“If gender is a spectrum, isn’t everyone genderqueer?”

CN: TERF logic, gender identity, gender essentialism, medicalisation of transness

Photo credits: sea turtle via Creative Commons

Photo credits: sea turtle via Creative Commons

So I came across this question as an object of critique in a YouTube video recently, and it got me thinking. It’s a question that leads on to some really interesting issues, and ones I’ve wrestled with in the past. So I thought I’d write up my thoughts, for whatever they’re worth.

Before getting started I feel like I should acknowledge that this is a seriously challenging question. It rings all sorts of alarm bells for me—but not, I think, because it’s necessarily harmful or ill-intentioned. More because it’s associated with some lines of thought which are damaging (on which more below) and, for some of us, it is a reminder of a critical internal voice that says things like ‘not trans enough’. But hey, it’s important to engage with the questions that make us uncomfortable, so here we go…

I think there are three different responses, all with some insight worth discussing.

Firstly, we might say: ‘that’s an empirical question.’ If gender is a spectrum (or, better, a multidimensional space…) then there are an infinite number of possible places on it. So if people were evenly distributed across those possible places, then it would be vanishingly unlikely for anyone to be in exactly one place—e.g. ‘binary female’ or ‘binary male’. So everyone would technically be non-binary. But! There’s a gap in the logic there. The idea that gender is a continuous space doesn’t actually imply that people are evenly distributed within that space. Even if we assert that gender is continuous in nature, it remains an empirical question how people are distributed within it. It might be that people are distributed evenly, or equally, it might be that most people are concentrated on a few points and only a small minority are found in between or elsewhere. And in our society—a society in which people are socialised to believe that there are only two possible genders and everybody is precisely one or the other; a society in which gender variance is persecuted as deviant—we can’t possibly expect to be able to get useable data to answer this question. In the hypothetical scenario where everyone is actually genderqueer, the vast majority of people might well not acknowledge this: the cost of doing so is high and the psychological rewards relatively minor for people who are close enough to one of the socially-prescribed genders for comfort. So, our answer here is not only that this is an empirical question, but that in a patriarchal, cisnormative society, it’s an unanswerable one.

Secondly, we might say: ‘yes, but that’s irrelevant.’ It reminds me of something Morpheus says in the movie The Matrix, which I’m now going to quote unashamedly nearly in full:

‘… The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.’

So we might say that, yes, in some sense technically everyone is probably genderqueer – but it doesn’t really matter. For the time being, they don’t think of themselves in those terms, and as they retain cisnormative attitudes they aren’t really able to think about other people in those terms either (and so they remain Agents of the cisheteropatriarchy, if you want to take the metaphor a little further…).

Finally, we might say something for which I haven’t got a four-word summary. Let’s say, ‘I question the question.’ Part of the insight here is that what’s actually important is identity and that the question forgets that. We should empower people to identify how they want and then respect the identities they present us with. In which case, clearly it isn’t true to say ‘most people are genderqueer’—I’d estimate that most people in society as a whole haven’t even ever heard the word ‘genderqueer’ (or ‘non-binary’, or anything further from the beaten track than ‘trans’), let alone identifying with the term. But the statement isn’t just empirically wrong on these grounds but is sort of missing the point. We shouldn’t be coming up with a priori reasons to determine people’s identities or judge what’s a legitimate way to identify or not. We should be trusting the way they tell us they identify.

But there’s yet more to it than that. Something that the above criticism is starting to get at is that the question exhibits a problematic way of thinking that’s actually very common in trans discourses. It’s as though we’ve replaced cisnormative gender essentialism (the view that sex totally reliably predicts gender and gender totally reliably predicts sex and that each of those are associated with a totally predictable set of physical and psychological characteristics) with a new kind of essentialism built on the notion of gender identity. In this view, gender identity is an incontrovertible property of each individual. It isn’t predicted by sex so you might be confused about what yours is, but it’s still an objective and unchangeable fact about you just as much as your height or your blood type is. We’re pretty cagey about what kind of property this is—whether it’s purely psychological, genetic, something to do with hormones in the womb, all of the above, or something else altogether—but we’re clear that it is definitely an objectively discoverable property, albeit one that can only be observed by intensive introspection.

But this is still pretty problematic. For one thing, it means our queer theory and our theory of gender are vulnerable to being redefined by improvements in our understanding of the biology and neuroscience of gender. For another, it takes agency away from questioning people and puts it into the hands of a cultural establishment that wants to define what it means to be trans—whether that means the cisnormative and binary-obsessed medical establishment or a cadre of well-meaning ‘post-transition’ people who have successfully negotiated the psychological and bureaucratic transition maze that that medical establishment creates. For yet another, it creates a huge amount of inertia around identity and transition. If you come out as one thing and later come out as something else, it sort of implies that you were lying or mistaken the first time. At the very least it challenges you to come up with a defensive narrative about how and why your identity changed, because if identity is an objective property of you as a person then the very fact of change challenges the legitimacy of both the earlier and the later identity. For yet one more, it pretty much asks the impossible of questioning and transitioning people: the only way to get to the ‘truth’ about your gender identity, it says, is to discover what you ‘really feel’, underneath all the crap expectations and interpretations that your cisnormative upbringing has fostered on you. Which basically demands that you engage in obsessive, solitary introspection about something you already probably feel pretty messed up about. Don’t try this at home.

If we try to do away with gender-identity essentialism and really embrace the idea that what someone says about how they identify is the whole story—there’s nothing anyone can say, do or think, no experiences or history they can have had that make any identity any less or more legitimate—then it becomes obvious that the question is nonsensical. It’s nonsensical because it’s engaging in a way of thinking about identity that allows it to be something you can ‘figure out’ and a question on which there can be evidence and argument. Whereas in this line of thought, it’s not. It’s not a property or an object. If it’s anything, it’s a feeling and a doing and even a choosing. Which, hopefully, allows it to be a much more open space…

You may have noticed that I’ve spent twice the space on my third answer as on the first two together. Which, yes, is partly because I think it’s the most interesting of the three. But it’s also because, as mentioned at the very beginning, it’s uncomfortably similar to some much more harmful lines of argument. You’ve probably come across the term ‘gender critical feminism’, and if not that then you’ll certainly have come across TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) under other names. A line of argument found in that school of thought goes something like: if gender is entirely performance and entirely the product of socialisation, then the notion of gender identity is merely a sort of transcendental (in the philosophical sense of a priori knowledge) construct to prop up trans people’s desire for transition. And that would be a pretty damaging thing: gender identity could then actually be a tool to defend patriarchal gender norms against the feminist attack on biological gender essentialism. Radical feminism says “you can’t police people’s behaviour or expression on the basis of gender because gender doesn’t exist” but the patriarchy replies “ah, but we can still police people’s behaviour on the basis of gender identity because that does exist.” In this view, the entire function of the concept of gender identity is to be a new essentialism to slot in where the old has been removed.

This is obviously bullshit, but it’s clever and insidious enough bullshit that it’s worth taking it apart explicitly.  For one thing, it ignores the fact that even an essentialist notion of gender identity is an incredibly radical tool with transformative potential: it has done and continues to do invaluable work in dismantling the ways of thinking of the cisheteropatriarchy and empowering people to live the lives they need to live. If it has flaws, those shouldn’t be used to attack the identities of trans people who are, after all, among those most violently oppressed by the patriarchy. Furthermore, it assumes that gender essentialism is at the heart of the concept of gender identity, whereas I’d suggest that it’s both incidental and a late add-on. It’s incidental in the sense that you can have a notion of gender identity which is not essentialist but otherwise is largely unchanged. It’s a late add-on in the sense that I suspect that the essentialist element in our community concept of gender identity may derive largely from the interaction of trans people with the medical establishment. The medics, being aggressively sceptical of trans individuals’ own self-identification, demand exhaustive ‘proof’ of transness before allowing access to medical resources. This prompts the trans community to reframe their identities in essentialist terms, simultaneously providing a framework for identifying such proof and assuaging the anxiety of the essentialist establishment at the conceptual challenge which trans people represent.

Maybe that delved a little deep for such an innocent-sounding question. Part of the point, I guess, is that all of this is deeply interwoven. Our systems of being and believing around gender are ingrained and complicated, which is part of what makes them so fascinating—but also so loaded. Innocent-sounding ideas like the one in the title may not come from a transphobic place—but they may do. And even if they’re not, they’re intertwined with problematic ways of thinking. This all makes it very hard to come up with anything as simple as a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ to even as seemingly innocuous a question as this.

Tam Blaxter, GR. Contributor

2 thoughts on ““If gender is a spectrum, isn’t everyone genderqueer?”

  1. Hi- just wondering on the point of saying it’s a bad thing thing for queer theory to be vulnerable to improvements in biology and psychology, would you mind elaborating more? To me a scientific approach to understanding natural phenomena is always preferable (though complementary to) untestable theories? Not saying there aren’t huge issues with how science/psuedo-science has been used against sga/trans people, and I’m also not saying that “finding out why we are the way we are” is even necessary- personally I just want to get on with loving who I love with as few identity crises as possible, but if someone is going to examine my gender and sexuality I’d much rather they used an empiral scientific approach which allows change based on new techniques and evidence than a room full of people postulating based only on ideas? Again, this is highly personal preference but it’s just bothering me slightly because I’ve been noticing some anti-science trends (or at least language) creeping into a lot of queer articles recently and as a queer scientist it’s something I’d like to try and understand and engage with.

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