New York magazine has been coming to our home for free for well over a year now. This wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t hate it so much, but there it is.
I have given up getting excited over the notices they send every few months, the ones proclaiming that this is my last issue. All lies! For some reason, I occasionally look inside — surely evidence of a latent masochistic streak. I almost always find something to piss me off and one of the recent issues was no exception.
From an article describing the problem of cottonwood poplars in Moscow:
But poplars come in two genders (the males produce pollen, the females fluff), and nobody bothered to check if all the trees were male—or, for that matter, to learn that excessive cutting of a tree’s top can make a male so desperate to reproduce that it changes gender.
Immediately an image of a poplar tree in high heels, lipstick and an apron — an arboreal ’50s housewife — sprang to my mind. As I so often do, I took my rage to the Internet: “Shocked to learn in @NYMag that poplar trees now have genders in addition to sexes. :-/” I tweeted. My friend Katie responded, “@saucysalad You hate that magazine. Put it down. Right now.”
After I had calmed myself, I had to admit that New York magazine was merely an easy target. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, its copyediting is usually above reproach and it depresses me that its copy staff have accepted the direction in which the usage is heading.
Oh, I’m sorry. Did you think this was going to be about sex? No, it’s about vocabulary words.
The problem of course is that poplar trees don’t have genders, not even a little bit. They are one of many plant species that are sexed. There are two of them, male and female, though as the New York writer pointed out, this is fluid, just like it is in humans. I was picking on New York because of my irrational hatred, but truth be told, this is something I’ve been noticing nearly every day for years now. Even this otherwise great article in defense of pubic hair gets it wrong.
The reason trees and dogs and cats can’t have genders is because gender has very little to do with what you see when you look in the mirror naked. Sex is biological; gender is cultural.
In general, I think that large bureaucracies go out of their way to degrade the English
language as much as possible. I know because I used to work for one. But in this case, the best, most concise explanation I was able to find about the difference between sex and gender comes courtesy of the World Health Organization:
“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.
So the terms aren’t interchangeable. And I think there are lots of good reasons why we should maintain the distinction.
As we know from humans and poplars, sex can change, either out of reproductive necessity or from surgical and hormonal intervention. We also know that individuals of many species, including humans, can be born with a combination of reproductive characteristics. Possibly you’ve heard the rumors about Jamie Lee Curtis. Still, for the vast majority of us, our sexes were announced at birth, male or female, and haven’t changed since.
Sex doesn’t have a whole lot to do with sexuality, that is, whom we are attracted to and how we prefer to express our desires. Sexuality is fluid and, unlike sex, there are millions of variations. The same is true for gender.
In terms of usage, it’s incorrect to say that somebody’s gender is male or female. Those are the choices for sex. With gender, the choices are masculine and feminine. You probably see this every day — online registration forms, credit card applications, magazine subscriptions. Everybody asks for your gender, but the choices they give you are for your sex. It’s kind of like if somebody were to ask whether you’d like to have socks or a belt for dinner. It just doesn’t make sense.
Does it sound like I’m a nitpicking editor? Probably; that’s part of how I make my living. But the wide cultural acceptance that there are only two genders is untrue and unhelpful.
Let’s consider the words masculine and feminine. They are comparative and relative. They aren’t based on sex. My sex is female; my sexuality is heterosexual. But my gender? That’s harder to pin down. It definitely leans toward feminine, but I’m certainly much more masculine than many women I know, including at least two lesbians I can think of. In my more androgynous youth, I knew many men — straight and gay — who were about the same level of feminine as me. I wore running shorts and band t-shirts every day to high school. My hair was short and I never wore make-up.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more feminine. Recently, I started wearing lipstick. In the
seven years I’ve lived in New York, I’ve worn skirts almost every day in the summer. In high school, I probably went for nearly a year at a time between skirt-wearings. Still, I don’t like to do more than 50 percent of the cleaning in my home, I have no interest in anything on Lifetime and I think I deserve to make as much money as a man who has the same job as me. All this is to say — while my sex and sexuality have remained consistent, my gender has changed over time.
It seems like it would be more helpful to think of gender as a sliding scale, at which one end is feminine, the other is masculine and androgynous is in the middle. And if companies really want to know what your gender is on their registration forms, you should be able to position a slider at whatever point on the continuum that makes sense to you on that day.
But I don’t think they want to know about gender; I think they want to know about sex.
So why don’t they just say so?
What is this squeamishness about calling it what it is? Is this a manifestation of Anglo-American prudishness? Or political correctness? Or heterosexism? Sexsexsexsexsexsexsex.
Is that really so offensive?
We have two words that mean two distinct things, both of which are really important in determining how we identify ourselves. Our sex is one of the first ways that we learn to view the world. Some parents even go so far as to paint their fetus’s future rooms based on the penis or vagina that is distinguished in an ultrasound. By the time we go to kindergarten, our toys, clothes and the bathrooms we use have (usually) solidified the sex that we will identify with for the rest of our lives. Most of us don’t get to choose our sex — our parents’ chromosomes did that for us.
Gender on the other hand — based on culture, our relationships with other people, life experiences, jobs, reproductive choices — is constantly in flux, constantly subject to reinvention and change, if we want to. How exciting.
There are infinite gradations of masculine and feminine. This is what makes it okay for boys to wear dresses and for girls to play rugby; it’s why boys can grow up to be stay-at-home dads and girls can grow up to be fire fighters. It’s why our personalities and choices in life are not determined by biology, the stuff we have in our underwear.
To me, this is the one thing that truly makes being a human way more awesome than any other animal.