Monday, December 11

Sex and gender and why the hell do we have this discussion?

Yes, I haven’t been very active here recently (and only very recently in my writer’s blog again), but now I’ve stumbled over something which really grinds my gears: the gender discussion which usually ends with those opposing the idea of more than two genders calling everyone who is not adhering to their idea of gender mentally ill.

First of all, we have to get the actual words used straight. Male and female in the biological sense is not gender, that is sex. And even that is opening a can of very moody sandworms. Masculine and feminine is gender. So let’s start out with biological sex and sandworms.

Before the invention of genetics, biological sex was easy. If someone had a penis, they were male. If someone had a vagina, they were female. Two sexes, everything sorted out. Only, that doesn’t account for those people (often guessed to be around 1 in 1000 births) who are born with both sexual organs. Then came genetic sex, which is based on the two sex chromosomes: X and Y. Everyone with a Y chromosome is considered male (because everyone has at least one X chromosome, so that wouldn’t help as a definition). But there are people with multiples of some chromosomes, that also goes for the X chromosome. Interestingly, foetuses with two or more Y chromosomes aren’t capable of surviving, but there are people who don’t have an XY composition (which is normal male sex), but something like XXY or XXXY. Those people are physically female insofar as they have a proto-vagina. They do not, however, have an uterus or ovaries, so they are not capable of giving birth. For genetics, they are male, because there is a Y chromosome. Following the old definition of biological sex, however, they are female, because they lack a penis. Then there’s cases in which a foetus with XY chromosomes doesn’t develop a male sexual organ. All foetuses start developing a proto-vagina first. If they’re female, what will become the ovaries will wander up and take root at the top of the uterus. If they’re male, what will become the testicles (and happens to be the same as the future ovaries above) will wander down and the proto-vagina will turn into a penis. Sometimes, foetuses don’t develop correctly at this stage. The foetus stays female by the old biological definition, even though it genetically is male. The person, however, will be infertile, because there are no ovaries or uterus. Nevertheless, biological sex in the sense of ‘what is or isn’t there’ can be determined as female.

Gender is a different question and has to do not with what biology says, but what society says. Traits and abilities are sorted into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’ Sometimes, depending on the society in question, there’s also some neutral traits and abilities everyone is allowed to have. If you look at different societies or even the same society at different times in history, you will see those traits change.
Today’s ‘men don’t cry’ trait for masculinity would have been utterly wrong for Ancient Greece, where a ‘real man’ was supposed to cry at suitable times.
The idea that women can’t fight would be utterly alien to societies like the Mongols, which as a nomad people, didn’t make a difference between males and females when it came to going into battle. Whoever was physically capable, went out fighting - men and women alike. They still don’t make a difference.
Other definitions have been overcome by time. When my mother was young in the 1950s, she would have loved to become a carpenter and, honestly, she would have been marvellous at it. But in 1950s Germany, no carpenter would have taken on a woman as an apprentice. Today, that’s hardly a problem any longer.
Even the idea that women are naturally ‘nurturing’ and men are not is merely a social construct. It’s damaging, too, teaching boys that they are not allowed to show that side. There’s many good fathers out there who are doing a wonderful job at taking care of their kids, aren’t they nurturing, too? And there’s women, such as me, who never feel any ‘motherly instinct’ when they see a child.

But if gender is a social construct, unlike physical or genetic sex, then why are people so hyped up about those who do not define as their supposed gender? Or see themselves somewhere in-between, because they have traits and abilities from both spectrums? That is what grinds my gears. Everyone is an individual, even a twin. We’re all different from each other from the moment we’re born. We have different interests, different likes and dislikes. We may identify more with the feminine model of our society or with the masculine one. If that happens to fit with our biological sex, people have no problem with it. If that doesn’t fit with our biological sex, we’re suddenly supposed to be mentally ill. And that makes me ill, but not mentally. It makes me want to throw up.
Instead of telling a girl that she’s supposed to be all nurturing, to be interested in dolls and toy ovens, why don’t we ask that girl what she’s interested in? Perhaps she likes dolls and toy cars. Perhaps she wants that science experiments set. Perhaps she likes a cuddly stuffed bear. Perhaps she wants to play with that Superman action figure (because those are for boys and definitely no dolls). And, perhaps, her brother has been eying that toy oven for a while now, because he wants to bake a cake.

I was brought up like that, because in the 1970s and 1980s, people were trying to raise their children ‘non sexist’ - meaning they wanted to raise the children as personalities, not according to their biological sex or the gender expectations. There were a lot of ‘gender neutral’ toys around. LEGO was absolutely neutral once, only colourful building blocks for whatever you wanted to build with them: a nice house, a space station, a castle, a racetrack.
The 1990s saw a backlash at that. Suddenly, toys became colour-coded. Pink for girls, blue or black for boys. Even LEGO suddenly was divided by gender, depending on the set in question. Technology was for boys, dolls remained something for girls. Technology bleeding into the girl territory masqueraded as something typical for girls, such as a game where you could buy stuff with a credit card or call one of several boys. Or as a diary that would only open for your voice, so your little brother couldn’t read it (though I dare say most teenage girls were more worried about their mothers reading it).
Today, I look at the girls, see the early age at which they are sexualized, because media tells them to be pretty first and foremost. The thoughts which my parents abhorred, that my biological sex should define my future, as it had often defined theirs, have come back with a vengeance.
Today, young women want to be models before everything else. Models, excuse me for saying so, are walking clothes hangers, nothing more. And today, neither the clothes nor the models are really fit for reality. In a time when more and more women are fatter (in a neutral way) than they have been in the past, as the statistics show, the models have gotten thinner and thinner. And most of what you see on the catwalks is surely not fit for being worn on the street, not if you don’t want to be arrested for indecently exposing yourself. I also wonder how much longer it will take until the fashion designers realize that digital models are the way to go - they can be shaped any way the designer wants them to be, they never make a mistake, they will lose and gain weight at the click of the mouse.

Even biological sex is up for definition these days, since the physical sex can be changed with surgery. Genetic sex can’t be changed like that, but doesn’t always translate into the physical configuration which should be going with it. Gender is merely a construct and shouldn’t always be confused with the sex of a person. Honestly, if you have a problem with saying or typing the word ‘sex’ somewhere in social media or in other discussions, don’t enter them. So what if a person identifies as male, but is a biological and genetic female? So what if a person doesn’t identify as one sex, but as both (or none)? And, while we’re at it: so what if men love men, women love women, or some people love everyone? If your invisible friend in the sky, whoever it might be, has a problem with that, then don’t do it yourself. But remember a sentence from the bible: am I my brother’s keeper? You’re not, so let your brother, sister, or undetermined sibling love whom they love.

Mind your own business and don’t try to make other people feel bad, just because you can’t or won’t understand their side. Nobody forces you to identify with another gender definition or get a surgical sex change. Tolerance is the name of the game. Try it and you might live much better.

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