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We know, historically, that there are men who disguised themselves as women, and took on the role of woman socially. And that there were women who took on the role of men socially and disguised themselves as men while doing so. This is all historically documented. We know it happened. And we also know these were highly functional people, of significant rank and accomplishment who did so. If the desire to be the opposite gender is a mental illness: it’s not debilitating.
In terms of verb selection, “disguise” really is a good term for what these people were doing. For most recent modern history, medicine was just a few steps away from superstitious guess work. (prior to modern history… it really was guesswork, and frequently wrong.) Anaesthetics, sterile environments, sophisticated understandings of anatomy, disease, infection… just weren’t there. Dentistry was considered a side-job for barbers. If you didn’t want to live as the gender you were born as, the best you could do was disguise yourself with make up and clothing and presentation.
I suppose the most extreme option you could go with is the one identified by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew: a man could make themselves a eunuch. But most people will agree, that removing male genitals completely isn’t really “changing gender” at best it will give you ambiguous sex characteristics if it is done prior to adolescence.
All this remained true in 1920, just 100 years ago, the anatomical gender you were born as, would be the one you would live with for your life. And you could disguise yourself or opt for removing your genitals if you were a male, but there was no meaningful change to the exterior gender you presented to the world. The fact gender existed on a cellular/molecular level (in chromosomes, hormones, and DNA) was entirely unknown even to the most well-educated biologists and doctors.
Someone changing the gender they were born with, and all their sexual characteristics… 100 years ago was the stuff of science fiction.
The heart of the literary genre of science fiction is, “What would it mean to being human if the rules of reality were different?” What if robots were indistinguishable from humans? How would we live if cars could fly? What if travel faster than light was possible? What would all this mean to our society, our lives. With science fiction, we speculate.
Which leads to this question: what if doctors could alter our gender on request?
What would society look like, if a woman could wake up one day, and decide she was really supposed to be a man… and then through a process a couple or few years long, alter just about everything about her, so by any cursory public evaluation… she was a man.
What would society look like, if a woman could decide notwithstanding she had given birth to a boy… both her and her child really wish she had a daughter… and then through a process beginning in early adolescence and ending in young adulthood (so just a few years long…) she did?
In 1920: this was stuff Science Fiction. Fodder for novels and moving picture shows (talkies hadn’t been invented yet) maybe really cutting edge plays in the theaters of Europe.
But in 2020… this stuff is Science Fact.
People today who change their gender can satisfy all tests regarding “what gender are you?” except those requiring vivisection and molecular analysis. And most people agree, requiring that kind of test for ascertaining gender is well beyond the realm of civility.
And this previously-science-fiction level technology is becoming commonly available. In the ‘free’ world, more and more people in our midst are identifying “you know, I’m not happy with the gender I was born with, I think I’ll change it!” More ominously, in Iran, the government is forcibly applying gender reassignment on gay men, to enforce gender stereotypes.
We all know the news stories, because they dominate the feed here at BNR. It’s controversial, it provokes a range of reactions, and they are very human anecdotes. We are living through science fiction being tested out in reality.
To that end, here’s what I’d like to discuss:
We talk a lot about “how ought society treat transgender people?” Being those people who have thrown themselves head first into being the subjects of this formerly science fiction technology. The conversation revolves a lot around ‘what civic decency should we give them?’
Instead: lets focus instead on what this change means for society. We know, biologically we are a very gendered animal. What boundaries do you think are/will be tested in society as effectively changing genders becomes more easily available to anyone who wants it?
What social constructions are going to be challenged? What boundaries are we going to need to reconsider? What will reasonably change? What will be subverted? What will resist change? What further challenges are foreseeable?
Be a science fiction thinker: how will the ability for individuals to physically change the gender they are perceived to have influence, challenge and change society in the next 25 years?