In this post I want to address skepticism about identity labels. I want to deal with people who say things like the following:
People shouldn’t have to identify as gay or straight or bi, they should just be people.
People shouldn’t identify as gay or bi because that’s defining yourself by who you want to sleep with. I don’t care about that, no one should care about that, and you shouldn’t be announcing it to everyone you meet. I don’t care about who you sleep with, just don’t shove it in my face.
If some transgender people don’t like the word ‘tranny’ and want to make me stop saying it, I should have the right to tell them to stop calling me ‘cis’, since I don’t appreciate that word. If everyone can protest a label they don’t like, then I refuse to be called ‘cis’. I don’t like to be called that, you’re oppressing me when you call me that.
If gender identification is just a social construct and has no basis in fact, then why do people bother to change their identification or alter their bodies in order to change their genders. If it’s just a fiction, why care so much about which fictional label you have. Why not just be however you like and refuse all constricting gender demands and all gender labels altogether?
Before addressing these specific problems, let me remind everyone of some basics about language.
According to the Global Language Monitor, there are more than a million English words. The Oxford Dictionary has 250,000 without even including slang words or jargon from the sciences, medicine, academia, etc. The Urban Dictionary has nearly 8 million definitions at present, with 2,000 added every day. And every day you and I will come across some new portmanteau, neologism, meme phrase, clever bit of slang, or some other form of wordplay that is tempting to pick up and start using because it encapsulates a particular phenomenon and gives it a word to store it in for easy access.
Why do we have so many words?
The answer is simple: without a word for a concept, it’s harder to think it. That’s because every time you think of a concept for which you have no word, you have to spell it all out. Every time you want to reference it in a conversation you have to say, “You know that feeling when…” or “You know circumstances like…” in order to convey your meaning. Then being understood hinges on your ability to describe something very particular and nuanced. It takes a lot of words and a lot of precision—especially when you’re trying to get at something really particular. It could take sentences, paragraphs, essays, books, or whole generations of discussions to nail down a particular concept or experience. But when we can finally nail down a feature of the world or an experience or a set of experiences with a single word or set of words and spread the them around, then everyone who hears the words can instantly get what we mean. The words mean being able to convey complicated concepts that would require several steps of thinking in just a handful of sounds and just a few sets of letters.
This is of course why academics and scientists and technical workers of all sorts have jargon. They’re not trying to be abstruse to outsiders (hopefully). It’s that by nailing down the sophisticated concepts their field has developed simple words they can easily remember and access them when speaking to each other. These words mean they can communicate with each other more easily and simply and fluently. And now that these sophisticated concepts are mastered and memorized as (to them) simple words, they can build off these settled concepts to work out the next stage of sophisticated understanding, leading to new complicated concepts which can themselves be mastered and simplified with easily memorizable words. And once the words are known, whole intricate concepts can be called to mind and held in mind at will where ordinary language would have required fumbling around vaguely trying to remember all the pieces and moves that make them up.
This is how technical languages build. While this process can make communications within advanced disciplines impenetrably esoteric to non-specialists, it’s invaluable to the advance of knowledge. The world is a much more complicated place than our shared everyday vocabulary can precisely describe with any ease or rapidity. The more we can penetrate into a complex realm (be it that of chemistry or economics or anatomy or philosophy, etc.) and investigate all its sophisticated contours, the more that we are going to have to make clear distinctions among the concepts and the things we come across in order to keep them straight in our minds. And this means a proliferation of words for the sake of mapping out all the intricacies of the phenomena we’re investigating.
And before we look at what all the labeling going on in the LGBT community is about, we have to keep something else in mind. Different human cultures make for extraordinarily varied human experiences. The contours of different cultures create wildly different social arrangements, ethical judgments, and self-understandings. Cultural practices take the raw biological and psychological materials that make us up and teach us to draw distinctions here but not there and to engage in these practices and not those. Through the very words a culture has or does not have at its disposal, certain aspects of experience become visible, invisible, or hard to see.
In every culture the everyday stock of words encode an everyday stock of distinctions that everyone is readily familiar with and defaults to. This means certain structures of reality are clear because they’re easily thought. Other structures of reality that the culture knows no word for are harder to instantly spot. Or if they are spotted, they are harder to articulate and understand. Because when experiencing these aspects of reality people in the culture don’t immediately say, “Ah ha! This is an x!” and simply slap on the label. No, instead, they have to go through a complicated process of saying “”You know that feeling when…” or “You know circumstances like…”
Which concepts you have words for and which ones you don’t can make a key difference in which objective features of reality you are able to see or not. Just as any inquirers into a technical field of science will only be able to see certain features of reality when they have systematically investigated them, refined their concepts with a high degree of specificity and given precise jargon names to each, so there are features of ordinary social and psychological life that can only be seen through technical investigations that go far beyond ordinary language and involve making highly specialized distinctions.
Now, two different cultures may have as their everyday set of concepts, ideas that to each other sound strange and incomprehensible. The one has the equivalent of a sophisticated academic jargon and conceptualization for areas of experience that the other barely differentiates at all. What are simple and basic everyday distinctions to one group are sophisticated nuances hard for another group to wrap their minds around.
And to further complicate things, human minds and societies are plastic. And so the jargon they build up is more like tech jargon than more descriptive forms of science jargon. The same ways that technology evolves to serve various purposes and the kinds of conceptual and linguistic distinctions that are made are influenced by the goals, priorities, and current shaping of the technology, is the way that societies build their social and psychological language with feedback to the social projects they are engaged in. In other words, societies are aiming at ordering themselves for certain goods. Those influence which concepts they’re interested in developing. And societies build what we might call “social technologies”. That is, they develop a huge range of practices. Some of these are explicitly prescribed. Others just become implicit habits. Many are some hybrid between the two.
The practices that societies develop profoundly influence the shape in which they experience their social and personal natures as people. The language they organically evolve for describing human society or personal psychology or economic designations or social authorities or political structures or family relations or sexuality or ethics or gender are not going to be scientifically neutral, simple descriptions of the way the world simply is. In most cases unreflective descriptions of these various kinds of relationships are going to be descriptions that happen within the “social tech” (the social practices) they’ve built up for organizing all these things.
There may be other ways to organize them that are better “social technologies”, better ways of ordering society, politics, family, sexuality, ethics, economics, etc. for the ends they really care about. If they could get out of the “tech” they’re already using, go back to the “science” of the basic dynamics of these things and get back in touch with their potential for plasticity, they might be able to conceive alternative “tech” strategies, i.e. alternative social practices for accomplishing these basic goals. To do that though means going against the grain of their received everyday, tech-based, descriptions of the world that they readily confuse for reality itself.
Now before we get to the LGBT applications, let’s look at the third crucial element to keep in mind. Cultures, from time immemorial, have not been defining their concepts with an open-minded, scientifically rigorous perspective, interested only in the simple truth of reality. They’ve been engineering their social and political and psychological concepts in particular with an eye towards practices that lead to flourishing. Which is good. But many of the social concepts developed have not been determined by an inclusive interest in everyone’s flourishing. Rather, just as the winners write the history books, those who are economically or politically or socially or religiously most dominant have had inordinate influence in defining social practices in ways that serve their own interests. In turn, since “everyday” concepts about these matters are shaped in people’s minds by the practices they live within, the concepts that reinforce dominant classes’ power become seen as common sense reality itself.
This happens both explicitly and implicitly. Sometimes the dominant deliberately engineer in their own favor the practices and resultant language stemming from them. More often it seems that it’s just the natural trickle down effect of dominance. And of course what is more common in people will have an inevitable dominating effect. In matters where the elites are not skewing perceptions through their dominance, simple majority tendencies will influence what practices are typical and then seen to be part of nature itself for being so “normal”. In this way the normal, in the sense of typical, becomes readily conflated with the normative, in the sense of ideal. (See my post From Normal to Normative, Human Minds’ Conformist Conservative Prejudice for more on this theme.)
So, in this context, we have LGBT people and the proliferation of labels and distinctions and jargon related to them.
What we non-LGBT people need to understand is that our received, everyday language that most of us grew up with only very selectively makes distinctions for us in the realms of sexuality and gender. Just as our everyday language only skims the surface of the deep and complicated world that science investigates, well so does it only skim the surface of a multifarious realm of possibilities in sexuality and gender. And thanks to religious repressiveness related to sex and simplistic essentialism related to gender, we spent millennia barely plumbing the complexities of what is actually possible in our psychologies and social arrangements. And, again, since these are matters that inevitably our cultures construct our thinking about in a million subtle, untraceable ways, to think of them with a scientific kind of rigorousness and detachment we have to be aware that our social practices are shaping our thinking in the first place.
So not only do we need to struggle to move from the everyday to the more technically scientific, we need to extricate ourselves from a set of practices and ethical norms stacked in favor of both the dominant and the usual in order to pay attention to that which we are outright biased against seeing.
So, when you say, “what are all these silly words–”homosexual”, “bisexual”, “transgender”, basically what you’re saying is “My personal social and psychological experience and needs have no use for these distinctions. All I need to think about is a simple dichotomy between men and women. And I am served best by a world in which only men and women marry and in which we only talk about sex between men and women. Or in which we never talk about sex at all, even. So, everybody else shut up about your alternate experiences that have nothing to do with me.”
Do you hear how self-centered and self-serving that sounds?
With gays who are biphobic or transphobic, the problem is slightly different. The objection sounds more like this:
Since I am definitely not straight, no one who is attracted to members of the same sex can possibly be truly attracted to members of the opposite sex. So bisexuals don’t exist.
Since I used to hide my homosexuality by dating members of the opposite sex, that must be what bisexuals do.
Since I could not choose to be with a member of the opposite sex and it was excruciatingly painful when people tried to tell me I could make that choice, no bisexuals who actually in theory could make that choice can actually exist.
Since my being a more effeminate man or a more butch woman didn’t mean I wasn’t still a man or still a woman, no one’s gender non-conformity amounts to being transgender.
Again, do you hear the closedmindedness? The myopia? The self-centeredness? The arbitrariness?
For millennia we had men having sex with and loving men and women having sex with and loving women. And yet we didn’t have a word “homosexual” until the 19th Century—let alone a whole conceptualization of a “sexual orientation” until even after that. The language was shaped by heterosexuals. It was shaped by people who for the most part identified with the genders they were assigned at birth. And so our practices were shaped around man-woman love and sex. They were shaped around an illusory ironclad fact of nature that one could not possibly have a gender that was misaligned with their sex organs. For millennia it seems like at least some men who enjoyed sex with men so bought into the heteronormative schema that they would see little contradiction or feel little consternation between simply marrying a woman in order to have children and fulfill the ideal of a man in their culture while just as simply having sex with men on the side. For centuries the language groped around without a clear definition of the sexual orientation of homosexuality.
Today, the concept that there are different sexual orientations seems natural and intuitive. People who enjoy love and sex exclusively with members of the same sex are an obvious and plain as day reality to all but the most obstinate, literally religiously dogmatic, bigots. But it was so unclear in prior eras–even as everyone knew some same sex sexual activity was happening–that clear words and conceptual frameworks and explicit practices and identities were for the most part lacking.
Gays having words to name their feelings and developing a community and a jargon to explicate all the features of their real experience was crucial to understanding themselves. I have a friend who grew up gay in the ’50s and didn’t even know a word for what he was feeling. Imagine that, my straight friends. Instead of growing up as you did–with a million love songs and attending weddings and observing your parents and seeing heterosexual couples everywhere and being given on a platter all these cultural forms to guide you in imagining how to fulfill your sexual and love longings–imagine growing up as my friend did, without even a word for being gay and thinking he might be the only one who felt that way at all.
When the gay community finally arose as an explicit, out of the closet, cultural force, it brought with it words to name the experiences so many gay people shared. The community created concepts, debated what the ideal practices for gay people might look like. Must they take the same forms as straight relationships? Do the same ethical and social and psychological relationships that straights in their culture were wedded to be the ones they should idealize? What was the path to their own fulfillment? What sorts of new institutions might they benefit more from?
Remember, society is a tech project, not just a science one. It’s something malleable. Something we can experiment with. And the redefinitions we do are not a “denial of biology” and a mythic “biological determinism”. The redefinitions of our social relationships are not a denial of nature. Our biological and psychological nature is precisely to be plastic on the cultural level. Of course there are limits to our plasticity. And there are limits to what cultural forms we can experiment with that will actually accomplish our ultimate goals of both maximizing our potential as humans and living satisfying lives.
But when you see new challenges to sexual or gender arrangements, if your first inclination is to say, “well biological dimorphism exists so this is clearly an attempt to deny basic biology” then you’re not thinking. You’re being dogmatic. You’re trying to evade the hard work of proving that only the existing conceptualizations of gender or sexuality are workable frameworks for describing reality and the best tech for structuring social reality by trying to pretend that the currently dominant social way of doing things is the innate and only way to order things.
But that’s palpably false. Cultures have workably varied in how they’ve sliced up social arrangements in a dizzying number of ways. Some have been for the worse, some for the better. Some differences are objectively a better kind of tech for their particular environmental or social circumstances in their very particular time and place. Some differences have objectively failed the cultures that adopted them.
What’s happening when transgender people or gay people or bisexuals or polyamorists or any of a number of identifiably differently inclined people come forward and start trying to explicate the contours of their experience is they are trying to do as all sciences do. They’re trying to say, hey, we have hit upon a whole set of realities and experiences ill-described in ordinary language and we’re developing a language that does justice to them.
While the new words will sound to those without those different experiences as some attempt to turn reality on its head, there is no difference in principle between developing a language to describe your experiences of sexuality and gender than developing a language to describe economics or chemistry.
When people feel so threatened and defensive over new words like “cis” or the articulation of bi people’s experiences, what they’re doing is defending the social conceptualizations that serve themselves as being the only kinds there are, rather than expanding the concepts to include others on a par with them.
To take an analogy. When Christians started talking about religions, they didn’t want to think of Christianity as just another religion. Christianity was just Christianity. It was the path to salvation. It was the revelation of God. What other people had were “religions”. It was knocking Christianity off its place of privilege to make it just another religion.
When non-transgender people bristle at the word “cisgender” being coined to describe them they’re doing something similar. Many cisgender people just want to go on assuming they’re “just normal”. They want to be the default. “There’s normal people like us, and then on the margins some deviations from normal that get their own names.” Setting up the world like that means the fundamental taxonomy prioritizes you and how you are and makes everyone else just a deviation from you.
Whereas saying “there are transgender and cisgender people” is equalizing. And uncontroversially factual, helpful, descriptive of a real phenomenon. There are some people who want to identify with the gender they were assigned with birth and they’re cisgender. There are some people who find themselves identifying more with a different gender than they were assigned from birth and want to outwardly express that. They’re transgender. Two concepts. It’s perfectly right to give two words. That’s the scientific thing to do. To say, “there’s normal people like me who we don’t even need to classify as anything but normal” is not to be clear. It’s to avoid understanding yourself on a common spectrum with those who are struggling to articulate their experience on the margins of society.
Again, it was only in very recent decades and centuries that it would have been weird and bizarre to “heterosexual” people to have a “heterosexual” or “straight” identity. Again, it could have just been “normalcy”. But, by now, most people have come to see that as perfectly fine and ordinary and clear to helpfully distinguish those who are homosexual from those who are heterosexual. That change happened because enough time using these new (and better) categories made things clearer.
But then the bisexuals start speaking up. And, tragicomically, even gay people are straining their brains to conceive of their true existence, accepting their testimonies about their experience as real, etc., etc.
Again, as I described above, it all becomes about me, me, me. Heterosexuals oh so conveniently incapable of wrapping their minds around homosexuals for a long time before they were finally acknowledged as a common sense, ordinary, easily conceivable, biologically real set of people. So now it’s heterosexuals and homosexuals acting all uncomprehending about bisexuals. It’s cisgender people gawking in puzzlement about transgender people.
The way to make all of this less strange is to stop going, “Bah! These new words are bullshit!” but instead to just learn them. Just use them. Just start thinking within them.
Again, the language has over a million words. But bisexual and cisgender come along and the response is, “What’s with all this new word making! Go home, New Words! We just closed. We’re already filled up with enough words. If only you had gotten here a half hour earlier.”
Again, science and academia and technological fields and subcultures of all sorts invent new words to make real distinctions clearer all the time. There is no reason that the sexual orientation and gender experiences of 6 billion people should be boiled down to an easy two that everyone has to cram themselves into because suddenly we’re people who cannot fathom anyone inventing a new word! Oh the unnaturalness of such a thing! Don’t we realize that nature only consists of things we have everyday language words for?
Naming the gender types, the sexual orientation types, the sexual interest types even, in all their beautiful diversity helps us think better. It helps us acknowledge more realities and account for them with better social practices so that the people who don’t fit into one or two current everyday categories are now taken into account. Having words for these differing people at the tip of our tongue, reminds us they exist at all. Refusing the words for them. Refusing the conceptualizations of their experience they offer us is an attempt to erase their existence. It’s an attempt to make it harder for us to remember them or think about them. It will make it harder for us to take any interest in their thriving.
The conditions of their thriving may be different than ours. Denying them labels to describe themselves or their experiences will make it harder for us to meet their needs.
And this is why transgender people care about gender “even though it’s a social construct”. We all live through social constructs. They’re the social technologies we have for ordering life. We can’t deal with a completely undifferentiated mass of experiences. We need to break things down. “This is this” and “that is that”. We inevitably have to devise institutions and group designations and systems of economics and systems of government and systems of education and systems of family, etc., etc.
Humans need cultural forms to express themselves through. There is no simple expression of the self that does not mediate itself through language and practices.
So opting out of gender altogether is as futile a suggestion for many people as opting out of money or family or citizenship or romantic-partnering would be. Gender’s a major kind of social technology cultures around the world develop.
Transgender people are simply those who feel like the way their particular culture constructs genders, they would feel more comfortable identifying and expressing themselves in the opposite gender of the one they were assigned at birth according to their sex organs. The simplest way I have to grasp this is the following:
Any given culture will cluster together a whole set of characteristics as typical of one gender and another set as typical of another. These are loose clusters. There’s a lot of room for overlap. There’s a lot of room for versions of one thing in a “feminine” way and the same thing in a “masculine” way. Most people feel comfortable that they are mostly the gender everyone expects them to be, based on their genitalia. They feel comfortable enough with enough of the cluster of traits expected of them. They express them well enough according to others’ expectations that they feel basically understood by others. They may want to expand what’s seen as permissible for people of their gender. They may want to present themselves in ways the other gender is more expected to without experiencing judgment. That’s all great. Gender shouldn’t be a straitjacket for anyone. But for these cisgender people, they still fundamentally feel like they belong to the gender everyone assumes they would.
For transgender people, it’s something like an experience where the cluster of traits that resonate and which they want to express most naturally are too much more in line with the gender people don’t expect from them. And so people their whole lives are expecting (even demanding) they constantly express themselves outwardly at odds with how they feel inwardly. And if they can start expressing themselves according to the norms and forms their culture has set up for the opposite gender, they will feel more it all comes more naturally to them and they will be understood by others more naturally for what they’re truly feeling on the inside.
Trans people are trying to fit themselves the best they can into the cultural forms available and re-tailor those forms to their own needs.
They’re not trying to overturn “the natural order”. There’s a long long long road from biological dimorphism to “women should be the ones who paint their faces and wear pink and speak more languidly and if you are born with a penis you may never think of doing all these things”.
What clusters of traits are viewed as masculine or feminine really is more fluid than our myopic tendency to conflate our particular social order with biology itself misleads us to believe.
Transgender people can’t overthrow the entirety of gender construction. It’s unfair to them to demand that of them with pedanticism about what their denial of fixed genders should entail when instead you can simply take them at their word that they feel more comfortable and more able to express themselves by identifying in this new way rather than what was foist on them by society’s simplistic demand that “penises require these highly socially arbitrary traits” and “vaginas require these other highly socially arbitrary traits”.
Finally, two last pieces to fill in. Gay people are not “shoving their sex lives in your face” when they identify as gay. They’re not telling you about their weird bedroom kink. They’re owning something much more central to their identity. Homosexuality is not just a bedroom taste. For gays and bisexuals it is as core to who they are as heterosexuality is to straight people. We straight people consider our romantic partners fundamentally important to our lives. Whether or whom to marry is a fundamental question to straight people. A wedding is, far from a hidden private issue, one of the central public rites most people have. People’s marriages are the relationships they most discuss. Whole families are built around them. Because romantic love and sex are not trivial parts of the self. And gays demanding to be able to be just as public about their homosexual love relationships or their desire for such are not describing the specific manner in which they have sex to you any more than straight people are. Just like straight people they’re telling you what kinds of people they generally engage with for romantic love and sex. Straight people “say” this equally as much when they simply mention their romantic partners or their desire for one. And no one flips out. Because it’s not sexually explicit. It’s mundanely open about an important aspect of their lives that contributes to their identity. Same with gays.
So, no, gays are not defining their entire selves by who they have sex with. Just as romantic and sexual orientation are important components of an identity for a straight person that do not entirely define them, so gay people can make their sexual orientation identity a part of their self-expression without that entirely defining them. And they have needed to do this in order to band together and find others who share their experience so they can help conceptualize it for themselves and express it to others.
Saying, “I wish we didn’t have to worry about it and could just treat people as people” is not supportive. It effectively translates to “I don’t need to talk about homosexuality. It’s not a big deal to me so no one needs to talk about it.” Again, this is remarkably self-centered, self-serving, and possibly a cover for homophobia. Gay people need to talk about their identity because otherwise they won’t have anywhere near the equivalent of help working out their identity that you have from mainstream heteronormative culture, which you take for granted. They need to talk about their identity because millions of gay kids are (or were) bereft of gay role models that could serve the role a million heterosexual role models served for you, which you take for granted. They need to identify publicly because their rights are still threatened or non-existent in some areas. Congratulations on your self-absorbed dream of a day when no one has to care about identity labels. All your bleating on about that tells me is you don’t care about where gays are now and what they need to do to empower themselves now. Because where they are they need more visibility, not less. And they don’t need you suggesting their visibility and their efforts to normalize their identity culturally are somehow a problem.
And one last word about self-identifications. When cis people get huffy about being told not to call transgender people “tranny”, they’re refusing to acknowledge that this word–whatever benign origins it might have had–is often used as a slur. It’s often used by abusive people. Therefore it’s heard as an abusive term by many transgender people. Telling them not to hear it that way, instead of respecting their wishes that you not use it, just says you also don’t care about them and making them feel safe. You are more obsessed with your legal right to use any word you want (even when your legal rights are not in question, but just the ethics of using the word) than you are with signaling you’re one of the people that wants to support transgender people rather than hurt them.
As Das Janssen pointed out in a guest post last week, slurs serve a function. They express hate. It’s good we have some words designated as slurs. It lets the bigots show themselves. If you want to support a group of people, one of the ways you do so is you avoid the words that are being used to denigrate them. Not because words are “magic”. But because one of the functions words have is to express hatred or to marginalize or dehumanize someone. Anyone with a minimal comprehension of linguistics should understand not all words simply designate facts. Some express hatred. And demanding an emotional invulnerability to expressions of hate rather than people not express hate in the first place is to side with the hateful people over their targets. Words can hurt people. That’s not a weakness of those people. It’s the way we’re psychologically constituted. It’s one thing to say people shouldn’t get hurt over differences of ideas. It’s another to say they shouldn’t be hurt by words that are hateful in their basic linguistic function given the conventions of our society.
And cis is not a hate word. If cisgender people don’t like being called it, it’s because they don’t like being criticized by trans people and they’re usually hearing it in contexts of trans people explaining the myriad ways cis people are inconsiderate of them. Cis is not a slur. It wasn’t devised that way, it doesn’t usually function that way. Sure, some trans activists are hateful abusive people. Hateful abusive people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, sexual orientations, and gender orientations. But the word “cis” is at its core simply descriptive and needs to catch on for the reasons I enumerated before. While the “Die Cis Scum!” meme is unfortunate, there’s hardly the rash of murders of cis people by trans people that there is by cis people of trans people. The far more routine murders and verbal abuse of trans people by cis people who call them “trannies” is what makes “tranny” a word associated with hatred and violence. Cis is for the most part just a helpful distinction concept. It’s not uniquely or predominantly a slur. If you’re feeling the sting of always hearing cis in critical contexts, it’s better to start listening to all the ways trans people are frustrated and think of what (usually incredibly minimal) changes you could make to simply accommodate their frustrations and make their lives exponentially easier. That’s more productive than whining that they have “heaven forfend!” devised a word to describe you that isn’t “normal”.