This is Part II in our series on UCL Medical Anthropology outreach over the summer. Daniel Newman participated in the UCL Widening Participation Regional Summer Challege (see Part I for more) co-taught by Caroline Ackley and Katja Holtz. Daniel wrote about gender identity for his final essay.
In Defence of Gender Identities
By Daniel Newman
Daniel Newman is currently entering Year 13 at Palmer’s College. Daniel intends to study Mathematics at university. Daniel also (obviously) has a significant level of interest in gender, amongst other things. Daniel is also sick of referring to Daniel by name in the third person.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the complexities of gender. It is now believed by a significant minority of people that gender exists on a spectrum rather than a binary, and that said spectrum is populated by a multitude of identities. In this paper, I will seek to prove the benefits to individuals and to society of these identities. I will explore how identities allow for more positive discussions of gender, create a community, validate people’s sense of self, help with self-discovery, allow for a wider range of gender expressions, mitigate the negative effects of the gender binary, aid in deviance from gender norms and simplify communication, as well as seeking to address common concerns. This will be accomplished using both a review of extant papers and through material from some interviews I conducted.
The paper will use a number of terms that the reader may not be entirely familiar with, and I will now seek to define them. The reader should be aware that there are several different interpretations of each of these terms – for instance, ‘genderqueer’ is often used as a specific non-binary identity and as an umbrella term for non-binary identities. ‘Sex’ refers to the biological categories of male, female and intersex, where ‘intersex’ refers to people who do not fit into the biological categories of male and female due to unusual genetics, hormonal profiles or physical characteristics. In contrast, ‘gender’ is the set of socially constructed ideas on what is masculine and what is feminine. One of the ideas surrounding gender is that of the ‘gender identity’, an individual’s internal sense of their relation to gender. There are a great many gender identities, including the above-mentioned ‘genderqueer’, but listing them is beyond the scope of this paper. Identities can be classified in two groups; ‘binary’ or ‘gender binary’ is male or female, and ‘non-binary’ or ‘the spectrum’ refer to any person or identity that lies outside this dichotomy. ‘Binary’ and ‘gender binary’ are also used to refer to the idea that male and female are the only gender identities. ‘Cis’ and ‘cisgender’ refer to people whose gender identity is concordant with their sex, and ‘trans*’ refers to everyone who isn’t cisgender. ‘Cissexism’ or ‘cisgenderism’ is the belief that someone’s gender is only valid (or more valid) if they are cisgender. Cissexism is the systemic counterpart of ‘transphobia’, an irrational and person fear or hatred of trans* people. ‘Gender expression’ and ‘gender presentation’ are how an individual presents their gender to the world through mediums such as clothing, mannerisms and hairstyle. ‘Misgendering’ is a deliberate use of pronouns, names or adjectives that do not match someone’s gender identity, such as referring to a transfemale person as ‘he’. Misgendering is treated as a bad thing in this paper, since it causes distress; arguments on the morality of purposefully disregarding what someone has told you about themselves in order to cause them emotional harm are outside the scope of this paper.
One way in which the trans* identities are helpful is that they provide a lexicon for those seeking to express their gender in words. This is important because otherwise such people would have to use extant language, built on the assumptions of cissexism, which ‘can function to dehumanise, silence and erase’ (Ansara, 2011). The negative consequences of the use of such language obviously necessitates the creation of a new lexicon with which trans* people can talk about themselves without the negative connotations. Since the ability of language to harm comes from its past usage as a threat or statement of hatred as well as from its content (Butler, 1996), and since this language has arisen in the context of the ‘cisgenderism’ (Ansara, 2011) of the establishment, it also seems obvious that any non-discriminatory lexicon will have to come from outside said establishment, from the people it describes, and the identities that have arisen fulfil this criterion. In addition to this, the community’s control of the language isn’t the only boon provided by the identities; I would argue that the community’s ability to include people is beneficial as well, and that that ability comes from the identities.
The need for belonging to and inclusion in a community or ingroup is a part of human psychology; the desire for emotional connection with a group is a deep-seated one, and the need for validation of one’s membership of the group from said group is strong as well – but how can someone know they are included if there is no language with which to describe those who are included? The lexicon of gender identities is therefore useful in creating an inclusive community for those who are trans*. These identities are also vital in the formation of the community; they create a shared Us, an identity of ‘trans* people’ for the trans* people to gather round, creating a community of like individuals. It also creates an outgroup, a Them of cisgender people without which the process of ‘othering and belonging’ (Baumann, 2004) identity requires is impossible – that is to say, it allows the community to define who they are not, which is just as important as defining who they are.
Of course, these shared identities are themselves important, as they give people something to identify with. It helps them to say that this is who I am, that my identity is valid, that this is not something wrong with me. As one genderqueer blogger puts it, ‘[l]abels tell us that our feelings are real, and shared, and okay’ (Gender Queeries, 2014). The value of the ability to put a name to your gender cannot be underestimated; it creates a sense that the way one feels about their gender is perfectly valid – it doesn’t have to be dictated by the shape of your genitals and isn’t ‘just a phase’ that you’ll ‘grow out of’. The fact that the name constitutes proof that there are other people like you is also no less than incredible – it proves to you that you are not alone in feeling this way, that this isn’t a mental illness but a simple difference from the rest of the world, that you are special, not broken.
The importance of knowing that there is nothing wrong with you when it comes to your gender is of course helpful in other ways. One interviewee pointed out how it ‘can be helpful for people still figuring themselves out’, as the community around the identities reassures you that uncertainty about your gender identity is fine, and that it’s OK to not be absolutely sure of who you are or to change your mind on what label best describes you. Indeed, the interviewee in question has themselves changed pronouns, gender identity and even name multiple times as they tried to work out who they are, and certainly seems much happier now they have it figured out than when they believed themselves to be cisgender.
The interviewee also explained how the identities aided the exploration of one’s gender identity because they don’t ‘restrict [you] when it comes to expression’ – and other interviewees expressed similar sentiments – which helps when experimenting with gender and learning more about yourself – after all, if you are limited to one gender expression, how could you ever learn whether another one works better for you? The lack of restriction when it comes to expression is also important because being able to express yourself is important to your mental health; studies have shown that restrictions on self-expression have a ‘negative impact’, and lead to great emotional distress (Ansara, 2011) and ‘engender poor mental health’
Another sentiment common to all of my interviewees ran along the lines that because trans* identities have unmoored gender expression from gender identity, the identities have been of great benefit to them personally; one, whose gender expression is quite masculine (which they define as ’the stereotypical definition of how people view men’, including wearing men’s clothes and sitting in a ‘masculine’ way), commented that the knowledge of the difference between gender expression and gender identity helped them be certain in their identity as female by helping them ignore what society told them that their hairstyle, amongst other things, said about their gender identity. Another pointed out how they had gone through a phase of androgynous expression and that it was an enjoyable experience for them even though they identify as female, which would not have been possible if not for the disassociation of gender expression and gender identity. Of course, the benefits to individuals aren’t all there is to gender identities: I would argue that this unprecedented freedom of gender expression may effect great social change.
Imagine a world where expression and identity are completely unrelated; surely there would be no ‘hypernormativity’ (a more extreme version of normativity, a pressure to conform exactly to a norm all of the time, with no deviances tolerated) – no moral pressure to conform perfectly and exactly to a norm – when it comes to gender expression (Ansara, 2011). If there was no pressure to perform one’s gender in a certain way, then surely this would result in the breakdown of such things as hegemonic masculinity (the practice of looking for inconsistencies in someone’s gender expression in an attempt to provide ‘evidence’ with which to invalidate their gender identity) – how can a hegemony endure if there are no societal forces acting to maintain it? An end to hegemonic masculinity would be good for society for reasons including but not limited to the facts that ‘particular patterns of aggression […come from the] pursuit of hegemony’, and hegemonic masculinity perpetuates gender inequalities (Connell, 2005). An understanding that expression and identity are not equivalent would also (hopefully) end ‘ungendering’1. Indeed, one interviewee’s comments implied that the practice of ungendering is even now failing to gain traction amongst younger people, as they pointed out that David Bowie was their idol, and that Bowie’s varying gender expression was never an issue for them – that is, they didn’t spend time picking it apart to use as ammunition in an attempt to make Bowie’s gender seem less valid as large groups of people seem intent on doing to current-day trans* people.
An end to ungendering would be another way that gender identities could aid in self-discovery; if people don’t have to fear others regarding their identity as a sham simply because in the past their expression has varied in their search for the gender identity that best fits them, then surely they would feel more bold in such endeavours. This would help them with figuring themselves out that much faster and saving themselves that much mental anguish.
In fact, it could be argued that the trans* identities help self-discovery yet another way; studies have shown that our ability to differentiate between colours and even directions is dependent on the language we use to describe them (Paul, 2015), and it therefore seems virtually certain that a more fine-grained lexicon for gender will help people to understand and distinguish between them better, helping them to better understand both their own genders and those of others. Greater self-knowledge is almost universally acknowledged as a virtue, and greater understanding of others allows one to feel empathy for them, so it is not at all unreasonable to conclude that these gender identities will make society more caring.
Until such a world comes about, however, society seems intent on drowning any hint of gender non-conformity in a deluge of cissexist and oppositionally sexist2 messages (Serano, 2016), and so the identities are called upon to shield trans* people from these messages – how effective will something telling you ‘boys are X, girls are Y’ be if you can say that you are, say, genderflux? The labels we use to describe ourselves have great power to insulate us from the propaganda of society, and to break down the binary that it ascribes (McConnell-Ginet, 2009). The ability of these identities to break down the norms of society and allow us to live just as we are is incredibly liberating for the individual, and they are also helpful in communicating this notion of self to others.
The use of labels is intrinsic to human communication – every noun is a label (Gender Queeries, 2014), and without nouns we’d have a hard time telling anyone anything. Even if we allowed ‘normal’ nouns and only disallowed labels, that would still slow down and unnecessarily complicate communication – a full-length description of someone’s gender identity would definitely take longer than one word, and such explanations aren’t often necessary for those with self-explanatory gender identities – genderfluid people, for example. The utility of easy self-explanation is plainly obvious; it makes interactions more fluid, reduces the unpleasantness that is misgendering and helps people to understand and be empathetic with one another more quickly.
Of course, some would argue that the benefits of gender spectrum identities are outweighed by the need for quick and easy sex identification in medical emergencies, to which the obvious response is that we aren’t talking about sex. If a medical professional needs information on someone’s genetics or hormonal profile, they can ask about those, but gender is not relevant to medical treatment. Indeed, some clinics have already adopted a practice of listing sex and gender separately, so that they can use birth sex for dealing with dosages and blood tests and things in that vein, and gender for interacting with patients (Kralj, 2017). After all, misgendering someone in a medical context can lead to them avoiding medical care for fear of a repeat event (Kralj, 2017), a course of events which has far greater potential to harm and kill than any emergency that can be resolved by making explicit that the medical practitioner needs information on biology rather than identity.
Another common criticism of non-binary identities is that they ‘reinforce gender norms’. I hope that this paper will have made clear by now that this is not the case, but it is worth stating again; one of the most important elements of non-binary identities is their separation of gender expression and gender identity. Non-binary identities emphatically do not in any way reify, essentialise or reinforce gender norms; rather, they tear them down.
In conclusion, this paper presents a great deal of evidence on how the gender spectrum and its identities are of great help, both to those who identify with them and to society at large. I have shown how identities allow for more positive discussions of gender variance, create a community for trans* people, validate people’s sense of their own gender, help with self-discovery, create support for a wider range of gender expressions, mitigate the negative social effects of the gender binary, aid in deviance from gender norms and simplify communication. I hope this is enough evidence to convince the reader of the beneficial nature of these trans* identities, and that they too shall speak in defence of gender identities.
Ansara, Y. Gavriel and Peter Hegarty;. (2011, June 28). Cisgenderism in psychology: pathologising and misgendering children from 1999 to 2008. Retrieved from ansaraonline.com: http://ansaraonline.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Ansara__Hegarty_2011_Cisgenderism_in_Psychology238180308.24885604.pdf
Baumann, Gerd and Andre Gingrich. (2005). Grammars of Identity/Alterity: A Structural Approach. New York: Berghahn.
Butler, J. (1996). Burning Acts: Injurious Speech. The University of Chicago Law School Roundtable (Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 9).
Connell, R.W. and James Messerschmidt. (2005, December 1). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society, pp. 829-859.
Kralj, Ana-Katarina. (2017, July 13). Re: What is something that needs to be said? [Blog comment]. Retrieved from Quora: https://www.quora.com/What-is-something-that-needs-to-be-said/answer/Ana-Katarina-Kralj?srid=Q0kr
McConnell-Ginet, Sally. (2009). “What’s in a Name?” Social Labeling and Gender Practices. In M. M. Janet Holmes, The Handbook of Language and Gender (p. 69=97). Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons.
‘Paul’. (2015, March 18). How Language Changes our Perceptions of Colour. Retrieved from Transparent Language: http://blogs.transparent.com/language-news/2015/03/18/how-language-changes-our-perception-of-color/
Serano, Julia. (2016). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd edition. Berkely: Seal Press.
Spiegel, A. (2008, May 7). Two Families Grapple with Sons’ Gender Identity. Retrieved from National Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/2008/05/07/90247842/two-families-grapple-with-sons-gender-preferences NB: Some readers may find this article distressing due to its constant misgendering of the two transfemale children it concerns.
‘Toby’. (2014, May 31). Untitled. Retrieved from Gender Queeries: http://genderqueeries.tumblr.com/page/9