What Makes a Man?
If you want to get married in Oakland County, Michigan, the answer to that question (according to Secretary of State-elect Ruth Johnson) is a penis.
A transgender man and his fiancee were all set to get married when they were informed that their marriage license was invalid because he doesn’t have a penis and therefore isn’t a man. I have to wonder what Johnson would think of this unfortunate fellow, whose penis was amputated due to cancer. Does that mean that he’s no longer a man? Would he be unable to get married in Michigan, too?
The idea that our gender comes from our anatomy is, of course, an old one. After all, a lot of men refer to their penises as their “manhood”, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman refer to her genitals as her “womanhood”. But this version of gender essentialism may actually be relatively recent, from a historical perspective.
According to Gary Taylor, for most of Western history, the testicles were seen as the source of manhood, not the penis. He claims that, although to modern eyes, Michelangelo’s David seems less masculine due to his small-ish penis, to Michelangelo and his contemporaries, the size of David’s testicles signified something quite different. He also reports that when a replica of the statue was unveiled at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, they had to add some length to the penis because people thought the original was laughably small.
If, as Taylor says, the part of the body that defines of masculinity could change, maybe we can begin to let go of the idea that gender requires a specific body part or function. If someone born male can lose his penis and still be a man, then I don’t see any reason why someone who was assigned female at birth who goes through gender transition isn’t also a man. Masculinity and gender is about who you are, not what body parts you have.