What is gender?
“If gender identity is a spectrum, then we are all 'non-binary' because none of us fit the points represented by the extremes of that spectrum. Each 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 fundamental in current activist debates on social justice issues regarding class, identity and privilege. In everyday conversations the word “gender” is a synonym of what would more precisely be called “sex”. Perhaps due to 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 male, saving us all the slight embarrassment of having to invoke the bodily organs and processes that this bifurcation entails, however 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 recognize that some of the differences between women and men can be traced back to biology while others have their roots in environment, culture and education – what in feminist theory is defined as “gender socialization”; 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 somehow “natural” – gender refers to what is socially constructed. From this point of view, which for simplicity we can call the "radical" feminist vision, gender therefore refers to the set of norms imposed from outside that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviors to individuals according to morally arbitrary characteristics. These norms are not only external to the individual and imposed in a coercive manner, but they also represent a system, or a hierarchy, of binary castes, that is, a system of values with two positions: masculine over feminine, man superior to woman, masculinity over femininity.

Individuals are born with the potential to fulfill one of two reproductive roles determined at birth by the external genitalia who owns the newborn. 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 one if the genitals are concave. From the moment of birth and identification of sexual class membership, most female people are raised to be passive, submissive, weak and nurturing, while most men are raised to be active, dominant , strong and aggressive. This system of values and this process of socialization and acculturation of individuals is what is meant by the word "gender" in radical feminism.

Understanding it this way, it is not difficult to understand what is questionable and oppressive about the genre, as it limits the potential of both male and female people affirming the superiority of men over women. So the goal of radical feminism is to abolish the genre altogether: stop putting people in pink and blue boxes and allow the development of individuals' personalities and preferences without socially promoting the coercive influence of this value system.

This view of gender is in contrast to the view of those who experience gender as something internal and innate, rather than as entirely socially constructed and externally imposed. Not only these people they contest the fact that gender is entirely constructed, but they 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” such, what makes the nature of the genre oppressive it is not that this is socially constructed and coercively imposed; rather, the problem it is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders. Human beings of both sexes would liberate themselves if it were recognized 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's a spectrum”. What follows from this vision is not the need to destroy the pink and blue boxes; it should be done quite simply recognize that there are many more boxes than pink and blue.

At first glance it might seem like an attractive idea, but there are countless problems that make this theory internally inconsistent and politically inconvenient. Many Queer gender advocates 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 truly a spectrum, doesn't this 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 recognize a specific category of people. To avoid this, the supporter of the spectrum model must in fact start from the assumption that gender is both binary and spectrum at the same time.

It is quite possible that a property is described both continuously and in a binary manner. For example, the 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 people, 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 could be simultaneously tall for a six-year-old and yet short for all males. Therefore the attributions of the binary labels high and low must be compared and refer to the mean. It may be that those individuals who cluster around this average will claim the ability to refer to themselves as “non-binary height.” However, this interpretation of the spectrum model seems unlikely to satisfy those who describe themselves as gender 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 in reference to the distribution of gender identities present 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 rather would be determined only by comparing one's gender identity with the diffusion of that of others and understanding which one one falls into. And while I as an individual may think of myself as a woman, someone else may be further down the femininity scale than me, and therefore “more womanly” than me.

Furthermore when we look at the analogy with height we can see that, 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 attributed comparatively, only a handful of people at either end of the spectrum can be meaningfully labeled as tall or short. The rest of us, falling along all points in between, are non-binary height people and represent the standard. In reality, 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 norm, not the exception. If gender is a spectrum, that means it's a continuum between two extremes, and everyone lies 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 immediately becomes clear that everyone is non-binary, because absolutely no one is totally masculine or totally feminine. Naturally 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 am happy with this implication because, despite possessing female biology and calling myself a woman, I don't consider myself a gender stereotype. I am not an ideal manifestation of the essence of femininity and therefore I am not binary. Just like all the 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 people, people 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 non-binary: by doing so, they create a false binary between those who conform to the gender norms associated with their sex and those who do not.

Actually, everyone is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce in others, and strongly criticize yet others. So calling yourself non-binary actually means creating a new false binary. Placing oneself on the more complex side of that binary could allow the non-binary individual to claim that they are both misunderstood and politically oppressed by the binary cisgender person. If you identify as “pangender” is your claim to be represented by 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 opposites that are incompatible with each other? Pure femininity is passivity, weakness and submission, while pure masculinity is aggression, strength and dominance. It is simply impossible to be all of 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 invited to propose other definitions. But whatever comes to mind, they will however represent the opposite of each other.

A handful of individuals are apparently allowed to choose to be off the spectrum by coming out “agender”, saying that they feel neither masculine nor feminine, and that they have no internal experience of gender. We are given no explanation as to why some people may refuse to define their personality in terms of gender while others cannot, but regarding this self-denomination of “agender” one thing is clear: we cannot all do it, for the same reasons that we cannot all define ourselves as 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. Agender can only be defined by gender. Those who define themselves and their identity based on genderlessness must therefore be convinced that most people have an innate and essential gender, but that, for some reason, at the same time they do not have it.

Once we have stated that the problem with the genre is that we currently only recognize two, the obvious question to ask is: How many genders should we recognize so as 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 humans on the planet. Second Nonbinary.org, one of the main reference sites on the internet for information on non-binary genders, your gender can be frost, sun, music, sea, Jupiter or pure darkness. Your genre may be pizza. But if that were the case, it's not clear how it makes sense, or how it broadens 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's not just a label to adopt so you have a unique way to describe how big, diverse, and interesting you are. THEGender is the system of values that links desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviors and characteristics to the reproductive function. Once we dissociate those behaviors and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should do – and once we reject the idea that there are only two types of personalities and that one is superior to the other – which we should do – what does it mean to continue to call this stuff “genre”? What meaning does the word "gender" have here, which the word "personality" cannot encompass?

On Nonbinary.org, your gender can also be “(first name)type": “A gender that is best described by its name, useful for those who are not yet sure what they identify 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 “(first name)gender” perfectly demonstrates how non-binary gender identities work, and the function they serve. They're for people who aren't sure what they identify with, but know they're not cisgender. Presumably because they are too interesting, revolutionary and transgressive for something as ordinary and conventional as 'cis'. This desire to not 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 simply be 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/domestic servant/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 define myself as agender, to try to slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage intact and the rest of the woman trapped within it. Especially since you can't slip through the bars. Calling me “agender” won't stop the world from seeing me as a woman and treating me accordingly. I can present myself as agender and insist on my set of neo-pronouns when applying for a job, but that won't stop the interviewer from seeing a potential 'baby-churning' procreator and therefore giving the job to the less qualified, but less- burdened-by-reproduction, male candidate.

Here we come to the crucial tension that underlies gender identity politics and that most of its proponents have failed to consider or choose to ignore because it can only be resolved by rejecting some of the doctrine's key tenets. Many people rightly believe that the word “transgender” is synonymous with “transsexual” and means something like: having dysphoria and feeling distress about one's sexed body, and having a desire to alter that body to make it more like the body of the opposite sex. But according to current gender identity politics terminology, being transgender has nothing to do with wanting to change your gendered body. Being transgender means that your innate gender identity does not match the gender you were assigned at birth. This could 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 have been socially perceived as another. It is a key tenet of the doctrine that the vast majority of people can be described as “cisgender,” meaning that our innate gender identity matches the one we were assigned at birth. But as we've seen, if gender identity is a spectrum, then we are all non-binary, because none of us fit 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 particular identity and subjective experience of gender. So it's unclear how someone can be cisgender; none of us were assigned the correct gender identity at birth, and how could that have happened? At the time of birth how could we have known that we would later discover that our gender identity is “frostgender“, a genre apparently “very cold and snowy“? Once we recognize that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to recognize that ultimately no one is cisgender, because no one is assigned the correct gender identity at birth. In reality, none of us were assigned a gender identity at birth. We were placed into one of two sex classes based on our potential reproductive function as determined by our external genitalia. After that we were raised according to socially prescribed gender norms for people of that sex. We are all educated and placed into one of two roles long before we are able to express our beliefs about our innate gender identity or determine precisely where 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 each of us is transgender and that there are actually no cisgender people.

The logical conclusion to all of 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 unsatisfying 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 realize that gender is not a spectrum. It's not a spectrum, because it is not an essence or an innate, internal property. Gender is not a fact that we must hold as fundamental and essential and then build our social institutions around this fact. Gender is socially constructed in its entirety, it is a hierarchy imposed from outside, with two classes that occupy 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 the roles it assigns to people, varies from person to person. Some people will find it relatively easier and 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 gender role. opposite gender. 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 stop someone from expressing their personality or defining themselves in ways that make sense to the person. So, if you want to call yourself gender feminists demigirls, go ahead. Express that identity however you like. Enjoy yourselves. The problem, however, emerges when people start making political statements based on that label – when you start demanding that others define themselves as cisgender, because to define yourself requires that there be a group of conventional binary cis 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 you cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of human beings must remain in their own boxes, because you identify as boxless.

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 the genre altogether. We don't need that. We would be better off without it. Gender as a hierarchy with two positions works to naturalize and perpetuate the subordination of female to male people by limiting the development of individuals of both sexes. Imagining gender as an identity spectrum does not lead to improvement. It is not necessary to have a deep, internal, essential experience of this kind 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 don't need to demonstrate that your personality is feminine for it to be acceptable for you to use cosmetics, cook, and do crafts. You don't have 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 color except blue or pink. The solution is to break down and completely abolish the boxes.

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

The original article here (translation by Angela Tacchini)


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