Recently, at both the University of Dallas and in the general discourse throughout the country, there has been a focus on gender. This semester alone has seen two lectures on the subject, and we should have more. It is important, though, to ensure that those invited to lead the discussion can provide well-founded and diverse viewpoints.
Our gender identities are a part of our experiences as human beings, and as such, are worthy of attention. However, there must be an open discourse, one that doesn’t presuppose the conclusions of either side.
Before there is any discussion about gender identity, it is important to differentiate two different concepts. Gender and sex are, sociologically, different categories. According to the American Sociological Association, a “sociological perspective transcends biological notions of sex and emphasizes the social and cultural bases of gender.”
This does not mean that sex is unimportant, but that there is more to our gender than just our chromosomes or our reproductive organs.
The field of biology does tell us that humans are a sexually dimorphic species. There are females and males, and a small percentage of intersex people. For many people, this is where the discussion of gender stops.
This is because historically, in the West, gender has been commonly associated with sex. Males are men, females are women, and their roles in society are natural and God-given. However, this viewpoint has been challenged by research on the social construction of gender.
This does not mean that different understandings of gender are a “new” concept. While it may seem that way because the discourse about gender is now more prominent, there have been many ways in which gender has been seen differently by different cultures.
For example, the muxes of the Zapotec people, who reside in what is now Mexico, are a “third” gender category, considered neither men nor women by these indigenous people. They have a distinct role in Zapotec society, and having a muxe child is often considered a blessing.
This way of understanding gender is not new. According to the New York Times:
“Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”
For the social constructionist, gender identities are put onto people of a certain sex by society, and these, not “natural differences” between the sexes, are how gender roles are formed. This should not be understood as a “heretical” viewpoint.
Recent research has given ample evidence that society informs how we “perform” our gender. How one is a man, or how one is a woman, is different by culture. When discussing gender, this must be a part of the conversation for it truly to be an open one.
These discussions are important. At a university of independent thinkers, we should be able to look deeper at the discourse around gender, beyond political buzzwords and surface level discourse.
To fully discuss gender and gender identities, there must be more events at the University of Dallas. But those brought in to speak on the subject of gender should be people who specialize in gender studies.
This is not to say that other disciplines do not encounter gender, since gender is salient in our daily lives. However, those who study gender more frequently, or who have more of an understanding of the current research and theories on gender, would be most suited to lead the discussion.