What if gender is moving towards sex?
Allow me to explain the question…
In 2012, my partner and I were asked by an ultrasound technician if we would ‘like to know the gender of the [future] baby.’ I told her, that she surely means ‘sex.’ (Gender is the social construction of categorical differences, not a biological category). She replied, that they no longer use this word. Instead, they call it ‘born gender’ or ‘gender the baby is born with,’ and I later saw this category in many other NHS documents. The story repeated itself almost accurately in 2016, when we went for another scan for a second baby, and the technician got annoyed when I suggested that a gender cannot be foretold with an ultrasound scan, or, indeed, in any other way. Smart-ass…
In subsequent years, when I taught undergraduates what is gender, (and then theories and case studies), I often started by ‘testing’ their existing knowledge, to see what is their (or the common) understanding of the term, by asking the class, What is gender. The answers were always one of two. Either they would say that sex is the gender your born with, or that gender is the sex you choose. These are, of course, somewhat in the right direction, but mostly wrong, twice. You are not born with a gender, and it is a behavioural, performative social (not chosen) category, and, like sex, it is an epistemological construction.
Gender was coined by social scientists (thanks, Batler!) exactly to detach the traits that are socially associated with genders (masculine, feminine, other) from body predispositions. This allows to understand as well as challenge so much of our hitherto-thought-of-as-natural behaviours, and change them too.
In this brief note, I would like to ponder the lingual epistemological meaning of the popular etymology unfolding in front of our eyes and ears in the above examples. About the way gender and sex are gravitating towards each other in popular un/wisdom, as refusing to obey the post linguistic-turn belief that a new language can construct a reality and modifies norms. In popular use, gender seems like something you’re born with/into, (and therefore it is called in the NHS born gender), and you, the individual, have the power to willingly change it. Both notions are problematic, and are contrary to the social theory that invented them: the former erases the difference gender created from sex, and the latter, removes society and makes gender ‘a choice’ of the individual/subject, not a discursive thing. Likewise when gender is said to be a chosen sex (which, erm, it is to an extent in transsexualism, not transgenderism perhaps, and either way is less relevant for explaining gender, and probably not what they mean when they say it).
The point is, from a social-linguistic perspective, not to correct the entire society and force our ‘better’ understanding of a reality, but to ask about the direction language is heading. Put simply, I wonder what the fluctuations in these terms mean. (1-) About the roles popular etymology plays in shaping the terms, outside the social sciences. And (2-) as an example for the way language does not necessarily modify norms, but norms also have their way of pleading existing terms to fill lexical gaps.