One of the big questions I was still left with when I stopped blogging here for a few years was very simple:
What, exactly, is gender identity?
If you read mainstream trans sources, the answer gets a bit circular: “gender identity is one’s deeply-held internal sense of one’s own gender.”
That’s exactly the kind of definition that doesn’t get us any closer to what is actually meant by the term “gender identity” when it is enshrined into law or company handbooks. After all, the law (in a liberal Western democracy, anyway) is generally unconcerned with policing the deeply-held internal senses of citizens.
Besides, this seemingly quick-and-easy definition doesn’t hold up with what mainstream trans activism is actually demanding. When using a non-preferred pronoun or disallowing a trans person from opposite-sex spaces is legally actionable, “gender identity” requires government employees, trans people’s co-workers, and those in sex-segregated spaces alter their own deeply-held internal perceptions of someone’s sex in order to accommodate a trans individual’s deeply-held internal sense of their own gender.
There is more to gender identity.
Among radical feminists, gender identity is discussed differently. The far-and-away most common metaphor for gender identity in radical feminism is an enclosure, or box. Sometimes, more highly-charged language — cage, or prison — is used instead.
In this view, “gender identity” is essentially synonymous with “gender role.” While culturally-dependent, in the view of the radical feminist, gender exists to constrain the behaviors of the sexes in order to more deeply entrench patriarchal systems of power. In this view, a trans-identifying person is attempting to hop from one cage to another.
Transgender believers argue that this view of gender identity as a box makes little sense given the empirical reality of transgender people, many of whom exhibit characteristics that have more in common with the stereotypes intended for their biological sex than the stereotypes of their chosen gender identity.
What, says the transgender believer, of the trans programmer, born male, who identifies as female but still keeps practicing martial arts? Or the knitter and baker who now identifies as a male but was born female? Surely, these would be people whose original “box” would fit them more comfortably, and the “cage” they’ve hopped to would seem more confining, so why would they do it?
The box as a metaphor also makes less sense as a full explanation of gender identity in a western, liberal democracy where women’s written legal rights are near-identical to men’s. For the most part, men and women are allowed to engage in behaviors strongly associated with the other sex, to whatever degree is physically possible (cue the Monty Python “Loretta” gag). Women may be discouraged from entering STEM fields and banking, for instance, but they’re not legally disallowed. Wearing lipstick does not make males the target of police raids. Cage-hopping is not, strictly speaking, a requirement for someone hoping to engage in opposite-sex stereotyped behavior.
Indeed, in countries where legal rights for men and women are significantly different, transgender populations tend to be strongly oriented toward “fitting into a box,” making the radical feminist metaphor more salient. If you are in Iran and the only way to legally have sex with a man or wear a dress is to be in the “woman” category, then the notion of cage-hopping makes sense. In these places, the metaphor of the box or cage can come close to fully explaining the transgender phenomenon, and the vast majority of transgender people where this holds true strongly associate with culturally-typical opposite-sex roles.
To me, the competing definitions of the transgender believers and the radical feminists have seemed orthogonal, an example of two groups talking past one another while the uncommitted look on in confusion. I don’t think either is a full depiction of what “gender identity” is supposed to encapsulate, both connotatively in conversation with modern trans activists and denotatively in law.
A more illuminating object to metaphorically represent gender identity can be found in a yardstick.
In this view, men and women are measured according to two distinct sets of standards. A person who is meticulously groomed and uses a range of makeup products “measures up” very well according to the yardstick marked “woman,” but would be assigned low marks on the “man” yardstick. A person who dates women and wears trousers, never skirts/dresses, measures as bog-standard on the “man” yardstick, but would not achieve the same average measurement on the “woman” stick.
When examined this way, the distinction between “gender identity” and “gender roles” becomes more clear: gender identity is the selection of one’s yardstick, while gender roles are the markings on the yardstick that you measure yourself against. With this idea in place, respecting another person’s gender identity means measuring them according to the yardstick they prefer.
In the law, “gender identity” then becomes measuring people according to their preferred yardstick. If women must wear skirts for their job, a male-bodied person may then wear a skirt as long as he has requested measurement on the “woman” yardstick. An insistence on measuring a person according to the yardstick corresponding to the stereotypes of their sex, rather than their identity, is perceived as invalidating and harassing.
Unlike the metaphor of the box, the yardstick can help us understand the “butch trans woman” who engages in many masculine-stereotyped behaviors, or the “soft trans boi” who inhabits a female body and consciously attempts to exhibit femininity while asking to be referred to by male pronouns.
In a capitalist culture that generates continuously-evolving countercultures and promotes self-discovery and uniqueness — a culture in which “basic” is an insult — the person who transitions even though their original “box” was a better fit is doing so in order to be measured as unusual on a new yardstick. If you’re a person who likes video games, does computer programming for a living, and watches a lot of pornography, your place on the “man” yardstick positions you as not terribly unusual, and not terribly desirable. But on the “woman” yardstick, measured from the perspective of their own male gaze (“why, I’d love to meet a woman who liked video games, porn, and programming!”), they become an unusual, desirable nerdy girl.*
The gender identity yardstick also helps to make sense of the range of non-binary gender identities: people identifying as “non-binary” and “genderqueer” want a new yardstick built just for people who want to be judged by different criteria. “Agender” people don’t think any yardstick fits them. “Bigender” and “genderfluid” people want to be judged according to the yardstick that currently best suits the way they’d like to be perceived.
Radical feminists have long wondered why transgender people and their allies seem to believe that the radical feminist position is “everyone should act according to sex stereotypes.” But using the metaphor of the yardstick, the nature of the communication breakdown is revealed: the fundamental tenet of mainstream transgender ideology is that human beings should feel free to pick whichever yardstick they prefer. If you take this view, it’s easy to see radical feminists as saying “no, you’re stuck with the yardstick we’ve been measuring you against since you were born. No hopping to another one. We’re always going to measure you according to the stereotyped standards we apply based on your genitals at the time when you’re born.”
Radical feminists are flummoxed by this view of their beliefs on the part of trans believers, because it presupposes the need for sex-based yardsticks in the first place — and even presupposes that the desire to be measured by one or the other is inherent to human beings, perhaps more inherent than their own organs of generation.
But the radical feminist position is not that people should get back to the yardstick where they belong. In radical feminism, the entire idea of gauging human personality differently according to sex is a symptom of sexism and patriarchy, not an inherent human desire.
The result of this position is that the radical feminist solution to the gender yardstick problem is not to make any yardstick available to anyone, free of charge.
It’s to throw the sticks on a bonfire.
* – The persistent presence of narcissistic, sex stereotype-conforming heterosexuals in transgender circles becomes easy to understand as well. For the narcissist (as well as for Narcissus in the original myth), the ideal mate is simply a reflection of the self. By identifying with an opposite-sex “gender identity,” the narcissist is, in essence, making a demand for others to treat them as their own idealized mate.