Here’s a statement: ‘gender is a social construct’. To it we might add, with J H Frank: ‘Is a social construct isn’t remotely a synonym for “unimportant” or “doesn’t matter”. Money and law are both social constructs. Nobody is going to argue either of those are unimportant.’
Indeed not. Although neither money nor law are the kinds of social contracts from which a person can, unilaterally, opt-out. Likewise: wearing clothes in public, stopping at red lights, driving on the left (or right, depending on your country) and so on. Some social constructs are both important and binding.
A better fit, where gender is concerned, might be such social constructs as: protocols of courtesy, specific dress-codes, the convention that we adopt a quiet and respectful demeanour at a funeral and so on. A person can opt-out of these. They may also express outrage at subsequent social sanction — losing their job as a bank teller because they come to work dressed like Julian Cope, being kicked out of the funeral because they’re singing La Bamba at the top of their voice and so on — although it’s tricky to describe such situations as simple oppression. There is both give and take in all social interactions, after all.
And then there are those codes that straddle ‘social construct’ and ‘personal construct’. I shower every morning, whether or not I plan to leave my house. If I do happen to leave the house, then me being clean and borderline-fragrant is something framed by a widely-accepted social construct. It is impolite though probably not arrestable if I impose my reek on other people. But why do I shower if I’m going to be alone in the house all day? Mere habit, probably. Although there is, at least hypothetically, a slippery-slope argument here. Skipping a morning shower is, in itself, nothing much; but giving up on all such (merely!) socially constructed rituals and performances leads to Howard Hughes abjection, sitting in a dark room surrounded by jam-jars full of piss, your hair and nails uncut.
I should be clear: insofar as anybody is interested in my views on the matter (and I certainly don’t presume anybody is. The views of yet another straight, white, middle-aged, cis dude concerning gender fluidity, identity and trans experience? Better to listen to the experiences of the people actually living those lives) — insofar as anyone is interested, my views are as follows: people should be allowed to live their lives in a way that best approximates their senses of who they are. This is not a complicated or novel ethical position, I know. It is a version of a core principle of ethical liberalism: people, generally, should be able to do whatever they want, constrained only by the consideration that their doing what they want does not prevent other people doing what they want (when we get to that situation, which of course we do all the time in real life, then we must negotiate and compromise, we must respect the other’s rights exactly as much as our own). It’s John Stuart Mill 101, this.
The Trans question, though it’s being ferociously contested at the moment, strikes me as something with support-rationales on both sides of the political divide. As someone on the Left I think Trans people should be able to live their lives on their terms, both for their own sakes and because I believe them doing so adds to the variety and diversity of the social tapestry, and diversity is a good in itself. But it seems to me that people on the Right ought also to support Trans rights. After all, one key value on the right is the primacy of individual liberty (against the tyranny of the overmastering state and so on). The ground zero of any person’s liberty is their own body. People should be allowed to do what they choose with their own body, surely. Still, that’s not where we are. I could add that I have Trans friends and they’re lovely people who I really feel ought to be allowed to live their lives on their terms. But though that’s true, I’m always a bit suspicious of those kinds of arguments. They’re feebly unKantian. Even if Transmen and Transwomen are horrible people, as some doubtless are (because all people come in all varieties) they should still be allowed to live their lives on their terms.
That said, I’ll confess to two aspects of the larger Trans debate that muddle my head. One is why gender is treated as something unique — by which I mean, differently to (say) race. When a person like Rachel Dolezal, born White, declares that she feels herself to be Black, and dresses and self-identifies that way, it occasions scorn and outrage. But why is race treated differently to gender in this regard? That might look like a disingenuous or trolling sort of question, but it’s not meant as such. It’s genuine. We could say ‘Dolezal is a White person offensively trespassing upon and appropriating a Black experience defined and traumatised by generations of, precisely, White oppression’, which certainly makes sense. But it’s also exactly the argument made by trans-exclusive feminists, ‘Transwomen are men offensively trespassing upon and appropriating a female experience defined and traumatised by generations of male oppression.’ I’m not saying that that latter is a viable position to hold. I’m saying: why is it taken as non-viable for gender, but viable for race? ‘Race is a social construct’ is just as true as statement as ‘gender is a social construct’, after all.
The brings me back to my second place of muddlement, which turns on exactly the ‘gender is a construct’ argument. I’m aware this is a question debated within the Trans community, although I’ve only dipped into those debates, and I’m honestly not sure what the consensus is, or whether it’s been arrived at. So, one line of argument would go: ‘gender is a construct, and therefore is malleable — it’s not an immutable law of nature, it’s a set of protocols and guidelines and social consensuses. Such things can be changed, and indeed are being changed as we speak. The old ideas of gender as a rigid binary, as a quality essential to a person, are giving ways to ideas of gender as fluidity. In such a world there is nothing shocking or deracinating about saying I was born a man but now I am a woman.’ This, we could say, is the anti-essentialist argument in favour of Trans rights. And it’s true that social constructs are susceptible to revision. It used to be unacceptable to be gay and out, and now it is acceptable. It used to be that women stayed home and men went out to work, and now that’s no longer the case. And so on.
But there’s another approach which is, precisely, essentialist. It is exemplified by the Transwoman who says: ‘I happen to have been born in a male body, but I am in myself, essentially, a woman. My exterior somatic features are a kind of mistake, which I will use surgery to correct, and so reveal my gender-essence, which is female.’ Again, I’m not trolling, I’m trying to understand; but I don’t see that an anti-essentialist ‘gender is a construct as so endlessly fluid’ argument can be reconciled with an essentialist ‘I was born with a fixed gender that happens not to coincide with my physical body’.
This relates to questions of the idea of the social construct. At the moment if I choose to disregard the social construct by which a red traffic light means stop, and instead stop at the green light — because, let’s say, I hold a profound belief that red, as the colour of revolutionary socialism, must mean go ahead — then I will end up in traffic accidents, getting injured or killed, or injuring and killing others. But the red light is a social construct, and it would be possible for me and people like me to apply pressure on society to get it changed. It would take time, it would encounter resistance, and many people wouldn’t understand why it mattered so much to me, but with enough public support eventually the change would happen. Traffic lights are a trivial example compared with gender, I know. But the social logic is the same.
The key, in other words, is in generating a social and cultural critical mass for change. So far as that goes, I have nothing but respect for the way Trans people and their activist allies have made this issue such a live one; have, we might say, leveraged their position so that it has become one of great prominence. Body Dysmorphia is both real and distressing, but it is also very rare; Trans people (and especially Transwomen) suffer disproportionately from crime, being attacked on the street and so on, but as a percentage of the larger population the number of Trans people is small (that is part of the agument for Trans rights as well, I think: the numbers involved are, in absolute terms, tiny, and establishing rights for them simply doesn’t affect most people’s lives one way or another). That Trans rights have become such a big deal speaks to the effectiveness with which Trans people, for whom this matter is of course pressing and personal, have recruited large numbers of cis-people to the cause. This in itself is an interesting social phenomenon (I sometimes wonder if a younger generation of progressives, feeling they were born too late — and therefore in a sense missed the boat — when it came to supporting the two great progressive causes of recent times, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s-70s and the Gay Rights movement of the 1970s-80s, look around for today’s equivalent and light upon Trans rights). A comparison might be: albinism. Albino people are a tiny percentage of the total population, and suffer disproportionately from abuse and crime; but albino people have not managed to make their situation a global talking-point, have not persuaded large numbers of people that it is meaningful and worthwhile to self-identify as either alb- or pigm-, after the logic of trans- and cis-, and so on.