Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Attempting to Define Gender, a Case Study

What is the definition of "woman"?  When I first saw the essay "Are Lesbians Women?" by Jacob Hale [trans man], it piqued my interest, partly because one of the first objections to my gender when I came out as genderqueer was that if I cannot adequately define "woman", I cannot adequately define myself to be outside of "woman".  (One wonders why it would not suggest that, given the allegedly questionable validity of womanhood itself, I could be more easily "allowed" to define myself outside of it, but I digress.)

Pop culturally, trans women are not "real women", but a quick google reveals that cis women can have their "real woman" card revoked as well (though albeit on a somewhat different "no true scotsman" level).  "Are Lesbians Women?" attempts to break down the fundamentals of womanhood into a list of what society has generally agreed are the criteria.  Jacob Hale is quick to point out that no one single item on the list is "necessary or sufficient", meaning you can generally leave one off and still be included within the category of "woman" by society, but if you can only count one in your favor you are not included.  For example: while "identifies as a woman" should be necessary and sufficient for womanhood, society rejects that criterion as such.

1. Absence of a penis
2. Presence of breasts
3. Presence of reproductive organs which allow for pregnancy to occur
4. Presence of estrogen and progesterone in balance with androgens within "normal" range
5. Presence of XX, or perhaps absence of Y, chromosomes
6. Having a gender identity as a woman
7. Having an occupation considered to be acceptable for a woman
8. Engaging in leisure pursuits considered to be acceptable for a woman
9. Engaging in some sort of sexual/affectional relationship with a man who is commonly recognized as heterosexual
10. Achieving and maintaining a physical gender self-presentation the elements of which work together to produce the gender assignment "woman"
11. Behaving in ways to produce the gender assignment "woman"
12. Giving textual [documentation] cues that work together to produce the gender assignment "woman"
13. Having an unbroken history consistent with the gender assignment "woman"

Notice that, thanks to the work of feminists, some of these categories have been so expanded as to include most people of any gender, particularly #s 7 and 8, and 10 and 11 to a lesser extent.  Perhaps that's what my well-meaning friends are saying when they insist that I do not fall outside of sufficient criteria, because to a certain extent I cannot fall outside a criteria which encompasses nearly everything.  However, as it stands, I only fully satisfy some of these requirements at this point (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12),  others are satisfied/unsatisfied in different ways at different stages of my life (7, 8, 9, 10, 11), and I definitely do not satisfy a few obvious ones (6, 13).  It becomes even more complex when one realizes that #s 1-5 cannot be verified as fact by others without an intimate understanding of my medical history.

What about "lesbian" - can that be a gender identity in its own right independent of woman?  (Yes, anything can be a gender identity. And no, claiming your gender identity is "squirrel" doesn't make you cute, it makes you a jerk.)  How many criteria of "woman" can one violate and still be "lesbian"?  For example, a genderqueer friend satisfies #s 7, 8, 11; partially satisfies 10; and does not satisfy 1-5 or 9.  They also answer #6 as "identifies as lesbian" (among other gender labels).

There are many questions yet unanswered:  How "woman" is "woman enough"?  How many criteria must one meet before one is "real"; how many criteria must one violate before one is "fake"?  How do we take into account the different ways different people rank the importance of different criteria?  How do we allow for the ways that race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality, regional location, etc influence the threshold of each criterion?  To whom do we defer authority to answer these and further questions on authentic womanhood, and how do we process dissent?  Certainly Jacob Hale was in no position to answer all of these, and certainly I am neither, but that's the way I rather prefer it to be.