Throughout the discussions on gender that have been sweeping through our circles of late, there’s been one particularly maddening dichotomy in thought that’s been thrown into sharp relief for me — that people having this conversation evidently have competing ideas of what a “social construct” actually is. Will has a great post on the gender discussions proper over at Skepchick, which has a passage that I think highlights exactly why people are getting it wrong in our communities:
It is no coincidence that many people within the atheoskeptosphere tend toward essentialism. After all, most people in these communities tend to highly value the natural sciences and think of science as a culture-free objective enterprise. Thus, the “soft” social sciences (and the non-scientific humanities) are often viewed as being wishy-washy and far less objective than the natural sciences, and so any theories developed in these disciplines are subject to increased, if not hyper, skepticism.
I cannot think of a more accurate statement to summarize why people in these communities are having such a hard time with these conversations.
Content note for topics that involve violence against certain genders or identities, assault on personal autonomy, and might trigger dysphoria amongst people prone to such. I’m trying to be sensitive herein, but we’re talking about gender-prescriptivists and the nexus of sex and gender.
Full disclosure, I’m a heteronormative heterosexual cis white middle-class male — pretty well the privilege royal flush in our society. But I have a particular interest in society and the so-called “soft sciences” of sociology; of human interactions, gender, and social justice. So, I’m bending my thoughts to the fights I’ve witnessed over many many years of blogging and other internet conversations. Correct me if I get anything wrong herein, please. I’d strongly prefer you voice your concerns and I alter part of this argument, than that I cause anyone (especially those already under scrutiny or oppression) any undue pain.
Though recently we’ve all seen this argument play out in relation to trans identity (my most proximate example is in the comments on my only post on the most recent fight), I’ve personally witnessed this particular vector of discussion play out far more often in context of race — mostly when one explains that race is a social construct, by virtue of the actual genetic differences involved between races being swamped out by something as commonplace as, say, the difference between the average child and either of their parents. The arguments generally play out identically though — “Reals, not feels”, shout the hyperskeptics. “Therefore we should be colourblind and thus ignore any injustice happening to one race — All Lives Matter.” However, even those arguments, galling though they are, become confused when someone, in service of anti-trans sentiment or simply out of ignorance of the topic at hand and making false analogies, tries to make the argument that Rachel Dolezal was “trans-racial”, and that if we were “colourblind” we might recognize that Rachel Dolezal is just the same as Caitlyn Jenner and her transition from man to woman.
And they’re confused because they mistake “social construct” for something that is entirely made up and thus could be thrown out without impact, rather than being an agreed-upon framework by which we understand differences between human beings and as label shortcuts to simplify language, and to better understand a rough approximation of a person’s identity and upbringing in shorthand.
Race is a social construct. Gender is also a social construct. That does not make them “not real things”, in the same way that money is a social construct — as an abstraction and standardization of value and a symbol of resources available to a person. Nobody is rushing to say money doesn’t actually exist or have any importance in our capitalist society. They might want to abolish money, in the same way as a person might want to abolish gender. But that’s not to say they’re going to succeed without serious changes in society, changes that evidently can’t be envisioned happening by increments by the people proposing that abolishing the construct is a worthy goal. In the case of money, you’d have to have absolute abundance of all resources — free limitless energy and a replicator machine that could make whatever you want with that energy, for instance. In the case of gender, you’d have to have a society that accepted any performative aspect of self-identity without our innate desire to pigeonhole or label them in short-form for communications purposes.
Perhaps another example would help. Another thing that’s a social construct is sex. Not sexual congress, but the binary male / female dichotomy. Genetics are not so binary, and there’s a fuzzy area in between the assignments where things get dicey. Assigning a child a sex at birth when maybe 95% (a number off the top of my head) might fit readily into one of the two boxes without issues, and the remainder do not fit quite so neatly, is very problematic. It’s doubly problematic when people — doctors, parents, cigar makers — use the mental shortcut of what sex that child is assigned to determine what gender they’re likewise assigned at birth. The cigars don’t after all say “it’s a male!” And “it’s a boy!” could rightly be viewed with skepticism as to its certainty, knowing that it’s only VERY LIKELY a boy, and might actually turn out to be, say, a trans neutrois person once they’re fully able to make the gender identity determination for themselves.
But “It’s very likely a boy!” won’t play well on cigars except amongst a particularly enlightened crowd. And even then, with a truly enlightened society, who’s to say the parents would then have any particular investment or excitement of hitting the Red-or-Black on the roulette wheel, that they might ask doctors to bump the child from 0 or 00 into their preferred category? There’s comfort in certainty that you’ve pigeonholed a person appropriately. There’s likewise an abrogation of personal integrity in altering the child to fit one or the other sets of criteria.
Some examples of this that happen fairly regularly (given how rare the conditions involved actually are) include removal of one or the other set of sexual organs from intersex children, or giving courses of testosterone to a micropenised boy or removing it altogether and raising the child as a girl. The existence of the Phall-O-meter, developed by Anne Fausto-Sterling, speaks to our desire to enforce a sex binary. And we all know that this sex binary impacts on gender, because parents generally socialize infants in the gender that matches their sex — people with vaginas are treated as little girls, etc.
It is no surprise that there is so much pushback against abolition of the gender binary — even by those who claim to want to eliminate gender altogether, who rail against trans folk as being alternately “invaders” into female spaces, or “traitors” by switching side to Team Patriarchy. When the binary suggests that men are always oppressors and women always victims, that presupposes that everyone must fit into one of those two categories and that gender — which is performative — isn’t actually impacted societally by those two camps. That you can take on any gender you want without having had that gender impacted by society socializing a person in a particular way. And yet, you will see the same people presupposing a sex dichotomy, railing against performative gender, demanding that only assigned-females-at-birth get any dominion over the gender category of “woman”, and that any trans woman must needs define themselves as “males with unusual gender performance”. TERFs‘ ideology is confused in this way — it argues both sides of each issue to arrive at a muddled and hairy conclusion that necessarily marginalizes identities whose very existence undercut their own. It is no wonder people like Cathy Brennan and Elizabeth Hungerford petitioned to have trans identity stripped from UN protections — the existence of trans folk undercuts their own sense of self-identity. They believe that a trans woman in a “female-bodied” space would pose some sort of danger to their efforts to… eliminate gender. Because some of these trans women might ACTUALLY be male rapists in disguise! Or some other fear-mongering nonsense. You know.
No, I’m not sure how to square that either. I just don’t know why anyone would want to try, why anyone who pretends at rationality who legitimately wants to interrogate gender and their relationship with it wouldn’t write off Brennan and Hungerford as cranks and get their gender-critical ideas elsewhere.
It is probably possible to be “transracial” in a limited sense. It is certainly possible for a white person to live in a predominantly black culture and to integrate into local customs and, as the racist phrase goes, “go native”. To naturalize to a culture that is not the one of their heritage. America was after all founded on being a melting pot of culture. Certainly people do it all the time here, coming to America to start a small business and find their fortune, despite hailing from a country where the closed-minded and provincial sorts who live in this country might look at you and say “yer a terrist!” because you’re not the same colour as them, or speak with an accent, or have a funny name (not like good American names like Stroker or Dorkoff). And these people integrate into some amount of the local culture, even though America as a culture is not itself a race. It is a good example of how someone might come to adhere to cultural standards of a “race” which might have firebreaks built between intermingling — laws like anti-miscegenation, microaggressions against people of certain skin color, systemic problems like broken-window policing that keep society stratified and finding that those stratifications, strangely enough, occur along racial divides. All of this might lead to someone being socialized into another “race” despite not technically being a member, and functioning primarily within the framework of that race.
But a person like Dolezal who might still benefit at any time from white privilege by stopping kinking their hair and pretending to be a light-skinned black person, who chose to present as black out of cynical self-interest and an evident desire to be the blacks’ Great White Hope and lead their organizations and be their Respectable Spokesperson, is more like the grossly improbable bugaboo scenario of a person pretending to be trans in order to invade your spaces. It’s a violation in that it’s not true. It’s not, like with Caitlyn Jenner’s gender identity, about finding an identity that is more comfortable to you at the expense of some amount of privilege, about being able to perform an identity that fits better your internal map of self. With Dolezal, it was about a person literally deceiving an underclass in order to gain some measure of direct power over them. Try to tell me that Jenner has more power as a woman, binning all but vestiges of her macho Olympian past, without sounding like an MRA.
And beyond all that, even black folks who integrate thoroughly with white culture in America to the point of participating in all the societally prescribed methods of maintaining the capitalist stratification that keeps their race oppressed, will themselves become targets by racists. A black CEO of a Fortune 500 company would, I posit, have a higher chance of being pulled over and maybe murdered in a traffic stop for resisting arrest than a white carjacker driving the same Porsche. Race is a social construct based mostly around skin colour and prejudice, and any cultural upbringing associated with that race becomes conflated and confused with that race. Thus a racist might make fun of black people for eating collard greens while New Zealanders can get away with eating Dalmatian cabbage without a second look.
That social construct has real impact. Saying “race is a social construct” is not the same thing as saying “race isn’t real and we should all be colourblind”. And saying “gender is a social construct” is not the same as saying gender has no impact, or that if we did away with gender that people would no longer need to perform anything.
In fact, I think the opposite. Even if you’re critical of gender in its current form, there will always be a performative aspect of gender. Even those who don’t perform typically, who are disinterested in any overt displays of gender, are performing the gender identity that they are most comfortable with — they have added to their self-identity those routines that allow them to avoid what they know society expects of them, and that abstaining is itself performative. It is possible to be agender entirely, to simply be the intellectual whose only pursuits are science, or the artist whose only pursuits are art, who cannot function in society because they cannot relate to other people, or who can function in society by understanding the social mores and rules and performing them only to the point where they don’t involve anything related to sexuality or romantic coupling. It’s even possible for people who are entirely agender to perform romantic gestures with one another. (Though steeped as we are in heteronormative romantic narratives, it would look to most of us like a couple that fits into other boxes, like a regular heterosexual couple who happens to perform gender very differently, who wears or dresses however they want regardless of gender associations with particular modes of dress.)
But gender also serves a purpose in society, though it need not necessarily if only we were more willing as a species to ask questions of our potential partners. When I say I want all people of all sexes to be able to perform whatever gender they prefer without being judged for it, I also understand that heterosexual cis people might have an interest in finding a reproductive mate and that these people might be inclined to look for, or rule out, certain mates based on those intentions, and looking for people of particular genders is a quick mental shortcut.
This might also be why there’s such a moral panic amongst bigots about the possibility of these shortcuts being “wrong” in the sense that what they perceive to be a woman might actually have a penis, meaning they found themselves attracted to someone with whom they can’t mate in the traditional sense. Their heterosexuality is thrown into question because of someone else’s performance and they become confused, because their identity is so tied up in their preferring vulvas that they find any chance of them judging presence of preferred sexual organ incorrectly to be repulsive. Their identity then hinges on preventing someone else from performing theirs, and they become (often violently) reactive.
So there will always be some judgment involved in interpersonal interactions. I’d just rather it be pluralistic and pragmatic judgment rather than xenophobic or bigoted judgment resulting in unnecessary pain out of reactions to perceived assault on the bigot’s self-identity. And I’m especially disinterested in judgments that result in abridging people’s rights as full human beings; or judgments that result in violations of bodily autonomy or bodily integrity. I think my positions about pluralism, about gender, and about trans-inclusivity specifically are entirely consistent with my core belief that each human being has a right to self-direction and self-identity, and that only where that self-identity trods upon another’s is the identity itself in question.
It’s for that reason that I side with women against a society that would force women to be birthing factories, that I would side with black folks against a systemic injustice that results in their disproportionate murder and incarceration and enforced poverty at the hands of those with power, and that I would side with trans folks against those trans-exclusive “gender critical” folks who find the existence of trans identity to be undercutting to their own sense of identity and who would petition to strip them of fundamental human rights.
It seems only fair and just in this world rife with injustice.
And one cannot come to these positions without understanding what a social construct actually is, and isn’t. You can’t change the world in a positive way without first understanding how it functions now, or by throwing out large swathes of it in service of a jingoistic “colourblindness” or “genderblindness” just because it feels like the more skeptical course of action. If you try to navigate society by gut feel, you’ll get results no better than random — you might arrive at the most just world, but only by sheer chance.