Friday, 17 July 2009

Sex, Gender and Race - slippery ideas

The debate on what is sex and gender is interesting. In the context of trans people, particularly so. Some argue that they change ‘gender’, other’s say they always had their gender so ‘changed sex.’ Others argue all of that is impossible – sex is fixed and impossible to change by any number of operations, gender is what you do and it never changes – gender reassignment (or confirmation) simply places a different perspective on your original gender.

But I would say be careful, what we are discussing can lead to some very slippery slopes, and saying we know what Sex is, is just as controversial position, as saying we know what Gender is.

It is worth looking at this debate in the context of one very similar; one which determined people’s social role, which decided what they could or could not do, and who they could or could not be: Race.

A Short, Long History of Oppression                            

In the 1850's, when the Scottish explorer, and missionary, Dr. David Livingstone first saw Mosi-oa-Tunya, the source of the Nile (which he named the Victoria Falls after the Queen), he was looking for people with frizzy afro style hair, short loin cloths, beads round their necks and bones through their noses. Of course they did not exist, but 100 years later, as a child I would read story books and even a children's encyclopaedia, where the Africans were pictured as having just those features. Africans were ‘natives’, and different from us, we were civilised, and we did not put bones through our noses.

For centuries, mankind has a distinguished people based on Race. However, despite what Nick Griffin of the BNP says, we now know that the 'race' of a person is indistinguishable because it is not there, it does not exist. In science, there are no 'separate races' of people., any longer. We all have the vast majority of our makeup in common, and the bits that are different cannot be put down to 'race'.

Granted, there are some body differences between people from different parts of the world. For example, I might claim, "people of African-Caribbean ethnicity (descent), have a higher prevalence of sickle cell anaemia." But is that true? According to the US National Library of Medicine, it actually has a higher prevalence amongst people:
"whose ancestors come from Africa; Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Italy; the Arabian Peninsula; India; and Spanish-speaking regions in South America, Central America, and parts of the Caribbean"(1)

So the premise I started from was wrong. What I should have said, if I had taken a global perspective, is that: "African-Caribbean people are just one of the ethnic groupings who have a higher prevalence of sickle cell anaemia."

Nonetheless, what I initially said was true - but in a British context only, and then because of historical accident. One of the larger groups of mid 20th century immigrants in the UK were descendants of those people originally taken from Africa to be slaves in the Caribbean islands occupied by the British. In the early 1950s, the British government invited large numbers of these African-Caribbean’s to come to the UK on low cost subsidised tickets to become workers within the newly nationalised industries. Many already held British passports, because we still ruled much of the Caribbean. They had a right to come to the UK anyway - but it was the  encouragement of government and the promise of real jobs that persuaded thousands to get on the boat and come here to to take  up the low paid jobs (again) in the health, education, railway, coal and communications industries that English workers refused.

So it is true to say in the UK, that as an 'ethnic' group 1st, 2nd , 3rd, 4th, and now even 5th generation descendants of those have people who came to the UK in the 1950’s have a higher prevalence of SCA compared top the remainder of the British population. It just isn't true in a global perspective. So, let’s say a person has SCA, you might presume their ancestors were African slaves. But you may well be wrong, they may be descended from native South Americans, or Arabs, or in the case of an ex- colleague, from India.

From the 17th century, we began to see common folklore about human difference merging with the new scientific taxonomies of difference. Distinctions were sought to determine race. It could the width of the nose, or the height of the forehead, and by the 1960’s - intelligence tests.

Why did we do that , firstly it was to develop the 'ideology of race' which many of us grew up with, which would allow us to decide all sorts of things about people of other ‘ races’. Most especially we could decide they were inferior.

Until 1964, some US states used this pseudo-science to determine who a person could or could not marry. In South Africa, from 1948 to 1990, apartheid decided where you could walk, sit, drink, swim, even where you could live – a policy which left millions of adolescents and children eking out a survival in the vast deserts of the Bantustans where the economy depended much like Native American reserves do now, on casinos. Their frequently absent mother worked in Johannesburg or Cape Town, their absent father in the diamond mines. They visited maybe every 4 or 5 years, if lucky. A friend only saw her mother,who was a maid in Jo’burg, twice during her childhood.
Earlier, in Germany  inthe 1930s and 40’s similar policies decided who went to the gas chambers.

Interestingly as early as 1787, the New Jersey preacher, Samuel Stanhope Smith wrote that skin colour was simply a consequence of exposure (or not) to the sun, and that all human beings were of one race. But the idea was not going to catch on quickly. It took until 1984 for James Baldwin to declare that race was nothing more than a social construction which afforded a framework for power.

Finally it wasn't until 1984 that Henry Louis Gates Jr. was finally able to capture the zeitgeist of the anti-racism movement, when he said:

"race has become a trope of the ultimate, irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific believe systems which…also have fundamentally opposed economic interests" (2)
In other words, race is nothing more than a site of oppression - the greedy abusing those they keep powerless so as to gain economic supremacy.

What this says about Sex and Gender                  

But, back to Sex and Gender; Gender (as we now call it) has a long history of enabling oppression, particularly against women and trans folk. There may be more to gender than that, but its role in subjugating women and the gender variant is so strong and so powerful, I would argue that anything else it might do is so minute in comparison it is almost as if it doesn’t exist.

As for sex, just what is it. We now know of so many ways in which the body can be’ un-sexed’, differences in size of genitalia, in gonadal structure, in hormonal uptake, in chromosomal makeup, that we can no longer say what it is – it certainly is not something made up of ‘2’ any longer.

So let us ditch them both – at least in so far as they do oppress us. Instead, they should be sites, not of oppression, but sites of expression. Otherwise, and only if they are just things we can use to enhance our lives, I am all for keeping them. I like having both.

I know they are just part of my own personal construct of what makes me ‘Stephen’, but I like my beard, my baldness, my hairy chest, my libido (if it bothers to come out and play, nowadays) and the voice I can boom out and which makes people stop and listen.

Though none of that is what makes the man, some of it makes me feel like the man. A rather mad idea, as the French psychologist Colette Chilland would say.

(1) see
(2) Gates Jr, H.J., (1984) Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext. In Ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction . New York: Modern Language Association, 1978. 44–69.