Is ‘Gender Ideology’ Real?
Let’s examine the issue in a fair manner
Is there really such a thing as ‘gender ideology’? And how can we prevent this idea of ‘gender ideology’ from derailing the discussion on trans rights?
I guess, given the intentionally vague terminology, ‘gender ideology’ can really mean anything. Every time I see this phrase being used, and I see it a lot, given the mix of media I choose to consume, my heart sinks a bit. Firstly, it’s so vague that the reader may not get what is intended by the author, which is always bad from an intellectual communication point of view. Secondly, some people do use it as a bigoted way against trans people as a whole, seeing trans people as the real life representatives of the so-called ‘gender ideology’. As a trans person, I see this as an attack on my own humanity. It really is reminiscent of the way some people used to rail on and on about the ‘gay agenda’, and see gay people who simply wanted to get married as real life representatives of the so-called ‘gay agenda’, when they only wanted to get married, like many straight people. I think this kind of behavior would have to fit the definition of bigotry, no ifs ands or buts.
However, there are other times when people complain about ‘gender ideology’, they mean something real and concrete. For example, the idea that gender is a social construct is certainly an ideology, and so is the idea that gender is performative. Furthermore, gender critical feminism, or TERFism, is also clearly an ideology that is related to gender. Given that all the ideas above have something to do with gender, and they are all rooted in some kind of philosophical ideology rather than empirical science, they could rightly be seen as ‘gender ideologies’.
From this vagueness of terminology, my worry is that, opposition to certain ideologies could become conflated with opposition to trans people or trans rights. This is further compounded by the fact that most people still don’t have even a basic understanding of many trans issues. Last year, I saw two different polls in the UK describing the same reform with different terminology, and they yielded results of 28% and 55% support respectively. This kind of disparity usually means that there is a lack of understanding of the issues in the general public. You certainly don’t see it in well-understood issues like gay marriage, where polling by different organizations in most Western countries generally yield results of around two thirds support. These figures also line up with actual referendum results as demonstrated in Ireland and Australia. What all this means is that, the public understanding about gay marriage is mature enough for most people to understand and take a consistent stance on the issue. The same cannot be said of trans issues. There is still probably one or two decades to go before that gap is bridged.
This is why I emphasize so much on educating people on the basic issues, talking about the science, and not pushing away people who aren’t immediately accepting. What we need is more understanding, not more witch hunts. Indeed, at the time of the so-called trans tipping point, many trans people were worried that the new visibility was too much, too soon, and in hindsight, I can see that they were probably right. But there’s no going back now, once that can of worms have been opened. Which only means it’s even more important to have level-headed and respectful discussions aimed at fostering understanding now. People are understandably hesitant to support things that they don’t fully understand. That is why, back when I was in college, only a third of people supported gay marriage, and more than 30 US states successfully voted to ban gay marriage. From those defeats, the marriage movement didn’t become embittered. Instead, they set out to connect with people, and advance the discussion. Once people understood that gay marriage wasn’t going to destroy the traditional family, they started to get on board. The whole ‘gay agenda’ playbook ceased to work, because people now understood exactly what marriage equality meant.
With trans issues, there is still a lot of misunderstanding and confusion. Add to that the recent popularization of certain gender theories that both challenge people’s own sense of identity, and are also inherently scientific questionable, that mix can certainly make some people very anxious. Those opposed to trans rights can then make every proposed reform about ‘gender ideology’, and sink them one by one. This is why I have long argued that we need to focus on the science, the fact that trans people are ‘born this way’, indeed the traditional narrative of the trans community, and completely separate the real lives and needs of trans people from any sort of gender theory. Just like gay people deserved marriage because it was simply the fair thing to do, and this needed no appeal to any postmodern theory, the case for trans rights will not be helped by gender theories. Indeed, trans rights can only be hindered by scientifically invalid ideas like how gender is performative. This is why we should try out best to cut through the noise that is the gender theory coming out from certain thinkers of non-scientific background, and present the scientific facts about trans people. It is in establishing an understanding of trans people, trans lives, and by extension the social issues trans people face, that we will gain support for much needed reforms.
I also think that, given the stage of the conversation we find ourselves in, and the objective we want to pursue, it would be counterproductive to treat people’s words harshly and call them out for bigotry on the basis of that. If someone is still saying that gay marriage is part of a subversive ‘gay agenda’ in this day and age, I think its fair to say that that’s bigoted, but you really can’t treat the trans conversation with the same standard, given the lack of a mature public understanding at this stage. In other words, more patience and allowance is needed.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of The Trans Case Against Queer Theory.