Transgender feminist Cristan Williams opens the conversation with radical feminist John Stoltenberg by making inquiries into the ways in which Stoltenberg conceptualizes and communicates terminology relating to sex and gender binaries. Williams roots her inquiry in the historical way in which trans activists have struggled to language critiques of a presumed sex and gender binary to a largely cisgender audience.
The Sex/Gender Binary: Intertextual Dialectics
BY Cristan Williams
For decades, trans advocates have struggled to describe sex and gender from a trans perspective. In 1958, Christine Jorgensen challenged the concept of a natural sex binary in her interview LP Christine Jorgensen Reveals. At the 23 second mark, the cisgender interviewer asks Jorgensen if she’s a woman. Jorgensen replied, “We seem to assume that every person is either a man or a woman. But we don’t take into account the scientific value that each person is actually both in varying degrees. Now, this sounds a little evasive and I don’t mean it to be in actuality. To that, my only answer is that I am more of a woman than I am a man.” Working from within the confines of a 1950s pop lexicon, Jorgensen challenged the cis interviewer’s presumption of a natural sexed body binary and instead proposed that sex might be conceptualized as more of a spectrum. Later in the interview she challenged the idea that clothing habits have anything to do with sex. “One isn’t born to wear clothes, actually. Clothes are a habit that one accumulates.” Throughout the entire LP, Jorgensen is continually encountering and challenging sex and gender presumptions as she struggles to frame her answers in a way that the cis interviewer might grasp1.
The work we do requires us to attempt to communicate nuanced ideas using terms an audience can sometimes easily misconstrue. Moreover, we are challenged to use these terms in a way that reveals, critiques and questions assumptions and beliefs underlying sex and gender oppression.
As a trans advocate, when I discuss gender and sex it’s important for me to note that there is a difference between our mental contextualization of a physical phenomenon and the physical phenomenon itself. Within a body there are attributes which may contribute to reproduction and within social groupings, we contextualise these attributes into a binary body ontology – an aspect of gender – we know as “sex.” We think of these attributes as genotype and phenotype and appeal to these as being essential to that which is “male” or that which is “female.” Subjectively, gender is the sexed labels we utilize, the emotional states and contextual memories associated with those labels, our mental embodiment of self as being related to those labels, the way we subjectively experience our body, the way we communicate – express – these understandings, our understanding of the way our society responds to these expressions and our awareness of the normative sex-designated cultural structures that are collectively reinforced. All of this (and more) is how we subjectively and collectively contextualize sexed body attributes into a binary, which is to say, how we do gender.
Would you discuss the strategies you use to help ensure that you are understood when discussing sex and gender? Moreover, how do you work with the concept of a natural sex binary and, from your perspective, is “sex” wholly distinct from “gender”?