Universiteit Leiden

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Rosemary Ketchum

Man, woman and more: 'Why does my passport have to say I'm a woman?'

Protests against textbooks on trans persons in America and against a reading hour by drag queens in Rotterdam: it has been raining protests recently against people with a gender expression that does not match their birth sex. Why does this evoke such resistance? We asked Professor by special appointment Annemie Halsema.

As associate professor, Halsema's work includes gender. 'What I always find very problematic about gender is that it is determined at birth on the basis of external sexual characteristics,' she begins. 'Biological research shows that the gender dichotomy we create is really a cultural and historical fact. The bodies it is about are much more pluralistic. As a foetus develops, sexual characteristics and genitalia gradually emerge, as well as hormones and organs that secrete hormones. Variation can occur in all these stages of development.'

Essence under threat

The big difference we think we see between male and female is therefore, in her opinion,  mainly a social construct. 'If you compare two babies, there are a huge number of differences. One cries louder than the other, one has more hair, the other is taller. But the main difference we immediately attach to those bodies is the male-female difference. We subordinate all other characteristics to it.'

'By making the binary division into men and women biological, we have come to regard it as an essence of our existence.'

The resulting distinction between men and women is so compelling that it seems almost impossible to deviate from it. 'By making the binary division into men and women biological, we have come to regard it not only as normal, but also as an essence of our existence,' Halsema explains. As a result, anyone who deviates from it can be perceived as a threat to that essence. 'If you identify yourself as a woman, you probably see people with whom you share certain traits as women too. When one of them then starts to name themselves differently, it can feel like a violation of your identity. You feel as if natural boundaries are being crossed, which can cause some insecurity.'

More words for more possibilities

According to Halsema, it can help in cases like this if society places less emphasis on gender distinctions, starting with language. 'As the linguistic opportunities for people to identify themselves become greater, it’s also easier to identify in a different way. My students argue for that too. They want different words for women, for men, precisely so that people have more possibilities for shaping their identity. In the end, this may perhaps create a third category alongside male and female. Of course, you’ll still have a lot of differentiation, just as you have now between men, for example.'

By expanding language beyond the male-female binary, Halsema hopes that categorisation will eventually become less important. 'You might ask why we need these categories at all. Why does it have to be written in my passport that I am a woman? We have body scans and fingerprints these days, so we don't really need that binary distinction anymore, do we?'

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