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Gender—good for nothing

Our preoccupation with gender identity is a cultural step backwards. For me, the self transcends sex
April 20, 2016

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Read more: Lionel Shriver is wrong—gender matters

From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition. Growing up between two brothers, I was the one who had to wear stupid dresses, and worry about (the horror, in my day) letting my panties show on the swings. My brothers got to take off their shirts during sultry North Carolinian summers, while I wasn’t allowed to, even during the years my chest looked just like theirs.

Yet the impositions were just beginning. Periods were hideous. Did my brothers get puffy once a month, suffer terrible back aches and go back to wearing smelly de facto diapers? I was the one, too, who had the fear of God put in her about getting pregnant. In comparison to their sons, my parents clearly had reduced expectations for my career prospects. Ruefully, at 87, my father finally conceded last year: “You know, we may have underestimated you.” He still hasn’t quite brought himself to admit why: I was the girl.

But I was historically fortunate. By the time I entered university in 1974, a revolution was well under way. As I understood it, “women’s liberation” meant that the frilly cookie-cutter template of femininity had been chucked out. Being female was no longer defined in terms of skirts, high heels, and homemaking. Men and women were equal. Both sexes were just people. We had entered the post-gender world.

Fast-forward to 2016: I was wrong.

We have entered instead an oppressively gendered world, in which identity is more bound up in one’s sex than ever before. (Note: dictionary definitions regard gender and sex as interchangeable, and I will, too.) As Jemima Lewis wrote in the Daily Telegraph in March: “You can be agender, bi-gender, cisgender, demigender, graygender, intergender, genderless, genderqueer or third gender—but by God, you will accept a label.” The gay and lesbian world having gone so mainstream as to become a big bore, western media has moved on to an enthrallment with trans-

genderism bizarrely out of proportion to the statistical rarity of true gender dysphoria—though children and people generally being so suggestible, the condition will doubtless grow more common. Facebook has extended its gender options beyond the 71 it reached a year ago (thrillingly, two options in this dizzying smorgasbord of self-definition are “Man” and “Woman”). Users are now allowed to infinitely customise their profiles. As the Facebook Diversity Team published, “Now, if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own. As before, you can add up to 10 gender terms…”

Presumably, then, where you lie on this infinitely incrementalised spectrum is a key index of your individuality. For one of the biggest transformations in this exhausting conversation about gender is that it’s no longer about fucking. (Sexuality makes for an unsatisfying be-all-and-end-all anyway. In the face of widespread acceptance, gay culture has grown up: homosexuality no more suffices for an identity than heterosexuality ever has.) Gender is not about what you do, but about what you are.

Yet consider: in order to construct this spectrum, it is necessary first firmly to establish what it means to be “man” and “woman.” Even if you are “genderqueer”—convinced that your gender identity does not conform to the social norms associated with your sex—alienation from social norms depends on the perpetuation of social norms. Thus if you are a gruff, muscular, assertive woman who has adopted the genderqueer label, girlishness must continue to be associated with garrulousness, weakness, and passivity for your identity to scan.

In short, the spectrum depends on stereotypes.

We are told that a trans woman may have been born a man, but “feels like” a woman. I do not mean to be perverse here, but I have no idea what it “feels like” to be a woman—and I am one. My having happened to be born female has always seemed a biological accident, mere luck (or lack thereof) of the genetic draw. Honestly, being female “feels like” it has nothing to do with me. I respect that some people may feel alienated from their bodies (as I age, I’m as alienated as could be; the “real me” does not have arthritic knees), and I realise I am getting myself into trouble here. Nevertheless, the whole trans movement does seem to have awfully to do with clothes. Especially in the male to female direction—and I am baffled why anyone would want to be female with any other option available—“feeling like” a woman seems to imply feeling like wearing mascara, heels, hair extensions, and stockings.

Be my guest. I don’t care what anyone wears. But I hate to break it to the converts to my sex: women who were born women schlep around most of the time in jeans and trainers. The version of femininity offered up by Caitlyn Jenner is foreign to me—exaggeratedly coiffed, buffed and corseted. It’s a parody of the female wholly composed of surfaces.

In this would-be enlightened age, in which primary schools hold “Transgender Days” the way they used to sponsor bake sales, we urge children to see their genders as flexible, and to choose to be boys or girls or something in-between. But what does it mean to decide you’re a boy or a girl? In presenting this choice, we reverse all that progress on gender-neutral toys, inexorably reinforcing the hoariest, more threadbare versions of male and female. A boy is rough and boisterous and aggressive and plays with trucks. A girl is soft and quiet and sensitive and plays with dolls. Once again, in some dozen faddish television documentaries I have seen about trans children, it often comes down to clothes. A little boy knows he wants to be a girl because he wants to wear a dress.

"My having been born female is a fact I stopped fighting long ago—since I'm not convinced that the alternative is much of an improvement"

In which case, being female doesn’t mean very much. And I am willing to go there: maybe being male or female doesn’t mean very much. Here is not the place to debate the differences in male and female brains; what matters is that those divergences are greatly exceeded by the differences between individuals within sexes. So I am far more interested in heading in the direction of who-cares-what-gender-you-are than in painfully parsing which kind.

This issue is inextricable from the nature of self. In general, identity comprises a set of external facts and the subjective experience of being. Confusingly, self is both something we are born as and something we make.


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"I spurned lace and flounces for jeans and flannel shirts": Lionel Shriver aged 14 with her brother Timothy and father Don ©Sarah Lee

In the course of things, we may convert to Catholicism or take up water skiing, but the externals of our birth we don’t get to choose: era, nationality, parentage, parental religion, parental economic class, perceived race and sex. We’re free to choose our relationship to these externals—to emphasise them, to despair of them, to embrace or to see ourselves in opposition to them, but we cannot change the facts themselves. Over the course of my career, I could have played up my Tar Heel roots, nursing a drawl and latching on to the role of “southern writer” in the United States—instead I have tended to minimise my upbringing. But even living in the UK for 30 years can’t change the fact that I was born in North Carolina. My having been born female is also a fact, one I pretty much stopped fighting long ago—since I’m not convinced that the alternative is that much of an improvement.

Yet advances in plastic surgery have moved whole columns of what used to be immutable facts about ourselves into the realm of the elective. If you’re short, you can have your legs stretched (though I don’t recommend it). Big breasts can be reduced. Penises can be lengthened (though I don’t recommend that, either). Noses can be reshaped, ageing disguised. And sex—well, no problem.

Sex is no longer a fact. It is a choice. Which is all very well, except the conceit that sex-change surgeons operate under is that a self has a gender. The gendered self can be born into the wrong body, so that in transforming the physical signifiers of sex, doctors make body and self match.

But does the self have a gender? Are men and women male and female in their very souls? Or in reconfiguring the body, are we not primarily tinkering with how other people react to us? Isn’t plastic surgery predominantly an act of social manipulation?

As externals of identity like the shape of our ears and even our sex become medically malleable, we seem to be entering an era where everything about ourselves that we don’t like is subject to revision. I may have been born in North Carolina, but I feel like someone born in New York. I may have a father who was a seminary president, but I feel like the daughter of a coal miner. Can I expect my fellows to jolly along with this idea of myself, and inquire after my father the New York coal miner? The transgender reversal of pronouns has a disturbing quality of insisting that the outside world conform to subjective experience. Today’s widespread compliance on this point has the quality not only of “virtue signalling,” but of a creepy pandering, a condescending complicity. For women who transition to being male, having been born female is a fact, even if it’s a fact they’re not happy with. In actually changing birth certificates to identify babies as the sex this person came to feel like, we rewrite history. This way lies mass hypnosis—an Orwellian sense of truth. Because gender is not merely a social construct. It is a biological construct.

Self, in the contemporary view, is a construct, full stop. It is no longer made of elements we are stuck with, but is wholly a made thing. Thus when comparisons were drawn last year between transsexuals and Rachel Dolezal, president of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, who was masquerading as black because she felt like an African-American, the parallel didn’t require much of a leap (even if most American black people rejected the comparison). We are, apparently, whoever we think we are. And we are within our rights to demand that our peers get with the programme. The emperor always has clothes.

Yet having a few givens from the off is a relief. Life’s too short to completely make ourselves up—to decide that rather than the son of a Bristol pharmacist born in 1978 we are the daughter of a nobleman born in 19th-century France. The particulars of our circumstances may be limiting, but they save us from wandering the hell of the arbitrary. Thus I have resigned myself to being female, because that’s what I was born as, and I’d be loath to have all that horror-show surgery only to discover that men have problems, too.

I was a tomboy as a kid, and scrabbled in the dirt with my brothers playing with model cars and making toy trains crash spectacularly from a height. I shunned Barbies and detested baby dolls. I reviled dresses, spurning lace and flounces for jeans and flannel shirts. At 15, I changed my name from Margaret to Lionel. Were I to have grown up 50, 60 years later, it’s entirely possible that my parents would have taken me to see a therapist and put me on hormone therapy.

I’m glad they didn’t. Not because being a woman is so swell, but because being either a woman or a man doesn’t matter that much to me. I certainly experience myself as female in relation to other people. But alone in a room, falling asleep, hiking by myself in the woods, writing at my computer, thinking—I do not experience myself first and foremost as a woman. I do not walk around all day contemplating labias and breasts and ovaries, much less determining to get my nails done or to make an appointment for highlights. For me, my very self has no gender. While obviously I can only testify to my own experience of being a person—to my knowledge, I’ve only been this one—I cannot imagine that I alone enjoy such a self-perception. If selfhood is real and not a neurological illusion, it transcends gender.
"Life's too short to completely make ourselves up—to decide that rather than the son of a pharmacist we are the daughter of a nobleman"
More apt to regard their sex as a constraint, women are bound to find that proposition more appealing than men will. Men are often under-aware of the restrictions their sex places on them, because those restrictions are fewer. Men are still in control, in case you haven’t noticed. (Scan any meeting of world leaders if you’re in doubt.) Yet for both genders, de-emphasising the accident of the X vs Y chromosome is surely a more promising direction to head than fixating on which exact point we locate ourselves on a spectrum, itself dependent on hackneyed notions of masculinity and femininity that should have grown outmoded.

I am often asked how I manage to write persuasively from a male character’s point of view, which I do frequently. The secret? There is no secret. Writing from a male character’s point of view is no more difficult than writing from the perspective of another woman. That’s because for all of Facebook’s 71-genders-and-counting, the experience of self cannot be all that different. Oh, our characters are different. But the crucial constituents of our characters have little to do with gender, unless we insist on labelling clumps of qualities—forcefulness, violence, inability to cry; tenderness, consideration, inability to drive—as exclusively male and female, which they are not.

While I consider being female a physical inconvenience, the result of the eeny, meeny, miny, moe at my conception has had upsides. I’ve been relieved to be spared midlife balding and sexual performance anxiety. As I am otherwise circumstantially privileged—white, prosperous, American—belonging to one class of humanity that suffers from disadvantage has surely benefited my sense of the world, and helped me to sympathise with people in other classes who have it even worse. Most of all, the coin toss of my ending up a woman has meant I got to marry my beguiling husband, a heterosexual who might have looked askance at me as a candidate for his affections had I sported his same equipment.

The very fact that this essay will seem incendiary (and save the conniption fits; I’m not on social media and never read online comments) is testimony to how gender has grown destructively hyper-significant. We’re in the process of taking a giant cultural step backwards. The women’s liberation movement of my adolescence advocated a release from gender roles, and now we are entrenching them—pigeonholing ourselves with picayune precision on a continuum of gender identity, as if arriving at the right relationship to cliché is tantamount to self-knowledge. But I do not want my epitaph to read, “She was a she.” I am a writer, a cook, a sculptor, a tennis player. A big mouth, a hot head, a cut-up and a ham. A woman, yes, there’s no denying the fact of it. But that detail is incidental—and way down the list.