Two flavours of “ontology” in critical realism – and why it doesn’t matter

 

Bhaskar’s critical realism emphasises a distinction between intransitive and transitive objects. I think the easiest way to see how the distinction works in social science (as opposed to say, geology) is as follows. Find all the social theorists and make them and their books and journal articles vanish. The things that are left are intransitive objects, e.g., people and social institutions likes banks and governments, and all the things they do even though no theorists are around to observe. The things that vanish with the theorists are all the transitive objects – the fallible accounts of how the various intransitive objects “work”.

It should be recognised that the theorists and their theories are intransitive objects too and theories influence social life, e.g., through the pop psychology jargon people use when they talk to each other. Also everyone theorises, not just professionals. But let’s not get tied up in knots.

Ontology is about the kinds of things that exist, including material and abstract “things” like numbers. Cruickshank (2004) argues that ontology is defined in two different ways by critical realists. Sometimes it refers to all the things, knowable and not, in the intransitive sense. Other times ontology refers to critical realists’ theories of what there is – these theories are transitive objects.  But reducing what there is to what is known (philosophically) about what there is commits what Bhaskar called the epistemic fallacy – one of the key fallacies critical realists are trying to help us avoid.

Cruickshank concludes that Bhaskar shoots himself in the foot by making critical realist theories of ontology inevitably commit the epistemic fallacy (Cruickshank, 2004, p. 572):

“The problem though is that in defining the epistemic fallacy as the transposing of questions about being [ontology] into questions about knowing, Bhaskar has defined the said fallacy so broadly that any reference to what we know of reality (which may well be knowledge claims with a high degree of veracity) must commit this putative fallacy. Indeed the only way to avoid this fallacy would be to step outside knowledge to ‘see’ reality in itself.”

It’s a challenging debate, aiming for precise understandings of concepts like ontology and exploring the possibilities and limits of philosophical reasoning, but it seems unhelpful for the day-to-day work of doing social science.

Perhaps more helpful – and bigger than critical realism – is to emphasise the role of creativity in doing science. We can’t just go out and rigorously observe reality (whether social life or the cosmos) and somehow perceive theories directly. Although rigorous observation is important, science involves speculating about what might be out there and then working out what evidence we would expect to see if we were correct or if plausible alternative theories were correct.

My favourite analogy comes from cryptanalysis. We can systematically analyse letter and word frequencies in cyphertexts to try to spot patterns. But it helps to guess what people might be trying to say to each other based on something beyond the ciphertext, and to use those guesses to reduce the search space of possible encryptions.

References

Cruickshank, J. (2004). A tale of two ontologies: An immanent critique of critical realism. Sociological Review, 52, 567–585.

Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind

“There’s something incredibly powerful – revolutionary, even – about challenging someone’s understanding of gender with your very existence.”
Emily Brehob

According to dominant ideas in “the West”, your gender ultimately reduces to whether you have XX or XY chromosomes, as inferred by inspecting your genitals at birth, and there are only two possibilities: woman or man. Yes, you will occasionally hear how sex is biological and gender is social, but under the dominant norms, (specifically chromosomal) sex and gender categories are defined to align.

The existence of transgender (trans) people challenges this chromosomal definition, since their gender differs from male/female sex category assigned at birth. People whose gender is under the non-binary umbrella challenge the man/woman binary since they are neither, both, or fluctuate between the two.

It is tempting for researchers to ignore these complexities since most people are cisgender (cis for short), that is, their gender aligns with their sex category at birth, and they are either a woman or a man. As the male/female demographic tickboxes illustrate, many do ignore the complexity.

A few years ago, analytic philosophers, having for centuries pondered questions such as “what can be known?” and “is reality real?”, discovered that theorising gender offered intellectual challenges too and could be used to support human rights activism. Although plenty of writers have pondered gender, this corner of philosophy offers clear definitions, so is perhaps easier to understand and critique than other approaches. I think it is also more compatible with applied social research.

One of the politically-aware analytical philosophers who caught my eye, Robin Dembroff, recently published a paper analysing what it means to be genderqueer. Let’s sketch out how the analysis goes.

“… the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.”

Genderqueer originally referred to all gender outliers – whether cis, trans, or other. Its meaning has shifted to overlap with non-binary gender and trans identities as per the Venn flags below.

Both genderqueer and non-binary have become umbrella terms with similar meaning; however, genderqueer carries a more radical connotation- especially since it includes the reclaimed slur “queer” – whereas non-binary is more neutral and descriptive, even appearing in HR departments’ IT systems.

The data on how many people are genderqueer thus far is poor – hopefully the 2021 census in England and Wales will improve matters. In the meantime, a 2015 UK convenience sample survey of non-binary people (broadly defined) found that 63% identified as non-binary, 45% as genderqueer, and 65% considered themselves to be trans. The frequency of combinations was not reported.

This year’s international (and also convenience sample) survey of people who are neither men nor women “always, solely and completely” found a small age effect: people over 30 were eight percentage points more likely to identify as genderqueer than younger people.

Externalist versus internalist

Dembroff opens with a critique of two broad categories of theories of what gender is: externalist (or social position) theories and internalist (or psychological identity) theories.

Externalist theories define gender in terms of how someone is perceived by others and advantaged or disadvantaged as a result. So, someone would be genderqueer if they are perceived and treated as neither a man nor a woman. However, this doesn’t work for genderqueer people, Dembroff argues, since they tend to reject the idea that particular gender expressions are necessary to be genderqueer; “we don’t owe you androgyny” is a well-known slogan. Also, many cis people do not present neatly as male or female – that does not mean they are genderqueer.

One of the internalist accounts Dembroff considers, by Katherine Jenkins, defines gender in terms of what gender norms someone feels are relevant to them – e.g., how they should dress, behave, what toilets they may use – regardless of whether they actually comply with (or actively resist) those norms. Norm relevancy requires that genderqueer people feel that neither male nor female norms are relevant. This is easiest to see with binary gendered toilets – neither the trouser nor skirt-logoed room is safe for a genderqueer person. However, it is unlikely that none of the norms would be felt as relevant. So the norm-relevancy account, Dembroff argues, would exclude many genderqueer people too.

Critical gender kinds

Dembroff’s proposed solution combines social and psychological understandings of gender. They introduce the idea of a critical gender kind and offer genderqueer as an example. A kind, in this sense, is roughly a collection of phenomena defined by one or more properties. (For a longer answer, try this on social kinds by Ásta.) Not to be confused with gender-critical feminism.

A gender is a critical gender kind, relative to a given society, if and only if people who are that gender “collectively destabilize one or more core elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society”. The genderqueer kind destabilises the binary assumption that there are only two genders. Dembroff emphasises the collective nature of genderqueer; as a kind it is not reducible to any individual’s characteristics and not every genderqueer person need successfully destabilise the binary norm. An uncritical gender kind is then one which perpetuates dominant norms such as the chromosomal and genital idea of gender outlined above.

Another key ingredient is the distinction between principled and existential destabilising – roughly, whether you are personally oppressed in a society with particular enforced norms. Someone who is happy to support and use all-gender toilets through (principled) solidarity with genderqueer people has a different experience to someone who is genderqueer and feels unsafe in a binary gendered toilet.

In summary, genderqueer people collectively and existentially destabilise the binary norm. Some of the many ways they do this include: using they/them or neopronouns, through gender expression that challenges dominant norms, asserting that they are genderqueer, challenging gender roles in sexual relationships, and switching between male and female coded spaces.

Although Dembroff challenges Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account, to me the general idea of tuning into gender norms is helpful for decoding your gender, and neatly complements Dembroff’s account. Maybe a trick is to add, and view as irrelevant, norms like “your genitals determine your gender” rather than only male and female norms. Additionally, adding probabilities rather than using binary true/false classical logic seems helpful to revise the account too. The externalist accounts are also relevant since they map out some ways that genderqueer people resist binary norms and dominant ways that (especially cis) people perceive and treat others.

Politicians do social metaphysics

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

—Margaret Thatcher (Sept 23, 1987), then Prime Minister of the UK, Interview for Woman’s Own

 

“The reality is international law is a set of political constructs which actually countries abide by or depart from in a number of circumstances – including the Euroepan Union itself. For example it didn’t apply WTO rules on Airbus. Arguably that’s a violation of international law but the EU did it because the EU felt it was inappropriate to do that.

“It is not unusual for there to be disputes over international law, it is not unusual in certain limited limited circumstances for countries not to comply with all obligations under international law.”

—Theresa Villiers (Sept 14, 2020), Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sky News (as reported by Jon Stone in the Independent)

Agential identity

How can we make sense of social phenomena like being “out” as queer, varying how salient that identity is depending on whether we’re in an LGBTQ+ bar or with queerphobic family, or having strongly-felt and clearly expressed identities invalidated? These are example phenomena addressed by Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix‘s new paper, “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity.

Their idea is to bridge what we take ourselves to be (self-identity) and what others take us to be (social position) using the concept of agential identity.

Agential identification with a particular social group follows this pattern:

  1. You self-identify as a member of the social group.
  2. You make that self-identity externally available
    (a) consciously or unconsciously;
    (b) by behaving a particular way and/or displaying perceivable features; and
    (c) those behaviours/features manifest or are intended to manifest social properties associated with the group.
  3. You accept or allow that others take you as belonging to the group.

Self-identity isn’t necessarily established effortlessly and it depends on the people around you. Dembroff and Saint-Croix draw on Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account in which we decode which groups we belong to by tuning into the norms which seem relevant to us – even if we disagree with those norms. The extent to which this process is deliberate, they argue – for instance, in terms of how much research someone does on a particular social group and its history – can lead to stronger or weaker self-identity. We may not even have a name for a particular identity; it’s possible to be polyamorous or bisexual without using those terms or even being militantly opposed to “labels” (see also: label aren’t glitter).

Agential identity involves some attempt to broadcast self-identity. Dembroff and Saint-Croix explore variation in how this can be done and emphasise that the social processes involved are often complex. For instance, agential identity can vary in how salient it is (pp. 583-584):

“consider a gay teenager who comes out to his parents, but otherwise acts conservatively at home in order to minimize the salience of his gay identity. This same teenager might, in other contexts, deliberately talk and behave in ways that persistently signal and emphasize his gay identity.”

A strong self-identity and salient attempts to establish a matching agential identity may not be taken up in a particular context; someone could persistently signal their trans identity in all contexts but it is only accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces and ignored by transphobic colleagues. Agential identity depends on self-identity and consent to belong to a particular social group – these are key conditions – and expresses preferred social group membership. However, that preference may not be accepted.

Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

We can safely assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves and try to work out our own gender.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It is not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

(For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).)

Now we can make sense of what it means to be assigned female or male at birth. What is assigned is a sex category. This is not arbitrary, but based on socially agreed and – for cisgender people – reliable biological criteria. However, those criteria could have been otherwise, for instance using a broader range of biological features and more than two categories. Also the supposedly biological male/female sex category quickly takes on a social role that is independent of genitals and operates even when they are hidden.

Understanding trans nonbinary gender

CW: medical examinations, surgery, bullying, transphobia.

I started pondering gender on a school playground when I was five. One break time I realised that I wasn’t like the boys; I hated how they were continually physically pushing each other around and so I decided to hang out with girls. I didn’t think I was a girl; I just—in a moment, without a fuss—didn’t feel like one of the boys. I have many fragments of memories like this, who knows how reliable.

There are reliable digital traces of my more recent ruminations (thank you Gmail search). For instance, in 2014 I wrote an email to my then-partner in which I identified in passing as genderqueer. It’s strikingly throwaway. I’m not certain how I arrived at that identity, but I was reading Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things shortly before, which discusses genderqueer people, and I tweeted their article on genderqueer feminism a year later, so their writing surely helped me along.

A gradual process of reading, discussing, oscillating between outing and closeting my gender on social media and dating apps in various cryptic ways culminated on 10 August 2019 (philosopher Jean-François Lyotard‘s birthday) with me changing my first name by deed poll to the gender neutral Andi (witnesses and I scrawling signatures on the paperwork in a warehouse rave in North London, on the floor in a corner). I usually went by Andy so it was a trivial edit, but it significantly marked the occasion of affirming that I am trans nonbinary. I am now classified as nonbinary on work’s HR system, have changed my name with my bank and on my passport, received updated degree certificates, and am slowly working through every other system and record I encounter.

Now that I write this in 2019, after many years of thinking, it’s obvious and anticlimactic that I am nonbinary—I feel a relieved kind of oh, is that it? It feels like a conclusion but also the beginning of a different kind of struggle to work through contradictions and tensions which I am beginning to notice. This blog post is an attempt to write something about where I’ve got to.

What does it mean for me to be trans nonbinary?

The most obvious part of my affirmed gender took the longest to recognise: trans. This just means that my gender is not the same as my sex assigned at birth. I used to think that trans people all had hormone therapy or surgery. Eventually I noticed that I was wrong; there is social as well as medical transition. Stonewall’s glossary entry for transitioning explains:

“The steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which they identify. Each person’s transition will involve different things. For some this involves medical intervention, such as hormone therapy and surgeries, but not all trans people want or are able to have this.

“Transitioning also might involve things such as telling friends and family, dressing differently and changing official documents.”

(See also Julia Serano‘s glossary.) UK-wide research by Scottish Trans in 2015 found that 65% of non-binary people considered themselves to be trans, 20% were unsure, and 15% did not see themselves as trans.

Nonbinary is defined in opposition to binary gender. Binary means 1 or 0, yes or no—formally, a discrete variable with two levels. Christina Richards, Walter Pierre Bouman, and Meg-John Barker (2017, p. 5) define nonbinary people as

“simply people who are not male or female; but as ever things are more complex than that. In general, non-binary or genderqueer refers to people’s identity, rather than physicality at birth; but it does not exclude people who are intersex or have a diversity/disorder of sexual development who also identify in this way. Whatever their birth physicality, there are non-binary people who identify as a single fixed gender position other than male or female. There are those who have a fluid gender. There are those who have no gender. And there are those who disagree with the very idea of gender.”

The nonbinary pride flag, designed by Kye Rowan (February 2014). Each colour represents a different facet of nonbinary gender.

Explaining sex and gender

You are assigned a sex at birth based on the genitals you possess. The result you get is statistically though imperfectly associated with whether you have XX or XY chromosomes; however, your chromosomes usually aren’t tested at birth. Sex sounds solid, factual, and many societies across the globe like the UK and USA are organised by the female/male binary. A sprinkling of philosophy of science can helpfully disturb this, not by rejecting facts but by complicating what makes facts about sex and gender true and how stable those truths are.

We can assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or intersections thereof. It’s not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

I only recently realised that the philosophy of science applies also to theorising about myself. So we can engage in critical self-reflection using ontological realism, epistemic relativity, aligning with a particular social struggle, etc., to help us navigate. A salient feature of theorising selves is that the underlying reality changes as we understand more—we change. We are treated differently as we change how we identify and express our gender, i.e., gender is an example of a social kind which has a looping effect.

Biological facets of my gender

The female/male binary is challenged by being intersex—what medics pathologise as disorders of sex development (DSDs). You might have XX chromosomes but male genitalia; XY chromosomes but female genitalia; one ovary and one testicle; sperm-producing testicles which are in your abdomen rather than scrotum; and a range of other departures from the binary male/female dogma. The biology of sex and gender is fabulously nonbinary and continuous, even if dominant folk conceptualisations are binary. Anne Fausto-Sterling reviews a number of theories of sex and gender; here is a diagram of one:

I was born with undescended testicles but was assigned male at birth (AMAB) due to the presence of a penis. My testes were left inside my abdomen, contrary to current clinical guidelines (I’m unsure what the guidelines were in the early 1980s), and their location noted in my medical record. Some years later when I was about nine years old, one testicle ventured into my scrotum of its own accord. Suddenly I realised what classmates were referring to when they said the word “balls”. When I reached about 11, a GP visiting school had apparently noticed the official record of my genital geography and, without explaining, asked to examine me. I guessed what she expected. I felt like I’d been found out and hesitated to agree. A month or two later I had surgery and a pair.

When I say I am nonbinary, I am not making a disembodied hyper-voluntarist claim (Judith Butler explains why I couldn’t). There is a biological facet to my gender as part of a biopsychosocial triad. I conjecture that my hormone levels affected how my body developed, including my brain, and how I feel and experience the world. This led both to my aversion to hanging out with boys and my testicles’ aversion to hanging outside me. I don’t know what biopsychosocial processes, probably part-inherited involving hundreds or thousands of genes (polygenic) and part-experiential, led to my hormones and other aspects of my biology being as they are. I was socialised as a boy, though, and there’s a 99.99% chance I have XY chromosomes. The biological, psychological, and social are interwoven in complex ways.

Nonbinary expression

The degree of match between our gender identity, expression, and stereotypes of that gender’s expression part determines how people treat us. I currently express as some genre of man (stubble, relatively deep voice, flat chest, male-fitting t-shirts, etc.). Maybe a nerdy effeminate man (my narrow shoulders, hairless chest, patchiness of stubble, and gestures are a giveaway). A nancy boy. A post-twink (on good days). I’m not the only one theorising my gender; people do it in the blink of an eye when they call me “sir” or utter a “fuck’s sake” under their breath when I ask not to be misgendered. (Often I feel that people gender me as middle class lefty snowflake with a dick.)

Trans nonbinary femme philosopher Rachel Anne Williams argues that

“… there is no single way for nonbinary people to look […]. There is so much diversity in the community and we do ourselves a disservice by focusing only on androgyny and neutrality as the ideals of being nonbinary. There is room for the full spectrum of expression within the nonbinary label.”

This sounds wonderful in trans-friendly queer spaces. “I’m Andi; pronouns them/them” does suffice there. Unfortunately, much of my life is outside those spaces. “How can I help you sir ?” grates. I guess I am aiming for an expression such that people can’t decide whether to address me “sir” or “madam”. A moment’s hesitation will suffice; an instance of the gender panic described by Robin Dembroff when an airport security officer struggled to categorise them pink or blue as demanded by body scanner protocol.

I don’t particularly want to draw too much attention to myself out in cis-land, though, given the prevalence of transphobic harassment and violence. However, maybe how successful I am in transitioning will be indexed by the quantity of harassment I receive. I have had a glimpse of that abuse when I was a teen and most of my classmates subjected me to homophobic bullying for a year—what I now read as at least part-transphobic since it reflected my gender expression. I was failing to pass as a cisgender young man which (with a few decades’ distance) is almost as good as successfully passing nonbinary. It sounds weird to feel that I need to open myself to more harassment to be me, but that is how I feel. Lisa Millbank expresses a similar paradoxical thought as a trans woman:

“Not receiving misogyny is nice, because misogyny is not nice, but it’s also a sign of not being considered a normal woman—i.e., it is a sign of being transgendered as a ‘freak’.”

Attempting to define gender

So far I have avoided saying exactly how I currently understand the concept of gender. I believe that gender is context dependent; as Robin Dembroff articulates:

“gender structures and practices vary across place and time, and are constructed in tandem with race, religion, class, ability, and other social identities.”

For example, being a postgraduate student in Edinburgh for four years meant I met people who were researching gender theory and I had amazing conversations about trans rights a decade before I had an inkling this might be relevant to me. Most importantly, I met trans (binary and nonbinary) people in contexts in which they felt safe and accepted and where being trans was just one facet of their life. Different concepts of gender currently operate in dominant society than do in trans-friendly communities and I have been exposed to both. I’m white, middle class, and have lived in Ireland, the UK, Austria, and Sweden and been exposed to a wide variety of ideas and opportunities relevant to gender. This all influenced how I conceptualise gender and how I identify.

I am drawn to theories which acknowledge that there are many conceptualisations of gender, many of which may be indistinguishable empirically (but recall the comment about critical theory above); that the conceptualisations could have been otherwise (the dominant binary in particular is not a universal fact), and that they will probably change over time (we are seeing this happen; even conservative workplaces allow people to identify as trans).

One approach to defining gender I love is Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account. Their overarching aims were to develop an account that is non-circular, respects first-person authority, and can help progress the aims of the trans rights movement, e.g., by being persuasive to people who don’t currently understand or agree with trans rights. It’s a critical theory.

Jenkins’ idea is that we all carry around an embodied and often tacit map of the gender norms which apply to us in particular situations. That map may include how we should walk, talk, what we should wear, whether we should shave our legs, what toilets we are allowed to use. We don’t have to agree with those norms; rather the idea is that we perceive norms of a particular gender (in a particular society, at a particular time) as relevant to us. Jenkins offers the following formal definition of the nonbinary gender umbrella:

“A subject S has a non-binary gender identity [if and only if] S’s internal ‘map’ is neither formed so as to guide someone classed as a woman through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of women as a class, nor formed to guide someone classed as a man through the social or material realities that are, in that context, characteristic of men as a class.”

This definition works well in some important contexts, e.g., for understanding the toilets people feel they should use: neither male nor female toilets feel right for someone nonbinary—for some they can feel very unsafe spaces and all-gender toilets are preferred. However, the definition can be read as meaning that no female norms and no male norms apply to nonbinary people, which doesn’t seem to fit people’s experience (see Dembroff, p. 11). More analysis is needed to spell out the definition and I can’t wait to see how this develops.

Passing socialised privilege

It has been drummed into me from childhood that norms for men should apply to me. This socialisation is ongoing and pervasive, even including what colour umbrella I am allowed to carry now as an adult. I don’t feel like a man and I fail to be a man, though I have tried for decades to be one. The pervasive programme of socialisation, carried out by family, friends, bullies, and the media, has been massively distressing at times. However, my socialisation and assigned gender expression means I have benefited from male privilege and how it intersects with being white and middle class. In a system of binaries you are one or the other, and I usually land in the sir, gentleman, male side.

Part of my assigned privilege is what social roles I was excused from performing as a child, for example unpaid family caring roles, which gave me more time to pursue my own interests. This, in turn, led to opportunities that may have been blocked if I were a woman, such as studying computer science, which is still massively biased towards men. I rarely experience street harassment (except when dressing queer, e.g., wearing glitter); women often get harassed daily, irrespective of how they dress. Intimate partner violence is much more common against women than men.

I have biological privilege too: I can have sex with no (rather than merely low) risk of getting pregnant; I don’t have periods; and as yet there is no contraceptive pill for me to take, with all the psychological side effects they can have. But this “biological” privilege is in a social and biotechnological context. If methods for birth control and stopping periods (or stopping undesirable aspects thereof like intense pain) were 100% effective and had zero side effects, the privilege would disappear. (As an aside: I also have a biological vulnerability now my testicles are in my scrotum.)

These privileges, varying in the degree to which they are biological, always operating in the current social context, influence my gender identity and steer my onward journey. (See also Rachel Anne Williams’ article, Giving Up My Male Privilege.)

Tentative steps towards genderqueer identity

Originally I flirted with identifying as genderqueer. This proved to be too difficult for me at the time. Dominant societal structures and practices are relatively better equipped to deal with the more general ideas of trans and, to a lesser extent, nonbinary gender. They sound helpfully, relatively, boring in a way that genderqueer doesn’t. But the idea of genderqueer still resonates with me.

The genderqueer flag, designed by Marilyn Roxie (June 2011).

Robin Dembroff takes a thought-provoking personal, social, and political approach to understanding genderqueer as a kind. Firstly, they analyse the dominant UK/USA gender ideology as built upon three assumptions: someone’s gender is determined by their natal genitals (genital assumption); there are only two genders and they are mutually exclusive (binary assumption); and finally gender confers social roles (social assumption).

The next ingredient is the idea of a critical gender kind (not to be confused with “gender critical” which is a synonym of trans-exclusionary). A critical gender kind is one defined by members who collectively (not necessarily individually) resist a dominant gender ideology. There are two kinds of resistance: principled resistance, which is based on beliefs and moral values, and existential resistance, stemming from an individual’s affectively-laden lived experience of gender. Principled resistance may be carried out by allies whereas existential resistance requires you to be personally affected by the act of opposition. The genderqueer kind is defined as a critical gender kind in which there is collective existential resistance against the binary gender assumption. 

Dembroff gives some ideas for how this resistance can look (pp. 22-23):

  1. Use gender-neutral pronouns like they/them.
  2. Cultivate gender non-conforming aesthetics, for instance by taking elements from both dominant binaries.
  3. Asserting nonbinary identity: “I am nonbinary”.
  4. Queering personal relationships, e.g., by taking on both traditional female and male parenting roles and engaging in gender play in sexual relationships.
  5. Eschewing sexuality binaries, e.g., identifying as pansexual.
  6. Space switching: using both men and women’s toilets, moving between men and women friend groups.

This approach to understanding genderqueer identity leads to an anticipated worry about how political the definition is (p. 24):

“being genderqueer, on my proposal, requires that an individual must—to some extent and in some context—resist the binary assumption.”

To my mind this political dimension—how resistance is built in—is a reassuring guide to life, similar to Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy idea. A critical gender kind gives ideas for how to act and norm-relevancy provides clues for how to decode social structures and feelings. The two seem to complement each other. 

Where next…?

I am trans nonbinary. I don’t ask for much: using my name and pronouns would suffice in most settings. I want to be recognised as nonbinary in all areas of society from passport office to public toilet. I don’t want to be told to “man up”. I don’t want it to raise eyebrows if I choose to wear an item of clothing from a binary I wasn’t assigned or socialised to be. I am aware of the privilege I have of passing as male in many dominant spaces. I also feel a collective responsibility to open myself to harassment as part of an act of genderqueer resistance. It’s scary at times, but I am excited to learn more about other people’s experiences of being nonbinary (X Marks The Spot, curated by Theo Hendrie, was massively helpful) and to experiment with different ways of expressing my identity.

 

Thanks Galina, Katharine, Meg, and Nine for incredibly helpful discussion on these topics.