A case for the dissolution of the gender binary.
Going through my life on a day to day basis, I find myself noticing little details about the basis for how a lot of us view our world, and particularly I notice this the most when in my interactions with other people who are not familiar with me. My physical makeup including my face structure and my shoulder width, the way I dress most of the time, my habits down the the tiniest physical movements, and even my interests to a certain extent. Some people would from this either suspect that I’m a man or a woman depending on what they’re paying attention to. If they look at my face, my hips, or my mannerisms, they would think I’m a woman. However if they heard my voice, looked at my chest, or looked at my interests they would think I’m a man. However contrary to any such assumptions I’m neither, I identify as agender, and I’m transitioning but that’s largely on a personal and pragmatic basis.
Most people would not even have this consideration in their mind let alone make the assumption, and even beyond that, when I interact with people who truly understand what I mean, I find that their interactions with me are still informed by this surface level information. While this makes me uncomfortable at a personal level because of dysphoria that I experience, I am much more worried about the wider social implications of such assumptions. Like for instance, if I were not to tell a random person that I was agender, how would their treatment of me go? Or if I told them that I was transitioning? What if the person in question was an employer at a tech firm and I was trying to get hired as a programmer, what if I had transitioned, would I be rejected because of archaic ideas of women’s competency in STEM fields? What if they knew I was trans and viewed me as just a man presenting feminine and rejected me on that basis despite anti-discrimination legislation? The situations in which you could think about how your own or my treatment could go are endless but often, at least for me, and a lot of other people, they tend to come with negative results.
To be agender, which is considered to be under the nonbinary umbrella, but for me, while the definition of nonbinary fits this identification, it’s a little something more for me and for many other people who may or may not use the label. When I say I’m agender to people, its less an expression of gender, but an expression of overall identity, specifically that I lack gender. This is important to me not just on a personal level, but on a social and political one, because at least to me there is something deeply ideological about the way we view our world, and this particular ideology has to do with the way we view gender and sex, and to a certain extent I believe that this may be a bit harmful.
Models of Gender
From what I see, there are three models that have been constructed to understand gender (and identity in general for that matter) that are present within contemporary popular discourse. Here I will use some terms that are used in feminist and queer studies and sociology but I will also use my own terms to simplify the ideas for this context.
The first I will call the Hard Biosocial Model, or the Biological Model, that holds gender is equivalent to sex and therefore, your gender is your sex. This largely restricts the definition of gender to a binary model (logically this makes no sense because of intersex folks but definition consistency doesn’t fit with the ideological motives of choosing this model) and all explanations of differences between people of different genders/sexes can be explained with this sort of biological reductionism. This model is the most widespread and popular with people in the west, and alternative models of this exist replacing biology with religious doctrine.
The second I will call the Soft Biosocial Model, or the Psychological Model, and holds that gender is separate from sex and presentation, and that the determining factor of one’s gender is one’s psychological state, so if you identify as a boy, you are one regardless of presentation of genitalia. This model is most popular with the trans part of the LGBTQ+ community however not universally accepted, and a lot of people within the community hold a hybrid of the Biological and Psychological models, including those who believe that in order to be properly trans that one needs to fully transition and have significant dysphoria (aka Transmedicalists).
The third I will call the Social Constructionist Model, or the Social Model, and this is the least widespread and subscribed to mostly by academics (mostly feminist and queer scholars) and parts of the LGBTQ+ community, and that is the social model. This model holds that gender is a social construct and therefore is entirely dependent on social relations between humans in order to exist. This can have many interpretations on what exactly that means but for example, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler holds the Performative Theory of Gender, which holds that what we perceive as gender is largely our performance, so how we act, speak, etc. This is the most criticized model, with critics claiming that this creates a situation where gender as a concept isn’t based on anything but on social consensus, which to them is either flimsy or not based in reality, or that biology informs social differences between men and women, therefore it can’t be mere social construction.
The Biological and Psychological models both run into major problems when trying to explain the social differences between people of different genders, and the even greater variation among and outside binary gender, and therefore they have a hard time explaining, if we believe that we should eliminate oppression on a gendered or sex a basis, how we should go about it.
First, the binary of sex (as I said before), while applying to most of the population in most situations, isn’t really much of a thing. The biological construction of sex isn’t a binary, there being a number of different variations between things like chromosomes, reproductive organs and external features which tend to produce for most of the population a binary result but can result in people who are defined as intersex, however that isn’t the most striking problem as most Biologists would define it as bimodal rather than binary.
Second, the claim that biological differences inform psychological and therefore significant social differences in a person runs into an issue, the way we would interpret these differences are informed by our models of biological systems, which are socially agreed upon, not only that, but we also run into the issue of confirmation bias.
Models for understanding gender have existed long before any biological model of sex has been created, and we can make the assumption then that such models would shape and be shaped by previous and or developing models of gender. In the west these models of gender would of likely put men in a position of power over women, and it wouldn’t be too much of a jump to say that this would affect things about what kinds of questions people would ask in a scientific setting. Then we have scientific models that back up the status quo, not because of anything supposedly objective about the information used in the models, but because of how that information was organized and what took precedent. This leads to confirmation bias because the scientific minds in question only seek to confirm what they already believe rather than disprove what they think is true, and in this case it can lead to situations where people will justify the segregation of men and women, and the oppression of women with scientific fact, when in fact, oppression isn’t fact based, its ideological. That is not to say that biological models of sex are invalid in any way for understanding biological matters, but that the relevance to how gender works as a social phenomena might be over-exaggerated, a fabrication, or not relevant in the way that its often portrayed, that is to say that its more ideological than anything else.
The confirmation bias isn’t also just the issue, there’s also the issue of making social meaning out of a material observation. Philosophically speaking making an ought out of an is, or making a moral claim as to how people SHOULD act based on a material observation is a big problem. This is Hume’s Guillotine and its almost unchallenged in epistemology, and when dealing with the ethics of gender we must acknowledge that we can’t make a social claim out of a biological observation.
The Psychological Model of gender runs into one issue, and its a very simple one as well, and that’s that psychological states and conceptions of identity do not exist in a vacuum, they are very much influences by social forces. From birth parents reward and punish for behavior that they either view as good or bad for a particular individual respectively, children in primary school bully and gossip about and make groups around those who they dislike and like, people join communities and go through rites of passage and constantly change aspects of themselves to gain acceptance for better or for worse, whether it be subconscious or not. To wear a dress and makeup, or to dye one’s hair, or to grow a beard is not something that is done to appease one’s self alone, it always accompanies some kind of expectation of a reaction from others, one’s identity exists in the eyes of others, and their acceptance means the difference between having a community and support network, and not. This applies to gender and even more so than a lot of other examples I can give. Trans and nonbinary people in most of the world face an extreme amount of violence and social isolation for not conforming to traditional understandings of gender presentation and action. Even cisgender people who don’t completely conform completely face harassment, and while it is less common in the west now than it was… say even as early as a decade ago, such incidents occur because a lot of the order that comes from understanding gender presentation and conduct breaks down, and for a lot of people, part of their worldview breaks as well.
From this I say that any model of gender that achieves a goal of understanding how we can deal with the issues that surround gender, has to be a social model, as any explanation of issues surrounding gender would have to be understood through understanding paradigms and social relations.
Gender and Control
Understanding that in order to view the social issues that surround gender we must understand gender through a largely social model, what issues surround gender in the first place. The obvious answer to this are mainly misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and segregation, and they all have one thing in common, they’re products of the patriarchal control. This control may not be one concerted effort from all men or a small cabal of politicians and businessmen to keep power in the hands of men, but the way that this control plays out can be practically be called patriarchal. This can be seen from the highest halls of power in Washington being composed of men, and defending legislation that largely benefit men, to the products in your local Walmart, advertising healthcare products for those with traditionally male anatomy with traditional masculine themes, such as power and supremacy, which can be seen in the words they used to sell the product or even the color schemes on packaging, and in contrast advertising for those with traditionally female anatomy, things like submissiveness, imminence, moderation, and even at times subservience (barring recent pushes for more feminist themes in advertising).
If we understand the name of the game as control, we can clearly see why exactly all of these phenomena are present compared to any other situation we could cook up. As a hypothetical question, let me ask what exactly a person would need to do in order to control a population to their own benefit, or the benefit of a group that they belong to? My first answer would be that one would need to define the parameters in which everyone in question understands the world through, because if one were to do this first, then they could construct the world along their lines. About 500 years ago that may have been through religion, as a justification for the subjugation of women often started with Genesis, and the story of Adam and Eve. Today most people looking to do so will use biological reductionism to argue that there is a sort of teleology to different sexes and/or sex organs. To define what a “man” is, and what a “woman” is in a social sense, will allow someone to construct other’s identities in a way that can maintain some form of control, in this case, patriarchal control.
For most of recorded history in most but not all societies this sort of patriarchal control has defined what a person could say, it defined the lines of acceptable performance, and what roles we’re available to who, and even in largely equal societies, the population was still stratified on a gendered basis. In the west this largely meant the lack of recognition of any equal status between AMAB and AFAB (that’s Assigned Male and Female At Birth respectively) folk, and the suppression of AFAB folk’s sexuality and choice on matters of sex action and limiting gender identity and roles only to being a woman, but this also meant the partial suppression of men along those same lines, leading to general homophobia and transphobia, and the complete lack of recognition of the existence of nonbinary gender and identity. Controlling roles in this context implies controlling sexual behavior and other types of behavior, and having defined roles in the first place. This control largely divided men and women between roles of dominance and submissiveness respectively, with transference between roles depending on what society a person lived in, and the material conditions of the time creating other variation between societies.
In our contemporary era this reliance on a understanding of what gender identity and roles are doesn’t completely follow this strict dichotomy that patriarchy has relied on in the past, for some people it still does however this is not a popular view, however this does not mean that this structural component of the patriarchy is practically gone. Just one look at the news about what states are doing to try and repeal the right to an abortion, or even in someone’s personal relationships can show that our institutions overwhelmingly grant power to cisgender heterosexual men, and when they don’t you can see many instances when entitlement and disappointment create a worse environment for people who are not of this demographic, an extreme example of this are recent shootings in America partially fueled by the entitlement and misogynistic hatred of young men. To summarize all of the problems that come with this arrangement in our contemporary era, its that patriarchal control benefits very few people, and sometimes not even the people its supposed to empower.
Alternatives To This Ideology?
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the goals of the modern feminist movement, as well as LGBTQ+ rights movements is to break this control in order to put cis women and trans folk on a socially equal playing field with cis men. For most people this has largely meant still dealing within binary terms but advancing political rights for cis women and trans folk, however some, such as I, advocate for a more radical solution to the issue. If we follow from the understanding that gender identity and roles reinforce patriarchal structures, then it logically follows that the most effective solution wouldn’t be to advocate for equal standing by trying to gain access to equal consideration within the ideological framework that already exists, but to create something completely new.
The problem I see with this approach is mainly that through advocating for equal standing in this way, it becomes incredibly difficult to take control of the narrative because we will always be measuring ourselves through the language, through the ideas, that are linked fundamentally with this structure of oppression. Although as much as many aspects nowadays are often portrayed as personal choices divorced from social considerations of gender, even if such considerations can truly be considered divorced from the power structures in question, they might not be dominant in an individual’s choices on presentation and role fulfillment, except for individuals who dedicate every aspect of their life to revolutionary social engagements. Therefore, we need to abandon the epistemology that is used to define ourselves in such a limited way, and this means abandoning the gender binary all together.
This is an incredibly radical proposal all together that has been discussed in academic circles for decades, mostly among feminist and queer scholars, who call themselves Gender Abolitionists and Post-genderists, and to most people, most queer people, and even most trans people, this seems like a wrong step forward, or a step backwards. The main objection to abolition stems from a misunderstanding of the term, but also simultaneously a partial rejection of the earlier statement on the structural nature of gender and patriarchal oppression.
I must be clear what I mean on abolition, especially when the term “Gender Abolition” in some circles (mostly TERF circles) is used to mean the ‘abolition’ of the conceptual separation of gender and sex, on the basis that we should be treated on a sex basis completely, as they believe that only biology should be the only relevant factor in someone’s treatment. This is not what I mean at all, and this ‘abolition’ only serves as a conceptual framework to justify transphobic ideology and violence.
So, abolition, in this context, means the cultural, social, and ultimately conceptual dissolution of gender, which means breaking down categories. This means breaking the very ideas of masculinity and femininity, and not restricting identification with its component parts. Defining it this way is very important as any sort of social/cultural, and political manifestation of gender abolition would not imply a manifestation of uniformity, or a suppression of masculinity or femininity in its component parts. This is important to my response to the main objection to gender abolition, that is that may claim that gender abolition would mean the complete suppression of individual identity related to gender.
Often people come to the table on a conversation about gender abolition with the assumption that gender abolition is itself oppressive because people like being masculine or feminine. The problem with this argument is that one would have to presuppose that the goal of gender abolition is to, again, suppress masculinity and femininity by suppressing the individual component parts of what is considered to be masculine or feminine, which are already vague and change frequently depending on the context, time period, and so on. While post-genderists and gender abolitionists believe that androgyny is desirable, very few actually advocate it as a necessary step, as gender abolition is concerned with the cultural construction rather than merely the physical expression of a person. In addition, androgyny as a concept itself is reliant on the idea of masculine and feminine features existing, as its either viewed as a combination of the two, or an in-between, or even a third alternative, therefore, this conceptually problematic for those who want to abolish gender. So at least presented by me, and a few like minded abolitionists, abolition more or less concerns itself with breaking the power structures and are linked to the concepts, rather than telling people they cant wear skirts or have beards.
Another instance of this argument is when our anti-abolitionist in question asks “What about those that take enjoyment and pride from being masculine or feminine all together?” This question seems a bit harder to answer but to that, I want to ask a question? Why do any of us get joy from presenting significantly masculine or feminine if we do? Is it because we enjoy the entirety of what composes masculinity or femininity? Because if this is the case then this might have some concerns about the implications, if we also accept that there are such things as toxic masculinity. Also on what level are masculinity and femininity defined in the first place? Is it even appropriate to say that a uniform masculine or feminine identity exists in the first place? All of this to say, can we actually suggest that a significant portion of the population enjoy such identity for its whole rather than its parts? I feel like that’s a genuinely hard claim to make, with how many roads of discussion we could take on the subject and how likely none of the answers will give us a definite or even pragmatically close answer that will settle the matter in that direction.
In both instances of the more general argument concerning individual liberty and it’s relation to larger social structures and the nature of power relations, it would be appropriate to say that individual choices about presentation and related subjects would not be suppressed or even socially rejected, but what would happen is that they would be dissociated from gender altogether. People would still make presentation or role choices in society, they would largely be on a non-gendered basis, with the other factors becoming more prominent in our social considerations. So not only would a post-gender society not suppress individuality, but it would allow for the flourishing of such individuality. All of this, at least theoretically.
Another argument that may be convincing to some is that at some level, such social distinctions are unavoidable because of the biological, or more appropriately, material observations we make and have to deal with on a daily and lifelong basis, like for instance, the question of child rearing, and this is a valid concern but the Post-genderists (who are largely transhumanists) have an answer to this as well, and I’m going to talk about this in the next section on how we may achieve this.
The Future and Gender Abolition
Looking at everything so far, it wouldn’t be an unreasonable thing to come to the conclusion that true liberation from the gender binary is even possible, that it’s merely just a theoretical exercise of the imagination, but in terms of applications, there have been many proposals as to how we could go about this.
I’d argue the main challenge here is what’s called the Sexual Division of Labor. This term refers to the phenomena that’s observed across many cultures including contemporary western culture, that labor is often stratified on the basis of sex, with women taking on more “domestic” labor meanwhile men take on non domestic forms of labor for subsistence. The issue, simplified, is that such a division in tasks allows patriarchy to exist because it removes women from political life completely and gives men more power in this regard. Marxist feminists believe that in the modern era, capitalism unequivocally requires the sexual division of labor to exist in some form or another, because in order to maximize labor for capital accumulation, and for children to be raised specifically to eventually be part of this system, it suddenly becomes extremely convenient for individuals to delegate tasks on a sex basis. Now this obviously has predated modern capitalism so capitalism can’t purely be the cause of such phenomena, even considering how some Marxist feminists will argue with merit that many aspects of modern patriarchy rose along with the rise of capitalism, but the question becomes, what do we do to get rid of this status quo? The two parts of this equation are structural change, and technological.
Structural changes would include things like changing the way we raise children, like for instance communal rearing, and transitioning to a post-capitalist economy. Even basic reforms like making reproductive care and childcare universally available to all who need it, increasing wages and lowering work hours can bring us closer to this reality if not completely there.
Technological changes are already in a sense, in progress, and this is the part of the equations many postgenderists like philosopher Donna Haraway, the author of “A Cyborg Manifesto” focus on. Specifically decoupling the child creation process from pregnancy and birthing by creating artificial wombs or advancing cloning technology.
These are broad suggestions as to how we should proceed, and the specifics have and probably will continue to be debated heavily.
So, in summary:
- Gender can be seen as social rather than biological or psychological.
- Gender as a social institution can be regarded as oppressive as it can be described as the epistemology in which patriarchal oppression is expressed.
- In addition to the suppression and limitation of identity for cisgender women and trans and nonbinary individuals, this patriarchal oppression is not helpful to even many cisgender and heterosexual men who are supposed to benefit on paper.
- Gender abolition is a potential path out of this seemingly impossible situation.
- Gender abolition, while regarded often as too radical and oppressive in its own way, can be regarded as liberating by allowing all aspects of identity to open to whomever wants to explore them.
- The main cause that we can attribute to this oppression is the sexual division of labor, something that is the result of something material, and is also a social construction.
- A potential path out of this oppression is societal reform or even revolution, and appropriating reproductive technology for liberating cisgender women and AFAB individuals more generally.