This is the final post in a series that, although it’s not quite giving a ‘theory of gender’, is my most systematic current attempt to articulate a positive understanding of it. It’s structured as a sequence of responses to perceived tensions among things I’ve said on the topic, especially in my post last year on so-called ‘gender-critical feminism’. The previous posts are:
This final post is about the idea of ‘abolishing’, or ‘dismantling’, or in some other way ‘doing away with’ gender or the gender system entirely. One of my topics in last year’s post was on what I saw as the self-undermining character of ‘gender-critical’ claims of supporting gender abolitionism: criticising and attacking trans people is not only not necessary to advance this cause, it actively works against it.
But, as is often the case, there is a genuine tension here on the pro-trans side, which requires a little care to disentangle. Because part of what advocates for trans rights seem to want is greater respect for individual’s gender identities, and it’s not obvious how easily that fits together with the goal of ‘tearing down the whole system.’ But as in previous posts in this series, I think the tension is more apparent than real.
The best place to start here is with the question of what on earth ‘abolishing gender’ actually means. The word ‘abolition’ is perhaps not the best one, since it sounds forcible, as though the anti-gender police are going to come and arrest you for, I dunno, conforming too closely to a gender stereotype. For the record, I don’t want the anti-gender police arresting anyone – apart from anything else, arresting people for conforming too closely would reify and entrench the system of gender just as strongly as arresting people for not conforming closely enough.
Maybe ‘dismantling’ is a better word, because it suggests something more like slowly de-coupling different elements of something, letting them exist separately, so that the whole they formed eventually recedes into irrelevance. And that is roughly the way I’d like to think about a society that has ‘done away with’ gender: it’s one where all the things we associate with one gender are equally socially compatible with things we associate with the other gender.
The society I currently live in, for instance, is organised by gender in the following sense: although people can have beards, or not, and wear dresses, or not, and have breasts, or not, and be called ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ or not, these things are grouped together in specific ways. Our society says: if you have a beard you can’t wear a dress, if you have breasts you can’t be called ‘sir’, etc. In a genderless society, as I’m understanding the term, you can select these different things a la carte, and whatever mixture you end up with will be seen as equally normal and legitimate.
In a society like that, nothing stops anyone from talking about genders, from identifying as belonging to one gender or the other, but the gender label would have been decoupled from every concrete feature, and consequently carry little information. Knowing someone is a woman tells you nothing about what sort of name they might have, how they’ll dress, how they walk, how tall they are, what genitals they have, how their voice sounds, etc., And equally, knowing all those things won’t tell you whether they’re a woman. The thought is that as a result, whether they’re a woman becomes less important to know, and people are less likely to wonder or care. The gender binary ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Including and celebrating trans people is a fantastic way to advance this goal, because it effects a de-coupling of elements of the gender webs. So do gay liberation and more conventional sorts of feminist activism:
- Feminist advocacy has sought to de-couple gender from legal rights, occupational role, access to education, etc.
- Gay liberation has sought to de-couple gender from sexual attraction
- Accepting social transition de-couples gender from biology
- Accepting medical transition de-couples different aspects of biology from one another
Hence certain slogans that sometimes circulate in meme form:
By respecting gender identity – by giving individuals control over how they are gendered – we directly contribute to the destruction of the overarching non-consensual system.
One way of envisaging the ultimate outcome of these de-coupling tendencies together is that if basically everything gets decoupled from gender, gender will thereby lose its significance. That’s not to deny that right now gender is very important to a lot of people, which is perfectly legitimate and which I am in no way trying to criticise. But I think respecting people’s individual gender feelings regardless of their assigned gender may well tend, in the long run, to reduce the importance of gender for everyone. All of these things move us towards a genderless society, where knowing how someone dresses and what job they do tells you nothing about who they’re attracted to and what genitals they have.
I think in a society like that – where gender has become both much harder to discern, and much less useful to discern – the category is likely to be much less entrenched in people’s minds. At the moment, gender is predictively useful – you can usually categorise someone as a man or a woman quickly and reliably based on a variety of cues, and doing so lets you make high-reliability predictions about many other traits of theirs. In a condition like this, I think most people’s brains are going to identify and employ gender as a pervasive cognitive tool – even if you sincerely believe ‘I support the abolition of gender’, because brains don’t listen to abstract principles very well.
Of course I should stress that plenty of trans people don’t want gender completely dismantled. Presumably plenty of them have no opinion, or are actively conservative. Trans people are just people, with all sorts of beliefs. Trans people are no more obliged to serve as foot-soldiers in an ideological war on traditional gender roles than cis people are. But it’s nice when the things we have reason to do for immediate, simple, ethical reasons also subserve our preferred long-term ideological visions (and I think it can be a red flag when the two are sharply opposed).
A term that I think very nicely expresses the unity of these two goals is ‘gender anarchy’ – playing on the ambiguity of ‘anarchy’ that has always dogged anarchists. In one sense, ‘anarchy’ means free choice for all, the rule of voluntary consent – and in that sense ‘anarchy is order’. In another, more colloquial sense, ‘anarchy’ means chaos and the collapse of order. ‘Gender anarchy’ serves as a nice phrase because you can read it in the former, anarchist-inspired sense, as meaning ‘respect individuals’ gender choices’, or in the latter, menacing sense, as meaning ‘subvert and undermine the coherence of the whole system’. And if I’m right in what I’ve said in this post, doing those two things actually go hand-in-hand.