It is important to this story to note that when I was in college there were few (if any) other women in my courses because I was majoring in physics in the early 90’s. The colleges in my area also shared upper division physics courses because of so few majors. Often I would have classes with students from other colleges who I had not met before.
I was standing outside the classroom on the first day of Newtonian Dynamics, holding my book close to my chest.
It is also important to this story to know that I had never met an Albino person before.
So, I was standing there, and a small woman with white hair, white skin, and bright pink eyes walked up to me.
It is also important to this story to know that most Albinos cannot see well and most are legally blind.
She walks directly into my personal space and looks me up and down. Her face must have been 5 centimeters from my body. She stared at the book, then back at my face, then at the book, and then back at my face….and then she said, in her best Ferengi Voice.
So, after recovering from being a bit stunned by the experience. I looked her up and down and said, “An ALBIIIIINNNNNOOOOOO”
And we both had a good laugh.
In everyday language, the word “woman” and “female” is often used interchangeably. She may have looked me up and down to make the assessment that I was female, but she certainly didn’t do chromosomal testing, she didn’t check my genitals, she didn’t do a brain scan – she simply noticed that I had breasts, long hair, a soft face, etc and made the determination that I was female. I exhibit many of the cues that we learn to look for during our childhoods to indicate a person’s status as a boy or a girl, both subtle and overt. I was “female” and immediately, as two people with the status “female”, we shared a degree of solidarity in a male dominated environment.
I asked a transgender man about the words “male” and “female”, when I was first being educated concerning the experiences of transgender people. “Would it be appropriate to use the terms “sex” and “gender” strictly, with “sex” pertaining to the body and “gender” pertaining to gender identity?”
His answer was a resounding, “No.” And he explained that the terms are simply used interchangeably so pervasively that attempting to conceptually decouple the two was very problematic. If the term “male” was denied him, so was the acceptance of him as a man.
That, alone, is enough for me. Why the hell argue semantics when someone’s acceptance as a full and valid human being is served by a particular usage and damaged by the other?
The ridiculous argument rages on, however, even among those who see themselves as reasonable people who are allied with gender-related social justice. They are defensive of their own definitions. Not only are these words tied to their own identities, they have ample rationalizations, supposedly based on “proper” definitions, to prop up their unnecessary and damaging policing of these terms.
They are wrong on every level.
Not just one level.
ALL THE LEVELS.
I glimpsed the other day, educational materials about sex and gender to be used in a Sociology class. The idea that “sex” is biological and “gender” is a social construction is a working definition. It is not that field-specific definition that is problematic, but how narrowly defined “biological” seems to be by those who are supposedly using that definition by invoking myopic simplistic judgments based on genitals, chromosomes, or adam’s apples.
Those narrow and dehumanizing definitions assume that those aspects of a human being are the ONLY biological aspects of a human being that relate to sex; and that gender signifiers should be imposed on an individual based on those criteria regardless of their personal identity.
Insisting that the language used by biologists to refer to gametes is used to refer to a whole human being due to that specific part existing is just, frankly, silly.
In physics, we have several very specific terms we use that are well-defined within our fields that are used very differently in other contexts. Those terms are many times context specific to what we are studying. For example, in my field the terms “female” and “male” are used to describe this:
This adapter has two male ends and a female end.
Saying that penis = male and vagina = female (for example) is as reasonable as me referring to everything with an orifice as “female” and anything with a protruding bit as “male”; and screaming at everyone who doesn’t use this “proper” scientific definition as being “anti-science” or some similar absurdity.
This is obviously a male mushroom.
Or perhaps, I could go around and police the terms, “work”, “effort”, “power”, “energy”, “pressure”, etc. and when others disagree I can declare victory because…SCIENCE!!!
That is exactly what all the simplistic references to “biology” appear like to me.
As complete crap that misuses science.
If you claim that a human’s biology is reduced to what their genitals looked like at birth or their chromosomes, I’m pretty sure you don’t know what “biology” is, much less can comment on what we currently understand about the complex biological realities of our minds and bodies.
And if you think that “biology” and our sense of self, our psychology, and our behavior and therefore our culture are completely unrelated; you might be a solipsist or something.
I could drag out a bunch of neurological studies, talk about endocrinology, psychology, or any number of sciences that have studied sex and gender in animals including humans; but I’ll simply encourage whomever is interested enough in the topic to have read this blog post to educate yourself concerning that.
At the end of the day, this is not a question that is best answered by science. You can’t find out the “proper” definition of a word through empiricism or methodological naturalism. Pretending as if you can is a gross misunderstanding of what science is and what types of questions it can answer.
When my new friend looked me up and down and called me a “female” as a means to seek solidarity with me as a fellow woman in a field dominated by men; she was not making a comment on my vagina or my chromosomes, or my possible suitability to gestate offspring, but a statement of my status as “woman” that I share with her.
How grotesque would it be to reject that solidarity due to some arbitrary and misunderstood condition of “biological” sameness?
How staggeringly indefensible would it have been to distance myself from her due to physiological differences that present further challenges to her?