A student of mine recently told me she was disappointed that I had not yet picked up my promise to address the issue of “opposite sex” which I’d raised in a previous post. The context was my ranting against the argument that only “opposite sex” couples should be allowed to marry because it is only in “opposite sex” relationships that children can be created and linked to their biological parents. So, here goes.
Why do I say that there is no “opposite sex”? I mean two things by this. First, in terms of the sheer biology of sex differences (the chromosomal, hormonal, and physical manifestations) there is more variety than many of us acknowledge or realize. We can frame these variations as “diseases” but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In framing these variations as “diseases” we are making (or supporting) a claim that there can be only two “normal” sexes. That is somewhat arbitrary and rests on another claim/assertion: sex is wholly a matter of ability to reproduce. At that level, it is true that reproduction does require two different kinds of people. But people do much more than reproduce, and so to make such a fundamental designation based on one activity that, while absolutely essential to the continuation of the species, does not any longer take up the majority of our lives, seems arbitrary. (Again, and to be clear, I am not denying that there are very real hormonal, biological, and genetic differences between people and that many of those line up, roughly, with the male/female division. But there is a great deal of variety within each category and to me that suggests that the two-category system doen’t correspond perfectly to the complexity of human life.)
That is sex. Gender is different and even less necessarily linked to reproduction. You can think of gender as the identity, expectations, positions, etc. that you are expected to take on depending on whether you were assigned as a girl or assigned as a boy. Again, the idea of “opposite” seems silly. How many different ways are there of being a girl or a woman? How many different ways of being a boy or a man? If there are many variations between girls and between women, and many variations between boys and between men, certainly there are a lot of women who are very similar to a lot of men, and so on. Do we need to divide the population into such dichotomous terms as “man/woman” given all that variety? Who benefits from maintaining that dichotomy?
Ultimately the people who benefit from the dichotomy are those who are privileged by the heterosexist system it supports, where straight, “normally gendered” people have more access to society’s resources than everybody else.
A few days ago I posted a link to a BBC web site where you can take a quiz to find out whether your brain is more male or more female. I wrote that when I took the quiz I scored exactly in the middle, and that on some “male-oriented” items I’d scored higher than the male average. The same thing happened on some of the “female-oriented” tasks. On others I’d scored below the average for men and the average for women. I’d be very curious to know how other people score. Leave a comment if you dare!
Meanwhile, back to linking everything to reproduction: What about those who choose not to reproduce? Or those who reproduce using medical assistance? Or those who are incapable of reproducing? Or those who raise children through adoption? Does it make any sense to divide the population based on reproductive capability any more? And even if we need to do so for certain purposes, does it make any sense to link so much social structure to those designations? Why can’t I simply carry a card that lists my blood type and reproductive abilities/preferences in my wallet? Why do I have to be pigeon-holed in so many other ways just because I have a functioning uterus and ovaries? (At least I think they function. I’ve never really tested them out!).
Gender is a complicated thing. It needn’t be dichotomous, which means that, to my mind, there is no necessarily “opposite” gender category. As for sex, that is also complicated and much depends on what we assume to be normal. If we assume ability to reproduce to be the standard for normal there may in fact be only two genetic/biological combinations that will allow for that. But there are in fact other genetic/biological manifestations of human beings. We are not all xx/fertile or xy/fertile. And being xx/fertile does not automatically link up to all the role expectations of girl/woman. Let’s expand our system a bit. We’ve got nothing to lose but our heterosexist institutions!
If you’re interested in other ways of understanding gender I highly recommend “My Gender Workbook” by Kate Bornstein (actually I recommend just about anything by Kate Bornstein). Gendertalk is a transgender resource site that maintains a long list of links broken down into categories (academic, activism, etc.). Bodies Like Ours is another good resource for information on intersex issues.