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Important Questions About Gender and Gender Transition

By October 23, 2019 October 28th, 2019 No Comments

Is Gender Sex and Sex Gender?

I want to tread somewhat lightly into controversial territory, but I do want to try to disentangle what has become of late a highly charged, epistemologically and pragmatically confusing set of issues. My primary reason for doing so is to encourage open discussion and serious longterm research on an issue of importance to those of us who study gender issues and their relationship with assigned sex. I want to consider the contemporary cultural and psychological phenomenon of transitioning between assigned sex and its relationship with gender studies.

I will try to disentangle some of the tangled threads of this issue in this post.

Theory and epistemology provide the basic frame for the discussion. What is a man? What is a woman? Should these categories remain binary? Where is the evidence? This discussion should lean heavily on scientific evidence and a consideration of biology, genetics and anatomy in answering these questions.

Do biology and genetics matter and how might we weigh these scientific disciplines along with the individual’s felt sense of gender or psychology? In terms of the field of gender, there has been sufficient research over the last five decades to demonstrate very convincingly that gender is a social or cultural construct and not a biological given at all [1].

More recently neuroscience has contributed a line of research demonstrating that there is little or no validity to the popular cultural idea of female and male brains. From the perspective of epigenetics, it has become clear that the brain is characterized by significant plasticity and is formed and transformed by experience, physical and geographical influences, as well as ethnic and cultural ones [2].

However, chromosomes remain and are unchanged by transition and are present in every cell. This is the place where conflation and medicalization can occur. This is the place where the difference between sex and gender matters. It is here that gender is translated incorrectly, I believe, from the psychological and the cultural to the biological. That transition disguises rather than alters genetics and biology [3]. That is, the biological aspect of transition is not necessary, but based instead on Western medicine’s participation in this gender transition. On the chromosomal and cellular level, a man cannot be a woman nor a woman a man. Gender experts must include all the epistemological and scientific evidence and not oversimplify for pragmatic purposes.

How are the human rights of all groups affected by these considerations?

Human rights play a large part in this discussion and rightfully so. However, once again, the human rights of all groups affected must be considered and must be as broadly focused as possible, including those of women and especially those of the designated alphabet, LGBTQ+ people.

Why is this group only an alphabet? What does each group have in common with the others vis a vis each other and not just with heterosexuality as the reference point? Does the alphabetization of all these lives erase the important differences?

And finally, a legal and psychological issue requiring more research. Children under 16 in the U.S. cannot consent to sex, so how can they consent to sex change? How can they possibly even understand what sex change is and what their future will be? If you have been in close contact with young children, as I have as a clinician and forensic examiner, you know that many or most still have active fantasy lives, imaginary friends, and unformed perceptions of the world around them. There are legal and psychological reasons that they cannot offer consent [4].

I support completely the arbitrariness of gender, but Mother Nature is not so arbitrary. Words are powerful, but not more powerful than biology and genetics. Gender can be transitioned and morphed, as it is a social construct differing in different cultures. Words matter. Biology matters. Genetics matters. Careful research and analysis matter. All people matter.

References

[1] Kaschak, E. (1992), Engendered Lives: A New Psychology of Women’s Experience, Basic Books: New York

[2] Fine, C. (2010), Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, W.W. Norton and Co., New York.

[3] Kaschak, E. (2015), Sight Unsen: Gender and Race Through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press.

[4] Wikipedia, Ages of Consent in North America,https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Ages_of_consent_in_North_America

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.