An Interlude on Gender and the Ancestors

A few months ago, I saw a sticker that said something to the effect of “Gender is Over” and it annoyed me to no end. At the most personal level, I wasn’t preparing to undertake HRT because I thought gender was over. More abstractly, though, it has to do with a frustration I have with a lot of progressive discourse on gender. It inherits a position born in a certain moment of feminism that asserts the irrelevance of gender to human life, except incidentally. That strikes me as wrong-headed.

I have done my best to take an honest look at the human condition that cuts across historical and ethnographic material and takes into account my personal experience, supplementing that with some biology and psychology. It seems like the more I do that, the more in line with conservative approaches to gender I become, the more I tend to accept that there is something fundamental in our organic being that correlates with gender and sexuality that is stable and common to us as human beings. My problem with conservative accounts is that they take too shallow a cut into that diversity, favoring a narrow band of gendered, sexual experience as human and the subsequent mutilation of others.

I am glad to affirm that there is something ineluctably human about masculinity and femininity, but it’s hard to ignore that those don’t encompass the totality of human gendered experiences. Queer genders populate the fabric of human possibility as much as ‘normal’ male and female genders do, even if we admit that queer genders are less common than a basic male/female pattern. The existence of queer genders are beyond debate to me; they just are and they are as determinate as masculinity and femininity are.

Those who grant the individuals the most personal freedom of expression provide people with the fewest concrete models of gendered diversity. The heights of Western progressivism tends to affirm a universal human being that is shorn of any specifically human traits outside of a capacity to reason. It supports the idea of culture and cultural diversity without always attending to the details of human life upon which that diversity stands.

Rigid conservatism has the clearest sense of gender’s reality, but the poorest grasp of its lived diversity. Universal liberalism has the clearest sense of human adaptability but the poorest sense of its modes of realization. Both rest in a poor sense of the relationship between person and community. Community and person are treated as separate entities, between which only compromises can be made. The truth of the matter lies somewhere else; the two are inseparable expressions of a fundamental human being.

While gender bears witness to something determinate in our constitution, it also points out a flexible range of development. Genders are rooted in our bodies (sometimes painfully so as my trans experience bears witness to), but we navigate those bodily dimensions through the medium of culture, which is only ever partially joined to our bodies. There are cultures that do damage to certain gendered expressions. This is the realization upon which feminist criticisms of patriarchy are based and that from which various forms of queer liberation spring. Navigating between a need for self-understanding and expression, on the one hand, and communal support and affirmation, on the other, is a challenge every person and community must meet.

 

While human communities are defined by their diversity (in gender as well as in other forms of living), that diversity only manifests at the level of a community. For all the flexibility of the human species, any given individual possesses only a discrete aspect of that diversity. Humanity as a totality is polymorphously perverse, but individually only specifically so. We are something more like transwomen, transmen, gay, lesbian, male, female, and so on, not blank slates capable of any expression.

The best forms of religious expression are those that make room for this, that make room for the lived diversity of human expressions, in gender especially, but elsewhere as well. To do that, we don’t need more and more stable concepts of gender, but we do need categories that better allow people with sympathetic gendered expressions to communicate with each other and differentiate themselves from others. Those kinds of affinity and differentiation are what enable people to nurture what is distinctive in themselves and others.

I don’t pretend to have these categories at the ready—the gender spectrum stretching between masculinity and femininity is bogus, but the endless multiplication of personal genders doesn’t quite do the job, either. Historical models can only carry us so far, too, because all of those are embedded in worlds that have passed away. We can’t expect to get categories that will apply to the present across the board, because cultural differences are real and must be navigated, too, in the composition of these categories within and between communities.

All these young ones today reaching for terms, like nonbinary, give me some hope even as I fret from my old lady habits of thinking in fairly simple queer, trans, gay, straight, cis, categories. Finding how to integrate all of this into a world that encompasses human spiritual potentials face whole other challenges, but they are vital. The sympathies in gender cut into our ancestral working, too, and finding the ones that open onto embodied ancestries is no small undertaking. It takes the lifetimes of peoples, sometimes the lifetimes of durable communities, to find and fashion those. Have a little patience and courage—it can be done, but don’t expect the ancestors to leap immediately into your maybe too pat ideas.

What is the parade that reaches out to meet you? I have found it a much more complicated crew than I expected and found it harder to disentangle my preconceptions from my interactions with them than I would have hoped. Here, at the winding down of the blog, one of the things I am striving to articulate is one point from which the work of affinity and differentiation may begin.

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