Ben Hsu

Blog · Essay · LGBTQ · Nonfiction

Defining Gender (A Peronsal Guide)

“Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” I disagree, I think a tomato based fruit salad could be delicious under the right circumstances. More importantly, I feel this quote (and the problems with it) are one of the main things that are confusing people about the various gender and sexuality issues bouncing around right now.

Let’s break it down really quick so we’re all on the same page when we get to talking about gender. The first part of the sentence uses “fruit” in its biological definition (the section of the plant that houses and distributes seeds). Under that definition there’s actually a ton of things that are fruits: tomatoes, corn, most squashes, almost all nuts, and all beans. The second part of the sentence uses the word “fruit” in its culinary definition, which is much looser and harder to pin down. Generally, in culinary terms, the word “fruit” seems to mean, “any part of a plant that’s both fleshy and associated with a strong flavor (usually sweetness).” The above quote is the equivalent of saying,  “I asked someone trained by the CIA to cater my award ceremony. The food was awful, but at least I know where everyone lives now.” In that example CIA can, and does, refer to both the Culinary Institute of America, and the Central Intelligence Agency. And of course we’re all thinking, “yeah, that’s the joke.” The problem is; as much as the tomato quote is a joke, every time I see it used or referenced online people fail to understand the duality of the word “fruit.”

And that brings us to the confusion around the word “gender.” For the longest time, in our specific society, gender was used in a single fashion. In this case the usage was biologically based, males produce smaller gametes (AKA: sperms cells) for reproductive purposes and females produce larger gametes (AKA: egg cells) for reproductive purposes. And that’s it, I can’t stress this enough, that’s as far as the biological definition for gender goes. Even that’s a bit muddled since you have species that have neither, species that have both in a single individual, species where an individual will switch back in forth from male to female. Hell, recently scientists discovered certain species of lizards reproduce by a process called parthenogenesis wherein a female self-fertilizes and has no need for a male.

I digress. We’re talking about humans. Biologically speaking, most humans are either male or female with no asexual reproduction. When a species has a strong and clear biological division along male and female genders it’s not uncommon for that species to exhibit sexual dimorphism; humans are no exception. In our case human sexual dimorphism is probably better known by its high school health class term, “secondary sexual characteristics.” Just to refresh all our memories, this means our particular sexual dimorphism comes in the form of males tending toward (and I can’t stress TENDING TOWARD enough, this is not a universal catch all) having broader shoulders, a deeper voice, facial hair, and being physically stronger; and for females tending toward having wider hips, fat deposits in their mammaries (better known as breasts), and having a higher tolerance to pain. Now, this is all perfectly normal biological stuff; you can look this up in any Biology 101 text book (assuming the current administration hasn’t rewritten everything to show that gender is a magical thing gifted by god to spread his image across the world). This all to make sure we all have a clear idea of how the older, more traditional definition of gender is biologically based; the same way, biologically speaking, a tomato, an apple, and an almond are fruits.

I stress traditional and biological definition of gender because somewhere along the line things got a little mixed up and muddled. While we humans were developing our societies and cultures, and coming up with things like farming, and vaccines, and wireless internet, and the concept of a Social Justice Warrior fighting a Men’s Rights Activist with flamethrowers in space, we also got it into our heads that the different genders were better suited to different tasks. I’m sure this made sense 10,000 years ago (or whenever, any anthropologists/archaeologists want to give me a timeline on the actual rise of various civilizations around the world, and their culture?). If you need to kill something so you can eat it to not die, it makes sense to have the biological gender that’s physically stronger to do the killing. At some point this division of labor turned into gender roles in the newly formed societies. The biological males go out and hunt so the tribe can eat. The biological females stay back at home to keep the kids safe and to deal with all the shit that the biological males are killing. Why are the biological females in charge of matters at home? Cause the biological males are busy killing things to eat. Gender roles then changed into gender stereotypes. The man is supposed to be big, and strong, and tough, and go out and be the bread winner. The woman is supposed to be dainty, and caring, and emotional, and to stay at home to be a homemaker. And at this point each gender now has countless and often crazy beliefs, expectations, and assumptions. All of this baggage is attached to two simple words: male and female; which traditionally were just used to define if an individual produced small or large gametes for reproduction purposes.

By now I’m sure you’re getting an idea of the problem with the current usage of the words male and female (or man and woman, or boy and girl, etc.) Gender now has two uses, biological gender, and societal gender. That’s what people mean when they say “gender is a societal construct.” They don’t mean the biological term; they mean the stereotypes, and expectations, and biases, and all the other crap that our society has attached to the terms man and woman. Arguably, they should say, “Biological Gender is not Societal Gender.”

It’s not a bad thing that we’ve attached all these behaviors and expectations to the words “man” and “woman.” It’s not a good thing either; it’s just a thing our society has done. It’s how we live. What IS a problem is that certain groups insist on forcing people into behavior types based on their biological gender. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the time in which the size of your reproductive gametes should dictate what you can do, how you can act, and what you’re supposed to think or feel is long past (like around the time tool usage and agriculture became widespread). If you can disconnect biological gender from societal gender then you’ll start realizing how many different genders are possible. A male (regardless of biology) identifies male and prefers to present male in society(for whatever that means to that individual). A female (regardless of biology) identifies female and prefers to present female in society (for whatever that means to that individual). There’s also people like me, some days I more strongly identify female, some days I more strongly identify male, but I never really feel entirely comfortable saying I’m one or the other. But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t matter. All genders should be accepted; the important part is to be a good person. Be who you are, as long as you’re not actively hurting anyone your gender, biological, societal, or otherwise shouldn’t matter!

Blog · Essay · LGBTQ · Nonfiction

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