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What Gender? The Evolving Definition of Sexual Identity

Do you identify as a man or woman — or something else?  For most Americans, the answer is simple, either female or male.  Behind this conventional definition of self-identity, a profound shift in sexual being is underway.

Trystan Reese gave birth to a boy, Leo Murray Chaplow, on July 14, 2017.  Reese is a transgender man living in Portland, OR, with his partner of seven years, Biff Chaplow.  At the time of the birth, the couple were raising two children, Chaplow’s niece and nephew.  The couple, reflecting on the birth, joyfully said, “We are so lucky to have been able to welcome him into our lives and cannot wait to see who he grows up to be.”

A year earlier, on February 10, 2016, 19-year-old hermaphrodite, Jose Maria Garcia, gave birth to two twins at Manila’s Amisola Maternity Hospital.  Most amazing, the babies are reported also to be hermaphrodites, displaying physical characteristics and genitals of both genders.  Dr. Xi Huan Chow, the hospital’s medical director, called it a “miraculous event.”

In January 2015, Hayley Haynes, from Bedford, UK, gave birth to twin girls.  At 19, while showing signs of puberty, she had not begun to menstruate.  Extensive medical tests determined she did not have ovaries, fallopian tubes or a vagina nor was she had been born with XY chromosomes.  Physiologically speaking, she was genetically male.  Together with her husband Sam, she benefited from an IVF procedure and is a mother of twins.

In 2008, Thomas Beatie, dubbed by some “The Pregnant Man,” was the first reported trans male to became pregnant through artificial insemination in the U.S. He retained his female reproductive organs after gender transitioning and gave birth to a child and, subsequently, two more.  Still other cases of trans people giving birth have been reported.

After a millennium of denial, sexual self-identity is becoming a more complex – more honest – category of personal being and social life.  For millennia, people were identified as either male or female; however, for as long as humans were human, a separate category of “other” persisted.  There have always been those who existed outside the conventional male-female axis.  Today, the other is beginning to go mainstream, with gender differences acknowledged as a defining feature of human experience and identity, no longer a deviance.

For millennia, the Christian West — along with other global system of belief – imposed a biologically-grounded belief that there were only two genders, male and female.  But what if this is not the case? What if gender is, like sexuality and self-identity, more complex, more varied, and changes over time?

***

Sexual identity and gender identity are not the same.  In simplest terms, gender refers to who one “is,” while sexuality refers to who “one has sex with.”  These differences are often collapsed leading to confusion.

In January 2017, National Geographic published a useful background article by Robin Marantz Henig outlining the scientific aspects of gender.  It notes that “gender is an amalgamation of several elements: chromosomes (those X’s and Y’s), anatomy (internal sex organs and external genitals), hormones (relative levels of testosterone and estrogen), psychology (self-defined gender identity), and culture (socially defined gender behaviors).”

It then adds, “And sometimes people who are born with the chromosomes and genitals of one sex realize that they are transgender, meaning they have an internal gender identity that aligns with the opposite sex — or even, occasionally, with neither gender or with no gender at all.”

The author grounds gender within the spectrum of human physiology:

Sex differentiation is usually set in motion by a gene on the Y chromosome, the SRY gene, that makes the proto-gonads turn into testes. The testes then secrete testosterone and other male hormones (collectively called androgens), and the fetus develops a prostate, scrotum, and penis. Without the SRY gene, the proto-gonads become ovaries that secrete estrogen, and the fetus develops female anatomy (uterus, vagina, and clitoris).

But the SRY gene’s function isn’t always straightforward. The gene might be missing or dysfunctional, leading to an XY embryo that fails to develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a girl. Or it might show up on the X chromosome, leading to an XX embryo that does develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a boy.

The complex and ever-evolving physiology of human sexuality predates by millennia socially-constituted sexual identity or gender roles.

A century ago, the leading sex researcher was Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin and it existed from 1919-1933, until the Nazis closed it down and famously burned its legendary library; he coined the term transvestite and is the author of The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress (1910).  Anticipating changes that were yet to come, he famously noted: “The number of actual and imaginable sexual varieties is almost unending; in each person there is a different mixture of manly and womanly substances, and as we cannot find two leaves alike on a tree, then it is highly unlikely that we will find two humans whose manly and womanly characteristics exactly match in kind and number.”

A half-century later, America’s sexual culture began to be transformed due to changes fostered by the post-WW-II consumer revolution.  Alfred Kinsey and Harry Benjamin played critical roles in this process.

Kinsey has been the subject of numerous biographies and a successful Hollywood movie starring Liam Neeson.  He was a PhD biologist, professor of entomology and zoology, and is identified with Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, William Masters & Virginia Johnson, Margaret Sanger and Gregory Pincus (inventor of “the Pill”) as a person who helped define modern sexuality.  Mainstream postwar Americas were shocked, shocked, by the revelations about male and female sexuality revealed in Kinsey and his associates’ now-classic studies – Sexual Behavior of Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior of Human Female (1953).  They represent a landmark in not only empirical research, but moral philosophy as well.

Perhaps the most controversial section of the 1948s 800-page study is a detailed analysis of adult male homoeroticism.  It touched one of the deepest societal nerves by reminding readers that “a considerable portion of the population, perhaps the major portion of the male population, has at least some homosexual experience between adolescence and old age.”  So shocking, it was a New York Times bestseller even though the august newspaper refused to review the book or allow the publisher to place an add.

Kinsey and his team revised the popular tri-part model of human sexuality — i.e., heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual — into a seven-point spectrum.  The new model ran from zero to six in terms of sexual proclivity, or heterosexual-to-homosexual scale; the data was based on the reported sexual practices of his subjects. Each point delineated a very imprecise distinction between men engaged in exclusive heterosexual to exclusive homosexual acts and—with any bell-curve—the greatest segments of the population concentrated somewhere in the middle. For Kinsey, there were no “homosexuals” or, for that matter, “heterosexuals” — only men engaged in sexual acts that were labeled the one or the other.  Five years later, in Sexual Behavior of Human Female, Kinsey and his team would find an equally-complex sexual culture among American women.

Benjamin was an MD endocrinologist who was among the first medical professionals to treat and study transsexuals; he is author of the pioneering study, The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966).  He provided hormone therapy to America’s most celebrated transgender personality, Christine Jorgenson, as part of her gender reassignment procedure.

In 1952, George Jorgensen, of the Bronx, was a 26-year-old former private in the U.S. Army who traveled to Denmark to undergo a gender reassignment procedure led by Dr. Christian Hamburger, what was then known as a “sex change” operation.  Returning to New York as Christine Jorgensen, her daring gained a famous Daily News headline: “Ex-GI Becomes Beauty.”  Accompanying photos show a reportedly meek, retiring guy left New York and a glamorous, sexy gal returned.  The new Jorgensen appears with high cheekbones, long eyelashes, full, painted lips, wearing a stylish hat and wrapped in a full-length fur coat.

In 1966, Benjamin introduced a modified Kinsey, but more formal, scale, the Sex Orientation Scale (SOS) categorizing those with gender identity issues.

Type 1 – Transvestite – (Pseudo)

Type 2 – Transvestite – (Fetishistic)

Type 3 – Transvestite – (True)

Type 4 – Transsexual – (Non-Surgical)

Type 5 – Transsexual – (Moderate Intensity)

Type 6 – Transsexual – (High Intensity)

Benjamin’s model, the Standards of Care, remains the cornerstone of the de-facto guidelines for treating sexual reassignment, the WPATH (World Professional Association of Transgender Health) standards.

However, over the last decade or so, the rise of the gender nonconforming community, notably among young people and some gender-theory academics, is fostering a fuller range of sexual identity, one recalling — if unacknowledged – Hirschfeld.  This shift is gender consciousness is exemplified by leading social networking sites that have moved beyond the conventional identities of male or female, gay or straight.  Facebook has more than 50 options, ranging from “Agender” to “Intersex” to “Two Spirit”; Tinder, the dating app, offers 37 options, including allowing a person to create their own identity.

***

Donald Trump’s presidency relaunched the culture wars.  One of his first executive orders reversed Obama-era protections of transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.  In 2016, while a candidate, Trump opposed the North Carolina anti-LGBT bathroom bill, saying, “Leave it the way it is right now, there have been very few problems, leave it the way it is.”  Caitlyn Jenner, probably the most well-known public transgender personality and formerly known as Bruce Jenner, supported Trump, but now has second thoughts.

In 2012, Trump, then owner of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, changed the organizations’ official rules so that a 23-year-old contestant, Jenna Talackova, could compete in the Miss Universe Canada contest.  Talackova lived as a female since the age of 4 years and had undergone sex reassignment 4 years earlier.  Nevertheless, she was initially disqualified from the contest because she was born a male.  Following legal threats and critical media reports, Trump conceded and Talackova competed.

He recently issued an executive order to bar transgender Americans from serving in the U.S. military.  In the U.S., there is an estimated 1.4 million transgender adults and, as the Rand Corp. reports, between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender soldiers out of 1.3 million active-duty troops.  The Sec. of Defense, James Mattis, a former Marine general, refuses to implement the presidential directive.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) is a traditionalist evangelical Christian organization that promotes what it calls a “complementarian” — rather than egalitarian – concept of gender issues.  It recently released a “declaration” — the Nashville Statement — calling for Christian followers to adhere to traditional definitions of biological-determined sexual identity and conventional heterosexual marriage.  Christianity Today reports that about 150 “conservative Christian leaders” endorsed the statement, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  They are fighting to resist broader social forces promoting gender nonconformity.

Fighting a losing battle is nothing new for the religious right.  A century ago, they successfully enact the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing the failed program of Prohibition.  Three decades ago, CBMW issued a declaration — the Danvers Statement — attacking the threat of feminism, whether in society or the church.  In reaction to the rise of 2nd generation feminism, the leadership of the religious-right promoted “vocational homemaking,” a wife’s submission in marriage and “God’s design for self-conception as male or female.”  In its most recent pronouncement, CBMW identified transsexual as suffering from a physical condition they had little control over and urged them to accept the “God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.”

Over the last half-century, the nation’s sexual culture has profound changed. The once sexually forbidden became acceptable, the new normal.  Pleasure came to be accepted as – if not more — important than procreation as the reason for engaging in sex.  The widespread use of contraceptives, the right to an abortion, the right to engage in consensual sodomy has legitimized a commercial sex industry with $50 billion in annual revenues.  The current social struggle over the redefinition of gender and sexuality is the latest effort to achieve a fuller conception of self-identity.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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