegantly put it, “Transfeminism believes that we all construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable, and sincere to us as we live and relate to others within given social and cultural constraint,” (5). As the world holds an incredible diversity of people who exhibit every combination of the numerous human sex, gender and sexuality traits, utilizing any theoretical ideology to attempt to understand sex and gender as teleological is an exercise in futility. I guess we all must learn to live with the frustrating yet refreshing realization that sex and gender do not occur in reality as neat, readily intelligible and predictable categories of being.