Once again we are approaching another topic under Transition Reactions, a mostly anecdotal recount of the weird shit people say to me when they find out I’m trans. Content Notice for all the usual cissexist shit.
Today’s topic: Social constructs.
Generally speaking, if someone has heard the term “social construct” and also given it any amount of thought, they probably do a decent amount of reading. They may or may not identify as intellectuals, but usually, people ignorant about gender variance fall for one of the other more common red herrings: washrooms, genitals, sexual orientation, “passing,” etc. whereas someone that habitually thinks about stuff might approach the concept of transitioning through the lens of social constructionism.
There are two versions of this approach that reliably cock my eyebrows: “Gender is a social construct, social constructs aren’t ‘real,’ therefore gender does not exist;” and “Social constructs are coercive, gender is a social construct, therefore gender is coercive.”
As a trans person, I don’t dispute that gender is a social construct, or that many (if not all) social constructs are designed to encourage certain types of behaviour and punish other types. And I also admit, obviously, that social constructs are not literally tangible objects, and therefore exist only as ephemeral ideas in the minds of those participating in it. But to say that an idea has no consequences because it cannot be manipulated with our hands kind of overlooks the part where people are tangible (radical argument, I know), and the way a person governs themselves–or others!–can and does have measurable consequences.
My typical example is currency. Yes, the idea of currency is represented by physical coins and bills, which can be empirically observed. But think about what those coins and bills actually are. If banks collapsed tomorrow and all society ended, would those coins and bills still serve a function? Sure, as flints or fuel to start fires, maybe. But the actual dollar bill only holds value because all of us participating in society agree to ascribe value to it. The actual bill is just paper, and outside of that agreed upon value, the function it serves is no different from a blank page. The idea of currency could likely continue in an apocalypse scenario, but it would take the form of something more applicable to a society without government oversight, like bullets.
At the end of the day, currency is an idea that cannot be touched or manipulated with the hands. While we might find people arguing in favour of, or against the use of currency, you would be hard pressed to produce an argument supporting that currency has had no consequences on society.
The second argument, that gender is coercive, usually takes an enormous amount of space to disentangle (as will any pile of horseshit, if it steams enough). Unlike the first argument, it does acknowledge that gender has consequences, however it usually asserts that these consequences are bad. A more defensible argument, one I would support, is that the consequences of gender can be bad. But this nuance is often lost on ideologues.
The main mistake made is the conflation of gender identity, gender expression, and gender role. Typically when people talk about gender as though it were a coercive institution, they’re often talking about gender roles, even if they aren’t able or willing to identify it as such. They talk about expectations unfairly thrust upon a person because of who they are, they talk about unfair treatment and how their merits are under or overplayed because of unreasonable assumptions, they talk about how society organizes around conceptual categories in which one category is valued more than the other.
That’s a gender role, folks. It is external. It has no regard for your personal preferences. It is a subjective cultural phenomenon where you are given certain expectations, sometimes privileges, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. As a consequentialist, I feel the expectations placed upon a person should have everything to do with their actions and nothing to do with who they are, so I oppose gender roles as one such system that arbitrarily creates unnecessary rules.
Trans people are usually scapegoated by the people making this conflation. They come up with some really bizarre arguments about how trans women desire the role of women. Why yes, obviously I hopped off the gravy train of male privilege to surrender myself to a life of being paid 77 cents for the same work I used to do, obviously I want to be catcalled and sexually objectified against my consent, obviously I want to… infiltrate women’s spaces? That makes it sound like sexism is organized enough to have someone to report to.
Day 147, I have located another cabal of women self-aware enough to protest the devaluation of their credentials, quick, dial up societal sexism to 11!!!
Because, you know, that’s a knob, somewhere, that you can just turn? Apparently? And how do you infiltrate a space that already belongs to you?
Notice how all the consequences of my transition–the shitty pay, the sexual harassment, the sudden need for spaces free from cis men’s violence–are consequences of gender roles, something beyond my control and invention? I don’t perpetuate gender roles simply by existing. In fact I just finished arguing about how gender roles are arbitrary and unreasonable!
Then the goal posts move. Any of us who spend any amount of time trying to dismantle bullshit know this is a favoured tactic of bullshit peddlers.
They concede that trans people transition to meet identities, not roles. But now, we’re victims of the patriarchy! We only have that identity because we have failed as men! (And make no mistake, someone this entrenched in bullshit is almost always talking about trans women. Trans men, when they are mentioned at all, are often dismissed as wanting male privilege. I’ll let this trans man tell you about that.)
There is a tremendous amount of irony here. Usually these same gender abolitionists arguing that gender is coercive literally just implied that women are only women because they “failed” at being men–as if being men is something that all people should try to be. Again, stacking up gender roles, it’s clear that men have a lot of advantages that would be nice to have, but that’s simply saying that these privileges ought to be given to everyone (and thus cease to be privileges), not saying that we all ought to be men to have them.
Still, the notion that I failed at manhood is true, but trivial. I failed at it because I had absolutely zero desire to succeed at it. All the features that have made me cis-passing as a trans woman were features that other people decided were unmanly. My tiny frame. My curly hair. My big eyelashes. Everyone else was assessing me as if I was trying to run the manly race, and I saw no need for it. I looked at those features and said “none of this makes me less of a man,” …and it didn’t. What made me less of a man was the realization that my manhood was everyone’s idea but my own. So when I realized I didn’t have to race anymore, I stopped.
So yeah, I failed, because I didn’t compete. I failed for the same reason a pole vaulter “fails” at the sprinting competition–they never fucking played!
Attempting to speculate on why I have that preference is an exercise in futility. The concepts of identity formation are in their infancy. The fields of anthropology and sociology offer up ideas of in-group/out-group dynamics, but attempting to bridge that gap to neurology and psychology in order to push an argument that gender variant ideation is some kind of internalized patriarchy involves filling in a lot of blanks. You might as well ask someone why they like pistachio icecream but not chocolate. We cannot answer that question honestly, right now, because we do not possess a definitive answer on why people have any kind of preference in the first place, when the consequences for the choices are a net neutral. So when you see someone pretending they can answer why a trans women might transition, and they’re not answering for their own choice to transition, that person is pulling a long long string of shit out of their ass. They’re spitballing, and their ideas ought to be treated as such.
I’m sorry if that’s not really an adequate answer. “I transitioned because I wanted to,” naturally begs the question “why did you want to?” I don’t know. I don’t know anymore than why I want garlic but not paprika or pole vaulting rather than sprinting. But people don’t generally ask me to justify my preference for garlic and pole vaulting, so why do they feel entitled to ask me to justify my gender? Why do I have to know? Do I have to know why I like the colour blue to have that preference respected? Maybe if I believed that my preferences implied things for other people it would be okay to ask me to justify that. But I’m not trying to govern someone else. I’m trying to govern myself, and only myself.
My personal womanhood is not a de facto statement on anyone else’s womanhood.
Believe me, no one would love to know why my self concept is as it is more than me. But we just don’t have the tools to figure that out right now when we’re talking about my preferences, my identities as a garlic lover and pole vaulter and woman who wears blue things occasionally.
I won’t accept that this suddenly justifies patronizing me as “accepting coercion” when my life’s work involves dismantling the very roles between which I am placed, by other people and against my will. I am not trying to be anything but myself. Gender abolitionists would do well to remember that.
Stay sexy and informed, lovelies.
(I’m not actually a pole vaulter).