Stop Partitioning Gender!

And A Related Critique of Gender Egoism

The Parts and Parcels of Gender

If you’re even slightly involved in social justice spheres, you’re bound to have encountered discussions of the various concepts surround ‘gender’, a notoriously slippery term. In making this critique, I restrict myself to a broad theory of gender that doesn’t make many assumptions (the ones I do make, I think there are extremely strong reasons we ought to accept them). I personally reject a sex-gender distinction on the grounds to be explained in a further piece of mine, but today I will presuppose a meaningful distinction between the two for the sake of explaining why, even from a point of view that distinguishes the two, we ought not to partition gender into an endless list of related concepts: gender role, gender norm(s), gender identity, gender orientation, gender presentation, gender expression, gender attribution. These terms have been defined in varying manners, with all sorts of different uses and relationships between them. There is obviously some explanatory use in this terminology that has a long history within feminist scholarship: gender roles and gender norms, for instance, have been used to describe various ways of organizing society around gender and the norms that reproduce said mode of social organization. Rather than reject this terms entirely, I think it’s more useful to examine the closely interwoven and mutually constitutive relationship between them.

Often implicit, but always unstated, in social justice ‘education’ articles (not to say that these don’t have hermeneutic and educational value), is the thesis that all these parts of gender-presentation, roles, expression, identity-are independent of each other and that one can “pick and choose” which ones we want in our gender utopia. For instance, an individual who finds gender roles harmful can retain gendered presentation, expression and identity, while an individual who finds any association of gender with presentation, expression and roles (i.e. occupation & that of social life) can retain just gender identity in their ideal society. What this lacks, for me, is any rigorous analysis of where the concepts of ‘gender identity’, ‘gender expression’, etc arise. Why is it that (at least some) trans people have developed a concept of gender identity to describe their dissatisfaction with the traditional notions of gender?

Gender identity isn’t some precultural phenomenon that exists as our ‘subconscious sex’ (as Julia Serano would put it) or reflective of some innately gendered ‘soul’ or even a reflection of one’s relation with their body (as the aptly named ‘truscum’ might denote it as). Gender identity is simultaneously an individual and intersubjective way of relating one’s reality to that of a gendered world. That is, gender identity cannot exist without presupposing a society that divides clothing, hair, accessories, makeup, occupation, game preferences and interests into purportedly ‘innately’ gendered categories. That is not to say that the assertion of gender identity itself is based on the aforementioned presupposition of gendered reality, but rather that gender identity is a way of organizing one’s identity (however one wants to frame identity: innate, precultural contra constructed) into the preexisting categories. This process, of course, varies drastically by the individual we are considering: those who refuse to identify with a gender identity outright (‘genderfree’ & agender individuals), transsexual individuals who stake their claim to gender/sex based on their purportedly innate sense of a body map, nonbinary individuals whose constituted identity I should save for another day. What gender identity actually is, I don’t think anyone can say for certain. It’s an opaque concept that has unfortunately been (ab)used far beyond its tenure. Nevertheless, it has substantial meaning to many individuals and should play a role in discourses on gender.

Once we realize that gender identity is not independent of gender roles and norms, the retention of gender identity in any feminist society becomes immediately problematic. If one is to abolish gender norms and gender roles (as any feminist wishes to do), then what will happen to gender identity? Given our previous analysis as gender identity arising from gender roles, not gender roles coming into existence on top of gender identity, we can see that gender identity will either fall down alongside gender roles or will be radically transformed into something fundamentally different from our current concepts of identity.

Gender Egoism?

What I consider the exemplar of a theory of gender that attempts to divorce gender identity from its constitutive gender norms is that of gender egoism. The project of gender egoism aims to extend upon a gender nihilist analysis of gender and to offer a liberatory abolitionist project for trans individuals to affirm without the baggage of previous accounts. For the gender egoist, gender is simultaneously to be abolished and to be appropriated, as Max Stirner might say about property. Indeed, the gender egoist wants to make gender property. My question for gender egoists is what the purpose of gendered identity is after all of the content constituting gender (preferences, interests, presentation) has been stripped as fundamentally oppressive. If gender no longer refers to the clothes one wears, the length and style of hair one fronts, the way of walking, the bodily features associated with a particular gender, then what is left? The gender egoist’s answer may be that it does not matter what exactly a gender identity refers to as their goal is the deconstruction of identity only to be rebuilt on an individual’s terms. But the problem with this response is not only does one have no reason to label oneself a particular gender identity without the aforementioned content, but that there is no particular reason to call the words one labels oneself in the liberatory project a gender identity any more than a race identity or a sexual identity or so on. 

Perhaps the gender egoist does not need any particular reason to label oneself with what they call a gender identity, but this argument will fall on many deaf ears. It may be sufficient to rely on a radically subjective account of agency to justify identity for some, but this will never be enough to provide a strong account of why one ought to accept gender egoism. Given the complex construction of gender in current society, it is not that absurd a fear to worry that retaining gender identity may reconstruct a new form of tyrannical and oppressive gender structures, if only fulfilling the concern of the radical gender nihilist’s:

More genders is not more freedom, it is more oppressive categories to try to fit into

A radical critique of human categorization may be fruitful on theoretical grounds and hopeless on realistic pragmatic grounds, but perhaps it needn’t apply to an abolitionist project hoping to eradicate gender.

En summa, it is theoretically hopeless to try to ground a gender identity outside of a social context consisting of regulatory gender norms that police acceptable action and appearance for the members of a particular gender.


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