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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Greer's Syndrome - One for DSM VI?
This ought to be a proper post, festooned with links, but I'm too lazy to do that; and also, I've not really thought the subject through to the extent that I'd like to present this as some kind of finished position, rather than (what it is) an invitation to others' thoughts. Suffice it to say, I could produce the links if I were arsed - but then, so could Professor Google.

Anyway, I was thinking about the primacy given by some self-described radical feminists to chromosomes when it comes to determining sex. For example, Gia Milinovich defines sex wholly in chromosomal terms, and Germaine Greer (an early adopter) does much the same in The Whole Woman. I was reminded of this habit most recently while listening to Midweek (17:40) the other day, where I heard Libby Purves quote the old feminist slogan "biology is destiny" [shurely some mistake? Ed.] to put actor Ed Zephyr in their place and remind them that "in chromosome terms there are male and there are female and you can't quite get round that".

Zephyr responded by pointing out that there are many variations even on that basis. And that is a good answer, as far as it goes - intersex erasure is a real problem. (For that matter I've never had my chromosomes tested - have you, dear reader?) But it left me wondering why it is that in many people's minds chromosomes trump gender identity; trump socialisation; trump hormones; trump phenotype. Only chromosomes, it seems, really count as "scientific". Is it because the only way to find out someone's chromosomal make-up is by looking down a microscope? How phallocentric!

While we're at it, why must there be one answer, one sure-fire, all-or-nothing test? Doesn't that speak to a far more brittle insecurity, to say nothing of an empathetic and intellectual sclerosis? I think so; and propose the name Greer's Syndrome for the condition, after its most eminent sufferer.

Intersex erasure is most definitely a real problem.

All the more so given the bewildering variety of actual conditions that term covers.

Edited at 2016-03-18 08:39 pm (UTC)

Indeed. (Not all of which are chromosomal, of course.)

actor Ed Zephyr

I realize this is not entirely the point of the post, but thank you for introducing me to Ed Zephyr: I had never heard of them, but they interview interestingly and they mention Eric Portman! They are quite right that his sexuality informed his acting in resonant and sometimes difficult ways; it's one of the reasons I am delighted that the Archers got him as Colpeper instead of Roger Livesey. Usually I have to explain him to people. So I am automatically inclined to like Zephyr for knowing about him already and the fact that I enoyed the rest of the interview is a nice bonus.

(For that matter I've never had my chromosomes tested - have you, dear reader?)

Nope. I've wanted to for years, but it doesn't seem to be something that doctors will do just for fun.

But it left me wondering why it is that in many people's minds chromosomes trump gender identity; trump socialisation; trump hormones; trump phenotype.

I genuinely don't know. If your chromosomes are a clear-cut binary, that's nice, but other than medical information I'm not sure what else that tells you.

I'd never heard of Ed Zephyr before listening to the programme, so am grateful to it for that, at least.

""in chromosome terms there are male and there are female and you can't quite get round that"

My knowledge of genetics is purely 1970s non-major undergraduate, but even I know better than that. Chromosomes are messy little buggers.

And as regards physical expression of the genotype, Fred Pohl pointed out in a story back in 1966 that complete mismatches were already known to exist - and I point to him because that shows the knowledge had already seeped into popular culture.

And all that is entirely besides genuine intersex conditions, of which in the 1970s I was not aware.

Some pontificating nut a while ago declared that men and women are really different species, as different as dogs and cats. That amused me, because I was just listening to my veterinarian describe how, in terms of behavior, her dog is really a cat and her cat is really a dog. A vet! Somebody who really knows animals.

Chromosomes are messy little buggers.

That's a very good summary of the position as I understand it.

I think at least some people are reasoning backward from the conclusion: if someone has once concluded/decided that sex can't be changed, they'll want to find a trait that can't be changed and that more-or-less maps onto gender (the desire for a connection rules out traits like blood type).

Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me.

I think you've hit on the impulse behind this.

My daughter and I had a long conversation over lunch on this today (tomorrow a transgendered friend is arriving for a spring vacation visit). She said she was trying to figure out why some of her female friends had this lockstep aversion to accepting transwomen as women. She says she thinks it comes down to being all about them, but them not perceiving it, that is, the complaints are about seeing a person, say, six foot two, deep voice, though dressed as a woman, is giving visual and aural man cues, but also assuming male social space, and male dominance in the flow of conversation. They are claiming there aren't enough women cues to be accepting the person as a woman; is that because they don't want to have to think about their assumptions? Is this a hankering to go back to the early sixties conformity pressure?

Coincidentally (I think), another guest on that same edition of Midweek was Fay Weldon, whose feminist classic The Life and Loves of a She-Devil has just been rather well adapted for radio - and of course has as its protagonist a woman who is six foot two and masculine in some aspects of her appearance.

I'll have to pass that on to daughter.

So what, therefore, makes a woman a woman? If it isn't chromosomes or physical appearance and behaviour? Why is one person a woman and another isn't?

Personally I don't regard "woman" as an important part of my identity, except where it comes to biology. Having periods, bearing children, experiencing the menopause and how my genes gave me a smaller, weaker body than the average man all had an impact on my life. But what is more important to me in terms of my identity are things that I do. I'm a mother because I do mothering. I'm a photographer because I take photographs. I'm a Welsh speaker because I speak Welsh. But when it comes to being a woman, what, exactly, is "womaning"?

I don't necessarily have things in common with people just because they're a woman. There is no "woman club" that you can join and be accepted as a woman in the abstract. I can feel very uncomfortable and out of place in some all female groups whilst perfectly at home in others.

If someone feels that behaving in a typically female way and following typical feminine pursuits feels more natural to them, then that's the nearest a person can come to "doing womaning" -- and they'll probably be accepted by people as woman. But if someone is "giving visual and aural man cues, but also assuming male social space, and male dominance in the flow of conversation" (and I have met transwomen who do that), how can that be said to be being a woman? What is "womanly" about them?

I don't know. The only answer I can come up with is, if someone feels her identity is 'woman' then she must be one.

I agree it's pointless trying to look for some "essence" that defines womanhood (or anything else comparably complex - e.g. being "British"). Chromosomes certainly don't do that job, and I doubt that any one measure could though I suppose I could imagine some amorphous and negotiable range of measures that might in combination do so for most practical purposes - always allowing that there are bound to be outliers and borderline cases. Whether this matters depends on why one is trying to define the border in the first place - but any rule is bound to be arbitrary to some degree. ("Assuming male dominance" is no doubt done by some trans women, just as it is by some cis ones.)

That said, I do think that for many (not all) people, identity - as opposed to stuff they do - does matter. Sometimes they realise this only when that their identity is denied them - perhaps after a lifetime of taking it for granted.

A case in point might be women with AIS, who often learn of their condition only when seeking medical treatment for fertility problems. Perhaps they ought not to mind that in Germaine Greer's opinion they are deformed men, despite being phenotypically female and thinking of themselves as women all their lives. After all, fertility issues aside, they can carry on "womaning". But I don't find it surprising or unreasonable that they do mind, for all that.

Germaine craves certainty. She feels qualified to identify it too.

Yes, I think that's true.

Having had a massive run in with Catherine Bug Brennan (threats of legal action) and TERFs in Ingerlund I cannot agree with a chromosomal classification (Klinefelters, plus others too rare to mention). On Greer's analysis Marilyn Monroe would fail (menstrual problems). Libby Purvis is an annoying (cont p.52)

Brennan is a lawyer by day, I believe. Her reputation goes before her.

A nasty surprise awaits her (as it does a bent mulatto ex cop) but I can't go into more details right now. Oddly enough Bug is a lawyer. She also causes dissent in gay circles.

Don't, just don't get me going on this!

PAIS anyone?

Given where we're at and what we know/don't know right now, chromosomal stuff isn't nearly as accurate as self-identification. Let me cite a relative of mine as an example. He fully identifies as male. His children identify him as male. His various girlfriends and ex-wife and siblings do the same.(Germaine Greer met him in their respective youths and *she* thought he was male, too. This is not relative to any argument, but it amuses me.) His gender has never been in question except ... his chromosomes say he is not quite male (he has an extra X). He didn't take hormones to adjust things until he reached retirement age, so if his chromosomes hadn't been tested, he would never have known. Most of the world still doesn't know, unless he tells them. Which he doesn't, for it's not relevant at all to most things. He'll bring it up when people are skiting about unusual physical conditions, and that's about it. He'd rather complain about his health or his daughter, given five minutes of time.

He'd rather complain about his health or his daughter, given five minutes of time.

Sounds like a sensible fellow.

That's the funny thing - he isn't. Not at all. But he's male and he has known it all his life and that's that.