by Silvia Soannini
The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, of which the name survives but nothing else… because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth(1)
In addition to describing the well-known theory of erotic love, Plato’s Symposium also contains a more hidden but well-defined theory of genders: in Plato’s subtle symbolism the genders are three.
The word Gender, which is also the title of this essay, is nothing else but one of the English translations of the Italian word ‘genere’. But it’s the English translation ‘gender’ which is central subject of the current debate.
As the focus has shifted from the word ‘genus’ to the word ‘gender’, this topic has been put under the spotlight of media and of the public debate, as if the simple use of a different translation choice was enough to give new meanings, to evoke symbols and to trigger struggles around an issue (i.e. the condition of being human: male and female, as God created them) which had remained silent, almost anonymous, over thousands of years.
Something has changed in our Western society, and this change has occurred to such an extent that the two opposing views have become radicalized: those same factions that did not even exist until a few decades ago now need a specific word, which is not immediately understandable (Translator’s Note: by the Italian people, because the English word is used instead of a proper Italian term), in order to underline the fact that something new is happening and this something deserves an important name which can evoke all fears and hopes at stakes: Gender.
Up until a few decades ago humanity lived with the certainty that the genders, male and female, were determined at birth, or as soon as the biological sex of the newborn was evident.
For centuries no one ever thought that a human individual could ‘possess’, feel, put at the center of the discussion a gender different from the one assigned by nature.(2)
In 1949 French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (3) writes her first treatise The Second sex (Original title: Le deuxième sexe). Simone de Beauvoir is maybe the first philosopher in history to say explicitly that ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, in other words, she claims that family upbringing, tradition, family history and social circumstances of a community heavily influence the formation of male and female gender.
caring for children, preferences for pink, and masculine characteristics according to which men make war, hunt and prefer the colour blue were natural for everyone. It was believed that those masculine and feminine characteristics were a natural consequence of the biological sex determined at birth: as a consequence, sex coincided with gender. Many people are still convinced of this, and this conviction is leading to quite a few frictions in our society. But, even those who think that this is an old belief no longer valid do not seem to have clear ideas.
The main reason for this article is not the desire to immediately create clarity but rather to foster a debate with our readers in order to help all of us to get a clearer picture at the end of this journey, even by overturning the hypothesis of this essay.
Simone de Beauvoir and all the feminist debates of the 1970s and 1980s, which were always focused on the construction of male and female genders on behalf of the culture of reference, messed up the balance of the game and the players themselves, who are now playing a new game on a new playground, not knowing the rules well: they realize they have changed, but they do not know how and why.
We are not claiming that those books, those faraway debates are the cause of the change that is taking place: they are so only in part, but they are also the mirror of our society.
First of all it should be said that the current debate on gender – loaded with meaning, right claims and opposition to such an extent that we Italian have to use a foreign word so that it can exist and be designated — is the product not only of the feminist theory but also of the theories of the anthropologists who travelled all across the world and reached the most remote and unknown parts where they met populations in which the roles of men and women were diametrically opposed to what in our world was considered to be natural and common knowledge: those thinkers, who are sons of the twentieth century, contributed to our current way of feeling. But this change is also the result of psychoanalysis and of the development of psychology that investigated the deepest and most hidden parts of our souls: Doctor Freud and others after him were able to wring these remote and hidden parts out of our souls, even those which we would not even dare to reveal to ourselves, let alone to others.
Heir and companion of this melting pot of stories and thoughts but also of tales and myths is a new way of feeling, a new way of looking at the world and at ourselves, with our experiences, with our identities and biographies, more or less accomplished: Gender has come to public attention and has grabbed the headlines. The gender issue is being discussed by the traditional media, on social networks, in public debates, with documentaries and interviews all over the world.
Let’s try to understand what’s happening, step by step.
The gender issue intervenes in the central, fundamental and most delicate part of our Western world, that is children and adolescents’ upbringing and education, and thus having a major and revolutionary impact. Gender explodes, breaks the mould, shatters those commonly known beliefs which were deemed to be immutable, as it requests to be recognised and mentioned within the education system par excellence along with the family: school system.
This must be our starting point in order to understand the exceptional nature of the process we are currently undergoing, prior to parliaments and laws on civil unions, which, by the way, are more focused on the sexual preference rather than the gender.
We ask our school system a new educational approach aimed at treating genders in a way different from the practice to date. We ask our school system to revolutionize itself and the world, to trigger a new Copernican revolution which is absolutely unprecedented in the history of humankind.
The education system as we have known it so far is the bone of contention and we must start out from here if we want to understand the significance of what is happening to us.
The two opposing positions competing for supremacy in the school system, in other words aiming at influencing the formation of future adults and of our future society, are the following:
Position 1: Gender is something natural, it’s determined by the biological sex. But let’s go beyond: gender coincides with sex and it is something that our society has always taught us. The lessons we have learnt mirror nature, the essence of being a woman and a man. Women love pink and take care of their children, whereas men love blue and go hunting. A boy wearing a pink shirt is still something that instils feelings of fear and suspicion. Of course this is a simplification, but it is not so far from reality. The first position, which I’ll call the conservative one for the sake of convenience, believes that there is a real Gender Theory which is trying to undermine the nature of things, the genders and the roles assigned by nature, or maybe by God.
Position 2 – opposed to the first one. Gender does not necessarily coincide with the sex we were given at birth. A direct consequence is the belief that the roles of gender we have been taught aren’t eternal nor ‘natural’. This view derives from Freud and his friends, as I mentioned before.
The second position, which I’ll call the progressive one always for the sake of convenience, denies the existence of a specific Gender Theory and strongly believes that nature has always been something different from the one we thought: we simply need to recognize this nature and free it. This is the substance of the discussion, more or less consciously.
My working hypothesis is this: the Gender Theory does not exist, but it is wrong to focus on the issue of ‘nature’ or ‘naturalness’ of each viewpoint.
What is happening is rather a shift in the way we live and feel within our societies, this is something that demolishes the idea of genders and above all the way the roles of genders have been taught and transmitted in schools so far. In concrete terms, the immediate result of this quantum shift could be that our children are now taught at school that pink is not the colour of girls and blue is not the colour of boys but the medium- and long-term effects of it don’t seem clear to the progressive positions either.
This is not simply about the nature of things, this very nature that some people would maintain while others would ‘reveal’: at stake is a seismic change in how we see ourselves, our personal experiences and the world around us — for the moment not all of us experience and feel this change but it is certainly taking place and it is similar to a slowly-propagating and irresistible wave, being its unstoppability the hidden reason of many fears and hopes (and this hypothesis of mine will have to be examined, shared, declined but never passively accepted by you, who are now reading this page).
This is a transition from a culture of reference that used to define the roles of men and women within society with a well-known approach to a new culture that redefines these roles: it not only redefines the roles, but it also shifts the boundaries of personal identities by stopping taking into account female and male roles passed down by culture and education system for thousands of years and by not considering the sexual characteristics crucial for defining the identity of a person.
Many young people, especially in the Western world but not only there, are broadening the discussion on gender and are going beyond the boundaries of the culture passed on thus far and beyond the boundaries of the biological sex.
The headway in comparison with feminist and anthropological theories is that not only is the man and woman’s role dictated by society rejected but the powerful influence of sex on determining these social roles and on creating personal identities is put in doubt for the first time. The female sex is physically weak and capable of giving life whereas the male sex is physically strong and capable of impregnating women: roles are determined according to this assertion, but also the identity of Silvia and the identity of John.
In her essay Mather, Father and Gender (original title: Mamma, PapÃ e Gender) Italian philosopher Michela Marzano, interested in the debate on family upbringing, gives an explanation of the term QUEER at the end of her dissertation.
Queer: literally “strange”, “bizarre”, “odd”. Since the 1990s it was originally meant to describe those who claim the right to live outside the traditional categories of sex and gender. In 1990 Italian philosopher Teresa de Lauretis was the first person to combine the term queer with the term “theory”. In its most radical form, the queer theory tends to minimize and sometimes also to deny the anatomical and physical basis for sex differences, thus running the risk that little attention is paid to the importance of the body and the embodied existence of a person. (*)
(*) Translator’s note: in Italy this term had never been a derogatory word to describe homosexuals, for this reason there are some differences in the way it has been used in Italian scholarly studies as well as in this essay.
This is what I think about the term queer: it is everywhere: it is not a marginal issue at the end of a dissertation, nor is it a theory by some people, even if it is as a theory that it appears in its most exaggerated form. It is the central part of our personal history, not yet recognized by any of the opposing positions always trying to defend/reveal a nature ‘which has always been this way’: queer is the new way of feeling, a brand new one, which, in turn, clarifies the other term that has often been used as a sort of ‘flag’ although it has little significance. We all know the common genders taught to us by history and transmitted through education. And what more does the English word ‘Gender’ give in comparison to the Italian word “genere”, if not the banality of an English word, maybe just a little bit cooler?
Queer is English, but it doesn’t translate anything, it cannot be translated with any other words but itself, it has its specific meaning, a new one, which helps us to become clear in our minds about what’s going on.
Queer is a way of feeling, rooted in an underground and hidden story and then in a more visible story of studies, ant yet it is totally new, unexpected, unprecedented and for this reason unstoppable. It’s the unspoken of the debate that involves the issue of education, it feeds our fears, resistance and hopes. It asks for a position – it hopes for it – which doesn’t seem to have clear ideas on an unprecedented cultural revolution involving the sense and boundaries of humanity. Queer is the third planet obscured by Plato, the moon, which had to wait many years and today it can finally find a humanity ready to revolutionize itself.
We believe that the term queer produces a shift of meaning in comparison to genere/Gender and it is shedding light on a submerged world that is re-emerging: no more theory — Gender — but rather concrete facts, a revolution in the way we feel and experience ourselves and our identity.
Let’s go further: There aren’t only philosophical theories, there is also science.
In recent years we have the most advanced technical possibility to modify our body and mind thanks to surgery, chemical drugs and hormone-based treatments, and this is the most exhibited and scandalous part of this cultural and anthropological revolution: surgical and medical procedures contribute to this change in the way we feel, and this, like all revolutions, has a very strong impact. Our personal identity, thanks to which we are able to recognize ourselves and to tell ‘ok, it’s me’, is getting used to this change, as it is longing to modify its skin and what is beneath: temptation and desire to modify ourselves according to the image of ourselves that we love and want. We are talking about a humanity that is more and more fluid, in which culture and childhood education must grant freedom and allow people to exercise the right of self-determination, in which biology does no longer create an obstacle to the possibility of being ourselves, as we want.
This won’t lead us all to a sex reassignment surgery, as the conservative position believes: we must give the utmost consideration to the fact that there is a marked increase in the percentage of people who have a transgender experience, which many of us still marginalize as something far away from us – and I am the first to do so — but this isn’t the core issue, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Many people fear that we will all become transsexual, this fear must be dispelled not because of transphobia but for intellectual honesty: the trans-man or trans-woman is the mirror of a perception and of a way of feeling that allow us to choose our own identity without being linked to established roles and, as a last resort, there is also the possibility to undergo sex reassignment surgery. This extreme body modification won’t be for everybody and not everybody will long for it, but the awareness that there is such an opportunity contributes to the perception of a greater freedom in determining our own personal identity and re-determining it even several times during our lifetime.
This new cyber-cultural imagery that we are experiencing will have a great impact in determining the future society in which we will live and this is the reason why the school system plays by far the most important role in this revolutionary process which will generate a new humanity, as always happens when a revolution takes place. We cannot say now if this new humanity will be better or worse than the one we have met so far. For sure it will be different.
(1) Plato, Symposium, translated by Benjamin Jowett from Collected Works of Plato, 4th Edition, Oxford U. Press, 1953 p 520
(2) The Danish Girl. Set in the 1920’s Copenhagen, this movie tells the story of one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery. It’s one of the first movies to contribute to a new way of feeling and living the gender, which we will later call ‘queer’.
(3) In 1929 de Beauvoir began a relationship with French existentialist philosopher Sartre, and remained his partner for more than 50 years.
Illustration by ManuelaCh