Gender’s three body problem
Kathleen Stock has published a new book reinforcing a certain gender narrative. I have written previously about the notion that gender is made up of gender expression, internal gender compass, and chromosomal biology, yet the more I write about gender identity, especially in relation to exploring gender holistically, the more I am frustrated by the simplistic version of gender presented by writers such as Kathleen Stock. Stock, and other trans exclusionary feminist writers (TERFs) seek to reduce gender, sex, down to its biological essentials, whilst also decrying the socially constructed notion of gender. In doing so they seek to create a dualistic notion of gender centred on assigned gender at birth, male/female dichotomy, that is both rigid and must be strictly enforced. What TERF writers leave out of the conversation is that the tripartite notion of gender equally applies to cis folk as well as those exploring the gender hinterland, namely that the gender three body problem is universal, not simply for those questioning or rejecting cis normativity.
Human beings are taught gender dichotomy as a means of control, to sell more products, and to enforce a patriarchal version of society that benefits the male 49%. If the primary argument about non-cis women entering assigned female at birth spaces is reduced down to its arid basics you find the bare bones of patriarchal control. Indeed, one of the founding myths of TERF ideology is the notion that a man can never understand female experiences because female lived experiences are so alien under patriarchal systems. Thus, when a non-cis woman achieves her apotheosis, she still has a vestigial masculinity about her that taints her very thoughts and actions. Essentially a vanguard agent of rape and misery, the non-cis woman threatens all assigned females at birth by their mere presence. Yet there is no talk of non-cis men, or non-binary folk, polluting the sanctity of masculine spaces, for in this dichotomous world the masculine is power, and to seek the phallus is to chase that dragon.
Which leads to TERF’s biggest hypocrisy, namely that by reducing gender to assigned gender at birth, you are left reinforcing the old patriarchal structures and sanctifying womanly sainthood. Yes, granted, Stock and other writers decry gender performativity, but that is as much a rebellion against patriarchy that non-cis folk rally to. This banner of performativity is a bridge we can all walk across, especially is you accept the feminist argument that the patriarchy reinforces gender segregation to entrench power. Yet, the question always comes back to non-cis people: why do you feel like you are X, when you were assigned Y at birth? The three body problem is always thusly thrust back onto non-cis folk, asking them to justify their identity in relation to the world around them, when instead a better question would be to ask all folk why do you feel Y when you were assigned Y at birth? The problem then shifts from othering non-cis folk to becoming an inclusive one.
We all experience gender in our own unique way, indeed I would argue that there are as many ways to experience gender as there are human beings alive. There is no perfect exemplar of male or female; indeed, move between cultures and subcultures and the very notion of dichotomous gender shifts. Mexico, Bhutan, France, Australia, to think of those countries is to conjure an idealised version of male/female, yet not one person with those boarders exists in a state of gender perfection. One of capitalism’s greatest tricks is to make us forget the great pink/blue shift at the end of the 19th Century, yet the further we get from it the more entrenched it has become. All that we perceive as gendered are marketing tricks and slights of hand. Shaving with a pink or blue razor is social conditioning.
This is why asking cis folk why they feel cis is vital. Asking questions, provoking thought, and making people think is a dangerous thing in a society that is so wedded to assigned gender at birth. Why should it matter that if you transition from one gender to another at 18 then at 35 shift and at 60 become something again? Who does it harm? No-one in a society that embraces gender fluidity, everyone in a society that rigidly enforces the dichotomy. By wedding gender expression to chromosomal biology without accepting that we all have our own internal gender compass we reduce the human experience down to marketing gimmicks and patriarchal control. Shifting one’s external gender expression and biological morphology to suit one’s internal gender compass is never a sin in a world that embraces the gender hinterland as a fullest expression of human experience. It is only a sin, as in the TERF’s world view, in a patriarchal world that demeans women and teaches girls to walk one step behind.
That great philosopher Madonna sang about what it is like for a girl, emphasising that the world emboldens the masculine and demeans femininity. In today’s cultural environment this has morphed to shredding those whose gender compass points at odds to chromosomal biology. Stock would have us believe that gender can be reduced down to biological essentialism with a more non-binary gender expression. Yet, to do so is to exclude those who would never fit into any version of that, whose internal identity, at whatever stage in life it shifts, is at odds with the assigned version of themselves that they were brought up with.
TERFs would counter all of my narrative with what about the patriarchal balance of power? That intrinsically all assigned male at birth individuals can never truly understand the female experience, that the societal balance of terror is so horribly skewed against women, and that even if a socialised male ever did attempt to leap across this great societal chasm, they will be pale simulacrum of womanhood at best, wolf in sheep’s clothing at worst. TERFs always flag the worst non-cis outliers they can find, finger wagging about wolves and rape. Yet, for all non-cis crimes they gloss over the fact that no womanhood is ever alike. For every woman who gives birth another miscarries; for every housewife there are happily single women. Heck, even searching for dichotomies between women’s experiences feels highly reductive. Women, men, non-binary folk are complex meshing of life experiences that only superficially appear alike. Just because you have experiences Y does not mean that all women, men, or non-binary folk have experiences the same. Thus, reducing womanhood down to periods, pregnancy, threat of sexual violence, and make-up becomes a patriarchal propaganda act as saying all men act a certain way and are thus always going to be wolves.
By asking the question why cis people feel cis you begin to cut through this noise. If the answer is that you feel cis simply because you do, then why is it any different for non-cis folk. The English language is highly limiting in its gender expression, the semantic nature of male/female/non-binary a reduction of the human experience to a linguistic shorthand that only suits those who want to reinforce boundaries and exclude those who fall outside those rigid lines. Other cultures, other languages, have a much more expansive view of gender that makes moot a lot of modern western gender philosophising and politicking. We are as hamstrung by our linguistic limitations as we are by our own concepts of what gender is or could be. We confuse patriarchal power dynamics for internal gender identity, seeing the structures we have built for ourselves as soaring opposite cliffs instead of identity prisons. Societally, the English thinking world has created the gender three body problem, and the only way to progress beyond it linguistically and scholastically is to move beyond the strictures of our own language.
Exclusionary language justifies itself by building prisons within which those who seek to exclude must themselves exist. Racists seeking white power must by there very definition exclude those who do not have white skin, yet at the same time must also purge from within themselves those who support inclusion and tolerance. The same goes TERFs. You are either a TERF or you are not, there s no middle ground, no hinterland, because dichotomous language and reinforcement of existing sociological systems forces them to exclude. In doing so they build their own prison, locking themselves up with ideologues seeking their continual subservience to the patriarchal system they claim to want to subvert and tear down. The three body problem they themselves created thus binds them to a system that will continue to erode the cause they wish to fight.
Kathleen Stock is not the enemy, nor are TERF writers. Rather, I believe they have forked right at a gender junction that started with the best of intentions. What began as a valid critique of societal gender constructs in the 1960s and 1970s has metastasised into what we see today. That Janet Raymond only ever saw the product of rigid gender enforcement within non-cis women’s medical journey shows the utter lack of imagination and linguistic conventions within the medical community at the time. That TERFs decry non-cis women’s hyper femininity fail to see the medical gatekeeping or societal dangers attached to being anything other than this projected feminine exemplar. Non-cis women are projected as uber feminine, almost the mensch, that Icarus-like will always burn up the close they get to the ideal. Either we are traps or we are saints for bearing such heavy crosses. Not once are non-cis women allowed to be their totality in the round, for TERFs refuse to give up the biological prisons they have built for themselves in favour of the gender hinterland that comes with smashing down those walls.
Enemies that need slaying suggest lines drawn and a pure black/white approach. English offers little semantic way out. Patriarchal capitalism offers little way out. Yet, this is to forget that the great feminist causes in history, the right to vote, sexual liberation, right to own property and bodily autonomy, came incrementally and with fudged compromises. Those who sought to fight back against women’s liberation, queer liberation, non-white rights, and religious tolerance all built mental prisons of their own making that were intellectually stormed and continually torn down. Only to be rebuilt as old lessons have been forgotten. TERFs prison is under siege not because we want to liberate the prisoners, but rather to help the prisoners liberate themselves. You cannot force a person to agree with you, indeed, to do so will always fail, but you can help the prisoners see that they are indeed in a prison of their own making.
By separating out patriarchal systems of power from tripartite gender we can begin to tease apart the intrinsic nature of exclusionary reactionary ideology. That gender, sex, has become so bogged down in wolves and predators loses sight of the wider systemic oppression keeping women on their knees. In flagging a handful of deviant non-cis women TERFs fail to see that vast majority of those in the gender hinterland are law abiding, and simply want to get on with their lives. Non-cis folk are not the evil incarnate predators seeking to destroy women’s lives; rather, they are often the victims of gross injustice potentially fuelled by TERFs and their allies. Bringing the fullness of gender expression, chromosomal biology, and gender identity into the conversation benefits all folk, not just those outside the cis paradigm. It smashes down exclusionary walls, liberates all of us from the strictures of stereotypes and capitalist gimmicks. Most importantly it enables all society to exist in a state of 7 billion genders without fear or compromise.