Tag Archives: third gender

Gender News, Gender Views


Debbie says:

I feel like I keep up pretty well with changes in the areas of California law that interest me, but the fact that my state seems about to make it legal to register as a person with a nonbinary third gender completely snuck up on me. And what a delightful surprise in the middle of the 2017 experience of keeping track of the news.

The law has passed the California Senate and is in committee hearings in the Assembly. A final yes vote is expected “by the end of summer,” and it seems likely that Governor Brown will sign.

Questioned on whether the legislation will cover such identities as bigender, cisgender, intersex, trans and two-spirit, [Jo Michael, Legislative Manager for Equality California] added that female, male and non-binary options will “cover pretty much everyone.”

Earlier this month, Oregon became the first state to allow a third gender option on government issued ID cards.

This is truly a huge sea change, and if it does pass in California, I predict that it’s likely to spread fairly quickly through the blue states. I also predict legal issues (and probably harassment) when someone with a third-gender California or Oregon drivers’ license goes to Mississippi, or Texas, or Arkansas. This is how change happens.


Before I saw that news, I had already bookmarked the amazing Julia Serano‘s piece “Debunking Trans Women Are Not Women Arguments,” posted on Medium. Serano is one of the clearest thinkers, and most organized writers who tackles gender, and this essay is no exception. Body Impolitic has blogged her writing a couple of times.

Like women more generally, many trans women are feminists. Feminism and transgender activism are not in any way incompatible or mutually exclusive. As feminists who acknowledge intersectionality, we believe that we should be fighting to end all forms of sexism and marginalization — this includes both traditional sexism and transphobia. Forcing trans women into a separate group that is distinct from cis women does not in any way help achieve feminism’s central goal of ending sexism.

After clarifying her terms and setting the stage, Serano systematically sets up and knocks down

  • the “biological woman” fallacy
  • the Caitlyn Jenner fallacy
  • the “male energy” and “male privilege” fallacies

Male privilege is a very real thing. In my book Whipping Girl, I talk at length about my own personal experiences of having it, and subsequently losing it post-transition. However, not every trans woman experiences male privilege (e.g., younger transitioners). Furthermore, the whole purpose of talking about privilege (whether it be male, white, middle/upper-class, able-bodied, or straight privilege, to name a few) is to raise awareness about the advantages that members of the dominant/majority group experience due to the fact that they do not face a particular type of sexism or marginalization. And the fact that the trans-women-aren’t-women crowd constantly harp about trans women’s real or imagined male privilege, yet refuse to acknowledge or examine their own cisgender privilege, demonstrates that their concerns about privilege are disingenuous, and that they are merely using the concept in order to delegitimize trans women’s identities and lived experiences as women.

  • the “trans women as caricatures of women” fallacy
  • the “brain differences” fallacy
  • the Rachel Dolezal fallacy
  • the “trans women refuse to acknowledge any distinction” fallacy

Here’s part of Serano’s conclusion:

There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when many heterosexual feminists wanted to similarly exclude lesbians from women’s organizations and from feminism. The justifications that they forwarded were eerily similarly to trans-women-aren’t-women arguments: They accused lesbians of being “oppressively male” and of “reinforcing the sex class system” (see earlier Twitter thread). If you read the Wikipedia article I linked to earlier in this paragraph, you will find that lesbians fought back against such accusations. They didn’t do this because they believed that they were 100 percent identical to heterosexual feminists. They did it because some feminists were attempting to exclude them from feminism and the category of woman. Just like those who forward trans-women-aren’t-women arguments are attempting to do to us now.

Trans women are women. Trans men are men. And nonbinary people are neither. It isn’t complicated–and it’s only threatening if you are convinced that you are threatened when someone walks in the world differently than you do — and you don’t want to give them the respect of believing their truth.

Gender Binary Exposed Again; Replaced (or Not) with Neuroscience Binary

Debbie says:

I found a lot to appreciate in Robert Sapolsky’s thoughtful essay, “Caitlyn Jenner and Our Cognitive Dissonance,” published last week in Nautilus.

Sapolsky’s piece is in two parts. The first is an overview of why gender isn’t binary, and how complicated gender really is. Some examples:

For starters there’s plants, a number of which are “monoecious,” which is to say that any given plant has both female and male organs (those stamens and pistils). Things are stranger with animals. There are parthenogenic species, where females reproduce without males—numerous reptiles fall in this category, including the incomparably cool Komodo dragon. There are synchronous hermaphrodites where, like monoecious plants, an individual has both sexes’ organs simultaneously. This includes worms, sea cucumbers, snails, and sea bass.

Then there’s spotted hyenas, gender-bending pseudo-hermaphrodites. It’s nearly impossible to determine the sex of a hyena by just looking, as females are big and muscular (due to higher levels than males of some androgenic hormones), have fake scrotal sacs, and enlarged clitorises that can become as erect as the male’s penis. None of which was covered in The Lion King.

That section goes on to examine gender in humans:

The sine qua non of human sex designation in humans is chromosomal—all your cells either have two X chromosomes, making you female, or one X and one Y, making you male. End of story. But no: Instead, there’s various chromosomal disorders where individuals can be XYY, XXY, XXX, X, or XXYY. Most result in infertility; some, like Turner syndrome (in which there is solely an X) produce neurological, metabolic, endocrine, and cardiovascular abnormalities. …

[t]here’s numerous ways where chromosomal sex and phenotypic sex differ, accounting for 1 percent of births. This is not rare—pick a human at random and the odds are greater that they were born with ambiguous intersex genitals than they have an IQ greater than 140.

Perhaps the most interesting dissociation occurs one step further down the line. This is where the person has the chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitals, and secondary sexual characteristics—hair, voice, musculature, facial structure, the works—of one sex. But has always felt like the other.

This is the transgendered world, and some intriguing science hints at its neurobiological bases. There are a number of places in the human brain that are “sexually dimorphic” (where the size, structure, function, and/or chemical makeup of the area differ by sex). The differences aren’t big enough so that you could identify someone’s sex just by knowing the size of one of those regions.

And a clear conclusion …

In other words, it’s not that transgendered individuals think they are a different gender than they actually are. It’s that they’ve had the profoundly crappy luck to be stuck with bodies that are a different gender from who they actually are.

Slowly, a word becomes pertinent—“continuum.” Gender in humans is on a continuum, coming in scads of variants, where genes, organs, hormones, external appearance, and psychosexual identification can vary independently, and where many people have categories of gender identification going on in their heads (and brains) that bear no resemblance to yours. All with a frequency that, while rare, are no rarer than various human traits we label as “normal.”

On a side note, this article comes to a very closely related conclusion about sexual orientation, as opposed to gender identification. “The difference that jumps out at me right away is the new appreciation for “fluidity.” The binary view of male sexual orientation that dominated the field a decade ago has softened. Back then, there was real skepticism about men who reported being anything other than heterosexual or homosexual. After all, lab data tended to suggest that their arousal — which effectively defines sexual orientation in men — was either to male erotica or to female erotica, but not to both.”


Sapolsky and I part company in the second part of his piece, when he discusses human neurobiology and how he claims it locks us in to binary impressions of gender, even though he has just convincingly shown that binary gender is incorrect.

… we think categorically. And dichotomized gender is one of the strongest natural categories the brain has. The categorization is crazy fast—neuroimaging studies show the brain processes faces according to gender, within 150 milliseconds—that’s 150 thousandths of a second—before there’s conscious awareness of gender.

He illustrates this with a study dividing up various categories based on photos of basketball players. The study, for which he does not provide a reference, apparently demonstrated that jersey color overrides race as a category, but gender overrides jersey color. Because there’s no reference (and Google searching doesn’t yield anything obvious), there’s no way to tell how big this study was, how it was conducted, or any of the other ways we separate junk science from useful science.

What bothers me more is that even if this was a huge study, with great double blinds, superb statistics, and unimpeachable methodology (wanna bet?), it still has an obvious flaw: it’s single-culture. It’s about contemporary Western, probably American, sports. It doesn’t take into account the cultures that already don’t operate on a simple binary gender model. Hijras in India, berdache among Native Americans: just two examples of nonbinary gender expectations that — wow! — the brains of the people in those cultures learned (probably early, probably automatically) to recognize and accept.

Not to mention that even in the majority of cultures that do categorize gender as binary, all of them have different lines along which gender distinctions are drawn. In my lifetime, seeing a person in long pants has changed from becoming a gender marker to becoming gender-irrelevant in my U.S. culture. So has seeing a person with long hair. If recognizing gender is hard-wired and unchangeable, how have I changed those two clues inside my brain? I’ve watched young children figuring out gender, asking questions, making mistakes, learning contexts. I’ve listened to elderly native Chinese speakers, having spoken English for sixty years and completely fluent, be unable to “correctly” use gender pronouns. I see the exact same phenomenon in a friend who had a bad stroke.

Sapolsky is putting way too much weight on a few bits of neurological data, and ignoring the vast range of data which don’t fit his thesis. He says,

It’s difficult to imagine, though, any strong selective pressure against our brain’s automatic binary categorization by gender—it can be handy when it comes to that evolutionarily relevant goal of finding a mate. Accepting the fragility of that categorization requires some heavy lifting by the neocortex, the recently evolved, egg-heady part of the brain that is tasked with assimilating the information in an article like this. In 35 years, most of us will still be sniffing at crotches, asking, Boy or girl?

I agree with him that the industrialized world is not going to stop trying to fit people into “women” and “men” any time especially soon. And I even agree that there are evolutionary advantages to knowing “boy or girl”? At the same time, I believe that we can change that, and that the possibility of that change, and the seeds of how it can happen, and is happening, are everywhere if we look for them.