Sorry for dragging my heels on the response. I’ve been off the grid the last few days in more remote rural area with limited internet access. On top of that, I’ve had a difficult time formulating a fleshed-out enough response without writing anything long form. After some debate, I decided to go as long-winded as necessary.
I think the big issue in this disagreement is in our definition of terms. Both of you seem to be defining “gender” as sets of behaviors and expectations imposed on individuals by larger society, in line with what (I think) some predominantly academic feminist social scientists like Judith Butler have theorized in saying that gender is “performative.” Butler in particular has even drawn a parallel between gender and sexuality, saying that gender is like sexuality in that she is a lesbian not because of any part of her identity or anything about her state of existence, but because she performs certain actions. She was not always a lesbian, but “became a lesbian” when she started to perform that role. At this point, it’s probably not a surprise to anyone in this thread that I disagree. The issue I take with these kinds of assertions is their lack of grounding in anything concrete. Everything is theoretical and logicked out, adopted as the truth because it can be rationalized in a way that fits together. But the idea that gender is nothing more than a set of behaviors is just one of many potentially reasonable interpretations of the world and how it works.
To me, the sentiment that gender is socially constructed is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, I feel that it conflates gender itself with gender roles. This is not directly fallacious, I suppose, but it does seem to contradict the last several decades of political rhetoric about how gender identity isn’t undermined by nonconformity to gender roles. If being a man is performative, then my failure to perform the role of manhood, through my attraction to men, affinity for the color pink and somewhat higher voice, does in fact make me less of a man. If gender is a performance, there are no masculine women or feminine men because those people are not performing the roles of man and woman. If manhood is just the performance of what society designates “masculine,” rather than an identity grounded in biological reality, then being feminine and saying you’re a man seems kind of like dancing Swan Lake and then proclaiming that your ballet performance was just an alternative way of playing the cello.
When you say that people should allow their genders to form on their own over time, you seem to simply mean that people should be able to be as masculine or feminine as is comfortable for them without social shaming or stigma, otherwise “developing gender” feels like a pretty nebulous phrase to use. This is a sentiment I whole-heartedly agree with. But that hardly seems to necessitate the acknowledgment of transgenderism. If gender is not an innate part of someone’s identity, but a set of behaviors, why could they not simply be content being acknowledged as feminine-leaning males and masculine-leaning females? Why go to the trouble of seeking recognition as a given gender?
If I said that being a woman means identifying with femininity, that seems to be more or less in line with the idea that gender is performative. But, if I said that being a woman means being feminine, which is essentially the same statement slightly rephrased, wouldn’t you argue that this statement is limiting and oppressive? I suspect you might even call it misogynistic. If saying that someone is a woman doesn’t mean that they are female and it doesn’t mean that they are feminine, then what does it mean? Isn’t the purpose of language to communicate ideas and concepts? Separating gender from sex as well as from masculinity and femininity strips words like “woman” and “he” of any communicative usefulness. All language around gender becomes utterly meaningless and arbitrary.
To the average person on the street, “gender” and “sex” are synonymous. The linguistic construct of gender (pronouns, etc.) help to facilitate sexual interactions between males and females and this dichotomy was built directly into many languages because sexual reproduction is such a foundational part of our existence as humans and organisms in general. Even if the entire concept of gender is nothing more than a designation of roles, and even if this designation of roles could be broken down entirely to the point that no one made any assumptions or judgments (an unrealistic and arguably impossible goal,) society would still need a recognition of the distinction between males and females, which is the function that gender serves colloquially.
I would argue that the colloquial function of gender is far more important than the academic definition, because the average person’s conceptualization of gender is the conceptualization that will be the most influential in everyday life in the real world outside the campus bubble. If society is what constructs gender, and society has reached the consensus that gender is synonymous with sex (with a sort of question mark given to intersex people,) then that doesn’t leave much room for trans people. Being feminine is not adequate grounds for identification as a woman because womanhood is the communication of female-ness, and there is little sense or even reason in attempting to reframe this meaning because, if gender is not biologically driven and just a label, there is no pressing reason to apply that label in a different place than it already applies.
The reason that I acknowledge trans identification is not because of argumentation for the deconstruction of gender or any other rhetorical argument, but because I do not think gender is socially constructed and have been provided scientific evidence that there is a case to be made for why trans women are women and trans men are men in the way that matters. The most substantial piece of evidence being brain scans indicating that trans people have certain structures in their brains that strongly resemble brain developments in the opposite sex. (Similar findings have been observed among homosexuals.) Recognition of this, however, is contingent on the acknowledgment that there are, in fact, differences between the male and female brain, which is a sentiment many people problematize. Not because it’s inaccurate, but because it’s ideologically inconvenient. As a few basic examples, males have a larger amount of gray matter in their brains while females have a larger amount of white matter. Males have more connections between hemispheres while females have more connections across frontal lobes. While it would be ridiculous to argue that all aspects of gender are biological, (there’s nothing in our biology dictating that men can’t wear pink,) all of these neurologically observable differences can be linked to certain behaviors and even aptitudes.
It’s funny to me that the position of seeing gender as anything other than purely a social construct has come to be associated with right wing radicals and the religious right, because being an atheist is exactly the reason I view gender as biological. When I was raised religious (but still inexplicably a feminist,) I was more inclined to view men and women as genetically equivalent because I believed in the Bible, which said that everyone is equal. (Subjugation of groups under theocracy is another animal.) Now that I no longer subscribe to those beliefs, I see no reason to see men and women as the same. There is no magical sky daddy that will make sure everything is genetically equal. There is only hundreds of millions of years of evolution. To assume that males and females could go through the pressures of natural selection without picking up some genetic distinctions seems entirely dogmatic and irrational.
All of this gobbledygook is to say that, while I believe everyone should be treated with respect, saying that trans people are trans simply because they proclaim themselves to be so, rather than because of any identifiable factor of their unchangeable self, seems misguided in much the same way that trans-exclusionary feminists who insist that trans people are not trans because they cannot change their sex chromosome pairs are misguided. And while I have looked for deeper explanation of the social constructionist view reconciled with trans identification, “queer theory” has been of little help. It claims to be built on the lived experiences and beliefs of trans people, but the problem is that no definitive “trans experience” exists. I’ve encountered trans people who believe gender is social construct as well as trans people who very emphatically oppose that theory. So queer theory, in that regard at least, seems more about elevating the voices of people with certain opinions than about presenting differing perspectives on issues that affect trans people.
Obligatory Disclaimers: 1) The words “equal” and “unequal” as I use them in this context are not meant to imply a positive or negative value judgment, or a hierarchy of superiority/inferiority, but rather an acknowledgment of differences. If one thing is different from another thing, the two are objectively unequal. What makes something superior or inferior is entirely subjective and, in my opinion, irrelevant to the topic in this context. 2) The link between brain structure and behavior/aptitude is obviously an overall trend regarding general populations and, like many other generalizations, will always have plenty of exceptions when dialed down to analysis of individual people. (Where we see a lot of conflict between quantitative and qualitative research.)
As for your comment on male sexual predation, that may be a topic for a different day.