The Collapse of Sex and Gender, And the Emergence of the Transgender

Author: fae © 1997

In her article, Penley observes that men and women of this century, in our society, have enjoyed more equality than ever before.  Financially, ethically, and most importantly socially, women and men are being treated as equals.  She states that as a consequence, a fear has emerged that the biological and sexual differences between men and women have begun to collapse.  This collapse has led to a sub-culture that includes among others, transvestite, transgender and transsexual people.

 To avoid confusion later in this paper, I would like to define a few of the terms that I will use.  Gender is the psychological and socio-cultural characteristics associated with our sex, and sex is biological maleness or femaleness. Man and woman will refer to gender while male and female will refer to sex.  Sexuality is defined as either the fact of belonging to one of the sexes or sexual characteristics or impulses.  I will be referring to the second definition when I use the term sexuality.

 According to the textbook Our Sexuality, a transsexual is a person whose "gender identity is opposite to his or her biological sex" and a transvestite is a person who "derives sexual arousal from wearing clothing of the other sex."  In popular definition, however, transsexual implies that the person wishes to have, or has already had a sex change operation.  Transgender is a phrase recently coined in this sub-culture to relate a person who is neither a transvestite nor a transsexual as described above, but is somewhere in-between.  A transgender is a person who identifies themselves with members of the opposite biological sex, but who have no desire to actually become a member of that sex.

 Despite popular belief, transsexual, transvestite, and transgender tendencies do not reflect in any way upon that person's sexuality.  In a psychology course that I took my freshman year, sexuality was defined along a sliding scale, with heterosexual on one side and homosexual on the other, as depicted below.

The shaded region represents Homosexuality, while the non-shaded section represents Heterosexuality.  People are placed somewhere along the dividing line between the two, appropriate to their sexuality.  If a person is purely Heterosexual, then he or she will be at the top left of the box, a bisexual person will be somewhere in the middle, and a purely homosexual person will be at the bottom right.  I believe that almost any behavior can be set on a similar scale.  In fact that is how I have defined transgender, as being between transsexual on one end and transvestite on the other.

 In the movie The Crying Game, the character Dil is portrayed as a transgender.  Dil seems to not be interested in changing her sex to female, even though her gender is most definitely that of a female.  She seems quite comfortable having a male sex as is evident in the bedroom scene between her and the character Fergus.  She stated that she thought he knew that she was male, implying that she has never considered a sex change operation as necessary to her identity.

 Fergus represents the changing social views on the issue of transgender.  After he finds out that Dil is a transgender, his first impulse is revulsion, which is represented by him running into the bathroom and vomiting.  However, throughout the rest of the movie he begins to try and come to terms with what Dil is, and by the end of the movie appears to have accepted Dil's transgender identity.  In accepting Dil, he is also accepting the fact that it is not a person's sex that determines attraction, but the persons gender and personality.

 Dil represents a sub-culture that is if not growing in numbers, at the very least growing in recognition. This sub-culture portrays exactly what Penley was observing when she stated that sexual differences were collapsing.  It not only includes males who are pushing the limits of what is considered socially acceptable behavior, but also women who are doing the same.  For some reason, our society does not view females who are becoming more masculine in their gender as sternly as we view males who are becoming more feminine in theirs.

 One of the possible reasons that our society views a feminine male more sternly than a masculine female is the value we place on aggression and domination in business.  To succeed in today's world, a person needs to be aggressive and assertive, traits that are associated with masculinity.  Femininity is usually associated with the traits submissive and meek, which a successful businessperson cannot be expected to show and remain successful.

 There are a growing number of people who no longer view the differences between the genders as parallel to the differences between the sexes.  These people act according to whichever gender suits their personalities, giving us masculine females and feminine males.  There are also people who at times act like women and others times act like men.  According to Our Sexuality, various influential and powerful people in business assume the opposite gender role when at home or in a sexual scenario.  This is not limited to the powerful and influential however, many people use transgender to temporarily escape from the social stresses that are placed upon them due to society's definition of sexual roles.

 Fergus represents the main culture, and through Fergus's reactions, we see how our society views the transgender identity.  When society first found out about transgender people, they thought that those people were suffering from psychosis.  This is evident from the fact that many of these transgender people were forced into psychological and psychiatric rehabilitation to correct them of their "illness."  As I stated earlier, transvestitism was only recently removed from the DSM-IV as a psychosis and reclassified as an abnormality.

 Over time, people have started to recognize that these people are not suffering from some form of psychosis, but that in some people this is even healthy behavior.  To different people it is healthy for different reasons.  Some people it is a temporary escape to reduce the level of stress they find in their everyday lives or jobs.  In others, it is healthy because they for whatever reason are not comfortable being the same gender as their sex.  Perhaps they lack some characteristic of the gender that matches their sex that causes them to be subject to ridicule from their peers, or maybe they just feel more comfortable being a different gender than their sex.

 Regardless of the cause, the fact is that transgender is becoming a more common practice as time passes cannot be ignored.  Society has to accept that the boundaries between gender and sex are indeed collapsing and realize that there is not really anything to fear.  Whichever way society chooses to deal with the issues of transgender, there will still be people who are transgenders just as there will still be people who know that transgender is not for them.  What society fears is that they will have to reevaluate how they view relationships and personal interactions, much like Fergus had to rethink his relationship with Dil in the movie.  Humans have always viewed change with fear, especially when the change deals with deeply rooted beliefs.

 By the end of the movie, it seems as if Fergus has reevaluated how he views Dil and can now accept her as what she is, although this is left for the audience to decide.  They still have their interaction where Dil will call Fergus by one of her endearments such as "dear" or "honey," and Fergus responds by saying "Don't call me that."  Fergus began responding this way in the movie when he found out that Dil was male, but by the end of the movie, it seems almost as if it is just said out of habit and that there is no real feeling behind it.  Fergus seems to have admitted to himself that Dil is a woman, even though she is male, but is not yet ready to admit to this out loud.

 This movie also brings up interesting issues on how we view gender and sexuality in a relationship.  Fergus falls in love with Dil thinking that she is a woman in both gender and sex, when indeed she is only a woman in gender.  Fergus is then left with the paradoxical situation of what his sexuality is, since he loves Dil as a woman, but is revolted by Dil being male.  If Fergus has a physical relationship with Dil, would he be considered homosexual, since Dil is male, or could he consider himself heterosexual because Dil is a woman?

 By strict definition, Fergus would be considered homosexual since he is attracted to someone of the same biological sex.  The definitions of heterosexual and homosexual do not take into account the gender of either of the people in question, only their sex.  As transgender appears more in mainstream society, we may have to reevaluate our definitions of sexuality, and what determines a heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.  New types of sexuality may have to be coined in order to include transgenders in their definitions.

 This raises more questions than mere definitions of sexuality, such as what is it about a person that we truly fall in love with.  Are we attracted to a person's sex or their gender?  If we are attracted to a person's gender, then how important is their sex to us, and if attracted to their sex, how important is their gender? To most, both the sex and the gender of the person in question are important to determine attraction.  With this, however, we occasionally have the type of situation that The Crying Game was based on, where a person falls in love with another person's gender, not knowing that they did not have a matching sex.

 As Fergus tries to come to terms with Dil's transgender nature, he must rethink his own sexuality and decide whether he wants to sacrifice his sexuality so that he can love Dil.  At the end of the movie, it seems as if Fergus has decided that he values his love for Dil above his own sexuality and will attempt to redefine his sexuality so that he can accept Dil and love her the way she wants to be loved.  Dil's gender is what attracted Fergus in the first place, and her personality is what caused Fergus to fall in love with her.

 If transgenders ever become a common occurrence in our society, then many people are going to have to make their own decisions as to exactly what their sexuality is, and if they would be willing to modify their views.  Society as a whole may have to decide on a new way in which sexuality is defined in order to accommodate this new lifestyle.  With the current views of society, it will be easier for female transgenders to gain acceptance than it will for male transgenders.  In time, though, society may be able to uncouple or at least loosen their assumptions of the relation between sex and gender.

 There is indeed a collapse happening between gender roles and sex as Penley observed, but this is not a collapse that needs to be feared, but one that needs to be understood.  If people would look at this relation between sex and gender closely, they would see that one does not determine the other.  A person's personality and mannerisms determine their gender, which is a socio-cultural invention, and they have no control over their sex, which is determined by biological factors.  As a society, we must decide what it is about a person that we value most, their sex, which is merely biological, or their gender, which is included in their personality.

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