Monthly Archives: July 2013

Nature and nurture and why it’s a bogus debate

Let’s talk about love, just for a second, because it’s kind of complex and unknowable and I want to make a point about complicated things being turned into dumbed-down theories . . .

So, we know a few things about love. We know that it may be partially socially constructed (from Hollywood movies and songs, and suchlike) and partly biological (from hormones like oxytocin). We know that sometimes the concept of love is used in subtle ways to oppress women. I’m pretty certain, though, that if we saw it as only these things, we’d be accused of reducing something of value and importance. We might not really want other people’s definitions and theories imposed on our own experiences; love has a transcendent quality, that we “just feel” or “just know” in a way that can’t be reduced to biology or construction.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Yep, I’m drawing a comparison with gender. There are no proven definitions of what gender is, nor of where sex ends and gender begins, nor of how much gender is constructed and how much it is biology. Aspects of gender are oppressive, and for some, aspects of gender are valuable and meaningful. There is an endless and pointless nature/nurture debate over gender, and I’m getting a little weary of this unwinnable and pointless back and forth.

Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender, talks about the “sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.” Personally, I have something a little more pithy to say about the nature/nurture debate:

It’s both. Get over it.

What troubles me is when people turn their own experience of gender into theory they apply to others, without taking into account their own subjectivity. Often, folks who experience themselves as monogender tend to follow “nature” theories whereas more androgynous or genderqueer people tend to think of gender as less real and innate, more fluid – this would make sense for people who don’t have a profound inner sense of gender, but they are disregarding those who do, by muddling people’s genuine sense of who they are with something that has merely been enforced by society. It would be like someone who has never been in love telling the rest of the world love does not exist, or someone who has been hurt by love saying it should not exist.

So some genderqueer or agender people assume theirs is the “real” experience and monogender people are somehow deluded; for them, gender cannot be real because they don’t experience it as real themselves. Monogender people are equally defensive of their own perspective, and can sometimes dismiss or cut across genderqueer or non-binary experiences, or say that explorations of social construction are deliberately eradicating of trans narratives.

When people disagree this much it’s probably because there are elements of truth on both sides, and a lack of empathy bridging the space between – the same thing happens with sexuality; bi people often think that “everyone’s bi really” whereas gay and heterosexual people tend to be suspicious that people could (or should) really be bi.

If we move in our heads from “either/or” to “both/and” maybe we can breathe a little easier with this nature/nurture conundrum. Everyone can have their identities and we can still talk about gender oppression, and challenge our social constructions around gender. We can get behind deconstructing an artificially reinforced gender binary but still accept gender diversity and natural difference.

We don’t need to forcefully maintain gender or forcefully eradicate it. Here’s a truly radical idea – what if we simply accept people’s self-experience and self-expression, and don’t privilege or validate some identities over others? Biology may well be the dominant factor in some but not all people’s experience of gender. Having a strong sense of gender identity or not feeling gendered at all are equally valid individual experiences that could be natural or constructed or a mix of both. The individual balance of nature and nurture is impossible to measure. More importantly, “natural” does not make something more valid; if we learned the idea of love from Shakespeare that doesn’t make it meaningless when we fall head over heels.

We are all the sum of our nature and nurture and the result, however mundane or unique, should be accepted as authentic.

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In my head I’m still a lesbian

When my partner came out as a trans* man, I had not expected so many eyes to be on me and my identity. I want to support my partner, I believe in him and I accept who he is . . . but wait, does this mean I now have to be redefined myself? Because I’m not quite sure I want any man (sorry dearest) to define who I am. Not that he’s asking me to, but other eyes are on me for sure.

The thing people don’t seem to get is that he hasn’t really changed. He’s always been a man, so why do I have to change now, just because he’s acknowledging it more openly? The reality is, the lesbian community is full of all kinds of genderqueerness and trans-masculinity, and it always has been. That’s why I feel comfortable here, and lesbian has been the word I’ve used to describe myself, a word that more or less comfortably fits me. If I was looking for a partner tomorrow, I would be looking in the lesbian community, and I would be continuing to fight to make this, my community, more trans-inclusive, queer friendly and acknowledging of the complexity of gender. Maybe lesbian is not the right word for me, but it’s been around me for a long time, like my own name, and it fits me in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so; it speaks to the kind of person I am, not just my relationship choices.

When my partner came out, we had to lay a lot of stuff on the line. It was painful. I had to make it pretty clear what I am and am not up for – I’m not prepared to pretend to be part of a straightforward cis heterosexual couple; I cannot squash my own queerness to assist in his passing. Hard as it was, I had to say I could not live stealth, and that he would have to face the fact that my queer presence in his life was always going to make it more difficult for him to pass. He did not ask me to do any of those things, but knowing what was ahead of us, it needed to be spelled out.

Last week we went to a straight wedding, and my partner wore a suit and tie – he looked so beautiful, so very comfortable in this second skin. I had pangs of guilt – maybe if I’d worn a dress, rather than trousers, jacket and a shirt, we would not have drawn attention. But as it was, we only drew good attention; we stood out, but we’re so happy and comfortable in our queerness it did not seem to matter, and people accepted his pronouns without a blink.

Thank heaven my partner chooses me along with the complication that go with my own queerness. He was very clear that for himself being stealth is not the way he wants to go. He’s also never identified with a differentiated “butch/femme” dynamic in his relationships, so why would he suddenly start now? Like me, my partner has always been attracted to genderqueer people, and the reality is there is no huge gap between his identity and mine; it’s not a simple binary – him over there in the boy camp and me over here in the girl camp. Our relationship will continue to be more homo than hetero.

And I can say all this and still be sure he’s a man. It’s me that’s the ambiguous variable in this equation, and there are no easy labels for me anymore.

I’m changing too, and realising my queerness has more to do with gender than sexuality, but I still feel gay – sometimes I feel like a lesbian, sometimes I feel more like a gay man. I can’t tolerate my queerness being invisibilised by people who think I became straight overnight, such as the person who emailed me saying I need to leave a lesbian group because of my partner’s transition, or the others who are saying that my partner is transitioning in order to conform to heteronormativity. Just because he and I now express different gender identities, we did not overnight become some epitome of straightforward, binary categorisation.

I remain lesbian-identified; if others want to describe me as bisexual or pansexual, I don’t object to those labels but they are not labels I chose for myself. And I cannot accept anybody trying to police my identity, any more than I accept people policing trans* identities.

I do fully accept that I am in a relationship with a man. I will not do anything to undermine my partner’s identity or suggest he’s any less of a man than other men. We don’t define ourselves in relation to each other; our identities stand on their own.