The Objective Reality of Gender

Every now and then I find myself in a discussion on the Internet of whether or not trans people should be allowed to exist/have their chosen pronouns respected/etc.

And inevitably there’s someone who insists that “penis=man, vagina=woman, that’s the OBJECTIVE REALITY”.

Well. Let’s unpack the objective reality of this seemingly simple concept:

  • people have some combination of X and Y chromosomes
  • most people are XX or XY
  • some people aren’t, maybe they’ve got three, maybe they’re chimeras of two non-identical twins who merged in the womb, whatever
  • these chromosomes are not necessarily perfect copies of your parents’ chromosomes, nor of the ones in the egg and winning sperm – transcription errors happen
  • the body is shaped by the ways these chromosomes express themselves, both as the fetus grows in the womb, and as the child grows to adulthood and beyond
  • the body is also shaped by many chemicals fed into it, whether it be something the mother ingested while the kid was in the womb, something in the water, something in the food, something in the air, or something ingested voluntarily as part of a deliberate gender transition program
  • the brain is part of the body, and is thus shaped by chromosomes and chemicals in the same way, from gestation to death
  • pretty much every human language contains words for the concepts of “male” and “female”, which often combine both expected social roles with expected body parts related to the process of making more humans (penis, vulva, testes, womb, breasts, etc); English has historically combined these two things and considered deviations from that combination to be freakish. Up until relatively recently it also combined expected sexual orientation with both of them and considered any deviation from that to be freakish as well.
  • all children in America are currently assigned a legal gender based on examination of the genitals shortly after birth, either “male” or “female”; babies with ambiguous genitals often have this surgically “corrected”
  • human thought is shaped by the languages you speak; if enough people start using a new word, then the people who make dictionaries will take note of it and put it in the dictionary; if enough people start using an old word in a new way, that, too, will be noted and placed in the dictionary, thus documenting the slow change of the language, and the slow change of the set of concepts available to people who speak that language
  • some other languages contain words for people who are not necessarily “male” or “female”; English does currently allow for separation of sexual desire from genitals (gay/lesbian/straight/bi) but does not commonly distinguish “what’s between your legs” from “what expected gender-based social norms you prefer to conform to” (well, kinda – the fact that “sissy” is an insult but “tomboy” is not opens a whole new can of worms)
  • the community of people who do separate “what is between your legs” from “what expected gender-based social norms you prefer to conform to” has developed its own set of words for the concepts of other parts of the gender spectrum; we can say things like “Steve is a dmab man who prefers traditional male pronouns”, “Nile is a dfab enby person who prefers ‘they’ pronouns”, or “Peggy is a dmab woman who prefers traditional female pronouns, and what she has between her legs is only your business if she wants you to touch it”. (DM/FAB: Designated Male/Female At Birth. Enby: an abbreviation of Non-Binary, presenting as neither male nor female.) Which means queer people have a more nuanced set of mental boxes to put people’s gender into than other English speakers do.

I would argue that, thus, the queer community can approach the Objective Truth of sex, gender, and social roles far more closely by separating “what your primary sexual characteristics were at birth”, “what gender marker was put on your birth certificate”, “what your current primary and secondary sexual characteristics are”, “what gender you would currently prefer to be seen as”, and “what gender do people sort you into when they see you” into separate categories, each of which often contains either “male” or “female”, and often will have the same choice selected in all of these categories, but each category may contain something from a richer set of choices, and is not required to match any other category.

From another angle: Consider the research people have done on color names in different languages, and the way some languages have more color words than others. If the only terms you have for color are “black”, “white”, and “red” is someone who points at two things you call “red” and calls one of them “red” and the other one “orange” denying an OBJECTIVE TRUTH, or are they just using a finer set of mental boxes to categorize the different energy absorption spectra of these things than you are?

TL;DR: Words mean whatever the fuck a large enough segment of the people speaking that language want them to mean, and there is a large enough segment of people now saying that “male” and “female” are simplifications of some complicated-ass things that you may have always taken as Objective Truths.

  1. The entire concept of “Objective Truth” is itself problematic, as we have literally no way to access it. We have, at best, the ability to triangulate it from multiple subjective perspectives and measures. Hence the Scientific Method. So to some degree, the basic response to “This is objectively true” is “How the everloving fuck would you know?”

    > (well, kinda – the fact that “sissy” is an insult but “tomboy” is not opens a whole new can of worms)

    So, so true. And “tomboy” originally *was* an insult, but grew out of it thanks to feminism persuading folks that women are allowed to rise up to the previously male-only status. But we’re clearly still working on the idea that said status is above women’s previous role, such that men (and “strong feminist women”) are somehow stepping down if they fulfill it. Meh, so much work still left to do, and so many people trying to argue the work is already done? What is everybody smoking??

    Barely related: I’d learned “amab” and “afab” rather than “dmab” and “dfab”. The only advantage I can see there is that it’s easier to pronounce in spoken language. I’m still getting used to “enby” as a personal designator, but it’s kinda cute, I think…


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