The bounds of human culture

Pioneer_plaqueWe live in a Whiggish age, and on the Left side of the cultural spectrum there is always the demand for the eternal revolution to march forward and transform our society. Three years ago The New Republic published America’s Next Great Civil Rights Struggle, about transgender individuals. In some ways this makes logical sense, as arguably transgender individuals are the next step beyond equal rights for people of homosexual orientation. I have argued before that scope of “social justice” in terms of personal liberation is becoming narrower, and narrower. Expanding the possibilities for women affected half the population. Expanding the possibilities for African Americans affected 10 percent of the population. Expanding the possibilities for gays and lesbians affected somewhere around 5 percent of the population, being generous with the numbers. Transgender individuals are an even smaller proportion of the population, and yet a great deal of cultural energy is now going into addressing their concerns. Some of them, such as basic safety and protection from violence, are common sense matters of human decency which I believe most people can support wholeheartedly. But other aspects of acknowledging the transgender experience require a re-evaluation of basic elements of language and social expectation. Not only will many Americans resist, I believe it is a quixotic enterprise, because though a small proportion of individuals express disjunction between their sex and gender, the vast majority do not. Many social norms did not emerge to impose a binary of sexuality, but reflect it.

To illustrate the problems, an NPR piece The End Of Gender?

To chronicle her adventures in gender-neutral parenting, Arwyn Daemyir writes a blog called Raising My Boychick. She describes herself as “a walking contradiction: knitting feminist fulltime parent, Wiccan science-minded woowoo massage therapist, queer-identified male-partnered monogamist, body-loving healthy-eating fat chick, unmedicated mostly-stable bipolar.”

She describes her boychick, born in March 2007, as a “male-assigned at birth — and so far apparently comfortable with that assignment, white, currently able-bodied, congenitally hypothyroid, cosleeper, former breastfed toddler, elimination communication graduate, sling baby and early walker, trial and terror, cliched light of our life, and impetus for the blog. Odds are good he will be the most privileged of persons: a middle class, able bodied, cisgender, straight, white male.”

The adjective cisgender — as opposed to transgender — describes someone who is at peace with the gender he or she was assigned at birth.

Daemyir lives in Portland, Ore. She and her straight male partner are expecting another baby in September.

For Daemyir, gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to eliminate gender, “because the 70s’-era gender neutral parenting movement proved that’s not possible.”

The last is important. The late 1960s to early 1980s witnessed a great deal of experimentation in the counter-culture movements. In some ways the bounds of sexuality were more expansive than today, witness the sexual abuse at Horace Mann, which many admit were less shocking during that period when people were experimenting with the bounds of sexual behavior. Or, the support for pedophilia in some mainstream circles (see the arc of the expulsion of NAMBLA from association with mainstream gay rights organizations). We have plenty of empirical evidence of what doesn’t, and does, work (there was a similar period of experimentation in the early 19th century in Upstate New York, out of which came the Mormons).

Pieces which espouse the end of gender reflect a cultural mood in certain sectors, no more. The reality is that there are strong biological parameters to human cultural expression. There are differing levels of sexual egalitarianism across societies, but some sexual differentiation is obligate by dint of our biology, which expresses in concrete physical terms (pregnancy) as well as behavioral tendencies. Culture can both increase and dampen these differences, but they can not abolish them. A small number of individual are transgender in a straightforward sense. But the vast majority of humans don’t benefit from lack of acknowledgement of their biological realities. Or least the tendency to pretend as if the dominant modes of expression are just one among equal modes.

300px-Tiresias_striking_the_snakesA genuinely radical take on the idea of gender and sex would be to attack the biology directly: the Tiresias option, where individuals can choose their sex facultatively over their lifetime. That is, one could “experiment” with living a life as the opposite sex, and then also have the option of “changing back.” This model does not negate biology, but embraces it. And, I think it would be a much more genuine challenge to the two sex binary which is universal in human societies.* But I see few radicals talking about this realistically.

* I am aware of “third sexes/genders” in many cultures, but these are marginal to the two primaries.

Posted in Uncategorized

Comments are closed.