While We’re Talking about Ambiguous Sex

So: what is one to make of Conchita Wurst?  I’ve not heard the song that won Eurovision this year, but I’m willing to bet that the world would be a better place if every entrant had been thrown into the Køge Bay before a single note was struck.  But that might just be me.

Conchita Wurst. Wurst. Geddit? Wur… Oh, suit yourself

Writing in the TelegraphBrendan O’Neill has other concerns.  Why, oh why, oh why can’t people just use the pronoun “he” when referring to Wurst?  Wurst was born a man; therefore the male pronoun is more appropriate.  (He’s never one to duck the important issues of the day, is Bren.)  “Did everyone overnight transmogrify into a Gender Studies student and imbibe the unhinged idea that gender is nothing more than a ‘playful’ identity?” he asks.  More: the fact that people refer to Wurst with the feminine pronoun is a symptom of what he calls “today’s speedily spreading cult of relativism”, and allowing people to choose their identity is “narcissistic”.

Now, let’s just ignore for the moment that Conchita Wurst is a character, and so it makes perfect sense to call her “her” in just the same way that one might use “her” to refer to Dame Edna Everage.  (Thanks to someone I don’t know on Facebook for making that analogy – it’s a good ‘un.)  O’Neill sort-of-acknowledges that, but he doesn’t let that minor point get in the way of a more general rant against people preferring to be referred to by one pronoun rather than another.  For example, he takes this swipe at Chelsea Manning:

Heaven help anyone who doesn’t play along with gender game.  When Bradley Manning decided from his prison cell that he wanted to be called Chelsea, and referred to by the female pronoun only, vast swathes of the media instantaneously fell into line and anyone who refused to, anyone who dared to write “Mr Manning”, was pretty much accused of committing a hate crime.  But isn’t it the job of journalism to report on objective reality rather than to cave to an individual’s subjective feelings?  And the objective reality is that Bradley Manning is still a bloke.  To refer to him as “she” is to deny reality itself, to present a wish that exists in someone’s mind as a tangible, objective fact.

And this makes his point rather more important than a mere trivial gripe about a trivial competition.  It’s also about transgender/ transsexual people, and how they’re to be talked about and thought about; and as such, it’s potentially serious, even if only because there is a group of people for whom the conventional gender identity doesn’t fit, and who are made deeply unhappy by this, and who suffer as a result, but for whom treatment – be it surgical, psychological, or social – could be available.  Working out how to think about sex and gender has a real impact on people’s lives.

Let’s be generous to O’Neill for a moment: it’s true that while some people may identify themselves as female despite being phenotypically and genotypically male, and vice versa, there isn’t anything we can do about chromosomes.  If your genes say you’re male, then you are, biologically speaking, male; and if they say you’re female, then you’re female.  Should Manning’s mortal remains be discovered by archaeologists in 5000 years, they would find an X and a Y chromosome, and deduce that this was once a male.  Fair enough.  But we should be wary of running together sex and gender on this front: “he” and “she” aren’t biological categories, so much as linguistic and cultural categories that biology might coopt for the sake of a shorthand.  Hence calling Manning “she” is not to deny reality, because reality is not exhausted by your genes – it’d be nuts to think that it was.  Manning is not a bloke.  Manning is, and always will be, biologically male; but biological maleness does not a bloke make.

And, of course, cases like Manning’s are comparatively easy.  There’s also a small but significant number of people whose genotype and phenotype are abnormally aligned without any surgical intervention.  Thus there are people who have a Y chromosome but who, thanks to androgen insentitivity, present as female.  Conceivably, they might go a large chunk of their lives without ever being discovered to be genetically male.  I wonder what pronoun O’Neill would apply to them.  And I’d love to see how he struggles with people with androgynous sexual development and weird chromosome combinations like XXY.  After all, if the words we use for people depends on the biological facts, what on Earth are we supposed to do when biology outwits language?

For O’Neill,

[t]o accept the idea that a man can become a “she” overnight, simply through demanding it, does more than flatter the pretensions of one individual – it also undermines the ability of all of us to approach the world objectively, to use a common language to describe people and objects that have particular attributes. It obliterates the very Enlightenment ideal of using reason and measurement to describe the physical world.

This is one of O’Neill’s favourite games – casting himself as a beleaguered defender of the Enlightenment against… well, everything.  What this means in practice is that he’s decided that he can ignore anything since Burke, with the possible exception of Mill, whom he reads selectively and inattentively.  It’s one thing to use “reason and measurement” to describe the physical world… but this does assume that the language we’ve inherited has the conceptual wherewithal to compass reality.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  The conventional male/ female binary is a lovely example of this: science tells us that it’s not a perfect fit for biological reality, and anthropology tells us that it’s not a perfect fit for social reality.  If the common language doesn’t do the job, it’s very strange to start huffing and puffing about it.  Sometimes the language is tricky.  Meh.  So it goes.  (I had a conversation with a philosopher not so long ago about how one should refer to the earlier works of someone who has had a sex-change mid-career; do you use “He argued…” when we’re talking about Joe, and “She later elaborated” when we’re talking about Joanne?  “She” for the whole time?  It’s a strange situation – but I think admitting that it’s strange is fine, because the world is often strange.  If the language doesn’t quite work, then the language doesn’t quite work.  You don’t get to insist that the world is different in order to make the language work, though.)

Now, O’Neill does have a superficially stronger string to his bow, with this:

Does objective reality – the fact that there are biological differences between men and women, and that the vast majority of humankind decides whether someone is a man or woman by those biological attributes – count for nothing in the face of one person’s wish to be known as something he is not?  By the same token, can I now request that people refer to me as black even though I’m white?  Who are you to say I am not black?  I might feel black.

But note that it is only superficially stronger; and the danger with rhetorical questions is that someone’ll answer them, and not in the way you’re expecting.  So here’s an answer: if a person is seriously uncomfortable in their body – perhaps to the point of suicidality – and self-identifying as black would help… well, fine.  Let them be black!  Should some surgical intervention be available that brings physical appearance into line with self-image, then go for it.  They might not persuade anyone else – but if that person’s genuine preference is to be referred to as black, then why not?  At the very least, you shouldn’t follow them down the street yelling “You’re white really!”, because, when it comes to the crunch, that’s just lazy journalism boorish.  (“Black” might actually turn out to be as ambiguous as “female” or “male” anyway – after all, there are cases of albinism, and depigmentation is sometimes used by people with vitiligo; so, again, the biological and the cultural meanings of the term won’t always be mutually substitutable unless we think – implausibly – that an albino child of black parents, and brought up entirely within – say – Zulu cultural norms shouldn’t think of herself as black.*  Along these lines, the South African model Refilwe Modiselle describes herself as “a black girl who lives in the skin of a white person“; would O’Neill write a column insisting that she’s white because and should call herself that because, well, her skin is similar to that of Northern Europeans?  If not – if it’s possible to be culturally-black-with-biologically-white-skin – why is it so wildly impossible to be culturally-female-in-a-biologically-male-body?)

Now, I don’t know if that possible answer would convince everyone (I’m sure that there’s a load of literature on this – if anyone’d care to make suggestions in the comments, please do!) – but the point would stand that O’Neill’s claim isn’t convincing, either – at least, not without a lot more argument, which I suspect he doesn’t have.  So it’s easy enough to pick up the gauntlet in one of a range of ways.  And the “something he is not” aspect of the claim is question-begging anyway, since what Wurst, or Manning, is or is not is precisely what’s at issue.

When O’Neill insists that

gender is not entirely a social construct. We can surely agree that it has a pretty big basis in biology, in facts, appendages, things[,]

he’s simply wrong.  Gender isn’t a biological phenomenon.  Sex is.  Sex and gender overwhelmingly map on to each other pretty well, and sex often informs gender.  But they don’t always amount to the same thing, and they don’t have to, and there’s no obvious reason why people who want to queer the distinction, or who end up queering it whether they much want to or not, shouldn’t.  And “surely”, as in “We can surely agree”, as I keep telling my students, is a giveaway for “I haven’t really thought about this, but it’s a really powerful intuition, so please stop asking me questions“.


UPDATE: This is brilliant!

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