Grammar Bender

Grammar has consequences. My grade school still taught, in the 1980s, that words have gender; people have sex. For decades, grammar nerds have bristled at official forms asking whether their “gender” is male or female. It’s like being asked, “What’s your part of speech?”

Somewhere along the line “gender” became a polite substitute for “sex” (perhaps to reduce snickers from adolescent boys). But with sex, gender, and the difference between them now playing into legal and public policy decisions, the confusion of these words means we can barely state the issue. Our gender trouble begins with grammar trouble.

Politics works through words, which—fueled by the meanings we give them—can act like giant power-generators. What “gender” means matters. Certain rights (no one is speaking of duties) previously justified based on the category of sex, understood bodily, will soon be conferred based on gender—though understood hardly at all.

A person cannot change his body just by saying so. The new idea is that each individual can, by saying so, define his (or her?) gender for the rest of us. But what is gender, and how does it connect to the now quaint category, sex?

Sex shows up, first, bodily. The primary and secondary sex characteristics, evincing admirable variety, correlate with differences in erotic drive, personality, and disposition, showing more variety still. Even the basic differences are complicated. (As intersex cases remind us, male and female are not contraries, but complements.) On top of natural sex characteristics, cultures cultivate expectations, duties, rights, and privileges, which turn on their makers to shape how we think and act.

Cultures differ in the significance they attach to sexual difference, but all do attach some significance to it. Some associations seem to follow easily from bodily, but also from psychological, differences: Is it purely conventional that women, thinner-skinned in the literal sense, are expected to be so metaphorically? Other associations seem arbitrary; for example, what’s male about the color blue?

The important point: the sexes differ, but the line between nature and custom remains wonderfully unclear. The personality disparities between the sexes are expressed in statistical patterns, not according to strict rules, and it’s worth wondering to what extent culture or, on the other hand, testosterone makes assertiveness seem masculine.

But enough about sex, already. What is “gender”? It’s, um, well . . . ambiguous.

In the technical sense, it’s equivocal. And so we need to be careful. As Thomas Hobbes warns us, “Ignorance of the signification of words; which is want of understanding, disposeth men to take on trust, not only the truth they know not; but also the errors; and which is more, the non-sense of them they trust.”

“Gender” used to be primarily grammatical, with words being coded as masculine, feminine, or neuter. As “sex” increasingly denoted coitus, “gender” stepped in as a more polite substitute. Simultaneously, in the mid-20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a new meaning arose: “The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones.”

So, in just a few decades, “gender” became the preferred synonym for “sex” and began denoting the cultural counterpart of it. No wonder our society suffers from gender confusion.

Tangled in the equivocation, the “social construction of gender” claim hovers between, on the one (implausible) hand, dismissing bodily sex as make-believe and on the other (tautological) hand, pointing to its conventional accompaniments. Calling gender, with a certain intonation, a “social construct” makes it sound bad. It makes it sound arbitrary and intentionally perpetrated. Yet we should remember that many social constructs are cogent, beneficial, and unplanned. (Examples: the English language; promises; paradigms of good parenthood.) Conventional does not mean irrational.

These two linguistic changes, along with the sexual revolution, help explain this n-gram: Though we talk a lot more about sex than we used to, it would have been wise to invest in the word “gender” in the mid-1970s.

Gender as the cultural accouterment of sex has recently spawned another meaning. Before giving a several paragraphs-long “usage note” celebrating diversity and self-determination, Dictionary.com fails to define it, calling it merely “a similar category” to sex and sex-roles, but “outside the male/female binary” and “based on the individual’s personal awareness or identity.”

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Rule-by-redefinition should at least provide clear definitions. Imagine looking up a new word, “blatch,” and finding: “a similar category to shoes (compare feet), but beyond the left/right binary and based on one’s self-identity.” We’re left high and dry. But maybe not totally. Though not helping us understand blatch, this fuzzy announcement may do better: It may help us understand that we don’t understand blatch.

Not yet in the OED, this new and suddenly prominent usage of “gender” makes more sense once it is seen as truncating psychology’s “gender identity” (which was coined by Robert Stoller and Ralph Greenson in 1964 and which the OED does include). If it is assumed that an individual’s self-perception cannot be wrong, “gender identity” easily morphs into “gender.” Should we assume that?

Many gay, lesbian, and gender non-conforming people, it stands to reason, recognize more than most that human beings can misunderstand themselves. Not pure wills, but a circus of bodies, thoughts, desires, choices, convictions, habits, relationships, and longings for an obscure more, we learn things about ourselves—facts we might not be able to change but can respond to. Since we are not just wills, our freedom is not pure self-determination. Freedom occurs in our ability to respond to how things—the world, others, ourselves—show up. And what we don’t know about ourselves is a lot. Who we are and what we do always outstrips what we understand.

This meaning differs from the others above. “Gender” as one’s felt sexual identity is not “gender” as the features conventionally accruing to sex. A woman (this one, for example) might know herself to be masculine in many culturally coded ways while happily affirming herself as a woman. (A close friend once quipped that he didn’t buy the sex/gender distinction until he met me. I do have a strange power over men.) All people show traits tagged more masculine or feminine, resulting—like everything interesting about us—from an obscure soup of nature, nurture, and choice.

Rocks and slugs do not react to our categorizations of them. Self-conscious, thus susceptible to what Ian Hacking calls the “looping effect,” human beings respond to their categories. Feminists wish to unmask womanhood as conventional to free people from a loop that feminists consider vicious. Once a person identifies herself as an alcoholic, a hero, a woman, a jock, or a homosexual, she accepts certain norms calling for conformity, norms that are flouted often only with effort. More dramatically, psychologists might mention the recurrent artificial epidemics of Multiple Personality Disorder (link no longer available).

Categories are potent things, not least to those categorized. Even liberating categories can capture us. We need to ask: what will popularizing this new concept do to vulnerable, gender non-conforming adolescents?

This new meaning of “gender” names how people represent themselves; it also pressures people to represent themselves in a new way. Before committing to this new self-categorization, poised to turn on us and shape us, we should understand it better. That is to say, before getting political about gender confusion, we should first admit our cultural confusion about gender.

What it is isn’t clear, as we can tell from the fact that trans people and theorists disagree about it; as different people, they experience different things. It’s sometimes presented as a non-anatomical twin of sex, an inner spirit that may or may not align with one’s body. (Some claim two of them—the “two-spirited.”) For a while gender identity was called a “psychological sex,” but you might upset old-school feminists if you suggested a distinctively “feminine essence” or psychology or brain.

There is a classical question about whether souls are neuter or split into male and female (and if male and female, why not intersex souls?). This might prove a promising avenue for conservatives to interpret trans claims sympathetically, but those most committed to the reality of souls and those most committed to gender self-determination are generally not the same people.

Also, and this should not surprise, “trans” names a mixed lot of individuals. Some identify within the man/woman binary. Some think gender real rather than constructed. Some feel alienated from their bodily sex. Others do not.

The very smart Julia Serano considers it an unchosen, subconscious sex (“the gender we subconsciously feel ourselves to be”), while the playful Kate Bornstein (“I am a transsexual by choice, not by pathology”) casts gender as fashion, urging the proliferation of genders to “dismantle the system.” Because Bornstein so clearly enjoys adopting gender roles at whim, one wonders about her crusade to destroy these roles, which, if successful, would deny others the same joys of transgressing them. (Not to mention that transgression usually proves less fun when fashionable.)

Facebook, that unwittingly brilliant platform of self-expression, tersely captures all three meanings by asking users to select their genders as “female,” “male,” or “custom,” the last being no appeal to tradition but an invitation to customize. Nature, nurture, and freedom—all three affect how each of us plays out our sexual character. But sex is mysterious enough on its own without “gender” serving as our go-to name for them all.

Facebook’s invitation to customize implies there could be as many genders as fantasies, rendering it, to put it mildly, unsuitable as a legal category. The freedom of 58 options from 2014 proved too constrictive for 2015’s America. As Michael Oakeshott wrote, “Politics is concerned with things, not dreams, with things as they are & not with our own feelings and emotions but respect for other people’s feelings and emotions.”

While not confusing politics with dream-fulfillment, we should still respect the urgent, sincere, personal importance of what some report: Serano describes the “countless restless nights I spent as a pre-teen wrestling with the inexplicable feeling that I should be female.” How should we, as a political community, respond to such facts? An activist, Serano adds: “If there is one thing that all of us should be able to agree on, it’s that gender is a confusing and complicated mess.” Indeed—and this should give us pause before moving ahead politically.

The argument goes that because some people have gender representations disagreeing with their sexes, they should be supported, culturally and legally, in assuming sex-related roles and rights to match their gender representations. This argument downplays the significance of nature; empowers self-determination in the name of expression of an authentic self; and claims a right that everyone else honor one’s identity as self-reported.

Once we get through the word-play, the disputed question boils down to this: Are there unbigoted reasons sometimes to distinguish between the sexes? Considering that not every important thing about us subjects itself to our wills, might nature and sex (rather than self-determination) not make some difference, rightly grounding some duties and privileges?

Caesar non supra grammaticos, though he wants to be. In changing by decree the legal meaning of a word, a grammar-bending federal executive may go from having required colleges to fund female-only athletics equivalently to male athletics (implying that nature did not make males, on average, more interested in athletic competition), to now forbidding female-only athletics (as though nature did not make male athletic abilities, on average, different). Just as Progressive politics projects a binary of forward-looking, humane policy and atavistic bigotry, Caesar operates in the binary of requiring or forbidding.

In nature, both Caesar’s and grammar’s powers find limits. We can legislate in response to natural facts, but decrees do not change them. Humans interpret natural facts culturally, augmenting some, constricting others, in ways healthy or unhealthy for people’s happiness. But unconstructed reality still follows its own rules beneath these conventions.

Like gendered clothing, the customs we use to cover up brute facts display them still, just less nakedly, more humanly. And that—not mere biology, but dressing up our biology to reach for something higher—forms part of our nature.

It turns out that, like male and female, and like masculine and feminine, nature and convention are not contraries but complements. This explains why they often blur into each other (and sometimes fight). In certain times and places in human history, when one gets lucky, their love child is personal liberty.

Traditionalists emphasize that nature matters and that we should protect those conventions which, by channeling nature well, conduce to security and liberty. Our sexual drives and longings—powerful, personally meaningful, and sometimes interpersonally devastating—do need channeling to be humane. Still, both nature and convention admit exceptions, special cases.

Gender identity should ground some privileges, especially to protect the vulnerable from violence, but laws should not base themselves on the exceptional. As Edmund Burke counsels us, “It is against all genuine principles of jurisprudence to draw a principle from a law made in a special case and regarding a particular person. Privilegium non transit in exemplum.” Special cases and exceptional facts provide a reason for occasional accommodation, not for destroying the rule.

Trading on the ambiguity of a word—committing, that is, the fallacy of equivocation—the demand to reconceive the legal code to replace sex with self-reported identity derives from a worry that sometimes people will not make exceptions when appropriate. But the problem is that, just as “gender identities” are unlimited (which seems to be the point), possible exceptions to even good laws are infinite, and one cannot capture all special cases in a finite formula, the law.

Liberty shelters our ability to respond, unscripted and with human decency, to exceptional facts. But unless we accept that sometimes others won’t do what we think is right, “liberty” becomes just another word for forcing them to.