My two year old son will do absolutely anything he sees his big sister doing. When she kicks the soccer ball, he’ll kick it back. Whatever tricks she does on the scooter, he’ll try too. If she starts practising her cartwheels and flips on the bar, he’s right there with her. He’s perfectly happy to watch Shimmer and Shine with her. Singing and dancing to The Greatest Show? Make that a duet. Putting on makeup? Sounds fun. Playing with baby dolls? Yep. Hopefully she never jumps off a cliff or they’d both be gone.
Left on his own, though, he’ll almost always turn on PAW Patrol or kick around the ball or pretend to drive a toy truck. His natural response to anything he picks up is to throw it. For a kid growing up with a big sister and surrounded by girl toys, he’s surprisingly boyish. Of course, his sister would be quick to tell you that she loves PAW Patrol and playing soccer and driving cars, too. And why not? That’s as it should be. It’s as it must be. Her brother may try to stop her from playing with his toys, but we don’t. From a young age, kids have a keen sense of what is theirs, but they don’t discriminate by gender until someone teaches them to. Having had both, something real must cause them to prefer balls or dolls, but kids don’t worry about defining themselves the way adults want to; they just want to play. Jackson doesn’t care that his bike is princess pink. He’ll ride whatever’s available.
In this sense, claiming that gender is a social construct isn’t wrong. The attitudes and activities of children depend largely on what is presented to and expected of them, which varies between boys and girls just as it does between children in America and children in Asia. Common threads underlie broad cultural differences. Being a girl or a boy, like being an American, is largely defined by what Americans say it is. Each generations passes on its own ideas and the next generation receives it only partially, and so each generation is likely to say that their successors are betraying the true American spirit, though of course most of it remains the same. In that case, it’s no use to argue that, having been born on American soil to American parents, it is impossible to be anything but an American or do anything that is not American. Even though technically true, in a legal sense, it isn’t the relevant factor.
Arguing that only a person’s chromosomes matter is just as ridiculous as saying only their birthplace does. Genetics may be more determinative than geography, but it is far from absolute. When we embrace biological absolutism (which we would never do in any other context), we may end up stifling creativity and personality while calcifying cultural norms that were never meant to be permanent, inhibiting the growth and future opportunities of both boys and girls, men and women. And yet, accepting unbridled relativism leads, as it always does, to darker forms of absolutism.
Complete gender fluidity, in which a person’s gender may change according to their changing feelings and preferences, is nonsense. It professes social construction while denying any social definition. A word that is constantly changing its meaning can’t be defined. If everyone can be a girl one day and a boy the next then words boy and girl will quickly lose their meaning. To even use those words is to put yourself in a social context, in relation to all the other people in society, and to accept the categories into which you are placed by your actions, behaviors, preferences, etc. relative to everyone else. Individual actions or preferences on a given day cannot, by definition, change your gender because the whole point of gender is to abstract an entire life of actions and preferences. If you are someone whose actions and preferences vary wildly then that would encompass a new category value, which we, in fact, already have words to describe.
Many people, I suspect, would be uncomfortable with such discrete categories. It feels to much like making biology (or even behavior) out to be destiny. As individuals, we don’t like to be locked in. We’d prefer to think of gender as a continuum where people can slide around as needed or fall somewhere in the middle. But there is a deep irony embedded in this view. A continuum must have poles. Boys go on one side and girls on the other. Every action, feeling, thought, and appearance must fall somewhere on this line toward one end or the other. This is, I believe, where much of the transgender confusion and hurt originates. It’s hard not to examine yourself and start placing every detail somewhere on this line, trying to find your place, especially if you start to worry you might be on the other side of what your body would indicate. As happens with so many of us, the desire for individuality becomes a need to conform.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t people who experience a genuine disconnect between their biological and mental selves in a way that causes real suffering, but rather that such a disconnect makes sense only under strict gender definitions. Unless you believe there is a sharp line separating boys from girls, there is no sense in saying you are on the wrong side. A male who likes to wear dresses and play with dolls is not a girl except in the case that dresses and dolls are what define girlhood. A female who has the mind of boy must believe, above all, that girls and boys have different kinds of minds. There is no way around this difficulty. All attempts at self-definition will revert to common terms. That’s what a definition is. You can’t use language you don’t have. A strictly personal definition, like a strictly personal word, is gibberish.
The way to freedom and acceptance isn’t to define ourselves into smaller and smaller boxes. You can’t build an identity by subtracting yourself from everyone else and seeing what you have left. An identity requires a stable foundation. You have to start on what is common, what is true, what is unchangeable. With that established, you can accept and enjoy the differences in yourself and others without fear or anxiety over whether it affects your core self. The principle applies as much to gender as it does to race or class or sexual orientation or politics or any of the other battle lines we’ve drawn. Confidence in the truth (rightly directed) is the essence of tolerance, but relativism leads to fear and conflict. If everyone is able to define their own reality according to subjective experience, then the only way to arbitrate disputes, right injustices, and enforce fairness is to fight and coerce. You can’t argue with subjective feelings nor even understand them. It isolates us from each other.
There is a way out. Instead of tightening our definitions and categories to ever more personal levels, we can broaden them. We may have to accept our biology as a basic fact, but if our gender is socially constructed then we don’t have to accept confusion or contempt. The word girl can be broad enough to include females who play with trucks and balls and like to get dirty. I want my daughter to be free to play however she likes without having to worry that she might secretly be a boy, just as I want her to study whatever she wants and be able to work wherever she wants without facing accusations of being too manly. She might, on account of her biology, bring something different to those activities, but if she does, then that is a good thing. It’s the only way to bring diversity to the granular but calcified conformity we’re currently enforcing. There need not be any confusion or distress about our peculiarities nor fear of those who are different. If my son plays with his sister’s dolls and loves to dance and dress up, then he will still be my son. There is room enough in this world for boys who do so without having to call them girls or anything else.