Gore Vidal, the great American writer, passed away on Tuesday. Among his most famous comments was that “There are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts”. His implication: that no person fits perfectly into the socially-constructed categories of ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’; sexuality is a spectrum, and we are all to be found somewhere along it. Likewise, no-one is perfectly ‘male’ or ‘female’; we each exhibit masculine and feminine characteristics to some degree.
This proposition may strike some people as outrageous – clearly, approximately half the population has two X chromosomes and approximately half have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. They may insist that this is what defines males and females. However, even biology is somewhat confused on this point – approximately 4 or 5 in every 100,000 individuals have ‘XX male syndrome’, in which individuals with male genitalia have two X chromosomes. There is no easy sexual division between males and females, as the case of South African runner Caster Semenya demonstrates.
But this biological focus distracts us from a more important retort to gender ideologues:quite simply, ‘why on earth do our chromosomes matter for our choice of clothing, profession or partner?’ Our Western conception of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ is highly contingent on our history and our culture. As perhaps the most glaring example, men are currently commonly regarded in Western culture as having a greater sex drive than women, yet in many areas of Africa it is women who are regarded as sexually-rampant beings whose desire must be arrested at a young age (a belief not uncommon in medieval Europe as well), and so they suffer from the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Hence, it is unsurprising that no individual can fit perfectly into any one gender category at any given time, as these categories bear almost no relationship to our sexual characteristics.
Therefore, as much as Ann Widdecombe insists, in response to the change in sub-fusc regulations, that “in my day, it would have been unthinkable – men were men and women were women”, she is simply deluding herself. All individuals possess some male and some female characteristics; trans-gender individuals simply span the middle of the gender spectrum. Removing the need for them to arbitrarily conform to a given side of the binary should thus be an incredibly liberating move for them, and should be applauded.
On a wider – and somewhat sadder – note, it is telling that newspapers such as the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph lead with the headline ‘Men can wear skirts at Oxford University’, rather than ‘Women can wear suits at Oxford University’. For a woman to assume masculine characteristics – to be a ‘tomboy’ – is acceptable, but for a man to assume feminine characteristics – to be a ‘sissy’ – is outrageous and embarrassing. Clearly, Western culture places greater value on masculine characteristics such as strength and fortitude than on feminine characteristics such as gentleness or sensitivity. This is why the gender binary is harmful to women, as a woman has to ‘be a man’ to command the respect of her colleagues in the workplace, yet women are socialised in such a way that diminishes their desire to assume masculine characteristics.
By changing its dress-codes in favour of greater individual choice, Oxford has taken one small yet positive step towards a world in which one’s arbitrarily defined gender matters less, and one’s individual character matters more.