In my post “Working Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality,” I used the words “natural” and “naturally” to describe something I don’t subscribe to. When I was explaining my thoughts included there to a friend at work, he got me thinking how I’m using those words.
Natural can refer to socially constructed things, because no one exists outside of social relations. In that sense, all that humans do is natural. Even the prisoner in solitary confinement has food brought to him or her; social relations do not have to include words. They simply infer what one does not do oneself. So I may cook my own food, but Walmart workers stocked shelves, from materials transported by truck and train, from materials worked on a farm, from seed and antibiotics administered by farmers, bought from corporations, produced from still more materials, etc. While all that involves many steps, it is natural in the sense of humans produce and consume socially.
I do not mean natural in that way, however. What I am reacting against is “essentialism.” This word (essentially, ha!) carries the idea that if an object or concept is called by something, then it must contain all elements of the definition, or else not be that. Take the word “human” or anything having to do with humanity. One-size-fits-all definitions tend to leave out a lot of human phenomena. If humans are featherless bipeds, do persons who are quadriplegic qualify as humans? If humans are meaning-making animals, are people in comas or vegetative states nonhuman? If women are defined functionally by having the ability to bear children, do women who cannot bear children (or just don’t) not qualify as women?
To the person who says we need definitions in place to have a conversation, I will agree. But I think definitions need to be working definitions to deal with living data. If my definition does not capture all that is human, I need to interrogate the usefulness of my definition. Definitions necessarily leave something out, but how much do they leave out (or how far are they inclusive?) before they cease to be useful? I also think definitions need to be brought into discussion rather than just thrown around as if they have innate meaning. African-Americans and white Americans many times mean completely different things with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” until they discuss their situatedness.
Speaking of situatedness, I am aiming in my writing for more concreteness. My same friend asked me what percentage of people are born gay. I don’t think we’re born anything because we haven’t expressed anything yet when we’re born. I think there are predispositions for things at birth—presence of genetic markers for given traits, a certain ratio of sex hormones—but again, these do not determine outcomes. Babies don’t think other babies are hot or want to date people with a different or similar pair of genitals; they want to eat, if even that. Their self-expression is limited to eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing. I attribute gender and sexuality to personhood, and babies, while starting their journey of personhood, simply don’t have much yet.
My initial bias does not include much interaction with genetic research on gender, I will admit. What I was trying to say is that possessing certain criteria (I provided three—hormones, sex organs, and chromosomes) does not determine existence. So maybe “non-determinism” regarding gender and sexuality is what I was talking about and not “unnaturalness,” or more concretely, “You’re not born with sexual express.” As I will admit throughout my blog, I offer ideas in process. Because of this stance, I invite questions, disputes, clarifications, negations. All I ask is that we bring a stance of at least understanding the other on their own terms before disagreeing with them on our terms. If I fail to do that, call me out. I don’t know it all. I just kind of claim to know where I’m coming from, though that isn’t always the case either.