I am nosy about a lot of things, most of them deeply petty. I have confronted fellow passengers who are misusing overhead luggage space, and I will gossip for 47 minutes about the wedding of a couple I’ve never met, and the amount to which I don’t mind my own business is astonishing. But I cannot, cannot manage to care what genitalia is between other humans’ legs, and I cannot understand those who do.
Like, the government. The Department of Health and Human Services apparently does care what’s between people’s legs because, according to a proposal leaked over the weekend, it’s considering limiting the definition of gender to two irrevocable options: male and female. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence,” read the memo, according to the New York Times, which first reported it.
Transgender activists were devastated by the news, which sounded, frankly, Orwellian: The government was declaring it would determine people’s genders “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” Administrable?
All sorts of smart scientists wrote essays about the absurdity of hypothetical genetic testing, and how it didn’t take intersex individuals into account, and how there are genetic syndromes that cause, for example, people with XY chromosomes to have female genitalia.
The scientific argument against this proposal is, I’d argue, only half of it. Last week Sen. Elizabeth Warren triumphantly released her DNA tests, showing a small percentage of Native American ancestry, a stunt that was deservedly criticized. The assumption that a slim fragment of genomes is what makes someone Cherokee or Delaware is ridiculous. Can a scientific cheek swab overrule culture, history, experiences and personal struggles?
What, exactly, are we hoping a genetic test of gender would clarify? Why would it be so important for someone’s identity to be “administrable,” and for their gender to be either/or?
I don’t mean for these questions to be rhetorical or even provocative. I am asking this sincerely: What do we hope that permanently and irrevocably assigning a gender, seconds after clipping the umbilical cord, would accomplish? Safety? Certainty? For the baby or the grown-ups?
Because I somehow cannot manage to care whether anyone changes their gender identity. Regardless of their reasons, regardless of their genomes, I just do not understand why their identity would affect my own. After 30-plus years using public restrooms throughout 48 states and 22 countries, many of them unisex, the only scary people I’ve encountered are the ones who don’t wash their hands.
I don’t mind having to keep track of new pronouns. Women get married and change their names all the time. Kids named Bobby grow up and suddenly want to be Roberts. We roll with all of that, and do the best we can, and when we mess up, we apologize and try to do better.
I cannot fathom why we don’t want to do better for the people around us. Why, in cases where it costs us nothing, we are not choosing kindness. Why, when so many things about life are innately difficult, we can’t allow people to claim the identities that would make their lives easier.
The most charitable interpretation for the government’s proposal is that we humans, as a species, have a need to organize things, and put them in categories. That we are uncomfortable with the unknown, and uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. That our aversion to this is so strong that we would rather ask unspeakably rude questions to strangers — So, are you a boy or a girl? So, who’s the wife in your same-sex relationship? — than accept that there are things we don’t need or deserve to know.
What if we allowed ourselves to remain uncomfortable? What if, instead of looking at other humans as something to be categorized, we saw in them a chance to appreciate the vastness of humanity?
This gender-limiting proposal is nauseating not because it limits the vastness, but because it pretends that limiting is even possible. It pretends people don’t exist. That’s what repressive regimes have done. The government of Belarus, angered by the display of a pride flag, issued a statement in May claiming same-sex relationships are “fake.” A few years ago, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed students at Columbia University that, “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals.” (An aide later claimed he meant Iran simply didn’t have as many as America.)
Erasing a gender option on a government document does not mean the identity doesn’t exist. It just means we live in a world that seems to have a little more order. It’s false order, though. Why would we even want that?
Because ultimately, this proposal has nothing to do with what’s between anyone’s legs. It has to do with how much pain we’re willing to inflict on others to be comfortable in our own minds. It has to do with what’s between our ears.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society.