Monday, April 27, 2015

The Limits of Labels, Categories, and Classifications

Today’s guest blogger is Rebecca Oppenheimer. Rebecca is Curator, Professor, and Chair of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. Her optics laboratory in the Rose Center is the birthplace of a number of new astronomical instruments designed to dissect and analyze the light from a continuously growing population of exoplanets.
I am a half-Jew, white, private-schooled, astronomer from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who loves exoplanets and pizza. I am quite certain I am not unique in holding all those labels. In fact I know a few others who do. Except I am also a transgender woman.
Human beings have had a need, since Aristotle’s fundamental writings, to label and categorize everything. It makes it easier to discuss phenomena.

One might, for example, examine the contentious notion of whether Pluto is a planet. The word "planet" is so loaded that few even know what the word originally meant—a wanderer among the stars, the etymological meaning of the word from ancient Greek.

Pluto is part of a huge population that really bears no resemblance to Earth, Venus, Mars, or Jupiter. Our current understanding of Pluto is so much deeper and more interesting simply to call it a "planet." To do so is demeaning to both Pluto’s importance and science. It is far more exciting to think of it as the first example of a huge part of our solar system that we didn’t know of twenty-five years ago. The point of research is to adjust and improve our understanding of where, who and what we are. Pluto itself hasn’t changed simply because we don’t call it a planet anymore, but we now know it is the prime example of a population of millions rather than eight. The same is true of the social progress represented by the broad spectrum of people and how they identify themselves.
When I "came out" as what most would now label as a "transgender woman," there has been acceptance, rejection, confusion and neutrality, not unlike Pluto’s "coming out." Confusion arose because the term "transgender" is new and clearly unknown by many. Fortunate for me, acceptance of my identity was overwhelmingly the norm (unlike for Pluto). Perhaps this acceptance of me was a benefit of being in a field that generally begs for new interpretations of natural phenomena. We scientists are trained to question everything and accept any notion as possible, at least until disproven. That is the true power of science—disproof of previous ideas. Ideas can only be disproven, but, for some such ideas and theories, disproof requires Herculean or impossible efforts, because there are underlying facts upon which the ideas are based.
There is no disproof of an identity. Those of us who identify as transgender struggle with the words, and here it becomes more complicated than the science I am used to. You cannot disprove nor argue about the validity of a person’s identity. It is a simple fact when someone tells you their gender identity, whatever category that may be, whether you believe it or not.
The term "transgender" has been useful, though not uncontroversial, but the term "transition" from one sex or gender to another is absolutely incongruous at least with my experience. There is no "transition." Perhaps there is an outward transition in presentation, but inwardly, nothing has transitioned. There is no change other than a liberation and removal of a carefully held secret (usually originating from the moment of self-consciousness). This can be very complicated, especially for those who want to conform to the gender standards that our current society dictates: male or female. It is even more difficult for those who see themselves somewhere in between, or entirely outside, those categories. However, such people exist and always have. We must welcome them as perfectly normal parts of humanity and society with the same rights and privileges anyone else might have.
So I will keep eating my pizza, trying to find new planets or, stranger, unclassifiable things out there, the "Plutos" that lead the way to better understanding. Utterly unimportant to that effort is my gender identity—that has no bearing on my ability to be a contributor to human society and science. Onward and upward, into space, where we are all ultimately from.


Dmitry said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece, Rebecca. It puts the matter in perspective that a large fraction of our society still lacks, apparently. Couldn't have said better myself.

It's enthralling to be searching for exoplanets and study them. It'd be great to find that elusive Earth twin, but it'd be more interesting to find a different kind of planet unlike ours that can harbor life, so we are no longer limited to just one example. I wish you well on that search. No pressure :)

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, what a great article and what vehicle (Pluto) to use to discuss transgender. Your thoughts about "transitioning" made me stop and think. Pluto didn't transition from a planet to and exo-planet, it always was a exo-planet. You did not transition to male to female as you have always been female. I often speak to educators and students thru my volunteer work with GLSEN and now I have new insights to include. Thanks.