Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing about gender

I keep up with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette even though I no longer live in the area it covers simply because it's a damn fine newspaper. Today's big story is about a transgender janitor at a small town elementary school.

Brianna Bonin is returning to work this school year after having been known as Brian Bonin. Readers have leapt all over this story on the T&G's website, many posting bigoted comments and posting again to insist they're not bigots. When I first clicked over to the story about 11 a.m. it had 55 comments. As I write now at about 7 p.m., it has 180. A tedious back and forth between closed minds and open ones.

I won't bother to grouse about the ridiculous fears voiced that schoolchildren are suddenly at risk because Bonin is now openly expressing her gender identity; or that parents should not have to explain to their kids why Brian is now Brianna. Heaven forbid! Children shouldn't be forced to learn things about the world around them!

The story itself is what perplexes me. While I found it about as fair as any news story should be, I was troubled that Bonin was referred to through as "he" even though she clearly identifies as a woman and is referred to by quoted sources as "she." There is other evidence of sloppy editing in the story; but clearly an editorial decision was made on how to handle the pronouns. It was the wrong decision.

I can only guess its basis is the fact that Bonin hasn't yet undergone gender-reassignment surgery -- something the article (no doubt through careless cutting and pasting) notes twice. The story's presentation suggests its preparers are too openminded to insist that because Bonin is biologically male she must also be grammatically male. I'm surprised Bonin didn't make a point to the T&G stringer that "she" should be used instead of "he"; or that this point wasn't respected.

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At 1:51 PM, Blogger Joann Prinzivalli said...

This is a semiotic moment in the same vein as Eco's "Montezuma and the Horse" (from Kant and the Platypus).

Popular perception: pre-op "male-to-female" (MTF) transsexual = "biologically male."

An emerging understanding is spreading, that such an individual is "not-male" in the first instance, but is more accurately referred to as "woman-born-transsexual" (WBT).

Explanation: Biology is not limited to birth genital shape or the gross shape of the 23rd chromosome pair. There is growing evidence that "MTF" transsexual individuals are misclassified as "male" in the first instance. The brain develops with the central area of the basal stria terminalis (BSTc) having a "female" neuronal density. There is evidence that, even though the 23rd chromosome pair is "XY" it is likely that WBTs have genetic coding for a "long" version of the androgen receptor, which may explain the hypothalamic development that does not match the development of the Wolffian system (i.e., resulting in "male" genitalia."

This is an awful lot like Eco's example of the platypus and developing individual and societal undestanding and classification of this animal.

A semiotic moment, to be sure!


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