Monday, October 24, 2011

Gender, Sex, Identity and A Bunch of Other Fascinating Issues

Last year, I attended a workshop at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center on "Gender, the Search for Self and the Search for Acceptance," facilitated by Chloe Schwenke, an ethicist who is herself a transgendered woman. (There's an interview with her here.) Although much of the workshop centered on personal issues of gender and identity, it struck me that as writers, we can discover much depth and richness by asking the same questions.

For the workshop, we defined sex as the classification of people as male or female. Intersex individuals, that is, people possessing the external characteristics of both, are usually "assigned" to one sex or the other. Gender, on the other hand, is a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person. Gender has been described as "who you want to go to bed as, not who you want to go to bed with."

In science fiction and fantasy, we have been playing around with such notions as more than two sexes/genders, none, fluid sexes/genders, and a diversity of gender role expressions. Every so often, a story that takes a new or not-new-but-splashy look at the field garners a lot of buzz, particularly in the queer and queer-friendly community. Yet much genre writing continues to perpetuate the world view of two oppositional and fixed genders, each with equally unyielding behavioral expectations. For many writers and readers, a character or society that goes too far outside the familiar becomes so uncomfortable as to fracture sympathetic identification. It strikes me, however, that even within the limitations of conventional portrayals of sex and gender, we can reach for greater depth. We can go beyond the Caveman Model of Gender Roles, the Separatist All-Men or All-Women Worlds, the Rambo-in-Drag/Supersensitive Male dichotomies and other variations already done to death.

To give you an idea what I'm talking about, here are some questions from the workshop. I've rephrased them to apply to characters, rather than personally.

How does your character know "what" that person is? What feelings, sensibilities, and other forms of awareness (other than simple body awareness) most make that person feel male, female, or somewhere in between?

Can you describe your character in non-gendered terms?

Does gender influence the spirituality of your character? How?

Has your character experienced a dissonance between what is expected and what was felt internally? How does the character deal with this tension? How does the character's sense of integrity and honesty affect the response?

How does this character (and the surrounding culture) consider the issues of equality and fairness between the masculine, feminine and androgynous?

How does the character's experience of gender affect the perception of the Divine, either within or outside the cultural norm?

A slightly different version of this blog originally appeared in Book View Cafe blog September 2011.


  1. As a scientist, and as someone who identifies as queer, I find the concepts of identity, sex, and gender fascinating, and throughout both plants and animals there are a multitude of determining factors and ways of expressing role in reproduction. A good intro can be had at

    The most diverse mammal is the platypus, containing both ZW behaving and XY behaving chromosome types, five pair in all.

    Most important to me is the fact that many (most? all?) of the genes responsible for the underlying mechanical development of the anatomy and proteins etc. of the so-called "genital" region, "male" or "female", are *not* located on the x or y chromosome. As hard as it is to fathom, there may be hundreds (or more?) of different expressions of both the body and the behavior across the genome. Not to mention the effect of the multitude of environmental and coincidental factors in development...

    There should be a ripe opportunity to develop societies and systems which don't involve just a spectrum between male and female "reproductive-based" roles, but also an acknowledgement of genders and identities which don't have anything to do with reproduction or sex.

  2. That's wild about the platypus! Would you be interested in doing a Guest Blog about it?

    Queer-diversity is definitely one of my important issues, and opens up so many interesting ways to explore what it means to be human.