One of the most common arguments made by “gender critical” anti-trans activists is that gender is not real. Here is why they love this argument so much.
Although I mostly ignore them, I do from time to time engage with TERFs and other transphobes — not because I think that I can make them see that they are wrong, but because I can use their responses to get a better grasp of their tactics and what motivates them.
A recent exchange of this kind revealed the obsessive nature of some of these arguments and the way they are completely removed from any understanding of science or reality.
Ambiguous means unreal
This anti-trans activists argument was that since gender is an ambiguous term, gender is basically not real. “Existence” in the world of this activist, apparently requires that you can present a definition that is so clear, that there can be no doubt about whether someone is a man or a woman.
Moreover, being “real” somehow entails having physical, measurable properties. Or as they put it: “genders don’t exist and biological sex belongs in the realm of biology”.
Science does not say that gender is not real or that it can be reduced to biological sex. Biologists do not think so, either. So this is a reference to some kind of imaginary science, the science of childhood text books, perhaps, or misinterpretations of popularized TV presentations.
This imaginary science serves a political purpose, however. It makes it possible to present a quasi-scientific argument that supports the idea that gender can be reduced to a kind of biology that is binary. It therefore supports social dogmas about gender, gender roles and gender relationships.
This is why the “gender critical” trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) of the left so easily end up repeating the arguments of right wing Fascists and religious fundamentalists. They all crave absolute certainty, as an acceptance of ambiguity and diversity makes their political goals unattainable.
Here’s a short excerpt of a discussion over at my main trans blog:
“Male behavior is whatever males do”
TRANSPHOBE: “did you know that if you are born biologically male everything you do, no matter how feminine, is male behavior by definition? Male behavior is WHATEVER males do.”
ME: “What kind of linguistic hocus pocus is this? You need to look up the concept of tautology, and you will see what I mean.
Sure, ‘Male behavior is whatever males do’ might sound self evident (and as such it gives us no new understanding of the topic). But in the current transgender debate — toxic with hyper-masculine, patriarchal, transphobia –your sentence will be read as “Male behavior is WHATEVER those assigned male at birth do,” which is completely meaningless, as any behavior encompassed by this definition can also be found among people assigned female.
In other words, your definition would be:
‘Male behavior is WHATEVER men and women can do.’
Which is nonsense.”
How real life influences real life
TRANSPHOBE: “Again, how can genders exist if all forms of behavior can be part of people of all genders?”
ME: “Because people are shaped by beliefs, word views and narratives, and those narratives are real and have an effect on the lives of people, even if they are incorrect in their description of the world.
Read Michel Foucault! Power is not only upheld through violence. It is upheld through the concepts of language and through narratives that make the citizens believe that the system serves their interests, even when it does not.
This is why so many of the anti-feminist activists throughout history have been women. They have been raised to find an identity and some kind of affirmation in the very society that stops them from realizing their true potential.
So even if the statements ‘women are inferior to men’ or ‘trans women are men’ are false, they do exist and they do have an effect.
Great many of our beliefs are social constructs like these. The most influential right now is the ‘gender is defined by biological sex’ narrative. All serious scientists and philosophers see it as absolute nonsense, yet is serves the purpose of the patriarchy and transphobic TERFs in their political oppression of trans people.
So your argument can serve as an example of the processes I am discussing in this and other posts.”
Living with complexity
Let me add here that there is no simple definition of gender because both human nature and human culture are extremely complex phenomena. The words we use to describe this complexity are by necessity imperfect and ambiguous.
This is something most adult people learn to live with. But it is also something fundamentalists, whether they are TERFs or Fascist, fear more than anything else in the world.
The idea that “reality” requires something to be physical or biological represents a kind of reductionistic, positivist, thinking that all serious scientists left behind in the 1970s.
Saying that gender does not exist, is like saying that love does not exist or enthusiasm or happiness or the thrill of being alive do not exist.
Terms like nationality, religion, and art becomes meaningless, again because there are no fixed and stable definitions or something you can measure.
Indeed, nearly everything that makes our lives worth living becomes unreal. Heck, even food and wine become phantoms, as the pleasure we take in enjoying them is always colored by culture, our personal history and the influence of others.
Of course gender is real. We have a thriving culture industry that tells us that boys are boys and girls are girls every single day.
Of course gender expressions are real. Men, women and nonbinary people spend a lot of time finding their style, expressing masculinity and femininity.
And of course gender identity is real. The very existence of trans people proves it.