Field of Science

Sex, gender, and gender identity

The ongoing discussion about Women Who Write Science has had me thinking a lot lately about sex, gender, and gender identity and the differences among these terms. I've seen a couple of posts that make mention of characteristics that go beyond primary sex, and ever since the "women who write science" topic exploded in the science writer echo chamber, I've had one major point knocking around in the echoes of my mind. Women are not somehow a monolith, one giant representative ovary pumping estrogen all over everything they do and womanifying it. Yes, to be a woman born, we have ovaries. That's what makes our sex female. But that does not mean that we gender identify as Woman.

I've seen the conflation in quite a few posts of the terms sex and gender. I spend my days as an editor correcting the use of "gender" in research papers, often in the context of mice, to "sex." Mice, as far as I know, don't express a gender identity, so all we have to go on is their sex, and that's based on the presence of specific physical and physiological characteristics. If they have ovaries, they're female. If they have testes, they're male. If they have both, they're intersex.

As always, translating anything from rodent to human is an iffy business. I'll keep saying it: Humans are not giant, tailless rodents, and because of social constructs and our ability to articulate what's in our heads, we are not simply the sum of our gonads. Gender is a cultural construct, what is considered in the social context to be masculine or feminine. For example, Google has, in a cultural context, decided I am male because I seem to, based on their cookies record, like things that men like (see image, above). Those things include science, politics, and baseball. But hark, ye may be thinkin' if you're female and you like those things, too: "I am female, and I like those things, too!" Agreed, and I just have to say, Up yours, society. Science is not masculine, dammit. Not any more.

We have gender identities that can be quite clear cut or be hazy and complicated, and we get to self identify as gender, while our sex is something that conception determined for us. Of course, being the able little primates we are, we can go so far as to change our secondary sexual characteristics to match our gender identity if it seems like a fit. Our gender identities encompass various expressions of masculinity or femininity along a spectrum, from the "metrosexual" male who makes up and "manscapes" to the Diane Keatons of the world who really, really like to wear pants and started a fad once upon a time involving women in neckties.

The gender identity variable brings much more depth to any discussion of "women in science" or "men in science" or "GLBTQ in science." Anyone who reads enough Dan Savage will realize that the expression of masculinity and femininity in sexuality is an intricate tapestry of culture, behaviors, and a spectrum of the masculine and feminine. I submit that creating anything--whether it's a great sex act or a great piece of writing--involves this intricate weave of factors, and the presence or absence of ovaries is only one of those factors.

Certainly, people do things that may be in lockstep with the organization and activation hypothesis of sex-based behaviors. But we're not mice, and I'm pretty sure that for humans, lordosis is more likely to be used to describe the spine that to describe a sex posture. Our brains and our gonads may, for many of us, be a reasonably close match, but never try to anticipate the multitude of gender-identity layering that stacks up in our agile, imaginative minds.

As I recently noted somewhere out there on the interWebz, I once participated for a full year in a message board using a gender-neutral name. The other participants, for whatever reason, concluded for themselves that I was male and thought that until I mentioned, after a year, that I am a woman. They went from the initial assumption based on my gender-neutral handle to the default "Male" conclusion, and there was nothing in the way I wrote or what I said that indicated otherwise, evidently.

Curious about my ability to "pass, " sight unseen, as a man, I began examining these notions of masculinity and femininity. Obviously, the other users on this board thought I was male because of some inherently masculine presentation in my writing, my arguments (we argued a lot), and my tone. I began to question the context of their assumptions and the context of these seemingly masculine products of my own brain. And I realized that I've never entered any situation carrying with me the subtext, "I am a woman." Indeed, my subtext is more likely, "I'm bringing this brain with me, and I'm going to use it."

Once upon a time, women who had powerfully analytical minds would be referred to as being "masculine" or having "muscular" brains. The implication was that the male brain, like the male body, had more strength and muscle and less soft, feminine fat (not true, of course), and that any woman co-opting these characteristics was behaving in a masculine, unwomanly way. Today, in the social context of gender, I carry that unwomanly flag, and my experience with this group on that argumentative message board made me aware of what I had in my hands.

I don't come to any table--not a writing table, a dinner table, or a pool table--as a woman. That's not the identity I bring with me. Yes, I show up with ovaries, having still held onto those things even though I don't need them any more. Yes, I show up with a variety of secondary sexual characteristics that announce that indeed, my sex is female. But I bring with me to these tables who I really am, my gender identity, and it's a complex one, hard to define. There's a masculinity there filtered through my experiences in traditional womanly roles like mother and wife, but there's also a total lack of interest in much of what my society defines as feminine (see Google, above). I lived in a men's dorm for awhile in college, all my roommates have been men, and I'm married to a man. It's possible that I could identify as a homosexual male of the non-flamboyant type who spends his time non-flamboyantly in a woman's body. Sure, that's possible. Like I said, it's complicated. What I do know is this: I'm not writing as a Specific Binary Sex Representative in Science, and I bet no other women--or men--who write about science are, either.

22 comments:

  1. Also gender identity changes *all the fucking time*. I vacillate. In my life I've gone from girly -> neutral -> boyish -> neutral -> back to girly bordering on outright femme at the moment. It depends on many factors including age, sexual identity (don't even get me started on how that one has changed), body image, and mental and physical health.

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  2. Just a heads' up: I'm not seeing your illustration. (Clicking on the image, I get an access denied message.)

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  3. Grant, Blogger is being a bit weird about images today. Wait 5 minutes and it'll probably come back.

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  4. Great point. It can change all the time.

    Grant...let me sign in and out and see what it's doing.

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  5. Nevermind...it's Blogger. It breaks and then it's back and then it breaks again. See if this twitpic link works: http://twitpic.com/3to0pw

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  6. And I've just uploaded instead of linked.

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  7. Ah, the wonders of web technology :-) Looks good now.

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  8. Great, thought-provoking post, thank you.

    Ever since #scio11, I've been wondering why I was one of only three out gay science bloggers there (all males). Does anyone know if there were any out female bloggers?

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  9. Well, shut my mouth. There were two out male bloggers and one female. I wonder if there were more?

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  10. I've already seen some people who don't show themselves neither as male or female in message boards and are thought to belong to their opposite sex. But it's curious that I've noticed that only for women, who are seen as men. I don't know if people using message boards identify someone's gender by its tone or just accept the unidentified as male, regardless of their attitudes.

    I loved this post!
    (and I'm sorry if my language is not the best :) )

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  11. Steve, I'm an out female blogger. I know of a couple others but I'm not sure exactly how 'out' they are so I won't mention them here.

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  12. In an online game, my brother, Pat, was assumed to be female - so it must go both ways.

    I loved this post - and Google thinks I'm male, too. The Gender Genie thinks I'm male on my chemistry blog and female when I write my newspaper column.

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  13. "Once upon a time, women who had powerfully analytical minds would be referred to as being "masculine" or having "muscular" brains. The implication was that the male brain, like the male body, had more strength and muscle and less soft, feminine fat (not true, of course), and that any woman co-opting these characteristics was behaving in a masculine, unwomanly way."

    Reference this please.

    James

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  14. @JamesAPutnam It's a reference to Victorian literature in general, and Trollope's characterizations in particular.

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  15. Ok. Well, once upon a time probably almost everything negative occurred. I was thinking in terms of something more current and more effective as to how we messed up.

    James

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  16. @james, can't argue w/ that, but I was thinking of Trollope, and I'd say that those ideas persisted beyond the Victorians' time.

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  17. Dear Emily,

    I was around as a teenager in the fifties. Yes the word used then was 'queer'. But, I knew of ministerial, professional, and friends that were gay. So far as I saw, they were free to be themselves without retribution. I know that examples of persecution can be referenced. That is true today. However, I do not see this as a one sided issue.

    Until recently, stopping at highway restrooms, bus stations, parks such as Central Park in the mornings, etc., was risky. Gay men frequented those places and oftentimes were confrontational. I don't mean violent. What I think is that if each of us were what we are and left others alone, then, friction would perhaps be minimalized.

    The reststop restrooms have become easier to use perhaps because gays are freer to congregate in other places. They should be able to congregate together. The point is that there may have been reasons for resentment. I do not mean reasons for persecution. I mean only that everyone should accept responsibility for their behaviors.

    James

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  18. I came out vaguely on Twitter, as bi rather than gay. And as far as self identity goes I'm sticking with "mostly female", although I occasionally like being male, overall I'm glad I got the body I did and am happy with mostly female. If that makes *any* sense.

    I'm not sure what James is trying to say. Possibly he would prefer it if female/gay bloggers moved to a separate place on the internet so that we don't make him feel unsafe with our confrontational behaviour.

    " What I think is that if each of us were what we are and left others alone, then, friction would perhaps be minimalized. " What if I have gay friends and straight friends and want to go out drinking with both of them? Segregation to avoid confrontation =/= equality.

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  19. There's a great interview here.

    http://tomato.biol.trinity.edu/blog/

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  20. I think this is important or I would not bother with it. I have no patience for being misrepresented. What I said was personal experience over many years. I did not say I felt unsafe. The victim role does not play with me. Either address what I actually say or get ignored.

    James

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