Category Archives: 70 Sexuality and gender

annamagda4christ on “WHAT IS GENDER?” Part 1 (Reblogged)


This post is the first in a series on What is gender?


Probably the greatest challenge in writing a blog about gender is that no one – myself included – has any idea what the damn word means. I risk sounding unbearably flippant, I know, but it’s necessary to clear the air about that abominable word.

And I mean abominable. The problem with “gender” is that it encompasses altogether too many things, to the point where it’s almost meaningless. It’s kinda like the word “science,” which is really a fancy buzzword that could be expanded to include half the universe. When we say “science,” are we talking about the natural world, empirical exploration in general, natural philosophy, peer-reviewed studies, the scientific method(s), anything that’s falsifiable, anything-that’s-not-metaphysics, math?

Gender is even worse. It’s a nice fat term to throw into the fray, but what the hell does anyone mean by it? And yet we need such an all-encompassing word to communicate one of the core human experiences. With all the things that gender may or may not be, one thing that’s certainly true of it is that it’s something we experience.

For much of the history of the English language, “gender” just meant a grammatical designation. Was the word masculine or feminine? What pronouns did you use to refer to a person?

Some readers may ask: why must gender mean anything other than that? After all, the word “sex” is completely sufficient to talk about what we mean by “men” and “women.” The contemporary definition of “gender” is just a postmodern smoke grenade thrown into the mix to confuse people about the natural sexual binary.

On some very basic empirical level, people who throw out that objection are correct. In the animal kingdom, there’s no real need for the word “gender.” Animal bodies are coded as biologically male, female, both, neither, or mixed. It’s simple. It simply is what it is. If an animal is male, it’s male. The reality is purely reproductive – a mechanism of nature within evolution to create diversity and propagate the species.

Human beings are, to the chagrin of some, an entirely different animal (pun intended). While the basic reproductive coding remains the same, the physical reality of this coding is overlapped and transformed by mental, spiritual, interpersonal, and sociological dimensions. Animals are generally divided between male or female, but humans are divided much differently: as Men or Women. We aren’t just biological arrangements, but personalized creatureswho subjectively  experience and embody those biological arrangements. In the animal kingdom a creature simply has a masculine reproductive potential; in humans it is now a Man, a male person, who embodies that potential and swims in a sea of meaning stemming from his experience as that kind of person.

It is in light of this specifically human predicament that we need the word “gender,” because whenever we’re talking about the sex of a human person, we’re always talking about the massive world of meaning-structures attached to that sex.

Even the person’s sex is to some degree socially determined. Yes, a given person may have xy chromosomes and a penis. This is a brute biological fact. However, which of those discrete biological facts makes them (their whole person) male? Are they male because they have a penis? Or because they have xy chromosomes? This becomes an important question – or rather, we realize how important it has always been – when we’re confronted with intersex people, individuals with a mix of biological factors. If a person has xy chromosomes and a vagina, are they male or female? More importantly, are they a Man, Woman, both, or neither?

For more on the social construction of sex, I highly recommend Thomas Laqueur’s book “Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.” 

There’s little argument about the discrete biological factors, and this is why the word “sex” is needed. The intersex person mentioned above in fact has xy chromosomes. They also in fact have genitals with a morphology we’d label “vaginal” and “female-typical.” It’s a brute biological fact. But there’s plenty to argue about regarding which discrete biological fact is determinative of the entire person, and what that determination means for their place in society. And as long as there’s plenty to argue about, we need the word “gender.”


So we’ve established that sex – as opposed to gender – refers to biological factors that often exist on a binary. And gender – as opposed to sex – refers to how we interpret, embody, and personalize those biological factors, as well as all peripheral issues tied to them. The fact remains that we need that second word – gender – simply because humans do in fact interpret, embody, prioritize, and personalize their sex characteristics, and whenever we’re talking about sex, we’re inevitably talking about gender too. So the term is necessary, but it’s useless.

Why is it useless? Because gender means so many different things. When people argue about whether Caitlyn Jenner is a man or woman, more often than not they’re shouting past each other while wielding one particular facet of gender. When people from different parts of the transgender spectrum talk about their identities, they’re often pointing to completely different pieces of the gender puzzle. This is why the narratives of genderqueer and transsexual people often seem to contradict each other. The two groups are usually focusing on different aspects of gender.

So if we’re going to salvage the word, we need to break it down into its components. We need to realize that when the media soundbytes gender, it’s usually taking all these different substances and blending their most superficial aspects into a frankenjuice. Radical feminist gender theory, transsexual personal narratives, social commentaries, sex biology, and drag performance are smeared into one colorless conversation when really there’s about twenty different conversations we need to be having.

Here is a chart where I break down a few (only a few) of the major components of gender and their interactions with each other. As you can see, there’s a lot going on.

Gender breakdown 3Each and every one of these is its own conversation, its own conundrum, and its own locus of problems for people who don’t fit into a gender binary. It’s absolutely vital that we keep all these elements in mind when we talk about gender. If we’re going to talk candidly, we need to break away from the false debate between biological essentialism and gender ideology. Both sides want to reduce sex-gender complexity down to an easily-digestible single idea, but both sides in doing so cover up the factual complexity.

To biological fundamentalists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to what’s between your legs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that male-female sex id is complicated. The fact is that coding blue as “masculine” and pink as “feminine” is a recent historical construct. The fact is that some males are naturally feminine, and it has nothing to do with childhood trauma.

To gender ideologists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to oppressive social constructs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that human sex usually exists dichotomously and bears experiential meaning that goes beyond social groupings. The fact is that many cisgender men and women are naturally masculine and feminine irrespective of social pressure. The fact is that many transsexual people experience first-hand the reality of physiological and hormonal sex differences that go deeper than social conditioning.

In other words, both essentialists and deconstructionists are at once right and wrong. We need to stop parsing out the facts in an oppositional way and start looking at the big picture without taking a side in a cultural agenda. Ockham’s Razor needs to be as discerning as it is useful.

Instead of formally defining each term, I’m going to talk about how they each serve as sites of gender embattlement for people who don’t fit into a rigid binary. There’s an important intersectionality between all people who deal with gender, whether they’re female-to-male transsexual or bronies, and I don’t want to lose that sense of interconnectedness. But since all aspects of gender are so often conflated, I think it’s important to highlight different kinds of gender narratives.

I want to delve somewhat in depth into each of these gender conversations, so as a primer allow me to first outline why each one is its own conversation. Many different people identify as transgender or queer, but not all of them do so for the same reason. An intersex guy who was literally assigned a sex at random by doctors because they couldn’t figure out what he is might identify as transgender because the doctors guessed his biological sex wrong. A transsexual who feels like a woman even though her body is male-typical might identify as transgender because although the doctors perceived her body correctly, they made massive assumptions about her sense of embodiment and how she would experience her sex. A transgenderist who lives as a “male woman” or “female man” might identify as transgender because they don’t fit into the expectations of masculinity or femininity placed upon them and want to live according to the gender expectations placed on the other sex. Agenderqueer person might identify as transgender because they don’t feel like they fit in as a boy or girl and want an identity that will allow them to simply be themselves. Many other people might sympathize with the transgender movement because they have aspects of themselves that are stereotypically associated with the other sex, like sensitivity in men or tomboyishness in women. Each of these “types” of transgender people are headbutting against one aspect of gender, although it’s a different aspect for each of them.

End of Part 1. Proceed to Part 2



This post is the last in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


As a transgender woman who was raised as a boy and is a devout Catholic and devout feminist with a foot in both the gender essentialist and gender deconstructionist camps, I find myself hemmed in on all sides by quibbling voices that have no interest in doing anything but shout at each other. I’m not sure this makes me an expert in anything except the fruitlessness of shouting matches, although I like to believe I’ve gotten an accidental glimpse at a larger vista above and beyond these narrow entrenchments. I’m nervous to express this because in effect I’m disagreeing with everyone, but in another sense I’m finding agreement with everyone.

There’s a lot of liberation activism going on right now, for feminists, transgender, autism, Deaf, #BlackLivesMatter, and all manner of oppressed peoples. I first want to assert that as a follower of Christ, I feel it’s my duty to stand beside all those in pain, and my heart marches with you. Each and every person deserves unconditional respect in light of our dignity as human beings.

I also feel the need to cut some of the bullshit regarding gender. There’s a false cultural dichotomy being set up that creates oversimplified and often unnecessary tensions in discourse on gender liberation.

The previous posts are an elucidation of why I make claims of transsexual embodiment with a grain of salt, stand in solidarity with gender revolutionaries but also have reservations about the transgender ideological campaign, resist the invalidation of radical feminists while also feeling sympathy for the womyn-born-womyn mindset, and both distinguish myself from and relate to intersex individuals. Gender in its complexity is a site of massive intersectionality, and every person for which gender is a battleground is sharing in the same oppression. At the same time, gender is such a factually multi-faceted thing that we need to have more sensitivity, nuance, and room for complexity. Also, given the inescapable import that gender has on our lives, religious claims of gender essentialism need to be considered as more than “patriarchal prattle”; they need to be seen, at the very least, as a memory of humanity’s deep spiritual encounter with gender.

No matter what personal ideologies we hold or oppose, we need to dump less babies in the sewer with our smelly bathwater. There needs to be less “my experience versus yours,” and more collective imagining. Instead of cancelling out sex with gender, or cancelling out gender with sex, why can’t we consider both on their own terms? Instead of putting all the weight on nature or nurture, why can’t we consider both? Instead of using gender non-conforming people as deconstructive principles in academic textbooks, or as specimens of pathology in psychological freak-shows, why can’t we listen to their concerns and how they navigate their tensions?

So allow me a final moment of appeal, as a Catholic, transsexual, male, transgender, woman, feminist, gender idealist, gender anti-ideologue weirdo who finds herself caught very much in the middle of everything.

To fellow Catholics. When we talk about God’s created order, we need to actually talk about the order that was created. Yes, I know humanity is fallen and sin affects every physical and spiritual aspect of our life on Earth, but we really need to consider where our views of gender are coming from. A blind man may be blind because of the Fall, or because God made him that way, or (in Jesus’ words) “that the glory of God may be revealed,” but what’s certain is that he is blind, and his dignity is equal to the most far-seeing Tolkien elf. Steve may be a man like our forefather Adam, but he isn’t Adam; he’s Steve. So however Adam was created in the beginning, Steve was created different. Otherwise he wouldn’t be Steve; he’d be Adam. And yes, “all have sinned through Adam,” sure. But all have been redeemed individually, as themselves, and will stand before the throne of God in their own particular flesh. So before we start talking about “Biblical masculinity,” let’s actually read about the men in the Bible. Before we start talking about the metaphysics of gender, let’s consider (like good hylomorphic Catholics) the physics of sex. Before we start throwing around “natural law,” let’s deeply consider what’s in actual factnatural to man. If the design of the Creator is truly written in nature, then gender is a much more diverse thing than we give Him credit for.

To fellow feminists. Whether you’re a self-identified TERF, queer revolutionary, transfeminist, riot grrrl, or dyke, we need to recognize that these labels are sometimes distracting. Feminism isn’t first and foremost an ideology – it’s a community, or a set of intersecting communities.

It’s not enough that I identify as a woman. It’s not enough to argue about whether I really am or am not a woman. The more pressing matter is that I experience crippling gender oppression all the time. The fact remains that I’ve seen the face of misogyny. The fact remains that I need safe spaces, not to pet my own ego and validate my sense of identity, but to take shelter from the storm of gender oppression and share my experience of feminine embodiment.

We need greater unity. Feminism exists because our culture inherited a patriarchal view of gender that sees Man and Masculinity as the human ideal. This means that everyone who doesn’t conform to maleness, manliness, or masculinity is oppressed. Transsexual men, even though they identify as men, share in your oppression. Transsexual women, even though they were raised as boys, share in your oppression. Even gay men, with all the privilege they’ve gained in the last few decades, share some part in your oppression. The straight cisgender boy who likes My Little Pony and gets beaten up for it – he too experiences something of your oppression. Even the macho guy who makes sexist slurs like a foot soldier for the patriarchy because he’s so insecure in his own masculinity, and who can’t cry at night because he’s so emotionally repressed; even this bully needs a field hospital to dress his wound. These shared oppressions don’t need to invalidate your own, any more than they need to erase womanhood or crowd out woman voices. Intersectionality” isn’t just a PC buzzword – it’s an imperative. If we don’t see how these struggles interconnect, we won’t be able to make a dent in misogyny.

To womyn-born-womyn. I’m not going to nail ninety-five theses to the door of your enclosure. I’m not even going to demand a space in your gatherings. I’ll take shelter from the rain under the awning outside where you set up shop, and if any of you wish to stop by and chat, I’d be happy to have a cordial discussion. I hope that one day I’m afforded some unobtrusive corner in (or near) your community where we can value womanhood together without invalidating each other; in the meantime my door is always open to sisterhood. I recognize that as a transsexual, I’m something of a gender orphan. I hope for adoption, but I’m not about to demand it.

To gender ideologues. You can say “all gender is constructed” ’til the cows go home, but I have to wonder why we couldn’t construct a male gender for me no matter how hard we all collectively tried. You can say “all gender is performative” ’til the last trumpet sounds, but I have to wonder why it takes so much effort to perform the gender I was taught, and so little effort to express the gender I am. And if these experiences of mine mean nothing to you, try to make them something to you. At least chew on them for a second.

I recognize your catchy phrases are easy academic solutions to the gender problematic, but are they true ones? My fear is that in making gender easier for some to swallow, you’ll make it easier for others to choke. If you can’t stomach the full ten-course meal of gender – if you must make it pill-sized – at least put a stipulation on it:

To gender essentialists. Attacks on rigid essentialism aren’t necessarily a sign of neoliberal thought police, and believing so is discrediting to you. After all, one of the major red flags for pseudoscience is the belief that all opposition to your theory is a conspiracy.

At least in it’s blanket idealized form, gender essentialism has issues. If any male who isn’t 100% masculine or any female who isn’t 100% feminine is disordered, then every human being on the face of the Earth is disordered by dint of having a personality. I realize this is a bit of a straw man argument, but it gets at the overarching problem with most forms of gender essentialism. It’s one thing to value masculinity and femininity; it’s another thing entirely to devalue people because they miss your ideal. The idealism of gender doesn’t promote individual flourishing, and therefore promotes neither order nor virtue.

Instead of focusing on overarching roles, we need to study relationality and how persons dynamically and intentionally co-express love and identity.

To fellow transsexuals. In your online forums and private communities where you hide from oppression, don’t start forming your own oppressive systems. When I first came out as transgender, I was scared by the way some of you treated other transgender people. No, being transsexual isn’t the “true transgender experience.” No, you’re not necessarily “more woman” or “more man” than someone who is less vocal about their gender identity, or who didn’t experience gender dysphoria until puberty. No, a domestic, passive trans woman isn’t more womanly, and certainly isn’t more Woman, than a tomboyish, outspoken trans girl. Wearing gender-conforming clothes, or getting all the surgeries, or only falling in love with the opposite gender, doesn’t make you more transsexual or more transgender. Another transgender person’s battle with gender may be different than yours, and they may use language in different way, but their pain and struggle is just as valid. Don’t forget that. “Treat others as you would have done unto yourself.”

We need our own space for specifically transsexual issues, but that doesn’t mean we need to drive every other person off the face of the Earth.

To transsexual women. I think we need a little more humility when approaching women-only spaces. Yes, we need safety and basic accommodations. Sometimes we even need to pee. We’re battered, beaten, bruised, and constantly invalidated, so of course we want change. However, we’re not exactly “women just like other women.” We’re “women similar to other women.” Let’s slow down a bit and show more grace. We don’t need to be invalidated by acknowledging our difference. Our difference will only be accepted by other women if it enriches rather than poisons women-specific communities.

To transgender activists. I know the easiest way to win a culture war is to rewrite the language and give people a politically-correct script to read off. And I know that the easiest way to justify hard decisions is “it’s none of your business what I do with my own body.” And I furthermore know that the easiest way to win freedom for gender-diverse people is to say “gender is a social construct”; it’s a nice, simple, short thing to say to brush all debate under the rug. But please, let’s not erase different experiences of gender. Let’s not erase the cisgender woman’s very real experience of not only being raised a girl, but of having to put up with menstruation. Let’s not cover up the fact that even in Native American societies, which are glorified for their “radical” two-spirit “third gender”, some of those two-spirit people saw themselves similar to how modern transsexuals see themselves, and would perform intense rituals to simulate menstruation and pregnancy. The complete erasure of gender (or sex) is as invalidating to those who don’t have the luxury/privilege to bracket gender (0r sex), just as “color-blind” attitudes are invalidating to people of color.

If we really want long-lasting change, let’s discuss real personal narratives, not scrubbed-up soundbyted clichés. Society will buy the clichés for a hot minute, but not a second longer. That, or we’ll be stuck in stereotypes of our own making for generations to come.

To all of you, PLEEEEEEASE, stop the name-calling! Call a cease-fire and talk. You all have deep personal stakes in the “gender war,” but that gives you all the more reason to stop firing bullets and start encompassing gender experiences with your hearts. We need some sanity in these gender conversations so we can stop talking about disconnected ideologies and start talking about people. If our ideologies eclipse the concrete experiences of individual people, then what’s the purpose in believing them except to be deliberately exclusive, self-righteous, and cruel? My hope is that any discourse on gender is aimed at truth – namely, to actually get to the bottom of the issues we face, not to pet our own egos.

If you take anything from this series on What is Gender?, let it be how humble we need to be in the face of such complex diversity and diverse complexity.



 This post is the sixth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


So far my posts on gender have focused on various transgender or queer experiences to help bring to light the ways in which different aspects of gender can be problematic for different people. This last post has the most to do with cisgender (non-transgender) people.

Many cisgender people sympathize with the transgender movement because of small ways in which they don’t conform to stereotypical masculinity or femininity. Until recently, a man who wanted to be a nurse was berated because nursing is a “woman’s job,” despite the fact that he gravitated to that profession simply because he had a heart for nursing. Similarly, people might assume a woman is lesbian simply because she plays rugby.

This is the battle with gender expectations, and it’s the most universal site of gender conflict. I’d venture to say every single person fails to conform entirely to the gender expectations of their time. If everyone perfectly conformed to archetypes of men and women, there’d be no personality or individuality in the world. These roles are what people are most willing to question, and rightly so.

Gender breakdown common

Gender expectations are all the assumptions we make about an individual based on their assigned gender. If a child is pronounced a boy upon delivery, he’s often dressed in blue because the expectation is that boys and blue go together. This is the beginning of gender rearing, the socialization of the child based on who that child is assumed to be. A girl will often be given barbies because it’s assumed she wants to play with them instead of toy swords.

Gender expectation also plays into gender roles; what “part” the person is expected to play. The girl is given dolls to play a mother role, whereas the boy is given guns to play a warrior role. These become at once more exaggerated and more nuanced in adult life, where certain professions (like police officer) are considered male-typical, whereas others (like homestay nurse) are considered female-typical.

These strict gender roles aren’t just assumed; they’re enforced. This is wherepejorative gender comes in. A boy who cries is called a sissy – his non-“masculine” behavior is negatively compared with women. A girl with masculine features is mannish – her non-“feminine” physicality is negatively compared with men. Failure on a biological level is just as censored. A man or woman with reproductive issues is a “failed” version of their gender – sterile, impotent, barren, depleted, unfruitful, infecund. Slurs against queer people like fag, he-she, and freak serve the same purpose.

Some rigid conservatives may still believe a woman’s role is exclusively in the kitchen; the question they never seem to ask themselves is what if a particular woman is genuinely inclined toward working in the stock exchange? You can formulate as many opinions as you want about how “she’s denying her natural femininity because of ungodliness or bad female role models or feminist brainwashing,” but what if she’s really, actually, truly inclined and disposed toward a professional life outside the home? Similarly, if feminists rewrite the script for “true women” to only include a professional career, what if a woman is really, actually, truly inclined and disposed toward a domestic life with lots of kids? Either way, an abstracted ideal is taking the place of the individual’s personality.

This every-day experience of gender is more or less universal. Through this window every person, cisgender or not, can relate to the gender embattlement of gender non-conformers. We’re all gender non-conformers in some way; for some people it’s just more pronounced, physical, conscious, or problematic.

Since this is the most relatable aspect of gender that everyone can understand, it’s no suprise that often it’s the only gender paradigm through which people will consider transgender experiences. Clearly I must “want to become a woman” because I don’t like competitive sports as much as most guys, or because I’m emotional and empathetic, or because I value the role of motherhood. The truth is I value motherhood because I experience myself as a girl, not the other way around. Transgender allies need to use this role aspect of gender to sympathize with transgender people, but also need to be careful not to over-relate their own struggles to those of particular transgender persons. Otherwise, they risk weaponizing and appropriating transgender narratives toward ulterior agendas.

That being said, gender roles touch on what might be the most important aspect of gender: relationality. What sexual reproductivity, sexual orientation, subconscious sex, gender identity, masculinity, femininity, and social grouping all have in common is they mark how we relate to ourselves and others in the world. Gender essentialists are getting at this when they assert that people have a natural place in the world that situates them in biological relationship with others. (Religious gender essentialists are getting at this when they talk about the divinely-ordained orientation of the masculine to the feminine.) Gender deconstructionists are also getting at this when they point out the ways in which people are consigned to unjust, demeaned, and heavily policed situations of inequality because of gender norms. Both acknowledge this relational aspect: either where biological facts (or divine intent) situate us, or where social oppression warps those facts to demean certain individuals. We need both sides of the coin.

The truth is that apart from small conflicts with gender expectations, the majority of the population experiences gender and sex in incredible alignment. Most people designated “male” have a male genital, genetic, hormonal, sexual, and subconscious sex that is undisputed, masculine tendencies, and identify their gender as “boy” or “man.” Most people designated “female” have a female genital, genetic, hormonal, sexual, and subconscious sex that is undisputed, feminine tendencies, and identify their gender as “girl” or “woman.” The fact that this dichotomy exists isn’t in itself problematic. This statistical binary is present even in the animal kingdom where socialization is rudimentary and gender ideologies are non-existent, so it can’t only be a social construct. The problem isn’t with binary sex, but binary sexism.

Binary sexism is precisely the aforementioned universal experience of being bullied into rigid gender conformity regardless of a person’s natural mode of being. It’s the idea that the gender binary has to be enforced as a law, rather than enjoyed as an outgrowth of human relationality. In our current culture most binary sexism is related to misogyny; the standards that both men and women are held to praise masculinity and demean femininity, so the policing is often centered on protecting masculine superiority. This is why transsexual women are far more demeaned than transsexual men – transsexual women threaten masculinity, whereas transsexual men prove that masculinity is something to attain to. It’s also why boys are punished more severely for “devolving” into “effeminacy,” whereas tomboyish girls are given relatively little trouble.

The truth is the gender dichotomy doesn’t need to be enforced to exist, and doing so causes unnecessary damage to individuals.My little brother, for example, seems to be a naturally masculine child. Unattended, he would probably gravitate toward toy soldiers of his own free will. As he’s undergone puberty and his social group has gotten more demanding, and perhaps in part because he’s conscious of my own feminine expression, his demeanor has changed. I’ve noticed a stiffness in him that I never perceived when he was a kid. His masculinity, which was once free and expressive, seems that much more performative than before. He doesn’t act differently; he behaves the same, but with more self-conscious huff-huffing about his masculinity. I’d like him to live in a world where he can be a man because he’s a man, not because he needs to prove that he’s a man.

As far as I know, my brother is part of the statistical majority: he physically, psychologically, and socially fits within average male parameters. This is fine. What I don’t understand is why it’s not fine to exist on the fringe of these averages. Most people have untroubled sex-gender alignment; some do not. Most men are masculine; some are not. This shouldn’t be more troubling than the natural variation in peoples’ voices. On average, males have voices with a fundamental frequency of 125 Hz, and females have voices with a fundamental frequency of 200 Hz. In actual fact, the vocal ranges of males and females overlap, and outliers from both sexes can have voices that approach the fundamental frequency of the other sex. How tyrannical would it be if those outliers were forced to have vocal surgery to “correct” their voice? How barbaric would it be to lop off a woman’s legs because she’s on the tall end of what’s considered average for a female?

It’s ridiculous to claim that stereotypical males or females are the only “real” way to be human. It’s just as ridiculous when transgender activists want to make transgender the “new normal.” Any group that tries to remake the world in their own image is doing the world a disservice. Whether a cisgender woman treats every gender non-conformer as a freak, or a genderqueer person wants everyone to be completely androgynous, the gigantic world of gender – and with it, the entirety of humanity – is being crammed into a small, ego-sized hole in which it can’t possibly fit. The exceptions to gender norms don’t disprove the reality of gender any more than the gender dichotomy render gender non-conformers nonexistent. There’s an imperative to coexist just as there’s a reality to acknowledge: we already co-exist in the literal sense. The challenge is to coexist humanely and with attentiveness to each others’ unique existence.

Gender is a many-faced thing, so instead of proffering the word like a shotgun, we need to take the excruciating time and exhausting energy to actually differentiate peoplenb s’ experiences and hear their genuine concerns about gender enforcement. Different sides to an issue don’t make the issue contradictory; they just make it three-dimensional.

Click here to proceed to Part 7, a personal plea for gender sanity.




This post is the fifth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


In the last post I talked about gender groupings and how one is perceived/treated as a gendered individual. The gender one is perceived as is largely determined by two factors: secondary sexual characteristics, and gender behavior. The first, secondary sexual characteristics, is the physical amalgam of sex-typical characteristics (facial hair, breasts), which is largely determined by hormones and can change over time. The second, gender behavior, is the varied ways in which a person displays femininity, masculinity, or androgyny in the world.

In my chart I break gender behavior into several terms. The first one is gender expression (or gender expressiveness), and for my purposes it means thenatural outflowing of masculinity or femininity. Generally this is affected by subconscious sex, gender identity, hormones, and any inherent masculine or feminine tendencies. The gay boy who cannot stop himself from having limp wrists no matter how much his parents try to beat it out of him might very well be expressing natural femininity, just as a left-handed person expressesnatural lefthandedness even if they’re taught to be ambidextrous. When I came out of the closet, at least some of the femininity in my behavior arose from a subconscious place that was natural to me but that had been shut down by society. Certainly the more integrated I’ve become, the more natural expression has emerged from the deep.

Gender performance (or affected gender) is the side of gender expression that isn’t natural. Some feminists would say that all gender behavior is performative, but I disagree. There are too many people who act naturally feminine or masculine despite being socialized in the opposite direction. However, some of gender is definitely an act. The little boy who hates sports isperforming gender when he pretends to like sports. When I tried to suppress my subconscious sex and redefine myself based on forced masculine role models like Teddy Roosevelt, I was studying how to perform gender. On the other side of the coin, a female drag king who dresses as a guy to entertain a crowd is quite literally performing gender. For some gay guys (certainly not all), their particular culture of gay-specific flamboyancy (or effeminacy as it’s derogatorily called) is a performance to mark themselves as visibly gay.

Gender breakdown drag queent

Both natural gender and performed gender combine to create gender presentation, which mostly has to do with how one deliberately appears to the world. If gender performance is how one deliberately acts, gender presentation is how one deliberately wants to be perceived. It is how oneattempts to have their gender perceived (not necessarily how other people actually perceive it).

As a transsexual woman my gender expression is now feminine because my femininity is unrepressed. My gender performance is also usually feminine, but more because of social pressures to conform to cultural notions of femininity, as well as my desire to be affirmed as a woman. The sum total is a female gender presentation: I present myself as a woman, with the hopes that people will perceive me as female (my perceived gender) and will group me with other girls (my gender grouping). Tension exists when all these factors don’t align. Just the other day I had an experience in which my gender performance and perceived gender didn’t match my gender expression, and the result was incredible anxiety.

Unfortunately, gender behavior is the side of gender that the media leans all its weight on. A lot of public discussions about gender behavior become steeped in pejorative sexism. Gay men and transgender women are confused with each other because both are considered “feminine males.” For those who define being a man as being anatomically male, both gay men and transgender women are effeminate men; whereas for those who define being a woman as being feminine, both gay men and transgender women are “basically girls.” Misogyny turns this evaluation into an insult, since (after all) it’s bad to be feminine or a girl, especially if you’re male. Of course, confusing gay men and transgender women is ridiculous and defies actual experience.

A place where gender-as-expression creates tension within the trans community is the de-medicalization of trans issues by trans liberationists. For many transsexuals, the existence of transsexuality or gender dysphoria as a medical diagnosis is extremely comforting. It aligns with our own experience, that being trans is problematic not only because of how society views us, but because our body itself experiences an innate tension that can be crippling. Gender reassignment surgery really is life-saving for some. Other transgender people who conceive gender primarily as a presentation which ought to be queered or usurped view hormone therapy and surgeries as elective cosmetic procedures. This is why the transgender community is sometimes schizophrenic on this issue, one moment demanding health care coverage and the next demanding God-like autonomy over their own bodies. The community doesn’t know how to treat issues of problematic embodiment separately from issues of  gender performance.

These assumptions and conflations become crystal clear with the media hype around Caitlyn Jenner. During her interview with Diane Sawyer she had some vulnerable breathing room to talk about her gender as both subconscious sex and social grouping – she feels a sense of belonging both to the female sex and the “woman” social group. However, perhaps in no small part because of how she presents herself, since then the media has only latched onto the most superficial elements of her femininity. It’s not her lifelong subconscious transsexual experience that makes her a woman, but her new hairdo, name-brand cocktail dress, and plastic surgery.

Gender breakdown media

With Caitlyn Jenner we see the negative side of this view of gender. If gender is nothing but a set of superficial cosmetic stereotypes that mostly apply to women, then gender ideologists are right to tear it down because it’s essentially meaningless. There was no Christian Doir in the Garden of Eden, or even in the Bronze Age.

So much of gender is performance that it’s hard to see what’s genuineexpression. Expression is important because it points beyond the superficial to the subconscious and natural. The two are hard to parse out because they often coincide. When I wear a floral skirt, it’s predominantly expressive in that I just frickin’ love floral skirts, but it’s also performative in that I’m conforming to standards of femininity. We need to separate out these two elements so we can both talk about what this expressiveness says about my nature (are you listening, gender essentialists?), and what this pressure to perform says about our society (how about you, gender deconstructionists?).

The ways in which my gender behavior isn’t natural is only in the same way that some cisgender people unnaturally exaggerate their own gender behavior to fit in. Would I feel compelled to wear makeup as often as I do if the world was more accepting of frumpy women? Probably not. However, for transgender people there’s an added dimension to behavior concerns: namely the need to feel safe and validated. Transgender women in particular get a lot of flack for practicing their feminine voice or obsessing over “passing” as women, and cisgender people use this as proof that trans women are “performing” in order to “deceive” others or “play” at being women. They fail to empathize with the social ramifications of being a tall woman with a deep voice. This kind of “practicing gender” isn’t usually about “transforming into a woman,” but about having the luxury to live as oneself without being constantly accosted. The end goal is free expression – creating safe space in the world to allow oneself to be oneself.

A lot of conservative rhetoric against me assumes that in acting as a woman in society, I’m putting on an elaborate ruse to fool the outside world. They miss the fact that much of my female persona is a natural expression flowing from my inner self.

It’s this expression that forms the core of some peoples’ gender identity. An anatomical female may, for example, be naturally masculine but not have a subconscious male sex. They identify as transgender not because they feel an inescapable male identity at their core, but because their natural gender expression is so masculine that it puts them outside any recognizable female gender expectation. There’s nothing about “girlhood” or “womanhood” that resonates with them.

Gender breakdown expression

In this case, as is partially the case for a transsexual woman with a subconscious female sex, the issue is authenticity. However, it’s authenicity of expression, expectations, social grouping, and role rather than subconscious sex. This distinction is lost on most people, even some transgender people, but that’s why we need to have these more nuanced discussions about gender. The transgender person above has just as valid a complaint against gender oppression as a transsexual like me, but their complaint is entirely different. They quite naturally don’t fit into the binary, and in asserting themselves as transgender, they’re refusing to be shoved like a square peg into a circle hole.

If we can’t create a society that tolerates exceptions to the gender “norm” such as this, then we’re heartless. You can kick and scream all you want about how “it’s only natural that males be masculine and females be feminine,” but you need to read what’s actually natural to real people, just as you have to simply acknowledge the existence of intersex people. You can formulate a lofty notion of gender essentialism to define “what a woman is essentially,” but be careful not to ignore the individual woman whose essence doesn’t quite reflect the characteristics you thought it would.

Part 6, the conversation on “gender as role,” is coming soon.


A Theory of Gay Inclusion, Pt 3: "It’s not wrong to be gay, but it is wrong to act gay?."

In March 2010, Fr Owen O’Sullivan published an article in the theological journal “Furrow” on the inclusion of gays in the Church. The CDF seem to have found this article dangerous, and have ordered him not publish anything further without prior approval. In the modern internet age, this attempted censorship simply does not work: the original article has been published on-line in a series of posts at an Australian Salvation Army blog, “Boundless Salvation”. 

Here is the third extract:

 ‘It’s not wrong to be gay, but it is wrong to act gay.’

Is a homosexual, by reason of that fact, called by God to lifelong celibacy? The church says yes.

Imagine someone saying to a group of Irish people, ‘There’s nothing in itself wrong with being Irish. I’m not saying there is. But that doesn’t mean you may act on it. So, no more Guinness, going to Croke Park, singing rebel songs into the early hours of the morning, waving tricolours, no more craic. Close the pubs as occasions of sin, and, while you’re at it, would you please do something about your accent: it’s suggestive – of Irishness. I’m not asking you to deny your Irishness, far from it, just not to act on it.’ Would you consider the speaker to be nuanced, respectful and compassionate, or pedantic, patronising and arrogant?

Being homosexual and trying to be faithful to church teaching – is it a cruel joke? Would God tie a starving person in a chair, put a plate of food in front of them, and say, ‘Your self-denial… will constitute for you a source of self-giving which will save you’? (See CDF Letter, n.12.)

The church requires abstinence of the homosexual. To abstain from the physical expression of sexuality means, for the homosexual, abstinence from the truth, from reality, from identity, from recognition, perhaps also from family, and surely from love. Sexuality is not an optional extra to our humanity; it’s an integral part of it. An alcoholic is invited to abstain from alcohol – yes. But alcohol is not an integral part of anyone’s humanity; it’s an optional extra.

Official teaching invites a homosexual to a strange limbo-like existence where being and doing are required to be separated. It says there’s nothing in itself wrong with being a homosexual – as long as you don’t act like one. There’s nothing in itself wrong with being a bird, as long as you don’t fly. How can that be an honest or a healthy way of living?

The distinction between being homosexual and doing homosexual acts is phoney. It’s like saying, ‘Your sexuality is part of you; but you must not be part of your sexuality.’ Have we forgotten that the Incarnation brings matter and spirit, body and soul into one in the human-divine body of Jesus? The Incarnation is God’s answer to dualism.

Being and doing are not as separable in life as they might seem in a lecture hall. But, even in a lecture hall, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, ‘Agere sequitur esse in actu.’ (Summa contra Gentiles, 3.53, 69.) If my Latin is not too rusty that means, ‘Doing follows being in action.’

Homosexuals who try to be faithful to church teaching are in danger of distorting themselves, like left-handed people forcing themselves to use only their right hands; they are in danger of developing a Jekyll-and-Hyde mentality, suppressing what is true about themselves. The statement of the CDF that, ‘Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral’ applies here. (Letter, n.15)

The pastoral rhetoric about respecting homosexuals is meaningless at best when the associated moral rhetoric undercuts a homosexual’s personhood. It means that homosexuals are neither in nor out, neither persons nor non-persons, but tolerated somewhere on the border.

A Theology of Gay Inclusion, Pt 2: ‘Why don’t they just keep quiet about it?’

In March 2010, Fr Owen O’Sullivan published an article in the theological journal “Furrow” on the inclusion of gays in the Church. The CDF seem to have found this article dangerous, and have ordered him not publish anything further without prior approval. In the modern internet age, this attempted censorship simply does not work: the original article has been published on-line in a series of posts at an Australian Salvation Army blog, “Boundless Salvation”. 

Here is the second extract:

‘Why don’t they just keep quiet about it?’Homosexuality is not a problem; the denial of it is, especially if one denies it to oneself. Good human relationships (or good health) can never be founded on the basis of suppression or denial of the truth. The ‘problem’ of homosexuality may be resolved in one word – truth, or, if you prefer, reality. If you live a lie, you’re lost. Wholeness is linked to soul and body; cutting one off from the other is divisive. It is a sad thought to know that you’ve hated your body, been unable to face the truth about yourself.

If homosexuals feel valued only when they live a life that is less than whole, a half-life, they may well feel that such a life is worthless, and suicide may follow. A survey in Northern Ireland of gay men aged between 16 and 25 showed a level of attempted suicide five times that of their straight counterparts. The US Department of Health and Human Services states that rates of attempted and actual suicide among homosexuals are 50% higher than among heterosexuals, and that 30% of all teen suicides are among homosexuals.

There are lofty souls who respond to this by saying that, in formulating doctrine, they do not allow themselves to be influenced by considerations of psychological or sociological data. That sounds like saying, ‘We don’t need to take account of reality,’ or, ‘Don’t bother us with facts; we know what God thinks!’

As members of Alcoholics Anonymous say, ‘We are as sick as our secrets.’ In this case, the secrecy is the sickness. It’s the denial, the secrecy and the lies that are damaging, not the fact, the reality. Jesus said, ‘The truth shall make you free.’ (John 8.32)


A Theology of Gay Inclusion, Pt 1: ‘Homosexuality is Unnatural (?).’

In March 2010, Fr Owen O’Sullivan published an article in the theological journal “Furrow” on the inclusion of gays in the Church. The CDF seem to have found this article dangerous, and have ordered him not publish anything further without prior approval. In the modern internet age, this attempted censorship simply does not work: the original article has been published on-line in a series of posts at an Australian Salvation Army blog, “Boundless Salvation”. 

Here is the first extract:

 ‘Homosexuality is unnatural.’

‘Nature’ is a loose peg on which to hang a theology of human relationships. The word has multiple meanings: the Concise Oxford Dictionary lists nine for nature and fourteen for natural. In Victorian times, Europeans spoke of Africans as ‘children of nature’, meaning they were brutal, primitive, and savage, in need of the wise, firm and civilizing hand of the colonial master; this was to justify European exploitation of Africa. For centuries, slavery was regarded as natural; it had a long and virtually universal tradition behind it, as had the subjection of women to men. It was natural, too, for gentlemen of quality to rule the lower orders. The word has been pressed into the service of several racial, political, social and cultural agenda. Today, people like food to be natural, meaning free from artificial chemicals. But mildew, ants, aphids, cockroaches and rats are natural, and will happily occupy food. Is it natural to have them on it?

Some argue that the natural purpose of sexuality is procreation, and that, since homosexual relationships are not procreative of life, they are therefore unnatural. The argument draws on teleology (ends) or finality as seen from one viewpoint, and seems to imply that since procreation is the principal purpose, then it’s the only legitimate purpose of a sexual relationship. Where does that leave non-procreative heterosexual love, or sexuality simply as play? Does it not also mean that the non-use of genital sexuality, as in celibacy, is likewise unnatural?

Is anatomical structure the determinant of what is normative in human behaviour? If the natural purpose of nipples is to give milk, why do men have them? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) states, ‘The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.’ (Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1 October 1986; CTS, London, n.16.) A teleological argument from biological nature is no less reductionist. Homosexuals find it natural to engage the body as it is in sexual relationships, and consider it suited for the purpose.

Throughout history, and across the globe, as art, history and literature testify, same-sex attraction and acts have been a consistent feature of human life. In that sense, they cannot be called unnatural or abnormal. Same-sex attraction is simply a facet of the human condition.

As is often the case, our use of language is not helpful. The word ‘straight’ implies that someone who does not fit that category is crooked, deformed, or queer. It’s a by-product of a culture of contempt and repression towards homosexuals on a par with calling black people niggers, and it helps perpetuate prejudice. In this article, I use the word homosexual to describe same-sex attraction, whether between women (lesbians) or men (gays). And homosexuality is not just about what goes on between the sheets, or in clubs or the ‘gay scene.’ The latter is often as far removed from a committed, loving relationship as the activities of a brothel are from a committed, loving marriage. Homosexuality is about the way human beings relate to each other in their totality.

Does homosexuality exist objectively – clear, cut-and-dried – like Plato’s forms, regardless of relationships? According to the president of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, between eighty and ninety percent of Northern Ireland’s wider gay community are married with families. In Latin America, the “active” (top) male partner in sex between men is not regarded as gay, only the “passive” (bottom) partner. Gays estimate that between one-third and two-thirds of men who frequent gay clubs or bars live in a heterosexual relationship. And it is not uncommon to find lesbians who have had a child. There is some of the straight in every gay, and some of the gay in every straight. (If all the gay people in society came out, it would banish homophobia overnight.) Some of what is included in the ideas of homo- and hetero- are cultural constructs, such as our ideas of beauty, for instance. It might be nearer the truth to think of homosexuality more in terms of what one does, or how one relates, than of what one is.

The hope some people have is that a homosexual gene will be found; it would let them off the peg on which they’ve hung themselves. Homosexuality could then be considered natural. (How do you persuade people who think they have to be right in order to be credible that their credibility would be enhanced by an admission that they could be wrong?)

Is there a ‘homosexual gene’? I don’t think anyone knows. I hope not; it might lead to homosexuals being treated ‘compassionately’ as freaks. But surely the question is irrelevant. Whether a homosexual orientation is genetic or environmental, inborn or acquired, from nature or nurture, it’s there, and that’s what counts. Most homosexuals experience it as a given, no more a choice than the colour of their eyes.

A more important question is, ‘What sort of human being is this?’ ‘What sort of relationships does s/he engage in?’ And the great challenge is for people to be true to themselves.

Shakespeare wrote: –

‘This, above all,
to thine own self be true,
and it must follow,
as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.’
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-80.)

Is homosexuality unnatural? Yes, it is – if you’re heterosexual.

The Wildlife Rainbow

Last November, I carried a link to a post at Jesus in Love blog, featuring this delightful, fun take on a gay Noah’s Ark. (If you didn’t do so at the time, go across now to read some useful commentary on the artist, Paul Richmond, and on  the wonderful detail incorporated into the image.)

Today, I want to explore some of the more serious message behind the image.  Although “wildlife diversity” has become something of a buzzword in any modern discussion of environmental conservation, and we routinely accept that species diversity is one useful measure of the health of an ecosystem, and its protection a valid goal for its management, we usually fail to recognise that sexual and gender diversity is as much a feature of the animal world as it is of human societies. In recent years, lesbian and gay historians have begun to uncover much of our hidden history, and to show how often simple binary and heteronormative assumptions in looking at the past, or at non-Western societies, have ensured that observers saw only what they expected to see. Now biologists are showing how those same assumptions have led to some flawed beliefs about animal sexuality. These  assumptions about sexual behaviour have led to the abundant contrary evidence from the natural world being either simply ignored, or explained away as “exceptions”, exactly as the widespread evidence for human homoerotic attraction has been ignored by historians or explained away as “deviance”, and so not “natural”.


Natural Coupling

Of three important books on the topic, Bruce Bagemihl’s “Biological Exuberance”, named in 1999 as one of the New York Public Library’s “Books to Remember”, was the earliest, and has attracted widespread critical attention and commentary. Same sex behaviour has been documented right across the animal kingdom, but in this book, Bagemihl concentrated on mammals and birds, providing extensive evidence of an extraordinary range of sexual behaviours, and specific profiles of 190 species. He shows how animals demonstrate all the forms of physical and emotional homosexual pairing known to man are also found among animals: masturbation, fellatio, mutual rubbing, and mounting on the physical side; male-male and female- female; casual affairs, long-term relationships, and “gay” parenting are all described, as well as non-procreative heterosexual intercourse.  The widespread assumption that “natural” sexual activity is way off-beam.

One feature of human societies for which he does not find any evidence, is that of homophobia- violence or aggression against same sex couples or coupling.  We are all familiar from endless wildlife documentaries with the ferocity of male competition and violence over mating ambitions, but there has not been any documented evidence of similar aggression around or by same sex couples. I am also particularly struck by the emotional dimensions of some of these relationships.  In some cases, male pairs will form enduring long-term pair bonds, while engaging in heterosexual activity “on the side” for procreation. In some species, such as elephants and greylag geese, male pairs are said to endure even longer than heterosexual ones.

Two later books have further developed this theme. Volker Sommer’s “Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective” examines more closely such behaviour among a range of species which engage in homosexual activity not just occasionally but “routinely”, which include birds, dolphin, deer, bison and cats, as well as several species of primates.

For me, the most exciting of the set is “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People”, by Joan Roughgarden, published just last year, because she expands the scope of the two earlier books by incorporating studies of  fish, reptiles and amphibians as well as birds and animals, and also brings the discussion back to humans. Professionally, the author is an acclaimed academic in evolutionary biology, but is also a male to female transsexual, who successfully combines scientific expertise with personal insight to re-examine the evidence in the light of feminist, gay and transgender criticism.

These are some extracts from a useful review by George Williamson, PhD, at Mental

Though her critique is wide-ranging, Roughgarden’s targets are easily named.   At broadest, she indicts a number of academic disciplines ranging from biology and evolutionary science to anthropology and theology, for the suppression of diversity.  An example of this suppression is the long-standing difficulty in getting information on animal homosexuality into the academic record.  As she documents, such information has been ignored or ‘explained away’ to the present day.  Of course, the charge of discrimination has often been leveled at Western culture’s concept of sex and gender, and neither this concept nor its critique are any longer unfamiliar.  But Roughgarden’s case is refreshing in its particularity and detail.  Conventional assumptions regarding the fixity and generality of gendered behaviors and roles, of their binate structure, of mating strategies, and even of body plan of the sexes very quickly begin to appear naive when faced with examples of fish that change gender and sex in the course of a life, all-female lizard species that clone themselves yet still have (lesbian?) sex, bird couples with ‘open’ relationships, primate species whose members are completely bisexual, and fish whose reproductive strategy involves the collaboration of three distinct genders.  But such data are routinely discounted through the assumed normality of a male/female genderbinary.  Much as the cultural projection of normative gender roles tends to push divergent sexual expression to the margins of the everyday social world, so has it tended to promote the excl
usion of conflicting data in biology, or the pathologizing of expression in medicine and psychology.  And this must have consequences, for such omissions invalidate the theorization of sexuality and gender, for example, in evolutionary theory.  How could one accurately account for the evolution of sexuality, having left aside the data on same-sex relations or tri-gendered families?

Roughgarden recommends eliminating sexual selection from evolutionary theory, and instead proposes her own view, social selection. Courtship, she argues, is not about discerning a male’s genetic quality but rather about determining his likelihood of investing in parental care for offspring.  Sex is not merely about spermtransfer, but rather about forming bonds within animal societies and negotiating for access to resources necessary to reproduce.  Further, the evidence adduced suggests this negotiation goes on in within-sex relationships as much as in between-sex relationships, such as in a group of females who share parenting among themselves.  So the picture of sex that emerges is that mating is about building social relationships first, and only secondarily about passing on genes.  This explains why much more sex than reproduction happens, including much non-reproductive sex, and also allows a clear account of homosexual sex.  The real beauty is that it does not require an explanation for homosexuality different from that for heterosexuality: both are about forming social relationships and negotiating access to resources.  Differences in the prevalence of homosexuality in different animal societies can be attributed to differences in the relationships (between-sex, within-sex) which organize and distribute resources within those societies.  Indeed, the prominent secondary sex characteristics, which at face value appear to be the basis of mate choice (the peacock’s tail, the predator’s size), may not be intended for the opposite sex at all.


A couple more of Roughgarden’s targets are worth mentioning. Psychology and medicine have had considerable influence in forming our ideas of normality in behavior and body morphology, and thus in legitimating differential treatment of those who deviate from the norm. Homosexuality, for instance, until recently was listed as a mental disorder in psychiatry; transexuality still is. There still remain groups offering to treat and cure homosexuality. Children born with atypical genitals (penis too small, clitoris too large, some of both sexes) are often subjected to reconstructive surgery to correct their ‘ambiguity’. Evidently, diversity is ‘not good’ in the eyes of the medical and psychological establishment. Having documented some of the disastrous consequences of these procedures, Roughgarden raises the reasonable question, “who really needs a cure?” She challenges some of the dubious bases provided for labeling these traits as diseases or genetic defects, and concludes that our tendency to pathologize difference is really what needs to be cured.

“Homosexuality”  is not in any way unnatural. Homophobia, and exclusive heterosexuality, are.

See also

Related Posts on Animal Sexuality:

Sexual Diversity in Africa

Although two-thirds of countries in the world no longer outlaw lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) relationships, same-sex relationships are still illegal in 76 countries. In the recent past, new laws have been passed in Russia, India, Nigeria, Burundi, Cameroon and Uganda and are being contemplated in other countries to further prohibit same-sex relationships or the so-called ‘promotion of homosexuality’. There is evidence that such new laws precipitate negative consequences not just for LGBTI persons and communities, but also for societies as a whole, including the rapid reversal of key public health gains, particularly in terms of HIV and AIDS and other sexual health programmes, increases in levels of social violence, some evidence of reduced economic growth, and the diversion of attention from sexual and other violence against women and children.

Partly because those arguing in favour of criminalising sexual and gender diversity have made explicit appeals to science, this report examines the extent to which science supports any of the arguments that proponents of these new laws make. Drawing on recent scientific evidence and, where possible, on systematic reviews, the report seeks to provide an up-to-date overview of the state of the current biological, socio-psychological, and public health evidence and assess how this supports, or contests, the key arguments made in favour of new laws. This report considers the following questions:

  1. What is the evidence that biological factors contribute to sexual and gender diversity? To what degree is the wide diversity of human sexualities explained by biological factors?
  2. Do environmental factors such as upbringing and socialisation explain the diversity of human sexuality?
  3. Is there any evidence for same-sex orientation being ‘acquired’ through contact with others, i.e. through ‘social contagion’?
  4. What evidence is there that any form of therapy or ‘treatment’ can change sexual orientation?
  5. What evidence is there that same-sex orientations pose a threat of harm to individuals, communities, or vulnerable populations such as children?
  6. What are the public health consequences of criminalising same-sex sexual orientations and attempting to regulate the behaviour/relationships related to some sexualities?
  7. What are the most critical unanswered scientific research questions regarding the diversity of human sexualities and sexual orientations in Africa?

Global bodies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declassified homosexuality as an illness or disorder in 1990 and there is now a wide global consensus among scientists that homosexuality is a normal and natural variation of human sexuality without any inherently detrimental health consequences. In this context governments have a duty to consider scientific perspectives and draw on the most current scientific knowledge when creating policy and enacting laws. In terms of sexual orientation, significant and even path-breaking research in a variety of fields has taken place in the recent past. Much of this research is not widely known to policymakers yet, nor is it in the public domain. This report aims to bring the most recent replicated and respected global research to the attention of policymakers.

Examining the biological factors, including genetic, neurohormonal and other factors, the report concludes that contemporary science does not support thinking about sexuality in a simple binary opposition of hetero/homosexual and normal/abnormal. Rather, it favours thinking in terms of a range of human variation, very little of which can justifiably be termed abnormal. As variation in sexual identities and orientations has always been part of a normal society, there can be no justification for attempts to ‘eliminate’ LGBTI from society. Efforts should rather be focused on countering the belief systems that create hostile and even violent environments for those who are made to feel alienated within societies that privilege male power across political, social and family domains. The panel concludes that there is substantial biological evidence for the diversity of human sexualities and for sexual orientations in particular. Studies have found significant linkage between male sexual orientation and regions of the X chromosome, though the exact manner in which gene expression impacts on sexual orientation remain to be determined. Familial patterns with regard to same-sex orientation, particularly in men suggest a strong likelihood of biological elements. In addition, although limited in number, some pedigree studies, tracing thousands of female relatives of heterosexual and homosexual men, found convincing evidence that female relatives of homosexual men have increased fecundity, i.e., on average, they bear more children compared to female relatives of heterosexual men. This may provide a key to the major evolutionary paradox of presumed reduced fecundity because of the relatively high prevalence of same-sex attracted men in every society. Although less well studied, there is also considerable evidence for a biological component for same-sex orientation in women and for bisexuality. Socio-behavioural research demonstrates unequivocally that both heterosexual and homosexual men feel that they have/had no choice in terms of their sexual attraction. The majority of women who experience same-sex attraction also express a lack of a sense of choice in their sexual orientation, although there is evidence for much greater fluidity in sexual orientation among women of all sexual orientations. The study explores – and finds lacking – evidence to support the contention that the way parents bring up their children, or the relationships formed between children and parents, impact on sexual orientation. While family environment may shape other elements of sexuality and the way sexuality is expressed, and while construction of gender and sexual identities have strong social and cultural components, there is little evidence that orientation is directly correlated to family upbringing. This report explores but could find no evidence that sexual orientation can be acquired through contact with LGBTI persons. Instead, the panel found substantial evidence that tolerance of same-sex orientation not only benefited LGBTI persons but impacted positively on public health, civil society and long-term economic growth in societies across the spectrum of economic development. ‘Peer pressure’, although a powerful influencer of young people’s behaviour, has not been shown to influence same-sex activity or the development of same-sex sexual or bisexual orientations.

The panel explores a wide variety of sources and studies and could find no evidence linking LGB sexual orientation or transgender people with the ‘recruitment’ of young people through childhood sexual abuse. Given the high prevalence of childhood sexual abuse in Africa, the protection of all children should be paramount. As there is no evidence that adult sexual orientation is correlated with abuse in childhood, this false connection should no longer be used to justify the marginalisation of LGBTI persons.

This study finds abundant and robust evidence that more repressive environments increase minority stress and impact negatively on LGBTI health. There is overwhelming evidence that this has a direct impact on the general population’s health, particularly in terms of HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and other sexually transmitted infections (STI) reduction efforts. There are no known positive impacts on public health because criminalisation cannot stop people from feeling same-sex attractions and expressing same-sex orientations. Such legislation also cannot stop same-sex or bisexually-orientated people from having relationships, sexual and otherwise, with the wider population in any society.

The study explores and could find no evidence that same-sex orientation can be changed through ‘conversion’ or ‘reparative’ therapy. It highlights that 50 years of research have not found same-sex attraction to be inherently pathological or a malady of any kind. Studies have also not been able to show any particular social harm of consensual relationships between adults, nor any negative impact on broader communities. Given the documented dangers of such therapy and its direct conflict with medical ethics, these interventions are contra-indicated. Further, recognising the ineffectiveness of conversion therapy, we recommend the wide dissemination of this information especially to health professionals across Africa and beyond.

The study suggests that African health professionals and their associations should adopt affirmative stances towards LGBTI individuals. Psychosocial interventions and support particularly for adolescents are recommended to facilitate the adjustment of same-sex orientated persons to the stress, stigma, shame and discrimination they may face and to affi rm their choices and orientations. This report concludes that almost all of the recent scientific research regarding human sexualities needs to be much more widely disseminated and discussed in public, and should indeed be drawn upon by policymakers when contemplating new legislation.

Read more

Sexual Diversity in Africa (Academy of Science of South Africa)

Natural Families: Acquiring Manly Virtue

Gay men in the modern Western world are accustomed to accusations a homoerotic orientation is seen as effeminate, sissyish. This is a complete myth, as is easily shown by the many counterexamples from the butch, bear and leather-oriented sub-groups that co-exist with the more camp and drag groups. The words “gay male” cover an astonishing degree of diversity. Still, stereotypes persist. Sometimes, though, they are not what we would expect.
In classical Greece and in Tokugawa Japan, same sex lovers were especially associated with courage and with military prowess. Elsewhere, the important virtues of “courage, proficiency in hunting, and the ability to dominate women” were so closely identified with masculinity that they were routinely passed on to young boys in the most direct way possible – by direct transfer from older males to younger in pure male essence – in semen, by anal or oral sexual intercourse.

This is from David F Greenberg , “The Construction of Homosexuality“:

“The homosexual practices are justified by the belief that a boy will not mature physically unless semen is implanted in his body by an adult. Valued male qualities, such as courage, proficiency in hunting, and the ability to dominate women, are transmitted in the same way. Repeated intercourse builds up a supply of the vital substance in the boy’s body.”
But, says Greenberg, intercourse with women is believed to be debilitating. While this pattern of childhood homosexuality is found in a minority of Guinean societies, where it was recorded, it was obligatory for all. From a remarkably early age (sometimes as young as seven, sometimes ten or twelve), boys learnt to accept the all-important semen from an older age group. As they matured, these boys in turn would pass on their own semen to those younger than they. Not until they were fully mature were they permitted intercourse with women – by which time, presumably they were strong enough to withstand the debilitating effects of the experience.
The semen was transmitted in different ways: sometimes by anal intercourse, sometimes orally – or even by insertion into special incisions in the skin. In these cases, the semen was obtained from the older men, following special ritual intercourse with women.
The practice of passing on of manly virtue or other skills by donating semen was not restricted to New Guinea, although it was most widely studied and recorded there. In some Australian aboriginal groups, such as the Bora of the Kimberley region, drinking semen formed a part of intitiation rites. In Brazil, apprentice healers learned their skills from older, experienced healers – and did so by “sexual communication”. In parts of northern Morocco, an important skill for young boys was the ability to learn the Koran, but they believed this was impossible until they had first been penetrated. The ability to learn the Koran was passed on to the new generation in the semen of their elders.
So – who’s the sissy, then?
See also:


Naphy, William: Born to be Gay

Greenberg, David F: The Construction of Homosexuality

Herdt, Gilbert H: Same Sex, Different Cultures

Murray, Stephen O: Homosexualities