Yesterday in my college classes, we talked about gender. I went to some pains to make sure that our conversation about gender was not confused with a conversation about sex – which refers to the anatomic gender that is generally assigned at birth. Most toddlers are well aware of their sex by about 18 months and can clearly say that they are either a boy or a girl.
Our technical definition of gender is “a psychological awareness or sense of being male or being female and is one of the most obvious and important aspects of our self-concepts.” This sense of gender identity is generally well established by 3 years old. This understanding is much more nuanced, and reflects an understanding of typical societally approved gender roles, including clothing choices, career choices, and a wide range of gender-specific emotional and social interactions. Most young children are aware of the approved gender dynamics in their society regardless of whether their parents work against these stereotypes.
We also talked about what it means when a person feels that their gender and sex don’t match. Most of my students have some awareness of what it means to be transgender – but only in the broadest outlines and most without any actual personal experience with people who identify as transgender. I would love to have a panel of people who are transgender come in to tell their stories and answer questions, but so far I haven’t been able to realize this goal. So I’ve tried a variety of approaches to help my students understand what it means to be transgender a little bit better. This semester, I played the following recent clips from the Dr. Oz show. I particularly like them because the transgender people highlighted in them are children. There is a simplicity to children and their approach to many things – including gender – that I think allows my students to be less skeptical about the feelings and motivations of people who identify as transgender.
One point that my students always have questions about – but that is only briefly addressed in these clips – is that gender, in the technical way we have defined it, is not linked to sexual orientation. The terms relating to sexual orientation that we are used to hearing – gay and straight or heterosexual and homosexual – are difficult to use in specific conversations about what it means to be transgender. Instead, the technical terms androphilia (being sexually attracted to men) and gynephilia (being sexually attracted to women). These terms can be used effectively regardless of the person’s gender, which makes them quite handy once we venture out of the realm of binary gender.
But this still doesn’t take us a long way towards understanding exactly what’s going on. We can address the reality that these children – and transgender adults – are living in by letting them express themselves and identify their gender in whatever way feels most natural to them. But what about a deeper understanding of why this come about? What twists or turns sent these individuals off on this track that is so different from the majority? There are some indications that genetic factors and prenatal hormone levels may be associated with being transgender. There are also some indications that home life, family of origin, and other social factors may be associated with being transgender. As with most parts of being human, it is probably a complex interaction between biology and sociological factors.
My classroom conversations generally end here. Or rather, this is where my explanation ends. After this point we talk as a class, so that the students are able to hear each others’ thoughts and reactions to what is generally a new and often challenging topic.
I have found, however, that the explanation doesn’t satisfy me personally. There seems to be something much deeper at work within individuals who identify as transgendered than can be explained by “a complex interaction between biology and sociological factors.” So some time ago I turned to philosophers to see what they had to say on the matter. I didn’t find much, but one explanation has stuck with me and continues to at least partially inform my understanding of what it means to be transgender.
Rudolf Steiner, who wrote and thought about many topics and issues, said that each person has two parts: an earthly body and a heavenly body. The earthly body is each person’s physical body that we know and are well acquainted with. Steiner went on to say that the heavenly body and the earthly body are of opposite genders, and that this balances us out as individuals. Steiner does not delve into theorizing further about what it means to be transgender, but I will take his thesis and apply it. Perhaps this well organized scheme occasionally gets a bit mixed up – and the heavenly body and the earthly body are accidentally the same gender. Because we do not have access to our heavenly body, we work on changing our earthly body so that we come back into balance.
I am not saying that Steiner’s ideas are correct – but that I like the metaphor or the image of a gendered balance in each person, and when that balance is thrown off, the attempts to set it right.
I’m interested to hear if others have deeper, philosophical explanations or understandings about the human reality of being the other gender than the sex one was assigned at birth? I’d love to hear about it!