In the past few months there have been an increasing number of attacks on the legitimacy of transgender and gender non-conforming people coming from both the left and the right. Most of these attacks stem from either a flawed understanding of gender, misrepresentation of evidence, or deliberate obtuseness. The responses to these attacks have generally failed to address these underlying problems.
Gender and gender expression are complicated, but not nearly so much as critics would like to claim. They are also not inherently contradictory, nor anti-feminist. Indeed, they can be liberating for everyone. Here are the things you need to know about gender and gender identity in this blizzard of misinformation.
1. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t invalidate it
Many of the most recent attacks by right wing outlets can be summarized as, “This gender theory stuff doesn’t fit my worldview; I totally can’t wrap my head around it, so it must be wrong.” However, an inability to understand something doesn’t make it wrong.
I can’t explain the physics of black holes. Our family dog will never understand the internal combustion engine either. Unlike members of the right wing media though, I’m not out there picking fights with Stephen Hawking, and my dog still likes to go for a ride in the car. The fact that transgender people seem to exist throughout human history is enough to demonstrate that gender, and transgender people, are a reality.
This brings me to my second point.
2. It is not a fad: Gender non-conforming people have been around for millennia
There is extensive archaeological evidence that transgender and gender non-conforming people have existed for millennia. In Eastern Europe, 5,000 year old graves were found with female skeletons buried with male warrior accoutrements. There are records of Norse women going Viking (raiding). Joan of Arc was burned for wearing men’s clothing. The Kama Sutra describes a third sex, and the Bible talks of “self-made eunuchs.” The kathoey of Thailand have a place within Buddhist writings. Other cultures have long traditions of gender non-conforming individuals, such as the hijra of Hinduism and India, the fa’a’fa’fine of the Pacific Islands, and two-spirits in Native American culture.
The reason we see more of it now is a combination of greater cultural awareness of such people, and because of changing cultural norms which allow transgender people to be more visible. For a reducto ad absurdum example, there are a lot more out gay people in California than there are in Iran or Saudi Arabia, because the difference in how they are treated. Similarly, people are much more likely to identify as LGBT in socially tolerant US states than in conservative ones.
The most cutting edge of cultural change right now is coming in the form of gender fluid and non-binary people. This is the part that conservatives have the hardest time with, but is actually just an extension of something a lot of people already do subconsciously already.
3. Gender fluid expression is something a lot of straight cisgender people do (to a degree) already
Women in American society can (and do) express their gender in ways that that can change from day to day, if not hour to hour. They can put on a business suit to feel commanding and strong at work or an interview, both of which are stereotyped as masculine traits. Or mix a jacket with a dress to keep it at a business level, but more feminine. Other times they can dress in ways that make them feel attractive, which often means much more stereotypically feminine attire.
Alternately, there are times when gender expression is completely irrelevant or gender neutral. Most every mom I know has had days when everyone in the house has the flu, and their gender expression is, “screw it I’m wearing tennis shoes, sweat pants, and a sweat shirt to the drug store for more Pedialyte.”
Women in our culture have much greater room to express their gender than men do, but this bolsters the underlying point. Given the option, straight cisgender people will change their gender expression to fit how they want to feel about themselves in that moment, whether it is sexy, strong, or comfortable. While these feelings may be tied to stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, they are deeply ingrained into how we see ourselves.
Gender-fluid people simply take this day-to-day and moment-to-moment variance in expression we see in cisgender people, and expand upon it. Thus, this is not something new, but an evolution due to increased cultural space for such expression.
So, is how we see ourselves based on nature or nurture? Conservative pundits like to ask this as a black or white, yes or no, one or the other question. The truth is more complicated, but not by much.
4. Gender has components of both nature and nurture
Demonstrating that gender has components that are social constructs is relatively easy. The colors pink and blue are not intrinsically gendered; they are merely frequencies of light. Dresses and skirts are not either; they are simply bits of fabric any human being can drape over themselves. (The fact that some people are willing to defend the morality of hurting or killing someone for wearing the “wrong” bit of fabric says a lot more about us than it does the fabric.)
At the same time, people seem to have an innate gender identity, whether female, male, or somewhere in between. Anecdotally, we can see this in Dr. John Money’s failed experiment with David Remer, who was raised as a girl but never identified as such. The guevodoces of the Caribbean similarly appear female until puberty and are raised as such as a result of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. However, at puberty their genitals descend, and are treated as male thereafter. While usually infertile, guevodoces almost universally identify as male, despite their upbringing.
A recent meta-study at Boston University looked at the peer reviewed evidence, and concluded that gender identity has biological origins, though the exact biological mechanisms remain unknown. This conclusion is not uncommon; it is effectively the same conclusion we have reached about sexual orientation and autism; namely that these have biological origins which are not fully understood.
These examples effectively contradict the notion that gender, and gender identity, are purely social construct as well. However, neither is it purely biological; there are components that are cultural. Both are significant, and observing transgender children helps square this circle. Transgender children often assert from a very early age what their gender is, and choose cultural artifacts (e.g. using a towel to make a dress) to express how they see themselves.
Thus, gender has interacting biological and social components.
5. Cultural gender norms change over time naturally
Remember the whole pink and blue thing for boys and girls? That wasn’t always the case. It used to be that pink was the color for baby boys. This can be seen in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, where the baby that Lady protects is clearly sated to be a boy, and yet is dressed in pink, as was traditional at the time.
Going further back, until the end of the 18th century men adorned themselves in a way that was often more colorful and flamboyant than women.
However, after the Great Male Renunciation, men’s garb became drab and uniform, changing very little for 100 years.
Thus, the angst over people eschewing modern gendered norms is less about the norms themselves. If it was about a belief that gender norms are immutable and unchanging, then why aren’t conservatives upset about Lady and the Tramp? They aren’t, and thus fact remains that gender norms are changing and conservatives are angry they have little control over it. The change itself is a normal part of cultural evolution.
6. How you were raised does not determine the reality of your gender identity
One line of argument that tries to further segregate transgender people is that they are not “real” women or men because they do not have the exact same experiences as most cisgender people. This is dangerous in the sense that it invalidates the lived experiences of a threatened minority group, while othering them and opening the door for “separate but equal” legal marginalization. It’s also wrong on a number of levels.
Transgender people are held to a double (read impossible) standard for asserting the validity of their gender identities. David Reimer was raised as a girl, but no one questioned whether he was a “real” boy when he asserted gender identity. The same is true for the guevodoces. In this, we can see that when someone asserts a gender other than the one they were raised in, it is only treated as valid if the individual’s eventual identity is cisgender.
Similarly, many transgender children are now socially transitioning at an early enough age that they will likely have almost no memory of having lived in a different gender role. Even in my case, as a “late” transitioner (mid-30’s), when I die I will likely have spent more than half my life being treated as a woman. On top of that, there’s the issue that male privilege is not monolithic.
Finally, the argument that you’re only a “real” woman if you have menstruated, are fertile, or have had children is reductionist and vaguely creepy, in a Handmaiden’s Tale kind of way. There are cisgender women who never have a period, are infertile, or choose not to have children and don’t have to defend the validity of their gender identity and expression.
7. Transgender people do not intrinsically reinforce gender stereotypes
Transgender people, by definition, go directly against societal norms for how a person should dress or act based on their assigned gender. Virtually every Circuit Court in the U.S. has agreed with this interpretation of what it is to be transgender. However, the argument made by anti-transgender conservatives attempting to appeal to women and feminists is that when transgender people transition, they do so by adopting cultural norms and stereotypes of their target gender, thus reinforcing them.
Both cisgender and transgender people change their gender expression to match how they feel about their gender, and themselves, at any given moment. However, transgender people have traditionally had even less space to express their gender than others.
In the past, transgender people (particularly transgender women) were not allowed to medically transition unless they looked, sounded, and acted in a stereotypically feminine manner. In recent years, people who are visibly gender non-conforming have been at a much higher risk of violence than those who blend in. Religious conservatives have urged violence against transgender people; and the easiest way to avoid this is to adopt an appearance and mannerisms which blend in.
As such, if transgender people have done anything to reinforce stereotypes, it is a result of a patriarchal culture which we have no control over which severely punishes anyone who is seen to violate these stereotypes.
The final nail in the coffin of this flawed argument is that as medical culture reduced gatekeeping, and our culture is making more room for diverse gender expressions, gender non-conforming transgender people are becoming more common. This is perhaps one of the most gender transgressive developments in our culture today, and is a direct result of the work of transgender activists to begin opening this space up.
Far from reinforcing the gender binary and gender stereotypes the transgender movement is actively working against it.