Gender, Gender, Gender

A good Question:

I'm still getting a surprising number of comments and emails about the short post I wrote on David Peterson's slip up with grammatical gender. While most are incoherent and silly (and have a seasonally and statistically unlikely preponderance of the use of the word "snowflake"), there is one in particular that seemed earnest, and that I think warrants a full response. Brele asked:


Taylor, can u help me understand how there are more than two genders? I ask just having watched J. Peterson on a YouTube show and hearing his thoughts on the matter.

I think it's important here to distinguish three related phenomena, and where they do and don't overlap: biological sex, gender (and gender expression), and grammatical gender. The conflation of biological sex with gender, and the subsequent conflation of grammatical gender with both, is where most of the confusion and anger comes from, I think.

Biological Sex:

Biological sex is what it sounds like: the biological properties we associate with sexual reproduction in a species. We assume that there are two sexes in humans: male, and female. This is not strictly true, as biological sex is determined by a constellation of factors, among them:

  • chromosomes: while we're familiar with XX as female and XY as male, there are people with XXY, or other unusual (but extant!) combinations. Roughly 1:1666 births have atypical chromosomal combinations. That's roughly 210,000 Americans.
  • gonads: most people have reproductive organs that fall broadly into one of the two expected categories, but again, not all people do. Roughly 1:1500 births have atypical gonads (which means about 230,000 Americans).
  • hormones: some people have atypical hormonal patterns. For instance, the sikh woman who has polycystic ovarian syndrome, and therefore has a full beard. 

The vast majority of people will have phenotypes that 'line up', but a sizeable minority don't. So what we think of as physically binary -- male/female -- is, in reality, a bit more complicated than that, but generally true. Not always true.

Gender and Sexuality:

Gender, in the social sciences, is distinct from biological sex. It is also a complicated constellation of factors, including:

  • who you are attracted to.
  • how you physically present yourself, and how you behave, according to (or going against) culturally defined patterns of behavior. For instance "boys wear blue, girls wear pink" is a completely arbitrary, culturally defined dichotomy with no basis in biology, and which is absolutely not universal.
  • How masculine or feminine (or neither, or both or whatever) you personally feel. That is, maybe I feel really girly (whatever that means, just go with it), but I don't present myself in accordance with that because it's easier to just follow my culture's rules about What Men Do than it is to deal with people's reactions if I start wearing dresses.
  • a bunch of other stuff I'm probably leaving out.

The key here is that gender is about how you feel, behave, and are attracted to, and is not about your chromosomes, gonads, and hormones.

For a more science-y take: there are multiple parameters, which may be either binary or have multiple levels, along which people can vary continuously. This is a high-dimensional space that we generally try to collapse to a single-dimensional sub-space to then classify with a binary score. Increasingly, people who are hard to classify on that one dimension (studs, bears, beardos, genderqueer, agender, genderfluid [do we need a time dimension?], flannel-heads, balloon-poppers -- yes, I made some of these up, but not the balloon one) are saying you can't collapse things to a single binary parameter, but you night a higher dimensional space to accurately categorize people without losing important information.

Grammatical Gender:

This is how languages group nouns. The name is an unfortunate misnomer, given the conflation of the above two things -- it's etymologically related to genre and that's probably a much better way to think of it. Some languages have two genders, which they call masculine and feminine because noun classes in those languages sort of line up with how actual masculine people and feminine people are classified grammatically. That said, in one such language, French, there's no clear reason a table should be semantically feminine. The genre of the noun just happens to be the same as for women, but in this case it's largely a phonological thing, not a semantic (i.e., meaning) thing. Moreover, some words come in gendered pairs: le tour 'the tour' (as in, the tour of france), versus la tour 'the tower' (as in, the Eiffel Tower). 

In other languages, there are two genders, but they don't line up with sex: Dutch has two genders, but they're common and neuter. Both man 'man' and vrauw 'woman' are common, and meisje 'girl' is neuter (along with all other diminitives, so mannetje 'little man' is also neuter).

In other languages, there are more than two genders. German and Russian have masculine, feminine, and neuter.

In yet other languages, there are many more genders: Zulu has 14, and none of them have anything to do with sex. Some are for humans, some are for long, stick-y things (although there's arguments about this), and one is for abstract concepts: umu-ntu is a person, aba-ntu is 'people' (whence "Bantu"), and ubu-ntu is the quality of being human (personhood, or humanity).

Finally, many languages mark all nouns and noun-y things with gender, but many don't. English, for instance, only explicitly marks gender on some pronouns (he and she, but not you), and a handful of nouns for kinds of people ("actress").

The Takeaway:

"Gender" is often interchangeably used to mean any of three things: biological sex, sexual(ity) gender, and grammatical gender. Moreover, each of these things is complex, and non-binary (although biological sex comes close to being binary in everyday life for most people).

English obligatorily marks gender on third person singular pronouns (and that's about it). This gender marking generally overlaps with biological sex and 'mainstream' gender expressions related to cultural assumptions about biological sex. People who do not feel like they are necessarily well described by he or she have been asking to be referred to with a different term -- many ask that we use they, which has the benefits of (1) already existing in English, and (2) being gender neutral already. Others ask for ze or something else. 

The point is, marking gender on third person singular pronouns (only) is a weird quirk of the grammatical structure of English, and not representative of objective biological reality, and certainly not reflective of culture. My comments on David Peterson's remarks were solely to laugh at the irony of someone claiming they refused to use gender-neutral pronouns while using gender neutral they to express that contrarianism.

Hopefully, the above answered the question of how there could be 'more than two genders.'



©Taylor Jones 2016

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