Calling Ourselves Things; or, In Which I Turn a Statistic Into Wishy-Washy Po-Mo Identity Politics

In the theme I appear to have been developing recently of “Let’s take something I read on the intertubes and use it as an excuse to have an entirely different conversation,” Bilerico pointed out a statistic that, sadly, does not surprise me at all: “While women make up 14 percent of Army personnel, 46% of those discharged under DADT in 2007 were women.”

The saga of Caster Semenya tells us that women who do not behave in “womanly” ways—e.g. by displaying leadership, athletic prowess, skill in combat, fearlessness, or being good at things—wind up having their femininity and their sexuality questioned. In a world that frequently equates gender identity and expression with sex and/or sexual orientation, that questioning could take the form of suspicion about sexual orientation (and subsequently being fired for it), or suspicion about sex and gender (and subsequently having your name, reputation, and career dragged through the mud for it).

I don’t know whether our society will ever come to adopt a model of gender that doesn’t depend on two essentialist categories that have associated with them not only additional expectations with regard to sexual orientation and behavior, but also the notion that one essentialist category represents a higher moral good than the other. It seems impossible that Western society (and many of the societies by which it’s been more recently influenced), which has operated on this model for so long, should change now. But until and unless it does, our headlines will be wracked with these kinds of accusations. Caster Semenya is not really a woman! That Army officer is not really a woman!—but for entirely different reasons that have more to do with how our culture views sexual orientation than with how it views sex. The problem, though, is that over the past few decades it’s proven remarkably difficult to unravel the public’s perceptions of gender and sexuality and all these other forms of identification from one very muddled-up ball of yarn.

For the sake of being able to say “I told you so,” I predicted that Semenya’s battery of tests would result in an intersex diagnosis from the start. But whatever that may mean for Semenya and her sense of identity, identifying as a “girl” or a “woman” is her sole right, something completely apart from whichever internal organs she may or may not have. So is it anyone’s right to identify themselves with whatever sexual orientation labels they wish—only you know who you are. No one else should be able to make that decision for you.

That decision becomes a non-decision when it means being faced with exile from a community of international athletics predicated on a rigid gender binary. And as readers of this blog should well know, it becomes a non-decision when, particularly if you serve in the U.S. armed forces, your career and family life may depend on what you say or what you allow other people to say about you.

Can we force our culture to grant us the right to call ourselves what we please—or, more radical yet, to call ourselves nothing at all?

(cross-posted)

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