The problem cannot be the solution. That’s never how these things work.
So from now on I would prefer to be referred to by the pronouns “it” and “its”. Of course you may use “him”, “his”, and “he” if you insist. Or any others you happen to like; if you’re talking about me in the third-person I probably won’t be around to hear you anyway. But rest assured I will also be referring to you as “it” and things belong or pertaining to you as “its”. You may be male or female or intersex. You may identify as any or all or none of these. I don’t care. To me you, me, we, are all its.
The idea that we deserve special differentiation from—or elevation above—abstract concepts, inanimate objects, or unsexable non-human animals, has never sat particularly well with me. Some rocks, for example, are amazing. Besides, in the vast majority of cases it seems unnecessary for you to be informed or reminded of what sex I am, or for me to know what sex you are, by passing reference. And on the rare occasions when it is actually important, you can usually work it out.
As for gender? Well, it doesn’t exist, does it. It’s not real. I’m coming out as gender-unwilling and gender-exempt. It doesn’t stop me being a male human; and nor does it stop me benefiting from what that entails. But I’m pretty keen on the idea anyway.
I’m not nowadays fond of consciously making real-life decisions or actions based on things that are not part of the same reality I’m deciding or acting upon. Nor do I want words for such unreal things to be applied to me. I’m not cis, nor trans, nor hetero, nor homo—unless you mean sapiens. If you’re interested enough to read this far you’re probably already aware of the linguistic distinction (in modern English parlance) between gender and sex. You’re probably comfortable with the notion that the latter refers to the biological and physiological reality of humankind, and that the former is a load of cultural baggage attached to the latter, usually directly or indirectly for the purpose of subjugating the typically physically weaker female sex.
So if you don’t identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, I’m not really surprised. Honestly, who does? If there really are people out there who are fully, 100% on-board with their society’s designated requirements for their maleness or femaleness, they’re probably either psychopaths or haven’t really thought about it hard enough. I think mostly people just assume that gender and sex are the same thing, or that nobody will even momentarily entertain them if they happen to have any issues with The Way Things Are. Any people in doubt might well be reinforced in the delusion that gender is conferred upon them by the act of birth alone because of the propensity of many people not to bother to honour the very important distinction between the terms “gender” and “sex”.
No definition will suit everyone (when has it ever?!) but an archived page from the WHO sums it up pretty neatly.
Some examples of sex characteristics:
Women menstruate while men do not.
Men have testicles while women do not.
Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not.
Men generally have more massive bones than women.
Some examples of gender characteristics:
In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work.
In Vietnam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate.
In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not.
In most of the world, women do more housework than men.
Of course those examples are neither comprehensive nor entirely perfect. I had a (male) friend who only had one testicle, following surgery. Some men have none. Women stop menstruating when their oestrogen levels decline; or never menstruate, if they’re born without a uterus. Nevertheless, the above lists are a pertinent reminder of what we’re generally talking about, either knowingly or unknowingly, when we use the words “sex” and “gender”. It is important to maintain a distinction between the two because one of these lists is real, whether or not we believe or want it to be, and the other is the result of our collective willingness to believe in something which is not real.
So if you don’t identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, as opposed to the gender, that’s trickier. What that says about you, I don’t know, and I’m unqualified even to hazard a guess.
I suppose I have a fatalist approach to these matters. Ah well, seem to be male—I probably thought; round about the age of four when I first became fully aware that (and how) girls and boys were different. Not necessarily what I’d have chosen, these testicles; but I might as well sit back and reap the privileges of my massive bones, my disproportionately high wages, and my disproportionately small share of the housework. Maybe one day I’ll go for a drive in Saudi Arabia. Maybe not.
But not everyone is like me. Most people have had much harder lives, for one thing, and might have had more reason to want to fight against the hand that fate dealt them. But also, many people are more enterprising of spirit than I am. Humankind incorporates a vast spectrum of personality types within (and between) its paltry two sexes. And for this reason alone our species is unlikely to rest until it has either:
A) facilitated the possibility for a complete reversal of the sex allocation dealt to us before birth by “natural” processes: in other words, Full Transition.
B) exterminated itself for some reason, or by some means, while in the process of trying.
Scenario A seems likeliest at the moment. But Scenario B could also feasibly unfold at any given moment, and—especially if you live somewhere with internet as bad as ours—with very little warning. Assuming for a moment that we’re heading for a Scenario-A future, let’s look on the bright side: many people who are unhappy with the sex they were born into (the body, the chemicals, and, yes, the societal baggage called “gender” which is by self-fulfilling prophecy conflated with the biological reality of female- or maleness) will be able to right the wrong that was accidentally done to them in the womb, or the lab, or wherever they grew from.
Great! Sort of. Kind of. But what then? Will we see more happiness? Hopefully. Maybe some. Certainly some relatively wealthy individuals will be able to enact their fantasies of turning their lives around, beginning again—not quite from scratch, perhaps, but with a new identity: one that feels to them, more like them. Men sick of the demands of society (the less housework, the more money, the ability to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, etc.) will pay handsomely to step into a woman’s shoes both literally and metaphorically for the first time. Perhaps foot-shortening surgery will accompany the Full Transition. Perhaps it won’t need to if the hormonal rebalancing has been begun young enough—depending, of course, on the legality accompanying the technology. Or perhaps our definitions of femaleness will simply expand to include biological females who were born male; and our definitions of maleness will change similarly.
It would be awful though, really awful, if the man becoming a woman, or the woman becoming a man, were to find that the grass is not, in fact, any greener on the other side of the fence, and that they have merely exchanged one prison for another. Awful, and expensive, materially and psychologically. I see no moral or logical downside to the seemingly inevitable progress toward Scenario A. Transhumanism is our destiny; probably already our reality. Transhumanism or extinction. Maybe, probably—almost certainly, eventually—both. But I worry that our technological capacity might soon overreach our social and societal readiness. Notwithstanding the perpetual global inequality necessary to drive technological progress (that’s not what this blog-post is about) our society’s absolute adherence to the laws of gender—a thing that, let us remind ourselves, does not exist; and that is what this blog-post is mostly about—surely means that any potential progress toward a greater good offered by scientific and technological advances in the field of transsexual transhumanism will be utterly scuppered by the unreadiness collectively conferred upon us due to our frankly backward adherence to the mythology of the two dominant gender roles which have defined human society for as long as history allows us to see back. I say two dominant gender roles. Obviously one of them has been a bit more dominant than the other.
The problem cannot be the solution.
Gender can be happily ignored by many. But for those of us who see it, we can’t unsee it. Men are unhappy being men. Women are unhappy being women. Girls wish they were boys. Boys wish they were girls. Intersex people might wish they were one or the other; then again, they might wish there was a place in society for them as they are, since they, like men and women, boys and girls, but unlike masculinity and femininity, are also an inevitable part of reality as we know it.
Now, before I go on, and at some point, hopefully, stop, I thought I’d best mention that I do know that the actual effects of gender are real. That the effects of gender are as real as the destruction wrought by hurricane season in hurricane countries across the hurricane-prone bits of the globe—albeit less seasonal in nature.
But this doesn’t mean that gender is as natural as the wind. To argue that everything which exists is natural by definition, is not the same as arguing that everything which exists is inevitable. The climate we have now is an inevitable result of the delicate balance of natural physical forces on, in, and around our planet; which balance includes but is not limited to us. Thus, the wind blows, and we see trees bend; or we hear windows rattle, or our train gets delayed. Most scientists would agree that we’ve collectively “made an impact” on the planet. One day our species might become so powerful that, like the gods in our books, we can claim that the wind blows when we exhale. This is not currently the case; but gender is an invention entirely born of the human imagination. Gods do not decide how we dress. We do. We took our sexual cues, and collectively ran with them. Men, having more massive bones, are—on average—better at running. No matter that women are better at menstruating or lactating; or that quite literally anything a man can do (short of producing spermatozoa to fertilize an ovum) a woman can also do… Because gender dictates that women should wear clothing that inhibits their movement. Gender dictates that men should have the upper hand in their relationships with women. Gender dictates that a man should be paid more money for doing the exact same thing a woman does.
A Brave New Gender outlook might soon dictate that biological men can compete with women in sports events globally. This might seem questionable, given that global professional competitive sports are one of a very few contexts in which the biological reality of maleness and femaleness are unashamedly acknowledged in all their primitive brutish glory; rather than hinted at in euphemistic or deceptive ways. But let’s not forget that gender already plays a massive role here too. Male sports stars are paid much more than female sports stars; even, objectively, disproportionately more in terms of the actual difference in their physical performance. So what if a man decides he wants to be a woman, and then she, with her new pronoun, runs faster than a load of women who happen to have been born women? So what if she, and not one of them, wins the gold medal? In the grand scheme of things, at least this serves as a clear and colourful metaphor for our collective attitudes toward gender and sex. After all, a woman is very welcome to become a man; and then he, having dropped the S from his pronoun, can run against other men and enjoy an immediate physical disadvantage; albeit one mitigated by the possibility of maybe one day cruising down to Medina in a Pontiac Firebird while his husband or more probably his wife is at home doing the ironing.
Yes, gender dictates a lot of awful crap for men to adhere to as well. It favours men, overall, because men were presumably largely responsible for shaping it; or at least because the physical reality of men’s tendency to be able to overpower women convinced them either consciously or unconsciously that nature intended them to be the everlasting beneficiaries of its inbuilt disparities. But it seems unlikely to me, given how far we have deliberately stretched notions of nature already, that gender is ultimately able to be beneficial for our species at all. It sows discord and misery. It arms our enemies (even our potential friends) with ammunition to use against us. It makes people act awfully to one another. It makes people angry with people who want to go against its rules. It is a freeloader, a poser, and a fraud. It seems to be an intrinsically important aspect of society; something which affords us freedoms and happiness. It isn’t, of course, but it seems to be; and that seeming seems to make us believe it is. And us believing it is, demonstrably makes us enforce its rules as though it really were.
No wonder some people are unhappy about it. No wonder some people feel that their gender-role is a prison from which they want to escape. And since gender is more commonly (though incorrectly) associated with physical reality, why change your mind when you can change your body? Clothes, make-up, hairstyles, etc. People have been doing it for centuries. Millennia. If you can afford it now, or if your society can afford it, there’s hormones, surgery, medication. Perhaps it’s not that you don’t want to change your mind. Maybe you can’t change your mind. Maybe you shouldn’t have to. Humans have been adorning and modifying their bodies since humans existed. For social and ceremonial purposes, or just because they want to. Clothes, tattoos, make-up, prosthetic limbs, jewellery, circumcision, foot-binding…
Why must society’s requirements for the rules for male and female appearance and behaviour inhibit personal freedoms? There is only ever one answer: control. Men control society. No, not me as far as I know—at least, not consciously. Not necessarily you, if you’re a man, either. And not some shady group of men who meet weekly by candlelight in a cellar to exchange secret handshakes, drink expensive liquor, and cackle about the awful things they’ve done to women since they last met. Not just them, at any rate. But that vast transhistorical network of relatively powerful individuals down the millennia who have really succeeded in shaping the world we inhabit today. Those who made a mark. The chiefs, the warlords, the clerics, the kings, the emperors, the kaisers, the czars, the presidents, the prime ministers and the CEOs. They’re #notallmen. But most of them were. And most of them still are.
There’s a line in a song by a band I like (“Rain, Steam and Speed” by The Men They Couldn’t Hang): “Some men build a monument / Some men build a tomb / Some men move the world around / To give them breathing room.” It’s a great song. A very masculine song, I suppose; a physical song, and a workers’ song, about the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, I was thinking about that last bit especially: “Some men move the world around / To give them breathing room”. That sort of sums it up. It’s true. And I like it. I don’t like it because I like it. I like it because it’s true. Imagine how much harder it must be to move the world around if you’re a woman—if you’re a woman you might not have to imagine very hard at this point—and what if “moving the world around to give you breathing room” is not considered within the remit of your “gender role”, but, say, wearing a corset is?
The world we live in is the Men’s Room. Call it “Earth” if you will, but this represents it falsely. It is not all rich soil; but it is all masculine controlled space; legal fictions passed off as nature. The desert, the steppes, the tundra; the rice-paddies, the wheat-fields, the factory-farms; from the American flag planted on the moon (by men) right down to the heaps of plastic collecting in the Mariana Trench: this is our world now. We have remade it in our image. Every inch of it is mapped, and catalogued, and valued—at least in the financial sense of the word. We have made the Men’s Room, like we latterly made god, a stern unpredictable patriarch.
It might seem, to the scientists tasked with the undertaking, that achieving a Full Transition between man and woman, woman and man, or man and superman, is the Great Task facing humankind. (That or recreating woolly mammoths while simultaneously driving black rhinoceroses to extinction.) But, for me, transhumanism must begin—can only truly begin—with the obliteration of the great vast plastic fraud of gender, and (as a stretch-goal) all other associated imagined entities that are bound together, siphonophorelike, encircling us with barbs bared as we dive deep for something greater: some perfect pearl.
Perhaps the plundering of oyster-beds isn’t the best metaphor I could deploy here. But we could probably, theoretically, individually and collectively, enjoy ourselves more—hopefully at the expense of fewer other (human and non-human) organisms—before we die. Spend less time worrying, hating, hurting, feeling guilty or put-upon; watching our backs.
I understand that this post has been a bit of a boggy ramble. It’s a bit of a dump, I admit; and probably doesn’t even constitute information, for the most part. Much of this has been swimming around my brain over the past few years, but hasn’t managed to make it out into any kind of literary shape.
The relationship between nature and destiny is, after all, what I’ve been trying to keep on my mind while writing my third poetry book, In the Men’s Room; which task seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time, and is still not fully complete. It’s not all about sex and gender, the book. It’s also about ecology, and class—among other things. I’m fascinated by the inherent and enduring inequality in human society, and how big a role gender plays in that, and what it all means for our relationship with the reality we inhabit. There are no poems in it about whether or not women-only shortlists for British political parties should include trans-women. And there are no poems about gender-neutral toilets. Although there is one poem in it about defecating, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing. And another in which I speculate about why men’s toilets specifically often have faeces spattered across the walls, floor, and—if you’re a woman you might not believe this, but it’s true—the ceiling.
I don’t aim through my art to tell people what should be (as if I had a clue); but rather to ask why things are how they are, and whether the way things are is the way they have to be. Of course, I am just a man, albeit a self-important and recently self-declared gender-exempt man; so it’s entirely possible that a combination of my genes and my conditioning might persuade me to end up doing the exact opposite of the thing I’m meaning to do, and to not quite realize it. For which, if for nothing else here, I offer the following draft poem that will probably open the collection when, or if, it finally materializes:
For all the unpicked blackberries,
All blistered, blue and furry;
For all the hard, green, knotted burs
Brushed from the brambles early;
For every drop of purple ink
That’s stained my index finger
While interrupting news reports
Whose morbid verbs would linger
Among the sunlit dustmotes as
I overstuff my freezer;
For every infant filament
Lost to the Tangle Teezer;
For every drop of diesel
That drips on the forecourt concrete;
For every broadsheet crossword
I have ever failed to complete;
For each particle of water
I diverted by mistake
From becoming what it ought to,
Be that river, sea, or lake;
For all that I have ever missed
By being in a hurry,
And all that I have ever brought
To you by way of worry,
I am sorry.