• Sun. Sep 26th, 2021

Language, sex and gender: hey, what’s your gender?


Jul 26, 2021

For at least half a century, there has been a debate in the German-speaking world about what gender is. An overview.

At a summer camp for young people who don’t fit into a binary gender model Photo by Cayce Clifford/NYT/Reduxlaif.

Attempts to write and speak in gender-appropriate ways have been around for centuries. The civic "Ladies and Gentlemen" or the Christian "Dear Brothers and Sisters," for example, are fairly old examples. Somewhat newer, but also not quite as new, are spellings that change individual words. The large I in the middle of a word appeared in the German-speaking world in the 1980s. The taz editorial team, for example, began writing this so-called "Binnen-I" in some of its texts in 1986, inspired by the Swiss weekly newspaper.

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Public authorities and administrations followed suit by the mid-1990s. At that time, however, it was not called "gendering". It was called "non-sexist language use," for example. The view of gender in this debate was, however, binary, i.e., it was usually assumed that there are exactly two genders. A "language for both genders" is the subject of a corresponding brochure published by Unesco in 1993.

Since then, in the debate about gender-equitable language and beyond, this view has changed. Time to take note once again: What actually is gender? And in what words is it best to talk about it?

What society makes of it

In the 1960s, a pair of terms emerged in research that was revolutionary – but has since become obsolete: sex versus gender. Sex as biological, physical gender, scientifically measurable, indisputable and therefore apolitical. In contrast, gender as social expectations, as norms that are malleable.

From a feminist point of view, the conceptual separation was an achievement at the time. It freed people from the idea that gender characteristics, abilities, or preferences were merely the result of biology. They could be seen as something with its own dynamics – and criticized. At the same time, there was no need to oppose the powerful discourse of biology. It was a kind of truce. One let natural science have its sex and from then on criticized gender – as what society made of it.

Knowledge is power

What is racism? Why do people often write "trans" in lower case but "black" in upper case? What exactly do gender studies mean when they say "gender is constructed"? It is indispensable to know basics of critical social sciences when discussing anti-racist and queerfeminist politics.

Explained from the front

In this series, an explanatory essay on one or more terms in the field of feminism and anti-racism will appear on this page every week from now on. Coming up next week is an essay on the topic, "Privilege."

All episodes at https://izhsan.ru/basics

This agreement was broken in the nineties by a new constructivism. In particular, philosopher Judith Butler broke down the sex-gender divide in her influential work "The Discomfort of Gender." If social gender is not a fact but subject to normative ideas, Butler argued, then this inevitably affects biology as well.

Butler and the gender research that followed her pointed out that bisexuality is man-made even in natural science. Neither chromosomes, nor hormones, nor body shapes, hairiness, nor fertility fall qua nature into two neat pigeonholes. Instead, the biological or medical view categorizes such phenomena into two ideal types – and declares everything deviating to be disease or abnormal. Against this background, the separation into sex and gender was no longer tenable. Gender is always sex and gender at the same time.

Female, male, other

So how many genders are there? The social network Facebook has been providing over 60 to choose from for several years. German authorities know just three: diverse, female and male. Gender research usually answers the question with a counter question: in what context? For surveys on diversity in the workplace or intimate partner violence, it can make sense to start with fewer gender groups, because otherwise large data sets are difficult to evaluate. Here, one usually works with three: female, male, and other/no specification, with data from those who specify "other" unfortunately often falling behind in favor of the old familiar male/female binary.

In some other contexts, there may be many more genders. In some lesbian subcultures, categories like lesbian, butch, dyke, or femme have been considered genders in their own right for decades. This is because the bearers understand the word "woman" as a designation that only makes sense within a heterosexual norm of desire. Some gender studies theories even understand any intersection of gender with other social categories as a gender in its own right.

"Mother" would be a gender in its own right in this reading, as would Woman of Color or "queer, non-binary person with disabilities." The question of context is always the question of scientific or political pragmatics: do I understand a thing better or worse by differentiating language? Can I achieve more or less politically by making groups smaller? This is often a dilemma. In political work, therefore, people like to help themselves with a combo of small-scale language and unifying umbrella terms. "Women*" with an asterisk is one such term, or FLINT* (for women, lesbians, inter, non-binary and trans people).

Adjectives galore

The fact that the understanding of the terms gender, sex and gender has changed naturally also affects words derived from them. The term "transsexual," for example, used to refer to people who were assigned a binary gender at birth that did not correspond to their own.

But because "-sexual" is too reminiscent of the 1960s definition of biological sex, and moreover of sexuality, which is an entirely different subject, the term is now rejected by many. Instead, "transgender" has become more common, or "transsexual" – or, increasingly, simply "trans." All of these terms are adjectives and as such are written standing alone and in lower case, not glued to other terms.

Sexual orientation has nothing to do with trans gender. Also, the question of whether a person locates him/herself in the binary genders is yet another. There are trans people whose gender is binary – just not the one they were assigned at birth. So a trans woman is a woman. Non-binary people, on the other hand, are outside the binary. They may or may not use terms like "man" or "woman" or corresponding pronouns for themselves. Some trans people are non-binary, but it is not the same thing. If you’re confused about this, it’s easy to help yourself: just ask how people want to be addressed.

So because gender is no longer binary, either in the world or in research, visually binary spellings like the "internal I" also seem long out of date. They are replaced, for example, by the underscore "_", which symbolizes the gender spectrum or a free space of assignment; or by the gender star "*", whose ends go in many directions, like a knot in the web of social positions. Meanwhile, the colon ":" is also seen more often, mostly with the argument that it disturbs the typeface the least of all spellings.

Which spelling to use, however, depends on factors other than one’s own political and aesthetic sensibilities. Software, for example, that transcribes online text into audio files for accessibility might stumble with some spellings, while turning others into nice smooth audio with tiny pauses.

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