Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gender and sex

This weekend, a person I know who will remain anonymous told me that there is a difference between gender and sex. Sex has to do with your physicality, specifically your reproductive organs and chromosomes. Gender has to do with your self identification. So, for example, if you have a Y chromosome and a penis, but you think of yourself as a woman, then your gender is female and your sex is male.

Now, I generally don't like to have arguments over the meaning of words. I'm totally utilitarian when it comes to words. I think their sole purpose is to facilitate communication. What matters is the substance behind your words, i.e. what you actually mean by them. As long as you are clear about what you mean, then you can communicate effectively, even if the other person doesn't prefer to use those same words the way you're using them.

Words would be meaningless sounds or scribblings if we did not invest them with meaning. What gives them their meaning is how we use them and what we mean by them. What makes them capable of facilitating communication is that we have a general consensus on how they are used. Communication would be very difficult if everybody poured a different meaning into their words.

I'm 40 years old, and for as long as I can remember, 'gender' and 'sex' have been used interchangeably. They refer to whether something is male or female, and whether something is male or female depends on its chromosomes and reproductive organs. Now, I understand that over time words can take on new meanings as they are used in new ways. That's why it's hard sometimes to read literature that's over a hundred years old. Some of the words don't mean the same thing then as they do today because people use those words differently today than the did back then. But I wasn't sure if said anonymous person's definition of 'gender' was what was meant by the word all along or if this was something entirely new. So I've been looking at dictionaries on the internet.

Now, I realize a dictionary doesn't determine what a word means. As I said already, words get their meaning from common use. But a good dictionary will try to capture the various ways that words are used. That's why there's usually more than one definition. Words have what's called a "semantic domain," i.e. a range of possible uses. A good dictionary will also order the various uses according to how common they are with the most common use being first and the least common use being last.

After looking at a lot of dictionaries on the internet, it seems like the word "gender" is commonly used in two different contexts--grammar and sex. In grammar, a gender refers to whether a noun, pronoun, or whatever is masculine, feminine, or neuter. For example, "she" is feminine, "he" is masculine, and "it" is neuter. But when gender refers to people, it's synonymous with sex. It just refers to whether a person is male or female. That's it.

So I suspect this idea of making a distinction between 'gender' and 'sex' is meant to accommodate transgendered people--people who identify themselves as being members of one sex but who physically are members of the opposite sex. That way if a man thinks of himself as a woman, he can honestly say his gender is female. Now think how many times you've filled out an application, and it asked you for your "gender." Do you see how this could be useful? I can't prove it, but I'm willing to bet that people who promote making a distinction between "gender" and "sex" do so because they think if we can get everybody to say that a man's gender is female, pretty soon we'll start treating him as if his sex were female as well. That way, he can use the girl's bathroom in public.

I just looked up "transgendered" on wikipedia while writing this, and according to that article, the first time somebody suggested that gender had to do with how one identifies themselves was in 1979. That's farther back than I expected. But I wonder if this new use of the term has really caught on. Considering the fact that I haven't heard it up until now, it can't be that common. And it certainly can't be the meaning of the word.

On the one hand, I can see how it might be useful to adopt this new meaning, though. It's certainly useful to transgendered people. Of course I think if we do adopt it, then we ought to stop using "gender" on applications and switch to "sex" instead just to avoid ambiguity. Most of those applications don't care what's going on in people's heads. They just want to know if the person is actually male or female.

I wonder, though, if more is going on than simply changing the meaning of a word. If transgendered people actually think of themselves as being the opposite sex of what they actually are, then surely there's something ontological at stake. In that case, we might be doing them a disservice to go along with their redefinition.

I have to confess here that I don't understand transgenderism very well. It's not something I've thought much about or read anything about. But it strikes me as incredibly odd because from what I understand, these people aren't so delusional that they actually think they are the opposite sex than what they are. A man with a penis knows he has a male body, so he's got to know he's male. It's not as if when he's taking a shower he looks down there and sees a vagina, and it's not as if he's ignorant about how reproduction works and what the difference is between males and females. But by their own description, they self-identify as the opposite sex. What on earth does that mean? I confess I don't have a clue. If you know you're male, then what does it mean to say you identify yourself or think of yourself as a female? I'm sure it's not as absurd as it sounds to me because these people aren't stupid, but just on the surface, it sounds like they're saying, "I know I'm a man, but I believe I'm a woman." It just sounds like a blatant contradiction to me. So I don't know what men mean when they say they identify as a woman or think of themselves as women.

Now if it really is as absurd in reality as it strikes me at first glance, then I don't think we should go along with this new meaning of 'gender.' If there are men who really think they are women, and vice versa, then these people are deluded, and by going along with their peculiar terminology will just enable them to continue living in their delusion. It would be like somebody who identifies himself as a duck, and we all went along with it and agreed to refer to him as a duck and to swim around in the pond pretending to be a duck. If there really were people who thought they were ducks, wouldn't we just think they were mentally ill? Why is transgenderism any different?

So my only reservation about going along with this new meaning of 'gender' is that I'm not entirely sure we're simply being asked to invest a word with a different definition. I think we're being asked for more than that. We're being asked to really think of these people as male or female wholly apart from their physicality, just as they identify themselves as male or female apart from their physicality. And I can't do that in all honesty. I would just be playing make believe. I'd feel just as silly as if I went along with a person who thought he was a duck. And I don't think we're doing anybody any favors by going along with their delusion. I don't even expect my atheist friends who think I'm delusional for believing in God to go on pretending as if they think God exists.

But I admit my objection may just have to do with the fact that I don't understand what transgenderism is or what's really going on in their heads. I don't understand what it means for a person who considers themselves male when they know good and well that they are female or vice versa. I do know, though, that something is awry when that happens. Whatever is going on, surely we can all agree that there is a mismatch between their mind and their body one way or another.

After googling around a little more just now, I've discovered that some transgendered people seek to have sex changes, and others don't want to have sex changes. I find that very interesting. Apparently, some people who think of themselves as women are perfectly okay with being physical men. I don't get that. I mean I would get it if they just don't want to have surgery because it's expensive and scary, but if you really think of yourself as being female, why would you not want to be, you know, female?