How many genders are there?

Much noise is generated about the number of genders. Let’s look at this closely.

There are no genders

According to this approach, even referring to Man, Woman, trans-Man, trans-Woman, cis-Man, cis-Woman, or anything else, is hurtful and unnecessary. We are just “people with…”, i.e., people with penes, vaginae, ovaries, prostates… and presumably other bits and bobs.

Sidebar: yes, "penes." I've been pitching for this as the correct plural of penis for years, ever since penis has been referred to in the plural in the media. I don't even know exactly when this happened, the naughty aughts, I suppose, but it did suddenly happen. First the taboo against the singular "penis" was breached, and shortly thereafter, the (incorrect, IMO) plural appeared. I mean, Richard Nixon's book, 6 Crises was not titled 6 Criseses, right? The plural of axis is axes, not axises.

I don’t discuss this with people (not appropriate conversation at work, and why get into it at home), but my surmise is that this is expected to protect marginalized people, specifically the trans community. How effective is it? Well, how does it work in other contexts? When people say they “don’t see color”, that is taken to be a kind of low-level racist dog whistle. I don’t see why erasure of gender is supposed to be more protective of non-cis people than erasure of race is to non-White people. Sure, we can argue that these are “social constructs” — an argument I think has a lot of merit — but we can’t seem to get away from them. We live in a society, and social constructs happen. Ignoring them doesn’t seem to help anyone. So I would argue that the “there are no genders” approach is philosophically interesting, arguably true, but wildly counter-intuitive and politically unhelpful.

As long as people persist in speculating on whether their baby is going to be a boy or a girl, we’re stuck with gender.

There are two genders, Male and Female, period, and shut up.

This is a favorite of college Republicans everywhere, along with bow ties, suspenders, cigars and whiskey (and strong opinions on whiskey vs. whisky). It has the appeal of mainstream tradition and of being simple. Simplicity makes ideas easier to remember, and memorability is often confused with truth.

Once we get away from the “don’t say the word” approach, we are confronted with defining it. You can’t count what you can’t define. And here I am WILDLY out of my depth. Which doesn’t mean I won’t attempt to tackle it. It seems to me that one’s gender is a product of an interaction. I can certainly claim that I am any gender I like, but that ignores the complication that other people may perceive me to be a certain gender, and treat me a certain way as a result. It’s easy to say (while shaking your finger) that they shouldn’t, but there you are; people stubbornly keep doing things one says they shouldn’t. So I would say that gender occurs on the interface between one’s self and others; in the liminal space or membrane that separates our subjective spaces and behavior and other people’s.

Sidebar: I don't buy that we have clearly separate inner and outer lives, a mental life and a physical life. It's all one shifting blob. As my old acting teacher, the late, and truly great, John Stix, used to say, dialog is the ruffle on the edge of the dress of a dancer; i.e., yes, learn the words and they're important, but the action is what is truly preëminent. I'm also not a big believer in the notion of a unitary consciousness. I think we only have intermittent and unreliable consciousness... but that's a whole other thing. Oh, and did you like the word "liminal"? Love it. I'm going to try to sneak in "immanence" somewhere...

It is a fact, sometimes unfortunate, sometimes not, that people out in the world treat us a certain way, and the way they treat us depends on many factors, among them their perception of our gender. Also our other physical and behavioral characteristics. Maybe they can’t see into our minds, but they can see what we look like and how we behave. I can claim I am a certain thing, but how people treat me will usually not take my claims into account. This is the source of all those mean, dumb “jokes” about identifying or transitioning: “transitioning to Black” and so on. I tried this one, and I’m sorry: “I’m transitioning to being very attractive; I would appreciate everyone treating me as if I’m very attractive now — anything else would be hurtful.” Jokes, after all, are generated by incongruities, and this is a clear incongruity. Saying it isn’t is as futile as King Cnut telling the tide not to rise or Nancy Reagan telling us to “just say no.”

Instead of stamping our feet at the cussedness of all people refusing to do as we tell them, let’s grant that we have an inner idea of our gender and people in the world have an idea about our gender; also we have a history of that interaction, from childhood on, and this shapes who we are. I would say that our Gender is a combination of those. So there is such a thing as a Man: a person who grew up as a little boy, both perceived as such and feeling like one, and experiencing continuity in that interaction. And a Woman: grew up as a little girl, both feeling like one and perceived as such, and experiencing continuity. Of course, some people experience discontinuities. They may have grown up perceived as a little boy or girl, but did not have what they felt was that internal experience, and have attempted to change how they are perceived via dress, behavior, legal status, and more. This would be a trans Woman or Man.

Why make the distinction between trans Woman and cis Woman? Because they are different things. We don’t exist as a snapshot, we have histories. And if you grew up perceived by those around you to be a little boy, whatever your internal experience may have been, you will have been treated very differently than if they perceived you to be a little girl. Little boys are, on the whole, encouraged to speak up and be aggressive. Little girls are, on the whole, encouraged to serve and nurture others and be polite. While much of our personalities are formed via our genetic gifts, some of it is formed by training and interaction with families, peers, and society. Here we get into feminism, and the apparently (from what I read) thorny issue of women’s groups that fight for various political and social goals, and whether (a) they should exist and (b) whether they should be castigated for distinguishing between cis and trans.

This brings up the ugly term, TERF. First, I believe this is one of those AstroTurf terms, created by meme-meisters on the Right. I mean, does anyone even refer to themselves as a “Radical Feminist”? Is that even a thing? I guess there must be feminists who, say, don’t want to live around men at all; and I guess that’s considered a “radical” point of view. I would say god bless ’em. Why not? People should live and associate any way they choose… Freedom™, right? And they may even say that they don’t want any trans-Women around, because those people grew up as little boys and were trained and acculturated as little boys, however they perceived their genders internally. Trans-Women might be perceived as never having had to put up with the shit that little girls have to put up with routinely. I mean, I don’t know, they probably had to put up with their own varieties of shit — bullying, marginalization, ostracism — but it would be (and this is key) different shit. And to claim that the shit cis-Women had to put up with either didn’t exist or doesn’t need to be considered, or is interpretable however other people wish, is, understandably, kind of insulting. My shit is my shit, and I get to say what it was.

Of course, nobody likes to be excluded from anything; even more so if one has a history of feeling excluded. But there are things many of us are excluded from, such as amusement park rides if one isn’t tall enough (or too tall); or sitting on certain chairs in restaurants if one is too heavy to feel secure on them; or being a member of Opus Dei if one is Jewish.

If we flip this and look at Men’s groups, it’s a bit different; it’s an asymmetrical situation. Yes, there are “men’s rights” groups who delight in thinking of themselves as perfectly symmetrical with feminist groups. Oh, they’re so put upon, they’re so victimized! Me, I think that’s either disingenuous or idiotic (or both! why not). Like claims of “white genocide” or the “great replacement” business, it’s nothing more than men grabbing something of value from others. The “thing of value” in this case happens to be victimization; this didn’t used to be considered valuable. I suspect this goes back to the Civil Rights movement. I believe (to the extent that I can deduce the thoughts of perfect strangers) that the success (however blunted and curtailed, especially lately) of the Civil Rights movement against heavily-armed White men was a shock. The lesson learned, I believe, was that victimization could be weaponized. White men mainly, and white people and men in general, are always going to copy successful weapons. Claims that White Christian Men are the most discriminated-against people are clownish and idiotic. They are stealing valor, assuming the glamor of victimhood. Yes, it’s beneath contempt, but I think that’s the dynamic.

ALL OF THIS to say that men’s groups have less of a reason to exclude trans-Men. If you are a trans-Man, you are climbing up a step on the ladder of social hierarchy. A men’s “drumming circle” is an interesting example to look at. Perhaps as they share their stories of being a little boy maltreated or ignored by their father, perhaps the notion of such a group is that these stories are specific to cis-Men. Trans-Men, having grown up as children perceived as girls by their parents, would have different stories, and would not be able to relate as viscerally to the cis-Men’s stories.

Well, that’s a fairly tedious amount of rumination. But I think we can dismiss the notion that there are two genders, Male and Female, easily distinguished and nailed to one’s forehead for life. In other words, immanent. Sorry, college Republicans, your vaunted “rationality” is merely prejudice puffed up with hot air and flown about on a string to call attention to yourselves.

There are Four Genders: Male and Female, with cis and trans modifiers, and one can opt out at will.

This is, in my opinion, defensible. I think you can legitimately say that there are cis-Men, cis-Women, trans-Men, and trans-Women. If you like, you can opt out of the whole thing and be Non-binary.

I haven’t even approached the whole athletic team thing. I think it’s an interesting problem. I don’t have children in school, so my feelings on this may not be as strong as parents who do; I think this give me a better perspective, much as a company might hire a consultant to look at their operation with fresh eyes.

There are two angles to the panic on this: locker room and athletic competition. If you’re a boomer, you would remember how the Soviets would feed hormones to their female athletes to increase their chance of winning. I don’t remember exactly, but I believe there were claims of their surreptitiously entering men into women’s competition. So some say it would not be fair for trans-Female athletes to compete with cis-Female. I don’t think that anyone worries about trans-Male athletes competing with cis-Male, the assumption being they would be less competitive, not more.

Sidebar: The locker-room thing. The premise is that it would be horrible for cis-boys to have non-cis-boys in the locker room with them. We've heard this argument since Robin Herman gained access to NHL locker rooms in 1975. I don't know... I thought it was horrible, as a cis-boy, to be in the locker room with other cis-boys. It is also felt that cis-girls would be threatened by having trans-girls in the locker room with them. Again, I don't know — seems iffy to me. I think there are a lot of varying reactions. I just don't think there is a good way to do locker rooms at all. But that's me.

Is this fair? The reason there are women’s athletics at all is to protect women and girls from being stomped all over by, presumably, larger, stronger, faster, heavier boys. Is this archaic? Is it insulting? I am reminded of an argument about the Voting Rights Act made by Chief Justice Roberts, that there is no such thing as racism anymore, so oversight of voting rules is no longer needed. That was perceived, rightly, as disingenuous and contemptible, and proven to be untrue immediately after the decision. So I don’t think we would want to rush to saying girls don’t need protection from boys anymore. At the same time, I don’t think any boys are rushing to be trans-Girls in order to beat them at a footrace.

Of course, there’s a lot of injustice in athletics: some people are bigger, stronger, faster, etc., than others, and they’ll win a lot. Yes, via hard work and training, people can improve; that, I suppose, is one of the great benefits of athletics for young people. The argument is that if boys, however they identify, compete in girls’ athletics, they will so far outstrip the girls that there is no incentive for the girls to improve themselves anymore, they could never win, and the benefits of athletics would be lost. I don’t know if this is true; I imagine there are Physical Education professionals who study this, under a lot of pressure and oversight from people with very passionate (however uninformed) feelings about this, on all sides. I wouldn’t want to be them, I’ll say that.

Note, the other benefit of athletics is to learn teamwork. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I know very little about sports. My wife actually bought me a book about how to watch baseball; I’m still vague about what a ground-rule double is. That said, I am told that women’s basketball and soccer are quite different than men’s basketball and soccer, in terms of team dynamics. Women play more as a team, passing more, and men tend to grandstand more, and the game is more about setting up the stars for showy plays. I don’t know, I’m sure a true aficionado knows more.

I guess I don’t know how to balance the pedagogical goals of school sports with the rights of young people to identify across genders. Is accommodating the rights of a very small number going to spoil or mar the experience of the vast majority? I sort of doubt it, but I’d like to read more on this topic.

Along with this is the issue of medical treatment for young people under 18, as in gender confirmation treatments, either hormonal or surgical. I don’t know much about this; I tend to be suspicious of surgery on children for non-physical-health reasons. So I personally disapprove of the sweet-16 nose job that some Jewish girls I knew in school got so they could appear (identify as?) non-Jewish. When they’re over 18, sure, whatever, who cares; adults make choices all the time. Sometimes they work out well, sometimes not. An old friend of mine (from the 80s) was an actress; beautiful woman, Jewish, she told me she had a nose job. I couldn’t believe it, it was so perfect. I don’t know that her career benefited from this, but she looked good (I never knew her before, so who knows; I suspect she looked fine before, too). On the other hand, I knew a young man — 19, I think — who moved sets in a play I directed. He had literally run away from home to join the circus when he was 13. He got tattoos. When I knew him, he was saving up to get them removed; they were of Snoopy. Not really appropriate for a big, hulking, masculine dude.

Anyway, if a parent asked me whether I thought they should get hormone treatment for their child younger than 18, I would probably suggest they wait. I can’t understand the inner experience of a trans child, that’s true. Some people believe that gender is nailed to your brain at birth, regardless of the rest of your body, and that it can’t change. That it is immanent. I think that belief is motivated less by thinking it’s true than by the hopes of protecting people from the charge that they’re just posing, or from attempts to convert them. But I suspect that is a bit Procrustean. Just as sexual orientation can change over time (even if only a little), I suspect gender identity may too. I don’t know.

There are N Genders; the value of N is unknown, maybe unknowable

Maybe? I do think that the M/F toggle switch idea is wrong, and that the cM/cF/tM/tF/optout is probably close to something like true. But I also think that while gender is not a toggle or a simple dimmer switch, it’s more like an equalizer board, with many sliders, or even a room full of equalizer boards, all interacting in unpredictable chaotic ways. So maybe there are N genders.

On the other hand, we need to live in a world and cooperate. From the trivial consideration of how to design a form to the much more fraught consideration of schooling, people want answers. And one cay say, and I do, be kind to everyone, don’t bully, teach bullies that it’s wrong and how to stop, and teach victims of bullying how to fight back. That goes a long way, but not all the way.