XX, XY, and ‘Other’

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Ariel Levy writes in the New Yorker an article about Caster Semenya which, along with discussing the mismanagement and insensitivity of the testing she underwent, and the various politics influencing said manhandling, also examines the difficulty of establishing gender in any irrefutable way; when one reaches the point where there is a degree of crossover, there is no clear binary distinction – however specific and scientific the tests may be, all they reveal is a greater muddle.

There is no absolute – not everyone is either XX or XY, not everyone has the biological, chemical, and/or hormonal capacity to create and obey various cues which develop what we consider to be the markers of a particular gender.

What is interesting, though Levy does not go into this point in detail, are the implications this ambiguity holds for the rest of us.

If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. (Currently, the United States government recognizes the marriage of a woman to a female-to-male transsexual who has had a double mastectomy and takes testosterone tablets but still has a vagina, but not to a woman who hasn’t done those things.) We depend on gender to make sense of sexuality, society, and ourselves. We do not wish to see it dissolve.

emphasis mine

What would it mean if people accepted that gender existed on a spectrum rather than as a binary trait? So much of how society is arranged is determined by gender (and by extension, sexuality, since that is another assumed binary that evidence suggests is also more of a spectrum), however much gender roles have evolved over time. Would an acknowledgement of this gray area assist in the deconstruction of gender roles? Would it allow people to be more tolerant and accepting of the variety of ability and inclination, and would culture and social infrastructure come to reflect that?

At present, what exists is, I think, more of a third category, with most people assigning themselves and others to either A or B, and relegating a small percentage of the population to a ‘neither A nor B’ category, and not considering it beyond that. The only people for whom the idea must be complicated are those in that third category.

And why? Because there are value judgments placed on people based on how much or little they correspond to their gendered categories. However much one might be completely at peace with their body, sexuality, voice, wardrobe, haircut, weight, walk, and interests, the rest of the world, when it bothers to pay attention, makes assumptions and judgments about that person’s value, attractiveness, propriety, and intelligence (however wrongly), based on such information.

Can there be a world where people are more or less masculine or feminine without a value being assigned to that quality? Or where everything is deemed gender-neutral and therefore a matter of inclination or biology, something personal rather than a way of organizing people and society?

Hopefully, as people are periodically confronted with the necessity of thinking about such things, as unfair as it is to whomever is in the spotlight, there will be a consideration of the individual, and as the ambiguity on a scientific level is manifest, there will be a movement away from judging such things cruelly, and more acceptance of such variation as just that, a variation, like hair colour or eye colour.


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