20 January 2021

What is gender?

"If gender identity is a spectrum, then we are all 'non-binary' because none of us fit into the points represented by the extremes of that spectrum. Each one of us will exist at a unique point on the spectrum." Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, philosopher and lecturer at the University of Warwick, reveals the fallacy of the concept of gender as a spectrum.
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"What is gender?" It is a question that goes to the heart of feminist theory and practice, proving to be central to current activist debates on social justice issues of class, identity and privilege. In everyday conversations the word 'gender' is a synonym for what would more accurately be called 'sex'.. Perhaps because of a vague squeamishness in pronouncing a word that also describes sexual intercourse, the word gender is euphemistically used to refer to the biological fact that a person is female or maleIt spares us all the slight embarrassment of having to invoke the organs and bodily processes that this bifurcation entails, albeit indirectly.

The word gender originally had an exclusively grammatical meaning in those languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. Yet, at least since the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender.. For feminists, this distinction was important because it allowed them to recognise that some of the differences between women and men are due to biology while others are rooted in environment, culture and upbringing - what in feminist theory is defined as "gender socialisation; at least, this is the role that the word gender has traditionally played in feminist theory. It was a basic feminist idea that while sex refers to what is biological - and therefore in some way 'natural' - gender refers to what is socially constructed. From this point of view, we can for simplicity call it the 'radical' feminist view, gender thus refers to the set of externally imposed norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour for individuals according to morally arbitrary characteristics. These norms are not only external to the individual and coercively imposed, but also represent a system, or hierarchy, of binary castes, i.e. a value system with two positions: male over female, man over woman, masculinity over femininity.

Individuals are born with the potential to perform one of two reproductive roles determined at birth by the external genitalia the newborn child. From then on they will be placed in one of the two classes of this hierarchy: the upper class if the genitals are convex, the lower class if the genitals are concave. From the moment of birth and the identification of sexual class membership, most women are brought up to be passive, submissive, weak and nurturing, while most men are brought up to be active, dominant, strong and aggressive. This value system and this process of socialisation and acculturation of individuals is what radical feminism understands by the word 'gender'.

Understood in this way, it is not difficult to see what is objectionable and oppressive about the genre.as it limits the potential of both male and female persons. affirming the superiority of men over women. So the aim of radical feminism is to abolish gender altogether: stop putting people in pink and blue boxes and to allow the development of the personality and preferences of individuals without socially promoting the coercive influence of this value system.

This view of gender contrasts with the view of those who experience gender as something internal and innate.rather than as entirely socially constructed and externally imposed. These people not only dispute that gender is entirely constructed, but also reject the radical feminist analysis that gender is inherently hierarchical. According to this vision, which for ease I will call the feminist vision "queer'. of the kind, that which makes the nature of gender oppressive. is not that this is socially constructed and coercively imposed; rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders. Human beings of both sexes would be liberated if it were recognised that if gender is indeed an internal, innate and essential aspect of our identities then there may be more genders to choose from than just 'woman' or 'man'. The next step on the road to liberation then becomes the recognition of a new range of gender identities: so, now, there are people who refer to themselves as "genderqueer', 'non-binary'., "pangender", "polygender", "agender", "demiboy", "demigirl", "neutrois"., "aporagender", "lunagender", "quantumgender'. ...etc. An oft-repeated mantra among proponents of this view is that "gender is not binary, it is a spectrum".. What follows from this view is not the need to destroy the pink and blue boxes; rather, one must simply recognise that there are many more boxes than just pink and blue.

On the face of it, this might seem an attractive idea, but there are countless problems that make this theory internally inconsistent and politically unviable. Many proponents of the queer view of gender describe their gender identity as 'non-binary'.and present it as opposed to the vast majority of people whose gender identity is assumed to be binary. At first glance there seems to be an immediate tension between the claim that gender is not binary, but a spectrum, and the claim that only a small proportion of individuals can be described as having a non-binary gender identity. If gender is indeed a spectrum, does this not mean that every individual is, by definition, non-binary? If this were the case, then the label 'non-binary' to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant as it would not recognise a specific category of people. To avoid this, the proponent of the spectrum model must assume that gender is both binary and spectrum.

It is entirely possible that a property is described in both continuous and binary ways.. For example, height: clearly height is a continuum and individuals can fall anywhere along that continuum; but we also have the binary labels 'high' and 'low'. Is it possible that gender operates in a similar way? The thing to note about the high/low binary is that when these concepts are used to refer to persons, they are relative or comparative descriptions. Since height is a spectrum, or a continuum, no individual is absolutely tall or absolutely short; we are all taller than some people and shorter than others. When we refer to tall people, what we mean is that they are taller than the average person in a group whose height we are interested in examining. A boy might be at the same time tall for a six-year-old and yet short compared to all male persons. Therefore, the attributions of the binary labels high and low must be compared and refer to the average. It may be that those individuals who cluster around this mean claim the possibility of referring to themselves as 'non-binary height'. However, it seems unlikely that this interpretation of the spectrum model would satisfy those who describe themselves as non-binary. If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would be at odds with the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their own gender. The genre would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your individual self-determination. Therefore the decision not to be binary would not be personal, but would only be determined by comparing one's own gender identity with the spread of others' and understanding which one falls into. And although I as an individual may think of myself as a woman, someone else may be further up the femininity ladder than I am, and therefore 'more woman' than I am.

Moreover, when we look at the analogy with height we can see that when looking at the entire population, only a small minority of people would be accurately described as tall or short. Since height is actually a spectrum, and binary labels are assigned comparatively, only a handful of people at either end of the spectrum can be meaningfully labelled as high or low. The rest of us, falling along all points in between, are people of non-binary height and represent the standard. In fact, it is the tall and short (binary) people who are rare and unusual; if we extend this analogy to gender, we see that being gender non-binary is actually the normnot the exception. If gender is a spectrum, it means that it is a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is somewhere along that continuum.

We assume that the two ends of the spectrum are masculinity and femininity. Or could they be something else? If we consider masculinity and femininity to be the two extremes, it becomes immediately clear that everyone is non-binary, because absolutely no one is totally masculine or totally feminine. Of course some people will be closer to one end of the spectrum while others will be more ambiguous and fluctuate around the middle. But even the most conventionally feminine person will demonstrate some characteristics that we associate with masculinity and vice versa. I welcome this implication because, although I have female biology and call myself a womanI do not consider myself a gender stereotype. I am not an ideal manifestation of the essence of femininity and therefore not binary. Just like all other people. However, it is those who define themselves as non-binary are unlikely to be satisfied with this conclusion since their identity as a 'non-binary person' depends on the existence of a much larger group of so-called 'cisgender' binary peoplepeople incapable of being outside the arbitrary male/female gender dictated by society. Here we have the irony of some people insisting that they and a handful of their fellow gender revolutionaries are not binary, create a false binary between those who conform to the gender norms associated with their sex and those who do not.

In reality, all are non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce in others and strongly criticise others. So defining oneself as non-binary actually means creating a new false binary. Placing oneself on the more complex side of that binary might allow the non-binary individual to claim to be both misunderstood and politically oppressed by the binary cisgender person. If one identifies oneself as a 'pangender' is the claim to be represented from every possible point on the spectrum? So from the whole spectrum at the same time? How could this be possible, given that the extremes necessarily represent mutually incompatible opposites? Pure femininity is passivity, weakness and submission, while pure masculinity is aggression, strength and dominance. It is simply impossible to be all these things at the same time. If you do not agree with these definitions of masculinity and femininity and do not accept that masculinity should be defined in terms of dominance while femininity should be described in terms of submission, you are welcome to propose other definitions. But whatever comes to your mind, they will still be the opposite of each other..

A handful of individuals are apparently allowed to choose to be outside the spectrum by declaring themselves "agender"saying that they feel neither masculine nor feminine, and that they have no inner experience of gender. No explanation is given as to why some people can refuse to define their personality in terms of gender while others cannot.but concerning this self-designation of 'agender' one thing is clear: we cannot all do it, for the same reasons that we cannot all call ourselves non-binary. If we all denied having an innate and essential gender identity, then the label 'agender' would become redundant, because genderlessness would be a universal trait. The agender can only be defined by gender. Those who define themselves and their identity by their lack of gender must therefore be convinced that most people have an innate and essential gender, but that, for some reason, they do not have it at the same time.

Once it is stated that the problem with gender is that we currently only recognise two of them, the obvious question to ask is: how many genders should we recognise in order not to be oppressive? How many possible gender identities are there? The only possible and coherent answer to this question is: 7 billion, more or less. There are as many possible gender identities as there are human beings on the planet. According to Nonbinary.org, one of the main reference sites on the internet for information on non-binary genres, your genre can be frost, sun, music, sea, Jupiter or pure darkness. Your genre can be pizza. But if so, it is not clear how it makes sense, or how it expands our understanding, to call any of these things 'gender', as opposed to just 'human personality' or 'things I like'.. The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not just a label to be adopted so that you have a unique way of describing how great, diverse and interesting you are. IGender is the value system that links desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviour and characteristics to reproductive function.. Once we dissociate those behaviours and characteristics from the reproductive function - which we should do - and once we reject the idea that there are only two personality types and that one is superior to the other - which we should do - what can it mean to keep calling this stuff 'gender'? What meaning does the word 'gender' have here, which the word 'personality' cannot encompass?

At Nonbinary.orgyour gender can also be '(name)gender': "A gender that is best described by its own name, which is useful for those who are not yet sure what they are identifying but definitely know that they are not cis [...] can be seen as an all-encompassing term or as a specific identifier, e.g., johngender, janegender, (your name)gender, etc.". The example of the "(name)gender' demonstrates perfectly how non-binary gender identities work, and the function they play. They are for people who are not sure what they identify with, but know that they are not cisgender. Presumably because they are too interesting, revolutionary and transgressive for something as ordinary and conventional as 'cis'. This desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe that my thoughts, feelings, attitudes and dispositions are too interesting, complete and complex to be simply a 'cis-woman'. I too would like to transcend socially constructed stereotypes about my female body and the assumptions that are automatically made by others. I too would like to be seen as more than just a mother/maid/object of sexual gratification. I too would like to be seen as a human being, a person with a rich and deep inner life and with the potential to be something more than what our society currently sees as possible for women. The solution to this, however, is not to call myself an agender, to try to slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage and the rest of the woman trapped inside untouched. Especially since you can't slip through the bars. Calling me an 'agender' will not stop the world from seeing me as a woman and treating me accordingly. I can present myself as an agender and insist on my series of neo-pronomes when applying for a job, but this will not prevent the interviewer from seeing a potential 'baby-making' procreator and thus giving the job to the less qualified, but less-graduated-by-reproduction, male candidate.

Here we come to the crucial tension that underlies gender identity politics and which most of its proponents have not considered or choose to ignore because it can only be resolved by rejecting some of the key tenets of the doctrine. Many people rightly believe that the word 'transgender' is synonymous with 'transsexual' and means something like: having dysphoria and anxiety about one's own sexed body, and having the desire to alter that body to make it more like the body of the opposite sex. But according to the current terminology of gender identity politics, being transgender has nothing to do with the desire to change one's sexual body. Being transgender means that your innate gender identity does not correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth. This may be the case even if you are perfectly happy and satisfied with the body you have; you are transgender simply if you identify as one gender, but socially you have been perceived as another. It is a key tenet of the doctrine that the vast majority of people can be described as 'cisgender', which means that our innate gender identity corresponds to the one we were assigned at birth. But as we have seen, if gender identity is a spectrum, then we are all non-binary, because none of us fit into the points represented by the extremes of that spectrum. Each of us will exist at a unique point on that spectrum, determined by the individual and idiosyncratic nature of our own particular identity and subjective experience of gender. So it is not clear how anyone could be cisgender; none of us were assigned the correct gender identity at birth, so how could this have happened? At birth, how could we have known that we would later find out that our gender identity is "frostgender"a genre apparently ".very cold and snowy"? Once we recognise that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to recognise that ultimately no one is cisgender, because no one is assigned the correct gender identity at birth. In fact, none of us are assigned a gender identity at birth. We were placed in one of two sex classes based on our potential reproductive function as determined by our external genitalia. We were then raised according to the socially prescribed gender norms for people of that sex. We are all educated and placed in one of two roles long before we are able to express our beliefs about our innate gender identity or determine the precise point at which we fall on the gender continuum. So defining transgender people as those who were not assigned the correct place on the gender spectrum at birth implies that everyone is transgender and that there are not actually cisgender people.

The logical conclusion of all this is: if gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then everyone is trans. Or alternatively, there are no trans people. In both cases, this is a deeply unsatisfactory conclusion that obscures the reality of female oppression and invalidates and erases the experiences of trans people. The way to avoid this conclusion is to realise that gender is not a spectrum. It is not a spectrum, because is not an innate, internal essence or property.. Gender is not a fact that we must take into account as fundamental and essential and then build our social institutions around this fact. Gender is socially constructed in toto, it is an externally imposed hierarchy, with two classes occupying two positions of value: the masculine over the feminine, the man superior to the woman, masculinity above femininity. The truth of the spectrum analogy is that conformity to one's place in the hierarchy, and to the roles it assigns to people, varies from person to person. Some people will find it relatively easier and more painless to conform to the gender norms associated with their sex, while others find the gender roles associated with their sex so oppressive and limiting that they cannot live tolerably, and therefore choose to live according to the opposite gender role.. Fortunately, the human personality is a spectrum in all its variety and complexity - in fact, it is not even a single spectrum because it is not simply a continuum between two extremes.

Gender is the value system that says there are two personality types, determined by the reproductive organs you are born with. One of the first steps in freeing people from the cage that is gender is to challenge established gender norms and play and explore your own gender expression and presentation. No one, and certainly no radical feminist, wants to prevent someone from expressing their personality or defining themselves in ways that make sense to the person. So, if you want to call yourselves gender demigirls feminists, go ahead. Express that identity however you like. Have fun with it. The problem, however, emerges when political statements start to be made on the basis of that label. - when you start demanding that others define themselves as cisgender, because you require to define yourself that there is a group of conventional cis binary people against you; and when you insist that these cis people have a structural advantage and political privilege over you, because they are socially seen as "conformist binary people", while no one really understands how complex and bright and multifaceted and unique your gender identity is. To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid when you demand that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of human beings must remain in their boxes, because you identify as unboxed.

The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on more and more gender categories. which define the complexity of the human personality in a rigid and purely essentialist way. The solution is to abolish gender altogether. We don't need that kind. We would be better off without it. Gender as a hierarchy with two positions works to naturalise and perpetuate the subordination of female to male people by limiting the development of individuals of both sexes. Imagining gender as a spectrum of identity does not lead to improvement. It is not necessary to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender in order to be free to dress as we like, to behave as we believe, to do the work we want, to love what we prefer. You do not need to prove that your personality is feminine in order for it to be acceptable for you to use cosmetics, cook and do crafts. You don't need to be genderqueer to be anti-gender. The solution to an oppressive system that puts people in blue and pink boxes is not to create more and more boxes of any colour except blue or pink. The solution is to tear down and abolish the boxes altogether."

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, philosopher and lecturer at the University of Warwick, UK

Original article here (translation by Angela Tacchini)


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