I wonder if the gender identity theorists realize just how much they’re undermining when they deconstruct the so-called “gender binary” of male and female. This is deconstruction in very much the original sense of the term, as put into circulation by philosopher Jacques Derrida. Instead of merely abolishing the difference between male and female, the idea is to add so much to it as to undermine its meaning. So now we have a vast proliferation of different gender identities, including not just transgender, transwoman and transman, but genderqueer, gender fluid, and beyond. (The urban legend has it that there are now fifty-seven categories to choose from when you identify your gender on Facebook. Someone else will have to confirm that for me.)
Deconstruction has logical consequences. Not so long ago, “transgender” meant that someone desired to transition from male to female or vice versa, and was willing to undergo surgery to do so. Such a desire, and the “gender dysphoria” from which it results, only makes sense if there is a meaningful difference between male and female. As the number of choices for gender identity proliferates, it’s unclear why the difference between male and female should matter that much. Why invest so much in transitioning from one to the other, when there are so many other options to choose from? Why be so exclusive, as if male and female were the only possibilities?
The same deconstruction also undermines the notion of same-sex desire and same-sex marriage. The term itself hearkens back to when people had a sex, not a gender. So in our current environment we should no doubt prefer to speak of “same gender attraction.” But what does that mean when there are fifty-seven genders to choose from? Can someone who is “genderqueer” logically be said to experience desire for someone of the same gender? I suppose such a person can be attracted to another genderqueer person. But is that really so different from such a person (what pronoun should we use?) being attracted to a transwoman, for example, or a standard male? Why pick out same gender attraction as a matter of special significance? It’s just one of dozens of possibilities. And, as the mantra says, who’s to say how I should love?
So the proliferation of gender identities logically undermines gender or, as it used to be called, sex. Even gays and lesbians, the original G and L in LGBT, start to look old fashioned in this new scenario, like people whose desires are still shaped by the old world in which human beings were exclusively male or female. And this new scenario is in the process of asserting itself as normative, now that same-sex marriage is about to sweep to its final victory in the U.S. I wonder how far it will go in changing the landscape. Will it so undermine itself as to make the whole project look incoherent or impossible? Somehow I’m not so optimistic.
Still, it may be worth pondering that in this brave new world, those who uphold the old and much derided “gender binary”or, to speak more properly, the ancient understanding that there is a real and normative difference between the sexeswill be the ones who can actually see some sort of meaning, however misguided, in things like same-sex desire and gender dysphoria.