I think one thing that I have learned from 2020 is that I will never be able to unlearn anger. I used to be the world’s greatest advocate for conflict avoidance, beholden to the tantalizing ideal of not rocking the boat (a skill I learned as a defense mechanism). But as hatred comes crawling out of the woodworks under the most brazen societal and political upheaval of my lifetime, I can’t just look away whenever termites scuttle in the corners of my vision. My own internalized ignorance can’t be internal; I can’t coexist with the micro aggressions I chose to turn a blind eye to. I can’t hear the n-word on my grandfather’s lips. I can’t ignore the fat-shaming comments thrown casually while watching TV. I can’t subscribe to the narrative that hard work is the only difference between those who are marginalized and those who are financially secure. If I don’t challenge those thoughts, ones that lurk in dissonance with my intuition, how do I call myself a good person? Or even a moral one?
This extends far past me and weaves itself into every issue of social justice I can think of but today, I want to talk about transphobia. If I were making a snappy Instagram post, maybe I would title this something like “Common Transphobic Arguments (And How to Shut Them Down),” but like everything in my brain, there are so many nuances to consider that I can’t write something like that without feeling like an a**hole. I think we all feel a lot of pressure to know what we believe. But I also think that there is underrated value in sharing our uncertainties and our lessons. 2020 has been a year of moral upheaval for me, and I don’t think anybody benefits from acting like personal values are stationary.
So, taking into consideration the personal turmoil of 2020, the time I’ve spent listening, learning and arguing, and the crippling amount of self-awareness I’m afflicted and blessed with, here are some things I’ve learned about gender and sex that I often repeat to myself and to other people to challenge the sexism, toxic masculinity and transphobia that seems to be built into so much of the messaging we are inundated with from birth.
Biological sex is not binary
Biological sex includes things like your genitals, your naturally occurring hormones and the particular chromosomes you possess. This is simplified into ‘male’ and ‘female’ because the overwhelming majority of people are easily categorizable from before they’re born by whether they develop a penis or a vagina. Setting aside not having easily categorizable genitals (being intersex), biological sex is not two distinct options of chromosomes. One in every 400 to 500 newborns are not just “XX” or “XY.” Additionally, hormones, while following general patterns based on binary sex, vary vastly between individuals depending on a wide array of factors or disorders. For example, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), is marked in part by high levels of androgyne, and PCOS is incredibly common, affecting between 6 and 12% of US women of reproductive age.
Biological sex is not the same as gender, and gender experience is not uniform
Sex is a distinction made by looking at basic reproductive functions. Gender is the complex social and cultural overlay for simple biological sex. That includes gender roles, norms, stereotypes, expression and all of the complicated negatives and positives that arise from the way people see their own gender and other people’s gender. When you talk about being a woman, you do not only think of having a vagina and breasts. You also are speaking of the experiences of sexism, pressures of having children, wage inequality, feelings of sisterhood or daughterhood and a vast array of others. Yours might be different from mine because you grew up with five brothers while I grew up with a sister; yours might be different because you were sexually abused, or because you went to a single-gender school, or because you had a mastectomy, or because you don’t have menstrual cycles. Nobody can even begin to generalize what being a woman is, because everybody who is a woman, whether they’re biologically female or not, has a unique experience.
Sex matters medically and sexually, neither of which are really your business
Gender is more important than biological sex to most people. Your genitals, your hormones and your tissues are assigned disproportionate importance when discussing transgender issues. In reality, genitals only matter to you, the person you are engaging in sexual activity with and your doctor. There is no practical benefit to caring about someone’s biological sex outside of those scenarios. In fact, putting a lot of emphasis on someone’s ability to bear children, have vaginal intercourse, menstruate, get an erection and all the other ‘sex’ things that may be different depending on gender often crosses into abusive, sexist or ableist thinking. Calling a trans woman less of a woman because she cannot have biological children is not only rude, it is also demeaning to those with infertility, same-sex couples and more, and assumes that value as a human being is defined by the ability to be a parent. Additionally, as I’ve mentioned, the experience of being a gender involves so many things outside of sex characteristics that nine times out of ten, when you speak about the importance of sex, you’re actually talking about the importance of your experience with gender, which is valuable but definitely not universal.
Gender matters a lot to some people and less to others
There is no particular value in how much or how little a person cares about their gender or gender expression. Caring about gender and being a gender are not related. It is not morally wrong to care less or more about gender or sex. It is simply different.
Gender expression does not have to line up with gender
In the same way cisgender men do not have to have short hair or wear khakis to be cis guys, nobody is under any ethical obligation to present themselves any particular way. It might feel good to you to use traditionally feminine or masculine or androgynous expressions, but your gender expression is not your gender. If you are a woman, you don’t have to wear makeup to prove it. If you are nonbinary, you don’t have to be perfectly androgynous to make it easier on other people. Sex, gender and gender expression don’t have to fit into a neat, monochromatic box to be real.
It is hard to change your brain. But there is so much benefit to learning to respect other people
I want to be the kind of person other people feel safe and respected around, whether or not they like me. I have found a lot of satisfaction in learning about what I can do to make that personal goal come true, and I have found a lot of frustration in learning that my values and my thought patterns are not just a matter of sheer will. I can’t say that it costs nothing to respect other people, because I believe that true respect requires effort and discomfort. But I will not shy away from things that are right because they’re uncomfortable. I will try to learn and to challenge my beliefs. I will respect my own sex, gender, and gender expression and those of others. And I hope that you do the same, and I hope we keep talking about it.