Monday, February 10, 2014

Sex, Gender, Orientation

Here's a simple pair of questions for you: If you woke up tomorrow to find your sex changed, would it affect your gender? Would it affect your orientation?

To be a little more direct, if you're female and woke up in the body of a man, would it change your gender or orientation? Ask enough people, eventually you'll get every possible combination of yes and no answers to those two questions. I find it mystifying that most respondents answer these questions with unequivocal certainty. Why mystifying? Who do you know who's ever experienced such a change? Sudden, unbidden, complete? No one.

So, how can you be so sure?

One response I get is that gender is a mental construct, so changing someone's physical sexual attributes does not alter gender. Okay. I can see why you this might be so. If you don't ever feel female, can you actually identify as female? A growing, vocal transgender population says no. Still, this concept of gender as a construct remains unfamiliar to most people, regardless of education. Liberal talk show host Piers Morgan recently made himself look crude and transphobic in his interview with author Janet Mock, primarily through a simple lack of understanding. Matt Kailey, in his blog Tranifesto, succinctly explains the things you should never say to a transgender individual, and Piers, in all fairness to his detractors, hit almost every one of them. Katie Couric fared even worse in interviewing Carmen Carrera. Both hosts, I would contend, simply did not understand the concept of gender construction (okay, Couric also asked some blatantly stupid questions, tantamount to, "So, tell us about your genitals."). You see, when you use a phrase like "gender construction," many listeners mistakenly interpret it to mean that gender is a choice. No. Gender presentation is a choice. A preference for one set of gender pronouns is a choice. Even sexual morphology (to the surgical degree) is a choice. Gender? Not so much. Your mind and body will tell you whether you're male or female (or neither or a little of both), but you really don't have much (or possibly any) choice.

So, if you are decidedly female in your sexual morphology and gender, and you get inexplicably transformed physically and biologically male, are you female or male? Initially, I'd guess you're probably going to remain female. The question that arises for me is, how long will you remain female? How much of gender construction is reasoned? How much genetic? Consider, if you were initially a typical, average woman, and some magic suddenly poofed you male, what would that mean? Understand, I'm talking about male all the way down to the chromosomes. So, let's say you were initially 5'6" tall and weighed 120 pounds and sported all the usual female curves: breasts, buttocks, hips. Internally, of course, you had all the usual female plumbing and lots of female hormones. Microscopically, your cell nuclei contained no Y chromosomes. Let's say you were in your early thirties. You might even have had children.

But after the change, you're 5'11" and 185 pounds. Your skeletal structure is denser. You have larger joints, larger muscles, a larger nose, more body hair, and a blockier jaw. Your bloodstream contains massive amounts of testosterone. Your voice is deeper; your plumbing is different; you need to shave every day or grow a beard. You, in other words, have Y chromosomes.

So, assuming this change is permanent and irreversible, in a month or two, in a year, will you still think yourself a woman? Personally, I doubt it.

On a related topic, what about your orientation? If you were a normal straight woman, are you still attracted to men? Now, this one seems like a no-brainer to some folks, but I'm not so sure. A lot of (mostly self-appointed) sex experts like to claim that the brain is the most powerful sex organ. That may be, but does that mean the brain—the mind, really—can trump the endocrine system?

Consider this: when my baby brother (straight, married three times, father of two) was just 7 years old (I was 9), he and I discovered my Dad's cache of Playboy magazines. Yes, they were at the bottom of his sock drawer.  Our parents found us out, and my mother insisted that my father talk with us. Not The Talk, but she wanted him to answer our questions—if we had any—just to be sure we didn't go through high school asking pretty girls to show us the staples in their abdomens.

My brother asked what has to be the Classic Boy's-First-Look Question: "Daddy, when I look at those pictures, why does my pee-pee get hard?"

Seven years old, easily five years before puberty, chubby little pre-tween cherub with no concept of sexual orientation, seeing a naked woman gave him an erection. His body already knew his orientation (he'd seen naked men in the changing room at the swimming pool with no such effects). This was not a mental effect or a learned attraction. He didn't even understand that the erection had anything to do with attraction. And his story is not unusual.

My point is simply that orientation just might be largely genetic. So, if it were possible to change your chromosomes from XX to XY, would it affect your orientation? To make matters even more complex, what if you were initially a lesbian? Would you, as a man, still be attracted to women, or would the gay genetic function cause your attractions to shift?

I'm not trying to force a decision on these questions. I honestly don't believe we can answer them. Eventually, state-of-the-art transgender surgery might be able to accomplish something like this, but at the moment, we're a long way off.

I've written a pair of novels exploring some aspects of these questions—one urban fantasy (Gifts) and one science fiction novel (Ain't No Grave). In both, I examine the transition from male to female. Gifts is available for Kindle as of 13 March 2014. I'm planning to market the science fiction novel through more traditional channels.

I will let you know when each book is available.

Think I missed something or that I'm just way off target? Let's hear your version.

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