In The South

OPINION: Sam Trans Man – What is gender?

July 8, 2018

Dr Samuel Hall
Dr Samuel Hall

Dr Samuel Hall on the differences between gender and its ‘concrete counterpart’ – sex.

ONCE A year in July the Gscene issue is given over to all things trans… I love it. This year even more so because the editor is encouraging us to talk about gender. And gender is my favourite subject.

Gender dysphoria has dominated my life thus far, and gender injustice has become my biggest passion. Gender is so poorly understood, so misused and so artificial, it’s extraordinary how much of an influence it actually has on each of us, and the societies and communities in which we live.

What is gender then? We all think we know, but in reality there’s a huge amount of confusion between gender, and its concrete biological counterpart, sex.

Let’s look at a dictionary definition; 
Gender (noun)
1. The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).
2. (In languages like Latin, French and German) each of the classes (typically masculine, feminine, common, neuter) of nouns and pronouns. Grammatical gender is only very loosely associated with natural distinctions of sex.

Gender wasn’t really used to refer to males and females until the 1970s. Prior to this the use of the word was largely limited to grammar. The rise of feminist theory, embracing a conceptual difference between biological sex, and gender as a social construct, brought to the forefront the work of a sexologist, John Money, who first introduced this as a terminological distinction in his work in the 1950s. This distinction is still very much adhered to by social sciences, and by the World Health Organisation.

Unfortunately this semantic distinction becomes very blurred in other areas, including much of the public domain and mainstream media, where the words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are used interchangeably and without consideration for the true meaning of either word. It’s taken us well into the 21st century to even begin to establish agreement that sex is the correct term to use when referring to biological classification, and gender as a marker of self-identification and consequent representation to, and experience by the world as masculine, feminine, both or neither.

Of course there is, rightly, ongoing research to establish whether biological differences contribute to or influence the development of gender in humans. The jury is out on that one for the time being and will be for some time; it’s extremely difficult to do studies needed to settle the ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’ debate.

Suffice it to say that as a trans person, especially if you’re very ‘binary’ (although I aspire to a non-binary identity, unfortunately I’m not yet big enough to surrender my male privilege), and most especially if you have undertaken significant surgeries and treatments to establish yourself as the opposite sex, you will inevitably have made the separation between ‘sex‘ and ‘gender’ with your actual body.

As a person transitions, their gender identity doesn’t change, but their sexual characteristics do. It’s possible, therefore, with the correct treatment, to align one’s body with the ‘felt’ sense of gender. The problem is, what if ‘gender’ is a construct? Then is the internal and innate sense of self (gender) that we trans folk pursue congruence with our bodies for, a figment of human imagination?

If, at the age of four years old when I refused consistently to wear a dress or a skirt and insisted that I be treated like a boy, instead of forcing the issue, my mother had said, “Don’t worry dear, lots of boys don’t have a penis…” how might things be different for me today? In truth I don’t believe there would be a great deal of difference. In fact I think it’s likely that had I been allowed to live as a boy, I’d have transitioned much sooner. Not because I’m a slave to gender, but because, for me, being trans is about biological sex. It’s about incorrect wiring.

My brain expected (as a young child), and still expects, to have male genitalia. I was born like this. With a neurodevelopmental variation; one where my body parts didn’t match up with the developing neurobiology in my brain and spinal cord. This is the only sensible explanation I can come up with as a scientist and a trans person. I need to have some understanding as to how this can happen, and why it appears increasingly prevalent.

Being trans isn’t a modern trend. There are stories and histories from across cultures and eras. There are clues in different cultures and there are examples of both reverence and of appalling treatment directed at trans people. We’ve almost certainly been with you since the beginning of consciousness. But there are definitely other factors at play. We cannot legitimately explain the explosion in waiting lists away, citing visibility and acceptance as reasons for large numbers of people coming forwards to identify as trans.

We need to look at brain development very early in life, and at gender role distinctions that are being reinforced in ever more toxic ways in very young children. We need to look at our language and how we all contribute to a continuation of a binary ‘split’ in the human race, which allows one half to be deeply oppressed and abused the world over, and the other half to access a world of privilege and dominance that gives them a misplaced sense of entitlement and ferments brutality against women. We all need to deconstruct gender.

A concerted effort by every human on the planet is what it will take to free both women and men to live outside of, or beyond, gender. In a world where biological sex and its characteristics are regarded as positive attributes, regardless of what they are or whom they belong to, and where people are respected for their single common attribute, that of being human.