In response to yesterday’s post I have received a lot of well-meaning messages informing me that “gender is not a binary”. This is, I assume, to disabuse me of the foolish notion that there’s only boring old male and female. I am reliably informed (as if I didn’t know it already) that there is plenty more in-between. Hence we don’t need to panic about gender itself oppressing people. There’s enough to go round! Don’t fear it, queer it! Everything is awesome! etc.
I am not convinced by this argument, not because I have any doubts about the number of gender identities currently on offer. There are loads. It’s like being in an Eastern Bloc country just after the Fall of Communism – look at the choice! No more shall we join a uniform stream of Men and Women trudging miserably out of the People Factory. We’re free at last! (Or at least we would be if it wasn’t for those pesky TERFs still clinging on to their Stalinist views on gender equality.) Gender is not a binary – it’s not! That Facebook drop-down provides all the empirical evidence we need. The trouble is, it might not be a binary, but it sure as hell is a hierarchy.
Gender is constructed with some people at the top and some at the bottom. Roughly speaking, those at the top are read as “men” and those at the bottom as “women”, which is where the muddled idea of a binary comes from. Of course it’s more complicated than that: “manly” man are ranked higher than “effeminate” men, “butch” women lower than “feminine” ones, people don’t fall neatly into either category oscillate depending on social milieu, some of Facebook’s 50 gain more social acceptance than others etc. This is all a bit crap and one of the key reasons why we shouldn’t be falling over ourselves to defend this frankly stupid system. It devalues individuals. This ought to be self-evident but to many people it isn’t.
As inhumane, hierarchical constructs go, gender is pretty clever. The problem, so many of us are led to believe, is not the hierarchy itself but the focus on extremes rather than all the diversity that can be found in the middle.
Since gender’s not a binary we can queer it! That’ll fix it!
Way-hey! Let’s get queering! To the queering-mobile forthwith! But what does that actually mean? Are you challenging gender limitations — in which case, why “queering” rather than “shitting all over” (which I much prefer)? Or are you offering a sticking plaster (one that’s coloured pink or blue, but with some transgressive green glitter on top, just to show how bloody subversive you are)?
To explain what I mean, I’ll try an analogy. Just as gender is a hierarchy, so too is wealth. There are very rich people at the top and very poor ones at the bottom, albeit with plenty of diversity in-between: people with low-paid jobs who have no debts, people with low-paid jobs who are massively in debt, people who have caring responsibilities which mean their capacity to increase their wealth is more limited than those who are equally poor but do not have the same responsibilities etc. Does this mean that we can “queer” wealth on the basis that there’s no absolute split into two camps? Can we start saying “there’s no real ’rich’ and ’poor’, just the ‘differently financed’”? I think it’s pretty obvious what would be wrong with that: it erases structural inequality, neglects to consider the basis for differentiation and shifts our understanding of privilege from “having structural, cultural and/or material advantages” to “being less different or unusual”. In this way someone who comes from a working-class background, is now super-rich yet does a low-paid job on the side, just for the hell of it, could say that they are “queering” wealth — and hence being more subversive and at risk of oppression — than someone who started life grindingly poor and remains so. It masks the inherent injustice that comes from the material reality of not having any money (because defining poverty on such “simplistic” terms is now dismissed as old-school, in much the same way that “cis womanhood” is presented as less contested and alienating than a more “subversive” version). And what’s more, if “queering” wealth gains acceptance as an inclusive, liberating cultural trend, what happens to those who still wish to question the very principles of financial inequality? They are dismissed as the bigots who wish to limit choice, despite the fact that they do not care how people earn their money or what they do with it — they’re just pointing out that if you opt for “queering” rather than challenging the very foundations of the hierarchy, you maintain a system which might vaunt choice as a principle but which, in practical terms, restricts the choices of everyone but the privileged few.
If you apply this principle to queering gender, I think it becomes clear that this version of queering is far more conservative and protective of gender-based privilege than its proponents would wish to suggest. The focus is on personal validation rather than structural change, and it’s not without an element of oppression tourism from those who are not at the bottom of the hierarchy but who seek to float above it, perceiving themselves to be above the usual rules while simultaneously condemning the majority of women to the same old shit by insisting they identify as cis. Far from challenging inequality, it maintains it. Fifty gender options on Facebook simply disguise the fact that every single one of us is being evaluated on terms which have nothing to do with our basic human worth.
This is not to say that presenting in a way that that transgresses accepted gender norms is easy. It isn’t. It leads to discrimination, threats and violence. Nevertheless, to maintain a belief in these norms – while claiming, quite rightly, that they should not apply to everyone – is deeply problematic. Queering gender cannot be considered truly challenging to the social order if you are ultimately using your supposedly unique position within the broader hierarchy as a means to reinforce said hierarchy’s existence. Whatever discrimination you suffer, your basic message is that people remain dependent on gender categorisation and hence that there are still those shit people (cis women) that patriarchy always told us were worthless. You depend on these shit people existing in order to maintain your own identity. They’re just not you, and the reason you are marginalised is presented not as a direct consequence of the gender hierarchy existing (which in fact it is) but of people demanding you choose between the shit people (cis women) and the ace people (cis men) when in fact you’re more special than that. And so you demonise feminists who are trying to create a world in which you wouldn’t have to choose — purely because a non-hierarchical world wouldn’t be one that ever offered you the chance to rise above the common masses.
The sheer incoherence of those who accuse gender critical feminists of wishing to enforce traditional gender roles is something I find mind-blowing. It betrays a real anxiety about what would happen if we didn’t have a world of gender have and have-nots. Cis women remain the refuse bin for all of those qualities no one else wants. Meanwhile those who pin their individuality to the gender flag are faced with the fact that their self-validation is so intertwined with their oppression that they are have to reject the tools with which to challenge it.
I have two sons. I let them, as far as they would like to, reject hierarchical gender stereotypes. My elder son doesn’t want to; he’s already getting the message that your basic girl is a bit crap (the pro-queering lobby might call this “femmephobia” but it’s not — it’s the same old shitty sexism). My younger son is different. He wears fuchsia nail varnish and wants to grow his hair long and have it styled like Elsa in Frozen (“before she changes into the blue dress — I don’t like it after that”). Obviously I’m very proud. Look at how transgressive my son is at only four! But clearly I’m worried that not all people are accepting of this, even from small children. I want a world in which he can present himself in any way he chooses but I don’t see how a world obsessed with validating gender goes any way towards creating that. On the contrary, it just pushes his individuality back into a gendered context — Individuality™, the commoditised version of self expression, not unlike Real Woman™, the body acceptance equivalent. Both become a form of cultural currency and both would lose value were we ever to reach a stage where all bodies and all forms of expression were accepted. Both depend on the hierarchical value system they claim to transgress. Both depend on suffering and marginalisation as a means of proving worth. Is that truly the best we want to aim for, given that it must be possible to have all the glitter and none of the shit?