Sex ≠ Gender

By Mathias Maurer, September 2017

I had my first gender experience at the swimming pool.

Simon (3) was running around with nothing on while his two older sisters were wearing a bikini. Simon insisted that he wanted one too. And so it happened. Proudly he showed off his outfit. A little while later an older girl came by and stopped in front of him, as if rooted to the spot. She studied him intensely for a while, carefully looking him up and down. Finally the question burst out of her: “Are you a boy or a girl?” An experience that could serve as an innocent metaphor for the subject of this issue.

Judith Butler, a well-known feminist and philosopher of gender theory at the University of California with her book Gender Trouble, rejects the distinction between sex and gender as biological and social constructs respectively. For this distinction went back to the philosophical view established by Descartes that body and spirit were separate things. But according to Butler, social gender is as much a construct as the biological sex, only the physical possibilities are different, which in turn are interpreted culturally. Here the power of language in particular took on an almost performative quality which created social facts. Butler thus draws attention to the way that our gender identity is defined and passed down socially and through language as far as into our physicality.

On the other hand, femininity does not mean woman and masculinity does not mean man. As soul qualities men also possess femininity and women masculinity. And from the perspective of the spirit there is no difference at all between the sexes. So it is necessary to look at the different aspects of a person in a more differentiated way. A soul disposition does not necessarily entail gender reassignment, a masculine action the charge of chauvinism.

Each person must answer the question as to their own gender identity for themselves. Once an answer has been found, tolerance should rule with regard both to the associated expectations of ourselves and those of others; this also applies with regard to accepting a lack of understanding from others as long as it is not in breach of basic and human rights. Wagging a moral finger – “What, you’re a gender sceptic” – does not get us much further if the majority cannot come to terms with the gender-neutral toilet sign. The protection of minorities is a cultural asset but the majority can do without the wagging finger on this issue.

The gender question is particularly sensitive in a school context since the gender identity of children and adolescents is part of a developmental and discovery process which should be supported without infringing their freedom and yet with some educational guidance. Because being different only becomes alien to us if we experience inner or outer rejection, the refusal to make these developmental spaces available – irrespective of whether sex and gender, what we are biologically and how we feel, coincide.


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