What is Gender Anyway?

The New Statesman (hmm, not “statesperson?” 🙂 )

Something in the body, something in the culture, or something in the brain? A fetish, a flight from pain, or an attempt to deal with a baffling social world? Making it even more difficult to describe and analyse these conflicting accounts of gender is the fact that, according to some, even attempting the discussion is to show hostility to trans people: “Once I accepted my own transsexuality, then it became obvious to me that the question ‘Why do transsexuals exist?’ is not a matter of curiosity, but rather an act of nonacceptance,” writes Serano (notwithstanding the fact that she offers her own explanation for the phenomenon in the “subconscious sex” hypothesis outlined above). Adopting the “wrong” line may be punished with extreme outrage – as happened to Michael Bailey and Ken Zucker, as well as numerous feminists including Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond and Julie Bindel. But despite these disincentives, the question is worth asking: just what is gender, and why do we need to know? …

The search for the biological origins of gender difference is a fraught field. In the gendered world we inhabit, there can be no “control group”. And science, far from being neutral, is done by scientists, whose preconceptions are unavoidably shaped by social forces such as sexism. …

“Is it wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of suffering but not the source? How do I inhabit someone’s pain without inhabiting their particular understanding of that pain?” asks Leslie Jamieson in her essay “Devil’s Bait”. Transgender people can point to compelling evidence of violence, unhappiness, and discrimination, and argue for medical and legal interventions to remedy them. But the fact of suffering is not evidence that the sufferer has unimpeachable insight into the source of that suffering. The widely embraced “inherent gender” explanation holds that there is such a property as gender identity, which every individual has, entirely separately from socialised gender roles, which only some people will be conscious of, and of which the individual is the ultimate arbiter. This is in every regard an extraordinary claim. As analytic philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has explained, it is also an incoherent claim, because there is no standard by which anyone’s assertions about their own gender can be disproven: “If we’re unwilling to allow that an individual can ever be mistaken about their gender identity, if we’re unwilling to allow that there might be any objective criteria at all about what it means to be a man or a woman, then claims to identify as a man or a woman become unintelligible.” If no one can say what it means to be a man other than to feel like one, what does it mean to feel like a man?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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