The gender identity debate today strikes me as reminiscent of the 11th Century ecumenical debate over the Filioque. East and West Christianity were irreconcilable over the question of whether the divine identity of the Holy Spirit was that of the Father, rather than the Son, or something in between.
In their rush to excommunicate one another, church leaders lost sight of some key facts about the Holy Spirit. First, that we made it up. And, second, that we also made up the Father, the Son, and the entire concept of divinity.
The prevailing public debate, that we see both in the liberal mainstream press and trending in social media, doesn’t strike me as the last gender identity debate in advanced societies. Having shot its load establishing a more nuanced understanding of rigid gender stereotypes, dominant LGBTQ discourse tends to embrace the resultant spectrum. Sympathetic column inches have been dedicated to the mainstream’s treatment of those minority groups that choose to occupy previously unchartered areas of the spectrum. The focus has centred upon where we are on the spectrum, rather than on the true nature of the spectrum itself.
Future societies might focus instead upon some deeper truths about gender: crucially, that we made it up. Not only ‘gender identity’, but ‘assigned gender’, too, the relative frequency of ambiguous genitalia exposing biological sex as an uncertain dichotomy. That is to say, the biological assumption underpinning the distinction between cisgender and transgender is also unstable — sufficiently so to prohibit biology’s effort to fully withhold its charge from the clutches of the social constructionists.
The gender debate has continued to diversify, from challenging disparities in social power into expanding our understanding of its essence; it is undergoing a transformation from binary opposition to continuum. The elephant in the room remains the question of whether it might one day simply cease to exist.
The medieval European churches served an organisational function for the societies they emerged from. Questions over the true nature of the Holy Spirit had implications for the integrity of the doctrine. Gender has similarly served an organisational function for humanity, but remains an article of faith about our true nature. As successive generations inherited a gendered world, so did they refine the social lens through which we see the world — in ways that exaggerate the gender distinctions established by our forebears.
A surprising number of British men affirm with a nod, safely reassured, when reminded that the men’s 100m world record is 0.91 seconds faster than the women’s. That 0.91 seconds means that ‘men run faster than women’ (love). But any of those guys that couldn’t run more than 50m at full sprint might struggle to explain exactly what relevance the statistical reference has to their own identity. They might also struggle to explain why the supposed beneficial implications of that split-second advantage don’t seem to accrue equally to those of West African descent — who did almost all of the legwork in breaking the 10-second barrier — as they do to ‘men’ more generally.
The nature of these questions has a long heritage in the feminist literary canon, but I wonder how many arbitrary metrics of gender difference derive from innovations founded not merely to establish male precedence, but to establish gender itself.
That growing numbers of people are choosing to wrest control of their gender identity is closer to a Lutheran protest than to atheism. In the brouhaha over how we present ourselves, many on both the liberal and conservative sides of the debate choose not to question whether the gender emperor is actually wearing any clothes. The male and female cultural mainstream has become accustomed to questions of gender identity centring around how they see a gender-fluid minority; in a later reckoning, they may face the greater challenge of tackling the way they see themselves.