Close Encounters of a Third Gender

At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, Harvard University announced that students would be able to choose from a list of gender-neutral pronouns such as "ze," "hir" and "hirs."

While advocates cheered this development as progressivism, multiple genders are as old as the ages. In South Asia, for example, hijras -- people whose identity falls outside binary gender divisions -- have existed in society for centuries. (In modern times, at least some of the stigma imposed by British colonialism has been partially reversed, and now Bangladesh, India and Pakistan legally recognize hijras as members of a "third gender.")

Similarly, a number of indigenous North American cultures have incorporated "two-spirited" people -- individuals whose spirits comprise both male and female essences -- into their tribes throughout recorded history. The Zuni tribe in the American Southwest revered two-spirited members with spiritual and artistic roles, and their two-spirited representative We'Wha traveled to Washington, D.C., where she represented her tribe and met President Grover Cleveland, in 1886.

The list goes on -- PBS produced a map of gender-diverse cultures around the globe, which is available here. Of genders embodying both male and female spirits, the introduction to the map notes, "Most Western societies have no direct correlation for this tradition, nor for the many other communities without strict either/or conceptions of sex, sexuality and gender. Worldwide, the sheer variety of gender expression is almost limitless."

For me -- a transsexual whose identity revolves at least in part around a gender binary -- whether the refraction of multiplicity in the gender spectrum is a good thing depends on the extent to which acceptance follows. Unfortunately, challenging the gender binary can create unease that the transgender movement only exacerbates -- with consequences to transgender people who do not necessarily identify as a third, or other, gender.

Indeed, in her controversial Op-Ed for The New York Times "What Makes a Woman?," journalist, former professor and filmmaker Elinor Burkett identified what she considers to be an undercurrent of indignation among regular women with regard to transgender people: "Many women I know, of all ages and races, speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves."

The resentment seems based on erosion of exclusivity in the gender dichotomy: "For me and many women, feminist and otherwise," Burkett explained, "one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they're articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one."

Political correctness can present a pitfall in the discourse here, and the vigor with which the transgender movement discourages openness may broaden the chasm between who we are as individuals and our image as a group. In June of 2014, for instance, there was Katie Couric's interview with actress Laverne Cox. Couric raised the topic of sex change surgery, which Cox deflected to other issues facing transgender people: "The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don't get to really deal with the real lived experiences."

My heart sinks as I read Cox's words even now. The agony of living in the wrong body was my real lived experience, and it defined me as a transgender person. Surgery was medically necessary to my realization as a human being; without the operation I would not be who I am.

Regardless of what anyone says, there is no escaping that some people -- if not many or even most -- would classify human beings as male or female based on anatomy. Differences in bodies are real. So are the impressions of others. Is it really our place to claim that how they see things is wrong?

To be continued...

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This blog post is from my essay Transgender No More.