ya’ll versus thee

So Rose asked,

Emily, how do you reconcile broad generalizations about the (two) sexes (and I realize these are just generalizations, not your declaration of how things must be), without subscribing to a gender binary? If someone is a biological female, (whatever that means since chromosomes and body parts don’t always match) should they relate to “women’s” sexuality, even if they identify as a male, or genderqueer? I’ve often wondered about your take on that, since you seem to understand non-binary gender, and you also make generalizations about “men’s” and “women’s” sexuality

and Sara seconded:

How does this apply to transpeople?

Which provides an opportunity for me to try to be articulate about a very, very complicated and problematic issue, about which I have a non-standard opinion.

The answers are that I DON’T reconcile broad generalizations about the sexes without subscribing to the gender binary: at the population level, the gender binary is a perfectly legitimate thing; and the broad generalizations just don’t apply to transpeople, nor do they apply to any individual person, trans, cis, or otherwise. What’s true at the population level isn’t necessarily true about you – and indeed it probably isn’t. A description of the population isn’t a description of any individual in the population.

But that doesn’t mean that descriptions of the population are unimportant or invalid. Superfreakonomics makes the point very clearly:

“…if you added up all the women and men on the planet, you would find that, on average, the typical adult human being has one breast and one testicle – and yet how many people fit that description?… In a complex world where people can be atypical in an infinite number of ways, there is great value in discovering the baseline. And knowing what happens on average is a good place to start. By doing so, we insulate ourselves from the tendency to build our thinking – our daily decisions, our laws, our governance – on exceptions and anomalies rather than on reality.”

If you’re trans, you have the blessing (and sometimes the curse) of not fitting into the culturally constructed boxes provided at the population level. You’ve already had the experience of feeling that cultural expectations about you, based on your body, don’t match your internal sense of self, and that experience is excellent preparation for reading about sex science. Because when I say, “Here’s something that’s true about women,” that doesn’t mean it’s true about a person who is female or a person who identifies as a woman; it doesn’t mean it’s true about ANY individual. It just describes a GROUP known culturally as “women,” while each individual “woman” in that group is different from the group itself. Dig?

We each live in a culture that others share with us. And we each live in a body of our very own. Finding a point of fluid balance between those two is like finding a state of grace. And when you’re trans, that search has been made explicit. When you’re cis, you have the privilege, but also the obstacle, of not having your search for authenticity placed before you so starkly.

So, to sum up: There just ARE gender categories. At the population level, there they are. And there are people. Here we are. Each of us, to varying degrees, fails to fit into those categories. Yet it’s not useful to object to the categories because, in my opinion and meaning no offense, they aren’t going anywhere. We’ll be free of racial categories LONG before we’re free of gender categories, because sex – male and female – is inherent to our species in a way that race is not. With sex goes gender.

But let us never ever confuse the category with the person.

And let us never think that data about a population is data about any individual.

I am not at all convinced that I’ve managed to be clear about this point.

17 responses to “ya’ll versus thee

  1. I think that was pretty clear! I think most people (myself included) have a terrible time distinguishing the group generalization from the individuals who don’t fit neatly in boxes, but you certainly answered my question. Thanks for devoting a whole post to it, too.

  2. I also think that you were pretty clear. As a pretty distinctly non-normative biological male, sometimes reading posts where you make general statements on men’s sexuality makes me bristle (“hey, that doesn’t fit me at all! I feel offended and left out by this!”). I REALLY appreciate this post, it kinda cleared some of that up for me.

  3. One of the advantages (disadvantages) or growing old (Holy Cow, I actually have!) is seeing fads and trends come and go. And while I certainly recognize the cultural and political importance of ideas like ‘gender fluidity’ and multiple categories around gender — and even acknowledging that some of the fuzziness can happen for evolutionarily significant reasons — I think it’s potentially a grave mistake to confuse those things with the basics of biology.

    Emily was magnificently clear. About something quite important.

  4. Thank you. Just thank you. Do you think there is some way we could alert the media? I’m serious, if “science” journalists understood this there’d be a lot less crap getting published.

  5. That was a very clear summary to my eyes! Well said, Emily. It is important to value both the individual and the group experience and to try to separate the two.

  6. Elegantly put, hard though it is to be vigilant about this sort of thing in practice. Experiencing gender as normative is still a big part of the concept. Worrying that you don’t fit the mold, or being prepared to defend the fact that you don’t fit the mold, seems to be a big part of having that societal construct in your head in the first place. It’s kind of perniciously built in.

  7. So…when will Emily generalize me ^_~

  8. Fergus McKinlay

    Greetings from New Zeraland! Tena Koe!

    I am loving your writing and I wanted to respond to this last entry. When it comes to the interaction of generalisation with individuals I like the phrase “informed not knowing”. The idea is that we might gain some knowledge about likelihoods and probabilities from our surveys and research but we never know about the person in front of us. This will be old hat to you but I found the phrase useful to allow a space for me to honour (we use the British spellings here) the knowledge and education and experiences I have had while still being open to the delicious contradictions in myself and others! In practice there seem to be occassions to offer insights to others in front of us with phrases like, “many people find that… what’s that like for you?”

    Anyway. Loving your wairua!


  9. What a wonderful way to sum this up! In a workshop about health education and the LGBT community yesterday, someone asked how health educators can use population-level data (from the CDC, etc) without further marginalizing at-risk communities (racial/ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, etc.). I stumbled through an explanation of the importance of a limited number of categories in data collection but I think I still sounded like a horrible person trying to put people in boxes. I wish I had had worded it more like this!

  10. In other words [I think] there is always a probability [but only ever a probability] that a given gender-generalisation will apply to a given individual, who will have their own unique perspective – but without the ability to make measurable generalisations instead of accumulating incommensurable unique narratives, we can’t have any knowledge worthy of the name [the plural of anecdote is not data].

    Of course, at another level, the problem here is the reader’s/listener’s narcissism – “They can’t say that, because it isn’t true for special little meee!” But hey, where would identity-politics be without a little narcissism, eh?

    • Indeed, the comment, “But that’s not true about ME!” is what prompts me to write posts like this. It’s the sciencey way of saying, “Of course it’s not true about YOU – I wasn’t writing about YOU!”

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  12. I guess one of the problems I have with this is, when will it be true about trans and gender-variant people? I ask because I am a gender-variant cissexual man, and my partner is a trans man, and we have yet to find anything written in hard copy, and precious little online, about how to have good sex. (Not that we mind the opportunity to do our own empirical research.)

    For example, how much I would love to come across a book on queer male sex that acknowledges the possibility that someone could be attracted to a man who is trans and/or femme. It’s like we’re just not sexual beings, and believe me…

    Of course it’s legitimate to write about a cisgender, cissexual majority, but one should acknowledge that’s what one’s doing, and ask oneself why that is, and what silences it contributes to. And one should check to make sure that one’s language isn’t doing injury to people to whom it doesn’t apply.

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