Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary

400px-Nonbinary_flag.svgThis post was originally meant to be posted a few weeks ago, during International Nonbinary Awareness Week. That would have been an auspicious time to spread some awareness of something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, but have felt unsure of and reluctant to state publicly. But then the tinkering took a bit too long, as it always does, and so the post is appearing now.

So I think I’m nonbinary. This is a thought I’ve played with for a few years, and which has slowly solidified and settled for me over this past year or so. But I’ve so far shied away from expressing it explicitly to others, except to Katlyn, who is as always incomparably supportive, and an expert at helping me think things through on my own terms. I’ve been trying out saying ‘he/they’ when asked my pronouns, and I sort of liked it, but that’s not a very explicit way to claim an identity. So this post, I suppose, will be my effort to more directly articulate and explain this facet of myself.

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Not Disorder, But Alternative Order

I worry my last post might have come across as over-focusing on how to categorise protest tactics as either ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’, like I’m saying that’s the central moral issue here. That wasn’t my intention, so I’m going to try to make explicit some of the background ideas I had in mind.

In brief: I think our imaginations are trained to see protests that involve any sort of disruption or lawbreaking as ‘disorder’, as something negative, as a breakdown. Instead, I suggest seeing this in terms of the temporary constitution of an alternative system, an embryonic version of a different order. Rather than simply a breaking down, it’s a brief glimpse of an alternative building up.

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Burning Cop Cars is Non-Violent


Image by Katlyn Beattie

It seems like right now would be a good time to return to some things I wrote a decade ago, about the idea of ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ protest, and why the predictable denunciations of ‘protests turning violent’ are laden with unexamined ideology.

Here’s the gist: burning a cop car while protesting police brutality is not ‘violent’, because we can define ‘violence’ either in a strict and narrow sense, or in a broad and inclusive sense, and in neither sense does burning cop cars, or precints, or government buildings, qualify as violent.

I’ll summarise the argument below, but the full discussion is in these posts: What Is Violence? Part 1, What Is Violence? Part 2, and What is Violence? Part 3. I basically stand by what I wrote there (though for full disclosure, I have just edited them a little because 10-years-ago Luke had some bad stylistic habits that now-Luke has tried to grow past).

Some relevant background facts not directly argued for here: most police systems are institutionally brutal and amplify the racism of their societies; the US police system is especially bad, and the fact that it consistently produces and protects murderers makes it accountable for their crimes. Black Americans are not beholden to the state that enslaved their ancestors and has oppressed them for centuries. Black Lives Matter, and the American police have demonstrated that their continued institutional existence is incompatible with respecting that.

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Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 5: Gender Abolition and Gender Anarchy

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:

Part 1: Social Construction and First-Person Authority

Part 2: Social Roles and Individual Defiance

Part 3: Gender, Sex, and Attraction

Part 4: Femininity and Asymmetric Oppression

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.

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Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 4: Femininity and Asymmetric Oppression

This is the fourth post in a series discussing and offering a resolution of some inconsistencies that people had alleged among ideas about gender I accept. They are loosely a development of this previous post, which sharply criticised some ideas about gender associated with so-called ‘gender-critical feminism’. The first post was about membership criteria – who counts as what gender? The second post was about the balancing the social and individual aspects of gender identity. The third post was about the relationship of gender to sexual attraction.

In this post I’m going to talk about ‘femininity’, and a tension between two feminist attitutdes to it. We live in a society that imposes something called ‘femininity’ on women, and which also denigrates femininity and thereby women. Because there are these two distinct planks, we can distinguish two ways to challenge our society’s gender codes.

One way is to celebrate women who reject femininity, either embracing this other thing masculinity or going for some sort of third style of being. A different way is to celebrate femininity itself as serious and valuable and worthy of respect. The risk is that either one of these strategies, done badly, could potentially veer into reinforcing the other plank: celebrating masculinity in women can veer into re-affirming the denigration of femininity as frivolous or servile, but celebrating femininity can veer into reinforcing the expectation that women should be feminine. I think you can see this issue playing out in feminist debates about a lot of things, from careers and motherhood to makeup and media representation.

I support both ways of challenging the system, and when done well they don’t have to be in conflict. But since I’m not a very practical person, my interest here is not so much in how practically to do both harmoniously, but in the theoretical reflection of this issue. Roughly speaking, the theoretical tension is between, two sorts of attitude:

  • On the one hand, we could see ‘femininity’ as something that is in itself just as valuable as masculinity, and only contingently denigrated under patriarchy;
  • On the other hand, we could see ‘femininity’ as simply a word for the norms of submission imposed on women by patriarchy, and thus as something essentially oppressive.

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Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 3: Gender, Sex, and Attraction

This is the third post in a series responding to people who answered this previous post by saying ‘if this account of gender you attack is so bad, what’s your account of it?’ Rather than trying to give a completed and systematic answer, I’ve been focused on resolving some of the seeming tensions that people saw among different ideas I had committed myself to. The first post was about membership criteria – who counts as what gender? The second post, yesterday, was about the idea of an individual gender identity, and how I could consistently think both that gender is socially constructed and that gender identities might (sometimes) be innate.

In this post I’m going to talk about gender and sexual attraction. People standardly talk about sexual attraction in terms of being either ‘into women’ or ‘into men’ or both, and there’s sometimes controversy about what exactly this means. If a monosexual (i.e. straight or gay) person is exclusively ‘into men’, does that mean they’re attracted to members of a biological ‘sex’, or members of a social ‘gender’, or what?

Now, I don’t want to legislate the meaning of words, and the empirical facts of human attraction are probably very messy and complicated, so my aim is not to lay down some rule about who qualifies as ‘straight man’ or a ‘gay woman’ or whatever. There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries here and people should navigate those boundaries for themselves.  But I do think there’s a tension in the sort of view I’ve been defending, which it would be useful for me to address, just to try and say ‘here is one consistent position that is available.’

The tension as I see it is between two ideas: on the one hand, the class to which a monosexual person’s desire is oriented might be a gender class, including cis and trans people of the same gender; on the other hand, desire is in large part responsive to concrete physical features of a person – it matters how someone looks, sounds, moves (maybe smells?), etc. The tension is that what connects cis and trans people of the same gender, on my view, is their gender identity, a psychological rather than physical trait, so it can be hard to see how gender in and of itself could be what, so to speak, gets the motor running.

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Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 2: Social Roles and Individual Defiance

This is the second post in a series responding, albeit very belatedly, to reactions to this previous post about trans issues and so-called ‘gender critical feminism’. That was a fairly sharp critique of GCF, in particular its crude and often hypocritical treatment of gender, and one reaction I got was ‘so what’s your account of gender?’ The quick response is that you don’t need to know the right theory of something to reject bad and bigoted theories of it, but the longer response is given in this series.

I’ve structured each post around a tension that might seem to exist between two ideas I’m committed to: the post is my explanation of how I resolve that tension and reconcile the two ideas. The first post, yesterday, was on reconciling social constructionism (gender is invented by society) with first-person authority (individuals know their own gender). My basic response was to distinguish between the meaning of a gender term and the criteria for its application: different people can use the same term (e.g. ‘man’) with the same meaning but with different criteria. What they have in common is that they use this word to assign people to the same social category (the male gender), but they do so for different reasons – one might do so based on what chromosomes they think people have, another on what category people assign themselves to, and another on some other basis. The category is a social construct, and does not in itself dictate its own membership criteria.

In this post I’ll be returning to an idea I criticised a lot in my original post, namely that gender transition ‘reinforces’ the social system of gender. It might seem that social constructionism about gender implies some such idea, because if genders are socially constructed then, it might seem, an individual ‘identifying with’ a gender must amount to a kind of ‘acceptance’ or ‘obedience’ to what society is telling them, in short a form of conformity.

But actually, individual gender identity is a distinct thing from gender conformity or nonconformity: someone can feel strongly that they are a man while also violating many or most of society’s expectations about men. In that post I tried to emphasise that this is more or less a pre-theoretical datum: whatever the reasons for it, I said, we need to recognise and take seriously this fact and not rush to slot it into our favoured theory. In this post, with its different aims, I am going to be a little more theoretical – not to try and say once and for all what is going on here, but to illustrate one way of combining constructionism about gender with a recognition of the subversive potential of individual gender identities.

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Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 1: Social Construction and First-Person Authority

One of the recurrent, and predictable, responses that my last post got was ‘but what is gender?’ or ‘but what is gender identity?’ People suggested that it’s evasive or disingenuous to reject ‘gender-critical’ ideology as transphobic while not offering my own account of gender.

Conveniently, I do have a bunch of thoughts on the topic, but I felt it was important to keep these questions separate, because I think their epistemic and political status is quite different. That is: how exactly to understand gender is a really open, interesting, subtle and complex question, and what I have to say about it is fairly speculative and I expect smart people to disagree a lot. By contrast, that we should reject ‘gender-critical’ feminism as a divisive reactionary movement is more like a baseline position that I think should be (and, I think, in fact is) widely shared among feminists and LGBTQ activists.

(This open letter here by a whole bunch of feminist philosophers makes, I think,  precisely the same point: we can and should explore the complexity of gender, and admit our uncertainties and disagreements about it, while loudly rejecting attempts to leverage that complexity against trans people.)

So I wanted to state my case against the gendercrits by itself. But since so many people demanded an account of gender, and since I think it’s an interesting topic, I’m now going to make some remarks on that topic in this separate series of posts. It’s coming much later than initially expected, because life is chaos and time-management is difficult and there’s a global pandemic, but whatever, time isn’t real so here goes.

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Dear Philosophers, You Can Trust the Feminist Consensus: Gender-Critical Radical Feminism is Bogus

Dear philosophers,

Every few weeks now it seems like the philosophy blogosphere has a big argument about trans rights. You are, perhaps, unsure what to think. You think of yourself, maybe, as a feminist, but both sides are calling themselves feminists: on the one side, the ‘gender-critical’ feminists, who say there are important conflicts of interest between trans and non-trans women; on the other side, a less cohesive but much larger group of feminists insisting that these conflicts are invented as a pretext for hate against trans people. Statistically, dear philosophers, there’s a good chance that you are, like me, a cis man, and not an expert on any of this. You’re wondering how to react. 

Judging by my facebook feed, many of you are looking at the conflict and deciding that gender-critical feminism is a respectable view that is being unfairly vilified in an attempt to silence its proponents. You say things like the following (anonymous quotes from a few different people):

  • “I’m NOT defending the Gender Critical view (or whatever one should call it). I’m defending discussion of it, and setting out why I think that certain considerations should be legitimate fodder for discussion, contrary to the way they have been – in some spheres at least – ruled out.” 
  • “[He] isn’t defending her position, he’s defending the concept of open discourse.”
  • “I should also point out that I’m NOT arguing that the new gender legislation IS problematic. I’m defending the legitimacy of its being questioned. Which at least some people have denied.”
  • “[all she said was] that hormones/surgery do not make an actual ‘woman’ by her definition. Ok, that’s an opinion, maybe some have a different one… Outrage is fine, but I should be able to identify the ‘outrageous’ in the rhetoric…”
  • “let’s ALL join together and say that we reject the too-frequent threats of deplatforming that are circulating in the profession, and oppose the vilification of our colleagues over their philosophical views…”
  • “Let’s stand together against attempts to deplatform and shout down and delegitimize opposing viewpoints… as ‘bigotry’ etc.”
  • “We condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy.”

Dear philosophers, this post is my attempt to persuade you that actually, gender-critical feminism is not worth engaging with. It really is as valueless as people are telling you. 

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Blogging the Book, 4: Composite Subjectivity and the Panpsychic Universe

My fourth and final post at Brains is up:

“So let’s circle back to the combination problem for panpsychism, that got me on this topic in the first place. Despite reading and writing a lot about it, I’m still never quite sure what counts as ‘solving’ the combination problem…” 

I’m honestly quite pleased with how this series of posts turned out: all together they add up to about 6,000 words, so this is something like a 20-page summary or précis of the book. It doesn’t cover everything, obviously, but frankly it does a better job of conveying the scope and aims and major ideas of the book than I expected to be able to.


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