The conversation continues about the “gender quest”

This post continues the conversation about a “Gender Quest Workbook” that I criticized here. You’ll need to read that post in order to understand this one.

Skepto said: “I read the definitions of gender you quoted somewhat differently.
Their explicit definitions, which you agreed with, didn’t say that masculinity and femininity were genders, but that gender was “how your identity, or sense of self, relates to masculinity and femininity”, and that’s not a binary concept. For example, if we measure “relating” on a single 10-point scale (from 1 = “don’t relate at all”, to 10 = “relate completely”), it’s possible to relate to masculinity at 4 and femininity at 9, to masculinity at 3 and femininity at 2, to masculinity at 8 and femininity at 7, and so on. A 10-point-scale alone would yield a hundred different gender identities.
And the reality gets much more complicated, because we don’t have single 10-point-scale for relating: it’s e.g. possible to relate to one element of femininity very strongly and to another not at all, and it’s possible to have ambivalent feelings about various elements, and those feelings are likely to shift over time, and everyone’s conceptualization of femininity and masculinity are somewhat different (depending on culture, subculture, individual experiences, role models, etc.), and the relations might shift over time in recognizable patterns (they’re likely to shift overall, along with the concepts of femininity and masculinity, but not necessarily in patterns).
So saying that there are as many genders as people doesn’t contradict the notion of gender as how one relates to (the binary concepts) femininity and masculinity – it just means there are as many different ways to relate to them as there are people. It’s not necessary to make a separate concept of -inity for every gender to recognize there are more genders than we have concepts for. (As an analogy: we also don’t have names for every possible wavelength of light, but that doesn’t mean there are only as many wavelengths as we have color names for.)”

After reading this, it looks to me like you are defining gender as personality. I don’t think you’re saying gender and personality are exactly the same thing, but that gender is one part of the personality—the part that relates to masculinity and femininity. I agree that all people relate to masculinity and femininity in individual ways, and we either identify with or feel uncomfortable with different aspects of each. I also agree that the way we relate to masculinity and femininity can be an inborn personality trait that one cannot change. I have a couple of points to make about that:

  1. If every person identifies with or feels uncomfortable with different aspects of masculinity and femininity, then why is this a significant thing? Like, if every person experiences this, then it’s just a part of human nature, so it doesn’t warrant being specially recognized. Why do some people need to go around saying they have a “gender” if “gender” is just an element of personality that we all have? It looks to me like this is just people going around unnecessarily announcing their personalities to people. I could go around asking people to identify me as an introvert and bookworm but why would I do that? If people get to know me they’ll recognize my personality. If they don’t know me, then it doesn’t concern them what my personality type is. If gender is an element of personality then I don’t see why it’s more important than any other aspect of personality or why it needs to be made into a big huge deal. I can identify the ways that I relate to masculinity and femininity too, and I could label it with a gender label, but why? Anyone who interacts with me will be able to tell how I like to present myself, what sorts of things I’m interested in, what colours I like, what mannerisms I have, etc, and this will be obvious even in the absence of a “gender” label that I may attach to it. I suppose you are going to say that we need to know people’s gender so that we can know their pronouns, or something? But we refer to people based on their sex, not their gender, and people of either sex can have any relationship to masculinity and femininity and that doesn’t affect their biological sex.
  2. If every person has their own unique relationship to masculinity and femininity, then I don’t think there can possibly be a dichotomy between “cis” and “trans.” If everyone has their own unique gender, then these categories are pretty useless.
  3. If gender is an aspect of personality, then why does anyone need to modify their body in order to express it? Can’t anyone express their personality in the body they already have? The whole point of transgenderism is to align the body with the “gender.” As long as people are defining gender as personality, then it’s clear to me that transgenderists believe that certain personalities go with certain bodies, and that bodies that don’t match the personality must be changed. I find this outrageous and also sexist. Anyone, male or female, can have any personality, and to suggest otherwise is to limit what people can do on the basis of their sex. Usually the reason someone perceives that their body doesn’t match their personality is because they are female-bodied and masculine or male-bodied and feminine. The fact that this is viewed as a problem that needs to be fixed means they hold the sexist belief that women must be feminine and men must be masculine. The social roles of masculinity and femininity exist to keep men and women in a hierarchy and uphold patriarchy.
  4. I don’t think you usually define gender as personality. I think you normally define gender as something along the lines of a person’s lived role as man or woman, or perhaps the “social category” they live in. The reason I think so is that you consider your gender to be “man” although you are not biologically male, so the gender “man” is the social category or lived role that you experience. So do you think that gender is both a social category and the way we relate to masculinity/femininity? Some interesting questions emerge when we consider that “gender” could mean both the “social category of man or woman” and “the way we relate to masculinity and femininity.” It seems to me that if the way we relate to masculinity and femininity is the same thing as our social role, then our social role is in fact determined by the way we relate to masc/fem. I think what this boils down to is that someone who identifies with masculinity is necessarily in the social category of “man” regardless of their biology and that someone who identifies with femininity is in the social category of “woman,” regardless of their biology. It seems really fishy to me that there would be any connection at all between someone’s identification with masc/fem and someone’s lived social category as man/woman. If there is any connection between these two things, then what this is all about is enforcing masculinity on men and femininity on women by asserting that anyone masculine must live in the social category “man” and vice versa. If this isn’t about making sure everyone in the category “man” is masculine and everyone in the category “woman” is feminine, then why are people being encouraged to identify how they relate to masc/fem and then change their bodies to match? And if you don’t think that gender is both a social category and the way we relate to masculinity/femininity, then you must either disagree with the definition offered by this book or with the definition often in use by transgenderists.
  5. From what I understand, you didn’t decide you were a trans man because you felt you were masculine, but because you felt you were male. You were born with a brain that clicks with maleness, and this isn’t about identifying with the social construct of masculinity. You can correct me if I’m wrong. If this is the way you understand transsexualism, then why would masculinity and femininity have anything to do with it at all? If an FtM transsexual is born with a brain that identifies with maleness, rather than masculinity, then why would it be useful at all to explore how you relate to masculinity and femininity when determining your “gender” (lived social category as man or woman). Why didn’t this book, (and trans people in general,) talk about identifying how you relate to maleness or femaleness rather than how you relate to masculinity and femininity? No matter which way it’s explained, it seems to me that transgenderists are equating masculinity with maleness and femininity with femaleness. If transsexualism was just about the brain “clicking with” the biological aspects of male and female and NOT about the brain clicking with the social constructs of masculinity and femininity then the way this gender book was written, and the way trans people often talk, would be completely different. I maintain that it’s okay for men to be feminine and for women to be masculine, and this is not a problem and doesn’t need to be fixed. When feminine men and masculine women experience discomfort it’s due to sexism coming from society, and the correct way to go about fixing this is to eradicate sexism.

Skepto said: “And I’m continually fascinated/confused by what you do and don’t consider sexism. Why do you count being forbidden from participating in the Boy Scouts as sexism, but wouldn’t count being forbidden from other sex-/gender-specific settings (from sports to bathrooms to certain events, e.g. a lesbian party)? I mean, sure, those are just for women, but the Boy Scouts are for boys (like the name says) – why wouldn’t that argument count for you? When is sex segregation justified in your eyes and when isn’t it? (I imagine the answer might be protection, but surely you’re aware that the same argument has been and is still being made to prohibit women from lots of activities and spaces – just think of women in combat, and segregation in Saudi Arabia.)”

I’m working on a post regarding ‘what I consider to be sexism.’ Because it’s another 2000 word essay I’m going to publish it separately, hopefully tomorrow. [Update: sexism post here.]

Skepto said: “I have the same question about pronouns and clothing. You’ve said pronouns are there to communicate etc., but can’t clothing and balloon colors and toys also communicate one’s sex? Especially children do typically get read based on those factors, since there are hardly any physical differences in (pre-pubescent) children.
(Incidentally, one of the earliest stories about me relating to gender is one in which I was upset at being addressed with female-gendered language, specifically, being referred to as [female astronaut] rather than [male astronaut]. I don’t get why “blue balloons are for boys” is sexist, but “this word is just for boys and you can’t use it for yourself” is not.)”

I’m partially responding to this here (below) and partially in my other post about sexism.

Skepto said: “It might also be worth noting that playing around with one’s gender expression and exploring one’s gender identity certainly doesn’t have to involve hormones or body modifications of any kind. Thinking about gendered physical aspects (that is, aspects considered masculine or feminine) and what attributes one would like to have can be valuable in getting a clearer idea of how one relates to femininity and masculinity, but no gender identity requires making changes.”

I’m surprised to see the phrase “no gender identity requires making changes.” Then why do so many trans people consider it imperative that they be given hormones and surgeries and make it sound like they will die if they don’t get it? Then why is the DSM-5 section on gender dysphoria specifically formulated to offer a diagnosis so that people can get transgender-related body modifications covered by their insurance? I would actually agree that no gender identity requires making changes—you can relate to masculinity and femininity any way you want without changing anything about yourself. But the point of trans activism seems to be to convince everyone that making physical changes is imperative.

I said, in the first gender quest post: “So I really gotta ask, if transgenderism is simply about correcting an inborn neurological disorder and is not about trying to fit into social ideas of masculinity/femininity, why have a group of three gender experts, at least one of whom is actually trans, written a book in which they guide young people to discover their gender by considering their degree of masculinity/femininity, their personality, and sexism, if transgenderism is not about these things? If transgenderism is about correcting a neurological disorder, why isn’t that what they talk about here?”

Skepto said: “I’m not sure how to parse this. I mean, I might differ from what you consider transgenderists in the extent to which I think being trans is innate. But a trait being innate and relating to social ideas is not mutually exclusive: there are certainly social ideas about e.g. being introverted vs. extroverted, but that doesn’t mean introversion and extroversion don’t have genetical/innate components. I believe it’s much the same with maleness/femaleness: there may be an innate component to how one’s brain relates to certain physical features that happen to be connected to social ideas of masculinity/femininity. (And there’s a feedback loop going on here as well, where being able to get closer to other things considered masculine/feminine helps with the disconnect from these physical features, hence the lessening of dysphoria with gender-appropriate pronouns.)”

Fair enough, but I have a chicken/egg question here: does the person identify with the social aspects of masculinity because their brain connects with maleness or does their brain connect with maleness because they identify with social aspects of masculinity? Transmasculine folks always say that they hated wearing a dress, would cry and scream when they were made to wear a dress, wanted to play with the boys, etc. Their parents (and everyone else for that matter) kept telling them “you can’t do that because you’re a girl” and so they grew up hating being a girl and had repeated thoughts about how everything would be better if they were male. Then over time, I believe what happens is the brain learns to keep going back to that feeling of wanting a male body until it feels like just an automatic/innate feeling rather than a conscious thought, and she believes she was just born inherently needing to be male.

From what I understand from this comment, and from your position in general, a person’s brain innately relates to physical features of being male or female, so for example, someone’s brain might innately relate to having either breasts or a flat chest. If transgenderism is about relating to maleness or femaleness, rather than relating to the social construct of masculinity and femininity, then wouldn’t a better prompt for getting people to think about this be a prompt where learners are guided to think about what body parts they identify with, rather than what cultural stereotypes (blue/pink balloons) they identify with?

Your example about the astronauts is really handy. I don’t know any more about the situation than what you said, but to illustrate a point, let’s say that you were told that both men and women could be astronauts, and you still felt that “male astronaut” felt like a better fit for you. This is at least closer to being an indication of an innate gender identity than the balloon example, because the balloon example is just straight-up stupid sexism. However, I still can’t rule out sexism from the astronaut example because maybe you had an underlying belief that male astronauts were better or more valid than female astronauts, because you had previously learned sexist ideas in other contexts? Sometimes these underlying attitudes are buried deep and you’re not even aware of them. So while there is no proof of sexism here, we also can’t rule it out.

This reminds me of a story I heard from a transwoman whose presentation I attended a few years ago. She talked about being in first grade and the boys and girls in her class had to line up in separate lines for the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. She kept getting into the girls’ line and the teacher kept telling her to get back into the boys’ line. She said she felt confused because she assumed she belonged in the girls’ line and didn’t know why people kept telling her to get into the boys’ line. This is the sort of story where gender dysphoria is obvious, but sexism isn’t explicitly obvious. Since the boys and girls are being treated the same, both being allowed to line up for the bathroom at the same time, and both having access to a similar facility, there is nothing sexist going on, but the person still felt she should be in the girls’ line. However, even though there is no explicit sexism in this story, the question remains as to why this little boy felt so strongly he was a girl. A lot of transwomen say things like they liked pink and sparkly things and wanted to wear girls’ clothes. Did this little boy conclude he was a girl because he liked pink and sparkly things, and because he was taught that only girls like pink and sparkly things? Because if so, then what he has isn’t an innate female gender identity but a reaction to the sexism being directed at him.

So getting back to the examples in the gender book, why didn’t they use prompts such as your astronaut story or this lining up for the bathroom story that make gender dysphoria obvious but that don’t explicitly point to sexism? If I were trying to promote transgenderism as an innate gender identity that isn’t just a reaction to sexism, then I would make sure my examples, questions and prompts contained no obvious signs of sexism and that they only pointed to examples of dysphoria that could not be easily connected to sexism or any social factors. If I am to take them seriously as academics and as writers and activists, then I’m going to assume they deliberately chose these examples because they are good indicators of gender dysphoria. If being uncomfortable when you are told you can’t have a blue balloon because they are “for boys” is a good indicator of gender dysphoria, then gender dysphoria is when an individual responds with discomfort to the sexism people are directing at them. The cure for this is not to change the body, it’s to challenge sexism.

If gender dysphoria is an innate condition that has nothing to do with social causes such as sexism and homophobia, then the prompt to get someone thinking about their early experiences recognizing their gender dysphoria would look more like this:

“Can you remember the first time you strongly and inexplicably felt that the physical aspects of your body were the wrong ones and that you should have the physical aspects of the opposite sex?”

This sort of question would lead only people with gender dysphoria to think of an example and most people would not have one. (Well, they might if they have some sort of other body dysmorphic disorder.)

I’m not trying to imply that you do know or that you should know the thought process or motivations of the authors of this particular book, or that you are responsible for what they wrote. I’m only trying to point out that when trans people discuss why they believe they are trans or what a gender identity is, they often implicate sexism and homophobia in what they say. I’ve given many examples of this happening over the last few months, in various posts, and this is just one of them. I am always interested in hearing from people who believe they have an innate gender identity and who debate in good faith to see if they agree or disagree with comments of transgenderists who implicate sexism and homophobia in the reasons they are trans.

So far, the evidence I’m seeing is overwhelming that the reasons women (or people AFAB as you might call them) transition is due to being uncomfortable with being female because of the sexism and homophobia directed at them. I disagree with transition as a strategy because it leaves the system of patriarchy intact and what we should be doing instead is ending sexism, misogyny, and homophobia by ending patriarchal oppression of women.

I would expect that if there is anyone out there AFAB who merely has a neurological disorder or a brain that innately clicks with maleness and if this condition is clearly not rooted in social causes such as sexism or homophobia, then she would probably not agree with the majority of assertions made by the trans community—because they are implicating sexism and homophobia constantly as the reasons for being trans, and they are constantly perpetrating sexism and homophobia in their activism. I would expect that someone with such a neurological disorder, who is against sexism and homophobia, would probably be completely horrified with the current state of trans activism since it’s so harmful to women and her views would probably be very similar to mine.

2 thoughts on “The conversation continues about the “gender quest”

  1. Wow. So much going on here.
    1. I also want to know: if gender is just another aspect of personality, then why is it so significant? I think we’re living in an age when people are ALL ABOUT LABELS. Maybe I see this more because I work at a high school, but people love to label themselves as introverted, extroverted, pan, cis, Taurus, ADHD, etc. I think part of this is due to the disconnect we’re struggling with because of technology, specifically social media, but as that hasn’t entered this conversation, I’m going to leave it. Regardless, if gender is something to be “played with” then why does it warrant protest or forcing others to change the language they use?
    2. Great point! If everyone has a distinct relationship with masculinity and femininity then why the distinction between cis and trans? Don’t we all just exist on some sort of continuum?

    In regards to sexism, there’s a marked difference in ideologies. Organizations like the Boy Scouts are sexist when they discriminate against girls because men have power over women and have been oppressing them, keeping them down/out for centuries. Oppressed groups keeping dominant groups out is not sexist. We’re talking about POWER. The examples given (keeping women out of combat or sex-segregated spaces and activities is Saudi Arabia) are completely in line with sexist patriarchal ideals that women need protecting, are unfit to serve with men, unclean, weak, etc.

    Sexism is absolutely present in our language in that male is the norm or default. Referring to someone as a “lady doctor,” “female cop,” or “woman astronaut” should be upsetting to EVERYONE because it assumes women wouldn’t regularly do these jobs!

    Finally, skepto, like so many others, seems to conflate gender stereotypes with biological sex. This is exactly what we’re fighting against! Wanting to wear your hair short, wear pants, no makeup, not shave, work construction does not mean you need a penis or to be called “he.” We’ve been fighting a REALLY LONG TIME for women to be able to express themselves the way they want!

    Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 2 people

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