Gender Construction and Transexuality
Ampersand has an interesting post on transexuality, with an even more interesting discussion in the comments. Transexuality poses a strong challenge to some kinds of feminism, as the idea of bringing one’s biology into line with one’s gender undermines feminist assertions that gender and biology are independent. Transexuals also make activists uncomfortable by their sometimes stereotypical performances of femininity. On the other hand, transexuals are walking, talking proof of the ambiguity and flexibility of gender–some male transexuals are and remain attracted to females, and vice versa, becoming in effect “gay” upon their transformation. Other transexuals opt out of the process at a pre-operative stage, retaining their unmodified genitalia alongside secondary sex characteristics like breasts, “masculine” hair growth, altered voices, etc. These “ambiguous” transexuals should be welcomed as further proof of the variety of gender expressions possible within the limited biology of the human form.
To me, the problems that some feminists and more non-feminists have with transexuality stems from a misunderstanding of what it means for gender to be “constructed”. There is, for example,a belief–particularly strong in conservative circles–that showing a biological dissimilarity between men and women, something like the influence of testosterone on personality and aggression, somehow means that gender is not constructed. This opposition between biology and constructionism is simply false. Most people have a penis or a vagina (some people have both, and a few have neither)–what is constructed is what possession of a particular piece of anatomy means, the kinds of behaviour it is linked to. Testosterone may very well make people more aggressive, and owners of testicles might indeed have significantly different levels of testosterone that would cause them to be more aggressive–but it is society that lets them be more aggressive, society that constructs the aggression associated with testosterone with a particular set of gendered behaviours. And this doesn’t take into account the many, many women who have levels of testosterone similar to or exceeding many, many men’s, or the various expressions of aggression that have nothing to do with testosterone, or the many non-aggressive acts that even the most aggressive persons can and do perform.
In short form, while there is (almost) certainly a physical reality “out there”, it is only in the human mind that that reality comes to mean, and behaviours based on that reality emerge. It is in the intersection between thinking, social humans and that physical reality that construction takes place, not in the opposition of the two.