“I don’t ever want to hear the word ‘gender’ again.”

One of the early flagship transexuals said this to me in private conversation. I did not press for more explanation as the situation was a delicate one, but in fact, “gender” is a kind of will o’ the wisp that floats free of our bodily lives in a way that can be unsettling and open to manipulation.

It can vary not only from person, but from mood to mood. A bisexual friend of mine, subsequently happily married to a strong woman, alternated between machismo and effeminacy – a side of himself he sometimes exaggerated for comic effect.

A person’s biological sex is stable and discoverable by clear scientific tests. It is imbedded in every cell in our bodies – in our chromosomes. Our sexual organs and bodily structure are bound up with it, including our brain and muscular structure.

“Gender” is a term that denotes what different individuals and societies make of sexual difference. It has to do with “masculine” and “feminine.” Different societies have different understandings of what behaviours are thought to be appropriate to men or to women. Given how important sexual difference is to us (since they are bound up with both sexual behaviour and reproduction), people care deeply about their masculinity or femininity and their feelings are sometimes conflicted.

It used to be that the fit between a child’s sex and that child’s behaviour was allowed to be fairly loose. A friend of mine grew up a “tomboy”. When the teachers said, “boys go over there and girls over here” she used to go with the boys. But at menarche, when her hormones kicked in, she realized she was indeed a girl, and began to feel and act in more “feminine” ways.

And boys who did not take to “masculine” activities like football were not necessarily condemned. There were other ways they could excel – they could run the school newspaper, or play chess or some such thing. Although, in my experience, boys had less leeway here. A boy who wrote poetry, for example, was considered a “sissy” and sometimes drifted toward homosexuality, thinking he wasn’t a “real man.”

Being female, I had to wrestle with what counted as feminine. And as feminists have pointed out, the roles expected of me sometimes felt confining. For, example, I could not ask a boy to go to a dance with me but had to wait for him to call. My mother wanted me to be a “girly” sort of girl who liked to wear pretty dresses and curl my hair and so on, while I preferred clothes that were comfortable and allowed me to do things like climbing trees.

Masculine and feminine sometimes take on a kind of cosmic or spiritual meaning, as in the yang and yin of Taoism. Goethe’s Faust said “the eternal feminine leads us above” and Dante’s Beatrice had this sort of role.

Sometimes women are cast in less exalted roles – women as sexual temptresses, pulling men down from the spiritual heights into the flesh. Victorian women were cast in the role of “angel in the house” and encouraged to be delicate and dependent. The good Jewish wife in the book of Proverbs was extremely strong and enterprising, running a small business and caring for the poor. There are some cultures in Africa where women are expected to do the heavy agricultural labour.

So what are we to make of “gender?”

It is clear that boys and girls sometimes feel drawn to behaviours not taken to be appropriate to their sex in whatever culture or subculture they grow up in. We all need to make our peace in some way with the culture that surrounds us. Realizing how culturally relative conceptions of “masculine” and “feminine” are may help free us from the tyranny of other people’s expectations.

The boy who writes poetry may find consolation looking at the role of the gentleman scholar in Chinese culture, and the fact that had he been born there, he would be fully accepted and affirmed as a man. Or King David, fierce warrior though he was, also wrote psalms and poetry.

“Gender” and sex are, of course, connected, in that gender has to do with the meaning we attach to sexual difference, and not to just any difference between individuals. And those who conform to the prevailing cultural stereotypes of masculine and feminine will find it easier to attract mates.

But the problem for those who feel themselves to be not really men or not really women because they don’t conform to these stereotypes is that the ideal they have for what it is to be masculine or feminine is culturally relative and sometimes even silly.

My mother-in-law once interviewed a lot of transvestites for a newspaper story and observed that the idea they had of being feminine was that of being a “lady” in the generation of their mothers. So also with other highly local cultural stereotypes of “femininity.”

We must not conclude that because gender roles are variable, that our sexual identity is also variable. In chasing after some particular will-o-the wisp concept of femininity or masculinity by surgery and hormones, we are throwing away something stable for the sake of something that cannot anchor us in our bodily reality.

Celia Wolf-Devine is a retired philosophy professor. See her blog Progressive, Pro-Woman, Pro-life.

Celia Wolf-Devine is retired from her position teaching philosophy at Stonehill College. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA with her husband Phil Devine, who is also a retired philosophy professor....