Beyond biological sex

Newsweek announces the growing visibility of transgenderism.

Published May 14, 2007 7:54PM (EDT)

Catching a glance of this week's Newsweek cover -- featuring a wide-eyed baby next to the headline "The Mystery of Gender" -- I guarded myself, expecting to find the whole of scientific literature on the differences between men and women reduced into a breezy beach read. Curiously, though, the issue actually focuses on the increasing visibility of transgender Americans. It seems Newsweek played it safe with the cover -- after all, a cover featuring a beautiful transgender woman might have been too unnerving to Middle America. (The magazine's Web site, however, features a slide show of transgender Americans.) So don't be misled -- while the issue touches on the dilemmas facing parents with kids who aren't attracted to gender-"appropriate" play or dress, it's much more about adults who have redefined their gender later in life.

Most of the Newsweek package will be old news to Broadsheet readers. But it introduces the interesting argument that, culturally, gender may be quickly going the way of sexuality and transitioning from black-and-white to gray scale (or, maybe, Technicolor). "The old categories that everybody's either biologically male or female, that there are two distinct categories and there's no overlap, that's beginning to break down," Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at SUNY at Stony Brook, told Newsweek. "All of those old categories seem to be more fluid." As famed feminist scholar Judith Butler puts it, "Gender is a way of making the world secure." (In other words, Middle America has every reason to feel unnerved.)

The biggest take-away from this Newsweek issue is that the fluidity of gender, and how it stands apart from biological sex, are becoming harder and harder to ignore -- and not just in lefty circles, either. Take NASCAR champion J.T. Hayes, who left the racing circuit to become Terri O'Connell. Or Steve Stanton of Largo, Fla., who announced his desire to redefine himself as a woman and lost his job as city manager. (Now known as Susan Stanton, she will lobby this week for antidiscrimination laws.) My minor quibble with the cover choice aside, it's safe to say, once something appears on the cover of Newsweek, it has been officially entered into America's cultural lexicon -- and that's certainly something.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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