Saturday, November 23, 2013

Do We Really Need Gender?

We’wha also took advantage of his time in Washington to try out activities he might not have engaged in at home. He took up knitting, a male craft among the Zunis. Although he told a reporter that he planned to give it up when he returned, he must have had some previous knowledge of the craft, and it is interesting to note that he felt free to experiment in this way. 
-- Will Roscoe,The Zuni Man-Woman, University of New Mexico Press, 1991, p. 63
I've been haunted by this anecdote ever since I first read it.  We'wha (1849-1896) was a Zuni lhamana (or "man-woman"), probably the most famous "two-spirit" person in American history thanks to Will Roscoe's book about him.  In 1886 he visited Washington, D.C., as a "cultural ambassador."  He met President Grover Cleveland and received a lot of publicity.  Taken to be female, he was referred to in the press as a Zuni princess, "demonstrated Zuni weaving at the Smithsonian, [and] appeared at the National Theater in a theatrical event".  He then returned to New Mexico and died ten years later of tuberculosis, not even fifty years old.

The reason I find this story about We'wha so poignant is that the institutions surrounding two-spirit people are romanticized by many gay people today, as a symbol of pre-Columbian peoples' supposedly greater freedom of gender and sexuality.  As a lhamana, We'wha dressed in clothing styles worn by Zuni women, and did the work assigned by their culture to Zuni women.  There are men for whom that would be freedom enough, but it seems that We'wha chafed at the restrictions of his society, and when he was far away from the reservation he felt free to do a little bit of men's work, knowing he'd have to give it up when he went back home.  Whether he thought of knitting as men's work, or simply as something he wanted to do, we'll never know, but in any case he could only do it when he was away from his family and home.  And that strikes me, with my Western individualistic standards of personal freedom, as unutterably sad.

"Gender" may be the most confusing concept I've ever grappled with.  And I'm not the only person who's confused: everybody else is too, as far as I can tell.  So one benefit of having read Two-Spirit People is that it gave me some idea, not what "gender" really means, but why it probably doesn't mean anything.  Roscoe's story about We'wha fits with the account I'm trying to construct here.

There were several goads to me in the articles I read in Two-Spirit People.  Jean-Guy A. Goulet's "The Northern Athapaskan 'Berdache' Reconsidered" dismantled an anthropologist's account of "female berdaches" among the Kaska of the Yukon, based on some biased misreadings of interviews with Kaska informants.  John H. Honigmann, the anthropologist in question, tried to find cross-dressing women in a society where, on his own account, men and women dressed pretty much alike; to find women doing men's work in a society where "autonomy and management in the bush all year round were emphasized for both males and females" (Goulet, 53); and to read young women's reluctance to be forcibly impregnated by young men as evidence that they preferred other girls as sexual partners.  (Recall Sabine Lang's claim that "In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between two men or two women -- two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender."  Honigmann assumed that [what he thought was] gender nonconformity was a sign of homosexuality.)  Some other writers in Two-Spirit People referred to Goulet's discussion as a reminder that sharply polarized roles for men and women weren't universal among American Indians.

Then there was Wesley Thomas's attempt to define and rationalize Navajo terms for gender variation, "Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality."  He concluded "for the time being" (161) that "the older Navajo people recognize five traditional gender categories" (158), which involve combinations of male or female bodies with masculine or feminine genders in varying degrees.  Evidently the Navajo have more sharply polarized roles for men and women than the Kaska do: there is men's work and there's women's work, though some individuals cross the boundaries.  For example:
As one of the original people in the Navajo origin stories, feminine males performed and were responsible for work also performed by women.  The tradition continues to an extent.  Some of the work feminine-male people do includes cooking at religious gatherings, weaving, household chores, and tending children [161].
As the title of his article indicates, Thomas is aware that these work assignments are "cultural constructions," but he still talks as though men's work and women's work are pre-cultural categories.   He also seems to take bodies fairly seriously: if what counts is femininity and masculinity and the work assigned to them, who cares whether a person has a male or a female body?  It's the spirit that (supposedly) counts, not the body.

So too, Jason Cromwell elsewhere in Two-Spirit People quotes a "Latino FTM" (female-to-male transgendered person) as saying, "I don't mix or blend my gender.  What I am is a man with a female body" (130).  But what is this "man" that Cromwell's informant speaks of, that's independent of body configuration?  And what is unmixed or unblended in the idea of "a man with a female body"?  Like many identity statements, this is a pledge of allegiance (like, say, "I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free") that conveys no real information.

Another contributor, Arnold J. Pilling, surveyed census and other records of two-spirit people a hundred years ago, and found that they didn't all fit the platonic model of the invert: in some cases, "their cross-dressing consisted primarily of wearing women's caps from an adjacent tribe; otherwise, each dressed mainly in male ritual costume while curing"(84).  Nor were all of them shamans or other religious specialists, as the popular consensus has it.  Still other writers talked about "multiple genders," as it became obvious that two-spirit people were as varied as contemporary gay people or any other category.  Claire R. Farrer wrote of a Mescalero Apache "singer of ceremonies" she called Bernard Second:
Bernard knew much more than did any regular man or woman as a consequence of being a multigendered person.  He was identified as being special from the age of seven, when he began his training as a singer and linguist.  Only as he aged did he realize he was supergendered.  He was consciously taught men's things and knew them impeccably: how to hunt, skin, and butcher animals; how to protect his family -- especially his sisters in his matrilineage; how to do morning prayers; and how to read the sky.  He also was taught, and was expert in, women's things: how to weave a basket, how to make a cradle for a newborn baby and how to prepare food and clothing.  He never offered an explanation of why he was multigendered, saying only that he did men's and women's work because "the Vision [that he had as a seven-year-old boy] told me how my people would come to me one day and say, 'O! My Brother! Show me how to do the old things.'  And they do!"

... It is a positive gift to be multigendered but also it is a burden for -- at least at Mescalero -- it means being several different people confined in one body [237].
And here the argument went off the edge, as it became clear to me that some of these scholars were using "gender" in a very odd way.  It sounded as if they thought that any variation in any trait constituted a gender difference, so that wearing a woman's hat was a gender, and being good at cooking but not doing laundry was another gender, while being good at cooking and doing laundry was yet another, and so on.  This leads to a reductio ad absurdum, where you have a gender (and maybe even more than one gender) for every individual, depending on his or her age, or mood, or the day of the week.  We'wha, for example, would have had a different gender than another lhamana like him in most respects but who didn't want to knit.  Maybe We'wha changed gender when he went to DC and took up knitting, and changed back when he returned home and gave it up.

(It also occurs to me that Bernard's greater knowledge of both men's and women's work is a difference of degree, not of kind, and nothing to do with gender per se.  Evidently Bernard didn't think of himself as "two-spirit," which isn't surprising since the term wasn't coined until after his death.  Again, it's remarkable how people who'd refuse to label non-Western people "homosexuals" see no objection to labeling them with other terms they would not have used, like "two-spirit" or "multigendered."  Notice that as Farrar quotes Bernard, he described his calling not in terms of gender, but in terms of teaching people the "old things," both men's and women's.  But the wise Western anthropologist knows better than the simple, unschooled indigene, I guess.)

It also would have to count why a man did "women's" work, or vice versa.  If a man cooks meals and does laundry because he's in the army and is required to do such menial work, his identity and subjectivity are different from those of a man who becomes a professional chef or runs a laundry to support his family, and both are different from a male who does these things because he's a woman in a male body and believes that only a woman should cook and wash clothes, preferably for her man.  These would be three different genders.  I'm spelling these examples out in (no doubt) tedious detail in hopes of making the consequences of postulating multiple genders as clear as possible.

This all leads me to doubt whether it makes any sense to speak of two-spirit people in their various forms as a third (let alone fourth or fifth) gender.  They are not (on Wesley Thomas's account, which fits with others') something other than male or female, masculine or feminine, men or women, but combinations of pre-cultural male and female essences in varying amounts.  By this logic, mixed-race people would be third or fourth or fifth or thirty-second "races" depending on the degree or "racial" mixture they inherit; and "sexual orientations" would be as manifold as points on the Kinsey continuum.  The number of genders would approach the number of human beings in the world, with at least one gender for each person.

So American Indian conceptions of gender -- which, remember, vary widely between nations -- are not really so different from Western conceptions.  (Compare the Jungian anima and animus, female and male principles, supposedly present in both sexes in different proportions.  Since they occur in both sexes, it makes no sense to gender them at all.)   Even in contemporary American culture, gender is a troublesome concept, but it doesn't seem that American Indians had better ideas.  Two-spirit Navajo/Oneida contributor Carrie H. House refers to "he-shes and she-hes" as "those who hold in balance the male and female, female and male aspects of themselves in the universe", again speaking of "male and female, female and male" as if they were pre-cultural principles, aspects of the world separate from and prior to the cultural understandings of human beings.  There's good reason to believe they aren't.

Everybody balances "female and male aspects of themselves", because in both human biology and psychology, both sexes combine "female" and "male" qualities.  Testosterone, for example, is conventionally called a "male hormone" and estrogen a "female hormone," but both hormones occur in every human body, only in differing proportions.  Both males and females have nipples, though they're only functional for nursing in females, and not all the time even for them.  Colette Dowling, in The Frailty Myth (Random House, 2000), reports research which found that girls do better overall than boys on fitness tests until their early teens, despite the official standards which expect them to do worse:
At twelve and thirteen [girls] fell behind in sit-ups, and only a handful could meet the boys’ criteria in pull-ups, but their scores overall were so high, they were the fitness winners hands down. So here’s the obvious question, as put by the researchers: “If prepubescent girls are physiologically capable and data from several studies have found no significant differences between boys’ and girls’ performances on fitness test items, then why are American fitness test standards noticeably different for boys and girls of the same age?" [88]
The professor who told sports sociologist Michael Messner, "I always thought that there was something about the female arm that made it impossible to throw [a baseball] like a man," or the Andalusian villagers who told the anthropologist David Gilmore that a married man who helped his wife with the cooking was "performing tasks absolutely unnatural to the male physiology and musculature" (Manhood in the Making, Yale 1990, p. 54) were basically in agreement with American Indian gender norms: if a male does women's work, he's not a man; if a woman throws a baseball like a man, she's not a woman.  Physiological differences between the sexes to justify behavioral differences  are simply invented, as these examples show.  (I think I read somewhere that elementary school boys asserted dogmatically in the 1980s and 1990s that girls can't ride skateboards or play video games because they're built differently than boys.  It goes without saying that these boys had no basis for these claims beyond wishful thinking.)

Psychologically, the differences between males and females are also relative, with greater overlap than difference between the sexes. Dowling again, on psychological testing which aimed to isolate masculinity and femininity:
Over 40 percent of men score above the median on traits considered feminine, and over 40 percent of women score above the median on traits considered masculine -- a substantial overlap if one is looking for attributes to define femininity and masculinity.

Scholars of gender difference constructed these scales, Beall reveals, by selecting questions that men and women responded to differently and then making up a scale accordingly. “The responses that males gave were called masculine and the responses females gave were called feminine,” wrote Beall, who was blowing the whistle on the scale makers, who in essence were creating the difference they were supposed to be discovering. Nineteenth-century concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” remained entrenched in the twentieth, she explains, because investigators never questioned “the theoretical justification for such traits and just assumed the existence of masculinity and femininity, even though many of the scales were not quantitatively reliable.” In such a way can psychologists both create and validate their own theories [49].
The social psychologist Erving Goffman wrote in 1963, before the rise of Second Wave feminism, that
...there are other norms, such as those associated with physical comeliness, which take the form of ideals and constitute standards against which almost everyone falls short at some stage in his life. And even where widely attained norms are involved, their multiplicity has the effect of disqualifying many persons. For example, in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America; a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective, this constituting one sense in which one can speak of a common value system in America. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself -- during moments at least -- as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior; at times he is likely to pass and at times he is likely to find himself being apologetic or aggressive concerning known-about aspects of himself he knows are probably seen as undesirable [Stigma, Prentice-Hall, p. 128].
But this rejection of a dualistic model of masculinity/femininity never caught on.  Despite its support by lots of empirical evidence, it inspires deep-rooted resistance.  I've found that many people are intensely bothered by it, including (maybe especially) self-styled gender rebels.  One such person, self-identified as genderqueer, seemed upset when I quoted the woman from Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons's Lesbian/Woman (1972: 81), who,
speaking as the new “woman-identified” woman of Gay Women’s Liberation at the 1971 Council on Religion and the Homosexual symposium, was challenged by someone in the audience because of her apparently masculine attire. But Lynda explained, “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”
I'm not sure why this statement felt liberating instead of threatening to me when I first read it forty years ago.  But while I understand that the recognition that gender differences are culturally relative, variable, and permeable is upsetting for many people, I don't see how it makes that recognition less valid.  Some people have been just as disturbed by the idea that the earth is round, that it moves, that human beings are descended from other animal species, that dark-skinned people are just as human as pinkish-grey ones, that copulation should only occur between males and females, and so on, yet cultural liberals don't feel any obligation to respect their discomfort about abandoning these boundaries -- on the contrary, they find it exhilarating to mock their discomfort.  But their discomfort should, they believe, be respected.

This is a difficult position to work out, however.  Cultural distinctions are important, and possibly even "real" for some version of that word.  I understand that for many people, assigning certain clothing, hairstyles, work, and other practices to one sex or the other is comforting and meaningful.  These are among the ways of mapping the world that all human beings engage in.  No one is harmed if I, an anatomical male, choose to wear a dress or lipstick, but in order to assert that I must also break the connection between anatomy and culture, "sex" and "gender."  Many people, including many of the transgendered, want to break that connection while still asserting that it's meaningful: that if a woman pees standing up or a man pees sitting down, that's an expression of an essential maleness or femaleness, not a matter of choice and comfort.  They want to maintain the fiction (or myth, in a certain sense of that word) of two distinct, mutually exclusive, essential, natural, pre-cultural genders, but that fiction is unsustainable.

In the long run that fiction is also harmful, even when it includes a loophole like "two-spirit."  (Which, as I've shown, is a dubious one anyway.)  It puts invalid limits on what individuals can do, it allows and requires people to be persecuted for failing to conform to the norm, and the misery it causes many is inextricable from the sense of belonging and fitting that it provides to others.  That doesn't mean that people shouldn't be free to dress, manipulate, decorate, and modify their bodies as they choose, only that that freedom doesn't mean I must accept their account of what they are doing.  A male in a dress and makeup is not thereby a woman, no matter how strongly he feels like one; just as a male who receives another male's penis into his body isn't a woman, even if he maps that experience in terms of maleness and femaleness.  These distinctions and boundaries must be recognized as human constructions, not natural kinds (though even natural kinds do not always constrain us), and as conventional, even arbitrary.  There is no anatomical reason why men should knit and women not, or vice versa.

Can human beings get along without gender -- without, that is, assigning a halo of behaviors to each biological sex?  I doubt it; if we could, we probably would have done so already.  The reproductive difference between males and females is natural, and gender conservatives like to appeal to that.  We are born from female bodies, not male, and until recently, only women could nurse infants (though not always the same women who gave them birth).  But human beings assign gender to traits and behaviors that go far beyond those very limited basic ones, and they cling just as fiercely to them.  The assignment of gender apparently starts in infancy, and what we learn that early is often very difficult to unlearn later.  Unlearn it we must, though, and we must protect children from other children's fantasies about what boys and girls should be.  The same goes for adults, of course.  Unfortunately, most adults' hearts aren't into providing that protection most of the time.

I've referred to We'wha with masculine pronouns in this post partly because Roscoe did, but mainly to try to bring the gender dissonance of a lhamana into greater relief.  To call him "she" would make his adoption of women's clothing and work seem more "natural" to Euro-Americans, by defining his sex according to the work he did.  But his family and neighbors knew perfectly well that he was male.  The role of a lhamana is not, as far as I can tell, to be a woman, but to be a male living as a woman, and that's an important difference.  I'm also thinking of Ursula K Le Guin's line "The King was pregnant," from The Left Hand of Darkness.  Set on a planet whose dominant intelligent species is sexually neutral for most of the time, but become male or female for brief periods of time: the same person might sire children or bear them at different times of life.  Le Guin has said she loved writing that sentence.

In her contribution to Two Spirit People the anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood complains that Roscoe "calls We'wha 'he' despite the fact that We'wha lived as a woman and was perceived as a woman by Western anthropologists" (285); I wouldn't have thought that Western anthropologists' perceptions had any authority in this case, since their inability to comprehend American Indian cultures is precisely what's being criticized in this work.  While We'wha "lived as a woman," he wasn't a woman in his own society, he was a "man-woman."  (A woman doesn't "live as a woman," she is a woman.)  To categorize him as a woman would be to surrender to Western categories, not to respect Zuni ones.

As an analytic classification, gender needs to go.  As Lynda said, whatever a female does is feminine; whatever a male does is masculine.  It isn't easy to shed the illusions we construct about gendered essences, but that is a serious thinker's job.