Some Thoughts On Gender Differences.
I recently read a piece in a popular magazine about how self declared radical feminists have not been accepting of transgender men to women claiming that there is no way men can truly understand what it means to be woman not having lived through what women experience from their birth. This has lead me to develop some thoughts on issues concerning gender identity and I would like to share them.
To many people identifying with a gender is important, it forms an integral part of their image of themselves. Even in the case of people who believe in an essential androgyny they still identify with what the experience of living life in a certain gender means, such as in the case above. Here it is possible to assume that people raised without gender expectations would be essentially the same, but at the same time to say that since no one is raised without gender expectations being a certain gender influences ones personality, or at the very least shapes ones life history, and so makes one a member of a community of people with similar life experiences. This then becomes an inherent part of ones internal life story, and such stories are important in creating a sense of self. One sees the same thing in race identification, or for that matter identification with groups of any number of special interests. Believing one is a part of a given group reinforces ones personal experiences, and validates them.
But gender is significant, it is because there is the perception that there is a real biological difference between the sexes, and so that identification with a gender, or the stereotyping of people due to their gender, holds a deeper meaning than if someone is Oriental or Caucasian, for instance, where such stereotyping has a stronger taboo associated with it.
It is pretty obvious that the sexes have different biologies, that would seem to be indisputable, the question becomes to what degree do these differences influence personality devoid of gender expectations during rearing, as it should equally be clear that any sort of rearing expectations influence personality. It is easy to see that there are gender specific traits when one looks at different species of mammals, such as the tendency of males to be solitary and competitive, and the tendency of females to be cooperative and social, having seen these differences in other species one can easily extrapolate those tendencies to humans we know. But there are also mammal species where the mold does not fit, for instance in primates Chimpanzees tend to be more male oriented and violent and Bonobos more female oriented and peaceful.
It is also possible to see how some tendencies associated with gender in humans aren’t culture specific, and that they exist in both cultures with more defined roles and cultures with more open roles. The question we must ask ourselves, though, is to what degree do these gender specific tendencies influence some sort of global gender identity, or are they merely evolutionary artifacts. Just because one may exhibit a particular type of activity due to evolutionary demands does not mean that it reflects on ones inner self, any more than having blue eyes reflects on the nature of ones inner self. There is the chance that having a tendency to engage in certain types of activities due to some evolutionary artifact may in fact cause rearing expectations which further mold behavior, just as much as having blue eyes probably causes rearing expectations which influence personality or being overweight or good looking versus being homely. But one can assume that having blue eyes probably has a minimal effect on the biology of ones personality. What about gender?
First we should probably be clear about the very idea of there being a biology to ones personality. For the sake of this piece I will put forward that there is. From my point of view it is absurd to say that our genetics, which influences every other aspect of our physicality has no influence on our mental state, our adventurism, lets say, or our intelligence. It should be clear that our baseline mental state, the one with which we leave the womb, is not free of influences from our genetics.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the biology of these issues. But it is clear that there are effects on mental states associated with things like hormone levels which are often linked with gender in our minds. This is muddled, however, by the fact that lifestyle choices can also influence hormone levels. Participation in sports, for instance, can affect hormone levels in men and women, as can any number of other environmental factors.
It is fair to say, however, that if you had two people with exactly the same baseline mental state related to genetics aside from gender that they would still have some at least slight difference in their biological state related to gender which would influence their mental state. That being said the influences of lifestyle choices and rearing expectations is significant enough to outweigh this unrealistic scenario.
It is worthwhile to say at this point, well enough, but to what degree does gender influence lifestyle choices which reinforce the baseline genetic state? Yes lifestyle choices help create the biology of ones mental state, yet does one have a bias toward certain lifestyle choices based on gender?
Given the spectrum of human experience, men who exhibit what might be considered female traits or vice a versa, I think it is more proper to say that what we are talking about is more a matter of personality traits than of gender. We tend to associate certain personality traits with certain genders, even though the spectrum of experience within genders may make gender a poor identifier for these traits.
Still these labels remain important to us. They are simple and obvious and easily assumed, and provide us with membership in a group which helps define us. We want to be with others who understand the things that drive us in a deep and unspoken way. This is the case despite the fact that what it means to be male of female may be so diverse as to be confusing when determining actual membership in the group when it is based on such a simple criteria as gender. People may also assume the behaviors of a group to maintain membership even though they do not feel particularly comfortable with them. It is also a widespread problem, not just with gender but also with race, or locality of origin, when one experiences forced inclusion in a group that has a negative social impact associated with it. This then becomes more an issue of equality or justice than of the biological reality of ones baseline or developed state.
The whole argument up to this point has also not addressed the issue of transgender people, who were brought up early on in this piece. While I have read that some people believe that male to female transgender moves are merely a case of fetishism of the female form, driven by erotic desire to control the female form, and that female to male transgender moves are about emancipation I find these arguments to be superficial. It should be noted how visceral the experience of children is who experience gender identification issues. These children are clearly identifying strongly with something outside the perceived norm of their role, but what exactly are they identifying with? Given the inability to fully understand what it means to live in another’s skin, as it were, one must wonder that they are really believing they are a different gender. More than likely they are identifying with what they perceive the gender represents, and that assuming that gender more fully puts forward an image that speaks for what they are. The complexity of personal identities is such that female and male cannot be simply put into a box. These people need to make an expression of what they are that is not what others believe, the gender becomes a uniform for the reality.
This concept is especially pertinent when one considers that much of displayed sexual identity is costuming. The courting of others involves rituals of display far removed from issues of core identity. So it is easy to imagine that one experiencing confusion over ones sexual identity may associate display with identity, when in point of fact the two may be far removed.
I would even be willing to accept that on some level we are dealing with archetypes of character, not of gender, and that these are archetypes of great power which we recognize on an almost genetic level, although I admit that this is taking the argument to an extreme point which may be untenable.
And here an important point comes up. That is that while I would put forward that gender does play a role in who we are it is probably smaller than many of us would think. On the other hand there are other genetic factors which play a huge role in who we are. Compelling anecdotal evidence from parents would have us believe that children are born with an inherent personality, children are not born as blank slates upon which parents can write through rearing strategies, rather children are born with specific identities which may be guided according to rearing strategies. Gender is clumsy as an indicator of personality type. People who are transgender may indeed be born with identities which are not in sync with what the cultural perception of their gender is, but gender merely becomes the straw man for a slew of other issues, and when one finds relief in changing gender one is finding relief in assuming a different stereotype of personhood, this has less to do with there being some sort of cosmic difference between men and women than it does with social expectations.
So to sum up I would like to put forward that while we do have natural states to our being, including our mental state, based on our biology of which gender is a part we are still both molded by our environment and also by our own lifestyle choices. All of these influences on our being are so diverse that we undoubtedly associate a disproportionate effect to gender, simply because it is such an obvious marker of what we are, and cultural roles associated with gender run so deep. In other words it plays a part but we give it a far broader meaning than it actually has. Some peoples willingness to assume gender roles undoubtedly affects this perception.
This discussion is also heavily influenced by generation, as women continue their decades long advancement in playing a greater role in work and policy making, and men continue their decades long transition to playing a greater role in domestic affairs, the perception of what gender means may be drastically different for older and younger generations. This is not simply superficial, roles do influence states of being, a man today is probably different on a fundamental level than a man of 1950 was, and this plasticity of being is a key point here. We are influenced by our biology, but we also create our biology, the give and take between those two define what we are.