So there’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about Germaine Greer and Jack Monroe and what it means to be transgender which has been illuminating and perplexing in equal measure. It’s great that people feel able to speak out and let the world know they are there and sick of being ignored, so hurrah to that.
But parts of it are puzzling. I get that someone might feel strongly that they are a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body. Also, there are lots of people who have physical characteristics of both genders and are intersex. Some people feel no sexual attraction and consider themselves asexual. None of that is new and lots of it has been culturally assimilated in parts of the world where it is well known eg. the ‘penis at 12’ children in the Dominican Republic.
But the next bit is more complicated. The non-binary bit. If you feel strongly you are not a woman, not because you are a man, but because you are something else, something between the two or something wholly different, what is that?
What is gender anyway? It’s generally understood to be the classification of society into men and women, and brings with it roles, power, influence and expectations, directly and indirectly arising from sex differences. Women, being the sex which carries the young, have always been primarily defined by that. The work of feminism has been to redress the balance, and more fairly share the joy and the burden of reproduction. Abolishing gender roles, and with them the restrictions on women which do not help in the rebalancing, has always been a key goal.
Why only two genders up to now? Because there are two types of genitals. There is no third type. Everyone is born with one or other or a combination of the two. I’ve understood transgender to mean people who are in transition from one gender to the other, ‘trans’ meaning ‘change’.
But non-binary people are not in transition. They have always felt they were neither man nor woman but a third gender, and want to be identified as being that. But what does it actually mean? Surely gender isn’t just a feeling of being something? It must relate to something physical or it loses all meaning. Physical sexual characteristics dictate much of how we experience the world through the effect of our hormones on our behaviour and perceptions. Then there is another layer – cultural conditioning, the reaction of people around us to how we look and behave. That shapes who we think we are but must be secondary to how we, in our own bodies, experience our lives. Transgender people have to deal with the mismatch and try to make sense of it all. But does it make it easier or harder if we concede that there is a range of other options out there, that it’s possible to be something totally new and unrelated to anything? What does that even mean?
If our gender is something unrelated to our physicality, what is it? And what is a man? And what is a woman?