Today in "Let's All Remember to Breathe," we have this gem from The Washington Examiner. In it, author Stella Morabito loses her shit because now she has to consider whether gender is a thing or not.
Her problem is that the Maryland Senate will likely pass House Bill 235, adding discrimination protections for transpeople, essentially. Let's quote:
The most interesting and Orwellian thing about this bill – and so many like it across the nation -- is its stealthy use of language to redefine our humanity.
OH REALLY? Hang on a sec, folks. I need to go scream into a pillow so that I can write about this with some kind of rational thought.
The only way I can find into this is to go back to queer theory and gender theory and talk about how language has been used to define our humanity all along. That's Jacques Derrida's whole project, right? So this lady, Morabito, is hung up on the word "assigned." We'll come back to that in a minute. First I want to talk about "gender."*
Morabito is upset that this whole concept of assignment "requires everyone to accept the idea that our sex is a social construct, relative and changeable, and to reject it as a genetic or a physical fact."
Well, exactly. Some people separate "sex" from "gender," because "sex" implies "assigned at birth," or the reproductive organs a person has or doesn't have. This is clearly tricky for intersex people, so we already know it's not so simple. Then we have Gender, which is a language, a meaning system that comes with symbols and rules and punishments. Derrida criticized language's built-in problems, because it tends to favor sameness through naming the things that are common to a speech community. Therefore, anything unique or private goes unnamed. One of the most private things is our sense of our own bodies and our gender experiences, so language, with its inherent and deliberate limitations, can be inaccurate to many peoples' experiences.
But the thing is, language works through exclusion. By that I mean, we have created the meaning of "woman" by excluding everything that is non-woman - same thing for "man." Anything that doesn't fit into the templates for the entirely masculine or entirely feminine is excluded. Because the meaning of "woman" or "man" depends on excluding what is Not "woman" or "man," this binary is unstable. We know that it is unstable, because the things that signify masculine and feminine have shifted over time. It is now possible for women to develop ripped arms or carry guns and still be feminine. But because our social Discourse is so invested in these binaries, we have to move them and redraw the lines. [I'm using Gee's definition of Discourse here: basically, collective understandings or patterns of behavior - I posted more on that here, and also read Emma's amazing comment.] Now it's hot for a woman to have big muscles or, hell, play a contact sport like roller derby. In 1950, do you think a female construction worker could still find a space in "feminine"? No.
So we can see that these binaries are false, and that language already has been defining humanity. Morabito isn't picking up on anything new here, she's just demonstrating her straight cis privilege. She's never noticed how our social Discourses have been operating to keep people corralled into one gender identity or another, with only two acceptable options. It goes beyond this, though. Bodies that queer the act of gender through combining meaning are excluded altogether - people who identify as butch, trans, intersex, etc.
I think Morabito thinks that language just describes the real world. It's all out there, and we have these handy words to define things, but language is not so easy or transparent. There are no positive or affirming - or even neutral - words in the Discourse for those who don't fit the stereotypes or the binary. Language is political. It is meant to work against you in these circumstances. Riki Wilchins describes this "fascism of meaning" as "an assault of meaning that forces people to live as gendered impossibilities." If there is no language for you that affirms you, you don't really exist.
Morabito is worried about the word "assigned." She's really concerned because this means that it isn't inherent, has never been inherent, that M and F have been choices forced upon us. She's exactly right about that. She and I just differ as to our reactions to this. I think changing gender from a check-box to a text field is a great idea. She sees it as a threat to her identity, as though she couldn't continue to refer to herself as a woman. No one is trying to take that away from her, but she sees these things as zero-sum. If we get to have freedom from gender binaries, she loses the construct she is so invested in.
Her closing argument is this:
Most insidious about this legislation is that by acting to redefine the humanity of us all, it is a gross violation of the trust of the governed.
Again: The gender Discourses we already have define and redefine our humanity. And she does it here, too: the governed, in her mind, apparently only include the people invested in the binaries. Everyone else isn't among the governed, isn't among the people. Who is redefining humanity now?
* If this is all new to you, go read Riki Wilchin's Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, like right fucking now.