Gender in an Ideal World

I’ve had some great discussions following my post on Feminism and the Transgender Community.

The topic has stuck with me as I’ve reflected more on this simmering rift between progressive communities.

The good news, as some have pointed out, is that younger cis women tend to be more welcoming of their transgender peers than those who came of age in earlier waves of feminism. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still plenty of feminists who actively disparage and discriminate against transgender men and women.

That doesn’t sit well with me. That doesn’t sit well with me at all. It strikes me as deeply unjust that women who would proclaim themselves as advocates for equity would discriminate so intentionally.

Not that this is a new or unique issue. There have long been tensions between the white feminist community and the feminist communities of people of color, for example. But those topics deserve their own post.

Today, I’d like to think about what gender or gender identity might look like in an ideal world. There are many tensions between feminists and transgender communities, to be sure, but I think this might be one of them.

Both groups may share a view that gender expression as its normalized now is stifling, but I wonder if there’s a subtle but important difference deeper in these views.

Imagine first a feminist utopia: people do whatever they’re interested in and are respected for whoever they are. There may be some functional differences to restrooms, but overall gender is not a “thing” that defines us.

You may even be inclined to envision this a little more radically: seeing a society where gender is not a binary, but a spectrum encompassing a rich diversity of thoughts, feelings, looks, and expressions.

Now ask yourself: would there be transgender people in such a society?

This is where we start to get into trouble. I think – and I may be entirely wrong about this – that there is a certain flavor of feminist who would be inclined to imagine that “transgender” would be obsolete in such society.

If you are truly free to express yourself regardless of your gender, how can your assigned gender be “wrong”?

There’s a reasonable logic to that argument and a certain comforting simplicity.

But it also has some disconcerting undertones. It implies that transgender people are only a temporary element of society – that “transgender” is not a real thing, but rather a response to a paternalistic paradigm.

Under this model, you may be willing to accept a transgender person as choosing to express their gender a certain way as a means of survival.

It’s not unlike accepting the person who wishes public schools were better, but still elects to send their children to private school: they have to play into the system to make the right choice for themselves, but ultimately the act is a symbol of a broken system.

But what if we were to imagine that yes, there would be transgender people in a more gender fluid society?

Suddenly, the valuation of transgender people seems to change. They aren’t just playing a broken system instead of trying to change the rules. They are genuinely trying to express themselves, express who they are in a meaningful, ineffable way.

As a cis person myself, I don’t really know what that means. But the more I talk to transgender people, the more I hear their stories of discovery and transition, the more I’m convinced that being transgender is more complex and more deeply rooted than our society’s broken gender norms.

That our existing gender system is broken certainly complicates matters – creating false ideas of what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” But even if we were to do away with those tired tropes, I don’t think that the identity of transgender would just wash away.

Being transgender is something deeper than that, something more fundamental to a person’s being, something which we as a collective society are only beginning to understand.

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