VERSA | What the fuck even is gender anyway?

Let me preface this article with a few disclaimers. I am white. I am male. I am heterosexual. I am nominally cisgendered (more on this later). Had I gone to private school, I would literally be kyriarchy incarnate (bearing in mind, please, that I am also a physical Adonis). Well, maybe (all right, I’m not but I can dream). I’m certainly not the best positioned to be able to talk about this issue, but it’s something that is not really questioned in Oxford. The idea that gender as a concept actually contributes to problems that arise in relation to identity.

So, a starting point? I’m going to choose a bit of an odd place: Facebook. When you fill out the personal information on your Facebook profile, there are currently 71 options for gender available for users to define themselves. Doubtless there are more that exist in the world, but what this little example does do is throw into light just what a complicated issue it is – or, rather, has become.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that that’s great. It gives people far greater freedom to express who they are on a platform that is all but essential in 2015 Britain. But what even is gender? Let’s think about this for a minute. 71 options seems very… complicated. What does gender actually mean? 

The initial response of the uninitiated (and what would almost certainly have been the response of yours truly, circa four years ago) might be that your gender is biological: you have a vagina, you’re female; you have a penis, you’re male. This is a simplified and dated view, and exclusionary towards trans and intersex people.

Maybe then, gender is based on behaviour: it is defined by what we do, the choices we make, what we wear, how we act. Women study arts, men study science. Dresses are for women, trousers are for men. Boys are strong, girls are pretty. Women cook and clean, men earn the money. You see where this is going. I believe this approach is known in some circles as ‘problematic’. These are stereotypes. Of course they are. But like it or not, they have a basis in real social trends, past or present.

These are (sometimes not very) caricatured reflections of an unequal society. More men do play football than women – but are men inherently more predisposed to playing football, or is it a cultural thing? I don’t think I really need to answer that question. The culture is changing: the final of the recent Women’s World Cup attracted the highest viewing figures ever for any football match in the States. Not only that, but it also beat the viewing figures for every game in the NBA Finals, and basketball is bigger than ‘soccer’ in the US.

What is clear is that there is a shift taking place: football has become a greater part of the ‘womanly identity’ – or at  least, more acceptable as a part of it. And if it is part of the identities of both men and women, how can it be a differentiating characteristic?

This can be seen with all sorts of other behaviours: subjects studied, other sports, hobbies, what clothes we wear. Moreover, ideas of what constitutes typical behaviour for x or y gender are not static: they’re constantly shifting, constantly in motion, as is society. Rewind just 50 years, for example, and it was inconceivable to NASA that women might ever be astronauts. And if these are ideas are constantly shifting, how are they in any way useful for defining oneself?

If someone were to ask me my gender, or indeed whenever I fill out forms with boxes for gender, I always answer with ‘male’. This is not out of some careful contemplation of my gender identity, but a default response that I have given all my life. I suppose, really, that this is indeed out of me never really separating out sex from gender for myself in the past, but when I think about it, I have several characteristics that are probably atypical of the people with whom I share genitalia. (Wait, no, I didn’t mean that, I just mea- ah, fuck it.)

Back to the point, personally, I tend to be more open and forthcoming with my emotions than most ‘males’ tend to be. I’m less confident than many of my male peers. I’m not really ‘one of the lads’. And I say ‘just’ a lot. Does this make me any less ‘male’ than my friends? Well, maybe. Yet I still feel ‘male’. If this makes me less ‘male’, in spite of my gut response then, well, it sounds an awful lot like someone else  is trying to impose a gender on me.

There is not any set female or male ‘culture’ as such, no shared history of common and, importantly, distinct ideas, customs, and beliefs. By this, I mean that although one could easily argue that a lot of (Western) history is a shared male narrative, this in itself is too broad to constitute a specific culture, and nor is ‘dictating society’ a desirable definition for a ‘male culture’. Likewise, the vast majority of women across the world share a history of oppression at the hands of men, but I imagine a lot of women would take issue with that being their defining feature.

Further, there exists such a variety of oppression relationships that stating that gender is nothing but that is simply unhelpful; what is there to distinguish it from others? It also brings into question where people identifying as transgender fall: with their sex identity, or with their gender identity? Is patriarchal oppression a construct based on sex, or on gender? Because a cis-passing transwoman will present as male for at least the start of their life, the way they’re treated under patriarchy will be very similar to – if not identical with – the way cis men are treated. And that has consequences for the way they interact with women, just as it does for cis men.

Furthermore, the way women feel around a cis-passing transman isn’t going to be different from how they feel around a regular cis man.  This would seem to imply that patriarchal oppression is a sex-based construct, rather than a gender-based one. What is more, trans people don’t live in an apolitical vacuum, and their often tremendous suffering doesn’t negate other societal structures. And, like all self-identifying cis people, they reinforce the notion of a gender binary – which, according to many radical feminists, is inherently damaging. ‘Oppression’, then, is a pretty hopeless lens through which to decide what constitutes gender.

Incidentally, on the subject of culture and intersectionality, it was very interesting to note the reaction to Rachel Dolezal’s outing as a biologically white woman a few months ago. This largely revolved around the fact that a white American woman had been posing as an African American and leading their struggle for equality in this guise. As per usual on the internet, there was anger, outrage, and widespread vilification.

Whilst I won’t comment on this here, what I will say is that there is far far more to be said for racial (or at the very least, national) cultures and identities than there is for gendered ones. You have British culture. Arab culture. Japanese culture. Aboriginal culture. Nigerian culture. American culture (allegedly). Broader cultures, like European or African, and far more specific cultures, like Māori, Aboriginal, Berber, or Zulu. Broad or narrow, though, racial or national cultures are far more easily defined than gender ones. If it is possible to identify with another gender, then surely it is possible to identify with another race?

As of now, that debate is very much in its infancy. There is no mainstream concept that is to race as gender is to sex. Why that is is for another time entirely, but gender is an incredibly radical concept when you consider what it actually is: separating out sex from sex identity. Which is to say, distinguishing between anatomy and state of mind. I can’t think of another example in which a characteristic that distinguishes people from one another has been separated out into its physical hallmarks, and the associations thereof. It can, at times, be helpful. It can make for an easy way to spot sexism. Man crisps. It’s not for girls. Anything from the work of the very good PinkStinks campaign. Which really does raise the question of why some people seem desperate to gender things that really don’t need to be gendered at all. Things like pronouns.

Before I go on, let me make one thing clear: I will still address and refer to you with whatever pronoun you wish me to use. Why? Because you’re a human being, you deserve to be treated with basic decency, and I respect the choices you make in something that affects others as little as the humble pronoun. But my gut reaction is to say that pronouns probably (just probably) predate the concept of gender – or at the very least, gender as a mainstream idea. And a quick, very crude test seems to corroborate this: in a search of ‘lots of books’ on Google Books (from 1500-2008; the entire archive) for the word ‘gender’, it is instantly clear that gender is a phenomenon that only really took off at the beginning of the 1970s (aside from a couple of weird spikes from 1620-21, and again in 1663 – riddle me this, historians. And sorry, spikes, for othering you. You are all equally valid to me as historical pieces of data).

But the point is that pronouns seem to be a fight that need not necessarily be fought, a fight that was not there in the first place, and what is more, one that is actively regressive. For me, pronouns have always been a statement of sex, rather than one of gender (which tends to be less immediately apparent from outward appearances). Admittedly, this may be because my past self had never been exposed to conflicts of sex and gender, but I also don’t see why pronouns need to be about gender, rather than sex. Especially because gender is a concept that is far more changeable, but also far more restricting; it seems to make little sense to apply such rigid terms to a construct as fluid as gender.

What I will concede is that, because many people outside of the Oxford bubble do not instinctively distinguish between sex and gender, using pronouns as descriptors of gender may be useful to communicate your identity to others. However, surely all this does is perpetuate the idea that it means one thing to be a man, and another to be a woman? Why not simply acknowledge the fact of sex, but also accept that, by and large, this will mean fuck all for your interests, your clothing choices, or anything else for that matter? In short: do whatever the fuck you want. It will be much more progressive in the long term than continually prescribing certain actions, interests, and whatever else to certain genders.

Which brings us, again, back around to Facebook and its 71 gender options. These options are progress. More choice for people, more freedom (and we at VERSA just love our freedom). The differences between some of these categories are incredibly nuanced: what, for example, is the practical difference between genderqueer and gender nonconforming? If these terms are so nuanced, then they may well have slight variations in meaning to different people. But at the end of the day, regardless of how you define the box, it is still a box. Maybe some of those boxes overlap. But they are still boxes.

Of course, people can change their gender identity. But given this, and the evident subtlety of some differences between the variety of genders, then why bother with the concept at all? Why not simply let people be people, and act, dress, and behave however they feel comfortable, without imposing a label on them?

For once, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this, Cuntry Living has not gone far enough: yes, we should dismantle the gender binary, but let’s take the entire concept with it. It’s a burden, it’s cumbersome, and it’s outdated in a society in which, although still deeply imperfect, people live more freely than they have at any point in modern history.

Sorry for appropriating your picture.