What determines your gender? If I’m a guy, what makes me a guy?
To a lot of people, the answer seems fairly simple; your gender is determined by your biology. Guys have XY chromosomes and penises. Women have XX chromosomes and vaginas. Simple enough.
And so, inevitably, if you look around social media, you can find people expressing skepticism about Caitlyn Jenner’s gender following her Vanity Fair cover shoot.
Jenner was assigned male at birth and lived most of her 65 years as a man. Under her birth name, Bruce Jenner, she won the Olympic decathlon in 1976 and was recognized as the greatest athlete in the world. She has fathered six children. To some, at least, those details seem like they add up to the biological truth that she’s a man, not a woman.
But Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer suggests biology and gender are a bit more complicated than that. Jenner didn’t just decide she was a woman at 65. Like most people, whether trans or cis, she seems to have known her gender from a very early age.
She told Sawyer that she was trying on her mom’s dresses at age 8. Her athletic success, she says, was powered in part by a determination to prove to herself that she was masculine. She has been contemplating transition for decades, if not for her whole life. Whatever her chromosomes, her gender is a part of her.
If some reject the idea that gender is anything but chromosomes, though, others reject the idea that gender is a part of us at all, in a biological sense. Radical feminists, especially, have argued that gender is just a social construct; “Gender is less an identity than a caste position,” the New Yorker summarized.
When my son played with trains as a 3-year-old, that was a social determination, not a biological one. Trains aren’t innate to male biology, after all. Similarly, the fact that women wear dresses isn’t a cross-cultural, uniform human fact encoded in our DNA. Jenner’s interest in dresses as a child, therefore, wasn’t biological, but social.
And if gender roles are arbitrary and cultural, then they can be cast aside for everyone. “’[M]an’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs,” Andrea Dworkin declared. “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.”
From this perspective, everyone everywhere should get rid of the social construction of gender, and transitioning from one gender to another seems, at best, like a temporary necessity that will hopefully fade away in some future genderless utopia.
On the one hand, then, you have the insistence that the biology in our chromosomes is our destiny; on the other hand you have the belief that gender is a social construct.
But surely, most of us, most of the time, live our lives somewhere between those two positions. For me, being a man is about having particular chromosomes, about being a dad, about being heterosexual, about really not wanting to wear dresses, about not having much interest in watching sports, about enjoying romance novels.
Other men could easily have a different relationship to all of those things. If gender is social, does that mean that I’m less of a man, and/or undermining gender roles by reading romance novels? If gender is biological, then does that mean all social performances of gender are irrelevant? And if so, why is it important to shame people of whatever gender for living as whatever gender they’d like? If gender is just biology without social meaning, then it seems like society should be able to shut up about it.
"Being a biologist has led me to realize that the whole idea of nature vs. nurture in relation to gender is completely ridiculous,” scientist and trans activist Julia Serano argues. “Because culture can’t happen outside of us as biological beings, and biology doesn’t happen outside of culture, at least human biology doesn’t happen outside of culture.”
How you behave, and what you experience, affects your brain. Your biology affects how people treat you, and how you interact with culture, in any number of ways. Gender isn’t one thing or the other; it’s both.
Sometimes you can tease out how biology and culture go together to some extent. Jenner had pretty spectacular genetic material to work with in terms of athleticism, for example. But then, you realize that part of the genetic material she was working with was being a woman in a society that wouldn’t recognize her as such. How do you separate that body that won the decathlon from the culture that shaped it? Or how do you separate the cultural success from the body of the woman athlete who achieved it?
“I’ve always had the soul of a woman,” Jenner said in her interview with Sawyer.
If, like me, you’re not given to religiosity, the conflation between gender and spirit may seem confusing or unhelpful. But on second thought, it’s maybe more specific, and more accurate, than the alternatives.
Gender isn’t biology; it’s not culture. It’s some combination of the two, though how that combination works in each individual instance is neither predictable nor explicable. It’s a mystery, which isn’t to say it’s not real. Often, on the contrary, it feels like the most real thing about us, which is part of what Jenner is saying when she compares it to the soul.
Maybe, then, rather than trying to define gender as biological or cultural, we could just accept that there are some things we don’t know about each other, or for that matter about ourselves. Caitlyn Jenner isn’t just her body, nor just her culture, nor some parsed mixture of the two. She’s herself, unique, like everyone else, which is the beautiful thing about her.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian.
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