Modeling Sexual Identities: Intersex, Transgender, and the Gender Binary
People are fond of thinking in terms of opposites: on - off, up - down, yes - no, black - white, good - evil. When you divide experience into two extremes, you create a binary system. A binary system is a way of organizing experience; it's a simple model of the world. When someone has difficulty appreciating nuances in an argument, we say that they have "black and white thinking".
Binary thinking is essentially a formula for making discriminations. Black and white become two "ideals" against which we compare a real object. If the real object is "closer" to black, we put it in the black bin; if it's "closer" to white, we put it in the white bin. Binary thinking is a sorting algorithm.
Binary systems are a product of human thinking. In the real world, absolute up and absolute down are fictions. Absolutely good heroes and absolutely evil villains only exist in comic books. In ordinary experience, every object we encounter falls somewhere between these absolute extremes. The extremes are poles on a spectrum. The world is composed of all the shades of grey between the ends of the spectrum.
A Binary Model of Sex Differences
People also think about human sexuality in terms of opposites: male and female -- in the case of sex -- or man and woman -- in the case of gender. In the real world, of course, male and female, man and woman, are not quite so neatly divided. No doubt we've all had the experience of not being able to tell, at first glance, the gender of a person we've just encountered.
A human born with two X chromosomes (XX) is genetically female; a human born with an X and a Y chromosome (XY) is genetically male. If all humans fell into one of these two categories, a binary sexual model would be sufficient for accurately categorizing all humans. Because other variations exist (X, XXY, XYY, XXX, etc.) a binary model is not the most accurate way to capture all the available information: some information about human sexual variation is lost when we reduce the actual variation to the two extreme poles of male and female. We're resorting to "black and white thinking" about sex.
The same argument holds good when we use a different criteria than chromosome structure for determining a person's sex: their external genitalia. While the sex of most infants can be immediately determined, some individuals are born with ambiguous genitals which make it hard to determine, by a superficial examination, which category they "belong" to. People born with ambiguous sex characteristics are known as intersex.
Sex Binary Model Exceptions: Intersex
One way to solve the classification problem of people born with atypical chromosomes or sexual anatomy is to define them as being "exceptions" to the system. Their sexuality is conceived to be "abnormal" or "unhealthy", a product of "errors" or "mistakes" at the biological level. They've been born with a "birth defect".
While this is one way to frame the data, it's odd when you think about it. When it comes to other phenomena which occur on a spectrum, we do not resort to raising exceptions. We don't declare that grey isn't a color because it is neither black nor white, or that "maybe" is not a valid response to a question. (Most of the time!)
In many theoretical models, the "problem" generated by the existence of exceptions is solved by excluding variation from the system. A round peg is forced into a square hole. An intersex individual is seen as "almost" a male or female; they "would have been" male or female if not for the "mistake", and are therefore reclassified as male or female depending on which end of the spectrum they are closer to, in much the same way almost black objects are put in the black bin and almost white objects in the white bin.
Unfortunately, because the unique characteristics intersex people possess do not disappear after filing, they often come to be seen as "failed" or "defective" males or females. Their integrity is disrespected so that the model can be preserved.
Expanding the Model
The other way to solve the classification problem is to extend the model. The simplest way to extend the model is to provide a third term for things that fall in the middle. A binary model of color (black and white) can be expanded by adding an intermediate color: grey. A binary model of human sexual characteristics can be expanded by adding an intermediate category: intersex.
In our expanded model, an intersex individual is no longer a failed member of one of the two extremes, but an example of a third category. There is no theoretical reason why a model could not be extended indefinitely through further subdivision, but practical considerations typically limit a model to the minimum "resolution" required to account for all of the available information in a satisfactory fashion. The greater the resolution of the model, the more explanatory power it has.
- (especially of a mathematical operation) consisting of or involving a single component or element.
Oxford University Press
The Danger of the Expanded Middle: The Unary Model of Sex Differences
The danger of including a middle is that, when it is understood that the extreme ends of a spectrum are theoretical abstractions (ie. that there is no "pure" black or white) there is an inclination to discard the ends: instead of a binary model in which things are forced to one extreme or another (black or white), we are left with a unary model in which "everything is in the middle" (everything is a shade of grey).
A unary model is incapable of organizing our experience or providing us with ways to understand and operate on data. If we got rid of "male" and "female" and redefined everyone as "intersex" (or just "sex") we would have more trouble communicating, not less. Higher resolution models are more useful than lower resolution models. Even a binary model is better than a unary model.
Gender is the psychological complement to biological sex. It's the way the human mind understands its own sex and its relation to other members of the same or different sexes. Sex can be studied under a microscope; gender cannot. It stands in the same relation to sex that mind stands in relation to brain. To confuse sex with gender is to make a category error. A transwoman is properly referred to as "her" because the mind takes precedence over the body; one does not relate to the world as an organic machine, but as a person; one doesn't talk to ambulatory meat, one talks to people.
Most of the time, a person's gender "matches" their sex: a person born with female sexual anatomy thinks of herself as a woman and relates to other people as a woman; a person born with male sexual anatomy thinks of himself as a man and relates to other people as a man.
As with physical sex, however, some individuals develop ambiguous gender identities: a person born with female sexual anatomy experiences themselves as a man (transman) or a person born with male sexual anatomy experiences themselves as a woman (transwoman). Other gender identities are possible: a person may experience themselves as neither a man nor a woman (neutrois or agender), as somewhere between a man and a woman (androgyne), as fluctuating between a man and a woman (bigender), etc. (The biological basis of these identities is reserved for another discussion.) These identities all fall under the category of transgender, which is an umbrella term used to capture the genders that fall "in the middle" between a male who identifies as a man and a female who identifies as a woman. (Intergender is a tempting alternative to correlate with intersex, but the phenomena are different enough to require different terminology). A person whose sex "matches" their gender is known as cisgender. (Trans and cis are frequently employed abbreviations.)
The Gender Binary, Birth Defects and Mental Illness
Because physical sex and mental gender are so often in harmony, the physical and mental dimensions are often collapsed into a single dimension: when we talk about other people, we assume that the physical matches the mental and we use the terms man and male or woman and female interchangeably. This is much like indiscriminately using both brain and mind to refer to either the brain or the mind. It's adequate for most casual conversations, but generates confusion when attempting to conduct any serious thinking about sex and gender. The confusion arises because sex and gender involve different categories of experience. A book is not the same as the meaning of the text it contains. Destroying a book after you read it will not destroy the impact it had on you.
The gender binary model of human sexual identities is based on this conflation between body and mind. In the binary model, a person can only be a biological male identifying as a man or a biological female identifying as a woman. Because there are no other categories in the model, people who do not match one of these stereotypes are considered exceptions. People who rely on the model to do their thinking for them are therefore forced to consider those who physically deviate from the model as suffering from a "birth defect" and those who mentally deviate as suffering from a "mental illness". "Birth defect" and "mental illness", as far as they relate to human sex and gender, are artificial categories that arise as by-products of the binary gender system. In a primary color system where only red, blue, and green are considered acceptable colors, yellow, orange, and purple would be classified as "defective" versions of red, blue, or green.
It's easy to see how, in a culture that uses a binary gender model, intersex and transgender people become objects of discrimination. People who want to discard the gender binary want to change the model of human sex and gender so that intersex and transgender people are no longer considered defective simply because they fail to conform to one end of the spectrum or the other.
But what happens if we discard the ends of the spectrum (male/man, female/woman) and say that "everything is in the middle"?
A Digression into Sexual Orientation
Originally, sexual orientation was included as part of the gender binary: it was understood that a man was only attracted to women, and a woman was only attracted to men. Anyone who deviated from that standard was considered "sinful" or, again, "mentally ill". Homosexuality was something that had to be "cured" through prayer or therapy.
Not long ago, the concept of sexual orientation was successfully liberated from the gender binary and we now commonly acknowledge that other orientations exist: a person may be heterosexual and conform to the old binary model, homosexual (such individuals were sometimes called "inverts" in psychoanalytic literature because they inverted the model), and bisexual. (For now we'll ignore the others.) A new spectrum was created in which heterosexuality occupies one end of the spectrum and homosexuality the other with bisexuality forming the continuum between them. As is the case with other spectrum models, there is a tendency for some people to discard the ends and argue that "everyone is bisexual". But does this claim, that we are all bisexual, increase our understanding of human sexual preferences or diminish it?
The important thing to understand is that while the extreme ends may only exist as theoretical ideals, they still add information to the model; if we discard the ends, we can no longer make useful comparisons or distinctions between individuals. Even if you believe that "everyone is bisexual", you must still acknowledge that some are more heterosexual, and some more homosexual, than others. The concept of bisexuality by itself provides no information about human nature. If nothing matters, then everything is equally important. The result is not liberation but paralysis.
A Two-Dimensional Gender Model
This chart represents one possible way of schematizing gender identities.
Everyone above the line identifies as a woman, regardless of their anatomy, everyone below the line identifies as a man, and those at the midpoint as androgynous. Everyone to the far left of the center line was born with male sexual anatomy, everyone to the far right was born with female sexual anatomy, with ambiguous anatomy in the middle.
This way of representing identities can create its own problems, of course, such as the problem of distinguishing between a transwoman and a person who identifies as a feminine man. These distinctions are sometimes difficult for individuals to make in real life, as well. Only a few of the possible identities have been mapped.
An Expanded Model of Gender
It seems useful, therefore, to continue to use the concepts of "man" and "woman" as limiting poles on the gender spectrum to preserve information about human nature.
But how can we preserve the utility of this framing device while respecting the experiences of people who don't conform to the model? One way is to divide the gender binary model into two parts: a sex spectrum and a gender spectrum. This can be illustrated as a graph like the ones used in coordinate geometry, with a horizontal bar representing a person's biological "maleness" or "femaleness" and a vertical bar representing their psychological "masculinity" or "femininity". This separates sex from gender graphically, and allows a much more inclusive approach to sexual identities.
Using two dimensions, most people can satisfactorily plot their own position on the chart; there is no longer any need to stigmatize individuals who are intersex or transgender by assigning labels like "birth defect" or "mental illness" because our expanded model does not require us to create additional "garbage collection" concepts outside of the system to handle these sorts of exceptions.
This is only one possible way of representing the available data. The model above comes with its own limitations: for example, it's hard to accurately locate yourself on this kind of graph if you're bigender and your gender fluctuates from one end of the chart to the other day by day, or if you're neutrois/agender and you don't feel that the vertical bar is relevant to your experience. One can easily come up with other objections. But regardless of those objections, it's still a superior model to the linear, binary model of gender.
The important take away from this discussion is that owing to the way the gender binary model shapes our perceptions of individuals, it forces us to treat exceptions as "failures" to conform to the model. If something fails to conform, our inclination is to find out "what's wrong" with the exception instead of asking ourselves what's wrong with the model. When we define exceptions as problems, we're forced to resort to concepts like "birth defects" and "mental illness" in order to explain why they're aberrant. The harmful implications of this kind of thinking should be obvious.
But "destroying" the gender binary does not mean we have to abandon models altogether and reduce human sexual identities to some sort of androgynous soup. It means we can opt to use a more refined, higher resolution model with more dimensions, one that recognizes that there are different kinds of people with different kinds of bodies and minds, not all of which will conveniently match. Too often, people are marginalized not owing to their inherent qualities, but the limitations of the model we use for understanding them.
Note: This article is not meant to replace the extensive dialog that already exists about alternate models of sex and gender, or to provide a fully featured model; it is merely to provide a basis for thinking about why those models are important and the impact they have on our understanding of human nature.
© 2015 j-u-i-c-e