Gender, sexuality & (un)certainty in a hyper-fluid world
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Anecdote #1: Shortly after arriving for a brief stay in my old hometown, a man in a truck drove by and yelled “poofters” at my 83yo father and I as we walked back to our car.
Anecdote # 2: A few days later, on my evening walk, another man in a truck – this time in rush hour traffic – repeats the dose. “Fucken fag,” he bawls at me.
News drama: Elsewhere, at an anti-transgender protest in a city I have lived in since 2006, men in black t-shirts make Nazi salutes whilst showing their support for the ‘free speech’ rights of a visiting anti-trans activist.
At first glance, the trio above may seem unrelated. Indeed, I hasten to add that we should draw no easy conclusions from my convenient conflation. Furthermore, I am not about to bore you with a victim whinge, nor attempt to promulgate superior virtue. What interests me – perplexes me – are the drivers of such phenomenon. What is it that motivates grown men to hurl sexist abuse at random passersby, or someone to publicly declare themselves as being anti transsexual?
The standard response is polemic and derisive. These people are idiots. They are either phobic or, worse, cynical opportunists exploiting the unreasonable fears of others. They are fuelled by hatred. And so it goes.
- I will confess that I have sometimes thought and felt likewise. I am no cheerleader for sexist, racist, infidel murdering, other hating ideologies that seek to essentialise, marginalise and brutalise out-groups. Having been the target of sexist violence in my youth – and the partner and friend of numerous rape and child abuse survivors – I am not generally inclined to respond to the dog whistles of right wing, religious, conspiracist panic-button pushers. Nor do I hanker for a return to the good ol’ days. Moreover, I am not drawn to ‘world gone mad’ dramas, cancellation mania, or fussing endlessly over acronyms and pronouns. My biases, conscious and unconscious, nudge me in the direction of a broadly pan-humanist, ‘we are all one’ world view. As such, I do not tether my identity to tribal markers. Ethnicity, gender, generation, etcetera are mere banalities.1 In fact, you can use whatever pronoun you will for me. Call me a poofter if you like. These days, I am far less likely to care, let alone be outraged.
However, as much as old school sex and gender orthodoxies might grate, and Nazi salutes boggle the mind, I am choosing here to draw breath, and to resist simple condemnation and the habits of my own bias. Instead, I am wondering how best to understand these behaviours. Furthermore, what do they reveal about me? About all of us?
Firstly, there are no simple answers. Though ideologues and armchair sages may wish to blame it on everything from parenting to poverty or propaganda, and to lump all anti-trans and Third Reich fans into a single, ‘primitive’ category, it seems clear to me that people arrive at these views for a variety of reasons. Some rationalised, others unexamined. The list is extensive, and includes:
- Cultural & generational norms – the coded bias of standard practise
- Family & peer influence – personal & specific ‘nurture’ effects
- A need to belong – finding our tribe – confirming our identity – I am this, not that
- Future phobia & status quo bias – an over-reaction to change
- A desire for order & certainty – a retreat from plurality & complexity – the lure of easy
- The self-validating effects of righteousness & other blaming – we good, them bad
- Mirroring effects – extreme opinion X driving extreme opinion Y
- Refusal drama & virtue signalling2 – I am not one of the herd – I dare to say stand against
- Personal experience & hearsay – strongly impactful life events & anecdotal examples
- The distorting/polarising theatre of news & social media (mainstream or otherwise)
Dot points aside, there are likely more granular, psycho-emotional underpinnings at play. Intellectual, cognitive and temperamental variability render it practically impossible to nail down a neat and brief set of inputs. Truck driving queer abuse yellers and controversial anti-trans speakers not only defy what they consider to be the PC police but the boxes that their similarly noisy progressive opponents like to place them in. Every fascist is a complex human animal, just like every woke warrior.
It is here, however, that we typically encounter the reductive and dehumanising effects of standard issue ideo-political cant; our penchant for which arises from a clutch of psychological and cognitive habits and biases. As a tribal/social animal, we are wired to revert to us/them and either/or. A desire to seek and maintain what neuro-scientists call ‘associative coherence’ impels us towards a model of causative (as opposed to probability based) thinking. Our pattern loving brains and their preference for intellectual short cuts – aka, heuristics – work in tandem with our hindsight and affiliation biases; meaning that business as usual is more desirable than change, the fixed past more agreeable than the fluid present or uncertain future, and that my people are invariably better than your people.3
In this light, it is easy to understand how the increasing speed of the evolution of cultural norms, and the ever more abstract nature of modern society, are alienating many of us. In a world of clickspeed change, how can I reliably navigate the new terrain? Against what landmarks can I triangulate my identity?
And fuck it, why do I have to change?
Therefore, while I find it impossible to understand why anyone would cleave to the notion that complexion infers anything other than the presence of melanin, (and a few other specific genetic and environmental factors), it is far less difficult to imagine the sense of bewilderment and irritation that people might feel when confronted with the blizzard of bourgeois-progressive demands for continuous ‘acknowledgement.’
I doubt that I am the only one who suspects that the self-appointed justice warriors may well have contributed more to the backlash against them than to their own causes. (To be clear, this saddens me. Babies will be thrown out with bath water if the pissed-off grumbles I hear from so many in my otherwise compassionate and well-meaning circle is any guide. If lifelong ‘lefties’ are now sniping at PC and gestural wokery, there is obviously a problem, at least on the messaging front.)
But to repeat – why on Earth would anyone go so far as to call themselves anti trans, or devote the energy required to yell at people they suspected of being homosexual? Why do they care so much? Why pick this particular battle?
If, for instance, you wanted to wanted to identify as a woman – or man or both or neither – how exactly would this affect me? Similarly, your choice to have this or that surgery, or not, is your business. Even if you were a close friend or significant other and I found the adjustment difficult, I would still not be anti. In fact, even if I thought you had fallen foul of misguided ideas and felt moved to beg you not to undergo the transition, I would still not buy tickets to hear a self-styled activist pour scorn all over you, let alone stand in a crowd with a bunch of neo-Nazis.
Likewise, I would never lean out of a vehicle and scream, “Hetero!” Because, as it happens, I don’t give a fuck who you fuck…as long as you’re not raping them…and they’re not twelve.
Saying this, I can now safely predict that some readers will have me down as being too woke for my own good. Meanwhile, others will insist that there are only two genders, and trot out arguments rooted in chromosomal banality. Some may even cite holy books as a source of final expertise on matters of gender and sexuality. With respect, they will all be missing the point.
I am not here to rule on the technicalities of gender assignation – physical or neurological – or go into battle for the various members of the LGBTQI (etc) community. This is less about who is right or wrong and more about how we get to the point where we feel moved to protest on the steps of parliament, embark upon global speaking tours, and scream sexuality ‘slurs’ at pedestrians. When normally rational acting people rouse themselves to behaviours that look a lot like fear and hatred, the stench of exaggerated grievance (importance) betrays a whiff something more profound.
Correcting for the white noise of ideology and the distracting buzz of drama and spectacle, we see two strong patterns emerging from the data.
- 1: Contemporary social organisation – notably, its scale and abstracted complexity – is too difficult and unwieldy for most of us to wrap our heads around. Having evolved in small clan-based groups, where our personal and environmental relationships were concrete, and power structures were both proximate and largely transparent, we now find ourselves ill-fitted to the super-sized societies we have created. In a world where communities are mediated by abstract tribal markers like nation states and isms, and where power is opaque and at a seemingly impossible distance, we find ourselves adrift, feeling powerless, and in need of ‘group belonging’ stories we can truly feel part of. Hence, the hyper-partisan tenor of culture wars and other such contests. Alienated citizens will understandably look for someone to embrace and reflect them. To confirm their identity in a shifting, amorphous fog of unclear allegiance.4
- 2: If we were to understand our culture as being analogous to an individual, we would most likely conclude that it is still somewhat immature. Possibly adolescent, under-graduate at best. Cue the proliferation of sub-cultures, the weed-like sprouting of group acronyms, and the blunt us/them binaries of modern politics; all of which reflect a teenage craving for peer acceptance and clear group identification. Likewise, the manner in which so many of us cling feverishly to certainties, old and new, and conflate our identities with these beliefs is redolent of the young adult desire to establish a clear narrative of self and orient themselves in a complex world. And then there’s the relentless control dramas, the social media compare-a-thon, and the ‘must have it all/must have it now’ frenzy of impatient consumption and self-gratification; not to mention the thrill so many of us derive from outrage. If contemporary culture were a sulky teen we would probably send it to its room and urge it to grow the fuck up.5
In short, in a noisy and often overwhelming world where the rules of engagement appear to be changing every day, and where once clear boundaries now seem unrecognisable, there is an understandable taste for forms of retreat. For introverted curmudgeons like myself: the sanctuary of solitude and the sanctimonious pleasures of the blogosphere. For others: the country, the bunker, the past. Refusal. Resistance. Denial.
When the world gets too much, choose something else.
In a mature cultural climate, this might manifest as quietness, reasonable doubt, and living and letting live. In an immature zeitgeist: yelling, militancy and holy war. And, as battlegrounds go, gender and sexuality sure get us steamed.
While attitudes towards gay and bi folk, at least here in the West, have become more permissive – screaming truck drivers notwithstanding – the recent uptick in attention focused on trans people has been less benign. Though we love a good drag act and flock to cheer on Priscilla, it is clear that many among us find transsexuality difficult and confronting.
In a gendered species this is to be expected. After all, gender is a core evolutionary mechanism. A crucial means to an existential end. It is pivotal to our human-ness.
Nevertheless, in a cohort north of eight billion, it is highly probable that a number of us will experience their sense of gender in ways that do not neatly align with the majority m/f binary. Most of us will find this hard to imagine or empathise with.
- Personally, I give thanks that my gender is not fluid, if only because it makes life simpler to be a man in a male form. Body and gender dysmorphia do not strike me as trivial or straightforward matters to contend with. Nor do resistant, dismissive and occasionally hateful attitudes. As for the violence that some feel compelled to enact…well, I know enough about that to know how nasty it can be.
That said, transgender people are reliably human; as in, not saintly, not immune to over-egging the omelette, not averse to a bit of victim drama.
Perhaps here is the salient point. Obvious, yet profound. The trans community, like their anti-trans foes, are tribal human beings. They both wish to belong, and to be heard; and although they may be in error or deluded, or prey to the fashions of identity politics, in all of this they surely remind us of ourselves. Flawed, complex, emotional. Better at rationalising, than being rational.
We may not like what people have to say, or the way they say it, and in turn they may find us similarly distasteful. Perhaps my insipid humanism and oh-so-fucking-moderate fence sitting will rile some as much as anti-trans tantrums and Nazi nostalgia make my head spin.
The difference, if there is one, is that I am not fixated on your ethnicity or sexual preference, and I will not fret if you choose to identify as Belinda or Bruce or seek to share a public toilet with me. I may have concerns about certain surgeries and the effects of hormone treatment on young bodies, and I will likely not wear an armband printed with a rainbow – or indeed a swastika – but I would never insist that you stick to the gender model that has been my experience. And I will never go so far as align myself with anything even remotely resembling an anti-trans movement.
It is one thing to have qualms about certain matters, to misunderstand or fundamentally disagree, it is another to visit vilification and violence upon others. To wish them ill. To deny them their experience of themselves.
Here then, my line. My placard. Please feel free to congratulate yourself on how straight and binary you are. Dress up in your Gestapo outfit and masturbate over your Hitler memorabilia if that turns you on. Just don’t beat the shit out of anyone or encourage others to do so in your stead. And don’t shove your sacred certainties down other folks’ throats – because I for one won’t swallow.
Rather, with apologies for the cliché, you do you, and let me do me. Think me a fool if you wish, just don’t force me into the prison of your beliefs or execute me for deviating from the true path you so obviously follow – and I shall return the favour.
Lastly, to appropriate the words of a well-known and avowedly conservative Australian politician, Mr Bob Katter:
“Let there be a thousand blossoms bloom.”
No really, that’s how he said it…and guess what…that’s fine by me.
Postscript: Transgender women & sport
While I was drafting this piece, the peak governing body of running races, (World Athletics), announced a ban on transgender athletes competing in the female category at international events.
In detail, they said that no one who had ‘gone through male puberty’ would be permitted to take part in ‘female world ranking events.’ The body’s chief, former middle distance champion Sebastian Coe, also said that the decision was not “forever.”
The key issue, according to World Athletics, is testosterone, which, regardless of politics etcetera, does infer advantages in terms of speed, power and strength. If I am a cis-female sprinter or javelin thrower this ruling likely matters to me. Same goes for other sports. I imagine female tennis players, footballers and cyclists might feel the same; namely, that they would prefer not to be asked to compete against those with an inbuilt and significant physical advantage.
While true that ‘the right body type’ can be helpful in your chosen sport – for instance, lightly built riders tend to climb hills faster and are thus more likely to win events like the Tour de France – and that playing fields are also tilted by issues of finance, access to quality coaching and so forth, testosterone levels and the muscular advantages they bring are clearly linked to gender and are not readily countered by team budgets, superior sports drinks or training regimes.
Doubtless, the anti-trans amongst you are cheering, and others decrying the phobic injustice of it all. With all due deference to the noble pursuit of triple jumping, the issue of transgender sport is a specific side bar that, in the grand scheme, is relatively minor. Civilisations don’t rise and fall over issues of fairness in cricket, and the 100m freestyle final is surely not the best example of coalmine canary or MLK dream. Point being, it is possible to address complex issues in a case-by-case fashion, rather than by throwing an ideological blanket over them.
Or so I prefer to believe.
1: Previously on this site I have chimed in on the vexed issue of identity politics in the social media age. My opinions may offend some, if only because they run counter to the nigh ubiquitous identity clamour of the 2020s. Read at your own peril.
2: The term ‘virtue signalling’ is one typically beloved of conservatives, as if somehow they did not engage in it themselves. Truth is, we are all prone to advertising our putative virtues.
3: For much more on this, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow and/or Bobby Duffy’s The Perils of Perception.
4: In anthropological terms, this is described as the cognitive limit of human social group size; the idea being that we can only truly and concretely comprehend groups of approximately 150. Google Dunbar’s Number if you want to drill deeper.
5: Should you be wondering, I am not the only one to observe this. Check out American blogger/author Mark Manson. Amongst other strands of thought, his 2019 book Everything Is Fucked examines the ‘cultural immaturity’ phenomenon.