Monday, August 20, 2007

Binaries and Spectra

"Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete." - Kurt Gödel

I am a "shades of gray" type of person. I tend to think of things as not in a "black or white" way but that there is some scale of grayness. For example, when a person is learning how to drive a car, they go from knowing nothing about the pedals or steering (other than some childhood observations that are typically incorrect about arm movements) to various states of knowledge and comfort (keeping the car straight, being able to parallel park, etc.). Even once you get your license you are still learning and improving, or you might slide backwards (for example, you might not pay as rigorous attention to speed limit signs as you did earlier).

The advantage of a limited number of hard-and-fast categories is that it's an easier way to understand and communicate how the world works. That's if the categorization is valid. For example, if you have a limited set of categories for people you can map people into those categories. It might be by skin color, height, weight, or other characteristics.

There are limits to how well a classification scheme works. If you go by skin color, how do you handle people of mixed blood? Another example - if we classify gender by sex (male and female), then how do intersex people fit in? These "edge conditions" tend to challenge any classification system and result in solutions like force-fitting things into categories, adding more categories, or scrapping the system entirely.

In the transgender world there are people who see things either in a few fixed categories while others who see a spectrum. Most spectra range from cross dresser (CD) through to transsexual (TS) who has gender reassignment surgery (GRS). But what about a female to male who chooses to live the life of a male but not have surgery (or a physical male who transitions to female but with no hormones or surgery, such as Pauline Park)? Or a cross-dresser who always presents female but still wishes to by his male name? Or a person who lives part-time as one gender, part-time as another? Are they just confused?

I do not pretend to have a definitive answer to all of this. Right now I have the following beliefs:

- Gender can be different from sex. Sex is physical, gender is internal/emotional. (or as Betty Crow says, "Sex is between the legs; gender is between the ears.")

- Gender is a ratio of masculine and feminine. Almost everybody has some mix of both of these aspects in their personality. This ratio defines a spectrum of gender.

- There is a whole spectrum in the transgender world (described previously). And there is a spectrum in the male world, and the female world as well. This fits in well with the Zero-One-Infinity Rule: “Allow none of foo, one of foo, or any number of foo.” If you follow the link, you'll see that Isaac Asimov in the book The Gods Themselves has a character that says binaries are impossible. The character is saying this in the describing universes (if you believe on more than one, then you might as well believe in an infinite number of them) but this also applies to one species in the book that has three sexes. Now there's a world that doesn't have a binary (albeit a fictitious one).

In the book Head over Heels by Virginia Erhardt Dr. Erhardt makes the point that "...many cross-dresser' significant others seem to be invested in their husbands fitting into a categorical box with high walls, out of which they won't in some way relocate into the box next door in which these women believe transsexuals reside." The empirical evidence I've seen from several friends and myself back up this statement. And I've seen people who have declared themselves in the middle slide both to and away from transitioning. And I've also seen cross dressers who have later decided that transition was their future, and transsexuals who have de-transitioned back to male.

I do not envy the situation any significant other (SO) of a transgendered person finds themselves - it is full of uncertainty which can feel like hopelessness at times. I think that a lot of how a couple works this out has to do with how sensitive the trans-person is with their SO. Trans-people can get so caught up in the uncertainty, too, and forget that there are others involved. Time and patience are very important, especially if you want the relationship to survive. SO's also need to understand the needs of the trans-person, too, and together both of them have to figure out what give-and-take is required to make the relationship work. There are those for which there is no meeting point, which is sad, but I think we are seeing more relationships that are finding a way to make it work and stay together.