A video of Ben Shapiro graced my Facebook feed in which he purportedly “destroys transgenderism” during a Q&A session with an audience member. I clicked to watch, noting the predictable routine that plagues many speaker-audience contentions — nervous question, witty one-line response, laughter, repeat until bored or screaming at each other. (To Shapiro’s credit, he’s pretty good at one-liners.) When he says, “You’re not a man if you think you’re a man” or “For all of human history, ‘boy’ meant ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ meant ‘girl,’” there’s an unwillingness to recognize that the present conflict dances around a simple, definitional disagreement. This worryingly predominant style of smug, one-liner debate isn’t just lazy, but unproductive and dangerous.
A productive conversation necessitates we start talking about how we talk about gender; that we cease bickering about the number of genders, boy scouts, and bathroom bills. It is clear that neither liberals nor conservatives are sharing a vocabulary, resulting in definitional entrenchment, hackish psychoanalysis, and dubious moral reasoning. Most damningly, the current gender debate largely ignores the core issue: we do not have a universal, cultural schema that protects non-binary gendered persons in the United States.
A better discussion begins by defining sex and gender. Sex is the property by which organisms are classified into male and female in accordance with physiological characteristics such as hormonal levels, chromosome types, and reproductive organs. Gender, as used here, pertains to personal and cultural interpretations of an individual’s societal role based upon preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity.
Though not true of every human society, gender is typically an interpretation of sex as it informs societal roles. A nurturing personality, for instance, is often thought effeminate due to the prevalence of nurturing persons of the female sex; similarly, aggression is seen as masculine. A culture may then define a role for females as caregivers and males as warriors. Such a categorical distinction would be pointless if everyone interpreted their sex through the same ideas of masculinity and femininity, but humans are weird.
Alternative gender systems to the Western binary exist and could inform a better conversation. There is evidence that some societies, such as the Yoruba people of West Africa, did not have a gender system prior to colonization by European powers. Of those cultures that did conceive of gender, many used sex as an anchoring point, but also understood masculinity and femininity differently from the West. The Navajo people conceived of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a manner similar to us, but their 3rd and 4th genders called nádleeh, or ‘two-spirits,’ do not translate to the Western binary. Similarly, Indian culture has a conception of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but also a third gender, hijra, encompassing eunuchs, intersexed individuals, and culturally effeminate males in general.
In particular, the hijra demonstrate that there was a respectable role for effeminate males in India. Their existence is documented as early as the 8th century and, though fallen from grace since the colonial period, they boast a distinguished history. Hijra served as royal counsels, guards for noble women, and fulfilled a sacred role as devotees of the mother-deity Bahuchara Mata and Shiva. To this day, they perform blessings at festivals, births, and weddings through song and dance.
One could argue that the hijra and nádleeh suffered collectively from psychological illnesses. Yet the contemporary notion of mental illness necessitates dysfunction. Being a hijra in pre-colonial India would not be dysfunctional, but advantageous precisely because they held a respectable societal role.
Yes, the suicide rate for the American transexual community is much higher than the standard population, plausibly because transexuals lack a societal role and thus a sense of purpose in American society, or that American culture predominantly stigmatizes transexuals. It goes without saying that a non-binary person is deviant, but they can only be called dysfunctional in a cultural context that makes no allowances for deviation from dominant gender norms. In short, cultural context can make deviance a source of distress, a necessary second criteria for mental illness.
With more than 700,000 Americans who cannot, for whatever reason, conform to the Western gender binary, personal beliefs concerning gender are subservient to a greater need. Many of these people are homeless, forced by circumstance into prostitution, and unable to find legitimate work or shelter. We could argue over whether they are confused, immoral, or attention seeking — we could also argue about our favorite colors and ice cream flavors.
In light of the hijra and nádleeh, how could we maximize the utility of deviant-gendered individuals in society? By defining roles for certain persons, they become more likely to contribute to order and prosperity. In spurning them, society fails to assign them a role, decreasing the likelihood they might contribute to or benefit from society. History suggests that integration of deviant-gendered persons into the fabric of culture is neither inexpedient nor unprecedented. If we are to embrace and protect all our citizenry, we might start by expecting humans to be the messy, non-dichotomous, featherless bipeds they are and discuss accommodation.
Mr. Dunkerley is a junior studying English and mathematics.