We’ve Got Gender All Wrong

We lean on biology to argue for equal rights for all genders, ignoring bigger systems of oppression.

By Laurie Essig


Gender is in a messy state. We’ve come around to the idea that it shouldn’t limit whom we marry. We’ve even, in small ways, become more accepting of persons whose true gender doesn’t match the one assigned to them at birth. But there’s a disturbing undercurrent here. We’ve lured ourselves into a “born this way” mentality, with Lady Gaga as its proudest spokesperson.

She’s built an empire of self-love — a song, an album, an entire nonprofit foundation — around those three words. On the surface those lyrics seem on point. “There ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way” rings through our skulls, arming our neurons with muskets of confidence. But I worry that that slogan is dangerous. It sounds fatalistic to me. It suggests that our biology sentences us to a certain kind of life.

Gaga isn’t the only one muscling this idea into our minds. In his anthem to gay acceptance, Macklemore croons, “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” Even Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy hopped on board in his majority opinion legalizing gay marriage. He wrote of the petitioners that “their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”

“Immutable nature”! By that logic, as long as we LGBTQ persons can’t help ourselves, we can keep our weddings. But give us agency, and we best cancel the catering and send back the flowers, because no one in their right mind would ever choose to be one of us. This deterministic mentality thrives at the expense of what seems to me the much more appealing idea — that we should treat people fairly because it is a basic tenet of human dignity.

“Born this way” marks us as not just gay or straight, or male or female, but also introverted or extroverted, good or bad at math. It goes against a huge body of research on the importance of environment in shaping who we are and whom we become. To dig into just the gender and sexuality angles, what frustrates me is that “born this way” protects straight and cisgender persons from ever being one of us. They cannot be infected with our queer desires or queer gender presentations. In this worldview, we all enter this world with a stable gender identity and unwavering sexual desire. Identity is simple.

Actress Cynthia Nixon once tried to stray outside the “born this way” narrative in an interview with The New York Times in 2012. She said that her 15-year relationship with a man was real and important, and now she chooses to be with a woman. The progressive press exploded with outrage over the prospect that anyone would imply being gay could be a choice, forcing Nixon to backpedal from her statement.

But she was onto something. Our bodies, desires and genders are messy, change over time, and can be remarkably different at the end of a life from what they were at the beginning or in the middle. Nixon’s not the only person who once was straight but is now gay. There are also people who are now straight and used to be gay — for example, Chirlane McCray, once a radical lesbian, is now the wife of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.

We’ve also got a solid demographic of people who cross back and forth over the gender line, either because they’re genderqueer or because they identify at one time as one gender, and another time as something else. As the writer Tyler Ford has put it, being a lesbian was an idea that always “wriggled away” but after a year and a half as a trans man, Ford decided to come out as “genderless” as he did not be confined by the “limits of the western binary.” Or as artist Alok Vaid-Menon has written, “This is not a story about being born in the wrong body… This is a story of a gender that refuses to be defined by a body.”

Gender is a constantly shifting terrain for many of us, even if we settle for long periods of time in a particular gender. Many very feminine women were serious tomboys in their youth; many masculine men had their “sissy” stages. So when we default to this narrative about how we’ve “always been” a fill-in-the-blank — woman, man, gay, heterosexual, whatever — we think we’re setting ourselves free, but it has the opposite effect of locking us in.

A hundred years ago biology was mobilized to explain why women and African Americans could not enter higher education, politics or any other field that demanded rational thought. Those arguments were built on misconceptions that we’re still busy refuting today. Now biology is being used to demand rights for gays and lesbians, and often trans persons as well. Perhaps this time we can learn our lesson — that traits that may seem obviously hardwired can be deceptively fluid — before we tread too far down the damned-by-genetics path.

Progressive movements haven’t always looked like this. In the 1990s the ubiquitous chant of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” asked for blanket acceptance, not a DNA test. In the 1960s and ’70s some gay rights advocates even banded together with feminists, because they noticed that prescribed gender roles were hampering both their causes. In its manifesto of 1971, the highly influential Gay Liberation Front wrote: “this society is a sexist society, in which one’s biological sex determines almost all of what one does and how one does it; a situation in which men are privileged, and women are mere adjuncts of men and objects of their use, both sexually and otherwise.”

What a thought — the LGBT rights movement linked arm in arm with women demanding gender equality! Losing that sense of inclusiveness has cost us more than a powerful voting bloc. Recent gender scholarship, particularly the Black feminist thought put forth by Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw, argues that gender doesn’t just trap us into being men or women, straight or gay, but also white or of color, wealthy or struggling. Caitlyn Jenner may be the face of trans America today, but her experience of gender as a rich, white, Republican trans woman is totally different from that of, say, a poor, Latina trans woman. So when Jenner argues that impoverished trans women would rather rely on social support than get real jobs, we are forced to acknowledge that being a woman is a set of experiences intimately tied with race and class as well as gender assignment and gender presentation throughout one’s life.

Not that anyone’s paying much attention to Jenner’s politics. We’re far more interested in how she looked in that Annie Leibovitz shoot in Vanity Fair. As Jon Stewart famously said, “When you were a man we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you’re a woman so your looks are really the only thing we care about.” If I might marry Simone de Beauvoir with Karl Marx here, one becomes a woman in conditions not of her own making. Jenner, like the rest of us, is negotiating gender in conditions far from her own making.

Gender activism took a wrong turn when it ended up in bed with biological determinism. But signs of inclusivity are emerging on the fringes, far from the candied rhetoric of pop stars and public figures. Rather than focusing on Caitlyn Jenner or gay marriage, I suggest we look instead to a movement like Black Trans Lives Matter and its offshoots. Through its social media and real-world activism, this loose group has found a way to mix critiques of white supremacy with critiques of misogyny. The movement is a sign that gender activism can move away from “I was born this way and cannot help myself” to a shared sense that systems of oppression — like racism, transphobia and misogyny — work together and must be fought together. Now that’s a revolution worth tweeting about.

**Laurie’s pronouns are she/her**
Illustrations by Emmersun Lunarbow

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