Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Tag: Transgender

Demi-boys and the new enslavement to gender

It is increasingly common for young people to identify with ‘non-binary’ genders: to locate themselves on a ‘gender spectrum’, or align with one of the dozens of new gender categories. Here are some observations about this phenomenon:

original1. For non-binary teens, the search for the self is taking the form of a search for a gender category.

That is, the question of discovering themselves as a person – and leaving behind the world of childhood, parents and family – becomes a question of finding a new gender label.

‘I’m gender queer, and I’m starting to explore the possibility of identifying as trans.’

‘I’m not exactly sure what (I am) yet, somewhere between agender and androgine.’

They chart their biographies and life experience as movement through gender categories:

‘I came out as a tomboy at 4. Bisexual at 17. Lesbian at 18. Queer around 22. Genderqueer/non-binary at 24-ish.’

2. People who are ‘gender questioning’ are much more defined by gender, than those who are not.

Non-binary people put a lot more store by their gender than others; the gender category is the thing that ‘supports’ their identity, and makes them feel ‘secure’. Non-binary twitter profiles tend to mention gender identities before any other interests:

• he/they • nonbinary/transmasculine • aro/ace (aromantic/asexual) • Disney obsessed • booklion • usually over-caffeinated •

By contrast, those who are an ordinary man or woman need not think very much about their genders. The gender binary is now something that can be worn lightly, without implications for the lives we will have or the people we will become.

3. New gender categories are still based on the idea of a naturalised ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

This is most obvious when somebody describes their identity as a particular point on the gender spectrum, and therefore as a sort of chemical formula, an admixture of the masculine and feminine:

‘I am 2/3 boy and 1/3 girl

‘You could fall anywhere along this (gender) line, for example, you could be 78.25 male

This is also the meaning of many of the new gender categories. For example, a demi-boy is someone who is mainly male, and a bit female.

Bi-gender is someone who feels male and female (either both at the same time, or one after another).

Therefore, in effect, the traditional elements of masculinity and femininity have been preserved, only these have become like free-floating gender substances, which can be mixed together in various combinations.

4. Even very fluid gender categories have a naturalised, pseudo-physical basis.

It is no coincidence that gender categories are often described as one might a physical waveform, or a mutating substance.

Crystagender: gender randomly changes, often feels broken or fractured between mulitple genders

Antegender: A protean gender which has the potential to be anything, but is formless and motionless, and, therefore, does not manifest as any particular gender

If gender is unknown, or confused, this takes on the significance of some unknown (perhaps as yet undescribed) gender substance. For example, the category elissogender has been represented as a waveform:

elissogender_by_pride_flags-d96xt63

Elissogender – a term used to describe a gender which vaguely moves around with no direction.

(Pink is femininity, blue is masculinity, black is agender, grey is the confusion or grey area amongst genders, yellow is unknown).

5. Non-binary individuals are very hostile to the idea that they might be defined in any way by other people.

There is a hostility to social ascription, to the idea that they would be put in a category by society or other people.

‘The very first thing doctors tell parents is if their baby is a boy or a girl.’

Being a man was the norm that was placed on me, but I don’t identify with that.’

Their objection is not so much to any particular arduous consequences of being a man or a woman, but to the very social act of naming, or making a distinction. The new gender categories are therefore anti-social on principle.

6. Freedom from the traditional gender binary does not mean freedom to be your own person.

Being non-binary does not mean that a person is free to develop their vocation, character, self-expression in a way that is personal or undetermined by notions of gender.

Instead, to be non-binary is to enter into a private marriage with the gender category of your choice. The freedom of our age is to not be genuinely self-determined, but to choose one’s determination from a menu of options.

7. The reason for this is that we are free of the sexual division of labour, but we are not yet free.

We have seen the breakdown of the sexual division of labour, under which men and women were assigned opposing roles, destinies, and characters. People are free of social domination: their gender will no longer determine their profession, their legal rights, their dress, or the ways in which they talk or move.

Yet people do not yet feel themselves to be completely free to determine themselves according to their personal capacities and inclinations.

Therefore, the qualities previously tied to the sexual division of labour – the substances of masculine and feminine – become free floating, mixing in various combinations to form the new series of gender categories.

The naturalised elements of masculinity and femininity are not overcome, but translated into the terms of consumer choice.

 

 

Transsexualism and the breakdown of personality

In the 1980s and 90s, some people started to modify their bodies in ways that were unprecedented in modern times. They felt there was something about their bodies that was ‘not right’. Their nose was too long, or short, or too wide; their bum was too big or too small, their breasts overly ample or flat. Parts of the body that might look fine to anyone else, to them were the source of discomfort. They felt physically uncomfortable, not at home in their own bodies. They sought to nip and to tuck, to change their bodies in order to change this feeling of not-rightness.

Tattoos and piercings were part of this too. One young woman said that she did her piercings ‘at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body – then its time (to do a piercing).’ The act of piercing – of choosing the spot and the ring, caring for the wound, seeing the new look that had been chosen, made – was a way of grounding the self in the body. One occupied one’s body by piercing it, drawing on it, cutting it.

The growth of transexualism in the past 10 years is a development of this phenomenon. Only now, the matter is more serious. Transsexualism is not a question of this or that body feature, of the nose or bum or breasts; it is not a question of degree, of position on a scale of big or small. Nor is it a question of cosmetics, of taste or adornment. Rather, transsexualism is a question of the fundamental polarity of the body: the fundamental polarity of male or female.

The genitalia are not like other body parts: they do not vary along a gradation, but instead exist as a polarity, of A or B. Therefore, the transexual does not just feel wrong in part, in degree, but in essential definition, in essence. The transexual experiences the not-rightness in their body as a question of core; they feel that, at core, their body is the wrong one. They should be in a body that is not just different to their own but the opposite: they feel that they should take a physical form which is the opposite of the one they have.

In this, we see a breakdown of the unity between the person and their body, a unity that is personality. To be a person means to occupy the particular physical frame in which you are present in the world. It is yours. You are born stocky or skinny, tall or short. To always want to be tall when you are small, or vice versa, means that you are not appropriating your physical reality: you are not occupying it, making it yours.

Hegel describes personality as the unity of ‘the sublime and the trivial’. A person is on the one hand completely free, they can freely determine themselves through their thoughts and actions, but at the same time they are something ‘wholy determinate’: ‘I am of a certain age, a certain stature…and so on through whatever other details you like.’ (1) The ‘sublimity’ of personality means that it sustains this contradiction; the free aspect of the self possesses the body, it animates a particular given, natural form with purpose and spirit.

Now, with the concept of cis-men and women, the relationship between an individual and their body becomes entirely contingent. To identify with your physical existence is considered a specific personal choice or preference. You might choose to affirm the body in which you exist, just as you equally might not.

That there is a specific cis category suggests that it is entirely possible, normal even, to not identify with your physical existence. The personality and the body become potentially unrelated to one another; they go their separate ways. A woman can feel that she is actually a man, a man a woman, just as a white person can feel that they are actually black or a black person white.

At base, transsexualism expresses an inner tension, a tension between one’s sense of who one ‘really’ is, and one’s physical reality. One transexual said: ‘My voice and my body betray me’; ‘I want to look like what I am’ (2). Another said, ‘I must transform the body I have so it fits as closely as possibly my image of myself.’ (3) Therefore, there is a separation between ‘me’, and ‘my voice and body’; between the true self and the form in which one exists.

This is a contemporary manifestation of a much older tension, perhaps the oldest tension in the book: between existence and essence. That is, between a given reality, and one’s sense of what truly could or should be. The tension between existence and essence has been at the heart of social phenomena for thousands of years, whether that is religion, or politics, each in their various ways feeling a ‘not-rightness’ of reality and a seeking of a true or ideal state. Both religious soul searching and social revolution sought to bring existence in line with essence: to unite reality with an ideal or truth.

What is significant now is that this existence-essence tension is no longer playing out in social forms, or even between the individual and society. This is no longer a case of people spurning ‘society’ and going off on their own, to be in their own heads, away from the corruption of the world. Instead, the tension and feeling of ‘not rightness’ now plays out at the level of the individual – between the two composite elements of personality, the self and the body. Instead of not feeling right in their their country, or vocation or social position, the transexual does not feel right in their own body.

Therefore, a tension that had existed in social forms now appears in a guise that is both individualised and naturalised. The ‘true’ self takes a form that is entirely physical. The person you really are is not a matter of spirit or vocation – it is not a matter of your actions or choices in the world. Instead, it is the desire for an alternative physical form. Therefore, the true self (the person I ‘imagine myself to be’) has the content of a body, another body, the opposite body to the one you have.

Therefore, the true self appears as an opposing natural form. The existence-essence tension is playing out between two different kinds of natural form: between the wrong body, and the right body.

The sense of wrongness is reduced to a matter of genitalia, of having a penis when there should be a vagina, or a vagina where there should be a penis. Becoming who you really are is a question of physical removal and reconstruction, of folding stomach flesh into a penis shape, or constructing a hole between the legs.

The tension between existence and essence is reduced to the body – and the resolution of that contradiction takes the highly limited and inadequate form of a surgical procedure.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, section on ‘Abstract Right’

(2) Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 2006

(3) Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L Gilman, 1999

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