The Rule, Not the Exception

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #103, Fall 2003.

by Miqqi Alicia Gilbert

It?s fascinating to sit in an outdoor caf? or pub and watch the people stroll by. It?s just amazing how they vary in height, weight, width, facial shape, body configuration, skin color, eye shape, hair color and quantity, and on and on. Think how rarely we confuse people, how unusual it is to mistake one person for another. It?s so rare that when it happens we?re struck by it, and wonder at the similarity, at how one person can look so much like another. Even when people are the same height and weight, even when they have the same measurements, we know they?re different. This is because there?s an infinite number of variations among people, and when we take them all together those infinite combinations result in individual uniqueness.
All the qualities I listed are visible ones, but the same idea applies to invisible characteristics as well. We all know from watching forensic shows on TV that identities can sometimes be determined by properties invisible from the outside. Dental records, medical history of bone fractures, and so on allow investigators to figure out who is who when no other recourse is available. Sometimes it can be medical information as to the size of someone?s heart, or a misshapen lung. In other words, no part of our bodies are identical: it?s not just our noses that are unique, it?s our stomachs as well.

What I?m suggesting is that each human individual is unique in every respect from every other human individual. Of course, on the large scale (what we call the macro level), we?re very similar. We each have heads, hearts, brains, noses, toes, fingers, and so on. Anyone lacking such a part is either very unusual or dead. On the individual level, the micro level, we?re each very different, and no one is just exactly like anyone else. That?s one reason why there are ranges for ?normal? rather than exact specifications. Your weight, if you?re a certain height and age, should be between something and something else and even then there are different scales. We?re not all the same. If we were, there would be only one dress size and one shoe size (and most likely nothing would fit me right!)

Most of the parts of us that comprise our gender identity aren?t open to public scrutiny. Certainly, some are: facial hair and breasts come to mind as important identifiers. Other visible cues, like hand size and Adam?s apple, are less obvious and less reliable, and even facial hair
and breasts can be misleading. There are many small-breasted women, and some women have substantial facial hair. But most of the gender-determining factors lie out of view. These include our chromosomes, gonads (testes and ovaries), genitals, lactation equipment, urinary systems, certain brain configurations, hormones, and a myriad of other, more technical and less well-known qualities. And what is fascinating is that no two individuals have the identical characteristics that determine their sex and gender. No two people have identical ovaries, penises, hormonal mix, or brain patterns. Everyone falls in a range, in a scale of ?normal? to ?abnormal.?

We say, for example, that someone with 20/20 vision has ?perfect? vision?but what we really mean is they have average good vision??perfect? vision would be more like 20/10 or 20/5. If everyone had 20/40 vision, then that would be normal; signs would be larger, the standard typeface might be 14 point rather than 12, and we would stand closer to people when we talk to them. We know eyesight comes in a wide range, and so we accommodate for it. There are people with exceptional eyesight, and there are people who are blind. In between, a huge number of people ranging from just out of normal to almost blind wear glasses and contacts. When a clothing manufacturer makes blouses, they typically come in everything from XS to XXL. We expect this. We expect people to vary and differ in a multitude of ways.

Except in regard to sex and gender. When it comes to sex and gender, we expect people to belong to one of the two basic categories, depending on their birth-designated sex, and that?s an end to it. It?s nothing like ?strong? and ?weak,? where we know people fall along a continuum and that any number of women are stronger than many men. No, when it comes to this particular category, male/female, man/ woman, there?s little or no latitude. And this is simply wrong. The fact must be that the constellation of properties that determine sex and gender is every bit as variable as those that determine personality, strength, and health. Really, there are millions of people spread all along the masculine/ feminine spectrum, millions with conflicting characteristics that, were we able to catalogue them, would show there are far more categories both used and required than just woman and man.

The best analogies for man and woman, by which I mean to cover both sex and gender, are complex things like strength and health. There?s no such thing as simply strong or simply weak. Football players are strong and tennis players are strong, but each in different ways. You can have weak arms and strong legs, weak hands but strong shoulders, a strong back but a weak heart. There simply is no such thing as just strong or just weak. The same holds for the idea of being healthy: someone who is remarkably fit might have diabetes or an unhealthy heart. The concept is just too complex to be used simply in an intelligent way. The same,
I claim, is true for sex and

Each individual has, first off, a variety of physical components that form a large part of their sexual definition. Each of these components differs from every other in the world, and therefore, is more or less close to or far away from the norm. Because each of these components forms its own range, we?re talking about something far more complex than a continuum. Once we add person-
ality?so we?re covering what we mean by masculine and
feminine?then the complexity increases markedly. What we need at the minimum is a matrix, not a continuum. The idea that there are two and only two sex/gender boxes into which all people must be placed is not simply wrong, it is

I have to stop now, but I?ll have more to say about this in the near future.

A note: My column in Transgender Tapestry #101 seemed to speak to a lot of readers. I appreciate all the
e-mails and comments, and
I?m extremely glad it was
useful. Do keep letting me know you?re out there?it keeps me going. So, please drop a line to
I can?t maintain ongoing
correspondence with everyone, but I always appreciate and acknowledge a letter.