gender construct

All posts tagged gender construct

Twilight, Fifty Shades, Male and Female in Bible, Law, Science and Society

Published May 29, 2013 by Katy J Went
The happiest place to be, Australia, has declared “23 genders” deserving of recognition and protection. Yet the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court continue to assert just 2 “traditional” genders and reject the Yogyakarta Principles.

“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities shall enjoy legal capacity in all aspects of life. Each person’s self-defined sexual orientation and gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom. No one shall be forced to undergo medical procedures, including sex reassignment surgery, sterilisation or hormonal therapy, as a requirement for legal recognition of their gender identity. No status, such as marriage or parenthood, may be invoked as such to prevent the legal recognition of a person’s gender identity. No one shall be subjected to pressure to conceal, suppress or deny their sexual orientation or gender identity.” (Principle 3, Yogyakarta Principles) 

Numerous groups and individuals have defended the gender binary on the alleged absolute grounds of biology, tradition or religion (e.g. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – an organisation of lay Catholic Americans). On gender and sexuality, at least, Catholics, charismatics, evangelicals and biblical fundamentalists, not to mention Muslims, as strange bedfellows are ironically united. But are these grounds so easily or well defined? Biology offers plenty of scope for multiple and hermaphroditic genders; Native American tradition and other cultures allowed for 3-6 genders or more, such as: male, female, feminine man, masculine woman, gender-fluid and two-spirited.

As for religion, well God in Isaiah 56:4-5 affirms third gender folk as a distinct group apart yet especially loved and named from sons and daughters (male and female).

“For thus saith the Lord to the eunuchs/circumcised, Those who keep my Sabbaths, and decide for that in which I take pleasure, and take fast hold of my covenant; I give to them in my house and within my walls a memorial (yadh) and a name (shem) good/better than sons and daughters: I give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.”

Nice wordplay on eunuchs/cut off! The eunuchs cannot parent children and thus prolong their name nor are they regarded as sons or daughters, being inbetween, but instead of healing, as God offers to the blind, deaf, lame, lepers God gives them a name, nature and status, as shem can mean, as “good” as that of sons or daughters, creating a third category on an equal footing, called “better” to make the point. They are also given a “hand”, not a helping one, perhaps, but yadh can euphemistically mean phallus power or strength, portion or perhaps inheritance. After all, the bad verse division hides verse 3’s ending “Nor let the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a dry tree.'”, a phrase indicative of barrenness.

Similarly, Jesus when referring to eunuchs cites three possible origins including “born this way”, “made” or “lifestyle choice” (Matt 19:12). Contemporary first century Jewish rabbis recognised at least 4 genders in the time of Jesus accepting hermaphrodite tumtums and infertile intersex and/or barren women. The Jewish Midrash Rabbah Genesis 8.1 speaks of Adam being created androgyne, bi-gendered, hermaphrodite and then being “cut in two” much like Plato in his Symposion (190 B) when he speaks of three generations: the masculine, the feminine, and the androgynous, and of the latter being split at Creation.

The Bible in Genesis 1 does not say that we are created “male *or* female” but “male *and* female”, “in the image of God”. This makes God male and female, but s/he/they are one entity – in three “persons” if you are Christian rather than Jewish or Muslim. Although “persons” is a problematic later Greek development than earlier Christian thought of God in three modes or manifestations: Father, Son and Spirit. Whilst the Spirit-Creator is mostly seen as female and the Father-Creator as male, nonetheless they are described metaphorically as a mother with nursing breasts as well as other female analogies (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 66:13; Hosea 11:3-4; Psalm 123:2-3, 131:2; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34, 15:8-10), leaving only Jesus as the XY male – but can we be sure of even that? If Jesus was the incarnation of God, then he too could be male and female, a fully intersexed Messiah), so that Jesus can truly stand for everyman, as in every man and woman, fully human.

The Hebrew word for “and” has a wide range of meaning, it also has the word “either/or” but does not use that here. The same word “and” is used of the animals to be taken aboard the Ark, “male and female” separate breeding pairs. Yet some animals can breed without being in a pair, some can have up to 7 gender variations within a species. Are these animals making a “deviant lifestyle” choice or were they not only born that way, but created that way and part of the “male and female” God envisaged?

It is not about distinction, separation and categorisation but creative variety. Day and night, light and dark are not polarised binaries, but a fifty shades of greyscale, with dawn, daybreak, diluculum, sunrise, morning, coffeetime, midday, teatime, dusk, crepuscule, evening, twilight and everything in between. Gender is similar.

Nobody seriously disputes anymore the ethics of slavery, the Christian equality mantra of Galatians 3:28 stating that “there is neither slave nor free…”, but it continues “…neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. So why are we debating gay, trans, women bishops etc still? Just as God is male and female and yet still one, so are we both individually and as humanity. We are male and female and every shade in between, however gender is counted: 2 genders, 3 genders, 23 genders and none.

Simplistic literalist black and white, male and female theology creates summary judgements of human conditions outside of the binary, neat Sunday school scenarios. Real life is complex, beautiful and individual, and Jesus’ radical solution: Love transcends all these complexities.

The Australian HR Commission report suggested that “people are protected from discrimination without reference to:

  • a binary construct of gender which only protects individuals who identify and present consistently as either male or female
  • a binary construct of sex characteristics which fails to protect intersex individuals
Away with binary and biblical constructs, I say, let gender and Genesis be organic!
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Gender turf/TERF wars between feminisms and trans viewpoints

Published May 16, 2013 by Katy J Went
Delilah Campbell has written a slow to the foray catch up piece, Who Owns Gender, on the radfem-trans turf wars – or TERF wars (“trans-exclusive/exterminating radical feminists”). It re-rakes over the Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill Observer op-ed comment is free piece of January that was subsequently pulled but republished in the Telegraph. I found it posted on Julie Bindel’s facebook page, considered enemy territory to some.

Forget biological essentialism, there seems to be more belligerent and bellicose essentialism to the spats between certain radfems and certain trans activists. Rather than seeking common ground the fight continues to draw up definitions, establish battle lines and perpetuate the gender war.

My thoughts below assume you have open and/or have read Campbell’s article.

TERF wars indeed! Not entirely sure that I agree that 1) gender is constructed and 2) gender relations are power relations. I guess as a trans-feminist (and one with whom many trans disagree) I understand the trans search for a scientific basis for gender (cf Pinker and Baron-Cohen, whose books I have devoured,  debated and disagreed with), for legitimacy, and some science does show that trans brains are different, nether male nor female but in-between. Perhaps trans activists would be better fighting the gender binary rather than certain radfems. But some feminist rejection of women-born-men/trans lies also in a power relation struggle, gatekeeping the “who can be called woman” bastion as much as the psychiatrists and surgeons who allow access medically, and the legislators who control its legal definition.

“the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men).”

Indeed, trans feel oppressed by the very definition of gender, its differences, division and the power of cisgendered men *and* women to bar admission to its ranks of gender non-conformists. If gender were merely constructed, letting trans “in” would be a rebellion and power statement against its construction.

So the truth lies somewhere between the two (or more!) positions, IMHO.

That those constructions some think are inconsequential is laid bare by both women’s and trans’ experience of gendered prejudice and oppression, often exacerbated for the trans by their internal self-oppression, hatred of external birth gender, and ongoing emotional and psychological confusion and quest for gendered calm in an integrated body-mind-chemical continuum and holism.

Campbell writes that:

“it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it…Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away.”

If she’d stopped there we’d have a starting point for dialogue, understanding and co-fighting of the patriarchic hegemony and false-binary (for many trans oppose the gender-binary, biological and/or constructed, but some buy in to it, lock, stock and all). Instead she says trans have got it wrong and misinterpreted the meaning of feminists as saying that gender constructs are “trivial and superficial”, anyone who is or understands a trans knows that we would never say that. It is the least trivial most plaguing aspect of our existence.

“For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will.”

Exactly, nor can trans transcend their gendered experience and discomfort by an act of will, therapy or otherwise. HRT and surgery provide the greatest (but not always total for some) relief. If society were to change as campaigned for by feminists, queergenderists and non-binarists then it would be interesting to see how a future ungendered utopia would affect both the experience of women and trans. In the meantime the socially unacceptable 30-40% trans suicide rate requires compassion and understanding not turf wars.

Trans and Intersex, not to mention others, have fought to join the LGB and women’s movements and their sexual and gender utopic agendas. Both have been reluctant to add us, not wanting any “tiny and previously marginal minority” to wag the tail of the larger dog.

Whether “born this way” essentialism or “plastic” freedom of choice are true, it is the “one or other” approach that fails, that divides, that reinforces polarisms, binaries and the gendered social construct. By accepting the in-betweeners and in-between positions we celebrate “the [radical] possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world.” Long may trans and radfems work together to create just that.