50 Years of Gender Bending and Sex Changing

50 Years of Gender Bending and Sex Changing

John Stoltenberg

 

When historians look back at our era centuries from now, what will they make of the dramatic revolution we’ve seen in the last 50 years in how we humans conceptualize our sexedness and genderedness?

The evidence for that revolution is all around us. Going back to the 1960s, the counterculture and pop culture turned something then called androgyny into exuberant art and everyday play. In recent decades the experiences of proud transfolk have come to the fore in the media as never before. And the words one can use to identify themself —once only male and female—now includes genderqueer, nonbinary, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, plus a lengthening list of other terms that bespeak a sex-and-gender pluralism never before seen. Even the fact that I can meaningfully use the word themself in that sentence—referring to a single gender-unspecified “one”—is a sign of these new times.

Like every revolution worthy of the name, this one has been met with a reactionary counterrevolution with a vehemence (and sometimes violence) intended to rebuke (and sometimes punish) adherents of this unwanted trend. It is a cultural backlash (backed up by force) intending to interrupt and stall the revolution’s momentum and return to yesteryear’s rigid roles and rules about who is a real man and who is a real woman. It would be no exaggeration to say that what’s happening, around sex and gender, is analogous to the way pro-democracy movements in repressive societies are met with totalitarian crackdown. For make no mistake: Patriarchy’s historically hierarchical construction of the gender binary is the very template of totalitarianism.

For many of us who have been inspired by feminism’s vision of liberation and equality—who seek a future devoid of human-over-human domination and aspire to an ethic of loving justice—it is as if we live as combatants in an ongoing war against male supremacy, a battle whose advances can be tracked, whose retreats and retrenchments can be assessed, whose troops can be regrouped, and whose outcome right now is anyone’s guess.

Feminism has been a significant driver of the dramatic new insights about human sex and gender that are now so hotly (and sometimes hatefully) contested. For instance, when feminism (broadly construed as the liberation of women from male-pattern domination) first made possible a woman’s self-possession—literally extricating her body from its historical status as a man’s property—a change began that was to overthrow ownership-based models of sex and gender. When feminism first made possible a woman’s right to choose—rescuing her reproductive capacity from under a man’s control—a change began that was to open life options that previous biology-based conceptions of sex and gender had foreclosed. When feminism first began to equalize the workplace—breaking down sex-discriminatory barriers that subordinated women and privileged men—a change began that was to level the field for accomplishment and employment for millions and in so doing upend economic-based stereotypes about sex and gender. When feminism first began to confront rape as sexualized hatred—an act of power and control that can trigger a rapist’s erection, and be a war crime against women—a change began that was to challenge every received presumption (“if it turns me on it can’t be wrong”) about eroticism-based models of sex and gender.

In these ways, and more, feminism can be credited with shaking loose to the core how we think about sex and gender, thus how we inhabit our own bodies, thus how we behold and treat one another. In countless everyday instances, whether we are consciously aware or not, the social changes incited by feminism can be seen to cohere as a real politics of egalitarian liberation up against a real politics of elitist tyranny.

All of this has taken place alongside (and sometimes in tandem with) a progressive politics up against crimes of economic injustice by the system of ownership, exploitation, and profit. So powerful and insidious is this system that is can poison empathy, despoil compassion, and manufacture hate – a contaminant of contempt that spreads evermore horizontally and downwardly and leaves the privileged unperturbed.

This has also taken place alongside, and sometimes in tandem with, a real civil rights and #BlackLivesMatter politics up against the crimes of white supremacy. Among the most profound contributions of that movement is one of particular relevance to this discussion: the insight that the concept of “race” has no definitional material content; it does not exist in human nature as a meaningful category with ascribable parameters. Race is entirely a social/political construction, and it is solely human-to-human hate —racism—that constructs and polices the category “black,” in order to boundary and exclusively privilege the category “white.”

Without hate, there would be no black or white.

Similarly, without hate there would be no male or female.

Perhaps that second sentence comes as a shock. It shouldn’t and it needn’t. As Andrea Dworkin articulated in her 1974 book, Woman Hating, there is no sex binary in the human species; there exists no essential division of humans – material or ontological or biological –  into two discrete, fixed, and absolute categories of so-called sex. As she put it (in a passage that changed my life),

The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both.

The discovery is inescapable:

We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete. [The italics are hers.]

Those words would of course be anathema to male supremacists intent on maintaining their powers, privileges, and prerogatives as men—who aspire to be real men and believe themselves entitled as real men. Meanwhile the operative meanings of the words real and men in that or any sentence have been eroding and washing away in the wake of feminism like sandy shores during a tsunami.

Currently at the vanguard of the feminist revolutionary assault on male supremacy are those who see gender itself to be an obstacle to human liberation, because it is a hierarchical category system designed and built in the interests of patriarchy, whose destructive reign on the planet is long past its term limit. I agree with this position, as one might suppose from the titles of my books (Refusing to Be a Man and The End of Manhood). If, as I believe, it is misogyny that constructs the category “women” so that the category “men” can have concrete and exclusionary meaning, then to eliminate that misogyny and liberate all those oppressed by it (including folks who are treated like women, irrespective of their birth assignment), the binary gender categories themselves have got to go.

Easier said than done, of course. As fervently as that future might be wished for, no wave of a magic wand will get us there, and the opposition is well resourced and fueled by a global fury that any two-bit demagogue can inflame. The collective gender anxiety of men’s rights advocates alone would annihilate this revolution if it could.

But I see huge hope today in the currents of the revolution now going on in how we conceptualize human sexedness and genderedness, especially the multiplicity of self-identifications now emerging. There are those who still conceptualize sex as an essential binary but do see gender as an optional variety. And there are those who see no reason to hold on to anything binary at all, meaning both sex and gender are conceptualizable as fluidities, evidence of our species’ intrinsic and kaleidoscopic multisexuality.

At the moment, these two differing philosophical positions, both inspired by and strongly allied with feminism, are skirmishing over a relatively recent question having to do with trans women (trans men seem not to prompt the same contretemps): Are trans women counterrevolutionary because they “reify” gender, thereby undermining the revolution that’s specially supposed to liberate women who were assigned female at birth? Or—as the intersectional rejoinder to that perspective goes—are trans women as fully entitled to inclusion in the movement to liberate women as are all other women who have been marginalized on account of multiple oppressions?

A way out of this feminist conundrum has emerged, an egalitarian notion of radical inclusivity applied to matters of sex and gender. It is a perspective that sees trans folk as unheralded heroes of the larger resistance movement against male supremacy, because they bear vivid witness to real-life victimization under violent impositions of the gender binary that many folks experience. Far from undermining the feminist critique of gender as hierarchy, their survivor testimony underscores and amplifies it.

Every one of us bears the trauma of male supremacy. And to the extent that more and more people feel free to live outside binary sex and gender mandates—to the extent that there are more and more genders and there are as many sexes as there are people—and to the extent that more and more people recognize their own stake in eliminating male supremacy and its mandates—that may be humanity’s most promising hope right now to explode the fiction of the sex binary and tear down the hierarchy of gender.

 

John Stoltenberg, a long-time activist against sexual violence and a radical-feminist philosopher of gender, is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, The End of Manhood: Parables of Sex and Selfhood, and many articles and essays. He is also a novelist (GONERZ), playwright, creative director, communications strategist, and theater reviewer. With trans feminist Cristan Williams, he contributes to an ongoing conversation about “the radical inclusivity of radical feminism” at The Conversations Project. He lives in Washington, DC. He tweets as @JohnStoltenberg.

14 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 03, 2016

    This is a lazy, incoherent piece. Shame to the editors for allowing nonsense like this pass for critical scholarship. The solipsism and unabashed disregard for facts is shocking. Sex and gender are not the same thing, yet to read this it is clear the author has not thought about this fact much. He calls himself a feminist and then reduces woman to a thought, the female body a choice.

    “And to the extent that more and more people feel free to live outside binary sex and gender mandates—to the extent that there are more and more genders and there are as many sexes as there are people—and to the extent that more and more people recognize their own stake in eliminating male supremacy and its mandates.”

    Does the author realise that he has teamed up with a major harasser of females—that Williams cyberstalks and writes defamatory articles about women? Does this author realise that there are not, in fact, “as many sexes as there are people”? This might sound poetic on a Hallmark card, but the reality is that Mr. Stoltenberg misses the whole point of what sex is about. There are not billions of sexes. There just aren’t.

    Mr. Stoltenberg is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. I am rather embarrassed that such a piece was allowed for publication. Shame on the editors for kowtowing to such nonsense. There are dozens of scholars in the sciences and humanities who have fresher, far better researched, positions on this matter. It is clear that all Mr. Stoltenberg has here is the legacy of his friend that he has soiled.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    March 03, 2016

    This is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions of gender and sexuality I’ve read. The revolution that is occurring right now, spearheaded primarily (but not exclusively) by those born a generation later than me, has helped me in my own quest to heal wounds inflicted by people who were desperate to hang onto those constrictive binary constructs. It isn’t only the heterosexual male patriarchy that fears these changes (although John’s descriptions of the origins of that fear [and hatred] are spot on). I’ve seen drag queens excoriate trans women from the stage and lesbians who despise trans men, insisting they’re just butch lesbians who betrayed them and joined the patriarchy. I believe such anger comes from resentment—perhaps over what they see as younger people throwing away what they themselves fought so hard to make acceptable or even because they hadn’t known or thought they were allowed to go that far. John was one of the first men to call these constructs artificial. Andrea Dworkin may have written it first (and she remains a giant in the ongoing discussions of male privilege), but it should be acknowledged that a man (and I mean John) who says this is making a bold choice to give up any privilege his outward appearances may have afforded him. That takes guts. For someone like me, a “male-looking,” “heterosexual” “man” who lives smack dab in the middle of what he learned (with gratitude) to see as the gender spectrum, it is a relief now to see the notion of the spectrum dissolving, to see gender described as fluid, mutable, and not necessarily defined—if that’s the way an individual experiences it, as I do. Nearly 30 years ago I was confronted by a team of therapists (at a rehab, where I was being treated for anorexia nervosa) who thought they were doing me a great favor by telling me I was gay. They said, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” I was devastated, not because I feared being gay—I had prayed to be gay, I had already tried to be gay, in attempts to explain my effeminacy to myself (and make it easier to explain it to others or, more be more accurate, remove the need to)—but because I knew they were wrong and couldn’t explain how or why. I left that rehab determined to do everything they told me to do, because I knew my life was in danger, so I tried again to make myself be attracted to men. It just didn’t work, and I was desperately confused. It was only some years later, when I befriended a trans woman (we said “transsexual” back then) who said, “If they’re going to say something that stupid, they’d better [expletive] know what a duck looks like,” that I began to understand that sexuality and gender aren’t always connected. It was a tremendous relief to me and took me a good distance down the path toward healing. Now it’s even more of a relief to know that they needn’t necessarily be defined. I’m in debt to John (with whom I’ve been having this discussion for a long time, if sporadically) and to this young generation of “thems” (I haven’t figured out the grammar yet) who are brave enough not to give a damn what us old farts think. I’m learning a lot from them.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    March 04, 2016

    John Stollenburg, “inclusive radical feminist” defender of the right to exist outside the binary, may I ask you a question??? A really important question . How are you standing against people who push the idea of compulsory binary “congruence” on small children . Against the ” wrongbody ” ideology which pre- judges that children with non gender- conforming behaviours bodies will not work for them , and that their perverse fences and expression necessitate whole body medical pathologization ? How do you respond to the homophobia and ambiguity – intolerant suicide – panic which decides that medical disruption of sexual and identity development ( at an age before non binary identities have even had a chance to emerge ) is a reasonable response to nonconformity. How do you respond to raising children from toddlerhood as ” wrong bodied “, and making paternalistic decisions which obliterate responsive sex hormone systems before children have even developed into adolescents who can understand the value of chemistry and to integrate their nonconforming bodies and identity into rich embodied identity?

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 05, 2016

      You seem to be implying that there is an epidemic of parents forcing transition on their children. This is not a thing. You also seem to be assuming that trans kids who seek hormone blockers are somehow evidence of said epidemic. Also not a thing.

      Reply

    • Avatar
      March 05, 2016

      Thanks for your question. I’ll try to answer. I see coercive medicalized imposition of the sex binary on infants and children—including IGM (intersex genital mutilation)—as part of the counterrevolution I describe in my third paragraph. And I share what I think is your hope for a world where no one’s embodied identity is contingent on sex-binary conformity. Meanwhile we don’t live in that world, and parents are making decisions for nonconforming children who are under the age of consent that can be seen as either about surviving the world we’re in or about perpetuating the world as it is. Personally I cannot make sweeping judgements about all such choices as being at fault for maintaining that which the parent is trying to help the child survive. Life is too hard and life is too complicated and compassion is in short supply.

      Reply

    • Avatar
      March 05, 2016

      Every person/child is different.
      There is no one size fits all.
      When it comes to raising children.
      Whether that child be gender confirming or not.
      Obviously it takes more effort to raise children who fall out of the hetro/gender binary.

      Reply

    • Avatar
      March 05, 2016

      I’m not John Stoltenberg (obviously) but I posted this elsewhere and he asked me to share it here:

      I think there’s reason to be incredibly worried about the recent trend of parents “accepting” their very young children as trans and raising them as the opposite sex with the expectation that they’ll physically transition by or after puberty. The main reason for this is that while some of these children might legitimately be trans, our society is far too homophobic and far too sexist for it to be a wise decision to trust parents when they say that they “just know” that their young child is “really” a girl (if born male) or a boy (if born female). It even seems, now, like there is a tendency towards some parents deciding that their young child who exhibits non-gender-normative traits or behaviours must really be the opposite gender because they find that more acceptable than having an effeminate (and presumed to grow up to be gay) son or a masculine (and presumed to grow up to be lesbian) daughter.

      We know that a lot of children go through phases of wanting to be the opposite sex, or thinking that they were meant to be the opposite sex – particularly children who grow up to be gay adults – because small children are indoctrinated with an understanding of what it means to “be” a girl or a boy that is founded in sexist stereotypes. So when a little girl would rather play with toys meant for boys, or have short hair, or whatever, that’s often going to make her “want to be a boy” because she’s being raised to believe that only boys are allowed to do those things – and vice versa for a boy who’s more interested in his sister’s barbie dolls than playfighting with other boys or whatever. So when parents start interpreting that kind of talk or behaviour from their children as a sincere expression of their child’s “gender identity” being the opposite of the sex they were born into, that can be a very dangerous thing. I honestly think that if this trend carries on the way it seems to now – certainly in the US, but it’s happening where I live, too – we’re going to be seeing a lot of traumatised young people coming to terms with having been “made trans” by their parents a few years from now when the current generation of trans children grows up. It’s a very worrying thing, and I think there isn’t nearly enough discussion about to what extent restrictive gender roles might be the cause of the problem for a majority of the kids now assumed to be “trans”. And as a transsexual man who is a feminist I think trans people have a responsibility to address these issues, because at this point I’m seeing a lot of refusal to address the fact that an awful lot of people are deciding that, for example, their pre-school-aged male child is “really a girl” because the child is gentle and “not like other boys”, and that has to be addressed as a result of patriarchal sex roles.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        March 06, 2016

        kasper, I appreciate your your clear articulation of these insights, and your framing of this necessary discussion. Your post underscores for me what I see as the urgency and value of communicating widely the radical insight I mention in this essay that we are a multisexed species. I believe awareness of our non-binary human nature would literally save lives. For instance, for parents it would alleviate or help resist the restricting/damaging influence of culturally mandated gender roles and free them to recognize more lovingly and caringly the particularity of each child. I believe there are many good parents who want in their hearts to do this but their heads are messed with by the binary. To grasp our multisexuality as a species is, I believe, to become un-messed-with.

        Reply

  4. Avatar
    March 05, 2016

    Doug, you wrote, “it should be acknowledged that a man (and I mean John) who says this is making a bold choice to give up any privilege his outward appearances may have afforded him. That takes guts.”

    In our patriarchal society men do not give up privilege by deciding to present a certain way or promote unpopular ideas. Allen Ginsburg and Caitlin Jenner have both reinforced patriarchal practices, with Caitlin most recently requesting a working relationship with Ted Cruz.

    In fact, John gains status in some circles by aligning himself with sexual liberals and dis-identifying with controversial agendas that his former life partner fought against fiercely and tirelessly. He is losing favor only within the group that his life partner belonged to: Radical Feminists. This is occurring for reasons neither he nor you seem to want to carefully understand. Your apparent disinterest or unwillingness to find out, and instead your preference to speculate and project, is called male supremacist privilege. He and his new allies exercise this privilege by naming radical feminists as an appropriate target of condemnation for oppressing trans people. You do it as a heterosexual man calling out drag queens and lesbians and by supporting John’s work uncritically.

    John is deliberately confusing liberal queer understandings of gender with those that are radical and revolutionary. Georgina so directly identifies part of the big problem with doing so: it has to ignore so much of how the oppressive world of structural dominance works, the actual harm, the institutions, the ideologies, and insinuations of privilege that are well-managed to oppress anyone female or deemed female-like.

    Ideas of “multisexuality” are not just structurally abstract, dissociatively hopeful, and problematically liberal. Empowering individuals, through law, to claim a different location on a gender hierarchy without changing sex is a mind-f**k of astounding proportions: it pretends this can be done fairly in a context which, as Catharine MacKinnon and so many other feminists detail, is always unfair to girls and women born female. It has to pretend that the project of diversification, itself, is antithetical to the status quo. There’s no indication at all this is the case; it doesn’t follow, except as wish-fulfillment, that societies that multisexuality replaces white male supremacy.

    Not only that. There’s actual proof that supporting more gender identities and fueling more white male supremacy, disturbingly, are the same project. What we see is that leaders fighting for such liberal reforms are doing so while very directly aggressing against female women, demanding access to female women’s spaces, and calling for radical feminists, conflated with transphobes, to be silenced.

    For example, on March 3, 2016 this was tweeted by a white person, Ada Wells, who is very active in promoting LGBT rights: “I am demanding that transphobes are dealt with appropriately. It is absolutely feminist.” Ada, identifies as a lesbian, non-binary, trans woman and part of their political platform is to purge gender critical radical feminists from their campus. They are not talking about dealing with transphobic MEN. A white man responded, ‘You are demanding that women be kicked out of university for their opinions. Great shame that you describe this as feminist.’ I also responded, ‘Why no call to toss out the men who assault women? That’s called promoting feminism.’ And to a radical feminist Black transsexual friend, I shared: ‘You know someone is using a term incorrectly when it means its opposite: “It is absolutely masculinist.” Check.’

    If what you read from John above clarifies the matter of sex and gender for you, I invite you to read this far more cogent and pro-feminist argument about these same realities. For example, read this:
    http://www.troubleandstrife.org/new-articles/talking-about-gender/

    Also, I encourage you to read the books of radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon.

    ‘[O]nce gender is grasped as a means of social stratification, the status categories basic to medieval law, thought to have been superseded by liberal regimes in aspirational nonhierarchical constructs of abstract personhood, are revealed deeply unchanged.’ — Catharine A. MacKinnon, John’s good friend.

    Andrea did not ever detach the female body from the patriarchally oppressed woman, and as you know, it is not because she did not favor multisexuality. From her book, Intercourse:
    ‘This is nihilism; or this is truth. He has to push in past boundaries. There is the outline of a body, distinct, separate, its integrity an illusion, a tragic deception, because unseen there is a slit between the legs, and he has to push into it. There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered. The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied–physically, internally, in her privacy.

    ‘A human being has a body that is inviolate; and when it is violated, it is abused. A woman has a body that is penetrated in intercourse: permeable, its corporeal solidness a lie. The discourse of male truth–literature, science, philosophy, pornography–calls that penetration violation. This it does with some consistency and some confidence. Violation is a synonym for intercourse. At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into (“violate”) the boundaries of her body. She is human, of course, but by a standard that does not include physical privacy. She is, in fact, human by a standard that precludes physical privacy, since to keep a man out altogether and for a lifetime is deviant in the extreme, a psychopathology, a repudiation of the way in which she is expected to manifest her humanity.’

    The anti-revolutionary effort, never passive, never quiet, is to reconfigure sex and gender as a multiplicity of options and choices, and pretend that doing so somehow erodes or dissipates gender-as-hierarchy. My argument isn’t that putting your energies toward making gender less rigid is harmful. It is that sexual slavery, rape, and hostility towards feminists are not ended, or especially threatened, by doing so. And what is occurring is that male supremacist privileges are, in fact, being protected not challenged by those wanting more fluid options.

    When gender is diversified by requiring male privilege and male supremacy go unnamed–among the people doing the diversifying, more people will be targeted for rape, battery, procurement, slavery, and murder for being mistaken as female-born, or just plain queer. More so if Black, Indigenous, and Brown. More so if poor and outside the First World, the West, and the Global North. Some brave revolutionary people name anti-female misogyny and male privilege as a systematic practice regulated by men. This very naming is tragically being discouraged by a few white people claiming to represent all trans women. And when this is named, the actual revolutionaries, those who have fought against male supremacy for decades, are met with extraordinary forms of gas-lighting, contempt, and denial. What is clearly anti-female is the way that John and many other men, like you, are supporting a project invested in denying forms of oppressive male power, in the name of feminism and liberation, no less. This is even more obfuscating than status quo politics because at least white conservatives are above board about working for the White Man.

    What John is doing is actively redirecting critical activist energy away from what his former life partner tackled head on–battery, child sexual abuse, rape culture, the colonialist sexism industries, and white male supremacy. And moving that energy toward an agenda that includes purging radical feminist discourse and speakers from the academy, changing laws to make gender solely a matter of male privileged self-identification, and steering clear of honest ownership of male supremacist behavior.

    Sexual violence thrives when male supremacy and male privilege are not confronted honestly, directly, and systematically. John’s promotion of multisexuality doesn’t do that, and, in fact, he refuses, like a man, to do that if the people practicing male supremacy are transgender and liberal.

    Privilege is evidenced by more than just how we are treated: it is also demonstrated by how we treat others. To miss this point is to miss a key component of white and male supremacy. Since releasing his newest work, John has been refusing sincere and civil engagement. He now aligns himself with those who liberally attack radical feminists, and does so in the name of “inclusive radical feminism”. That’s exercising male privilege and power, not giving it up.

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  5. Avatar
    March 05, 2016

    I believe it is inadvisable to make either of those decisions for someone else: that their gender must conform with their assigned sex, or that they are living in the “wrong body.” If a child asserts that they are “a boy” or “a girl” in “opposition” to the genital “evidence” that their body offers, the best that a parent or guardian can do is to allow the child to safely experiment with their own gender expression, and to let them know that they do NOT have to make a decision about anything until they are absolutely ready, and fully prepared and capable of giving informed consent to any medical intervention designed to move them in any direction. There is such a thing as “social transition,” which permits a pre-pubertal child to live manifesting the gender identity and expression which is most comfortable to them. If everyone understood this as acceptable practice, and if everyone understood that it is possible for an individual to decide that they would be more comfortable with a presentation and identification that differs from what others have known, no one would be surprised or threatened by such changes. From a medical perspective, there are reversible, partially reversible, and irreversible treatments and procedures that become available as one ages: hormone blockers (at Tanner stage II of puberty) that prohibit “sex” hormones from forcing unwanted hormonal changes, giving young people more time to assess what they want to do or how they want to live, are fully reversible. There are a number of biological processes that are necessary for the body to go through, depending on the individual’s personal goals, such that it is not medically advisable to initiate certain partially- or fully-irreversible transition-related care too early. These include bone maturation and fertility options, among other biological processes. “Medical disruption of sexual and identity development” is NOT advocated by responsible practitioners of child or adolescent medicine or psychology. Rather, what is advocated is nurturing and supporting a child, maintaining open and clear communication that they are in charge of their own body, but that they must be patient about invoking changes so that they are knowledgeable about the consequences of their choices, since they are the one who will have to live in that body for the rest of their lives — knowing, too, of course, that there are some ways to go “back” should they change their mind, and that it is okay to change one’s mind in life, since everything else about one’s life may also change, and frequently without notice! The certainties that our society once claimed as solid ground are far more liquid now, as our science and our understanding of the world are both growing. We don’t need to fear these changes, but we do need to adapt to them.

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  6. Avatar
    March 06, 2016

    John and Georgina, as a transsexual Lesbian feminist myself I strongly believe that children must have
    available to them all of the options, including myriad identities and styles of gender variance and
    nonconformity, as well as social transition, and at or after puberty, age-appropriate medical options also.
    Generally I assume that, as a transsexual, I am in a rather small minority among the much larger population
    of gender variant individuals, and ultimately the vast feminist movement that challenges patriarchal sex role
    expectations.

    From an ethical perspective, the dilemmas with intersex children, and with dyadic (nonintersex) children, may
    be similar. In either case, binary sex designations are a kind of guess or prediction as to what kind of sex
    identity (a term I prefer to “gender identity,” associated as it is for some intersex people with the medical
    abuse inflicted by John Money and others) or social gender an infant may later grow into and choose at a
    reasonable age of consent. This is why Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), the imposition of coercive and
    indeed sexually violent surgery on intersex children where there is no urgent medical necessity, for the
    purpose of meeting adult expectations as to “acceptable” binary bodies, is immoral. It must be outlawed
    categorically, as it has been in Malta (2015), and reportedly also in Chile. Organization Intersex
    International (OII) and other groups place top priority on the legal abolition of IGM throughout the world.

    With either intersex or dyadic children considered by adults to be showing gender variance, the critically
    important thing is to listen to the child, and not try to make guesses or predictions as how the child may
    identify years later in some binary or nonbinary fashion. Such guesses, whether based on chromosomes, the
    size of the external and thus visible portion of the phalloclitoris or virga, or early preferences in play,
    clothing, or choice of friends, are perilous and often to some degree coercive. Watchful waiting for the
    child to tell us is now the professional norm under the WPATH and other Standards of Care.

    In my view as a radical feminist who happens to be transsexual, this means much more than outlawing
    destructive forms of “reparative therapy” that seek to make gender variant children (some of them binary
    trans, but most of them very likely nontrans and/or nonbinary) comply with patriarchal expectations. It
    means, obviously, focusing attention on “normal” peers who bully these gender variant children, through
    education, and if necessary therapy (violence and abuse are “normal” under patriarchy, not in a feminist
    view!). It also means, in an age-appropriate way, educating children on the range of binary and nonbinary
    bodies and identities, and the importance of a classic feminist theme, “Free to be you and me,” whether one
    is intersex or dyadic, nontrans or trans, binary or nonbinary.

    A crude but maybe useful analogy is that those of us striving for a more equable and internationalist world
    order based on human rights will cherish two distinct but related freedoms. One is the freedom to express
    one’s political and cultural views, and nonviolently to be a dissident, in one’s country of birth, or
    wherever one lives; the other is the freedom to emigrate and become a resident and eventually a citizen of
    a country other than that of one’s birth. Either freedom alone is not enough, although each may be more
    relevant to some people than others; the two, together, can help define a new and better world.

    Likewise, freedom to transition socially and medically, but not to express gender variance within a given
    body sex (natal or altered) or social gender status, would make life somewhat more liveable for a few trans
    people (including some who are also intersex), but even for us would hardly solve all of our problems: I
    would consider being forced to wear makeup, let alone uncomfortable shoes, a form of everyday tyranny, which
    sadly many women who live their entire lives as female have had routinely imposed on them. And while freedom
    of gender variance within one’s natal body or designated birth sex and gender is absolutely vital to many
    people, some intersex and/or transsexual people would be deprived of lifesaving options for social and
    medical transition — whether we are binary or nonbinary in our sex identities and chosen gender statuses.

    As a Lesbian feminist, I especially affirm the importance of Butch Lesbian women, who have been my sisters
    and allies through the decades. If children have an opportunity to learn about the lives of women like
    Gertrude Stein and Martha Shelley, as well as trans men such as C. Jacob Hale or Max Wolf Valerio, then they
    will be able to grow into themselves based on feminist values rather than false or forced choices.

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