On the Multiplication of Gender Identities
Updated: May 19, 2021
We typically distinguish sex as a function of biology and gender as a social construction. This has the virtue of giving the assignment of gender a certain flexibility and openness since social mores, predilections, tastes and priorities can and do evolve over time.
Perhaps then we need to think of gender as have a certain fluidity or as existing on a spectrum. The problem is that we also want to give gender identities names--circumscribing and delimiting them so that they are not confused with other named gender identities. We assume that in doing so, recognition and respect will follow. That does not always happen for the simple reason that there is often more confusion and ambiguity than certainty when it comes to gender.
Today we live in a time where one’s biological sex has to a great extent taken second place to the self-assignation of gender and sexual preferences or desires. This has a great deal to do with the limitations of biological sex differentiations and the need to grasp the complexities of human identities through present social and cultural standards as well as legal definitions. In other words, biological sex determinations based on genitals and chromosomes do not in many cases fully capture how an individual feels inside or how they might want to express this through the choice of gender identity. So, at a perfectly reasonable level, the social need to multiply gender identities reflects the continuous evolution of how gender is to be understood through unique differentiations. But there is some confusion here.
The acronym LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. The first three identities identify sexual preferences towards women, towards men or towards both respectively. What do I mean by preference? The expression of such sexual preference is not analogous to something like preferring chocolate over vanilla ice cream, since most homosexuals will tend to say that their homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice but an unalterable feature of their identity. I think there is good reason to accept this as being the case, not so much because it accords with some fact of science or genetics, but because not doing so can very quickly lead to the paternalistic view that gays and lesbians can be re-educated (or more accurately reprogrammed) into heterosexuality. This is not necessarily the case when we are speaking of bisexual identities. Presumably the latter do not have a single sexual preference but are sexually attracted to both sexes.
In none of these three cases is there a desire here to escape ones assigned biological sex. Instead, there is a desire to be released from the bondage of conventional heterosexual mores and identities in order to express one’s personhood more fully as lesbian, gay or bisexual. By contrast a person who is transgender has determined at some point that their biological sex does not match with the way they feel, express themselves sexually or wish to be treated by others—in some cases it might be more as a female, in others more as a male. So, importantly, in the case of transgendered persons one’s social identity designation must inevitably determine their biological sexual identity. Finally, the term ‘queer’ has been understood as identifying someone who sees themselves as neither homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or transgender. In this sense, ‘queer’ is not specific to sexual orientation or to gender identity, but is kind of a catch-all designation for anyone who questions the dominant or existing categories of gender and sex. It doesn’t end there—you can add intersexual, asexual, ally, pansexual, demisexual and so on and on.
Notice, however, what is happening. Each newly defined identity occasions a need for yet another designation--another differentiation and delimitation of gender which might be subjectively felt but often is not objectively apparent in the way one expresses rather than identifies oneself. This leads to a great amount of social confusion, not just about how to identify gender, but how to talk about it without being trashed by the political correctness police. What begins as a plea for acceptance of gender fluidity, becomes an intolerant rant against those who have not kept abreast of the acceptable ways of talking about new gender identities. There may be good reasons to accept the notion of gender fluidity, but sometimes I cannot help thinking that the recent liberal obsession with gender identity is an outgrowth of an increasingly narcissistic Western world more interested in themselves than in social and economic justice.
Of course, there are rare cases where one’s biological sex is truly ambiguous—in other words it may be undetermined at birth. There are also cases where there has been a mismatch between a child's chromosomes, or genetic material, and the appearance of the child's genitals. This is sometimes referred to as DSD or Disorder of Sex Development and happens approximately once in every 1,500 births. In many cases a biological sex might still be assigned, one hopes in a loving and thoughtful way that has the best interests of the child in mind. However, where medications and/or surgery are recommended, it surely makes ethical sense to wait the child reaches an age where they can decide for themselves what sex they wish to be. So far, we are not talking about gender assignations, but only biological sex
At some point I want to ask what has the multiplication of new gender designations really achieved at an ethical level? One could persuasively argue that it has opened us up to the richness and variety of what were in the past very straight-jacketed or conservative notions of gender. But if that is so then why not just argue that the entire notion of gender is rather unimportant in the scheme of things. Indeed, would we not all be much better off if gender really did NOT matter at all—if we stopped seeing ourselves as women, men, cis, trans, lesbian, queer or gay, and began to see each other as persons or beings who are unique, irreplaceable and worthy of respect and dignity. At that point, making judgments about others would be based on what they do, not on what gender identity they are assigned or assign to themselves
This is not by any means to forget or belittle the experience of many gay, lesbian or persons who have been physically or verbally assaulted, suffered humiliation, loss or shunning just because they are different. Their pain, their suffering, is real, it is deeply disturbing and no society should tolerate any kind of discrimination based on sexual or gender identifications. Without question we must support the right of people to make decisions about who they are or want to be--most especially when this concerns ones gender.
However, agreeing that discrimination should be called out or that individuals have rights is implicitly agreeing that gender differences should make NO difference at an economic, social, cultural or political level. What I am driving at here is that when a group defines and circumscribes a new gender identity they include persons who may not really fit into the new identity or any other identity category. The problem is that once a new identity is articulated, it must then be distinguished, circumscribed and defended against rival identities--a situation that seems to continue ad infinitum.
At a legal level of international human rights, we can see the need to combat specific forms of discrimination—for example discrimination against indigenous peoples, migrants, minorities, people with disabilities, women, racial and religious discrimination, or discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But in a real sense the need protect different gender identities from discrimination is precisely because we continue to live in a world that incessantly differentiates between people not because of what they have done (good or bad), but, rather because of who they are—and in the case of gender this ‘who’ must be continuously circumscribed rather than being an open-ended.
My sex organs, what my skin colour is, what my sexual preferences or gender identity self-assignations are should not have any cultural significance—whether at a philosophical, economic, political or religious level. To be free is not to feel forced or compelled to assign myself a defined gender in order to be recognized as whole person. Moreover, a world obsessed with multiplying, naming and defining gender differentiations is not grasping that the deeper existential reality of 'who I am' is not reducible to my gender or skin colour, but is more fundamentally about what I do and how I act and interact in a world with and among others?
It is very likely that the 1.6 billion homeless and the 689 million living in poverty today don't spend a whole lot of their time worrying over their gender identity. But they are, in fact the victims of a destructive, discriminatory and death-embracing neoliberal economic and political system. Their identity has been taken from them--not their gender identity but rather their identity as persons and human beings. They are the nameless and the disposable. Perhaps if we spent more time fighting on their behalf we would have less time to fret and bicker over the next new gender identity.