Okay, Maybe There Are Only Two Genders
A conservative backlash to the demands of gender diversity asserts there can only be two genders. Okay, I’ll concur: only two genders. Perhaps not the two they had in mind .
I understand the backlash among conservatives to gender diversity. It’s one thing to come around to accepting gender as something more nuanced than first glance. It’s quite another to insist foundational systems of thinking must be turned on a dime to accommodate a sliver of a minority—which I’m also a part.
For the record, my “preferred personal pronoun” is my name, since I don’t fit categories very well. If someone casually misgenders me, I read the context as fast as they can read my gender. I may chuckle or feel annoyed, but I quickly move on. But if someone intentionally misgenders me, I promptly process the annoyance by ascribing that person to a useful category: “asshole.” And then I move on, avoiding them like all other self-outing assholes.
What do you understand?
But get this. Not all conservatives who stumble over pronouns are assholes or jerks. I get how hard it can be to keep track of it all. It’s enough to dismiss common courtesies without rejecting them just “political correctness.” Wasn’t it just yesterday they were getting used to the idea of trans people NOT all being “child recruiting predators” ? (I still live under the weight of that sexually projected violence.)
Since it’s harder to respect trans people on trans peoples’ terms, it’s can be easier to dismiss them all as mentally ill (which is not the simple binary category popularly presumed, if you check your DSM history). If you struggled your whole life to avoid being killed or violently ostracized, you’d be “mentally ill” too with anxieties and depression. Let’s not confuse the cart with the horse.
Allies mean, well, well
Just because you hear some incredible demands for how to properly respect gender non-binary persons, that doesn’t mean non-binary trans people cannot exist. Activists involved in anti-oppression politics mean well, but they cannot speak for me and my specific trans experience until they first speak to me. It’s great to have allies, but.
I think of anti-oppression politics as progressive ally culture on steroids. They can be stretched so thin that they lose perspective, and then slide into stereotypes that go against what we trans people actually need. Throwing epithets of “SJW” and “snowflakes” falls beneath my moral standards, so I won’t stoop that low. I will say that I need any ally of mine to stop feeding the conflict by pretending only our needs matter and the needs of politically others don’t. They do.
I need to respect the needs on all sides
Justice can only prevail when the needs on all sides receive their due respect. The need for the red-state local person to provide for their own security at the most locally intimate level is just as legitimate as the need of the blue-state urbanite relying on federally enforceable nondiscrimination codes to protect their security as a historically exploited minority.
Conflict is sexy, so it can be easier to jump to a fight than to relate more honestly and vulnerably to each other’s impacted needs. And it’s not about compromise, it’s about love. We are not objects for creating policies, rather policies are objects created for our diversely experienced needs.
It’s less about agreeing or disagreeing, and more about understanding the diverse experiences shaping each other’s contrasting needs. Political conflict is too often fake, or at least premature. We can debate how to public policies best serves each other’s needs, but the needs themselves exist with or without agreement. Reality itself does not submit to your democratic vote.
You believe what you need to believe
For those struggling to hold the line on meaningful traditions, like the time-honored cohesion of the family unit, gender diversity understandably feels like an unacceptable threat. It’s hard enough to remember how to properly respect the “opposite sex,” so it’s easier to dismiss the idea of many gender identities. To them it’s just, you know, “identity politics” gone amok.
Their simple answer is to return to tradition, and loudly proclaim “there are only two genders.” Okay, let’s ride with that. As a trans person myself, I now concur there are only two genders. Yeah, I said it. But stay with me now.
Two, divided by love
First, there is the deeply-aware-gender. This is the gender recognized by those who’ve spent their whole lives reflecting on its nuances. Others studiously encounter gender identity and its expression as more historically driven sociocultural constructs, even if they admit it’s seeded from biologically-based gender differences. Their lives naturally challenge the arbitrariness of what others generalize as fitting neatly into gender categories. Their deeper experience of gender can never let them go back to the naiveté of the oversimplified gender binary.
Then there is the superficially-aware-gender. This is the gender of those who never have to give much thought about their own masculinity or femininity. For them, it just is. It sits there comfortably in the background like harmony to their life’s single melody. Biological essentialism provides them a seemingly tidy and sane explanation, so all others must be biased. Right? “Damnant quod no intelligunt.” (That’s Latin for “they condemn what they do not understand".) Or is it bias when they insist they know more about gender than those who have experienced its intricacies all their lives?
Both sides needing love
There is some middle ground to be found between these sides, but it’s mostly invisible. Conflict illuminates the more visible two: deeply-aware-gender and superficially-aware-gender. So if we want to jump to conflict, there are only these two genders.
Behind all conflict sits unresolved needs. Ignoring each other’s impacted needs keeps these fights burning in vain. As a deeply-aware-gender person, I pledge to respect the needs of all superficially-aware-gender folks and invite them to respect mine. I do not degrade you because you can take your gender experiences for granted, even if you’re dismissive of my more nuanced experiences. Because at the end of the day, no matter what gender you are, the only enduring answer grows from love.
Steph Turner serves as the instructor in Defusing Polarization: Understanding Divisive Politics. It critiques both sides of the political spectrum, while appreciating both sides. The course dares to replace hateful animosity with loving understanding, no matter what your views on gender.