Definitions and Labels

I felt compelled to write today based on two events.

First, the #IStandWithJK hashtag reappeared on social media, and it brought up discussion about one of her tweets in particular:

If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.

J.K. Rowling, June 6, 2020

This tweet appears in the ongoing discussion surrounding trans people and the thing about it that grabbed me was the opening, “If sex isn’t real…” I found myself wondering, how is this tweet opening with this when we should not even have arrived at this.

Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are related concepts, but they are also distinct concepts. Sex is very much real and a biological thing.

Traditionally, gender correlates closely with sex. Traditionally. As in, traditional gender roles. Or as in, we expect someone who is female to adhere to traditional women’s roles.

More accurately, gender refers to the social and cultural differences. That is why sex alone does not capture the essence of a person and we have this gender component. (It’s also worth noting that neither sex or gender is binary – they are spectrums and only at the extreme ends of a linear definition might we consider them in binary terms; like light and darkness – light almost always exists to some degree, but there is a point at which we refer to the atmosphere as dark anyway.)

The second event that sparked this was seeing a bi-sexual friend’s vocal frustration with having (too often) no place in the social discussion. Being a bi-sexual woman, if she dates a man then people make assumptions about her sexual preference as being “for attention” or an outright lie. If she dates a woman, especially a lesbian, people might accuse her of “experimenting”.

The truth of bisexualism is that she finds both men and women attractive, but in the common monogamous way only dates one person at a time. Her being with one person as opposed to another does not negate her bisexualism.

The current relationship is therefore heterosexual or homosexual, but the person is still a bisexual.

I mention these two events as context for the real point here. People observe that we get way too caught up with labels. That is true in a manner of speaking. People also observe that words have meaning and we cannot bend those to suit our needs. This is also true.

The problem that we have got, it seems, has more to do with the application of said definitions and labels. Definitions exist to describe a thing. If one describes a thing and then assigns a word to it, then the definition of that word is not doing its job. The logical flow breaks down in the same way any logical argument might fall apart.

If, in the case of my friend, one were to observe her dating a man and conclude, “She is a woman dating a man; she is therefore a heterosexual,” one would be wrong. It sounds reasonable, but it’s not. Here, one presents a description of the thing (her relationship) and then assigns a word (heterosexual) to her.

Words do have meaning and their use has consequences. We should not abandon the use of words, such as those related to sex, gender, and sexual orientation, because they are too complicated. I agree that in terms of how one treats an LGBTQ person their status as an LGBTQ person should not matter. That does not, however, mean that we should pretend they are not LGBTQ.

In other words, if you find yourself thinking, “Do these labels even matter? Why do we have to group people into these boxes?” the answer is that we do not, should not group people into boxes. The people are and the definitions follow. The idea that we are doing any of the grouping is itself the problem. The words exist only to simplify our language.

If my friend wants to communicate her sexual preference to someone else, she would say simply, “Bisexual.” It’s far too tedious and impractical to go through all the detail of, “Well, I’m attracted to men and women but I am currently dating a man.”

This is also where I find myself irked by comments like, “If sex isn’t real…” Of course it’s real. I’m not seeing where anyone refutes that point. And same-sex attraction follows directly from that. When it comes to trans people, the concept of sex remains very much intact and it’s actually central to the struggles many of them face.

Part of the issue with human sexuality is the complexity of human experience with respect to these terms. As I’ve said, they are spectrums rather than clear binaries and knowing where to draw the line that says, “This is male” becomes difficult in some cases. In fact, there are cases where it’s best not to force the individual into one definition over the other because neither is wholly correct. But that is what we do on a large social scale.

We see it in every area of life. Economic (the chronic misuse of terms like communist and socialist), religious (falsely attributing beliefs or a specific religion to someone), social, and so forth.

Look how much trouble to concept of “race” causes in society when every single human being is scientifically part of the human race. To this biological definition we added a socio-cultural component with black, white…all of these different “groups” relate solely to melanin in the skin, which exists solely to regulate necessary biological processes. People exposed to more direct sunlight (i.e. those nearest the Equator) have darker skin to achieve this balance, while those with indirect or inconsistent sunlight (those nearest the poles) have fairer skin.

Often (I believe as a layperson) race has zero benefit. What some observe as a socio-cultural component I believe has more to do with ethnicity and race is merely a geographical by-product of that. That is, African American communities have developed a shared cultural experience whose explanation, ultimately, is in their ethnic roots. Their experience in the United States relates directly to skin colour, but only insofar as the racism of Europeans who colonised and enslaved them.

Fast-forward to contemporary issues involving “blackness” – I have read some wonderful pieces of conflict within the African American community arising from when someone fails to meet expectations of what it means to be black. We see skin colour, even of our own “race” and immediately develop expectations of what should follow. When reality does not meet that expectation, people assault the subject for not meeting the definition.

They never did. That was imposed on them.

Perhaps this particular person has more culturally in common with another group. This is complex (and where many of these conversations seem to break down), but there is a chasm between something being part of one’s identity and one “identifying as something” – such as when people propose the preposterous, “What if I say that I’m a woman? Can I just start going into women’s restrooms even though I’m a man?”

I hear the concern that person has with respect to “enforceability”. There is the sheep, there is the wolf, there is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Everyone worries about that last group.

The trouble many face in society is that they are sheep but have been identified by others as a wolf. When they present as sheep, society (in its fear – racism, sexism, transphobia) treats them as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is not the case. That is society saying, “You are a man, you cannot do woman things” to a woman.

I think an illuminating, albeit imperfect, example of this is Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill presents as a transsexual and I believe several characters refer to him as such. Hannibal is the one who points out that he’s not:

Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991

He says this right after Clarice points out that transsexuals are known for their passivity and there is no link between transsexualism and violence.

Buffalo Bill latches the transsexual definition onto himself as others do, but it’s not an understanding of what it actually means. It’s a syllogism. (Again, I know this is fictional and an extreme example, but Thomas Harris was quite astute with his handling of pathology across the series.)

Definitions are. People applying them incorrectly (or especially applying them and then assigning additional expectations to them) is the problem. We have no need to assign people to definitions. The person is who they are.

Trans people, for example, are not erasing the lived experience of women. They just exist. It’s a definition that we do not confer onto people like a diploma or certificate. To that end, we certainly not need be so quick to assign definitions to anyone.

If someone is bisexual, they are so regardless of who they are currently dating.

If society identifies someone with the wrong gender at birth, they are trans. Feelings towards this, especially others’ fear, do not matter.

Likewise, and I say this fearing backlash, one should not apply pressure to someone unsure about their identity to go one way or the other. We do see instances of “trans people” regretting their choice and reverting back – I use quotes because it could be that they were never trans. They may have been unsure or confused about their sense of identity (which is immeasurably common) and taken the wrong course for themselves. People should not use transphobia as a way to encourage someone to make the change (“You are trans and social/internalised transphobia is trying to stop you from embracing this”) just as people should not give in to theirs and discourage someone from doing what is right for them (“You’re just confused and giving in to the trendiness of it”).

What people need is empathy, compassion, and understanding so they can develop an accurate sense of their identity, whatever it is. The definitions are there to describe it and even to help articulate our thoughts as we work through those understandings – they are not their to shoe-horn expectations into people’s lives.

This tendency of developing expectations and then asserting personal definitions onto others (or ourselves) has to stop for us to continuing growing.

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