23 March 2008
Do you ever feel like all around you, people are debating gender, engaging with it, embracing it, struggling with it, and still somehow the conversation is leaving out something vital? The discussion seems. . . flat, two-dimensional. In this blog post we'll consider a way to escape the flattened sex and gender debate by introducing orthogendered experience.
At its foundation, the problem is this: all around you, people are marching in lockstep, two by two, onto the ark of dyadic gender, hoping it will buoy them over the storms in their lives. But there's a hole in the hull. Sexual dyadism--the belief in two opposite sexes--is a myth. It won't hold water.
The myth of sexual dyadism goes like this: we all have a biological sex--written into the genetic code of our bodies in Xs and Ys, spoken in our flesh in the hormonal language of estrogen and testosterone, displayed for all between our legs. This is believed a universal code: in Detroit, in Harare, in Beijing wander two types of people. There are men (tall, phallically-endowed, testosterone-beset, wielding Y chromosomes) and there are women (breasted and curved, with shy vulvae, warm estrogen, and a neat pair of X chromosomes). Overlying these sexual universals, it's said, lies the cultural blanket of gender that puts Saudi men in thobes, Scots in kilts, and a wide berth between the American man and a skirt. What it means to be a woman is acknowledged to vary by time and place, but only on the superficial layer of gender custom--beneath differing hairstyles and divisions of labor is held to lie the unswerving universal of sexual dyadism, inescapable and natural as rain.
Most in the West accept this description of human nature without question. For those of us who are intersexed, however, it's wildly clear that what we're talking about is an ideology. Sex is not dyadic, it's a spectrum, and some of us live smack in the center. The hard-and-fast rules we get taught in biology class turn out to be remarkably flexible. A person can be visually indistinguishable from other women yet have an XY genotype; a man may have two or three Xs in his mix. People of all sexes not only produce but rely vitally upon a mix of estrogens and testosterone and prolactin and a slew of other hormones--and many women produce more testosterone than do many men. Teenaged boys sport breast buds and many men sensitive breasts, maligned as gyencomastia (though not medically considered to qualify those possessing them as intersexed). Women are often whiskery--postmenopausally it's the norm--which is pathologized as hirsuitism. And as for genitalia, well. . .
If you ever want proof of the ideological nature of sex dyadism, look at what is done to the genital spectrum in the medicalized West. Every day in the U.S. alone, five intersexed babies are subjected to sexual reassignment surgery, their phalli removed, their unique bitsets cut down to conform, their sexual pleasures medically sacrificed on the alter of normalization. Add to that all the reduction surgeries performed on girls with large clitori who are apparently seen as trespassing on masculine territory. . . It is clear that sexual dyadism is not only an ideology, it's a fragile one. Not only do doctors try to amputate our physical variation, they suggest secrecy and shame to parents, who are urged to hide their babies' "condition" from friends, family, their very children. All around you there are people whose intersexual status was blatantly visible from birth, now rendered invisible. Many more of us discover our position in the sex spectrum later in life, if we can manage to tease it out from the harrumphing assurances of doctors that that there's nothing we need trouble ourselves about.
You don't need to be intersexed, however, to feel the power of the dyadic sex imperative. We're all subject to gender policing. Contemporary Western masculinity is so very rigid and so very fragile that it's hard to think of a single arena of activity in which a man can't feel his manliness challenged. Just pass an American guy a little poodle to walk or a purse to hold in a mall and watch him squirm for proof. Androgyny is swiftly punished by other men, who experience it as some sort of personal threat and often respond violently. Femininity is enforced with less violence but more powerful material consequence, as the persistent wage gap and the feminization of poverty that follow female independence reveal.
Dyadic sex is a myth, and dyadic gender stunts us all. Walking stereotypes are rigid and boring beings. Those of us with more androgynous personalities display a wide range of skills that turn out to be correlated with both practical competence and good mental health. Oh, and androgyny is sexy. It speaks of playfulness, of thought and exploration. Many of us find gender subversion hot in and of itself.
Androgyny and gender subversion are hardly new phenomena--just look at the many hermaphrodite and androgyne divinities around the world, from Hermaphroditus Hirself to Shiva, for evidence of this. But recently, advocating androgyny has come under fire in progressive circles. This is a development that concerns me, and that this blog is meant to address.
There is a rift developing in gender-progressive circles, and it has to do with the ways in which we resist our dyadic gender assignments. It has the potential to pit allies of the androgynous and intersexed against allies of the transgendered and transsexed, which would be sad and counterproductive. The conflict centers on the perception that gender subversion and crossgendered identification are incompatible.
A decade ago or thereabouts, you could see this rift operating in the trans community itself, pitting the genderqueer transgendered against the classically transsexed. The history of transsexualism in the West is strongly tied to medicalization and the power of medical professionals to serve as gatekeepers, with the ability to decide who would have access to hormones, surgery, and legitimacy. All transfolk live with the legacy of the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which required individuals wishing to transition to conform to rigid gender stereotypes, to affirm heterosexuality, and to seek to conceal their trans history. As the trans community gained strength, younger members critiqued the rigidity of the Benjamin protocols, and older members whose lives had been shaped under the protocols defended them, leading to community debates between transgender- and transsex-identified members. But time has been healing this rift, and trans spokespeople now present a much more unified front. How one transitions--socially, with herbs or hormones, with top surgery only, with stem-to-stern restructuring--has become secondary to the fight for the right to be accepted as a member of one's experienced gender. And we should applaud this unity in the community.
The problem that arises has to do with where trans spokespeople locate resistance. Mostly, and most obviously, the problems faced by transfolk lie in transphobia--straightforward bigotry against trans people--and the widespread problem of cissexism, which we should now explore. Terminology first: the cisgendered and cissexed are the counterparts of the transgendered and transsexed: that majority of individuals who embrace the sex and gender they were assigned from birth, often unquestioningly. Just as many white people rarely think about their race, most cisgender individuals never give their gender identities much thought. Of course, some cisfolk examine and resist their privilege and are warm allies of their trans freinds. But many express cissexism by questioning, doubting, and challenging the gender identities of trans people. They feel they have the right to judge the legitimacy of others' gender expression, to ask prurient questions, and to mock or exclude those whose gender performances they reject. They enforce "passing," a term that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, as one only "passes" for something one is not--like some freedwoman in the antebellum American South, passing for white to get a decent job, at the high price of cutting herself off from her community, constantly living some lie and enduring the risk of violent reprisal.
Cissexism hurts us all. It leaves trans people raw and gasping after encounters--for some, many times a day. It leaves the intersexed homeless, erased by the dyadic imperative. And it limits everyone, with its policing of gender boundaries and justification of violence. It's a common enemy, and one we should unite to fight.
Something that can be heartrending is to encounter cissexism and transphobia in feminist organizations. Ever since Janice Raymond published her notorious book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male,ciswomen in some feminist organizations have been asserting the essentialist claim that sex and gender are inseparable, and that women are born, not made. Transmen have been labelled gender traitors and victims of false consciousness. Transwomen have been excluded, mocked, and vilified. It's hard enough to encounter this sort of boundary policing in genderregressive circles; to be slapped in the face by it when one is in a space that is supposed to be safe is terribly painful.
A sad result of the cissexism and transphobia displayed in some feminist organizations is that numerous trans people generalize from this and feel suspicious of feminism in general. Many approach radical and academic feminism with disdain. I believe that this basic distrust fuels the emergence of criticism of gender transgressive theory by transgender spokespeople. Some trans activists reject gender transgression out of a belief in gender essentialism. They argue that gender identities are dyadic and inborn, although not related to dyadic sex. They seek to capture the sort of strength and legitimacy that cissexists experience and claim it for their own. From an intersexed perspective, this is an attempt to seize the wheel of a sinking ship. To tie your identity to the erasure of mine is . . . misguided at best.
There is a more sophisticated trans critique of gender subversion that is more difficult to address--one that views the advocacy of androgyny as a sexist attack on trans people. Julia Serano, for example, an advocate, scientist and author I deeply respect, has coined the term "subversivism," which is now employed by people in this camp. Opponents of "subversivism" do not deny the reality of the sex spectrum or the fact that gender is socially constructed. They understand that their trans experiences are bound to a particular cultural context--that if they had been born in a different time or place they might experience themselves very differently. What they argue is that the advocacy of gender transgression and androgyny are political attacks on the validity of trans experience. They see a sort of zero-sum game, in which every argument for gender subversion is a strike against the yearning to embrace masculinity or femininity that lies at the heart of trans experience. They worry, too, that if the mainstream hears too much advocacy of androgyny, avenues to transitioning will be cut off in favor of a homogenized androgynous expression.
Actually, for those of us who have been around for a while, the resistance to "subversivism" sounds a lot like the arguments that lesbians and gay men mustered against bisexuality in the 70s and 80s: "the mainstream will prefer you to us, so be quiet and stop subverting sexual orientation--if you're not with us, you're against us." In time, that rift was largely settled by the framing of bisexuality as a subset of queer expereince rather than in tension with homosexuality. And this is the context in which I raise the framework of orthogender.
In chemistry, the cis- and trans- forms of a molecule are isomers with opposing structures. The cis-isomer has hydrogen-substituting groups on the same side of the plane, while the trans-isomer has them on opposing sides. For the cissexed, assigned sex and gender experience are the same; for the transsexed, they are opposed. But for some of us, gender can't be held to a flat plane where opposites reside. We come at gender out of left field; we pop into three dimensions, dancing along the z-axis of gendered experience, combining and juggling boi and grrl elements. In sciencespeak, our experience is orthogonal to the cis and trans. Hence, we are orthogendered.
To recognize orthogendered identity is to see gender in the fullness of three dimensions (x,y, and z; cis, trans and ortho)--and this a path to the political reunification of the androgynous and intersexed with the transgendered and transsexed. Our experiences are not conflicting, they are complementary. Gender is not dyadic--but this does not in any way deny the experience of those whose gendered orientation is along the trans plane. Androgyny is not the enemy of conventional gender expression; the two complement. And many people move along more than one of the gender axes. We are intersexed and transitioning; we are cisgendered and androgynous; we are transgendered but not genderconventional. Gender is not flat--it is full, complex, multidimensional.
There are those who will say that introducing the language of orthogender is just a matter of semantics, renaming something, nothing new. That's fine with me: there's nothing much new under the sun. But terminology evolves, and the terms of debate with it, and it's important to constantly revise and re-envision theory. As we do this we refine our abstract understandings and concrete selfconcepts, and we evolve. May we co-evolve in peace, trans- and cis- and orthogendered together.