This is the dumbest article about transness I’ve seen linked by smart people, and so I have decided to write this blog post so I can stop making thousand-word Facebook comments about how terrible it is and just link this post instead.
First, Reilly-Cooper appears to be confused about what the word “spectrum” means. She believes:
Many proponents of the queer view of gender describe their own gender identity as ‘non-binary’, and present this in opposition to the vast majority of people whose gender identity is presumed to be binary. On the face of it, there seems to be an immediate tension between the claim that gender is not a binary but a spectrum, and the claim that only a small proportion of individuals can be described as having a non-binary gender identity. If gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.
That is not what the word ‘spectrum’ means. Gender identity is a bimodal distribution; the modes are “male” and “female”. People refer to sexuality as a spectrum, but accepting the existence of the Kinsey Scale does not mean that I have to stop believing the plurality of people are Kinsey 0s. People refer to political allegiance as a spectrum, but that does not mean that there is no such thing as a Republican or a Democrat. Biological sex is a spectrum (Anne Fausto-Sterling has a bunch of great diagrams about it!), but that does not mean that everyone is intersex.
If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum. I assume the two ends of the spectrum are masculinity and femininity. Is there anything else that they could possibly be? Once we realise this, it becomes clear that everybody is non-binary, because absolutely nobody is pure masculinity or pure femininity. Of course, some people will be closer to one end of the spectrum, while others will be more ambiguous and float around the centre. But even the most conventionally feminine person will demonstrate some characteristics that we associate with masculinity, and vice versa.
No, they aren’t.
David Bowie was feminine. I do not think anyone had any particular difficulty in identifying David Bowie as being a man. Similarly, outside of Judith Butler’s wet dreams, I do not think anyone watches RuPaul’s Drag Race and is shocked and horrified that these people are men and then suddenly transform into women. A man who puts on false eyelashes and lipstick and lip-syncs to It’s Raining Men continues to be a man.
You can say “oh, they’re recognizing RuPaul and David Bowie’s biological sex!” But every intersex person is recognized as being either a man or a woman, in spite of the fact that their biological sex is intersex. Social gender exists. An intersex woman who fixes motorcycles in her leather jacket still has F on her fucking driver’s license.
You would think that Reilly-Cooper would be aware of this, because she literally talked about it earlier in the essay:
At least, that is the role that the word gender traditionally performed in feminist theory. It used to be a basic, fundamental feminist idea that while sex referred to what is biological, and so perhaps in some sense ‘natural’, gender referred to what is socially constructed. On this view, which for simplicity we can call the radical feminist view, gender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.
Not only are these norms external to the individual and coercively imposed, but they also represent a binary caste system or hierarchy, a value system with two positions: maleness above femaleness, manhood above womanhood, masculinity above femininity. Individuals are born with the potential to perform one of two reproductive roles, determined at birth, or even before, by the external genitals that the infant possesses. From then on, they will be inculcated into one of two classes in the hierarchy: the superior class if their genitals are convex, the inferior one if their genitals are concave.
As I am sure Reilly-Cooper is aware, this is not about femininity or masculinity. A man can stay home to raise his children, cry at the drop of a hat, and wear nothing but pink frilly miniskirts, but he will not magically have the female externally opposed set of norms applied to him. He will have the male externally opposed set of norms applied to him. His behavior will be punished in a way it wouldn’t be punished in a woman, because he is failing to conform to gender roles.
Reilly-Cooper is very concerned about the concept of ‘innate, essential gender identity.’ She feels that people do not have one, for reasons that she never really makes clear. I don’t love ‘gender identity’ as a framing; I tend to prefer a ‘gender dysphoria’ framing myself, which offers more opportunity for choice and less pointless introspection about what you Really Really Are Deep Down. (Ms. Reilly-Cooper uses ‘dysphoria’ once in the essay, to refer solely to physical dysphoria, because apparently bothering to look at the DSM is too much research for your article at aeon.co.)
Anyway: some people have preferences about what sexed body parts they have and what their hormone level is. Some people have preferences about which of the externally opposed sets of norms apply to them, completely separately from how they’re treated. (More on that later.) Observably, there is a high correlation between these two sets of preferences: it is very rare for a person to be extremely distressed at being identified as male, but to prefer to have a 100% male sex. Therefore, we can refer to those sets of preferences bundled together as “gender identity.” Often, those preferences are associated with a deeply-held feeling that one ‘really is’ that gender, regardless of one’s sex. As best as I can tell, these preferences seem to be ‘set’ early in life and to be terribly difficult to change, thus the ‘innate’ part.
Reilly-Cooper is vaguely aware of the concept of ‘social dysphoria’ but is extremely confused about it:
This desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman’. I, too, would like to transcend socially constructed stereotypes about my female body and the assumptions others make about me as a result of it. I, too, would like to be seen as more than just a mother/domestic servant/object of sexual gratification. I, too, would like to be viewed as a human being, a person with a rich and deep inner life of my own, with the potential to be more than what our society currently views as possible for women.
The solution to that, however, is not to call myself agender, to try to slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage intact, and the rest of womankind trapped within it. This is especially so given that you can’t slip through the bars. No amount of calling myself ‘agender’ will stop the world seeing me as a woman, and treating me accordingly. I can introduce myself as agender and insist upon my own set of neo-pronouns when I apply for a job, but it won’t stop the interviewer seeing a potential baby-maker, and giving the position to the less qualified but less encumbered by reproduction male candidate.
Let us assume for a moment– I know this is a reach, but maybe you can follow me– that nonbinary people are not complete and utter morons. We know that you cannot identify your way out of being subject to sexism. We like… experience sexism. In our day-to-day lives. While being nonbinary. The only thing nonbinary identity does with regards to sexism is make your life more difficult, because a bunch of people are making fun of your pronouns and condescendingly informing you that no one will ever respect your gender and trying to talk to you about what your genitals look like all the time.
So there are two explanations you can have here. One, you can conclude that nonbinary people are so stupid that we do something that is supposed to make us experience less sexism, actually experience more sexism, and completely fail to notice this for a period of years, even though we’re like constantly bitching about cis privilege on the Internet. Two, you can say it is not about sexism.
i really, really don’t want to be put in the ‘man’ category or the ‘woman’ category. I don’t care that this will cause people to treat me worse. If someone was like “everyone will see you as nonbinary, but you have to be punched in the face every day for the rest of your life,” I would stock up on bandages and icepacks. I agree that this is a silly thing to have a preference about. I didn’t pick it. Empirically, being treated well as a man makes me feel worse than being treated terribly as a nonbinary.
A handful of individuals are apparently permitted to opt out of the spectrum altogether by declaring themselves ‘agender’, saying that they feel neither masculine nor feminine, and don’t have any internal experience of gender. We are not given any explanation as to why some people are able to refuse to define their personality in gendered terms while others are not, but one thing that is clear about the self-designation as ‘agender’: we cannot all do it, for the same reasons we cannot all call ourselves non-binary. If we were all to deny that we have an innate, essential gender identity, then the label ‘agender’ would become redundant, as lacking in gender would be a universal trait. Agender can be defined only against gender. Those who define themselves and their identity by their lack of gender must therefore be committed to the view that most people do have an innate, essential gender but that, for some reason, they do not.
The explanation is that… some people have an innate, essential gender identity and other people don’t? It is not that complicated! You just said it!
I don’t really love ‘agender’ as a category, because I think it mixes up two distinct experiences. Some agender people have a very strong sense of “I don’t want to see or be seen by gender, I do not want you to interact with me in a way influenced by gender at all.” (Again, this is not about sexism! In fact, for the agender people I know, feminists having woman-only spaces and designating people women in STEM is often way more dysphoria-triggering than sexism.) But some agender people are what I called cis-by-default— they don’t have the preferences about group membership and their sexed body parts that other people do. There’s a distinction between “no gender identity” and “I have a gender identity and it’s NO”.
And, yes, it’s possible that the majority of people don’t have any sort of gender identity. It’s possible that no one except trans people have gender identities, although I don’t think that’s particularly likely, as many cis people I know have reported having gender identities. That doesn’t mean anything about whether transgender people exist, because we do. Whether cis people have gender identities or not, trans people’s experiences still exist.
Many people justifiably assume that the word ‘transgender’ is synonymous with ‘transsexual’, and means something like: having dysphoria and distress about your sexed body, and having a desire to alter that body to make it more closely resemble the body of the opposite sex. But according to the current terminology of gender identity politics, being transgender has nothing to do with a desire to change your sexed body. What it means to be transgender is that your innate gender identity does not match the gender you were assigned at birth. This might be the case even if you are perfectly happy and content in the body you possess. You are transgender simply if you identify as one gender, but socially have been perceived as another.
I am now going to blow Reilly-Cooper’s mind: did you know that there are nonbinary people with physical dysphoria and who have physically transitioned? It’s true! One of them is writing this blog post you are reading this very moment! Did you know that there are binary trans people with pure social dysphoria, many of whom have transitioned and have had happy lives in their identified genders for decades? Also true! You know what there is between whether your dysphoria is social, physical, or both, and whether you identify as nonbinary or binary?
According to Nonbinary.org, one of the main internet reference sites for information about non-binary genders, your gender can be frost or the Sun or music or the sea or Jupiter or pure darkness. Your gender can be pizza.
But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense or adds anything to our understanding to call any of this stuff ‘gender’, as opposed to just ‘human personality’ or ‘stuff I like’. The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not just a label to adopt so that you now have a unique way to describe just how large and multitudinous and interesting you are.
I would like to explain to Reilly-Cooper two strange concepts that she may not have heard of before. One of them is a ‘joke’. A joke is when people say something absurd in order to trigger the human emotions of ‘amusement’ and ‘laughter’. Jokes are often a method of coping with difficulties in one’s life: for instance, if one has a deep-seated desire to be put into a socially constructed category that doesn’t exist, one may cope with this by absurdly declaring that one is now a member of some completely unrelated category. The second is a ‘metaphor.’ Humans often describe things through comparing them to other things, particularly when the person they’re communicating with isn’t familiar with the thing they’re trying to describe but is familiar with the thing they’re comparing it to. For instance, if one is trying to convey one’s emotion, one may say “it’s a sort of cold anger.” One cannot argue with this by pointing out that emotions do not really have temperatures, because it’s not supposed to convey that emotions have temperatures, it’s supposed to convey that one’s anger is in a certain sense similar to coldness.
In fact, none of us was assigned a gender identity at birth at all. We were placed into one of two sex classes on the basis of our potential reproductive function, determined by our external genitals. We were then raised in accordance with the socially prescribed gender norms for people of that sex. We are all educated and inculcated into one of two roles, long before we are able to express our beliefs about our innate gender identity, or to determine for ourselves the precise point at which we fall on the gender continuum.
As best as I can tell, Reilly-Cooper’s argument appears to be that no one was assigned a gender (not gender identity, the phrase is not ‘assigned gender identity at birth’), on account of people were instead assigned a gender.
A problem emerges only when you start making political claims on the basis of that label – when you start demanding that others call themselves cisgender, because you require there to be a bunch of conventional binary cis people for you to define yourself against; and when you insist that these cis people have structural advantage and political privilege over you, because they are socially read as the conformist binary people, while nobody really understands just how complex and luminous and multifaceted and unique your gender identity is. To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless.
No, I’m not. I am firmly of the opinion that you can trans if you want to, you can leave your cis behind. If you, Reilly-Cooper, wish to socially or physically transition, I will be right there 100% behind you all the way. If 100% of people started identifying as nonbinary, I would be really happy, because that means that every problem that is a product of me being nonbinary would be solved. We would probably even have better transition tech.
But nevertheless there is this thing that radical feminists like a lot, I think it is often referred to as ‘the material reality of oppression’, which means that my experience is different from the experience of a person who is nondysphoric but would be nonbinary in Nonbinary Gender Utopia.
Because, like, about that structural advantage and political privilege that cis people have over us… well, I hate to be that person, but have you looked at the statistics lately? (Note for the confused: nonbinary people were referred to as ‘gender non-conforming’ in this study. Not the word I would have picked, but there you go.)
- 83% of students who were out as nonbinary have been harassed at school for being nonbinary; 27% have been physically assaulted, and 10% have been sexually assaulted.
- 15% have lost a job for being nonbinary; 32% have been discriminated against at work for being nonbinary; 20% have been denied a promotion for being nonbinary. 38% are underemployed. 16% have been employed in illegal fields such as sex work or selling drugs.
- 6% have been refused health care.
- 33% have experienced familial rejection.
- 46% have been denied equal treatment in public accommodations; 60% have been harassed.
- Of nonbinary people who have interacted with police, a third have been harassed for their gender, 6% have been physically assaulted, and 2% have been sexually assaulted. 12% of nonbinary people have been jailed; 4% have been arrested or jailed due to bias.
In short, being nonbinary puts you at higher risk of harassment, unemployment, poor health care access, familial rejection, discrimination, imprisonment and hate crimes, even compared to being a
cisgender assigned female at birth nontransgender whatever-word-Reilly-Cooper-finds-politically-correct woman. It’s not just about the illegibility of our genders– although that hurts, and you can guess how much by the number of nonbinary people who are willing to put up with prejudice to be nonbinary, and the number of nonbinary people who encourage others to transition because even despite the discrimination it’s totally goddamn worth it. It is about the actual, material, structural ways that nonbinary people are harmed just for being nonbinary.