Notes on women, men, trans and intersex: “the gender binary does not fit the facts”

Colin Wilson discusses why the gender binary’s imposition is something to be opposed.

Osh Tisch (left) of the Crow nation with their wife. The name means "finds them and kills them"

Osh Tisch (left) of the Crow nation with their wife. The name means “finds them and kills them”

One of the most widely accepted “common sense” ideas about society is that human beings – apart from a tiny number of exceptions, none of whom you are ever likely to meet – can be simply divided into two groups, men and women. As the Bible tells us, “Male and female created He them”. Yet this idea is increasingly coming into question. Whether it’s a matter of people’s bodies, or how they live their lives, those who don’t fit into the “gender binary” of female versus male are increasingly demanding that their voices be heard and their lives be respected. It’s becoming clear that the truth is more complex than the common sense view.

These notes discuss both intersex and trans people. Intersex people are those whose bodies don’t fit easily into the categories male and female. Trans people live, or want to live, a life different from that associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. They may live their lives as men when they were assigned female, or vice versa, or they may live in a way which doesn’t fit the categories male and female.

The experiences of intersex and trans people are different: they do not feel they share a common experience or identity, so we should be careful not to conflate them. But, in their different ways, people in both categories demonstrate that the gender binary does not fit the facts, causes many people enormous pain, and that its imposition is to be opposed.

Bodies

The term “intersex” is used with regard to people whose bodies cannot be easily categorised as male or female. Common sense tells us that such people are vanishingly rare. In fact, while the proportion of intersex people in the population varies according to how you define it, we are looking at perhaps 1 in 1,000 births – so approximately 60,000 intersex people live in the UK. Why do most people think that intersex is a rare condition? One answer is that intersex babies frequently undergo surgeries to make them conform to one gender or the other (see the recent Guardian article by Jenny Kleeman). Many babies who are male in all regards except that their penis is “very small” will be assigned female: their small penis is removed and a vagina created. This is done on the assumption that it’s not possible to live life as a male with a very small penis – despite the fact that the baby involved may, later in life, identify as male and would have preferred to have kept the genitals with which he was born. While they may do it with the best of intentions, medics and parents are in effect enforcing the gender binary, and intersex activists argue that these surgeries constitute genital mutilation.

Even in cases where bodies are visibly ‘male’ or ‘female’ at birth, biological traits associated with gender still vary from person to person. For example, different bodies assigned to the category ‘female’ will have different quantities of the hormones testosterone and oestrogen, which will in turn change across their lifetimes. That bodies do not always divide neatly into male and female categories, and the potential for oppression in trying to make them do so, is also clear in the case of elite women’s sport. The South African runner Caster Semenya, for example, was subject to intrusive speculation about her physiology in 2009 when the fact that she was asked to take a gender test was leaked to the press. Speculation about her physiology and testosterone levels continued in the run-up to the Rio Olympics: it was suggested that the nature of her body made it unfair for her to compete against other women. Thus the supposedly common-sense gender binary in fact involves the constant policing of the gender divide, and stigmatising those who don’t fall neatly on one side of it.

Gender trouble

If elite sport demonstrates the arbitrary nature of the gender binary in terms of biology, it’s also important to be clear that being a man or a woman is typically, from day to day, not really about biology at all. When we interact with people we don’t know about their genitals, their DNA or their hormones. A lot of “being a man” or “being a woman” is about being acknowledged as such in society, and feeling that you are so acknowledged. Here it’s useful to refer to the ideas Judith Butler outlines in her book Gender Trouble. Butler argues that society pressures people to act in such a way that they are recognised either as a woman or as a man – people who behave in ambiguous ways face oppression of various kinds. If we have an inner sense of masculinity or femininity, this is because we’ve internalised this masculine or feminine behaviour. This is the opposite of the common sense view that masculine or feminine behaviours are the expression of some internal masculinity or femininity.

Identification as male or female is always more fragile than it would be if it was the direct product of biology. For example, cancer charities reassure women who had had a mastectomy that they are no less women afterwards, and men who had lost a testicle to disease are told that they are just as much men as ever. There are any number of ways women can fail to be feminine enough, and women are obviously encouraged to behave in appropriate ways in this respect as regards clothes, makeup, behaviour etc. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, “one is not born, but becomes, a woman”. While men aren’t oppressed as men, they too face a range of constraints on their behaviour if they are to be generally accepted in society as a man. So no-one ever gets the business of being a man or a woman quite right: everyone feels pressure to constantly work to maintain their gender identity and we are impoverished as human beings by the whole process.

Gender, sex, nature

I’ve tried to avoid in these notes using the terms “gender” and “sex”. There is a common understanding of these terms in social sciences which sees sex as biological and gender as cultural. In this understanding, gender varies from society to society: sex, the material reality of bodies, is the same everywhere: sex is true, gender is potentially false. The liberation of women, from this perspective, is about abolishing gender and asserting the universal, biological truth of sex. The first problem with this is that the material reality of sexed bodies is always understood in a cultural context. How can I know if a person is a woman at a biological level? Do I know from their DNA, from the presence or absence of certain body parts, from their hormone levels or from their ability to give birth?

The second problem is that the demand to reject gender in favour of sex seems all to similar to the demand that we should go “back to nature”. Now, the concept of nature is a hugely complex one, but an important part of it is a specifically Romantic rejection of the urban, manufactured objects and so forth in a period of capitalist industrialisation, in favour of animals, plants and the landscape conceived as a deeply satisfying and integrated totality. So to go “back to nature” is not to escape from bourgeois ideology to truth, but to move from one bourgeois ideology to another.

In particular, there exists a longstanding idea that some humans, such as those in Africa or the Pacific before contact with Europeans, lived in a pre-cultural “state of nature”. This is a deeply racist view – the cultures these people developed aren’t regarded as cultures at all. This approach also tends to be associated with oppressive gender politics. The desire to return to a state of nature typically involves the rejection of all “puritan” social constraints. While this has its positive side, it has also meant, historically, that men do as they please, particularly as far as sex is concerned, while claiming that women only object to such behaviour because they have accepted “artificial” norms.

Lives

The common sense gender binary doesn’t apply to people in a very large number of cultures where male and female are not the only ways a person can live. In south Asia the population of hijras, people who were brought up as males but live as neither male nor female, is around half a million, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all recognise this status on official documents. For some 500 years in Albania, it’s been possible for someone who grew up as a woman to take a vow of celibacy and be accepted as a man, wearing men’s clothes and doing men’s work. Among some Native American peoples there were established social roles for people who lived as neither men nor women – as matchmakers among the Cheyenne, potters among the Zuni and Navajo, and as people able to predict the future and confer lucky names on children and adults among the Lakota.

In Western Europe, there also exists plentiful evidence, centuries back into the past, of individuals breaking with the gender binary. Time and again in the historical record we come across people who are raised to live as a man or a woman, are “assigned” to that gender, but find it unbearable to do so – so unbearable that they will suffer enormous risks and sometimes oppression to live as the gender with which they identify. Joan of Arc, for example, was burned alive in 1431 for offences which included wearing clothes associated with men. In 1750 there was published in London a book called The Female Soldier, or the Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell: the person described in the book in fact used the name James Gray during the period of their life it describes, when they enlisted as a marine and took part in several battles in India. In 1810, one Mrs Cole, preparing for burial the body of the Frenchwoman with whom she had shared an apartment for 14 years, discovered that the body of the Chevalière d’Éon would typically have been identified as male. Such events have occurred more recently – in 1989, the small-time jazz musician Billy Tipton died aged 74 in a trailer park in Spokane, in the American north-west. Tipton had been married to five women and fathered several adopted children, but paramedics now removed the bandages on his chest – bandages which Tipton had explained were necessary because of his injuries sustained when he was hit by a truck – to reveal breasts. Subsequent investigation revealed that Tipton had been identified female at birth, but had lived as a man since the age of nineteen.

These examples are significant because much discussion of the subject identifies ‘trans’ as something new. Certainly some aspects of trans’ people’s lives are changing rapidly, such as the emergence of trans as a politicised identity or the increased number of referrals to Gender Identity Clinics. Procedures involving hormones and surgery don’t pre-date the mid-twentieth century. However, it’s important to also understand that such modern developments are only part of a much longer story.

LGBT

When the modern phase of the gay liberation movement began, after Stonewall in 1969, it followed on centuries of western culture in which same-sex desire had frequently been associated with defiance of gender norms. It was believed that gay men could be identified by their effeminacy, and camp and drag did indeed form a major part of gay culture. In the 1950s lesbian bar scene, meanwhile, women were encouraged to identify as butch or femme. The gay liberation movement responded to this in two ways. The radical end of the movement celebrated people breaking with gender norms – a process which characterised the 1960s in other ways, for example in the case of men growing their hair long. Some gay men in particular adopted an approach known as “genderfuck”, for example growing beards but also wearing glamorous dresses. By the late 1970s and early 1980s lesbians typically also celebrated a break with femininity through cutting their hair short and wearing trousers. But other parts of the movement sought to make a different point. It became clear as more lesbian and gay people came out that stereotypes of nelly gay men and butch lesbians were often inaccurate. Those more moderate forces, mainly concerned to argue for acceptance in existing society, stressed that most gay men and lesbians were gender normative.

In the last forty years, then, this has led to a shift in how gender is seen within what is now LGBT politics. In the early 1980s, a good friend of mine, who identified then and does now as a gay man, sometimes went about in makeup and a long black dress. He got some hassle when he did this, which we both identified then as homophobia. However, by the 1990s and early 2000s such gender-transgressive behaviour had become less common among people identifying as lesbian or gay. People who defied gender norms now more often identified as trans, and described the oppression they experienced as transphobia. That identity could bring together some behaviours that had previously been part of the gay identity, such as cross-dressing, with others which had not, such as the use of hormones and surgery.

Doctors

The first gender confirmation surgeries were carried out in the 1930s, but such procedures became well-known in America in late 1952, when the story of Christine Jorgensen, who had undergone surgery in Denmark, was widely covered in the media. Jorgensen received thousands of letters, many from people who identified with her and also longed to change their gender. However, very few American doctors would carry out such procedures: they shared the prejudice that people must be mentally ill to desire such things, and they feared they would lose their reputations, their standing as professionals. One reason for these concerns was the association of gender-transgressive behaviours with homosexuality. By 1966, John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore announced that it would carry out surgeries, but while they received in the next two-and-a-half years what they described as “almost 2,000 desperate requests” they operated on only 24 patients. Doctors developed procedures that carefully transferred “suitable” people from one gender to the other while leaving the overall structure of the gender binary untouched.

Indeed, for these doctors the gender binary became reified, if not fetishised – as is clear in the behaviour of John Money, a doctor at John Hopkins, towards his patient David Reimer. Reimer, born in 1965 and named Bruce, had sustained a serious injury to his penis during a botched circumcision operation when he was eight months old. Money was a pioneer in the treatment of intersex conditions and had gained a national reputation, both as a medic and as an arrogant bully. He was fascinated by the Reimer case because Bruce Reimer was one of two male twins: here was an opportunity to both resolve the boy’s problem and test Money’s belief that gender identity was a matter of upbringing. Reimer’s parents were desperate to have something done for their son, and were young, working-class and in awe at the famous doctor and the prestigious hospital where he worked. They agreed to his plan, which was that Bruce should have genital surgery, be raised as a girl called Brenda and not be told what had happened. Brenda continued to visit Money periodically, where she was subject to examinations that constituted sexual abuse. While Money continued for years after to write that Brenda had adopted “a feminine gender identity”, in fact at the age of fifteen he used the name David, began testosterone injections, and had chest and genital surgery before his sixteenth birthday. Eventually, at the age of thirty-nine, David Reimer committed suicide.

This is not to suggest that all doctors in this field behave so unethically. But it is to argue that doctors must allow people to make choices that are as informed and uncoerced as possible. For example, it’s striking that gender confirmation surgeries are very common in Iran. A 2004 report suggested that “it is not possible for presumed transsexual individuals to choose not to undergo surgery” – suggesting that individuals who desire their own sex or are otherwise gender-transgressive are forced to undergo surgeries, which here act as a way of reinforcing the gender binary, not of undermining it.

Since trans people are at risk for mental health problems if their transitioning is delayed, one of the demands we should be raising is for an increase in spending (for example, laser facial hair removal, which costs some thousands of pounds, is seldom available for trans women), including training for medical staff. The huge increase in referral rates to Gender Identity Clinics should also motivate consideration of how services can be reformed – is there any role for self-help groups, where trans people instead of medics support other people to transition?

The roots of trans oppression

Why is the ruling class so concerned to support the gender binary? A key point is that only some people are able to have babies – most of them cisgender women. Childbirth is important to the ruling class for two reasons. For thousands of years, it formed the basis for the inheritance of property. More recently, in capitalism, the ruling class has been concerned to ensure the physical reproduction of the working class, and has almost always depended on working-class women giving birth to the next generation of workers as the main way of trying to ensure this – one rare exception was the eighteenth century Caribbean, where plantation owners worked each generation of slaves to death before buying new slaves from Africa. The importance of physical reproduction to capitalism is made clear by Sue Ferguson and Dave McNally in their introduction to Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women:

It is not biology per se that dictates women’s oppression; but rather, capital’s dependence upon biological processes specific to women – pregnancy, childbirth, lactation – to secure the reproduction of the working class. It is this that induces capital and its state to control and regulate female reproduction and which impels them to reinforce a male-dominant gender order.

The fact that some trans men are also now capable of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation is a point that should be integrated into Ferguson and McNally’s account. But the fact remains that for most of history these processes have been specific to cisgender women, and so have become integrated into the normative version of femininity.

Strategy

If this explains trans oppression in the past, what about the future? The family remains central to ruling class strategies for the reproduction of the workforce – indeed, as neoliberalism has meant the destruction of public services, care delivered in the family has become more important than ever. But ruling class strategies around the family are now up for debate. Until the 1960s, it was assumed that most sexual pleasure was inherently damaging to the family. Until the 1990s, the dominant ruling class approach was that LGBT people, likewise, would undermine the family and should face disapproval. Various ruling classes around the world – the Republicans in the US and ruling parties across eastern Europe – still take this approach. But others, such as the Democrats in America or the Tories in Britain, have developed a different view. They have noticed that a more relaxed attitude to sexuality and to LGBT people since the 1960s hasn’t led to the collapse of the family. They have decided that they don’t need to reject LGBT people, but rather should seek to incorporate us into capitalism and the family on their terms. This also has for them the advantage that they can claim to support “diversity”.

Of course, this is very far from liberation or ending the gender binary. For one thing, the formal equality that the ruling class offers disproportionately benefits middle-class LGBT people. For the rest of us, our experience of LGBT oppression is inseparable from issues like employment, housing and health care – inseparable from our experience as members of the working class. The class differences between working- and middle-class LGBT people, as well as the roots of LGBT oppression in capitalism, mean that for us the struggle for trans liberation is inseparable from the struggle for socialism.

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