Survey Asks - Gender: M / F / ?
April 10, 2008

It's a question that sounds ridiculous and yet it is one which has plagued me all my life and turns out to be more complicated than it sounds.

What is it, really to be male or female, man or woman?

We know, of course, the biological bits which make someone a man or a woman. We know there are people born with the sexual organs of both, making the biological definition of man and woman a little bit more complicated.

If someone can be born both male and female in terms of biological bits and pieces - sex - why do we seem to find it so difficult to believe that there are people who are born with a social construct gender path which does not necessarily match their biological sex?

Let me back off of that question for a moment and discuss the difference between sex and gender. Obviously a person's sex is a matter of factual record. You either have a penis and testicles and an "overabundance" of testosterone, or you have a uterus, vagina, ovaries, your breasts develop and an "overabundance" of estrogen. And then, of course, you get people who are born with both sets of sexual organs and a cacophony of hormones.

But it's pretty obvious how to differentiate man and woman. Factual, even. Examine the reproductive bits, classify as M or F. Easy.

Gender, on the other hand, is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

Each society defines gender and since there are two visually and easily identified sexes, most, but not all, societies have simplified gender to match sex.

Now we have the first complication in what I see as our modern viewing of sex and gender. Many people insist that sex and gender are, indeed, one and the same. They often claim that it has always been so and to suggest otherwise is an unnatural and modern perversion of humanity. However, if we look to the ancient Greeks, we can see that there were shades of grey both within the gender of Greek males and, of course, within their sexual preferences. Those who rigidly insist that Male and Female gender is defined by Male and Female sex, have a tendency to dismiss the Greeks as perverted and sick.

Yet these are the same people who insist that suggesting sex and gender are not necessarily the same is a modern concept. Ancient Greeks, I propose, are dismissed simply because they do not fit into the paradigm of the rigid Sex=Gender people. The ancient Greek and Roman golden period did have its share of what we classify as debauchery and perversion - but they also gave us the concepts of democracy and many of our ideals of fair governing - along with a history of what demagoguery and tyranny and imperialism can do to a country.

I think it's disingenuous of us to dismiss what we dislike simply because we disagree with it.

Historical and cultural indications that gender as a social construct is NOT a new idea:
• Man-hearted woman: Agamemnon by Aeschylus
• Revolutionary war: the example of Robert Shirtliffe/Deborah Samson - a female who enlisted in the American forces and fought through a great portion of the war - as a man, because that was the only way to be able to act as she felt called to act.
• In the Sioux tribe, gender was not completely cut and dry. Some men were thought to be blessed by the moon during their vision quest and they lived as women - and were thought to be quite clever people - there was no cultural negative repercussions for being such a person. On the other hand, some men who showed cowardice in battle were punished and ridiculed by being forced to live as women - the lesson here being that you could be called to a different gender by something outside yourself - or you could act in a manner which didn't correspond to your call or to your biological sex, and be ridiculed for that.
• Many Celtic tribes did not particularly have the same gender role expectations that we think of today. Women were leaders, fighters and generally the equal of their male counterparts.
• Some Eskimo tribes had women who resisted the marriage and child-bearing expectation of their sex, and it was not uncommon for these women to "live as men" in terms of the expected gender role - they hunted and they dressed as the men did without societal repercussion.
• Likewise, many Native American tribes had men who lived according to the expected societal gender role of women - dress, behaviour, et cetera.

But if all of these "primitive" cultures included gender-role-swapping, why isn't that in the history books? Well, according to Caitlin Howell:

Many of the accounts are written by missionaries who unrestrainedly express their disgust with homosexual and cross-gender individuals. One Jesuit priest wrote, " were seen to wear the dress of women without a blush, and to debase themselves so as to perform those occupations which are most peculiar to the sex, from whence followed a corruption of morals past all expression... these effeminate persons never marry, and abandon themselves to the most infamous passions, for which cause they are held in the most sovereign contempt." (Katz 290)
It is likely that white disapproval of homosexuality caused Native American homosexuals to disguise that part of their identity, and tribes gave white anthropologists and ethnographers the possibly mistaken impression that they shared their disapproval.(Blackwood 28)

In other words, what made it into writing was the "modern" or victorious society recording their disgust at the "primitives." Also, since the disgust was so vehement, and the missionary culture so pervasive, the original culture felt it necessary to bury their gender definitions in order to reduce battles and tensions.

I'll end today's post by saying this: despite the modern attempt to define the societal gender-roles of male and female quite rigidly according to biology, this does not appear to be a universal truth, but a cultural tendency. Some cultures (modern and ancient) have very strong societal constraints put on males and females. Other cultures may define male and female roles strongly, but allow a fluid meaning of male or female and not restrict that meaning to biological sex.

I intend to follow up this post with examples of just how muddy the waters can be ...

Posted by Red Monkey at April 10, 2008 11:26 AM | Blog | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Shirley Bowling said:

Have you read lies my teacher told by:James W. Lowell?

April 10, 2008 3:55 PM


Kdawg68 said:

It's an interesting question. One I don't think I really have an answer for. My observation is that their do seem to be extremely feminine men and extremely masculine women - which leads me to think that you could have what might otherwise be referred to as a so and so trapped inside a so and so's body.

I'm big into dream interpretations and I know as a male that my the female side of my suboncsious plays a large role in my dreams. Sure, I think it's totally possible.

Bottom line is, it doesn't really matter to me. Want to call yourself a woman? Fine. Want to be a man? No problem. Folks should just learn to live and let live as long as laws aren't being broken.

April 11, 2008 6:13 PM


IludiumPhosdex said:

Just so you know, I'm in BlogMad.

And yes, the question is an interesting one, but then again:

This may or may not relate, but a friend of mine (name deleted) is the kind to suggest that a lot of behaviour interpreted in certain circles as "homosexual" may really be such as could be confused with:

  • transvestism;
  • transsexualism; or
  • hermaphroditism
  • .

    April 13, 2008 9:06 PM
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