Every so often, I see people remark on how in the last few years Tumblr has made up the concept of genderqueer people.

This is, obviously, not true. Even leaving aside the historical complexities of whether other cultures had third genders, the term ‘genderqueer’ was used in the mid-nineties. Before the popularization of genderqueer identity, many people articulated their sense of gender as being neither male nor female: for instance, many stone butches did, as did many drag queens and crossdressers. While one could argue that genderqueer identity was made up by special snowflakes, the historical evidence suggests that it was made up by special snowflakes two decades before Tumblr was even a thing.

But it’s interesting to me to think about why people believe that nonbinary identities are a Tumblr thing. Heterosexual crossdressers are usually closeted and most people, being heterosexual, are not part of queer culture; by extension, most people in the nineties were not aware of how they conceptualized their gendered selves. However, Tumblr people will not stop navel-gazing about our genders, so suddenly a lot of cisgender and heterosexual people are exposed to the existence of nonbinaries. From their perspective, it looks like nonbinary people suddenly started existing.

Similarly, I have seen many people make claims about how social justice movements have become toxic; often, they provide causal explanations, such as “the Bush Years made everyone think in a polarizing fashion”. They may also make cute graphics like this one:

However, Jo Freeman’s Trashing and The Tyranny of Structurelessness describe extremely well the dynamics of the average social justice clique, despite being published in the seventies. Furthermore, it is notable that lists of misandric feminist quotes rarely have a quote that comes from later than 1995, which is at least some evidence that the feminist movement is improving; similarly, the modern feminist movement, for all its faults, does not seem to have produced a Mary Daly or an Andrea Dworkin, and its wars are not as vicious as the Lesbian Sex Wars.

Nevertheless, this is easy to explain from a personal perspective: a person grows up knowing mostly reasonable feminists, then meets some awful feminists, and quite naturally concludes that feminists have become awful. (They may also, in this case, be primarily familiar with feminism from being taught about it in school, and schools have a tendency to concentrate on inspirational heroes and leave out the controversies.)

So I think that when you are asserting that something has changed, you should consider and rule out the hypothesis that what actually happened is that your social groups changed. When possible, the best strategy for doing this is to examine historical evidence: for instance, looking at when ‘genderqueer’ was coined and reading second-wave articles about intrafeminism dynamics. Sometimes, of course, this is impossible, in which case I think the best course is to admit one’s ignorance rather than making broad claims.