Biology, Sex, Gender… What’s the difference?
I have been interested in engaging with the body and gender identity since my undergraduate research and the beginnings of my career in academia. What is most striking is that, gender, biology and sex all must be treated independently of one another. Why? The main reason is that there is little to no correlation between them, one deals with hormonal, chromosomal and genital identity and the other looks at social construction, personality and performance.
Most of the gender passing individuals relevant to my research – the likes of Harry Stokes, James Allen, Colonel Barker etc. – have all been found as being ‘biologically female’ or described as ‘the perfect woman’. It goes without saying that this is clearly describing their physical genitalia as possessing a vagina and breasts. Although this is extremely primitive today, there must be an acknowledgement that it was only those definitions that were available in the nineteenth century. I do appreciate that Colonel Barker (nee Valerie Irmas Arkell-Smith) was still described as being perfectly female and was only dubbed as being a cross-dresser for financial gains, as he described himself when being released from his first stint in Holloway Jail. As an individual he self-identified as male, but was forced into a female prison with the hopes of feminising his identity for his release in society. Despite Colonel Barker engaging in employment as a farmhand, mechanic and other manual label intensive work, he was given needlework in prison to bring out his womanliness.
I feel as though a lot of the older LGBT generations think that trans* is being forgotten or trans* is being excluded. Of course, we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of accepting and having equality amongst cis, trans* and LGB individuals – story of our lives to be honest. Being a researcher of gender identity in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain I think that trans* history is becoming more prominent, there is an awareness of trans* that I certainly didn’t have when I was growing up in the 1990s. You only need to put the TV on there are fantastic trans* characters on our screens and particularly on British Soaps. For instance, the late Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street was such an early example of trans* character on TV. Then of course you have the big names in America such as the incredibly beautiful Laverne Cox and even closer to home the brilliant Lewis Hancox or the eloquent April Ashley.
I think that it is a confusing period of history currently with the excesses of labels and terminology used for individuals. It must be recognised that not all the terminology used is accessible to every individual. During the Sexing the Past Conference earlier this month I spoke at length with Bisi Alimi and Diana Souhami about the difficulty with labelling and the confusion that is causes to people who are genuinely interested in and willing to understand trans* identity.
One thing that is becoming evident is that there is still a need to self-identify and self-define yourself. Older generations of the trans* community still feel the need to label themselves as a transman or transwoman, yet at the same time they are calling for no stereotyping or labels. I think this is extremely confusing for people not wholly aware of the lives of trans* individuals or trans* histories. Similarly, there are attempts for people the start reclaiming individuals that may have had a trans* identity as we see it today. For instance, although I do not recognise Harry Stokes as a trans* individual, there are some people who would identify him as so regarding his physical appearance, the binding of his breasts, the employment his engaged with and the relationships he shared with women. However, Harry identified as a man and therefore, for me that is the only appropriate terminology used to describe him as an individual.
I am not in any way saying that there is a starting point for trans* history and on the 1st of January 1998 trans* history begun, far from it. What I am saying is that out of respect for the individuals who were unable to identify as trans* or lack the linguistic definitions of trans* then they should be identified as their social identity and how they constructed themselves.
There is a rise in trans* history and there is a need to label and define, categorise and pigeonhole – as always. However, we need to be respectful to the individual we are engaging with. We don’t have the opportunity to talk to them, engage with chromosomal tests, know 100% who they were and how they lived. Instead, we have how they identified through census records, newspapers, marriage certification and important documents. I am pretty sure, that if I started referring to all my case studies as trans* because they dressed as men and identified as male, then the trans* community would be offended (and rightly so) because it is an important identity to those individuals who self-identify and shouldn’t be used spontaneously.
What is important is that the individuals in which I am channelling and researching speaks to me as an individual as a researcher it is my job, I feel, to be respectful to their identity and refer to them as they referred to themselves. Gender is a social construct. Gender is a malleable identity that can be bended, moulded and changed to help self-identification in the world. Unfortunately in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century (where my research stops – for now), biological sex was largely rigid and could not be altered or manipulated.
The main thing we need to be is RESPECTFUL! We need to engage with the individuals we’re researching and understanding and engage with them in how they wanted to be seen in society.