CHARLES DARWIN’S EVOLUTION, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Albert Einstein’s relativity have all become fundamental concepts in modern science, but if you ask the person on the street to explain any of them (especially the latter) you will most often get blank stares.
Throughout human history, when unimaginable scientific revolution occurs, most people firmly resist the change. Even though Copernicus put the final nail in the coffin of Ptolemy’s heliocentric theory in 1543, John Milton, writing Paradise Lost a century later, could not quite accept Copernicus and reverted to Ptolemy in his construction of eternity. We know that presently there are hundreds of societies and organizations dedicated to abolishing Darwin’s discoveries even though no aspect of biology makes any sense without them. And as for Einstein’s relativity, outside of physics circles this astounding revolution is incomprehensible to most, much less accepted as verifiable space physics.
All of this laggard acceptance of scientific truth has caused many problems in recent human history but we are now faced with a development that may overshadow all the others in terms of societal acceptance—the gender revolution.
As far back as ancient Sparta we can observe erotic bonds among soldiers who practiced heterosexual family life when peace arrived. From childhood, Alexander the Great’s greatest love was Hephaestion, even though he married Roxane and became a father. This common bisexuality continued without any societal rejection in the classical world to the end of the Roman Empire. But with the advent of the Dark Ages this socially accepted phenomenon went underground, condemned and buried in the religious laws of both Christianity and Islam.
Gender questioning has developed slowly through intervening centuries, but with the arrival of the Internet and social media, issues, discussions, and proclamations have come forth that would have been unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. Facebook, with more than a billion users, has recorded some fifty gender classification (agender, cisgender, transgender, genderfluid, binary, transsexual, LGBTQ, and androgynous, to name but a few). One recent survey found that nearly a third of young Americans identified themselves somewhere between 100 percent heterosexual and 100 percent homosexual.
Historically, science has determined that gender is an amalgamation of several factors: chromosomes, anatomy, hormones, psychology, and culture. People with the chromosomes and genital anatomy of one sex may identify as something other than cisgender because they perceive themselves as the opposite sex, occasionally with both or with neither sex, or maybe with no sex.
The past decade has produced a plethora of studies, surveys, and conferences on gender identity. Much of the discussion has evolved around young people, many of whom are laying claim to a wide variety of sexual identities. The big question is: Do these gender varieties reflect accurate phenomena which have always existed in human nature or do many of these claims reflect teenage sexual experimentation? The answer, based on the amalgamation of causes noted above, may be that both factors are involved for some, but not for others.
The concept of transgenderism is alien and even abhorrent in many societies, however in some countries (Argentina, Norway, Denmark and ten others) gender reassignment is legal with no restrictions and is simply based on the request of the individual. In forty-one others (including Brazil, China, and most of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia) it’s legal but subject to medical requirements. In twenty-seven countries (Russia, South Africa, and Chile among them) gender reassignment is possible but inconsistently allowed. And in sixty-seven countries, primarily from the Muslim world and Southeast Asia, change is not legally possible. In some of these countries, wearing clothing not in line with one’s sexual assignment at birth is a criminal offense. And in many Central African countries even discussion of gender change is taboo. The thought of just how long it will take for societal acceptance of gender identity in these areas is sobering.
In some of these less enlightened countries, gender assignment at birth (only boys and girls) is underscored by rituals traceable to ancient times. The rigidity of young male rearing and behavior noted above in ancient Sparta is ever present in contemporary Africa. The Bukusu tribe in Kenya binds young boys for life beginning with circumcision songs and marches in puberty. The participants will remain intimate throughout their lives and will one day bear each other’s coffins and dig each other’s graves. After the early rituals, young Bukusu boys are commandeered by their fathers and removed from mothers and grandmothers. A young tribesman will be exempt from household chores, live in his own hut, and be reared according to his father’s values and behavior. Circumcision rituals everywhere replicate this overwhelming emphasis on male sexuality and subsequent lifelong male family dominance.
The fate of women in patriarchal society continues to be grim and often hopeless. Suicide is the leading cause of death in girls age ten to nineteen globally. Some 120 million girls around the globe have experienced sexual violence and some 200 million girls and women have endured genital mutilation. Sierra Leone is one of the worst places in the world to be a girl. Bondo is a ritual that traditionally includes the cutting or removal of external genitalia, tying the girls to the male dominated tribes and readying them for marriage. This female genital mutilation (FGM) means that simply being born a girl results in a lifetime of deprivation and insurmountable barriers. The FGM that’s practiced widely in Indonesia is culturally, socially, and religiously very different from African tribes, but there half of the girls under twelve have undergone the procedure.
So many societies are organized around the principle that biology is destiny, but gender fluidity is being accepted in advanced nations around the world. When societies accept that gender identity exists along a spectrum and is not relegated to rigid male/female categorization, bluer skies appear on the horizon. The trapped and oppressed fate of women can be altered and the culturally defined roles that also oppress men can be changed. Heady ideals can be imagined for a world in which gender does not define a person any more than race or ethnicity does. Without the weight of gendered expectations humans may achieve greater goals and realize richer existences.
These last thoughts represent an ideality that won’t be realized soon. If the discoveries of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein continue to meet resistance in the minds of skeptics the world over, the general acceptance of multiple gender identities has a bleak future.
I have some personal thoughts here (which is why you’re reading this in the “First Person” column.) I have dutifully raised three daughters with the firm notion that gender must not hinder goals and dreams. They have grown to be extremely successful and independent women. But when there are family gatherings I find I’m often frustrated by their perspectives on a variety of subjects from personal habits to social practices. I sometimes retreat into a male cocoon molded from a Latin heritage with unquestioned masculine dominance. Often, I feel that women simply don’t understand my notions and wonder if my very individuality and personality will evaporate. However, reluctantly, when the emotional resentment has subsided, I remain steadfast in the convictions I have articulated in this essay. Still, I wonder how long it will take for an age-old male anthropology to accept the enormous consequences of the gender revolution.