It must be downright maddening when things that you perceive to be so straightforward, so intuitively obvious in their apparent “naturalness” instead turn out to be way more complicated and multifaceted than that you could ever imagine.
Things like gender. I mean, “gender” is a fairly black-and-white concept, no? There’s boys and there’s girls, right? Well, it turns out there’s actually way more to the concept of gender than mere “male” and “female.” This has always been the case historically. But Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, Batman! For some cultural conservatives, the idea that “gender” isn’t a cut-and-dry, black-and-white (insert-other-hackneyed-phrase) concept is an injustice that will not stand, man!
Consider the recent attempts by state-level Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin to ban transgender students from using the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the bill would “require school boards to designate bathrooms and locker rooms as being for one gender exclusively, and to require the state Department of Justice to defend school districts in lawsuits alleging the policy is discriminatory.” The two ornery shaved wookies behind the bill, Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Steve Nass, claim that the proposed law “reinforces the societal norm in our schools that students born biologically male must not be allowed to enter facilities designated for biological females and vice versa.” The idea here is that men are men, women are women, and that’s the end of it unless you’re some type of commie-liberal-sideshow exhibit.
Republicans have proposed other so-called “bathroom bills” at various levels of state government in Florida, Kentucky, and Texas, all based on the notion that transgender people are deluded at best, conniving at worst in their alleged attempts to gawk at the opposite sex under the guise of non-traditional gender identity. Perennial bible-humping presidential Cletus — and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan — Mike Huckabee best summarized cultural conservatives’ position on transgenderism when he told the 2015 National Religious Broadcasters Convention that, “I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE…I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.'” Huckabee’s wingnut audience reacted with a collective hearty chortle, and the Huckster followed up by exclaiming that, “you’re laughing because it sounds so ridiculous doesn’t it?”
No doubt that, to many folks, transgenderism specifically, and the idea of fluid “gender identities” more broadly, does indeed seem ridiculous. But, as we know from Saturday-morning PSAs, knowledge is power! People who can’t wrap their minds around gender fluidity are almost always lacking in knowledge about the difference between “sex” and “gender,” and their notions about both concepts are almost always rooted in deeply entrenched Western cultural and religious myths about “male” and “female” identities that are direct holdovers from the Victorian era.
Let’s unpack this a bit further, shall we?
The American Psychological Association makes a clear distinction between “sex” and “gender.” In the APA’s definition, gender “refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.” This means that “gender” is a social construct, the perimeters of which are dictated by, and enforced by, a culture’s dominant social power structures in a specific time period. Those that deviate from a culture’s gender constructs are considered “deviant” merely because they’re different.
By contrast, the APA defines sex as “a person’s biological status” that is “typically categorized as male, female, or intersex (i.e., atypical combinations of features that usually distinguish male from female). There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia.” In other words, your biological sex is defined by what sort of plumbing you’re born with, not how you actually feel about said plumbing. And, of course, some people are born as biologically male and female: they’re referred to as “intersex” because they have “atypical development of physical sex characteristics.”
It should be noted, however, that while the APA and Planned Parenthood make distinctions between biological sex and gender, many trans people feel that “biological sex” is also a social construct, based on the (understandable) reasoning that if you identify as female, for example, then you are, in fact, female, regardless of what type of genitalia you were born with. While this rationale makes sense for people who are born with both male and female chromosomes, the idea that biological sex is a social construct is debated even within segments of the trans community.
The major point here is that “sex” and “gender” are related, but not always congruent. When a person’s sex and gender do align, they’re called “cisgender,” and that’s where most people fall on the gender spectrum. But the point is that there IS a gender spectrum that’s influenced by both social and biological factors. Which brings us back to the fluid concept of “gender identity,” what the APA refers to as “one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or transgender.” Individual people make their gender identity known to the world through the process of “gender expression,” but if their gender identity doesn’t align with what slack-jawed yokels like Mike Huckabee believe to be “appropriate” forms of black-and-white, Hey-Zeus-approved, binary gender divisions, then people who are transgender, bigender, etc. tend to be socially ostracized, feared, and despised for merely being who they are.
Conservatives, who tend to be overtly religious, simplistic, and authoritarian in their conceptions of human social relations, simply cannot wrap their heads around the fact that “gender” isn’t a simple truth like the smashing success of trickle-down economics or the undisputed fact that Jesus, Moses, and Joel Osteen authored the U.S. Constitution while praying the British gay away. Historically, however, the notion of “gender identity” has always been fluid, depending on the particular time period and culture, and the idea that you can draw a straight (pun intended) gender line from the time that Jesus rode saddleback on top of a Brachiosaurus to the present day is as ludicrous as the idea of Ted Nugent making music that doesn’t make you want to pull your eardrums out with needle-nose pliers.
In her book Gender in History: Global Perspectives, historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks notes that, throughout history, gender constructs have always differed, have always changed, and have always been determined by social conventions. Some native cultures in North America, the Amazon, and Oceana, to name a few, recognized as many as four distinct genders based on attributes such as language, clothing, and behavioral preferences. Often, these disparate gender identities proved shocking (if not downright revolting) to European explorers used to the idea that were only two genders, created by God in an organic, Middle-Eastern nudist garden. But the fact is, as Wisener-Hanks writes, “day-to-day gender attribution is based everywhere on cultural norms rather than biology…children are taught these gender norms from a very young age — long before they learn anything about hormones and chromosomes.” In the past, as is the case now, gender was “arbitrarily and culturally produced.”*
Arbitrary and culturally produced notions of gender still shape what so many modern Americans consider the physical and behavioral hallmarks of what it means to be “male” or “female.” Thus, “real” men don’t apply makeup, don’t wear dresses or blouses, don’t wear brightly colored clothing (especially the “feminine” color pink), and don’t (for the most part) wear their hair long. Conversely, “real” women do wear makeup, do wear dresses or blouses, do wear brightly colored clothing (especially pink), and do (mostly) wear their hair longer than men. Moreover, because the U.S. is still a patriarchal culture, the dominant religion of which (Christianity) is fundamentally patriarchal, women can, with a large degree of acceptance (i.e. as long as they don’t look like lesbians), present themselves as more masculine (via short hair, wearing pants, etc.) because masculinity is America’s default “normal” condition. By contrast, men who act in any way feminine get socially ostracized for acting like the “lesser” sex.
None of these constructs are “natural;” they merely represent constructed notions of what “gender” should be. After all, major world cultures in the past displayed far different notions of gender identity that would make today’s conservatives squirm like bait on a submerged hook. In ancient Egypt, for example, men and women wore makeup. The same goes for ancient Greece, where modern notions of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” didn’t even exist. To quote the flamboyant drag queen Albert (played by Nathan Lane) in the 1996 film The Birdcage: “Alexander the Great was a fag!”
The binary gender notions that U.S. conservatives like Mike Huckabee so openly embrace, however, are the products of distinct historical shifts that, over millenia, saw human cultures shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural, and then to industrial civilizations. As Peter Stearns writes in Gender in World History, “as agricultural civilizations become more prosperous, with stronger governments, gender inequalities, particularly in the upper classes, tend to increase still more, as men try to press women to become more purely domestic in function, more dependent on the family and more decorative.”*
The general process of what historians call “modernity” formed during the 19th century, an era that’s termed the “Victorian Era” in the Western World after the English monarch Queen Victoria, whose reign lasted from 1837 to 1901. During this period, a centuries-long shift away from agriculture and domestic production culminated in what we now call the industrial world, characterized by mass industrialization and mass production. Throughout this era, as production gradually moved out of the homestead and into distinct factories, buildings, and other spaces that we still refer to as the general “workplace,” Western cultures enacted more and more hardened cultural notions about gender in an attempt to associate women with a domestic experience that became increasingly separate from the “men’s world” of work and business. From this point on, men were men and women were women; each had their place. This is still very much the cultural construct we’re trying to move beyond in America today, and it’s a construct that transgender people are openly (and bravely) challenging as science and psychology continue to unlock the myriad complexities of human gender identity.
Maybe Mike Huckabee and his fellow Old-Testament toadstools can take some comfort, however, in the fact that even the GOP has among it some devout transgender members. As former Republican senator Norm Coleman writes in the Daily Beast, “one of my most trusted colleagues during my career in public service is a transgender woman, Susan Kimberly.” Coleman continues, adding that, “the Republican Party is at its best when it focuses on individuals—the skills and talents that each person brings to the workplace, to their community, to their family…Susan’s gender identity was never a factor in her performance.”
As it should be. If Americans want to truly respect and live out their belief that individual rights are the paramount condition for true freedom, then they ought not be afraid to overturn established — even cherished — notions about gender identity that were already built on sandy cultural foundations. Putting people into circumscribed boxes based on outdated and unscientific cultural shibboleths limits their ability to be themselves freely and openly. Whether you’re transgender, cisgender, bigender, or any other identity, the U.S. should be a place where you’re free to be yourself, regardless of the opinion of a guy who still listens to Ted Nugent. After all, Jesus, a long-haired hippie who spent of all his time not wearing pants and hanging out with twelve dudes, would have wanted it that way.
*See Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Gender in History: Global Perspectives (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 4.
* See Peter M. Stearns, Gender in World History (New York: Routledge, 2015), 3.