23 June 2012

Struggling With Theoretical Implications

Earlier this past week, I grabbed a special collector's edition of Scientific American Mind titled "His Mind, Her Mind: How We're Different" off the magazine rack.

Because, in all seriousness, I wanted to see how they tackled a headline I caught on the contents page.
An article titled, "The Third Gender."

I'll admit, though I had high hopes, just seeing that title gave me a queasy feeling. I knew deep down that it was going to be rough reading before I even started. Guess I'm a masochist, because I read it anyway.

And you know what? I was right. I realize that Scientific American isn't a scientific journal where the foremost minds in their fields publish those papers that you need a comparable doctorate to parse through. That being said, the author of this particular article still contradicted himself so often that I began to suspect he was confusing himself. Or perhaps was confused himself already, and it simply presented that way in the writing...

I have poured through the internets (including SA's site) looking for an electronic copy of this article to reference others to, and it is not to be found anywhere. The author, Jesse Bering, has an impressive CV. And yet, there are some major fallacies in the underlying influence of his article's content which become glaring discrepancies rather swiftly.

The largest one is that gender is a binary construct. Bering makes a point of explicitly acknowledging that sex and gender exist exclusive of one another, yet in the next breath the wording of the article implies that gender must mirror it.

Take this definition of transsexual, for instance:
"Transsexuals are people with normal chromosomes--biological males and females--who feel, psychologically, like the opposite sex."
Right, okay. Maybe my gut was wrong and this article won't be so traumatizing after all. Someone who gets it would be heartening, actually. And then I read this, a paragraph later:

"When a disconnection occurs between a person's biological sex and his or her gender identity, however, an uncomfortable gender dysphoria can arise. This persistent negative emotional state is often a factor in the decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery..." (SA, vol. 21-2, p75.)

Massive failure. Train wreck in my brain ensued.
Upon reading this, I began to suspect that Bering perceived transsexuals and transgenders as being equivalent. That he equates gender identity and sexual identity as one and the same. That gender is biologically determined-- the problem I have with this is that, as a social construct, the socio-cultural "acceptable norm" is precisely this, biological determinism. And that's the default thought processes that need to change in the scientific and psychological communities as a whole if GQ/T* persons are to have any comfort in society or confidence that they won't be denigrated or discriminated against. It's those thought processes that need to die if we want gender labels to disappear as well-- so that we each have the freedom to express our gender identities as we see fit, without judgement or preconception being imposed upon us.

Bering also implies that sexual orientation ties in with gender in some way. The argument he presents for this is that the ladyboy community in southeast Asian countries is statistically 95% comprised of homosexual males with feminine attributes whose gender expression and orientation is socially and culturally unaccepted--and it's this influence that drives them to sexual reassignment.

What baffles me is that Bering explicitly admits that cultural influences are the least understood aspect of transsexuality. He references Anne Lawrence's online study from December of 2008, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior which concluded that "the more a society is collectivist--that is, the more it values social norms over individual expression--the greater the percentage of homosexual MtF transsexuals, because effeminate, homosexual men are not well tolerated and may fare better as women in accepted transgender roles."

(Though the date is wrong, I suspect the Lawrence work to which he's referring is this one based on her CV:
Lawrence, A. A. (2010). Societal individualism predicts prevalence of nonhomosexual orientation in male-to-female transsexualism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 573-583.
Still attempting to locate an online reference for this article. This is as close as I've managed to get.)

Why does so much of the article seem to focus on MtF transsexuals? Because Bering, in presenting Chaz Bono as a high profile FtM, states that "FtM transsexuals are overwhelmingly homosexual (attracted to women)."

He provides no statistical data nor references no study's conclusions for this statement. Just throws it out there and moves on to MtF with an underlying insinuation that the cultural deviations of the MtF population provide greater social variance for psychological implications of gender research.

As Jesse presents as male, this focal point of familiarity as a foundation from which to launch into the "unknown" of gender variance makes sense. And yet he's entirely disregarded the potential to find familiarity in FtM populations through their psychologically male self-identifications.

But what bothered me the most throughout the course of the article is that nowhere at all was there any postulation about or delineation of the genderqueer and/or transgender identifying populace and its implications regarding the interrelation of sex and gender in societies that encourage individualism.

Complete deletion and erasure. Just lump the gender identity in with the sexual identity, it's the same thing.

Massive train wreck in my brain, ad nauseum.

I understand that everyone's sexual identity and gender identity are unique. I also understand that in many cases they're fluid, variant, and evolve over time-- diverging and converging, fluctuating as a function of self-exploration, understanding, and awareness. Largely because exploration of the unknown is what leads us to discover new means of defining who we are as individuals. Once you've explored the charted territory, you start longer and longer forays into the unknown in attempts to discover a label or definition that doesn't chafe like an ill-fitting wool sweater.

Bering misses that entirely, and blames it on the observation that the effects of culture are so hard to define and study.

Alas, the adage of overthinking it immediately comes to mind.
Because sometimes the answer is so simple that you miss it completely.
I can simplify it for him. The effects of culture are summed up in two words: gender labels.

For me, gender-identifying pronouns have slowly evolved into the equivalent of racial slurs and sexist remarks. Can I safely say that we've all seen people deliberately employing the wrong pronoun for others? Can I safely say that we've all seen people challenging and rejecting the identity of others and engaging blatant biological determinism? How is "but what were you BORN as" any different than "but you're BLACK" or "you don't know what racism is, you pasty-ass cracker."
Please, someone explain this to me.


Alex W. said...

*Secures bubbles*

I don't even bother having discussions regarding trans* people with most (except my mom, who is awesome and helping trans* kids in her school!). In fact, I fight at work just to get people to stop assuming all men and women think the same and have similar behavior traits. Because behaving a certain way obviously makes you a man.

Also, you can't have discussions about genderqueer, because like bisexual men, they don't exist *eye roll*. (Sorry, my favorite article was a study that actually found bisexual men DO exist. Bisexual men everywhere went "Thank God! I do exist!")

Rhi Etzweiler said...

@Alex W. No apologies necessary, I understand precisely where you're coming from.

That "space between" the binary extremes holds so many shades of gray, regardless of whether the label is sexual identity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It's frustrating when it's ignored.
And it's frustrating that it's still presumed that if your gender identity doesn't conform to the socially accepted sexual alignment, you must want to mutilate your body to ensure that it does. Because the pressure to be culturally accepted is that strong.
(...But gee, we scientists have no idea how to go about quantifying the influence of culture for research purposes.)

It is indeed painful to talk about. I doubt I would do so beyond the online venue--with anyone, really, regardless of who they are (I have tried a couple times to ease into the subject, and I always run into the binary mindset like a brick wall).
But I can do it this way, and mediate the emotional impact on myself a bit. And if it creates some visibility, some awareness and transparency, even if only enough to reach one person and trigger some understanding, I'll be content knowing I've had a positive impact.

And props to your mom for doing wonderful things. <3 She rocks.

Kassandra said...

I know that it is within human nature to feel the need to study all aspects of life as if under a microscope. And I am guilty of being openly curious about anything and everything that is different from my cis gendered heterosexual (I think I got that right >.<) POV. But I hope that I do it in the open-minded way I view all things in life. If I fail, you have my permission to slap the shit out of me Rhi!!

My biggest issue with people in general is their need to place everything and everyone into some sort of box. I don't fit into the "normal" parameters. And I sure as hell don't expect anyone else to fit any predetermined mold.

I prefer the view from my tent that has been pitched so far outside of the box for quite some time now ;)

Rhi Etzweiler said...

@Kassandra I have no problem with my public life being under a microscope, so to speak, and I don't have a problem with discussing these sorts of subjects. It boggles my mind how all-consuming the gender binary and gender labels are, so pervasively ingrained in society and culture that the scientists can't see the forest for the trees.

In my mind, transsexuality -- the greater part of what Bering's article discusses -- isn't about gender identity. It's about sexual identity (separate from sexual orientation). Only in situations where individuals perceive sex and gender as equivalent and existing only in the binary could sexual identity and gender identity be perceived as interchangeable. Bering fails. He's admits they aren't equivalent, and then tosses terminology around like it's all the same shit.

Ugh, I hackled so hard reading it. I think I'll go back to reading Popular Science and Jane's Defense *lol*
(Crap, I rambled again, sorry!)

Kassandra said...

@Rhi You have every right and justification to hackle and ramble away. Just from your snippets it sounds as if he didn't really know what he was even talking about. Esp considering he couldn't even be bothered to get dates correct. Poorly written all the way around.

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