• R E J Saunders

The philosophy of gender


Gender has been one of my intellectual journeys over the last decade. It is an ongoing process, one that has taken many kinks in the road, and will likely last the rest of my academic life. I was accused recently of being a pompous writer whose prose was for academics, overly inflated to make myself look more intelligent. Granted, on occasion I have been known to go a bit German School in the density of my writing, but usually I do so because I am trying to make a precise point. Indeed, my increasing philosophical bent with respect to my gender exploration is likely to lead to more density, yet it is a valid critique of my writing style that I think is worth considering in this post.


The overarching issue, for me, when writing about any gender related issue, especially transgender and non-cis topics, is that much of the English language terminology used to discuss these issues is limiting. Both in the vernacular use of phrases and the freighted context behind them gendered language in English has meanings that are read in many different ways by many different audiences. This is part of the reason why I has started using non-cis instead of trans as my antonym for cisgender, why I refer to the gender hinterland as the space outside of cis-normativity, and why on occasion my language can appear dense.


There is always a narrative of translation that exists between us all, that meaning changes and any discussion invariably involves a less perfect translation of ideas. Be it between different languages, different cultures, even different generations, each segment of society perceives and contextualises ideas in slightly different ways. Often those incremental differences add up to mis-match in understanding, leaving us wanting a narrative of hospitality to avoid vitriol or worse. Gender language, especially used in non-cis communication, has evolved rapidly over my lifetime. Indeed, the generational shift from those folks who transitioned before me to those who are transitioning in 2021 is almost a vast gulf of linguistic terminology.


Yet when one considers non-binary folk and people who experience gender dissonance but do not act on it English still falls far short of being able to conceptualise those experiences in their totality. This is another reason why for me non-cis fits better than trans, because not every person whose internal gender compass misaligns with their chromosomal biology wants to cross the gender Rubicon and transition. The narrative of hospitality within the non-cis world must encompass their experiences if it is ever to achieve a more universal linguistic structure.


So why talk about a philosophy of gender at all? More to the point, why should it matter? If the immediate concerns are civil liberties and health care, what is the point of potentially naval gazing about semantics when it is practical action that is required. I would argue that while action is most assuredly a necessary thing given the state of the world, without a firmer philosophical approach non-cis folk risk ceding the intellectual, and possibly the political, ground to those thinkers and researchers from the opposite side of the gender discourse. If certain strands of feminism can win intellectual debates about certain key issues, such as trans youth health care, then it could be another generation before those rights are won back.


Being intellectual for the sake of it is potentially solipsistic, which is why research needs to have societal impact. That the intellectual gender conversation has been dominated by radical exclusionary feminism is a sign that universities, and society at large, have been reluctant to allow non-cis scholars within their ranks in faculties of philosophy, sociology, and history. Trans activism is left in the public sphere, especially in the online spaces, with non-cis advocates often only wheeled out in opposition to establish feminist thinkers. Rarely do mainstream audiences hear trans academic voices who can speak with grounded authority that is not simply life experience. When J K Rowling speaks of her personal experiences it is hard to counter the narrative because of her position within society. All the cancelling of exclusionary feminists does not solve the intellectual problems non-cis folk face. People are still quoting Janice Raymond 40 years after she published The Transsexual Empire because there has been no credible non-cis academic publication that has impacted the mainstream.


This is why the philosophy of gender matters. If you want to achieve rights protests and court cases will win you the day, yet without the philosophical and academic underpinnings those rights are fragile and potentially reversed. Abortion, non-white civil rights, religious tolerance, prison sentencing and more all show that societal issues that impact billions of people are at the mercy of the State and public opinion. Gender equality is still an ongoing battle, with many of the key arguments dominated by self-interested academics who are entrenching a reactionary exclusionary mindset.


We all prefer complex ideas pared back to simple concepts, yet gender as a social construct, gender as biological chromosomal sex, and gender as internal identity are as complex as the societies we live in. Linguistically and philosophically, I argue it is the job of philosophers and academics to both simplify those complex ideas for wider consumption, while also engaging in the complexities in the academic discourse. Knee jerk, simple reactions to evolving gender concepts within wider society have left the academic discourse behind, and without weaving in those evolving ideas into the academic tapestry the reactionary exclusion will continue to entrench itself.


Linguistic precision, dense writing, and complex ideas have their place in the world, especially when you must unpack these evolving ideas. Yet, for all the required academic dexterity, there is a clear and urgent need to weave those ideas into the wider cultural conversation. Our narrative of hospitality must bridge the academic and the socially accessible, bringing the complexities of non-cis ideas and gender philosophy to all audiences. The problem of non-cis folk is not of non-cis folk making; rather, to paraphrase James Baldwin, the problems lie in the narrative and discourse created by cis folk. To overcome those barriers requires both simplicity of argument and complexity of ideas, and this is why my intellectual gender journey moves ever forward.

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