Shedding Light on Gender and Identification

by Jane De Beauvoir (they/them/theirs)

I was delighted to have Brian’s email and opinion shared here. Indulgence, in part, is about us indulging in our beliefs and opinions, but doing so in a way that values all sorts of difference. Even where Brian diverged from my views, the email was kind. I endeavor to offer the same kindness as I outline my response. My kindness (and perhaps Brian’s, though I only speak for myself) is one that begins, not ends, with respectful language. It is born out a belief that my personal and intellectual development has produced thoughts of value, thoughts worth sharing, and that this is true for others too. Lived experience is always valuable. When I share mine I do so in affirmation of the worth of other experiences.

One important way to practice that kindness is to accurately reproduce the ideas, thoughts, or expereinces I’m responding to. The first point I want to address comes up when Brian affirms “support [for] people who don’t like their natural gender.” The idea of a natural gender is common, but also hotly contested. It’s worth diving into a bit.

Evidence from social science, genetics, anatomy, and most importantly the lived experience of multitudes of people seems to confirm some version of the famous quotation that “one is not born a woman but becomes one.”  Feminist and queer theorists who followed that tack argued that gender was not a natural or biological fact about a person or a body, but was socially constructed. For instance, in performance theory gender is made up of gendered actions, like wearing certain clothes or talking a certain way. What actions conform to what gender is set by, put roughly, social convention. There’s no ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ gender, because all genders are artificial and performative. Check out Judith Butler explaining this idea:

This idea has caught on in enough academic and activist circles that, for an academic theory, it has quite a few supporters. That said, there are strong countercurrents to performative gender within the Trans movement. Performative gender makes all gender performative, which makes it seem like it’s a choice: anyone can be any gender at any time (to be fair, Butler rejects this implication of her work).

For many trans and cis people, this is at odds with their lived experience of a particular gender. This is especially important for some trans people who face the myth that they ‘changed genders’ from a natural one to a new one. Janet Mock emphatically rejects this position here:

I’m sure that doesn’t put to rest the question of natural gender, but it’s a lightbeam.

With that background, I’ll quickly look at some more of Brian’s points. First, the email references the goals of this magazine: writing about books, not supporting particular political viewpoints. Furthermore, it also considers the use of  classrooms, which Brain argues should be about learning, not identifications. I agree with Brain that Indulgence is rooted in texts and that classes are about learning. What makes our texts important, I believe, is that they are connected to the issues of our days, including politics but also emotions, images, and contemporary concerns. For example, our November text Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith, takes gender and sexuality as two of its main concerns. So by discussing this text, we also engage with a larger discourse that is already taking place out in the world.

Let me also highlight two important points on which Brian and I agree. The first is talking about contentious issues with people who might disagree with us. I thank Brian for engaging with, rather than ignoring or simply condeming our post. Secondly, though in the same vein, I agree that sharing pronouns should be a chance for learning, not for calling people out for being wrong. When a group sits down together, every person brings their own experience of life with them. Encountering newness is sometimes uncomfortable, whether what is new is sharing pronouns or conceptual physics. But uncomfortable doesn’t mean bad. Let’s lead students to understanding with kindness, not policing. At the same time, the continual or purposeful misgendering of any student is abuse, and should not be tolerated.

Thank you, Brain, for sharing your email with us. We look forward to hearing from you again.

Read Brian’s Email: “Classes should be about learning, not gender identity” 

Read Mindy’s Post that sparked Brian’s response

The featured image is from the move Mona Lisa’s Smile


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