In Defense of Fluidity and Self-Determination
Any Prosers who know a bit about me will be unsurprised that I've been driven back to Prose after a short hiatus to debate social issues. I believe there's value in creating awareness around topics that folks might otherwise ignore out of complacency or selfishness. It's also a worthwhile pursuit to question and critique EVERYTHING - especially today, when so many people's perspectives are based on misinformation and biases (unconscious or not). Plus, I'm a Gemini, and I've never met an argument I didn't like. :)
**Before we begin, a disclaimer - I'm happy to provide any and all links to the research I reference throughout this piece. As far as I'm aware, the current Prose UI doesn't support hyperlinking, and I simply don't want to clunk up my writing with lengthy URLs. Feel free to reach out in the comments or via direct message for more information.**
When I came across this thoughtful writing challenge on gender, I was excited to read about folks' experiences. As Baldwin says, "'You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read." I find that even when I read about someone with a vastly different human experience than mine, I'm able to find connection in the emotion - and it helps me better understand certain people and communities with whom I might never have the opportunity to interact with otherwise.
But as I read one particular post by @EstherFlowers1, I must admit I'm having trouble empathizing with her perspective, mostly because I think it serves to invalidate the experiences of trans, non-binary and gender fluid folks, which is not only demoralizing, but dangerous. Also, there's a fair amount expressed in her piece that simply isn't based on an accurate understanding of gender and sex, which are two distinct concepts. While I can agree to disagree with all sorts of folks, it becomes an issue when their opinions are rooted in or contribute to the oppression, marginalization or brutalization of others. That said, I doubt there is a purposeful attempt to do harm here, but outcomes matter regardless of intention. Hopefully, this can be a good learning experience for anyone who engages with both of our pieces.
To start, I want to note that I have a Master's degree in Communication, with a research focus on gender and politics, and I've taught a host of undergraduate courses on gender representation and the intersection of gender and labor, among other things. I tell you all this not to toot my own horn (although, I worked hard and published some great work, so why not?), but because of this: Since the Trump presidency, there has been a troubling trend of anti-intellectualism where folks think all opinions are created equal. The reality is, however, if someone is an expert in their field, their educated opinion should and does hold more weight than a random person you pluck off the street who doesn't have the same working knowledge. That's why we go to doctors when we're sick and not our neighbor who is an accountant. In terms of this discussion, I have no insight into Esther's background, so I am not asserting that she doesn't have any authority or experience with which to speak on the matter. I only state this to let folks know what academic and professional experience I am pulling from when I lay out my thoughts in this piece.
To start, Esther makes the point that gender, though a generalization, is not a completely useless way to categorize people, because it helps us identify who to have sex and reproduce with. There are a couple of issues here. The first is that it is sex, not gender, that has served as the basis for humans to determine who to mate with for reproductive purposes. The term is "sexual dimorphism" not "gender dimorphism," and for good reason. Early neanderthals, for example, were often nude - they could see the biological differences in others - breasts and vaginas versus penises - and that is how they determined who to reproduce with. And you better believe that everyone was hairy as fuck - so it's not like they were confused by a woman with a mustache because there's something innately unfeminine about body hair. Furthermore, having sex to reproduce is different from having sex for pleasure, and, as a result, we've see homosexual and bisexual activity across different species and periods throughout time.
Additionally, it's worth noting that there is a growing pool of research about "postgenderism"that examines the potential for advanced assistive reproductive options to render all humans capable of both carrying a pregnancy to term and impregnating someone, which would eliminate the need for gender identification in society to its benefit - individuals would no longer be constrained or oppressed by gender role expectations. So, to say that this or other interrogations of gender as a social construct is making a "mockery of sex and gender and reproduction" that will contribute to natural selection weeding out such folks is not only false, but also seems to suggest that those who do not ascribe to a binary interpretation of gender don't have legitimate reasons for doing so. If we're mocking anything, it should be a binary understanding of gender that doesn't adequately represent the breadth of human experience and largely only serves to pigeonhole people. But much more effective than mocking is dismantling and reimagining.
In early civilizations, expectations as to behaviors for women and men varied from community to community based on the environment and population size, not because they recognized some innate characteristics of women to be more gentle and men to be more assertive, for example. The research continues to show that there is no sex-based evidence for behavioral traits. Rather, modern day women and men in the U.S. have been socialized to believe in and ascribe to traditional gender roles because they are rewarded with social capital. In fact, we've seen societies - both throughout history and in contemporary contexts - that have completely different conceptions of gender than we do in the U.S. or other industrialized Western nations. Certain Native American tribes, Indigenous Australian populations, South Asian and Samoan communities (just to name a few) have recognized gender fluid or non-binary folks, others have five or six gender categories, and some have none at all. Similarly, they have different expectations of those gender roles, or are largely egalitarian - because, put simply, gender is what a society makes it.
A great example of an egalitarian-minded society exists in Sweden. In certain schools in modern-day Stockholm, teachers try not to use terms like “boys” or “girls” or gender-specific pronouns. In an effort to reach a greater level of gender equality, they push for gender neutrality. Pronouns like “he and she” are replaced with “hen,” and children’s books have protagonists who are not clearly male or female. This effort helps teachers interrogate and counteract impulses to behave in certain ways with students of certain genders that disadvantage them - Like telling little boys to suck it up when they get hurt versus taking time to console and communicate with them like they do with little girls. The model has been so successful that they've continued to expand it to new schools every year.
The bottom line is that the gender binary assigns different roles, status, expectations and power to humans with male and female genitals, without any biological need to do so - it's a way to exercise cultural control that puts a population of humans who have all sorts of preferences and traits into a binary prison that not only forces them to deny their authentic selves to the detriment of their mental health, but also renders them vulnerable to discrimination and violence based on a conception of how folks "should be" that ignores the reality of how they actually are. In this case, a world with no gender or a broader understanding of it, at least, would mean that your biological sex would have no social meaning, just as being right-or left-handed has no inherent meaning. (Although people actually used to think left-handed folks were less capable, so parents forced their kids to use their right hands. See how sociocultural attitudes can shift over time when we encounter new evidence?) To me, genderlessness doesn't sound too bad at all.
With that, there are a few tangential points left that I would be remiss if I didn't also address. In her piece, Esther goes on to assert that "children need fathers and they need mothers," hence why maintaining a gender binary is important - but there's no factual basis for this claim. In fact, the research suggests the opposite. In these contemporary studies, we see that children in same-sex-parented families outperform children in different-sex-parented families on multiple indicators of academic performance, including standardized tests scores, high school graduation rates and college enrollment. Adolescents of same-sex parents also experience fewer social problems than a nationally representative age-matched sample of American youths. Even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic factors, this positive association does not disappear. What this research may suggest is that same-sex couples who are more open-minded and understanding of varying representations of sexuality and gender, based on their own experience, are more likely to produce thriving offspring than heterosexual couples who may be constrained by traditional gender role stereotyping.
This segues into her discussion of "anti-breeding" sentiments, which she dismisses as a selfish trend. The observable reality, however, is that there are a myriad of substantive, material obstacles to childrearing in 21st century Western capitalist societies like we have in the U.S. Without living wages, affordable healthcare or childcare, less and less folks have the practical ability to raise children, even if they want to. And from an environmental perspective, we also must consider that the planet is overpopulated, climate change is an existential threat to humanity, and people do not want to raise children in a world where there is so much uncertainty about food and other resources, natural disasters and what have you. All this is not to say that as our understanding of gender roles evolves, that personal choice is not also a factor here - women no longer feel the same level of societal pressure to marry or reproduce - and why shouldn't both women and men feel empowered to make the best decisions for themselves? It seems that this should be the most fundamental of human rights, especially given that we are not facing an extinction crisis from lack of childrearing (although from all the other stuff, sure - we're on our way out.)
I'll conclude by saying this - someone expressing their gender identity outside of the binary conceptualization we've been taught does not hurt individuals, nor collective society. The only folks being hurt are the ones that are being denied the right to do so - whether it's through legislation that bans gender affirming care, restricts access to public restrooms, allows businesses to refuse service etc. or through hostile communities that ridicule and endanger them both physically and mentally. Even for cisgender folks, traditional gender roles are often the cause of great strife, whether it's through the restriction of bodily autonomy, a lack of career opportunities, discrimination in the workplace, abuse at the hands of others who deem themselves more powerful on the basis of gender alone, or simply mental anguish over not "fitting the mold." As long as they're not hurting anyone, how hard is it to just let people live their lives how they wish?