Does Gender Exist in Isolation?
“GENDER IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT!” I don’t know if this ever-present trans rallying cry has been yelled from a rooftop, but I wouldn’t doubt it. From Judith Butler’s theorizing to the ways that gender non-conformists are harassed online and on the street, it is clear that, instead of being intrinsic to our genitals, many aspects of gender are created relationally. But what comes of the societal notion of gender when no one’s looking, when you are all alone? To what extent does gender exist beyond the interpersonal realm?
It’s probably not surprising that this question came to the forefront of my mind during this time of increased isolation, undertaken in response to the novel Coronavirus (just in case someone is reading this in such a distant future that the context isn’t clear). But it was only upon reading Andrea Long Chu’s 2019 book, Females, that I found the framing I needed to write this essay.
Commit to the Bit
I’ve tried writing out a fuller introduction to my thoughts before before diving into a critique of Chu’s book, but I continue to find that my own views are best expressed in contrast to hers. So, I’m going to dig right in. In Females, Chu argues for a new conceptualization of gender, one in which every person is understood as female. For the purposes of her proposed theory, she uses the word ‘female’ to mean “any physic operation in which self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.” In essence, we are all submissive to the dominance of societal norms and expectations.
It’s a bold enough idea to grab a reader’s attention, and it certainly held mine. Self-aware about how absurd her argument may at first sound, Chu uses an analogy to address potential doubts about her sincerity:
“In stand-up comedy, a bit is a comic sequence or conceit, often involving a brief suspension of reality. To commit to the bit is to play it straight — that is, to take it seriously. A bit may be fantastical, but the seriousness required to commit to it is always real. This is the humorlessness that vegetates at the core of all humor. That’s what makes it funny: the fact that for the comic, it isn’t.”
As she writes on, Chu keeps her promise to play it straight, doing her best to convince the reader of her thesis, no matter how bold. I was engaged, and entertained, for about the first third of the 94-page book, ready to explore whatever weirdness that the author wanted to suggest. And then…
My feelings first shifted when Chu begins writing about the gender transition of a makeup artist named Gigi Gorgeous, who has become popular on YouTube. (Along the way, the author manages to reveal Gorgeous’s deadname, despite the fact that that is a well-known off-limits move in the trans community). Toward the end of her synopsis, Chu asserts that Gorgeous makes herself female both in the traditional sense, by wearing makeup, and in the author’s expanded sense, through her steadfast “submission” to gender norms.
I found this analysis true enough, but then Chu moves to assert trans-specific implications of Gorgeous’s behavior: “Gender transition, no matter the direction, is always a process of becoming a canvas for someone else’s fantasy. You cannot be gorgeous without someone to be gorgeous for.” [emphasis in original, here and unless otherwise noted].
A few pages further on, Chu returns to expand on this point. “What makes gender gender,” she says, “is the fact that it expresses, in every case, the desires of another… If sexual orientation is basically a social expression of one’s own sexuality, then gender is basically a social expression of someone else’s sexuality.” Later, she summarizes, “Gender is always a process of objectification.” To expand on the point made in the previous quoted sentence, Chu returns to once again discuss transness, or at least her version of it:
“Gender transition begins, after all from the understanding that how you identify yourself subjectively — as precious and important as this identification may be — is nevertheless on its own basically worthless. If identity were all there were to gender, transition would be as easy as thinking it… Your gender identity would simply exist, in mute abstraction…
“If there is any lesson of gender transition — from the simplest request regarding pronouns to the most invasive surgeries — it’s that gender is something other people give you. Gender exists, if it is to exist at all, only through the structural generosity of strangers… You do not get to consent to yourself, even if you might deserve the chance.”
Where Shall We Begin?
It’s an understatement to say that there is a lot to unpack here. As I construct my counter-argument, I’ll start from the bottom.
Central to my disagreement with Chu is, to borrow more of her words, what “constitute[s] the realization of [gender] possibility.” Chu asserts that only through receiving public recognition does someone “realize” their gender identity. I beg to differ. Chu’s assertions are not only wrong but demeaning in the way they negate many of the complexities of being trans .
Though I do agree that internal identity is not all there is to gender, it’s also true that others’ recognition of your gender is hardly all there is to identity. Gender may be a social construct, but it’s one that, once we’ve learned about it, can be dis- and re-assembled inside our heads. What Chu fails to recognize is that identity, while socially influenced, has its foundation in an internal sense of self, a sense that does not necessarily align with how others see you. An identity does not vanish into oblivion without external legitimization, though the discontinuities are indeed upsetting. As her writing makes clear, the author somehow missed the part of Trans 101 when we talk about how identity is separate from expression is separate from recognition (AKA passing as the “other” gender). These distinctions matter, and they matter A LOT.
The assumption that all transgender people can, and want to, align themselves with the normative gender binary is not just an Andrea Long Chu problem, but one she carries on out of the mainstream trans community. The sometimes implicit, sometimes overt (as in Chu’s writing), expectation that trans folks will undergo whatever surgeries are necessary to pass as the so-called opposite gender has created a presumptuous trans-normativity: presumptuous because it assumes not only that people have the access healthcare but also that following the usual medical path will always lead to the same results (AKA passing as the “other” gender). Differing bodies and varying external circumstances both factor into people’s ability to express their gender identity.
Despite these nuances, Chu argues that, if you cannot pass as your gender, your identity is “basically worthless.” In essence, if you’re a trans woman who strangers refer to as a man in a dress or a trans man who gets read as a butch lesbian, that’s all you are, all you can be. Are you angry yet? You should be.
Separating identity from expression from recognition is especially pertinent to anyone who exists outside of the gender binary, a reality that Chu refuses to recognize even once in her book. Applying the author’s arguments to non-binary people, like myself, completely delegitmizes our existence. Because mainstream ideas of gender are stuck in the two-category system, non-binary people (much less those with more nuanced identities within this large catch-all) do not have a chance of having our genders recognized by the general public. A non-binary gender is not something that can be doled out through Chu’s “structural generosity of strangers.” But, to paraphrase Chu’s words, there’s no way I’m going to wait around for someone random cis person to hand me something I already possess.
Overall, Chu’s assertion that gender identity is only made true through the “generosity”of the all-powerful other (read: the largely cisgender public) reeks of respectability politics. She is eager to disparage and outright ignore large swaths of the trans community as she argues that we can only be made legitimate through pandering to the cisgender gaze. This approval may be easy to gain for Chu and fellow binary-passing and light-skinned people, but not so for the many of us who live — by choice or not — beyond existing norms.
The Desires of Another
Backtracking through Chu’s arguments, we arrive at her assertion that gender is only useful in the process of objectifying ourselves in service of the sexual desires of others. I think I might have laughed out loud when I read this. Besides ignoring the fact that asexual people exist (what is their gender for then, Andrea?), I found this assertion absurd because nothing could align with my personal experience less.
If what Chu presents is true, I would have stopped transitioning long ago and reverted back to presenting and living as a straight woman. Being raised as a girl and being attracted to men, I had ample opportunity to experiment with the dual tasks of gauge for what kind of man (personality, appearance, social status, etc.) would be interested in me, and discerning how to best present myself to have romantic success. However subconsciously, I was partaking in the exact process that Chu describes, reformulating myself around the desires of others.
That was from age 16–23. Even when long-term relationships fell into gendered power dynamics (of both the light and heavy sort that I will not get into here), at least dating followed certain reliable expectations. Then, I started taking hormones.
For the first few months, my appearance having shifted in only minor ways, I found myself still able to date straight men. At some unknowable point, however, this changed. The once-steady interest from the predictable kind of straight guy dropped off. I wondered if should try to date gay men, or bi guys, or only other trans people. Despite living in this new reality for the better part of two years, I still don’t have an answer.
Looking back on my time living as a straight girl, it’s laughable that I used to bemoan the difficulties of discerning if someone was romantically interested in me. Now, before even considering that detail, I labor over discerning the person’s sexuality and whether my body could occupy space within it. To a much greater extent than before medically transitioning, I find it nearly impossible to tell tell how others perceive me. I still find myself noticing the kind of straight men who I might have dated if I haven’t transitioned. They are always the same, but I am now different. It’s a disconnect that leaves me feeling as though I’m flailing around in a darkness to which my eyes refuse to adjust.
I describe these details to make the point that my gender transition has taken place entirely in spite of losing touch with Chu’s system of gender-as-object-making. There was a point, quite some time ago now, that my relationship frustration grew to the point that I started to wonder if I really needed hormones that badly. Maybe living in my estrogen-based body would be worth having that good ol’ dating world open up again. I stopped taking T for a few months to explore the possibility.
If I had been able to continue on without hormones, I might be able to accept what Chu says as true. But I couldn’t, so I can’t. I am not a “social expression of someone else’s sexuality.” Sometimes I wish it could be that simple.
Validation and Control
Besides crafting arguments that contradict the lives of many trans people, including my own, Chu’s ideas have negative implications on a more general psychological level. Recall that the author’s thesis is that society forces all of us to submit to its expectations. As I previously introduced with the story of Gigi Gorgeous, Chu describes one ways in which this supposed dynamic plays out in our lives: “You can’t be gorgeous without having someone to be gorgeous for.” In essence, we must always turn to others for approval.
I recognize this mindset. In fact, I have spent many therapy sessions trying to untangle myself from it. It’s the idea that your life needs an audience to matter, that if some important ‘other’ didn’t notice it, it didn’t happen.
In an effort to receive this crucial external validation, I have previously (both before and after coming out) changed and simplified myself, trying to conform to what I think will get me the recognition I crave. For Chu, this loss of self is just be a consequence of our ‘femaleness,’ part of the unavoidable process of complying with norms. I agree that there are many parts of the world that we don’t control. That doesn’t, however, mean that we are utterly powerless individuals.
Even if we do need “someone to be gorgeous for,” we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of that someone being ourselves. There is such a thing as intrinsic motivation, as an internal sense of peace, as the ability to be a witness to our own life. And, when we start with internal fulfillment, we are much better prepared to contribute to relationships instead of use them to meet our most basic needs.
What this Means for Gender in Isolation
Sitting around the house in sporty clothes from the men’s section, surrounded by housemates that recognize and respect my identity no matter how I look on a particular day, it can be easy to forget the nuances of negotiating gender expectations in public, among strangers, acquaintances, coworkers, and so on. On one hand, I can see how this could be discouraging for some, the limitation of opportunities to be seen, and to experiment with expression. My personal feelings, however, are of comfort and safety. I don’t feel that my gender is fading away without external validation, but rather gaining strength through internally affirmation. In the peace of my home, no longer sapped of the energy of having prove myself, I gain power and legitimacy; I simply am.
In a poem entitled, “They will try their best to destroy you an call it love,” Alok Vaid-Menon responds to a non-binary youth’s question about how to cope with being constantly misgendered. Alok writes of their own experience: “It was about waiting till the day I could surround myself like a warm blanket with people who got ‘it,’ that intangible sense of being seen, even when I’m wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt, being recognized outside of visibility.”
Alok revels in those moments in which they don’t have to perform their gender, in which the people around them understand who they are despite a lack of external signals. Alok’s words get at the separateness of gender identity and expression, telling us that the two needn’t always align in a desperate search for recognition. When wearing something that is not indicative of, or even related to, our gender, we can still be who we are. Gender is no less legitimate when it only lives inside us, when we communicate it with words to those who matter to us, when we forgo the public spectacle of it all.
Using trans people as an example, Chu wants us to believe we are nothing outside of what others see in us. While I can’t deny that it’s disheartening not to have my complete gender identity recognized in public, this makes it all the more important that I value my own acceptance and approval. In my head, in my house, I need no larger audience. Gender may be most visible when it is performed, but it doesn’t disappear when it stays inside.
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