Why Two Genders Are Enough

Jed Bland


Issue 5
February 1999

anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa.

How often have you heard the expression "a woman trapped in a man's body?" I hadn't given it much thought, assuming that it is a catch-phrase that relatively modern transsexuals have adopted. In fact it appears in a nineteenth century pamphlet by K.H.Uhlrichs,(1)who wrote of "men . . . . who might be described as of feminine soul enclosed in a male body," hence the Latin tag above, and of "women whose definition would be just the reverse."

Homosexuality, especially being 'gay', hadn't been invented then and it is a little difficult to tease out what people's attitudes were. Rudyard Kipling, at the beginning of this century, is known to have considered homosexual feeling, between schoolchildren at least, as perfectly natural, but something to be avoided. The people who stood out, therefore, were those whose everyday behaviour was considered inappropriate, although it was assumed that they would be attracted to their own sex.

The point, therefore, about 'sexual inversion' was not sexual relationships, but what we would now call their gender behaviour. Uhlrich referred to such people by the unlovely name 'Urnings' a contraction of 'Uranians.' This was not after the planet Uranus, as some writers think, but from the Latin, 'Uranos', heaven, implying love of a higher order. He started a cult, which I imagine would be impracticable now owing to the crude music-hall jokes it would attract.

It clearly is not an artefact of psychiatry, as the infamous Janice Raymond asserts. How many of these people would have jumped at the chance of medication and surgery if it were available?

An early feminist publication was Love's Coming of Age by Edward Carpenter.(2)In the fifth edition, he added a chapter The Intermediate Sex, in which he wrote: "But we may point out how hard it is, especially for the young among them, that a veil of complete silence should be drawn over the subject, leading to the most painful misunderstandings, and perversions and confusions of mind . . . ."

Writers, such as Wilson,(3)insist that classification as a psychiatric condition implies stigma. But clearly they were, and are, already stigmatised; the psychiatrist at least acknowledges their distress and is willing to help.

We can, however, go further back in history. The Ancient Greek civilisation lasted for over two thousand years. With the changes that inevitably took place, it is dangerous to generalise. We may suggest that written language was by men, for men, and the educated elite at that. We know little about the social life of 'ordinary' people. Many authors highlight same-sex love among men, and Boswell(4)suggests that they went to great lengths to stress the equal social status of the partners. It would seem that perceptions of sex were based on the giving and receiving of seed, and who a man could give seed to was not regulated by the sex of the recipient, but by social class.

The literature, then, would have little to say about women, and less to say about men who were less than men. While cross-sex manifestations were recounted in the mythology, they took on the aspect of chimerae. Someone who was half man half woman would command the same superstitious fear as someone who was half man half horse.

However, Halperin(5)has analysed a Latin version of a work by the Greek physician, Soranus, from the second century AD. He writes of 'molles'- soft unmasculine men, and women called 'tribades'. Halperin points out that sex, or sexual relationships were not the issue. What was regarded as pathological was sex-role reversal, or gender deviance. Someone who abandoned a proper masculine identity in favour of a 'feminine' one. Conversely, he wrote of women who were "tribades . . . who pursue women with an almost masculine jealousy."

While such people, within Greek society receive little mention, the historians Herodotus and Hippocrates were clearly fascinated by the Scythians. They wrote of who women fought in battles: "No maiden may marry until she has killed a man of the enemy." This is thought to be the origin of the legends about Amazons. I am aware that I am going against all modern, often feminist-inspired, interpretations. It would seem that, while the Greeks wrote with such amazement about such women, male warriors would be un-noteworthy. Can we suggest that the Scythians had no real stereotypes about gender and that people were able to adopt different behaviours at will, according to the needs of the moment?

This is what Herdt(6)refers to as "gender liminality" Liminality, in my dictionary is defined as "a psychological threshold at which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced." (7)

The earliest known civilisation is that of the Sumerians, which disappeared around the end of the third millennium BCE. It was rediscovered by archaeologists only about a hundred years ago, and it has become apparent that it has had a profound influence on the cultures that defeated it, and on civilisation to the present day.(8)

There is a record of a pantheon of gods, with a hierarchy of power, but not one that was specifically the preserve of male or female gods. Moreover, each was portrayed variously of both vegetation or destruction, of famine or fertility, of war, or of the annual rains. That an individual god happened to be male or female seems to have been incidental. Ochshorn argues forcefully that "ideologies of gender were not based on masculine-feminine polarities" (9)

What about other cultures? There are records from all around the world of traditional cultures that have lasted from ancient times with multiple gender categories, among them the hijras of India, the fa'afafine and fa'atama, of the South Pacific, the katoi of Thailand, and many more.

Most well-known, perhaps are the hwame and alyha of the Native Americans. I have picked two of the many words that the various tribes use, as being generally applied to male-born and female-born people respectively. The feeling one gets from the literature however is that the words were not used in any way as rigidly as this. In other words, their natal sex was very much less important than their social role.

There are two points to note. One is that the individual settled in a particular role and stayed in it. The second is that there are four or more distinct social divisions.

The Chukchi of Siberia recognise seven social categories. Since they are seen to be intermediate between women and men, they may be regarded as gender roles. The important question is whether they saw it that way, or whether it was the interpretation of culturally-biased European ethnographers. If the former, it would not seem to be gender liminality, according the dictionary definition, particularly if they were stuck in a given mode for life, but gender complexity.

Do we, then, need complexity? A third, or fourth, sex, or more accurately, gender? It could be suggested that we have developed four in recent years; men, women, transvestites and transsexuals. O'Keefe and Fox(10)have proposed some twenty new genders among transsexuals alone.

Or can we have flexibility, the ability to adopt the behaviour for the moment?

In answer to some writers' dream that gender might disappear altogether, Archer and Lloyd have probably the most considered response:(11) "in adopting the gender view, we can look forward to changes in the content of gender roles and stereotypes, as indeed occurred over the past fifty years, but we do not foresee the total abolition of gender categories."

I leave the last word to Christine Burns(12) ". . . . we cannot practically eliminate sex as a consideration in a world that has no incentive to do so . . . and so transsexual people have to be accommodated within the framework. This isn't achieved by creating a third sex either . . . since if it isn't acceptable for society to lose the comfort of being part of a two sex system, then it is equally unacceptable to set transsexuals apart from the rest in some "no man's land". In other words, if we're determined as a society to hang on to the notion that sex is strictly dimorphic (the assumption that sets transsexuals apart as the unacknowledged evidence of the contrary) then we have to fit them in . . . with both sides happy to connive in the perpetuation of the status quo. Seen from that perspective in fact, the transsexuals who seek to be invisibly reintegrated into society are doing the world a huge favour. After all, if they stood up and insisted on being visibly different . . . demanding that all intersex people should be classified and honoured as a third sex then think how dangerous and complicated that would get!"

Bibliography and good reading.

  1. Uhlrichs,K.H., Forschungen uber das Rathsel der mannmannlichen Liebe (Research on the Riddle of "Man-Manly" Love) republished (1994) as The Riddle of 'Man-Manly' Love: The Pioneering Work on Male Homosexuality translated by Lombardi-Nash, M.A. New York: Prometheus Books
  2. Carpenter, E., (1906, 5th. ed) Love's Coming of Age, London: Allen and Unwin.
  3. Wilson, K. K., The Disparate Classification of Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Psychiatry, Katherine K. Wilson, Gender Identity Center of Colorado, Inc., Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. LINK
  4. Boswell. J., (1994) The Marriage of Likeness: Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, London: Harper Collins.
  5. Halperin, D.M., Sex Before Sexuality: Pederasty, politics and power in classical Athens. in Duberman, M., Vicinus, M., Chauncey, G., (eds) (1990) Hidden from History: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past, London: Penguin Books
  6. Herdt. G., (ed) (1994) Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York: Zone Books.
  7. Hanks, P., (ed) (1979) Collins Dictionary of the English Language, Glasgow: Collins
  8. Kramer, S.N. (1963) The Sumerians: Their history, culture and character, Chicago University Press.
  9. Ochshorn, J. (1996) Sumer: Gender, gender roles, gender role reversals, in Ramet, S.P. (ed) Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures, London: Routledge.
  10. O'Keefe, T., Fox, K., (1996) Trans-X-U-All, The Naked Difference, London: Extraordinary People Press
  11. Archer, J., Lloyd, B., (1985) Sex and Gender, (p284) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
  12. Burns, C., (1996) "Dear Angus": An edited discussion between Christine Burns and Dr Angus Campbell, Press for Change Website.
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