Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gender Conundrum

Here are some paragraphs of a text I am working on regarding gender theory. --- After I published The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality a quarter of a century ago, some of my colleagues began to speak of my commitment to gender studies. While I suspected that they were experiencing some discomfort at embracing the expression “gay studies,” I welcomed the implication that I was participating in a larger endeavor, one that included all orientations.
The World Health Organization states that "'[s]ex' refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women," and "'gender' refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”
Initially then, the distinction between sex and gender seemed useful. But gradually the term gender expanded so as to reduce biological sex to a subordinate - possibly unimportant - role. In this way the distinction between the two terms has become blurred.
In this usage the term gender is relatively new. It stems from realm of grammar. French and Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, for example, have two genders, masculine and feminine, while German and Latin observe three, masculine, feminine, and neuter. (I note parenthetically that these two big language families, Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic, are the only linguistic stocks that recognize gender.) 
Unconsciously perhaps, the trichotomous model became dominant in the extended use of the term, as gender theorists tended to focus on intermediate states. There is also an old term “epicene,” referring to a noun or adjective that could function either as masculine or feminine. The epicene designation may rank as the first bridge from grammar to people, as an epicene man was one perceived as effeminate.
Central to the view of many theorists is the idea that gender is not so much assigned as achieved. This approach has been traced to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that one is not born a woman, but becomes one - a principle that can be applied to all people.
This line of thinking extends to the idea that such specifications are constantly in flux, a postmodern idea. In its turn, this concept fuses with such current distinctions as that between cis and trans people - though it is not entirely clear whether those ensconced in the cis status can readily transition to the other.
At this point I should make it clear that I do not subscribe to this line of thinking, as I maintain that biological sex remains fundamental and cannot be erased by invoking currently fashionable theories. To be specific, I do not believe that, without surgery, a person with a penis can claim the status of a woman. Such individuals remain men.


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