The Fallacy of Categorical Gender
It is undeniable that as we traverse the bureaucratic hurdles of contemporary society, we are expected to categorize our sense of self wherever possible.
The image of the ‘male/female’ gender tick boxes have become more politically charged than many could have ever anticipated; but it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a matter of the labels on the boxes that have made them so controversial in 2018. Arguably, it is the very presumption of gender as a categorical variable that should be called into question.
When I wrote my master’s thesis, Gender Anarchists, Gender Impostors, I wanted to address the perceptions of genderqueer and nonbinary individuals as anarchists. It is an issue that I do not have one specific stance on- I do of course believe that all queer bodies are inherently anarchistic and dissenting simply due to the nature of the spaces which we inhabit and how those spaces are designed to resist our presence. That said, anarchism is so often an issue which brings into question agency, action and intended engagement; so many queer individuals do not wish to exist as a space of anarchism- it is not a choice we make. What I am certain of is that genderqueer and nonbinary individuals are considered particularly anarchistic because we are not do not align with an assigned category, nor do we wish to transition into one. I am not here to argue for the existence of these identities- if you are looking for evidence surrounding the pervasive, consistent and enduring nature of these identities, I recommend ‘The archaeology of nonbinary genders in Native North American societies’ by Sandra Hollimon as an excellent start. What I am here to discuss is the oddity of categorical measures for a matter which is decidedly non-categorical; the human psyche.
So little of identity can be considered categorical- Psychology as a field of research is both limited by and liberated by the mystery of ‘individual differences’; the continual, reliable variation of one person from another. Even within matters of psychopathology, research is now encouraging us to adjust our understanding of mental illnesses in order to account for how often symptoms can resist specific categories. Schizophrenia is a perfect example, as under the revisions for the DSM-V, all subtypes of schizophrenia were removed from the manual. Diagnosis for mental illness is determined by behaviours- consistent and specific actions which are demonstrative of an underlying influence. On this basis, one must query why it is that gender is considered categorical at all when there is so little behaviourally that can be depended on for ‘classifying’ gender identity? There is no criteria for that gendered behaviour is. When we think of what gendered behaviour is, we think of gender roles or stereotypes; concepts that are so culture-bound and atavistic that their application across the entire world’s population feels laughably overambitious.
If we operate on the not-so-radical assumption that sex and gender are no longer (or never were) synonymous, then it becomes evident how bizarre the question of gender is on most documentation anyways. Unquestionably, there are documents that require information about biological sex- of those that do actually require this information, they are almost exclusively medical forms. However, when we begin to address the supposed necessity of gender boxes, we begin to, figuratively and literally, unbox what it means to exclusively identify as male or female. What are the parameters, the four walls of these little boxes that determine that which is inherently fe/male? I refer with great respect to Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (an essential read for any advocate of queer rights/gender rights/ any human) - so little of what we consider to be innate and immutable in gender is in fact spectral. At the core of Fine’s writing is the arguments surrounding the male behaviour that emerges from testosterone levels within the body- but so often do we forget that testosterone is not the beloved property of men and men alone. Behaviour related to testosterone levels is also evident in women, and though this behaviour may indicate some measurable sex difference between behaviour and, in turn, testosterone levels, this behaviour becomes an oft-overlapping position on a bell curve rather than two opposing and inverse outputs. For example, some research has found that the effect on ‘masculine’ bargaining behaviour for women who believe that they have received a dose of testosterone can be higher if it is a placebo than if they do in fact receive said testosterone (Eisenegger et al, 2010). Our perceptions of what determines our gender (and thus gendered behaviour) may in fact be more influential than the very biology we believe to be determining it.
So if that behaviour is not divisible into two categories, what truly is the value of this information? In a world where queerness is becoming increasingly visible, undeniable and influential, how does it benefit any business’s marketing to divide their clients down the middle? What information can truly be presumed from how one individual or another may have to stuff themselves, with spillage and irregularity, into the four-walled tick box of male or female? I would argue, only that which is learned. Only that which is conditioned can be presumed, and loosely. Queer bodies, inter/transnational bodies, bodies who resist any impositions of what authentic gender means within ‘western’ culture, cannot be marketed to based on that binary. The incompatibility with the self and the concept of the categorical is undeniable; how we measure people, and how we should and shouldn’t measure people, is central to how we proceed from here. An audit of the tools that are used to define the parameters of the person is well overdue- and whether, ethically, we should be using them at all.
Eisenegger, C., Naef, M., Snozzi, R., Heinrichs, M., & Fehr, E. (2010). Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour. Nature, 463(7279), 356.