In the Captain America comic series, Steve Rogers starts out as a puny young man imbued with an indomitable fighting spirit. When Rogers fails a fitness test for the Army, a scientist with a super-soldier serum pities him and administers a treatment that gives Rogers the superlative male body needed to match who he is on the inside.
The Captain America myth is just one manifestation of an ethos one sees all over the world. Many traditional cultures constantly push men to be more manly and women to be more womanly. Traditionalists encourage their boys and men to “man up” and their girls and women to exaggerate their feminine and female characteristics through makeup, rigorous shaving regimes, and demure deportment.
At the same time, these groups typically recoil in horror at transgender people. They argue that trans folk are confused, need to accept who they are, or don’t appreciate that God doesn’t make mistakes. These are the same people who would find no problem cheering on Steve Rogers’ transformation—or their own at the gym and salon.
The irony can be appreciated if we stop seeing sex and gender as binaries. Gender and sex researchers have argued for decades now that we should see sex and gender as spectra. This supports our everyday impression that the categories of man and woman encompass immense variation: effeminate boys and men are nonetheless boys and men, and masculine girls and women are nonetheless girls and women. A wide middle of the gender spectrum is increasingly recognized as being populated by people who are neither boys or men nor girls or women, but genderqueer.
Whereas gender concerns psychology and societal presentation, sex is determined by the biological characteristics that make one a male or female: sex chromosomes, mammary glands, sexual organs, and a host of secondary sexual traits. Like gender, sex was once assumed to be binary. However, some biologists have argued to great effect that the phenomenon of intersexuality demonstrates a missing middle between male and female. Intersexuality includes (among many other things) an insensitivity/non-production of sex hormones, hermaphroditism, micropenis, clitoromegaly (large clitoris), chimerism, and various syndromes caused by having extra sex chromosomes (XXY or XYY).
Although our attention has been focused on the minority at the middle of the spectra, we mustn’t forget the minority at the extremes, either: the hypermale, hyperfemale, hypermasculine, and hyperfeminine folk around us. What defines these people? Roughly, take whatever makes someone a (fe)male instead of an intersex person, and add more of those traits: in the case of males, for instance, more pronounced brows, wider shoulders, and yes, bigger penises are all ways that one can be more than average male. When it comes to gender, take the traits (be they socially or biologically grounded) that make one a (wo)man instead of genderqueer, and ratchet those up a few notches, too.
Now one would think we are morally obligated to accept hypergender and hypersex people’s psychologies and bodies to the same extent as we do everyone else’s. But we don’t, especially in progressive circles. For instance, pro-trans advocates successfully lobbied against the DSM IV’s Gender Identity Disorder, which most readers will agree wrongly pathologized transgenderism. But it is difficult to see why similar objections don’t apply to the clinical meaning of “hypermasculinity,” which is characterized by (inter alia) a propensity to violent outbursts, a sense of male superiority, and homophobia. Or consider how Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolf recently claimed that the “extreme end of masculinity” promotes rape culture. If it was wrong for society to connect vices such as cowardice or child predation to people manifesting around the center of the gender spectrum, how can we justify literally defining an extreme end of the gender spectrum in terms of rape? Obviously, a sense of male superiority or a propensity for rape is bad. But these vices shouldn’t be seen as essential to a gender. Surely hypermasculinity is expressible in a variety of morally acceptable ways.
Nor can we uncritically dismiss the drive to be more masculine, feminine, male- or female-bodied as explained by pernicious enculturation making us miserable with who we are, as filmmaker and author Jackson Katz argues. How many conservatives and traditionalists dismiss trans celebrities—and sometimes their own children—as brainwashed or confused by a gender-bending culture?
Perhaps the increased interest in gender and/or sex exaggeration is paralleling the increased interest in transgenderism because people in general are feeling freer to find themselves on the sex and gender spectra. Or what if—and here’s a thought—all these gender-exaggerators aren’t just like trans folk, but are trans themselves?
Think about it: if we take the (say) sex spectrum seriously, then we can divide the sex spectrum into (say) ten sexes, ranging from hypermale (1) to hyperfemale (10). Suppose you have a male who’s 4-bodied, but psychologically sees himself as a 7 and longs for a body to match. We’d say this person is trans. We suggest that his doppelganger who aches to be 1-bodied is trans, too, since that transition is just as extreme. Similar thoughts apply to gender: if adopting a gender significantly different from the one you’ve been given is trans in one direction, it should be trans in the other direction, too, if the change is just as substantial.
Seeing things this way reveals that many progressive trans allies are just as inconsistent as traditionalists and conservatives. We not only shouldn’t demean those who find themselves to be hypergender or hypersex, but we shouldn’t discriminate against those who aspire to be these things, either. Yet we do. For instance, progressives often like mocking men who drive big trucks or tote guns as compensating for small penises, but they would never poke fun at a trans man who did those things, even if he had no penis to compensate for.
Our discrimination against trans exaggeration also shows up in our laws. In most English-speaking countries, one can take hormone treatments to transition across the middle of the sex spectrum. But a regular male-bodied person who wishes to have a hypermale body that matches his self-conception cannot legally take “recreational” steroids on the grounds that they are “unnecessary and dangerous.” Never mind that millions of boys and men find them essential to making their bodies match their minds, or that their dangers somehow aren’t decisive when it’s a female-to-male transitioning person taking them.
Thus both sides of the political spectrum have a lot to learn about gender freedom. Recognizing transgenderism as moving significantly not only across the middle, but toward the extremes, of the sex or gender spectra makes clear that those of us who consider ourselves trans allies must accept gender exaggeration and hypergender/hypersex individuals. On the other side of the ledger, those traditionalists who condemn transgender folk need to consider whether their attitudes are really as anti-trans as they think.