August 3, 2008

"The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person’s life, the lives we live each day."

"Surely the best judge of a person’s gender is not a degrading, questionable examination. The best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart."

When we need to categorize people by sex/gender — for the Olympics, for example — what is the right way to do it? The quote above is from an op-ed by Jennifer Finney Boylan.The quote struck me because what's in someone's heart seems to me to be a terrible test, because it demands another test — the test of what is in a person's heart — and people lie. Certainly, some athletes will lie.

But even if we could accurately see the contents of your heart the way we can see the contents of your pants and your chromosomes, would we want your subjective beliefs to determine who you get to compete against? It's one thing to leave people alone as they live their private lives, quite another to set up an athletic competition where there will be winners and losers.

How does Boylan propose to look into hearts?
A quick look at the reality of an athlete’s life ought to settle the question.
Absurd! Where is this picture of "the reality of an athlete's life" for us to take a "quick look" at? And even if there was such a picture and it could not be faked, what aspects of life are female and what are male? You can't answer the question without using sexist stereotypes that are not only offensive but have very little application to high-level athletes. Obsession with sports and competition is stereotypically male. If we took Boylan's laughable test seriously, there'd be no athlete left in the female category.

Boylan has an alternate conclusion:
Maybe ... Olympic officials have to learn to live with ambiguity, and make peace with a world in which things are not always quantifiable and clear.

That, if you ask me, would be a good thing, not just for Olympians, but for us all.
It's fine to recommend that we appreciate ambiguity, but athletic contests need rules and those who enforce them have to make decisions. It's funny how Boylan wants us to believe in her "quick look" at lifestyle test but wants us to accept that biology is endlessly ambiguous.

There may be some difficult cases at the biological level, but rules should be devised to deal with those cases fairly. As Boylan notes, the Olympic rules permit individuals who have gone through sex reassignment surgery to compete as the sex the surgery has modeled them after. Whether that rule was a good idea is another question. It seems to be accepted because the treatment degrades athletic ability, so the former man does not have the usual advantage a man would have competing with women. But there is no reason to devise a rule that allows men to compete with women because they feel like women.

***

Boylan is the author of “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” described by Booklist here:
In this autobiography, she details her lifelong struggle with her burgeoning femaleness and the path she followed to become a female, both physically and mentally. For 40 years, the author lived as a man, seemingly happy and even marrying a woman and fathering two children. At a certain point, though, she realized that she couldn't suppress her desire to live as a female and so eventually went through all the steps to become female, including sexual reassignment surgery. There is something troubling about Boylan's lighthearted tone, and while she hints at it, there is no really clear depiction of the havoc this transition must have wreaked on her married life (Boylan's wife was clearly devastated) and on her children (who at times refer to her as boygirl or maddy).

27 comments:

PatCA said...

Her definition of gender in relation to sports is absurd, but I guess she has to "go there" to defend her own actions, which did devastate her family.

Kirby Olson said...

It would be nice if class were also a matter of what's in someone's heart. I would like to stay at 4-star hotels when I travel instead of at lonely motels on forgotten blue highways!

Nice piece. A lot of feminists have been arguing that gender is a matter of personal feeling, or performance. Judith Butler has been arguing that if you perform as one gender, then you are that gender.

Simone de Beauvoir was already arguing in the 50s or was it the 40s that gender has no biological basis.

So if it doesn't is it purely imaginary? It seems to be the assumption that it is.

I just wish I could imagine a new class for myself and have others take me at face value. I would like to stay at the Four Seasons and order lobster from room service.

Pogo said...

"Olympic officials have to learn to live with ambiguity, and make peace with a world in which things are not always quantifiable and clear."

Postmodernists believe reality is only a matter of definition. As a result, gender and even sex are only sociological constructs.

If so, why does Boylan feel there should be any rules at all? Why bother making even a quick look? On what basis does she, who violates many rules, demand that some rules be followed?

She takes advantage of the social construct for women, but simultaneously argues for upending it. Here she becomes as Sir Archy described, "...more like unto Vagabonds, Wastrels, or even common Thieves, enjoying the Benefits of Society, whilst doing no Good."

rhhardin said...

Unisex sports is the answer. No more women's teams.

Bobby Riggs proved that. ``I've found my calling. Women's tennis.''

Already there's no LPGA senior's tour.

Paddy O. said...

This is, ultimately, the height of narcissism. Individualism taken to an extreme.

Gender is understood as a private reality, what "I" express to the world. The "I" becomes the primary player, the only player. Others are merely illusions, barriers, to self-expression.

But what really does define gender? Us in terms of our lone selves, or us in terms of our participation with community?

Surely, it's the latter. Because by ourselves there could be no gender distinction. There's just the lone individual without need for gender definition. Just is.

In society, however, we are assigned roles to play, roles that have both biological and cultural functions. Our gender is not defined by us in community, it is defined by how we function with and among others for society. This is most stark in situations where life and death are at stake. Community defines roles for the sake of the continuing society. And that means participation with community always means letting go and embracing what others need us to be as well as expressing who we truly are. There's the balance there, a give and take. Boylan only understands that latter, willing to devastate for a narcissistic dreamworld.

With the Olympics the reality is based on the community of competition. A victory is by definition a victory over others, in the same category, performing the same tasks. And as such there are rules, rules of performance and rules of participation.

If a person wants only a narcissistic version of their felt reality they shouldn't even bother with the Olympics, which dares to define such realities as victor, and best, and elite. Such people can go and run or swim or skate by themselves, declaring in their own hearts that they know they are in fact gold medal winners, no matter what society might say.

Joe M. said...

You know, gender doesn't interest me much. Sex, on the other hand is a topic of endless fascination.

Synova said...

People were rightly motivated to push against gender typing and restraints because people really are not all that likely to neatly fit into stereotypes.

But this lady has it backward. It's our *lives* that are ambiguous.

What I see is not the call to bring up children without gender expectations and therefore gender role limitations that was the big thing when I was a child (or at least that's how I perceived the deliberate blurring of what we were told we could grow up to *be*... no more female only nurses and male only surgeons...) but a demand to categorize as one gender or another.

Rather than viewing the ambiguity of our daily lives as entirely normal, now it's an indicator that something isn't right with you, that something needs to be *fixed*.

Beth said...

Where is this picture of "the reality of an athlete's life" for us to take a "quick look" at?

Batman's eavesdropping machine? Seriously, who would recommend something like this for games in CHINA??? And she undercuts that whole "quick look" argument with her example of the German male athlete whom the Nazis made live as a girl for three years. That's what a quick look would have revealed.

Chip Ahoy said...

Hello everybody. I've indulged my own perturbed psychology to the devastation of everything I've touched. I wrote a book about it! Come, hear how I've extrapolated from that experience a way for the whole world to be.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

heh.

Lawgiver said...

she details her lifelong struggle with her burgeoning femaleness .....

Burgeoning femaleness?

Wait. I'm confused. She wasn't born that way? Her gender wasn't determined by her genes, it just started developing on it's own as she got older?

blake said...

I remember when Dan Bunten/Dani Berry died and finding a touching (and disturbing) essay on SRS. Can't find the old site. Here it is on what appears to be an anti-SRS site.

(S)he wrote some other interesting stuff on the subject as well that's not on the above-linked site.

As for reality, I'm reminded of the South Park where Randy has a species reassignment and believes himself to be a dolphin....

Kirby Olson said...

My children are often pretending to be alligators. I wonder if I should open a zoo.

Richard Fagin said...

"It's fine to recommend that we appreciate ambiguity, but athletic contests need rules and those who enforce them have to make decisions."

Change "athletic contests" to "tort law", "employment law", "securities law" and kindly tell it to the plaintiffs' bar.

Bruce Hayden said...

I guess I shouldn't be stating the obvious, that the reason that there are distinctions based on gender esp. at this level, is that there are differences in the way that the two sexes develop. It is not surprising that the number of genetically male female athletes discovered at elite (female) competitions is much higher than the number of genetically male but physically females in the population. Males, on average, are just much better able to put on serious muscle. If a sport takes strength, those male genes are going give a big advantage to those "women" who have them.

So, fine. Eliminate sex distinctions in sports, and watch most sports contests turn into almost exclusively male contests. So, for example, eliminate most women from track and field events. Ditto for most swimming and skiing events.

Meade said...

Waist down, the average female has the same number of muscle fibers as the average male. Given the same amount of testosterone and training, there is no reason she can't be, waist down, equally as strong as he.

Meade said...

Ask Dr. Pogo: It's a hominid thing.

So, for purposes of competition, maybe that should be the test: Take the ratio of total number of upper body muscle fibers to lower body. Above a certain ratio, you compete with the "masculine" athletes. Below, you're with the "feminine" ones.

And if it turns out that tests show you are actually able to increase not just the size but the number of muscle fibers in your body, well then, pussy cat, I'm afraid you'll just have to compete with your own species.

PatCA said...

Why do we have to change the rules of civil society in order to accommodate the emotional "pain" of a handful of people?

I doubt that this writer's pain, however emphemeral or real, would be assuaged by a gender free Olympics, anyway.

laser72 said...

In society, however, we are assigned roles to play, roles that have both biological and cultural functions. Our gender is not defined by us in community, it is defined by how we function with and among others for society. This is most stark in situations where life and death are at stake. Community defines roles for the sake of the continuing society. And that means participation with community always means letting go and embracing what others need us to be as well as expressing who we truly are. There's the balance there, a give and take. Boylan only understands that latter, willing to devastate for a narcissistic dreamworld.

So you think that people should repress there individual natures in favor of what "the community" requires? Really? Are you a conservative.

I'm not defending the idea of lying to a spouse about your desires; that obviously leads to tragic situations. But if I'm a guy who feels like a girl, why shouldn't I be able to be a girl?

peter hoh said...

There's a new spirit afoot at the Olympics. Officials will no longer judge athletes or quantify their performance. All athletes will receive a participation ribbon. If someone feels that he or she has won an event, that will be the truth of that person's life.

The head of the IOC issued the following statement in defense of this new policy: "Olympic athletes have to learn to live with ambiguity, and make peace with a world in which things are not always quantifiable and clear."

blake said...

Waist down, the average female has the same number of muscle fibers as the average male. Given the same amount of testosterone and training, there is no reason she can't be, waist down, equally as strong as he.

Er...are women athletes allowed to take testosterone?

blake said...

So you think that people should repress there individual natures in favor of what "the community" requires? Really? Are you a conservative.

Interesting that you say the above, and then say this:

I'm not defending the idea of lying to a spouse about your desires; that obviously leads to tragic situations. But if I'm a guy who feels like a girl, why shouldn't I be able to be a girl?

Because it leads to tragic situations?

I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your POV, but I don't follow your logic.

Meade said...

"are women athletes allowed to take testosterone?"

No, I don't think either sex is supposed to take testosterone.

Hormone levels fluctuate throughout a person's life. Training regimens vary. But in a human body, the total number of skeletal muscle fibers is finite and genetically determined. A person can alter the size but not the number of those fibers.

I was clumsily trying to come up with a method, for purposes of competition, of separating the men from the women based on the fact that males have the athletic advantage of having been given, genetically, a higher ratio of upper to lower body muscle fibers. Nothing is going to change that ratio - not Y chromosomes, not hormonal matrix, not sexual reassignment, and certainly not "what lies within her, or his, heart." I don't know if we have the technology to easily count those muscle fibers but if we do, it seems to me to be a feasible way of separating the so=called genders.

knox said...

I see the Booklist review says "There is something troubling about Boylan's lighthearted tone;" I'd say she's having the same problem in this instance. It's the Olympics. It's all about the physical. Even if you're taking hormones and have had full sex reassignment surgery, you can't compete in the Olympics as your new gender. Sorry. I think she's being a little blase about the whole thing. It's disingenuous.

Jarz said...

Sex and gender are not synonyms. Gender, to oversimplify, is what's "in your heart"; i.e., it's one's sexual identity. Sex, OTOH, is one's physical body.

The failure to make this distiction was at the heart of all the hooplah/contraversy over Oprah's "pregnant man."

The Olympics need/should not try to evaluate gender, only sex. This would by no means eliminate all grey areas, but it does narrow the argument.

And yes, no athlete is allowed to take testosterone; just ask Floyd Landis.

PatCA said...

"So you think that people should repress there individual natures in favor of what "the community" requires? Really? Are you a conservative."

You should read Solzhenitsyn's essay on the conflict between our legal system and goodness again.

Meade said...

"Sex and gender are not synonyms."

gen·der (jĕn'dər)
n.
3. a. The condition of being female or male; sex


I would agree they shouldn't be synonyms but I'm afraid they are.

laser72 said...

You should read Solzhenitsyn's essay on the conflict between our legal system and goodness again.

Why would you assume I've read that essay? If you have an actual argument, you really should just make it, rather than pointing me to a work that given your brief description doesn't seem to have anything to do with the subject of whether it's a "conservative" (i.e. in favor of personal freedom) position to expect a transgendered individual to live as their physical gender.