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.