Thank you for your long response. There’s a lot to digest here. Not sure I DO know more about this than you. ;-)

One of the most important intellectual contributions of Second Wave feminists was the notion that one’s gender is socially constructed; that gender identity is the result of a socialization process that ‘installs’ one of (usually) two socially-sanctioned genders into all of us in the normal course of psycho-social development. It views the developing child as a blank slate upon which culture and society ‘writes’ gender and implied that changes in the socialization of children could potentially eliminate social disparities between the sexes.

Reimer’s case, among others, suggests that the socialization argument may not be entirely correct. But, because we can’t raise children totally outside of culture — to see what genders their uncultured biology would produce — we’ll probably never know. Even biological evidence from adults is suspect: we don’t know if the evidence is the cause or the effect of identifying as a specific gender.

My money’s on a hybrid explanation: gender identity is the result of a complex and dynamic bio/psycho/socio-cultural interaction. In this, I’m strongly influenced by the thinking of Anne Fausto-Sterling. There may be a biological determiner of gender identity that is shaped or channeled by society, but not totally over-ridden by socialization processes. In turn, cultural environment and social behavior shapes the function and structure of the brain, which may reinforce certain gender identifications. This is why looking for ‘the truth’ of transgender people’s sex or gender in their biology is so problematic. It views human biology as some pristine thing that exists outside of culture and society, and that’s just silly. All of our biologies are the product of dynamic interactions with society, culture, and environment. And thinking of just the immune system, learning, or memory, I’m REALLY glad that’s the case!

I’m not well-read in Dworkin but I think the Marxist feminist notion of “sex classes” (not as much fun as they sound!) is really useful for understanding why there’s such a visceral reaction to those whose bodies or identities pose a challenge to the cultural fiction that sex and gender are binary. Why do people react so strongly to a tiny minority that exhibits certain aspects of normal human diversity? Why are blue eyes, red hair, left-handedness, or identical twins — human variations that occur in roughly the same percentage as trans and intersex people — not met with such antipathy? I think that question deserves more thought and analysis. Rights arguments are important but understanding the social, cultural, psychological, sexual, and economic underpinnings of hate is the first step to ending it. Feminist analyses of patriarchy and male-dominance would go a long way to help answer this question (where IMHO theories of homophobia are much less useful).

Michael J. Murphy, MA, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2019). He lives in St. Louis with his husband.

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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