Does the sun go around the earth? .. and other reasons why we don’t understand gender.
Sometimes a sub-editor’s decision on a strap-line (below) can skew a whole article’s perspective.
[This is a longer version of the essay that appeared in the guardian opinion section.
This is the version without the line that suggests some kind of dialectic relation between our understanding of the universe and our understanding of gender. But it’s basically the same. A few more words. A tad more nuance.]
Once upon a time people believed the sun circled the earth. That was the perfectly sensible model that they understood the universe by. The important word here is ‘model’.
Almost everyone who bothered to think about such things thought that this model was accurate. Magically so. As with our contemporary idea of gender, the models closely matched the observation of physical ‘reality’. Before we had glass. And telescopes.
The philosophers and theologians of the middle-ages believed the sun went around the earth and that to suggest otherwise was heretical, unGodly and just really really stupid. If scholars in the middle ages had been able to comment about heliocentrism on the internet their comments would have read a lot like most of the comments we get today about gender. Basically: “this is just ignoring common sense” and “what is the world coming to?” and “let’s burn these queer freaks”. Which they did. And we do.
The model was based on the geocentric principles of Ptolemy in his Big Book of
Astronomy (c. 100 AD), and based on 800 years of celestial observation. Everything worked perfectly well for another 1500 years until Copernicus and Galileo gave us the new and exciting heliocentric model. Copernican thought was revolutionary but then we had Newton, and then Einstein, Bohr, and Hawking. We keep observing the universe, and we keep changing the model to fit the observation, not ignoring the data that doesn’t fit. We could also still use geocentrism if we wanted. Admittedly nothing would work, but we would still be able to predict solar and lunar eclipses. Roughly.
The model of male and female is similarly based on thousands of years of observation of genitalia and the mainly binary qualities of sexual attraction and reproduction. Those were the externally observable facts. They correlated. And yes, we could remain happy with that.
But now, we are beginning to gather observations regarding the experience of gender from people who feel profoundly uncomfortable presenting as the gender they are classified in. We call that sensation Gender Dysphoria, and we know that somewhere between .3 and .5% of the world’s population (~20m to 30m) do feel dysphoric and that they don’t feel they ‘fit’ with the binary model.
The question becomes: Are 20 million people wrong? or is the model wrong?
I’m not sure how many transgender creative directors there are but I think I am the only one at Google. And these days I am increasingly asked to speak on womens’ panels as well as talking about creativity, innovation, diversity and digital. It has been an unexpected pleasure, and another middle-aged novelty.
I spent most of my working life presenting as a man, and was privy to male privilege — whether I liked it or not. During my transition I asked myself, and continue to ask myself questions that are hard to answer, often based on arguments made by trans-exclusionary feminists. It is easier to ignore people who bluntly hate trans people, until they turn violent, it is harder to acknowledge that others (sometimes your intellectual heroines) find you ideologically frustrating. Despite not being trans themselves, your heroes will define you and others like you as ill or depraved. It can get wearing.
I identify as trans and also as bisexual. Except that bi-sexual implies you like both sexes. I’ve recently realised I can’t call myself that, just like when I realised I couldn’t call myself gay, or later, straight, or more recently, the other straight, nor even lesbian. I’m running out of sexual identities because they all rely on this idea that humans are either one kind or the other. When really humans are just humans and it turns out I’m attracted to all of the kinds. Including some in the middle. Turns out there’s only one kind of human.
A ‘single spectrum of human’ is an idea that we already apply to race and neurology and attraction and many aspects of being human. i.e. we are all human, all humans are equal, all humans are different. A lot of people have already had to overcome situations where they were defined as somehow subhuman.
Humans have different genitalia, like eye colour, or hair. Somehow we ended up paying one person more than another based on their chromosome distribution. That seems crazy. From this vantage we can also see that the characteristics we attribute to either gender might be common to chromosomal sex, but not unique. Very little is girly that can’t be done by a guy, and nothing is manly vice versa. So a number of the traits may be environmental and not exclusive to your hormones or genetics.
If everyone is just human, then the model would suggest that we just look elsewhere to justify gender distinction — not at our genitals. While all the physical, emotional, and neurological traits that you can think of are not exclusive to one group they are clearly common. It’s common sense in fact, it’s just not completely accurate.
You may feel personally uncomfortable at having to conform to certain ideas of how you should ‘behave’, but you probably feel comfortable about how the world perceives you, it matches with how you perceive yourself. But that experience is not universal.
Many Pacific Islander, Indigenous, and non-Western cultures do acknowledge this and have for millennia. Trans is not new — it is only a surprise because we suppressed it for so long, People learn to hide it from early childhood, and from themselves.
We have a cultural precedent here as well, with left-handedness. Being a ‘southpaw’ was considered pathological and untrustworthy all the way up to the late twentieth century. Yet when it became acceptable, many more people became ‘lefties’, because they were hiding their left-handedness to begin with. This was most immediately visible in the classroom where a new generation no longer had to hide their aberrant mono-dexterity. We even had ambidextrous people. This correlates to what we see today, when stigma is reduced, kids are the first to discover it’s OK to be left-handed, or both.
Amazingly left-handers are still stigmatised in our language and discriminated against by design in (often unconscious) ways — showing how hard it is to rid ourselves of a incumbent model or structural bias. Changing our idea of gender is more challenging because we resemble the men who opposed the Copernican revolution, our society is heavily invested in the binary model that we believe to be true. It is much easier for unthinking people to disenfranchise people who disagree or ignore them, or to say that 20 million people are mentally ill (whatever that means) than to accept the existence of transgender people as evidence that our current model has some flaws.
The ancient model that divides us into two distinct ‘sexes’ is deeply ingrained and the lived experience of millions of trans people creates a conflict. As one of those millions I prefer an ‘all human’ model where we are all just humans, and identify individually. We should accept this, and adjust without making it a problem. If we have to adjust the words we use or build our toilets differently then we should. I cannot believe that kids should be suicidal because I, as a tax-payer, don’t want schools to refurbish. We know that isn’t the reason. It’s because we don’t want to believe the model is broken. We don’t like change. These are structural things. It is this fear of change that manifests in our newspapers each week as a desire for trans-people not to exist at all
You may still think, “Well, that’s fine, clearly you do exist — but men ARE men and women ARE women”. Which is OK. You are exercising the right to your own beliefs, and to treat people differently based on those beliefs. That’s called a prejudice and acting upon it is called discrimination which can be legal, illegal, or fuzzy depending on where you live and who you discriminate against. With regard to transgender people, prejudice is often tolerated if unspoken, and yet that is changing. The progress of civilisation has mirrored the slow erosion of these ‘common sense’ prejudices. The sun doesn’t go around the earth, the colour of your skin does not indicate your intelligence, ‘women’ should not be paid less than ‘men’ for the same work.
Men and women are all just people. People occupy a broad circular spectrum of behaviours that are boyish, girlish, and neither. Everyone is an individual human. Structural changes to allow for that may be difficult, but they are just structural. Behaviourally, how each of us define ourselves should be up to us. Who we like is up to us. How we treat each other is up to us. But it shouldn’t be defined using this model any more. Spreading that idea is up to everyone.