The transgender excitement over at Twisty's has inspired me a bit. I must say it came at the perfect time, as I just finished a paper on social constructs and gender. The blogosphere does quite a job traveling along with me, intellectually at the least.
So what the hell is gender? Well, it's a bunch of stuff. It's how we dress, how we react to others, what stuff we own, what we learn, and why we do all those things the way we do. Gender, in western society, is a function of sex traditionally speaking. Whatever sex you are born, you get the gender that goes along with it. All this stuff is of course completely made up. Gender doesn't exist in any sort of real way, it exists like race exists as a social construct. But the problem here seems to be that people either don't know or reject the idea of social constructs. So what is a social construct? Simply put it is something that exists as it is owing completely or mostly to society. That includes houses and race and cars and other stuff, so is probably overly broad so lets narrow it down.
Sally Haslanger, my new favorite philosopher, in her paper Ontology and Social Construction lays out a great breakdown of all the different types of social construction.
What is sex then? This one is harder. The way that we define people as certain sexes is definitely a social construct. There are people we would define as female even though they lack certain features we see as essential to being female, ovaries for example. The problem arises in the border areas. Some people seem happy to not worry about those areas, see Twisty's thread on lipstick for a few, but those are the areas which show us how any sort of essentialist view of sex breaks down.