On the word ‘gender’ and the phrase “gender is a social construct”
[ Originally posted in a private space, January-February 2020; lightly edited. ]
As a transgenderqueer person, people's usage of the word ‘gender’ can - and does - have a direct influence on my life, so i do tend to harp on about it. :-)
More specifically, in practice, the word ‘gender’ is often used in a way that conflates several things, which can actually be orthogonal to each other: ‘sense of gender’, ‘gender identity’, ‘gender presentation’ and ‘gender roles’.
i use ‘sense of gender’ to refer to one's experience of one's own gender, or lack thereof. ‘Gender identity’, on the other hand, i use to mean the label(s) one uses to try to describe that experience. If you're a cis person, it might seem odd that ‘sense of gender’ and ‘gender identity’ can be distinct. But it's possible, for example, for someone to feel they don't have ‘gender’; and they might try to convey this with labels such as ‘agendered’ or ‘genderqueer’. In my own case, i express my sense of gender with the gender identities ‘two-gendered’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘trans’, ‘transgender’, ‘transgenderqueer’, ‘woman’ and ‘man’.
‘Gender _presentation_’ is how one expresses one's sense of gender in a physical way: how one behaves (including e.g. mannerisms, speech) and dresses. Societies tend to strongly associate gender presentation with sense of gender and gender identity; the latter are assumed to determine the former, and vice versa. This is problematic, because it essentially forces people to look and behave a certain way in order to try to be ‘read’ correctly. One specific example: it results in some medical gatekeepers insisting that trans women present in what they regard as an “appropriately feminine” way, for an extended period of time, before they will grant those women access to hormones and/or surgery. (Which transphobes like Germaine Greer seem to ignore in their criticisms of trans women.) But even being read (semi-) correctly can bring its own issues: i've noticed an apparent correlation between the times i wear dresses and when my Uber rating drops. It's basically the old closeted/non-closeted cost-benefit issue.
Societies often entangle gender presentation with ‘gender _roles_’. It's typically not considered ‘feminine’ to be assertive, for example; and being ‘feminine’ is often associated with the obligation to be caring and supportive (i.e. to take on and provide both physical and emotional labour, without expectation of compensation). To be considered ‘masculine’, however, typically requires that one present with strength and swagger, to take on roles that demonstrate or ‘prove’ this, and to not take on roles that suggest one is not strong or cocky (!) enough for ‘masculine’ roles. But to me, it's patently absurd to think that wearing a dress somehow affects one's strength, or that wearing pants somehow affects how caring one is.
So: ‘sense of gender’, ‘gender identity’, ‘gender presentation’ and ‘gender roles’: any one or more of those things can be the referent when one uses the word ‘gender’. Even though they are all connected with each other in various ways, they are also distinguishable from each other - and many non-cis people have to navigate this complexity in cultures (yes, including ‘progressive’ cultures) which regularly don't make these distinctions, and instead lumps them all together under the concept ‘gender’.
Hopefully the above might start to give some idea of why i find the phrase “gender is a social construct” to be highly problematic. Regardless of one's intent, it can invalidate and erase the experiences of non-cis people, by blithely hiding a lot of complexity.
Firstly, given the multiple meanings of ‘gender’ described above, is the phrase "gender is a social construct" intended to convey “_sense of gender_ is a social construct”, “_gender identity_ is a social construct”, “_gender presentation_ is a social construct”, “_gender roles_ are a social construct”, or some combination of these? And what exactly is meant by “social construct”? Something completely determined by social pressures and people's interactions, something mostly determined by those things, something merely influenced by those things?
Secondly, i would argue that ‘gender’ is a social construct in the same sense that ‘biological sex’ is a social construct. We could have chosen to base ‘biological sex’ on, say, levels of various hormones, but instead we've chosen chromosomes: ‘XX’ means you're female, and ‘XY’ means you're male, right? But in some countries, one's legal ‘sex’ is determined by whether one has two X chromosomes, whilst in others it's determined by the presence of a Y chromosome. This means that if your karyotype is ‘XXY’, your ‘sex’ can change simply by travelling from one country to another![a]
Thirdly, i find it .... interesting, that people who say “gender is a social construct” typically don't (in my experience) necessarily say “just like sexual orientation is a social construct”. Why not? Amongst progressives, it's widely recognised that sexual orientation can be, and often is, so fundamental to a person's psychology that it could be considered ‘innate’, and that it's ridiculous to argue that it's a ‘broken’ response to some set of life circumstances (e.g. not having a sufficiently strong father figure when growing up). In this context, the idea of ‘reparative therapy’ for non-heterosexuality, as constantly advocated by various groups and individuals (both religious and otherwise), is regarded as actively inappropriate and dangerous. What makes ‘gender’ a ‘social construct’ in ways that ‘sexual orientation’ isn't? Are those differences unarguable?
All of the preceding has consequences for people who aren't cis. If “gender is a social construct” is intended to mean “sense of gender is a social construct, completely or mostly determined by social pressures and people's interactions”, then that's highly problematic:
- It flies in the face of many non-cis people's experiences of gender. Many non-cis people have the experience that they “always knew” that they weren't the gender they were designated at birth[b]; many of those who didn't have that experience will tell you just how fundamental their sense of gender nevertheless feels to them.
- It suggests that non-cis people need ‘reparative therapy’ to ‘correct’ their misapprehensions about their own sense of gender. This is promoted not only by various groups and individuals (again, both religious and otherwise), but by radfems in particular[c], something i hope would disturb people opposed to ‘reparative therapy’ for sexual orientation.
- It implies that non-cis people can be eliminated from society via enforcement of ‘reparative therapy‘ and ‘appropriate social environments’ so that such ‘brokenness’ does not appear in the first place.
So: please think twice about throwing around the phrase “gender is a social construct”. Many non-cis people are struggling daily for recognition and tolerance from society (let alone _acceptance_), and whilst sloganeering with such a phrase might seem as though it's ‘obviously’ supportive of non-cis people, there are groups and individuals who can, and do, take it and use it to mean something far less positive.☙
[a] For some further details about how the notion of ‘biological sex’ is more complicated than typically assumed:
[b] i'm not one of them. The “I always knew” narrative doesn't apply to all non-cis people, despite many cis people needing that narrative as ‘proof of identity’. It took me many years of work and struggle and trying to accept that i was ‘really’ just a ‘feminine’ man before i came to the conclusion that i'm actually two-gendered; and i'm much more comfortable in myself having accepted that.
[c] My experience is that radfems, and a number of feminists more generally, also argue for this for kinky women: that, having eroticised the oppression of women, kinky women are in need of ‘correction’, er, sorry, ‘healing’. Years ago i read a post by a woman who spent several years trying to not be kinky in order to be a ‘good feminist’, and ended up making herself miserable.