In one recent and well-constructed study, only a third of all the "normal women" studied were shown to be, by their own reports and those of the clinicians, "classically" feminine. Clearly, few of us are what we have agreed to believe our gender is. The standard we set for normal women is so narrow that plenty of us normal women—hetero and homo—are left out. This knife of the "standard" cuts sharp and crazy in our culture, and like most trends and fancies, the craziness is most apparent in retrospect. Now we're all sophisticated enough to be appalled or amused by medieval or colonial or Victorian nonsense. Maybe my grandchildren will look back on the magazine images of the very thin women with the very large breasts, the books that tell women how to "catch" a husband, and The Man Show just as we look back on the common Victorian belief that voting made women a) demented and b) sterile. (Actually, I do understand how following politics closely can make you a little nuts.)

We are so much better than we were before, even in little ways (I remember freezing my tail off all winter in 1966 because we didn't wear pants to school, even in deep snow), that I almost hate to make a fuss over where we're not. Just as fish might be able to tell us about the ocean but aren't likely to mention that it's wet, we can describe all sorts of things about our culture but may not even notice some of its central qualities. We can shake our heads over Britney Spears (let me reveal my bias: I'd rather have my teenager get her navel pierced than long for breast implants, rather have a girl with a shaved head than one who emulates the nymphet-with-a-lollipop look) but not think too much about what she means. We can appreciate or loathe thugged-out rappers (bias again: big fan of Mary J. Blige, not so much of Kurupt), but we might wonder how we got to such a point that a boy offering his seat to a girl on a bus will be showered with catcalls of "Faggot!" from his friends. (I was there and it was not in Compton.) Our cultural norms and myths make us feel better and safer; at the same time, they modify and constrain the behavior of most of us. Like old-fashioned girdles, "norms" mold a style that isn't humanly possible, and then we all try to fit into them so we can look as we should.

                                                                         * * * *

Many of us—sick of news from the margins, worn out by the sand shifting beneath our assumptions—like to imagine Nature as a sweet, simple voice: tulips in spring, Vermont's leaves falling in autumn. There are, of course, occasional mistakes—a leaf that doesn't fall, a clubfoot. Our mistake is to think that the wide range of humanity represents aberration when in fact it represents just what it is: range. Nature is not two little notes—masculine or feminine—on a child's flute; Nature is more like Aretha Franklin: vast, magnificent, capricious—occasionally hilarious—and infinitely varied. The platypus is not a mistake. Even the sex-changing animals, coral reef fish and Chinook salmon among them, are not mistakes. The cactus and the blue potato are not mistakes. They may not be as reassuring a sight as tulips are to postcard lovers, but that doesn't make them deformities. The hot winters of Australia are not errors. They are just not the cold winters of northern Europe, which typify for many of us what winter should be.

After several centuries of confusion, we seem to have gotten the difference between gender and sexuality reasonably clear: Men are not defined primarily as creatures who desire only women, and desiring men is not the thing that makes a person female. But we are still baffled by the differences between sexuality and temperament, between one's sexual nature and one's personality, even between gender and personality.

Where do we get our identities?