Oversimplified notions of ‘fluidity’
My underlying personal philosophy is best matched by process philosophy, whose roots trace back to Heraclitus and his notion of πάντα ῥεῖ: panta rhei, “everything flows”.
You would think, then, that i'd be on board with the current enthusiasm for ‘fluidity’ in the fields of sexuality and gender. It turns out not so much, because the particular ways in which i've observed it manifest are often naïve, problematic and erasing.
Firstly, i often observe the signifier being conflated with the signified. A number of people assume that a change of personal label necessarily means that the person's sense of self has changed significantly. A change of personal label might indicate that, but it might also be due to other factors. Semantic shifts, themselves a result of a variety of factors, can mean that the previous label didn't feel as accurate as the new label; or the previous label might have been used, even though it was known to be inaccurate, due to sociocultural pressures[a].
Secondly, when we talk of something being ‘fluid’, it's important to remember that the speed of movement of fluids varies. As i wrote in a recent poem:
Not all fluids are alike; water is not honey. Not all fluids flow the same way; honey is not pitch.
Everything changes, but things change at different rates, and some things change more slowly than others. (Geology provides excellent examples of the huge possible variance in rates of change!) At human time scales, something can be changing so slowly, and/or changing in such small ways, that it can effectively be regarded as relatively stable. Examples are provided by the very topics i'm writing about in this and other posts: despite banging on for almost a decade about issues around usages of the word ‘gender’, the concept of ‘fluidity’, and the phrase “gender is a social construct”, i'm still constantly encountering these issues in various communities, and needing to make the same points[b]. i wish there was more fluidity in how people conceptualise things. :-P
Thirdly, being genderqueer, or at least non-monogendered, gets conflated with being genderfluid. Just, no. They're not synonymous. Being genderqueer does not automatically imply gender fluidity. Don't assume that because someone is genderqueer, that their sense of gender (or, for example, their gender presentation) must be fluid. What being ‘genderqueer’ means is different for different genderqueer people. Certainly a number of genderqueer people are genderfluid, but then, what it means to be genderfluid is different for different genderfluid people.
Finally, there are phrases like “gender is fluid”. This, of course, runs into the issue i mentioned in a previous post[c], that the word ‘gender’ is regularly used to mean a variety of different things. The claim “gender is fluid” can be read as potentially claiming any of the following:
- Every person's sense of gender is fluid.
- Every person's gender identity is fluid.
- Every person's gender expression is fluid.
- Some people's sense of gender is fluid.
- Some people's gender identity is fluid.
- Some people's gender expression is fluid.
- Sociocultural ideas re. sense of gender are fluid.
- Sociocultural ideas re. gender identity are fluid.
- Sociocultural ideas re. gender expression are fluid.
i hope it's obvious how problematic it is to make assertions about every person's sense of gender / gender identity / gender expression.
So. i feel discussions involving notions of ‘fluidity’, particularly in the context of sexuality and gender, need to be much more nuanced - not just for theoretical reasons, but because the discourse arising from the theory directly impacts the lives of a number of queer and TGD people.☙
[a] For example, people who initially identify as ‘bisexual’, but eventually identify, long-term, as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’. The flip side of this is biphobia on the part of a number of lesbians and gay men, who insist that being bi is “just a phase”. A former partner of mine was shunned by her lesbian ‘friends’ when, after identifying as a lesbian for many years, she came out as bi.
[b] i can't adequately convey how much of a negative impact this has had, and is having, on my mental health.