more on classifying gender

Last week I wrote about the Olympic Committee’s decision to test female athletes who were suspected of being male. Jennifer Finney Boylan has written more on the subject in a New York Times Op-Ed, “The XY Games,” which appeared on 30 June 2008. Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College in Maine, is the author of two books: She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted. In her Op-Ed Boylan writes:

It would be nice to live in a world in which maleness and femaleness were firm and unwavering poles. People can be forgiven for wanting to live in a world as simple as this, a place in which something as basic as gender didn’t shift unsettlingly beneath our feet.

But gender is malleable and elusive, and we need to become comfortable with this fact, rather than afraid of it.

She argues against testing athletes by questioning both the method of the testing and the life-changing implications of how the results are read and the intrusive nature of both. Her solution:

Most efforts to rigidly quantify the sexes are bound to fail. For every supposedly unmovable gender marker, there is an exception. There are women with androgen insensitivity, who have Y chromosomes. There are women who have had hysterectomies, women who cannot become pregnant, women who hate makeup, women whose object of affection is other women.

So what makes someone female then? If it’s not chromosomes, or a uterus, or the ability to get pregnant, or femininity, or being attracted to men, then what is it, and how can you possibly test for it?

The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person’s life, the lives we live each day. Surely the best judge of a person’s gender is not a degrading, questionable examination. The best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart.

Today, Neil Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation observed that investigations into the heart of the individual would be just as if not more invasive than the testing measures in place today. His point is well taken; but, so is Boylan’s.

We need to find a way of discussing gender that includes more than just male and female. Jeffrey Eugenides’ phenomenal Middlesex makes that case clear enough. But, we also need to begin to have conversations about how we classify everything, not just gender: marriage, citizen, ethnicity, enemy, terrorist, worthy of credit, poverty levels, and so forth. As more data is stored about us, our actions, and our beliefs (password protected), how we are classified in those databases will have real word and, I fear, devastating implications for many of us. Perhaps by discussing gender now we can begin a process of moving the discussion of classification systems out of scholarly books and articles and into mainstream discussion.

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