My article from three years ago “The Problem with the Transgender Label” asked a question some people don’t want asked: does that label cause more problems than it solves? It remains one of my most-read articles with mostly positive responses. Unfortunately, the larger world is still fighting over the label and forgetting about individual people.
If anything, the problem of labels has worsened over the past three years as the last years of the Trump regime dragged social discourse to ever lower levels. In our Memeocene epoch, simplistic condemnations are to the go-to for nearly everyone. People are less interested in listening and more interested in judging people by labels and unfollowing and blocking others who use the wrongs ones.
How do we decrease and eventually end gender-based oppression and ensure rights for all people? That’s the issue I explored in my previous article and want to explore in greater depth here.
Warning! The ideas presented in this article could cause cognitive dissonance.
Here’s a Radical Proposal
How about we just get rid of gender concepts and labels altogether? How about treating people as individual people instead of putting them into categories?
Too radical? Some people will feel so, because labels and categories are easier to deal with than the nuances and complexities of reality. Well, guess what — individual people are realities; they are not labels. It’s past time we respected each and every individual person as the unique person that individual is. We can only fully respect people by removing the masks of labels, and gender labels are especially pernicious.
A Brief Aside About Labels in General
Some people say to me, “but we need the labels to assert group identities to fight oppression.” This widely held view is not true. Categories and labels are not freeing, they are oppressive. Defining identity according to labels is the instrument of oppression. Oppression works by dividing people into groups and recognizing one group as having rights and all other groups as not having rights. At the core of oppression is bigotry which creates labels to designate groups and assert power over them.
Some people don’t yet get that. One person said to me that “we need the label ‘women’ because only in the last 50 years have women in the UK have been able to own property separate to their husbands.” I responded that we need to think about what created those laws that discriminated against half of the citizenry: it was an attitude that considered not people, but “men” and “women,” and gave rights to one group and denied rights to the other. That discrimination and oppression wasn’t ended by claiming the label “women.” That label was already out there, and it was used to oppress. The oppression wasn’t ended by “reclaiming” or redefining the label. What corrected that discrimination was recognizing all “women” as having full human rights because they are no less human than “men.”
Labels are a tool of oppression. You will never win the battle of trying to wrest that instrument from the claws of the oppressors. Using labels to define oppressed people, is unwittingly playing into the hands of the prevailing power structure by continuing to subsume people under labels. The avenue to end oppression is to respect every individual’s universal human rights and their rights to be the individual they are. More on that later.
More important than everything else that can be said about prejudices and oppression is that oppression depends on stereotypes and stereotypes depend on labels to encapsulate the prejudices. Eliminating labels is a necessary but insufficient condition to end prejudice and oppression. Critically identifying labels and the stereotypes for which they stand is the necessary step toward unmasking prejudice and enabling us to work to fight oppression. Once we expose labels for the tools of oppression they are, we remove the veil and can start to fight the root causes of oppression and injustice.
A better rationale for retaining labels is that we need to acknowledge that the people who are part of subaltern groups have different experiences than those who part of the dominant group in a society. This is true, but we need to consider its broader implications. Yes, we need to acknowledge that people part of a subaltern group do not have the same life histories as people in the dominant group. It’s incorrect to erase their distinct life histories — you can’t say they are the same. It’s also true that its incorrect to say that all people seen as part of a subaltern group are the same — doing so erases each individual’s distinct life history. For example, saying all people are the same erases the different life histories of men and women, and that false equivalence is a way to diminish the value of women. For the same reason, saying all women are the same erases the different life histories of individual women, also a false equivalence that diminishes the value of individual people and hinders respect and justice. We absolutely need to respect differences, and if we stop at the level of group labels, we are erasing individuals and their experiences. Embracing differences is incomplete if we only are embracing different group labels.
Deconstructing Gender Labels
Let’s get back to the main topic: ensuring rights and freedoms for all people by eliminating gender labels. We can reduce discrimination and oppression by deconstructing all gender labels and their corresponding roles and structures. The guiding principles in this deconstruction are to end discrimination and oppression and to embrace individual differences.
“Men” and “Women”
First off, and I can’t believe in this day and age I have to say this but, sex and gender are different things. Sex is biological: genes and genitalia. Gender is a social construct that is malleable and has only a partial connection with biological sex. “Male” and “Female” are biological classifications. “Man” and “woman” are gender labels that are highly variable depending on the time and culture. Don’t take my word for it.
What it means to be male or female originates from physical characteristics derived from sex chromosomes and genes that lead to certain gonads, internal and external genitalia, and physiological hormones. Being a man or a woman holds broader meaning, with cultural concepts of masculinity and femininity coming into play. (AMA Journal of Ethics, Jul. 2008, https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/sex-gender-and-why-differences-matter/2008-07)
Yes, that paper is from 2008. Academia has been aware of the issues surrounding gender for years. More on that later.
Talking about gender is not talking about sex. We are talking about the gender prejudices of the labels “men” and “women,” not male and female genitalia. We are talking about such prejudices as “men are strong and rational” and “women are weak and emotional.”
What do the labels “men” and “women” mean anyway? Nothing set in stone. Different cultures have different sets of gender prejudices, and those prejudices change over time. Not too long ago, women weren’t supposed to wear trousers or have a career. These and other gender prejudices were considered to be facts. People labeled “women” were supposed to conform to these “facts.” Yes, the prejudices about the gender label “women” have changed over the years, but the expectation remains that one so labeled is supposed to conform to the alleged facts of what being a “woman” means. No matter how much the set of “facts” change, the expectations to conformity will remain as long as the gender labels of “men” and “women” remain.
Here again, sex and gender are different things. Thus, “transgender” is not the same as “transsexual.” I’ll restrict my discussion to the use of “trans” in terms of gender labels and prejudices.
The use of “trans-” this and that, most frequently in “transgender,” is when gender prejudices emerge loud and strong. The gender prejudices of “men” and “women” are so deeply entrenched in society that some people are freaked out at any suggestion of stepping outside that binary opposition. The ugliness of the fear of difference emerges when certain people are confronted with the reality that many people don’t fit into the stilted boundaries of “men” and “women.”
Yes, the reality is that despite the power of the labels “men” and “women,” many individuals do not and will not conform to the labels’ associated gender prejudices. People are all individuals, and individuals aren’t produced by some cookie cutter machine stamping genders onto them from birth. Other people need to deal with this reality.
Exacerbating the problems with the label “transgender” is that it is unclear what the label means. If all it means is neither “men” nor “women,” then all that’s accomplished is creating another gender label with its associated gender prejudices. We see this in the silly arguments over whether a person is sufficiently “trans” to be accepted as “transgender.” As I predicted three years ago, the transgender label has become weaponized as a tool of division similar to how the labels “men” and “women” are tools of oppression. What has happened is that some people have drawn a new binary opposition between “trans” and “cis.” Hooray, more labels, more prejudices.
What is gained by this transgender label? Does it describe something that has always been — namely the reality that there are individuals who aren’t described by binary labels? If so, what good is accomplished by grouping these many individuals under a blanket definition that create a new set of binary labels? If individuals aren’t conforming to “men” or “women,” why should they conform to “transgender?” Some would reply that the label is not conforming but liberating and empowering. This is an understandable sentiment, but let’s look at this claim through the lens of another gender label.
Many attribute the “queer” label to philosopher Judith Butler, who pioneered the field of “queer studies.” I respect Dr. Butler for her keen intellect and commitment to social justice. Her groundbreaking work on gender identities and her definition of gender as a performance of social expectations has been influential in philosophy and social science.
However, Butler’s definition of the person as performatively constituted leads to a theoretical black hole. Butler views the person as constituted by society — in essence, controlled by social norms that force the person to either conform, and receive social recognition, or fail to conform and receive social censure. Recognition is a known social phenomenon with wide reaching implications, but Butler’s gender theory has little to no account for personal agency, a void mirrored in her political philosophy.
Butler wrote in her book Gender Trouble (1990) that the problem with feminist theory is that it treats the concept of “women” as an exclusionary construct that is coherent only within the heterosexual matrix. This criticism has validity, especially directed as it was at the second-wave feminism of that time. Butler contrasts the feminist construct of “women” with the subversion and destabilization of the heterosexual matrix and its social constructed gender roles, the latter leading to the concept and label of “queer.” The mention of subversion and destabilization of prevailing power structures suggests revolutionary acts of resistance and change, but instead, Butler remains in a moral quietism. Because Butler does not see the individual person as free, but merely a performative subject of social norms, her new label of “queer” becomes a classification in the inventory of human subjects made what they are by society. As Seyla Benhabib has said, Butler’s account means the person is a mere affect of culture and language. (“Subjectivity, Historiography, and Politics,” 1995)
Certainly, the “queer” label can be repurposed to express a willfully chosen defiance of gender norms and prejudices. Some who adopt the label “queer” do see it as the free will expression of oneself rather than conformity to external pressures of gender prejudices. This expression is separate from being born “gay,” because society does traditionally demand that gay people suppress who they are. Expressing yourself requires a personal choice, and considerable support from a community, to overcome that social oppression. Well-meaning people rally around the label “queer” feeling it defines a collective resistance to heteronormative oppression.
The Label Trap
The problem is that even acknowledging the reality of free will, “queer” remains a label coherent only within the heterosexual matrix. Being “queer” is defining oneself in terms of opposition to “normal,” which still ties one’s identity to the norms of the prevailing power structure. “Queer” also subsumes individual distinctions under a generalizing concept devoid of meaning aside from the opposition to “normal.” So, to claim “queer” is to reduce oneself to not being an individual. Paradoxical at best. For that reason, the “queer” label is inherently contradictory and self-defeating. Similar arguments apply to the “transgender” label.
Some say the labels “queer” and “transgender” are needed to differentiate people from heteronormative gender prejudices. I share that goal, but no label will ever liberate people from oppression. Rallying around labels is not liberating. If the highest ambition is simply to say, “we aren’t a supremacist-based reproductive ideal,” then there is no basis for revolutionary change, just a peevish contrarianism. Let’s leave peevish contrarianism to the right-wingers.
The question is: WHAT are you banding together for? Another label? Another banner? Another “we aren’t them and we hate them?” These questions are getting to the essence of the issue. What is the goal? If the goal is justice for people, then we need to talk about how we respect individual people for being who they are. If justice is the goal, then we don’t need labels.
A label promotes only an alliance based on similarity, which ultimately is shallow and transitory. Because labels establish recognition norms that define people’s identity and value, one is either included or excluded from the label, perpetuating the imbalances of power one claims to be fighting. If we make judgements based on labels, then anyone who claims the label can demand the recognition assigned to the label. We now see more arguments over what the labels “women” and “transgender” truly mean than over how we can stop oppression and bring about social justice. The arguments over the “true” meaning of labels descend into No True Scotsman fallacies to preserve the integrity of the label. Then you are committing the same conservative and regressive actions committed by the prevailing power structure in preserving the integrity of their labels and gender prejudices.
It’s a trap.
Getting Past Gender Labels
We now come back to the topic of getting rid of gender labels. ALL of them. Not just “men” and “women” but “transgender,” “queer,” “intersex,” and all the other ever-increasing number of labels.
The alternative to gender labels is to acknowledge people as individuals. This is not surprising because all labels are depersonalizing, subsuming an individual under a general classification, and downplaying their distinct attributes. An individual is not a label.
The opposite of labeling others is listening to others. We need is to hear individuals’ stories about their unique, personal experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires. If we respect people, we don’t reduce individuals to a race, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on. We see them as the unique mix of chosen and forced attributes and experiences that they have. The point is to listen to people, travel to where they are, and deal with them as the vibrant and multidimensional individuals that they are.
“Queer” is a linguistic answer for a social and material problem. A mere label, it ends up being a non-answer, because no matter how many labels we invent, and no matter how vociferously we state them, they do nothing to solve injustice. What we need is tangible action and change, not running for the cover of yet another label. To overcome oppression, we need to respect each individual’s personal story. We need to empower people, not labels. We need to lift up people, not labels.
We must throw off the labels that weigh us down. “Men,” “women,” and the associated gender prejudices are burdens that stifle individuality and creativity. Worse, these labels and prejudices are weapons that endanger people. Someone once told me that we need labels like “transgender” and “queer” to make the label “women” unnecessary. The labels “men” and “women” are already unnecessary. Only when we get past consigning people to definitions will we get somewhere.
Using labels like “women” or “transgender” can do nothing more than acknowledge the gender prejudices that harm people. There are times when that acknowledgement is necessary to trace the genealogy of oppression, but beyond critically identifying stereotypes to eliminate the damage they cause, use of a label perpetuates the prejudices inherent to the stereotypes. Again, no matter how much energy and pride you put into a label, you will never win the battle of trying to wrest that instrument from the claws of the oppressors.
We don’t need gender labels and their related gender prejudices. Ignoring them, we can see the individual people that the labels obscure. When we start seeing people as individuals possessing their own unique mixture of attributes, we start treating them with the full respect they deserve. Seeing and hearing individual people is being kind to people. That is how you honor people and move toward justice, both for others and for yourself.