The Genesis of Gender
In the beginning, there was gender. We all were born into a world in which to be human is to be divided by gender, assigned roles based on gender, and taught to understand ourselves and our relationships with others in terms of gender. We inherited this world from our parents, who inherited it from their parents, and on and on, back to the dawn of humanness, when hominids began extrapolating the physical difference between male and female bodies into systems of meaning that go far beyond genitals, secondary sex characteristics, or reproductive functions.
Though the specifics of gender roles and expression vary widely, there is no culture that does not divide and define individuals, family relationships, and social roles in terms of gender. And though some cultures provide for what are often called “third genders,” even there, the vast majority of people are defined in terms of the local version of the gender binary of male or female.
Feminist activists and scholars, joined in recent decades by gender studies scholars and gay and lesbian studies scholars, have long documented the oppressiveness of the system of binary gender, the limitations and sometimes cruelty of conventional definitions of male and female, and the staggering social inequities and misogyny that grow out of distinguishing men from women. But as Judith Butler demonstrated in Gender Trouble, the pervasiveness of binary gender makes it hard to critique gender without relying on the very categories of maleness and femaleness whose oppressiveness we are exposing. How, for example, can one fight for women’s rights without distinguishing between women and men?
Indeed, the vast majority of gender’s critics, including those who, like Butler, argue that gender is something we do rather than something we are, identify and live as women or men, an irony reminiscent of a joke Woody Allen tells at the end of the movie Annie Hall:
A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, “Hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken.” Then the doc says, “Why don’t you turn him in?” Then the guy says, “I would but I need the eggs.”
Perhaps, as Butler and other gender theorists have suggested, our sense that we are male or female is as imaginary as the brother’s sense that he is a chicken. Certainly, when we contemplate the systems of oppression based on our divisions of humanity into male and female, our insistence on identifying ourselves as men and women seems at least as crazy as the brother’s insistence on identifying himself as poultry. But like the guy who walks into the psychiatrist’s office, most of us seem to need the eggs—the social and psychological benefits that binary gender offers.
When I say “most of us,” I include myself, even though the gender binary model that insists that everyone is either male or female has no place for someone like me. I was born, raised, and lived as a male for forty-five years. But as long as I can remember, my gender identity—my sense of my own gender—has been female. (The technical term for my relationship to gender is “transsexual,” but “transsexual” is a diagnosis, not a gender.) The conflict between the male gender I was assigned at birth and my internal sense of being female was excruciating, and after decades of struggle, I stopped living as a man and began living as a woman. But according to gender binary definitions, which see gender as a consequence of physical sex, I was, am, and always will be male.
You would think that someone who has suffered as much as I have from living in a society that defines everyone as either male or female, and who knows as intimately as I do that those terms cannot account for the diversity of humanity, would abandon binary gender. But despite the decades of suicidal depression that resulted from my efforts to understand myself in terms of the gender binary, and despite the difficulty of living as a woman who doesn’t fit the usual definition of woman, my gender identity remains female, and I express that identity by presenting myself as a woman—because I need the eggs.
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Ladin, Joy. 2015. The Genesis of Gender. Tikkun 30(3): 39.