Printed in the Fall 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Kinney, Jay, "Gender Fender Bender: If Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus, Then Where Is Everyone Else From?" Quest 106:4, pg 14-17
By Jay Kinney
The last several years have seen an upsurge of attention to gender issues. Whether it has been the controversies over transgender bathroom policy, the heavily publicized transitioning of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner, or Facebook continually upping the number of gender identities that its members can choose from—they stood at seventy-one at last count—gender has commanded our attention at every turn.
Exactly how this came to be seems mysterious, especially for those of us who do our best to ignore celebrity news, social media, pop culture, most television, and the distant roar of the protests du jour. If one takes a sufficiently long perspective, “this too shall pass” becomes an abiding motto, although it is not exactly certain in the case of the current gender shakeup that any of it is going to be passing any time soon. Indeed, there are days when it seems like a more apt slogan would be “this too shall mutate.”
Once upon a time, things were simpler. They were so simple, in fact, that gender wasn’t even a word in most people’s vocabularies. Males and females were referred to as sexes, as in the male sex, the female sex, the fairer sex, the battle of the sexes, and so on. The default assumption was that one was born either male or female, and except for a tiny number of exceptions, such as hermaphrodites (now called intersex people), that was that.
Of course what that meant exactly was different from culture to culture and from era to era. A homesteading couple raising a family on the American frontier divvied up their respective roles differently than did their counterparts in, say, Samoa or the Hindu Kush. Yet overall there seemed to be a certain pattern of sex roles, shaped in part by the demands of propagating the human race.
Women had “motherly instincts” and “ticking biological clocks.” They gave birth to children and were inclined to nurture them and guide their development. Men were driven to venture out and bring back food or protect their mates and children from outside threats. Tradition and social pressure maintained these roles, and the human race survived.
Nature seemed to mirror this notion. For many birds, their mating rituals had clearly delineated male-female interactions. Anyone who lives in an urban area is likely familiar with puffed-up male pigeons strutting around trying to impress potential female mates. In earlier eras, when humans lived much closer to nature and observed how other species behaved, common sense suggested that humans and the animal kingdom shared certain patterns. The question of how those patterns arose was most often answered through scriptural examples, such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden or the pairs of animals on Noah’s Ark, or through biology, as rudimentary as that may have been at the time. The logical conclusion, given such assumptions, was that the male-female binary was both natural and normative.
The natural realm, at least as far as humans, other mammals, and most two-sex species were concerned, propagated itself through the mating of males and females and their inevitably resulting offspring. Whether this was due to inborn instincts, hormonal influences, chromosomes, or the divine rules of God’s Creation, it was a given that few were inclined to challenge.
Recent decades—since the ’60s, really— have seen a sea change regarding sexual and gender differences. For starters, some psychologists began to differentiate between what had been called sex—the sexual apparatus and characteristics with which one is born—and gender, the interplay of how one regards oneself sexually versus the roles and norms enforced by society.
This began to open up some space between the traditional biological categories of males and females (or men and women) and what it meant in a given culture to take on those identities. Animals and other fauna were assumed to be at the mercy of instincts, while humans, with the capacity for self-consciousness, were granted the agency to rise above the instinctual level and set their own path, individually or socially.
But this raised the question of how much one’s inclinations were a result of nature or nurture. In stark terms, was a baby born into this world already shaped by a genetic inheritance from its parents and ancestors, or was it a relatively blank slate subsequently influenced by its parents, environment, and society? The common sense answer was usually “some of both,” though some theories tilted strongly in one direction or the other.
For instance, after the Bolsheviks won the Russian Revolution, there was a conscious effort to create a new Soviet man and woman through the imposition of new socialist norms and an egalitarian infrastructure and society. I think it is safe to say at this late date that things did not pan out as planned.
Conversely, the theory behind educational experiments such as A.S. Neill’s Summerhill school had it that children’s innate curiosity and capacity for learning were crushed under conventional schooling and discipline. Remove such coercive structures, and over time children, with some benign guidance, would in effect school themselves. Here too success was elusive.
Indeed, if we look back to the mid-nineteenth century, which saw the first wave of American movements of utopianism and reform, the dream of human perfectibility was already a staple of progressive thought. The romantic conception of America itself, projected as a New Jerusalem or as some other idealistic vision, proved fertile ground for reformers who believed that society could be successfully remade along one model or another.
Feminism, socialism, abolitionism, spiritualism, diet reform, clothing reform, water cures, mesmerism, magnetic healing, temperance, and free love were espoused, practiced, and more often than not abandoned. Slavery was abolished at the cost of a civil war, but most of the other reforms failed to achieve liftoff and languished as niche beliefs or crank theories.
The grand dames of first-wave feminism, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rallied their supporters with the tacit assumption of women’s moral superiority. Women’s innate nature, they asserted, was to defend the innocent, to care after the sick, to be the embodiment of Christian charity. Such empathy, so valued in the home, was dearly needed in politics and society at large. By setting women on equal footing with men, the social order would be inevitably improved.
This assumption of an essential feminine virtue was counterposed to an assumed masculine brutishness, insensitivity, and dominance. This binary split of gender roles and behavior was carried over into the early theorizing of second-wave feminism in its radical break with the New Left at the end of the 1960s. But this break was more rhetorical than substantial. The male left was denounced, but the pattern of left analysis was maintained.
Utopia in Theory and Practice
The legacy of the departing left of the ’60s was the spread of its template of oppressor versus oppressed. Originally modeled on the Marxist theory of a working class oppressed by a capitalist ruling class, this Hegelian idea of dialectical conflict leading to eventual resolution and advance was applied to nearly every perceived social injustice and inequality. Women were oppressed by men; gays and lesbians were oppressed by heterosexuals; the disabled were oppressed by the able; and so on.
During the final decades of the twentieth century, these neatly binary oppositions subsided as a theoretical framework for reform. With the arrival of third-wave feminism in the early 1990s, a theory of intersectionality arose. It attempted to conceptualize the interaction between different “systems of power” and “the multiple layers of oppression” affecting the numerous victims of capitalism, imperialism, the patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and other rather abstract bogeymen. This resulted in an intricate dance of legal and social pressure seeking to end all oppressions within society through a push for equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Ironically, in the last two decades, corporate human-resource departments, governmental agencies, international NGOs, the military, and the mainstream media have all joined in this push. Perhaps they conclude that taking the path of least resistance is simply bowing to the inevitable and needn’t harm profits, power, or funding.
Nevertheless, the increasing speed of these changes has meant that no sooner has a victory over oppression in one quarter been celebrated than the philosophical and ideological framework behind it is shifted and new problems are discovered, requiring new adjustments.
The progression in the academic field of what is now called gender studies is a case in point. Originally an offshoot of women’s-studies departments, which were increasingly under pressure to ditch binary gender concepts, gender studies employed both feminist and postmodernist critical theory and phenomenology as its framework. Rejecting the essentialist philosophy of second-wave feminism, exponents such as Judith Butler questioned the common differentiation between an individual’s sex and their gender.
If I read Butler correctly (no easy matter, I have to say), the broad categories upon which early feminism was constructed, such as those of “men” and “women” or an assumed femaleness that all women share, are illusions that upon closer examination are revealed as “a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corporeal styles which, in reified form, appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes which exist in a binary relation to one another.” If one decouples gender from “sexual reproduction within the confines of a heterosexually-based system of marriage which requires the reproduction of human beings in certain gendered modes,” it becomes possible to free up gender into a multiplicity of styles and performances.
According to Butler, one’s default sense of self is a subjective fluctuating illusion caught up in a feedback loop with external, socially imposed roles and taboos, and not some unique essence such as a soul or, in Jungian terms, a Self. Therefore this fluctuating self exists as a blank slate of possibilities to be explored through performative acts. With enough repetition, you can become a new you—or at least free yourself from imposed concepts of gender. So the theory goes. Where this leads, nobody knows.
Gender theory assumes, or at least hopes, that it will lead to a greater freedom for all, to a throwing off of the oppressive shackles of binary conformity, to a world in which everyone can define themselves as they wish and can expect—or, if it comes down to it, demand—the respect of everyone else in doing so. But, like all utopian visions, the path to fulfillment is difficult, some would say impossible.
First, there’s the question of gender dysphoria, a psychiatric diagnosis that characterizes a subject’s alienation from his or her (or its or their) “sex” as a psychological disorder. Is someone who insists that they are “a woman born in a man’s body,” or vice versa, suffering from a mental illness, or is this person a pioneer of gender freedom? Do they need therapy or celebration?
Then again, consider the challenge of raising gender-free children, which until recently was not even a thing. If gender, as heretofore conceived, has been the result of the rather straightforward task of giving the newborn baby a cursory glance and shouting out joyously, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” well-meaning progressive parents are beginning to balk at such presumptions. Let’s not get too hasty here. Let’s hang loose until the little squirt makes its own determination.
And what determinations might those be? Some states’ vital statistics and birth certificates have bravely begun to offer a third option to the usual gender choice of an M box or F box: an X box. As reported in Newsweek, Washington state in 2018 provided this third option as “a gender that is not exclusively male or female, including, but not limited to, intersex, agender, amalgagender, androgynous, bigender, demigender, female-to-male, genderfluid, genderqueer, male-to-female, neutros, nonbinary, pangender, third sex, transgender, transsexual, Two Spirit, and unspecified.”
Mercifully, this is not a choice that the babe in arms (or its parents) has to make on the day of birth. Rather it is a catchall option that can be used to revise the birth certificate at some later date, perhaps years or decades in the future.
Nevertheless, as New York magazine noted in a recent report on gender-free children, we are increasingly witnessing the raising of “theybies”: babies whose gender designation is kicked on down the road until someone—the child itself, a proactive teacher, or perhaps a social worker—decides that things are settled enough that gender identity can be established.
Which is all very well, except for the growing number of transsexuals who decide, years later, that electing for surgery to transition to another sex (or is it gender?) was a big mistake that is not easily reversed.
Even among those who choose to shift their identification from one gender to another without surgical intervention, the question remains whether someone born “male” who chooses to identify as a woman, but who retains their penis, is truly a woman. Some old-fashioned radical feminists insist that simply declaring oneself a woman does not make it so. Rather, the sum total of one’s life experiences living in a female body and navigating the culture as a woman makes one a woman. Such naysayers have earned the epithet of TERF—trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
Unsurprisingly, some conservative thinkers have been reluctant to applaud these advances in gender freedom. Rod Dreher, a convert to Orthodox Christianity who blogs for The American Conservative, has gone so far as to describe them as “diabolical.” He exclaims, “It’s all unraveling. All that was solid and coherent is shattering into fragments. Wake up!”
That is perhaps returning tit for tat when gender theory would seem to dismiss the traditional perpetuation of the human race, sustained over millennia, as oppressive and coercive. Not everyone agrees that heterosexuality is a plague or that following the patterns of nature is retrograde.
Kåre Fog, a Danish Ph.D. in biology, recently criticized the broadly accepted theory within gender studies and other soft social sciences that gender is socially constructed. Analyzing citations and cited sources in multiple papers, books, and studies arguing for the social construction of gender, he found that evidence was repeatedly misconstrued or mistaken, and that in hard-science terms, the social construction of gender was unsupported. In other words, gender theory was just that: theory, and not an especially persuasive theory at that.
I will readily confess that I lay no claim to a better understanding of the present muddle than anyone else. By dint of living in San Francisco over the last forty-five years, I have arguably “seen it all,” or at least witnessed the eclipse of the counterculture, second-wave feminism, “divine decadence,” the peak of the AIDS crisis, and Marxist-Leninist optimism. If I live long enough, I may see the eclipse of gender theory.
It is a cliché—or perhaps a bit of hard-won wisdom—that the older one gets, the more one appreciates traditions and folkways that have withstood the test of time. The youthful impulse to tear it all down and start afresh begins to lose its allure, as the tally of radical, revolutionary, and utopian failures continues to mount. The passion for battle begins to appear more a product of youthful hormones and less a response to imminent disaster.
For all the flak they catch these days, the world’s religions and spiritual traditions have played a vital role in preserving those shards of ancient wisdom that might have otherwise faded into the mists of time. They are, no doubt, not to be followed blindly or literally, but sheer age commands its own respect.
H.P. Blavatsky was no stranger to the call of the past or to the tug of the future. By all reports, she pushed the gender boundaries of the late nineteenth century about as far as they could be pushed. Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in her New York parlor and abjuring most markers of femininity, she nevertheless upheld the importance of ancient wisdom and the past. Confronted with a world rapidly embracing materialism and dismissing the spiritual, she threw her weight behind the spiritual, encouraging those who listened to resist purely materialistic explanations for evolution, and to consider other occluded factors and causes.
One wonders what HPB would have made of our present juncture, where gender has become a zone of contestation, where unproven theories derived from French phenomenology and critical postmodernism have filtered down into shaping states’ vital statistics and birth certificates. In her day she spoke up strongly for the freedom and equality of women, but gender theory was not yet on the horizon.
If there is one motto that sums up the present age, I suspect it may be “if it can happen, it will happen.” Which is to say, if something can be conceived of, someone will do it.
Before modern surgical advances made male-to-female (or female-to-male) transitions possible, these remained fantasies that some entertained but none could realize. An extensive apparatus of transvestite and transsexual playacting fulfilled the performative impulse in traditional venues such as the gay tavern tradition of “Emperor and Empress” elections for most popular drag portrayals. Farther afield, two-spirit otherkin in more primitive cultures found socially sanctioned roles as shamans or other hypnagogic guides to liminal regions of consciousness.
Once surgical transitions from one sex to another became feasible, they became inevitable. As the motto of ACT UP, the gay anti-AIDS activist group, declared, “We’re here, we’re queer, deal with it.” To which most open-minded folks might respond, “OK, we’re dealing with it. What’s next?”
We can only hope that what’s next is a sincere effort all around to rebalance our present gender battles toward common sense rather than ultrautopian goals.
Jay Kinney was the founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. His book The Masonic Myth has been translated into five languages. He is a frequent contributor to Quest.