What is gender?Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Frobisher 4-6 Gender Wars
For many people and for many purposes, the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean the same thing - a straightforward way of distinguishing between two types of people (males and females, or men and women). But it is no longer safe to assume that things are this simple. Earlier this year, in a letter confirming primary school places, Brighton and Hove City Council asked parents to fill in a form about their children’s details and said: ‘Please support your child to choose the gender they most identify with. Or if they have another gender identity please leave this blank and discuss with your child’s school’. Reactions ranged from approval to anger to bewilderment. How did gender get so complicated, and when did it become something chosen by four-year-olds?
The words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ both have their origin in Latin - ‘sexus’ referred to division between things (like men and women) while ‘genus’ referred to similarity between things (like men and men or women and women). In the second half of the 20th century, academics and activists began distinguishing between sex and gender, so that the former was a matter of biology and the latter was a matter of social roles. Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that ‘one is not born a woman, but becomes one’ was developed by feminist thinkers from Monique Wittig to Judith Butler, emphasising this sex/gender distinction. The argument that gender is a social construct was used initially to challenge the belief that people’s aspirations, behaviour and capabilities should be determined by their biology. The sex/gender distinction was then incorporated into medicine with the concept of ‘gender dysphoria’ - the distressing conviction that the gender category in which one has been placed is incorrect – and the resulting rise of sex reassignment surgery. The number of people diagnosed with this condition is small but growing rapidly, with referrals to the UK’s seven gender identity clinics growing steadily and the NHS struggling to keep up with demand.
Gender is now a concept with medical and scientific meaning all of its own, despite having originally been distinguished from sex precisely in order to escape the natural laws of biology. Meanwhile, ‘transgender’ has become an identity and a subject of political advocacy (not to mention, in Brighton and elsewhere, a bureaucratic and regulatory concern) while nonetheless drawing its authority from medical and scientific claims. In light of these developments, is possible for society to have a consensus on what gender means? Was distinguishing gender from sex a sensible thing to do? If so, is the distinction still useful now?
schoolteacher; cabaret performer; author on transgender and gender variant identity
group leader, stem cell biology and developmental genetics, Francis Crick Institute
director of studies, Hampstead College of Fine Arts and Humanities
Emeritus Professor of social anthropology, University of Cambridge
Norwegians now can change genders legally with a mouse click, Mark Lewis, Associated Press, September 2016
Gender identity clinic services under strain as referral rates soar, Kate Lyons, Guardian, January 2016
The rise of the ‘third gender’, Chrissie Daz, spiked, February 2014
How the fight over transgender kids got a leading sex researcher fired, Jesse Singal, New York Magazine, February 2016
Has 'trans rights' become homophobia's new idiom?, Terri Murray, ConatusNews, September 2016
Gender is not a spectrum, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Aeon, June 2016
Transgenderism: a top-down politics of identity, Jon Holbrook, spiked, January 2016
My name is only real enough to work at Facebook, not to use on the site, Zoe Cat, Medium, June 2015
Rejoice! Ian McEwan has withdrawn his penis remark, Brendan O'Neill, Spectator, April 2016
Science Museum under fire over exhibit asking if brains are pink or blue, Hannah Devlin, Guardian, September 2016
Our rape laws discriminate against transpeople, Luke Gittos, Politics.co.uk, June 2016
Gender as a means of reproduction, Sarah Franklin, ReproSoc, February 2016
Federal judge temporarily halts Obama’s directive to schools on accommodating transgender students, Moriah Balingit and Emma Brown, Washington Post, August 2016
So what if some female Olympians have high testosterone?, Jaime Schultz, The Conversation, August 2016
Why I don't defend the sex-versus-gender distinction, Philip N Cohen, Family Inequality, September 2013
What is gender, anyway?, Sarah Ditum, New Statesman, May 2016