Gender is Complicated (and Other Breaking News)

Gender is Complicated (and Other Breaking News)

You may recall that I recently criticized one of Harriet Hall’s posts claiming that gender differences don’t matter. It appeared to me based on reading that article that Hall did not really understand current research and theories of sex, gender, and sexuality. Her post was full of essentialism and unfounded biases.

Well, Harriet Hall is at it again. This time, Hall is here to tell us that gender is complicated.

Really? You don’t say!

Hall’s post does contain some factually accurate information, and I agree with her premise that sex, gender, and sexuality are complicated subjects. I have two major problems with Hall’s approach to gender: (1) If gender is complicated, then why the hell does she keep trying to boil it all down to short, simple blog posts on the topic? And (2) if gender differences don’t matter as she asserted in her previous post, why the hell is she writing a whole post about how many gender differences there are? It seems contradictory—either gender differences matter enough to warrant discussion and for people to build identities around or they don’t. You cannot have it both ways, Dr. Hall.

But I digress. Let me tackle some of the glaring problems with this latest post in particular. I must warn you, this post is rather lengthy because it takes a lot more words to correct errors than it does to make the errors in the first place.

Concerning the meaning of “gender,” Hall correctly notes that the word is often conflated with “sex” (as she herself does both in the previous post and in this one—even after noting how this can muddy the waters!). Let me address some of her specific claims:

The words are often used interchangeably, although the preferred usage is to use sex to refer to biological differences and gender to refer to social roles. (Which becomes problematic when you’re not sure if a given trait is determined by biology or culture.)

Of course it’s problematic when you work from the assumption that either culture or biology determines sex/gender traits. As I noted in my last post, though, current thinking on sex/gender is moving away from the nature/culture dichotomy towards a biocultural approach which takes into consideration how both culture and biology (nature) work together to co-produce sex/gender. Still, it is best for clarity’s sake to use “sex” to refer to bodies and “gender” to refer to identities and social roles.

The modern academic sense of gender was popularized by the feminist movement.

This is superficially correct, but I think that this statement obfuscates how radical of a shift in thinking the sex/gender split was. Before Gayle Rubin’s 1974 “The Traffic in Women” pushed the paradigm shift in the social sciences, sex and gender were conflated into both being biological/innate. The sex/gender split was not simply an analytical split—it was also a political necessity. This is what allowed feminists to begin to argue that a person’s biological characteristics (sex) does not determine the kinds of labor they should do (gender). For anyone who is even remotely aware of feminism, it is clear how important this split was in the 60s and 70s. It allowed for feminists to argue that they are not bound by their nature to fulfill the roles forced on them by a patriarchal society.

As a result, scientists have sometimes chosen to extend the use of the word to biological differences in an attempt to show their sympathy with feminist goals.

I give this a big citation needed. I am highly skeptical that the reason scientists (specifically medical scientists) use the word gender to refer to biological sex is an act of feminist solidarity.

Some have even argued that “sex” is a just another social construct.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler

Yes, many people have argued that sex is a social construction. One of my favorite social theorists Judith Butler argues just such a point. Very convincingly, I might add. Butler argues that sex comes already wrapped up in our understandings of gender (something that biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling agrees with). In this way, the category of “sex” is a construction—it is a way that we make meanings out of bodies. This does not mean that sex is not real (an argument I often hear from people who do not understand what it means that something is “socially constructed”) and does not refer to real differences among bodies. But the ways that we construct this category (in our society, as a binary opposition) is cultural. Biological bodily traits exist—how we make sense of them (i.e., “sex”) is what’s constructed.

After this brief terminological introduction, Hall proceeds to give a list of factors that demonstrate the complexity of sex and gender. While many of the points in this list are factually true, there are some major problems with the list (problems that make it clear that she’s done a very small amount of reading, probably in older literature from the early 2000s and earlier).

Let me address some of the points on her list, starting with chromosomal sex.

Males are XY, females are XX. But there are individuals who are XXY (Klinefelter syndrome), XYY, a mosaic of XX and XY cells, XXX, XO (Turner’s syndrome), and various other accidents of cell division gone awry. How are these anomalies to be categorized? How do they affect behavior and gender role?

This is a very good example of why the language used to discuss this topic is important. “Males are XY, females are XX” is an oversimplification despite her best efforts at pointing out how it’s not simple. If I had written this, I would have worded it: “Male-bodied people typically have XY chromosomes, and female-bodied people typically have XX chromosomes.” But a person with AIS can have XY chromosomes (and no extra chromosomes) and be female-bodied.

url

Some examples of intersex conditions. I find the usage of the terms “normal/abnormal” quite problematic.

So how are these “anomalies” (keeping in mind that, depending on how its measured, this refers to as many as 1 in 100 people to 1 in 2000 people—not exactly super rare) to be categorized? Well, that has changed over time (thus the cultural construction of sex). Today, we consider people with these traits to be intersex. How do chromosomes affect behavior and gender role? That’s a complicated and as far as I know not entirely understood topic. But one way that they affect gender roles that is pretty clear is that we assign meanings to what it means to be XY or XX and then determine what those kinds of bodies should be doing. That is, of course, a cultural constructionist approach to the question.

Intrauterine hormonal effects – Her descriptions of these traits are factually sort of accurate, but I feel that the language used still leaves something to be desired. So, someone with AIS is not a “male fetus”—it is a female-bodied person with XY chromosomes whose body does not recognize androgens. The way that Hall’s paragraph on hormonal traits reads is that the determining factor in sex is chromosomes. It’s not that someone with AIS is “born looking like a girl”—it’s that their body has developed into a female body and continues to develop as a female body unless there is some medical intervention.

The sex of rearing – Once again, conflating sex/gender into a single category. Nonetheless, the David Reimer case is certainly one example of how altering a person’s body does not necessarily bring it in line with their internal sense of gender. That being said, there were many of John Money’s other cases that had no such issues when they grew up—in fact, Money argued that Reimer was an anomaly. I’m certainly not arguing in favor of John Money’s research program—I think it was extremely unethical and problematic. But to point at this one case and declare socialization irrelevant (which is what it appears to me as if Hall is doing, though I could be wrong) is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (PS, for an interesting discussion of Money’s research and how it has affected and been perceived by intersex people, I highly recommend Katrina Karkazis’s book Fixing Sex).

Sexual Desire – I have a big fucking problem with how this is worded. In one fell swoop, Hall lumps together queer people with pedophila and beastiality. The thing is, queer and non-queer people’s orientation is about more than desire and behavior. It’s also about identity, which is both individual/personal and social. Sexuality, then, is more than just what people desire and how they pleasure their bodies. To pretend that desire and acting on desire is the sum total of sexuality is a claim that is so completely out of touch with the literature on sexuality and sexual orientation that it would be laughable were it not eerily familiar to the arguments I hear from Right-wing asshats.

Social gender – as opposed to what, biological gender? Gender is always already social, so this feels a bit redundant. Regardless, Hall’s questions are so absurdly essentialist that I must quote them in full for those who have not clicked over to read her post.

Does the individual play the role expected of a male or female in society? All the time, or part of the time? Does he/she sometimes dress in clothes of the opposite sex, publicly or in secret? Do friends and associates perceive the individual as male or female?

“The role”? There is no one single role, even in a system based on a gender binary. Further, those roles are not static, but fluid and always changing and shifting. None of us is ever always doing or being the ideal man or woman. Because no such thing exists. Yet our ideas of what makes someone a man or a woman are based on idealized visions of what those things mean. This is the foundational problem of a strict gender binary opposition: no one fits. Norms are always changing. I also find it weird that after attempting to deconstruct the notion of a binary that Hall’s entire post is written with the language of a sex/gender/sexuality binary opposition (e.g., “clothes of the opposite sex,” as if there’s only two!).

Gender Dysphoria – No. No no no no no no no no no no. Though, on an interesting note, the way Hall wrote this reads as if she buys into sex as a cultural construction. If sex is “assigned,” (which I agree, it is! I’m just not sure Hall agrees), then it is not an inherent trait. But my main problem with this is that it buys into the old GID rhetoric of being “born in the wrong body.” Gender dysphoria, at least in the new DSM-V, is really more about an incongruence between the gender a person is assigned (usually before/at birth) and the gender they experience or identify with. It does not necessarily have to involve feeling like a person is the “wrong” sex.

Surgically-altered external genitalia – These questions feel like they’re coming from someone who has never read a word of trans* literature in their lives. So let me help:

What do we call someone who has undergone sex change surgery?

First, “sex change surgery” feels outdated and my understanding is that some trans* folks find that phrase problematic. It’s probably better to use the phrase “sex reassignment surgery.” So what do we call someone who has undergone SRS? Transsexual.

What do we call someone who wants the surgery and is waiting for it?

Transgender or Transsexual, depending on if they have begun to transition in other ways, such as social transitioning and/or hormone treatment.

At what point in the long sex-change process can the sex be assumed to actually have changed?

How about when the person says it has or feels like their transition is complete?

Hall begins her conclusion with a perplexing paragraph that reads as if an undergraduate in a gender studies course who has just been introduced to these concepts wrote it. Which is fine—people gotta start somewhere. However, she’s posting this on Science-Based Medicine, once again using that forum as a platform to muddy the waters of sex, gender, and sexuality research. Perhaps if she wishes to continue speaking out on this topic, she should spend some time reading the literature in more depth.

Finally, I have to address her final two paragraphs because I feel that they are full of fallacious thinking and biological reductionism (despite her claiming in the third-to-last paragraph that culture and biology work in tandem!).

So what are we to do? Reject the very ideas of sex and gender and stop trying to classify people? Reject the dichotomy? Of course not! The binary classification is sufficient for most practical purposes and is very useful. In medicine, the knowledge that a patient is male or female helps to guide diagnosis and treatment. We know that men and women have different responses to medications and different incidences of various diseases.

It is enough to remember that male/female categories are arbitrary and not absolute. Science is not simple. We try to categorize, but nature is infinitely inventive.

So after all of that, Hall concludes with “but the binary is still a necessary evil.” Right. This brings everything in line with her assertion that minority identities are irrelevant and unimportant.

To answer the question of what do we do: Of course we reject the binary! If we are interested in the truth—as someone who writes for a blog called Science-Based Medicine should be—then we should reject those concepts that are clearly not in line with our best information. Just because the binary classification makes life easier for certain segments of the population does not mean it is the way things are. In medicine, the knowledge that a person is queer also helps guide diagnosis and treatment. The knowledge that a person is transgender also helps guide diagnosis and treatment. The thing is, working from the assumption that the binary is useful has the effect of making invisible people who do not fit the binary. I’m not just talking about social invisibility—let me put it in a context that this medico-reductivist thinking will better understand.

If a person comes into an emergency room and is for whatever reason unable to give intake information (assuming they do not try to hide any information because of stigmatization), if the physicians make assumptions about the person’s sex/gender based solely on appearance, this can have negative consequences because, as Hall admits, a person’s sex/gender can affect diagnosis and responses to treatment. In the interest of improving health outcomes, the idea of sex/gender as a binary opposition should be jettisoned as quickly as possible, as should the idea of a binary sexual orientation. If I seem a annoyed by this point, that’s because I am. This is an area I have done research in and am currently working to produce curricular recommendations to alter medical school curriculum to better address the needs of queer people.

So no, Dr. Hall. It is not enough to remember that the sex/gender binary is arbitrary and not absolute. That is enough for people who have the privilege of fitting into normative understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality. But it’s never enough for those of us who experience a constant barrage of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination because of who we are. And I’d appreciate it if you’d stop trying to convince us that our identities are unimportant and meaningless.

(H/T to audpicc for alerting me to Hall’s latest post.)

ETA (2/19/2013 @ 11:50 a.m. Eastern Time): Hall has responded to both of my posts here. As I am currently operating on very little sleep and have obligations today, I will not be able to address her concerns in any detail until later this afternoon. I’m not sure if I will do so in a post or in the comments on her post.

By Will
Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. He is a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Her other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

73 Comments

  1. Delurking to say that there are now two posts at SBM replying to you (you’ve probably already noticed) and the only word that is springing to mind on reading them is clusterfuck.

    Thanks for this excellent reply. And glad to hear about the curriculum recommendations.

  2. I think you covered all the problematic points of Hall’s post yet again. And a very well written response it is. I love you!

    I wonder if she’ll respond to you directly? Or maybe she isn’t interested in actually learning something about the topic. She certainly isn’t willing to do the research herself.

  3. This does come out as highly condescending and at times misrepresenting Hall. But on the balance I’d say most of your critisisms are accurate if minor. Your only real relevant point is the last one – where yes, gender binary shouldn’t be acceptable or sufficient.

    • It’s hard to claim that Will is misrepresenting Hall when she keeps saying the same wrong thing over and over. In her latest response she again makes the claim that biologically, females are defined by the ability to give birth. “Female is a biological category. A mammal who is anatomically and physiologically capable of bearing children and lactating (or will be, if prepubertal) is surely in the biological category “female” even if she has not had those experiences.” This is not scientifically true at all – ‘females’ of a species are defined as having the larger, non-mobile gametes, the ova, and males are defined as having the smaller, mobile gametes, the spermatozoon. There is a whole class of mammals who do not ‘bear children’ or lactate – monotremes. Beyond that, it’s not socially true, either, as evidenced by the number of infertile women.

      I don’t think Will is claiming that Hall’s posts are 100% incorrect, but this isn’t high school – no one’s handing out grades. The things that she’s wrong about are reductive and can be dangerous to people to don’t ‘fit’ the traditional gender binary. The erasure of intersex, transgender, and otherwise ‘variant’ persons has been a huge problem in the feminist community for as long as I’ve been alive, and Hall basically stepped right in without any understanding of the issues or seemingly any desire to learn.

    • It is OK to be ignorant about these topics, most people are. Usually it is because they haven’t had to deal with these issues on a personal level. It’s called cis privilege. This becomes problematic, though, when people like Harriet Hall starts making such posts on what’s supposed to be a scientific website. She is simply wrong on a number of points. She also seems to be too stubborn or proud to recognise when she’s wrong. This isn’t only about being wrong, it is also about the people who are hurt by these outdated ideas of sex and gender. They are quite common in society in general. Hall’s response to Will’s first post also shows that all of this went right over her head. I had numerous WTF moments reading both that one and the other post.

    • I’m actually curious: What is it, exactly, that is condescending in my post? Critical? Absolutely. Snarky? Yep. Cranky? Sure, I’ll give you that. But I really don’t see how I’m being condescending.

  4. I’m rather surprised that Hall would provide articles like this.
    What sort of thing influences this?

  5. “For anyone who is even remotely aware of feminism, it is clear how important this split was in the 60s and 70s. It allowed for feminists to argue that they are not bound by their nature to fulfill the roles forced on them by a patriarchal society.”

    Ah, yes. I remember those days. It was quite amusing when there was a group who claimed that science was patriarchal and there needed to a science for women, dammit! They wanted to disregard things like Newtonian physics, ignore things like biology, and definitely not ignore the “spiritual” forces like Qi, whatever. It was a silly time. I see some of it still exists.

    And I definitely refused to be associated with those, especially they were (along with too many men) trying to convince me that I should not dare take those evil science courses to get a degree in engineering forty years ago. I just “love” it when people who do not have clue tell me how I should think. Roll eyes.

  6. Thanks for the post and explanations about how even binary sex classifications are insufficient; that’s not a topic I’ve come across yet. 25 years I’ve used gender/sex interchangeably until last year that I learned they are different. I am still learning not to default to using either when I mean one or the other in context, almost always going back to correct whichever I wrote. Language can be so frustrating sometimes. It will all be worth it when I figure it out well enough to correct others on the fly, insufferable stickler that I am.

  7. This is a fantastic takedown of some serious bullshit.

  8. OMG thank you thank you. Her bullshit literally kept me up last night. This woman has been given a platform to spew some serious cis privilege. I mean seriously, how do you have an article like this and not mention gender identity AT ALL. I doubt she’s even come across the word “cis” in all of her “research”. My comment to her didn’t make it through moderation because it was basically “WTF? Haven’t you heard of genderqueer people!?? I hope you never had any trans patients for their sake!!” I guess anger from insulted minorities is not welcome.

    Thanks for taking the time to comb through all of her ignorant ramblings and give an educated rebuttal. It was level-headed and complete.

  9. Her post was also just really… awkward. I kept wincing the whole way through. It felt like your elderly piano tutor telling you about “the raps young people listen to”. I feel like for anything with a social or cultural basis, the SBM crowd is really dated.

    It reminds of that one time on Language Log that Victor Mair tried discussing Chinese terminology for gay men, which went weird and insulting spectacularly fast.

  10. I really think this discussion could be very useful and educational for many people, especially those of us who’s ideas and views about gender and sex were initially established thirty or forty plus years ago. Unlearning is not always easy, but it is the responsibility of skeptics regardless of experience when faced with new facts and information. So to that end please allow me a tone troll moment because people gotta start somewhere:

    Will, get off Harriet’s lawn and be polite and patient because ignorance is not a synonym for asshole.
    Harriet, get off Will’s back and appreciate you may have a thing or two to learn about gender.

    • This.

    • I think, especially after the whole queer thing and then her shitty apology, maybe Will SHOULDN’T get off her lawn.

      • Perhaps, but given both Will and Harriet have the respect and ear of many in the skeptical community it seems to me that for the sake of the broader audience being (as Steve Novella has advocated) charitable won’t hurt anyone or diminish anyone’s point of view.

        • Please stop with the charitable stuff. Telling someone who is arguing against the rhetoric and discourse common in social oppression to be more charitable towards those arguments is offensive. I have not attacked Hall as a person, I’ve attacked her positions and said that she is coming from a place of ignorance.

          I value my role as a potential educator on this topic, but I cannot force people to change their views. All I can really do is point out the flaws that I see and hope that it will encourage others to ask questions and seek more information.

          • I think you are misunderstanding “charitable.” It is not a request that you pull punches (although there might be grounds for making such an argument, but this is not it). It is a call to recognize that some people may not express their thoughts as carefully as they should (or as carefully as you expect them to) on a particular issue. Dr. Novella, as usual, summed it up better in the comments to Dr. Hall’s recent post than I can:
            “When considering another’s argument it helps to give it the most charitable interpretation, to argue against the best possible argument on the “other side.” This is the antidote to the straw man fallacy. If you are not charitable then it is likely that you will waste time arguing against a position that was never articulated.
            Find common ground and be charitable. How many times have we as skeptics advocated this approach when dealing with the most dedicated charlatans or pseudoscientists? It seems like we should be able to extend the courtesy to others in our own community.”

            Here, Dr. Hall should have been more charitable in analyzing your use of “queer,” for one example. In my opinion, your original post should have been more charitable to Dr. Hall in assuming that she meant as much by here fluctuating use of sex and gender terms as an intentional dismissal of those issues.

          • “your original post should have been more charitable to Dr. Hall in assuming that she meant as much by here fluctuating use of sex and gender terms as an intentional dismissal of those issues.”

            Except her non-apology about “queer” leads me to believe that being “charitable” would have gotten Will nowhere.

            And intention isn’t fucking magic, as the saying goes.

          • “Except her non-apology about “queer” leads me to believe that being “charitable” would have gotten Will nowhere.”

            Maybe not, but I don’t think the “queer” issue has anything to do with this. First, she didn’t say or write anything about the word for which an apology is necessary (except maybe directly to Will for assuming his use of a derogatory term). Then, when corrected in the comments, she apologized to those she offended (no one, I don’t think), and asked if it was still fair to say that non-queer people should be careful about the context in which they use the word. I read that as her acknowledging her mistake without conceding that she was 100% wrong. I wish more people reacted as well to criticism.

          • Her apology was shit. I really don’t wish people reacted like that to critisism.

          • Then explain what it was she was supposed to apologize for, and how the apology failed to address it. I understand why it would have been a shitty apology if she made an offensive comment, but she didn’t.

        • I think she had more than enough chances to be “treated charitably”. Her ridiculous reply does not deserve ?anything except scorn.?

          She was given a really great chance to say, “Oh, you know what? These people who clearly have more knowledge and real-world experience in this are telling me something. I should listen. And apologize.”

          She didn’t, though. She gave an, “I’m sorry I offended … but!:

          Oh and the dictionary and internet is toootally lying to her about the word queer, right?

          *eye roll*

          Sorry, dude. Nope. Not buying her apology one bit.

    • Jacob, I agree fully with your first two sentences.
      Coincidentally I was reading the xkcd archives last night and came across this very apt quote from Randall
      “The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics.”
      http://blog.xkcd.com/2010/05/06/sex-and-gender/
      (the whole thing is worth reading in relation to Will’s post)
      I thank Will for taking the time to help educate us. I remember what it is like to write a thesis, and can understand why he may be cranky at times for that reason alone.

  11. Her post came across my RSS first, so I read it this morning. I cringed from the get go. My impressions was it is the product of being out of date, with a heavy side of cis privilege.

    In the second article: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/i-am-not-your-enemy-an-open-letter-to-my-feminist-critics/#more-24937

    I had a problem with this sentence: “He wants to dictate how I use language, yet he uses the word queer, a term most people in the LGBT community consider offensive.”

    It read as very out of touch. For some of us, it’s easier to round up to generic queer than to explain our gender identity might be genderqueer, our sexuality might be more than bi, because we are attracted to men, women, and especially others like us in the non binary gender category.

    Perhaps it’s just my social group, and the online forums I frequent (heavy on the genderqueer there), but the term queer is nice. It’s easy. It’s short. My acronyms are getting so long, LGBTBBQ, that it provides a nice succinct category. Plus, for me at least, I prefer to discuss my gender and sexuality only when it’s germane to the situation I am in. Most folks get the gist of it if I tell them I’m queer. Perhaps I’m too young to remember when that word was problematic to the community as a whole.

    Again, she just reads as out of date.

    • That whole queer thing came across as REALLY out of touch for me, as well. I’m 31 and I identify as queer (in some circles; in others, I just say bisexual, it’s easier). Queer is no longer a dirty word. It’s been taken back, almost entirley, in my opinion. Who uses queer as an insult anymore? No one, really. Whenever I see “queer” used as an insult in literature or whatever, it always seems slightly wrong, at elast coming from my modern perspective. It’s an old-fashioned and out-of-date insult. In my opinion, queern has been totally reclaimed.

  12. Ooh, I think I’ve found something to write for Queereka (I had something but it didn’t work out). Hmm. Need to think about this :)

  13. To be fair, she did apologize for the “queer” part. And personally, speaking as someone who wasn’t completely familiar with this reclamation myself (due to being from a different part of the world), I guess her conclusion is reasonable:

    Is it fair to say that those outside the community should be cautious in applying the word until they have determined whether their interlocutor objects to it or not?

    • Of course you should determine your audience before you use certain terms or identifiers, queer being one of them; though at the same time, I identify as queer, and if someone doesn’t like it, I don’t particularly care (though context does matter and I’m not going to be an asshole about it … but at the same time, don’t be an asshole about how I self-indentify).

      Also, I think it’s JUST as important for people to understand how things have changed and work at understanding how the LGBQT culture and society works together now in 2013. If that makes sense.

      I appreciate her apology, however.

    • The problem with her apology is that Will is not outside the community! Hall incorrectly lectured Will on his use of the word as some sort of attempt to score points, but this isn’t a high school debate class.

      • YES, that too. Thank you for articulating that for me. That also bothered me. WTF? SHE IS TALKING TO ACTUAL QUEER PEOPLE. Why the need to rely totally on the dictionary? Why not like, talk to us?

  14. Lulz: # Harriet Hall: I apologize to anyone who was offended by what I said about using the word “queer.” Unless the Internet and various dictionaries are lying to me, the word is still considered offensive by many people, although others have reclaimed it and embraced it. Is it fair to say that those outside the community should be cautious in applying the word until they have determined whether their interlocutor objects to it or not?

    So she’s willing to address the fact that she’s out of touch with queer terminology with a pseudo-apology, yet all of the cissexist garbage in her original articles stands. Way to miss the point entirely, Dr. Hall!

    • And I gotta say, this is a really shitty way to apologize. “Unless the internet and various dictionaries are lying to me”.

      Oh.

      Guess the vague “internet” and “dictionaries” are more important than, oh, I don’t know …. real people and their experiences.

      It’s very, “I’m sorry I offended, BUT!”

      • Or maybe she could take a look at what’s current in gender studies and see that the word queer is often used in a scholarly context (and is the context that Will used it in this blog post). Her comments on the word queer doesn’t just come off as out of touch, it IS out of touch. Also, last time I checked, most if not all journals are online now. She could have easily had taken a brief look via a university library at the current topics in gender studies and done a search using “queer” as a term (or even just google it!: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=jstor+queer) . The internet might be lying to her because she may be looking at the wrong sources, but her response seems to indicate that she’s too proud to admit when she’s wrong.

        • Not to mention it’s pretty clear on Wikipedia.

        • Something tells me she heard once that queer was a bad word … and so she just went with it. Which would have been fine if she admitted her mistake, instead of trying to cover it up with, “Well, the dictionary and internet told me so!”

          • Really? She was born in 1945, meaning that she was a kid through the 1950′s, and went to college and the military in the 1960′s. You don’t think she ever heard it used as a derogatory term during the time when it was a derogatory term?

            Dr. Hall makes plenty of mistakes that can be corrected. There is no need to invent unsupported facts to manufacture new things for which to be mad at her.

          • Age is not an excuse. Especially when she has plenty of resources. Including Wikipedia.

          • You are moving the goalposts. You went from “she heard once that queer was a bad word” to dismissing her life experiences in one move. She was wrong about the current use of the term, and should never have included it in her argument. Do you really need to pile on more than that?

          • I’m not moving goalposts. My argument and points have remained exactly the same; I was just expanding on something I and Will had said earlier. That said, yes, I’ve repeated myself enough!

        • Absolutely. I just wanted to point out as a faculty member at a tiny college that even online journal access is very, very expensive. It’s not as easy as just walking in to the local library and searching for what you need if you find it hidden behind a paywall. Your point is totally valid, I just wanted to make an addendum :)

  15. Good point.

    • This was in reply to audpicc

  16. I strongly encourage the author and most of the people who have commented to take a breather from the debate and then re-read Hall’s post. I’m reminded of a lesson from intro. to philosophy that is, unfortunately, seldom heeded in when it comes to important topics: when engaging in argument it is more useful to be generous to your opponent by interpreting their statements in the strongest possible way. Doing so serves everyone well. When this is not done, we see smoke and we see fire, but learn little more than how easy it is to set fire to straw. (Or harangue an empty chair.)

    • Two things. First, please don’t assume that I’m raving mad and out of control because I forcefully criticize someone’s position. Apparently they did not teach you about not making assumptions in your intro philosophy course. If you have nothing to say about the substance of my argument but instead choose to focus on my real or perceived tone, please don’t bother commenting here again as you have nothing of value to contribute to this conversation.

      Second, I was being charitable–I could have gone down a much more vicious route. But these arguments are not new, and I have little patience for someone who is 25-35 years behind writing as if they’re on top of it all. Despite her awkward apology, it’s clear that she’s not well read in the sex, gender, and sexuality literature *at all.* Anyone who is would know that queer has been a reclaimed term since the early 90s and there is a whole academic discipline called queer theory that focuses on issues of sexuality. Would she accept someone saying “well, I got my definition of skeptic from the dictionary! There’s no nuance at all behind the meanings of that word!” Of course not. To pretend like the dictionary or an internet search has educated her on the topic enough to tell a queer person not to use the word is audacious to say the least.

      • I sometimes feel like people just really, really, really like lecturing about tone. It is, after all, easier than responding to your actual points!

      • I don’t think the DRoss comment was about the tone of your response. It was about the fact that if you do not give a charitable reading to the post you are dissecting, you are just knocking down strawmen or talking past your audience.

        But then, I’m giving a charitable read to the comment. :)

        • How is he talking past his audience?

          • The hypothetical “you.” “If you …, then you ….”

          • Ahh. Thanks :)

          • No problem. We could all use a little charitable reading now and then. :) And asking for clarification rather than assuming the worst helps us get to the meat of our disagreements quickly and with feelings unhurt.

          • Well, I think the problem came becuase you were talking about their specific arguments, then switched to “general you”.

            But the rest of your comment … I wasn’t really being charitable or asking for clarification, considering I honestly thought you were talking about Will.

    • Oh. Lecturing on tone. How … predictible. Ugh. Maybe you have something worthwhile to actually add?

  17. @ dross2 – I can see how that type of approach would be useful in a purely scientific/intellectual debate. However, when someone insults me, my gender identity, my non-gender-conforming community or does anything else oppressive, it becomes personal. I don’t need to be generous to my oppressors. Its not my responsibility to teach anyone how to be kind or decent. If all Dr Hall learns is to not play with fire, I would call that a victory – I wouldn’t have to listen to any more of her cissexist garbage anymore.

    • Yes. Why aren’t people more generous to Westboro Baptist Church? Or the Catholic Church? Or homeopaths? Or any of the other pet peeves of skeptics and atheists? I’m quite annoyed by this “be charitable” argument and I plan to address that at some point. For now, I’m going to start forming my response to Hall.

      • Not to mention her rather shitty apology re: the queer thing. Maybe if her apology hadn’t been half-assed and hadn’t included a “but!”

        I mean the “unless the internet and dictionaries I read are lying…”

        WTF kind of apology is THAT? In my opinion, she does not seem to agree that “queer” has been reclaimed.

      • Do as you like, and I’m sure you will do quite well defending your views and scoring points with your compatriots. However I think it will be at the expense of an opportunity to be persuasive and educational for those who lack information or who appreciate the need to change their minds.

        • Oh. Do what you like but it’ll be your fault if they don’t listen or change their minds, you asshole!

          • The critique of how someone communicates is often just as valid as the criticism of their content when it comes to the goal of effecting the thinking of the audience. How we communicate matters, and to not recognize this seems absurd. It’s about opportunities and having as big an influence on your audience as possible. Business with great products go bankrupt because of their poor communication skills and I personally would like Will to have as many people listen fully to what he has to say as possible.

          • I guess perhaps I think someone like Hall should just … know better. Or at least try harder.

          • @Jacob I think where your analogy is missing the point is in the power differential. Large companies that fail at communicating have the power in the relationship with consumers regarding the presentation of their goods. Genderqueer and other minority groups do not have the power and have traditionally been defined by others with power, often detrimentally. To say Will is being hostile is to ignore this social power difference between the two groups. It is never the responsibility of the repressed to make sure that those in power and comfortable in the discussion. The whole point of these discussions is to disrupt the existing power balances.

        • I’m currently writing my response and it’s probably nothing like what you are expecting. ;) I’m not saying that I’m going to escalate this to some all-out flame war. But there are some major problems with Hall’s approach and I plan on addressing them.

          • If I didn’t agree with and value what you were saying I wouldn’t have bothered to comment. And while I may be wrong I think much of Hall’s take on this issue is her view through the sticky waste products of culture that even the most conscientious rational thinker can have problems purging from their (our) neurons.

          • Thanks. And I don’t think you’re wrong at all. I think you’re spot on.

  18. Hall seems to be saying that the gender binary, from a medical perspective, is useful because it provides the relevant information most of the time. Is this not true? If it isn’t true, is that because deviations from the binary paradigm happen often enough or for some other reason? (though I am addressing Will, if anyone has some expertise here I appreciate your response too)

    • Is it useful? Sure, that’s true. Is it based in science? No. It is a culturally-biased assumption prevalent in medical practice. As I pointed out, knowing about a person’s sex/gender/sexuality can impact how health care is/should be delivered. By trying to force people into boxes (literally on intake forms) or making assumptions about those things based on appearances, physicians can potentially negatively impact people’s health.

      This is an area where there is a lot of recent research, and I would point interested parties to this report by the Institute of Medicine that is quite enlightening.

      • OK, I see what you are saying. I think maybe this point would have been better served at the beginning of your post rather than end, since it seems to be overarching premise.

  19. I identify as queer, my wife identifies as bi and I have a child who is transgender and do you know what? My family has fundamentalist Christians that we are close to who “get it” better than what I am seeing from Dr. Hall and others in the skeptic community do. I really don’t feel the need to be charitable. If I didn’t have to deal with this kind of ignorance on a daily basis I might feel a little more patient. But seriously, isn’t it at least a little ironic that people who are supposed to be enlightened such as in Dr. Hall’s case, for instance, a medical doctor that is so out of touch that they feel that they can shit all over a subject such like this that even a read of wikipedia on gender could give you a better understanding of gender theory and preferred terminology? And then have fun reading the comments on Dr. Hall’s various articles there. Gross. I could only wish that Dr. Hall notices the correlation between her staunch defenders and downright transphobic comments. Excuse me if I think that way too many people in the skeptic community have their heads so far up their asses that I can only laugh at the idea that these people are dedicated to advanced ways of thinking.

    • Also, thanks Will. I eagerly await your next reply to Dr. Hall.

      • It’ll go up tomorrow late in the morning. ;)

  20. Harriet Hall knows so much about sex and gender that she feels comfortable calling me a “he”.
    Apart from it being incredibly rude to quote people without giving attribution….

  21. I wonder if Dr Hall is aware of the concept of minority stress, since the medical establishment works according to strict rules and processes, so people who don’t fit into the neat reductionist pigeonholes that the system wishes to impose are viewed as being the cause of problems, rather than their plight being viewed the other way round as a fault of the system for failing to be accommodating.
    The medical maltreatment of intersex people thus is a failure of the system to adequately deal with that minority, since 99.x% of people fall into the typical sex binary categories. The medical maltreatment of transgender people thus is a failure of the system to adequately deal with that minority, since a similarly high percentage of people fall into the typical gender binary categories. In both these cases, sex/gender binary normativity allows the system to fall into a trap of viewing each of those oppositions as neat pigeonholes rather than spectrums of difference.
    How that works in practice: presenting as a transgender person, I might have to consult multiple practitioners before I can find one who is prepared to treat me, rather than showing me the door and saying ‘I’m not prepared to treat you for your gender dysphoria’… but apparently that’s my fault for being the square peg, rather than the medical board catering primarily to round pegs and viewing anything out of the ordinary as an irritation or a nuisance to the preferred scheme of things.
    The medical maltreatment of LGBQ people likewise is a failure of the system to adequately deal with people with a non-normative sexual orientation, though thanks to homophobia being less and less acceptable such heterosexism is more frequently being called out for what it is. However, the exact same principle applies, since the last time I looked society was predominantly made up of people in heterosexual relationships and so heteronormativity reigns.

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