Jordan Peterson is mistaken about gender identity

Florence Ashley
Jun 24 · 5 min read

In his contribution to the National Post published on June 21st, Jordan Peterson argues that those arguing in favour of trans recognition falsely believe that we solely determine our identity, to the exclusion of others. However, his argument confuses gender identity and the more general notion of personal identity, to which his argument could properly apply.

Before responding to his claims, I wish to yet again remind him that Bill C-16 did not in fact make using the wrong pronouns illegal. Rather, repeated and/or intentional misgendering could already constitute harassment pursuant to human rights and employment law prior to Bill C-16, which only concerns a few areas under federal jurisdictions such as banking and air travel. His repeated assertion that Bill C-16 created this offence, despite being corrected, borders on bad faith.

Jordan Peterson claims that, according to C-16, identity “is something solely determined by the individual in question (whatever that identity might be).” This is plainly false. C-16 doesn’t claim that, say, someone can simply will themselves into being a scholar on gender or a high school teacher. To be a scholar on gender, you need to produce scholarship relating to gender — such as peer-reviewed articles, something Jordan Peterson has yet to do despite his public interventions on the topic. To be a high school teacher, you need to be generally employed at one.

Personal identity is negotiated and emerges out of the complex contributions of ourselves and society. Some aspects of personal identity are largely determined by others’ recognition. Being a scholar and being a high school teacher are two such examples.

Other aspects, like gender identity, are not. Gender identity is part of our self-concept and has long been understood as something internal to the person. The expression “gender identity” was ostensibly coined by psychiatrists Robert Stoller and Ralph Greenson around 1963 to talk about trans people. In 1964, Stoller explained that “[g]ender identity is the sense of knowing to which sex one belongs, that is, the awareness ‘I am a male’ or ‘I am a female’,” distinguishing it from the recognition of oneself as masculine or feminine.

While it is true that personal identity is not solely self-determined, gender identity is. It is inherent in the concept ever since it was coined by mental health professionals. This is not to say, however, that gender identity appears out of the void and that social factors cannot play into this self-determination. It would be difficult to identify with men or women if we do not have a sense of those social categories. In this sense, gender identity is always constituted in conversation with our social world.

Building on the mistaken suggestion that gender identity cannot solely be self-determined, Peterson claims that trans people refuse to engage in identity negotiation. This is false on multiple levels.

Like everyone else, most trans people alter their behaviour and external appearances in response to gender norms corresponding to their gender identity. Trans men, like cis men, rarely wear dresses. This is not because they think wearing dresses would make them women, but because they recognise that the injunction on men not to wear dresses applies to them and that they would face disapproval if they wore dresses. Others, of course, happily and intently ignore this gender norm. Either way, however, their everyday choices occur in relation and with awareness of social norms. Though gender identity itself may not be negotiable, trans people constantly navigate social norms when translating their identity into material choices.

By asking others to respect their gender identity, trans people are also engaging in identity negotiations. Firm stances are not incompatible with negotiation, especially when disrespect can have serious mental health consequences. Furthermore, trans people constantly make compromises. Gender-neutral French is very difficult, and so I accept that people use feminine grammatical gender for me. We also rarely highlight every instance in which others use the wrong pronouns, recognising that accidental and occasional slip ups happen to everyone — also a compromise.

Peterson also complains that non-binary identities, which are neither completely male nor female, fail to provide us with “any real social role or direction”. This misrepresents non-binary lives. Saying what non-binary isn’t already says something important about social role: it is neither a male social role nor a female one. However, Peterson’s critique also shows a lack of creativity. It is true that non-binary people are refusing to slot themselves into one of those two social roles, but it is also because they’re making their own path for themselves. They are creating a new social role, a new direction. Unless we wish society to remain static, we should welcome this kind of social creativity. It expands everyone’s world.

Jordan Peterson shows his hand when he claims that the notion of gender identity “poses a further and unacceptably dangerous threat to the stability of the nuclear family, which consists, at minimum, of a dyad, male and female, coming together primarily for the purposes of raising children in what appears to be the minimal viable social unit.” I, for one, won’t contradict this. I have no attachment whatsoever with the nuclear family and believe that it is only valuable for those who choose it. Peterson’s exhortation that families be composed of a man and a woman does little more than show his homophobic tendencies. Same-sex families, single-parent families, polyamorous families, and childless families are no less valuable. Familial arrangements have no value beyond the happiness it brings to those in it. If the nuclear family suits you, all the power to you. If it doesn’t, don’t force yourself in it.

In the end, Jordan Peterson’s opposition to the notion of gender identity seems to take root in his fetishization of the nuclear family. For those of us who recognise a plurality of happy romantic and familial arrangements, his position reeks of conservatism. It is best left in the past, where it belongs. While there is value in recognising the existence of men and women, especially given the continued existence of sexism, there is no value in rejecting or obscuring the existence of trans and non-binary people.

The National Post has declined to publish this response.

Florence Ashley

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Transfeminine activist based in Tio’tia:ke (also known as Montreal) and LL.M. candidate at McGill University.