Friday, March 17, 2017
Thoughts on the gender revolution
If you follow me on Facebook, you've probably noticed that I am linking to a lot of pieces about gender, especially topics that have to do with women's rights and the emerging understanding that gender is a spectrum. Many of you who know me, know that this topic has been a reading and thinking obsession of mine for a long time. All the way back from when I first read the Diary of Anne Frank as a girl, through the years I spent hiding out at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe researching the history of the Pill and the women who demanded it be reformulated for safety reasons, to founding Shine on Collaborative, a coaching organization whose primary concern is women's contributions and well being--the experience of gender has fascinated me. And it's humbled me by its complexity.
You've probably already noticed that we are in the middle of a sea change in the universe of gender. The Trump administration has and will put up road blocks to stop it, but in a way, these road blocks are amplifying the felt sense of what is afoot.
National Geographic calls this a Gender Revolution, and I agree with this characterization. By the time our children or maybe grandchildren are adults, there will be pockets in the world, mostly cities, in which gender will look completely different than what we have known up until now. The feelings I have about this alternate between, excitement for what may be one of the most important cultural shifts in my lifetime, fury in the face of extreme conservative backlash against progress for any of the non-dominant genders, fear for the safety of the individuals whose lives are lighting the way forward, but who may not be in friendly territory, and sometimes also exhaustion--because change is hard, and finding the right words and concepts to describe what's emerging requires real effort.
I'm writing this post for friends and family whose day-to-day might be on the periphery of this revolution, who may think something like, "boy and girl was good enough for us, why do we need all these other special labels?" And to remind myself that, yes, we need to keep moving forward, even though it will take a lot of work to reinvent say, a language that takes into account that he/his and she/hers categorizes individuals in a way that at times is unnecessary and at other times is not specific enough.
I'll start with a narrow set of facts. High school biology teaches us that biological sex falls into two neat genetic categories, XY or XX. Jogging your memory here, you learned that if your karyotype is XY, your phenotype will be male and that if your karyotype is XX then your phenotype will be female. To be specific the main physical details consulted to determine your phenotype were your private parts, and assigning you a gender did not take into account any other physical evidence about your brain, your endocrine system, your kidneys or any of other difficult to measure physical trait that tends to correlate with whether you are XX or XY.
Also not covered in that 9th grade unit on genetics and biological sex is the fact that other combinations of sex chromosomes can and do result in viable human beings. We know for sure that X, XXY, XYY, XXX and XXXY all occur with varying frequency within the human family. And they are not that uncommon. XXY is thought to occur in as many as 1 in 500 people. The current guesstimate is that XXX and XYY both occur in about 1 in 1,000 people. But even then, many people with these less typical chromosomal combinations don't know about their own genetic difference, which means we have a limited understanding of how often these combinations occur. At the very least based on the estimates available, simple math leads to the conclusion that among the billions of human beings on the planet, there are millions of people alive today whose biological sex does not conform to a binary gender rubric.
Let that sink in for a minute. The two neat categories of male and female are inaccurate in the most fundamental way.
And this is just the beginning of the biological confusion. There are other worlds of information that describe the interactions between hormones and the brain that also have considerable impact on the categories of male and female. And that does not even begin to address the way social narratives have attached themselves to physical bodies. There are many aspects to the complexity of gender, but for today, I want to be clear about one thing--the concept of binary gender is wrong, and a single focus on sex chromosomes should be enough to convince any of us that gender as a category deserves a revolution.
Scientists discovered these other genetic sex variations in the late 1950's as a result of new developments in genetic research methods. But when these types were discovered, they were classified not as new separate sex categories, but as twists on male and female. Usually these twists were considered poorer versions of male or female, but in the case of XYY, there was a brief spell around 1968 in which a big deal was made about the arrival of the "super male"--someone who was extra macho, and alternatively might be more likely to end up serving time for criminal violence, or might end up a hero, as suggested by the main character in the novel called XYY Man (just ordered it on Amazon to have a peek) in which an XYY guy named Scottie finds his skills as a cat burglar in high demand with the British Secret service. There's that social narrative piece. I find myself here both laughing and cringing.
My education has trained me to pursue clarity, and that confusion in any realm, but especially in the realm of gender and identity, is a bad thing. I've often felt internal pressure to know what side of an argument I believe or agree with, I've wanted to have big thoughts about how to "fix" the problems of gender, I've wanted to know for sure one way or another whether my thinking about gender or my performance of my own gender is good or right.
But lately I've been wondering whether or not this need to "know," to pin down the facts, and to be good, correct, and right, is in itself a culturally gendered way of thinking, or if not gendered exactly, a traditional way of thinking that is getting in the way of experiencing the complexity of the situation. But this is especially hard because not knowing, in the case of gender is extra vulnerable. In some cases not having the right words for who you are or the most accurate words to demand your right to personal safety can be a matter of life or death.
Still, Rebecca Solnit, Virginia Woolf, Pema Chodron, Lydia Yuknavich and all the thinkers who encourage getting comfortable with uncertainty are my coaches these days. I wear their words like a team uniform, a way of belonging to the crew that is doing their work out in the dark every day, feeling around for new languages (thinking of Yuknavich's book Chronology of Water) or pushing the old one to do new tricks (I'm thinking o here of Kristi Yamaguchi and her triple lutz, triple toe, or Michelle Kwan and her seven triple jumps in '88).
Here are some passages of Solnit that describe what I'm talking about:
"We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don't. Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation."
"My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings--impossible to categorize--at the heart of things...The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo..."
So for all of us who find the long lists of genders on college forms confusing or tiresome, my request is that we stick with it. We are learning so much all at once and it will be years before the everyday language can hold the complexity of what we are learning about the reality of gender. My hope is that we can be creative and empathetic through the learning process.
At this point, I also look back to the half-marathon I ran with my friend Laurel in 2013. To call us amateur runners would have been generous since we hardly thought of ourselves as runners at all. The night before the race we got together with my friend Katherine McIntyre who asked us what our plan was for getting through the 13 miles (our longest run had been 7, I think). And we had none. At that point she suggested we put our selves in a 5 minute run-2 minute walk pattern. She had a lot more experience, which was enough to convince us to avail ourselves of her advice.
During the race, I learned that the most difficult part of the first half of the race was keeping to the pattern. I felt like a horse chomping against the bit every time we had to slow ourselves down to walk. The thought bubble that popped above my head then was "refraining is the most difficult task." It was one of those moments when life and metaphor happen at the same time. My body was doing the motions of a perspective that is increasingly difficult to hold in a fast paced world. I was forcing myself to walk when I wanted badly to run.
It ended up for the best. In that last mile, we were both spent and hardly made it across the finish line. If we had not saved our energy, we would not have made it. On the topic of gender, as well as all of the other political topics that are in such flux right now, having a plan for pacing and sticking to it, feels right to me, along with finding ways to be in a state of productive uncertainty. And by pacing, I'm meaning pacing around the language and making room for some level of confusion, while at the same time holding sturdy vigilance for everyone's right to safety, to free circulation in their environment, to love and be loved.
In the meantime, if you meet someone whose gender you do not know and you need to find out what pronoun to use when talking to them, there is a simple polite formula for how to proceed. You say, "Hi, my name is Cristina. What's your name?" Then they might say, "I'm Jordan." Then you can say, "Nice to meet you Jordan. The pronouns I use are she/her. What do you use?"