Post-script on the essentialism thing

Because this point may have been buried well enough in that wall-o’-text that some might miss it: I absolutely do not reject Trans identities just because I reject gender essentialism. I also don’t reject monosexual orientation identities just because I consider gender to be a lot more complex than innies vs. outies.

I’ve read pieces recently arguing that the mere existence of people who use non-binary gender labels somehow devalues Trans people who do have a binary identity. (That was part of the inspiration for my recent authenticity post, too.) That’s absolutely not the case any more than the existence of bi/pansexual people makes it impossible for gay people to argue that their state of being is innate. There are, of course, biological elements to both gender identity and orientation, but there are also constructed elements, too, and even elements that are a matter of conscious choice. Acknowledging that and working toward changing the negative aspects of some of those non-hardwired things isn’t in any way eliminating anyone’s identity.

Indeed, it can (and should) be argued that the reason LGBT people deserve justice isn’t because we “can’t help” the way we are, but because we shouldn’t be expected to. Endless research trying to prove why we are this way only leads to people trying to find ways to fix those “birth defects.” Our argument should be that existing and living our lives in a way that makes us happy harms no-one, and therefore there should be no legal or social impediments to our doing so. The burden shouldn’t be on us to prove why we should have rights. It should be on the other side to prove why we shouldn’t.

A person’s unique assortment of traits and behaviors is the result of a complex mix of biology and environment, but the labels we put on those things are arbitrary. A person’s relative desire to be a parent is undoubtedly innate to a large degree, but the fact that we consider baby urges to be a “feminine” thing, and a lack of interest in parenting to be common to men is a complete cultural construction.

This does not, as I’ve mentioned before, mean those labels aren’t useful. Just because a building didn’t grow on its spot like a tree doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and isn’t useful on some level. However, like a building that has major structural damage, we are within reason to change our constructs when they prove problematic. For the purposes of getting by in the world, adding up all the physical and personality traits one has and figuring out whether most of them are labeled female or male is how most of us decide what gender we are. Most of this happens subconsciously, but there’s still some element of choice to it. Historically, and to a very large degree even today, physical attributes overrode virtually everything else, so no matter how many non-physical female-labeled traits a person had, a penis meant they were male (and should try to ditch all those other traits.) Legal and physical (to varying degrees) transitioning is how many people caught in that predicament have been working toward resolving it, and that’s absolutely the right choice for them, and should never be questioned or restricted.

However, transitioning isn’t the answer for everyone whose birth-assigned gender label doesn’t quite fit who they are. For most people, the binary labels work. Most folks do have a significantly higher number of things in column A or column B, and therefore the umbrella label fits them and that’s what they go with. But there are many of us whose trait assortment isn’t so neatly divided, and therefore creating an understanding of gender that isn’t so limited and binary is the only way we can get by. We are, in other words, merely expanding the possible labels for gender, not eliminating the existing ones that fit many people. Same goes with orientation. I think a lot more people would identify as bi or pansexual if such an identity were considered real and legitimate, but most people would still be perfectly comfortable identifying as straight or gay because those labels, and the cultural identity they come with, fit them.

On a personal level, finding prefab labels to fit me on both counts has been extremely difficult. The best I’ve been able to do is to explain that I don’t identify with any of the flavors of femme in my culture, nor am I attracted to most of them. I also, however, don’t identify with nor am I attracted to stereotypical masculinity. In any case, though, I’m not picky about the body configurations of the people who have the gender presentations I’m attracted to, nor am I all that fussed about the configuration my body is in (I do have mild body dysphoria, but it’s more about having a laundry list of chronic illnesses.) For me personally, I consider bodies just a container for a person, and therefore they’re far less relevant to me than who a person is beyond their skin. For political and medical purposes, however, I am coded as biologically female, and thus I check that box on most forms when I’m not given another option. I also use female pronouns, because the other options either don’t fit or are terribly unwieldy, and don’t care much that I’m generally assumed to be female in day-to-day life. I am out as much as I can be and understood not to be personally femme-identified by the people who matter to me, and that works, as much as it’s possible to work until the world recognizes that who and what I am doesn’t fit the current binary system.

My existence in this form and with this identity doesn’t mean that other people don’t fit, to at least a large degree, in the existing binary categories, however. My advocacy for an understanding of gender that incorporates who I am is not an advocacy for changing the identities of other people. That’s absolutely not my decision to make any more than it is someone else’s decision to make on what gender and orientation I am.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Feminism, LGBTQ and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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