by Daniel A. Kaufman
I am beginning to suspect that gender cuts no ontological ice – that genders are not things, as sexes are – and that the concept of gender identity is the problem rather than the solution in our current struggles over gender and sex. Please note that these are only sketches of ideas. The issues are too complicated to do more in an essay like this, and regardless, my views on the matter are hardly settled. Essentially, I am thinking out loud and inviting others to do the same. I also should be clear that I have no personal stake in the issue, and that my interest has been piqued by several significant dimensions of the public discussion on sex and gender: the implications for language; the consequences with respect to how social identities are determined; the connection with civil rights; and the dispute between some gender-identity activists and certain sectors of the feminist and gay activist populations, which has become vitriolic and is contributing to the ongoing fracturing of the liberal consensus, which bodes ill for all of us.
Sex and Gender
When we speak of someone’s sex we are speaking of their reproductive complement, down to the chromosomal level. In human beings there are two sexes – male and female – that correspond to the two elements required for reproduction: sperm and ovum. There is also a tiny percentage of the population in which chromosomal sex and phenotypic sex are inconsistent or in which phenotypic sex cannot be identified one way or the other, but this exceedingly rare condition (less than one half of one percent of the population) does not in any way contradict the claim that the human species, as a whole, is sexually binary, relying for its existence on reproduction effected by two distinct sexes, in contrast with species whose reproduction is, say, asexual. (1)
Gender is uncharacterizable without reference to sex, but also is distinct from it. Traditionally, the two sexes have been associated with discrete sets of socio-cultural roles, manners, dress, affects, and the like, in a way that has been simultaneously normative and subordinating of the female. This is the gendered dimension of human life and has been one of the central targets of feminist activism going back to the 19th century.
Beyond sexual liberation, feminism has been about contesting and overturning traditional gender expression/presentation norms
First and foremost, feminism has been about the liberation of women, as a sex: the right to vote, receive formal education, own property, leave a marriage, enter the professions, and so on.
Feminism’s second most significant task has been to challenge the socio-cultural profile imposed on women; to contest and overturn the distinctive and subordinate gender expression and presentation with which women have been saddled: how they dress and speak and act, what their interests and enthusiasms and hobbies are, etc.
I remember, as a child, being given Marlo Thomas’s 1972 album, Free to Be You and Me, the purpose of which was to articulate both of these critiques in a way accessible to children. (2) It had a profound effect on me – the album is masterfully written and performed – and is something I still listen to and derive tremendous pleasure from. (I even gave it to my wife as a gift, back when we were dating.) Many of the core ideas are summarized in the short piece performed by Dick Cavett, “My Dog is a Plumber”:
My dog is a plumber
He must be a boy
Although I must tell you
That his favorite toy
Is a little play stove
With pans and with pots,
Which he really must like
Cause he plays with it lots.
So perhaps he’s a girl,
Which kind of makes sense
Since he can’t throw a ball
And he can’t climb a fence.
But neither can dad
And I know he’s a man
And mom is a woman
And she drives a van.
Maybe the problem
Is in trying to tell
What someone is
By what he does well.
The concept of gender identity arguably is regressive
Contemporary gender-identity activism maintains that beyond our male/female sex identities, we also have a gender identity that is articulated by way of our gender expression and presentation. Often it goes further than this and subordinates our sexual identity to our gender identity or even ignores sexual identity altogether, in favor of gender identity. The terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as used in ordinary language, are alleged to denote our gender identifies rather than our sex, which is what makes it possible for activists to claim that people who are chromosomally and phenotypically male are in fact, women, because their gender expression and presentation are those traditionally associated with the female sex and that people who are chromosomally and phenotypically female are, in fact, men, because their gender expression and presentation are those traditionally associated with the male sex.
There is a significant irony involved (surely unintended) in the articulation of gender identity by way of gender expression and presentation, given the relationship these bear to traditionalist gender socio-cultural norms. Indeed, doing so goes directly against the principle articulated so charmingly in “My Dog is a Plumber,” in that it suggests we should “tell what someone is by what he does well.” Remember that the idea behind the classical feminist critique of gender was not just that women shouldn’t be forced into roles and modes of presentation traditionally associated with their sex, but that women should not be identified with those roles; that being a woman should not be defined in terms of dresses and makeup and pink and light blue colors and housework and soap operas; that being a woman is being biologically female and that all the rest – how we dress, what we like, what we do, how we act – should be at the discretion of the individual. And yet, contemporary gender identity theory tells us that a Caitlyn Jenner, despite being chromosomally and phenotypically male, is in fact a woman, because she identifies as one by way of clothes, makeup, hairstyle, and manners of behavior and speech, all of which conform to the gender roles and tropes traditionally associated with the female sex. This is the sense in which gender identity is arguably regressive and reactionary and is the reason why the gender-identity movement has found itself in conflict with certain sectors of the feminist and gay rights activist communities.
It was inevitable that gender identity activism would clash with feminist and gay activism
Beyond reaffirming and entrenching traditional gender roles and tropes, the focus on gender identity has a number of implications that have run the movement headlong into some of the core concerns of feminists and gay rights activists and especially the older ones, whose politics developed prior to the current omnipresence of the concept of gender identity. (3) To take just two examples:
- Women’s colleges and other women’s-only spaces were created precisely because of women’s distinctive experiences as a sex, and because of the subordination and discrimination they suffered by virtue of that sex. But if being a woman is entirely a matter of one’s gender-identification, then someone who was born male, who may have lived the bulk of his life as a male, and who consequently had none of those distinctive experiences and suffered none of those distinctive varieties of subordination and discrimination and who now identifies as a woman should be admitted to these women’s-only institutions and spaces. The point is not simply theoretical, as gender-identity activists have pressed for trans-women to be admitted to these institutions and spaces and have accused those who have resisted this of being transphobic. Many of these institutions have acceded to the pressure, and whether women’s-only institutions and spaces will continue to exist in the future looks increasingly unlikely.
- If ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are gender identities, rather than sex identities, then each category is sexually heterogeneous, including people with male and female sex organs. This has given rise not only to a group of people who identify as “lesbian,” despite having male genitalia, but to some gender-identity activists accusing homosexuals who refuse to have sex with trans-women or trans-men of being transphobic. Some gay and lesbian activists have shot back that they are homosexuals, not homogenderals, and the argument, predictably, has turned ugly, with accusations and slurs being hurled from one side to the other, all of which has been detrimental to both communities; the sort of conflict in which there are only losers and no winners. (4)
Gender Identity is Ontologically Profligate
Because gender identity is articulated in terms of expression and presentation, it admits of an indefinite number of variations, with the result being an apparently never-ending proliferation of gender identities. New York State officially recognizes the existence of 31 genders. (5) Facebook recognizes 71. (6) But it’s hard to see how any specific number could ever be determined, given the way gender identity is defined. Indeed, some of the commonly listed gender identities are themselves umbrella terms, containing within them an unspecified number of gender identities (e.g. ‘Aporagender’), while others are defined so similarly as to raise the question of whether they represent a real point of individuation in gender-identity categories (e.g. ‘genderqueer and ‘gender-fluid’).
If gender identities are intended as ontological categories, than this sort of profligacy and “ontological blur” constitute a serious problem, for the reasons Quine articulates in “On What There Is?” (See his discussion of the possible bald and possible fat men in the doorway.) (7) If they are not meant to indicate genuine ontological categories, then it is hard to see why they should not be taken as shorthand for the myriad variations in gender expression/presentation that we encounter in the human population.
We should drop the concept of gender identity and stick with biological sex and gender expression/presentation. Our focus should be on sexual equality and toleration of gender expression and presentation in all their myriad forms
I close with an outline of a proposal as to how to think about these issues that in my view would not only serve the welfare of everyone involved, but would diminish if not eliminate entirely the bloody fight that is dividing segments of the civil rights community and more broadly, the liberal consensus.
- We retain the ontology of biological sex, which is important not just for purposes of medical research and services, but for the proper characterization of sexual identity and sexual orientation, which are crucial to providing adequate civil protections in the law for women and for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
- We acknowledge that the sexes have had associated with them traditional socio-cultural roles and tropes that have been used to subordinate and oppress women. We recognize that in fact, people express and present themselves under innumerable, myriad combinations of these socio-cultural roles and tropes and that this is of great significance to us.
- We affirm and reaffirm our commitment to classical liberal values, which entail that people be allowed to express and present themselves in any gendered way they like, so long as they are not harming others in doing so, not just as a matter of public mores, but as a matter of law. It should be illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their gender expression/presentation.
- We drop the concept of gender identity, because it is ontologically suspect, demonstrably divisive, and because it is unnecessary for the purposes of protecting gender-alternative people, something to which we should all be committed.
(1) Leonard Sax, “How Common is Intersex? A Response to Anne Fausto-Sterling,” Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 39, No. 3 (August 2002).
The title track alone is worth the price of entry. I get emotional every time I hear it.
(3) One of the stronger accounts of the collision of gender-identity activism with classical feminism, from the feminist perspective.