The Issue Defined
While gender ideology has emerged only within the past decade as a significant public issue, it has arguably established itself as one of the more controversial and disruptive political questions of modern times. Its impact is hard to overstate, given the multifaceted implications for private spaces such as bathrooms, on sports, on prison housing policy, and even on everyday language, with the preferred pronoun policies to which individuals may be required to conform regardless of religious or philosophical convictions.
Gender ideology refers to a system of belief that holds that there is a difference between sex and gender and to a spectrum of beliefs that practically deny the significance of bodily sex for personal identity. This may take the form of a distinction between sex as biological and gender as a social construct. Alternatively, proponents of gender ideology argue that biological sex is itself a social construct and that gender as a term refers to a psychological reality that is the real core of a person’s identity.
Typically, gender ideology is treated as part of the general revolution in sexual identity that has taken place over the past half-century, largely due to its presence in the rainbow alliance of the LGBTQ movement. However, it is actually a function of a far more comprehensive anthropological revolution than the narrow issues of sex and even gender would suggest. It is, at its core, part of a fundamental reimagination of what it means to be human. As such, it should be understood with reference not simply to the sexual revolution, but also to deeper understandings of selfhood, to gender theory, to feminist politics, and to technology. Not all of these influences point in the same direction: The modern notion of selfhood is that of the free, autonomous, self-defining individual; gender theory underscores the power of wider society to shape the social performances that are regarded as constitutive of what it means to be masculine or feminine; feminist politics is divided over the status of the sexed body; and technology has fostered a cultural imagination that sees nature as raw material for doing with as one chooses. When all of these are taken into account, the scale of the challenge gender ideology poses to what it means to be human is clear.
Gender Ideology and Selfhood
Gender ideology is part of a dramatic transformation in the notion of selfhood that has been underway since at least the eighteenth century. This transformation involves the transfer of authority from the external world to inner psychology. The significance of this is clear from the following comparison of two hypothetical situations.
In 1900, a patient tells his doctor that he, the patient, is a woman trapped in a man’s body. The doctor responds that this is clearly a problem—a problem of the mind, and that any treatment would therefore be for the purpose of bringing the patient’s psychological convictions into line with the sexed nature of his body. Today, a doctor would most likely respond that this is a problem—but now it would be seen as a problem of the body, not of the mind.
The second scenario reflects a world in which inner psychology has become the decisive factor in personal identity. Traditional external identity markers depended upon external realities: location, family, work. Today, identity is far more closely related to internal psychology and to feelings. One need not be transgender to be subject to this. The typical taxonomy of sexual identity—gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual—can only exist in a culture in which feelings, in this case sexual desires, are fundamental to an individual’s sense of selfhood. And these are examples of a much broader phenomenon of normative selfhood in western culture, that of expressive individualism.
According to expressive individualism, the person is constituted by a set of internal feelings. It also places a premium on the notion of personal authenticity, which is achieved when the individual is able to act in public in a manner consistent with those feelings. For the person who feels that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, this means being able to dress and behave according to the social norms for women and even to elect to have medical procedures, from hormone therapy to surgery, to adjust the body to conform more closely to the feminine ideal.
Expressive individualism also affects relationships. Because personal happiness, defined broadly as an inner sense of well-being rooted in authenticity, is the primary imperative of life for the expressive individual, other people—and indeed other institutions—tend to be seen as existing to serve this end. A good example is no-fault divorce, which effectively transforms marriage from a lifelong covenant in which husband and wife have personal responsibilities towards each other and any children they may have into a contract that can be dissolved when the arrangement fails to provide for the emotional needs of one party or the other.
Gender ideology takes to an extreme this tendency to regard external relationships and authorities as existing to serve individual happiness: Even the body can be seen as a problematic alien presence that prevents the individual from being truly happy and fulfilled. Thus, my body is not me in any deep or meaningful sense. Rather it is an instrument by which the real me—the psychological entity that dwells within the body, as within a space suit—can be realized and fulfilled. If the body stands in the way, then the body itself must be manipulated to make this realization of myself possible. In fact, the politics of gender ideology, particularly as it is being pressed in the medical sphere, engages in a sleight of hand on this issue, denying the importance of the given body for gender, yet granting gender an essence that, detached from biology, can only be socially constructed. Inner conviction about who “I” am only exists because of the dialogical relationship of myself as an individual to wider society, the need I have for recognition, and the socially constructed terms by which such recognition is achieved. Thus, the individual experiences gender as a given, as his “nature,” but the content of that experience is informed by the constructions and expectations of the society in which he lives.
A representative statement that indicates how this way of thinking about selfhood and embodiment has penetrated society is the amicus brief, filed on behalf of over 500 women professional athletes, in the Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Here is a fascinating example of the way this brief instrumentalizes the body as if the body were a tool of the self rather than an integral part of the self:
Athletic prowess depends on bodily integrity. The physical body is a critical tool for athletes, and its condition determines elite athletes’ futures and livelihoods. High school and collegiate athletes use their bodies not only to compete, but also to secure higher education through recruiting opportunities and athletic scholarships that may be otherwise unobtainable. Professional athletes use their bodies for their livelihoods, including to access lucrative sponsorships and advertising opportunities.
Here the body is described as “a tool” and, indeed, if one were to rewrite the paragraph, substituting “carpenter” for athlete and “saw” for body, the point would be clear: These women do not consider their bodies to be essential to who they are but instrumental to what they aspire to be. The very next paragraph reinforces this by asserting a further point:
Amici depend on the right to control their bodies and reproductive lives in order to reach their athletic potential. Indeed, Amici are united in their belief that the physical tolls of forced pregnancy and childbirth would undermine athletes’ ability to actualize their full human potential.
Here it is notable that natural bodily functions—in this case pregnancy and childbirth—are seen as standing in the way of actualizing these athletes’ “full human potential.” In short, the body is at best an instrument, at worst a hindrance, to the women’s ability to be themselves.
What these athletes present in a naïve form in this amicus brief is reflective of the broader manner in which society imagines selfhood: The body plays no integral part in today’s understanding of selfhood. Rather, the body is external to who I really am, something worn or inhabited. It is not in the deepest sense who I am. And that, of course, provides a broader cultural and social context in which a phenomenon such as gender ideology is able to assert itself as a plausible option for human identity, severing the sexed physiology of the body from the identity of the person who believes themselves to be somehow “inside” the body.
Of course, selfhood is a dialogical phenomenon. Our identities are always a construction not simply of our inward feelings but of how those feelings are perceived and acknowledged by others. Thus, for the expressive individual, authenticity cannot terminate simply in the outward performance that gives voice to inward feelings. The outward performance must itself be acknowledged as legitimate by others, ideally by society in general as reflected in society’s social practices and law codes. If it is not so acknowledged, if the identity of the performer is not recognized, then the person is accorded no value or legitimacy.
This is a major reason why debates about the laws surrounding gender ideology are so heated. Take bathroom policy, for example. Bathrooms are, obviously, segregated along the lines of biological sex based on physiology. Yet the decision to exclude a trans person from the bathroom of their stated gender is perceived by that person to have been based not upon physiology, but upon the politics of identity. Their stated gender is not being recognized. In other words, they are not being acknowledged as people of value.
Such are the politics of recognition surrounding gender ideology. And these rest upon a psychologized notion of personhood.
Gender Ideology and Gender/Queer Theory
Gender/queer theory is a second strand that connects gender ideology to what it means to be human.
In Part One of her influential 1949 book, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that neither biology, economics, nor psychology are sufficient to account for the differences between men and women. Rather, a deeper cultural approach is necessary. At the beginning of Part Two, she makes the dramatic statement:
One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.
In other words, the conceptions of womanhood or femininity are profoundly connected to social expectations. To be a woman is not simply to be somebody who possesses XX chromosomes. Rather, it is a matter of cultural norms and expectations to which women are taught to conform. Hence the claim that to become a woman is to learn to play a role.
On one level, this claim is unexceptionable: Women have played and do play different roles in different cultures. The American construction of femininity may well differ from that of the British or, even more so, Korean or Japanese. There is clearly a significant degree of cultural influence on how the relationship between the sexes is understood. If that were all that Beauvoir—or perhaps her successors—were claiming, it would be unassailable. But in making this statement, she also paves the way for a conceptual distinction between biological sex and gender, something that is foundational to the theoretical underpinnings of trans ideology. And this distinction is used in gender/queer theory to do far more than simply highlight differences regarding the construction of femininity and masculinity across cultures. It is used to annihilate wholesale the significance of biological sex to gender identity.
Perhaps the most influential source of such thinking is the American gender/queer theorist, Judith Butler. For Butler, gender is a socially constructed performance. Again, this claim in itself might not be particularly radical. Gender as performance has a certain appeal to it because notions of masculinity and femininity do vary across time and space. And most individuals, upon reflection, can probably identify moments when they themselves have deliberately conformed to their culture’s gender stereotypes in some way.
If this were all Butler and subsequent gender theorists were claiming, there would be no necessary principal problem with their argument. But, in fact, Butler claims much more. For her, biological differences between men and women do exist, but they are irrelevant to constructions of masculinity and femininity. In an essay on Simone de Beauvoir, she raises the question of how one should address women who do not recognize themselves in society’s expectation of what women should be:
What then are we to conclude? That these women are deluded, or that they are not women at all? We can argue that women have a more inclusive essence, or we can return to that promising suggestion of Simone de Beauvoir, namely, that women have no essence at all, and hence, no natural necessity, and that, indeed, what we call an essence or a material fact is simply an enforced cultural option which has disguised itself as natural truth.
The key terms here are “essence” and “enforced cultural option.” What Butler is doing is reading gender through a lens provided by the post-structuralism of Michel Foucault, one that denies there are such things as essences and sees all claims to such (indeed, to truth in general) as being part of a cultural regime of power. In other words, the concepts of “man” and “woman” are not, as common sense might suggest, categories rooted in biological realities, but rather linguistic concepts that play a role in the overall discourse of power of society at large. Abigail Favale, a Catholic scholar and gender theorist, summarizes Butler’s position as follows:
Butler is not denying that biological sex differences exist at all. Rather, she is arguing that any categorization or meaning we ascribe to those difference is a matter of power, not of truth. There’s no good reason, in her view, for seeing those differences as any more significant than differences of hair or eye color. The body, for her, exists —but as a blank slate, devoid of its own meaning, upon which social norms are etched.
Two things should be noted here. First is the sheer radicalism of what Butler is claiming: Bodies are ultimately irrelevant to individual gender identity. This is the theoretical foundation to our current gender chaos. Put simply, the typical binary of our sexed bodies, whether we are thinking of chromosomes, genitalia, or secondary sex characteristics, is grounded in biology. But if biology is entirely separable from gender—if gender is performance, not essence—then there can be as many genders as performances. Hence, gender theory is really just a species of queer theory, in which all categories are essentially destabilized. If gender does not exist in the body but only in the mind, in the feelings, then it inevitably becomes a fluid thing that can only be given some kind of communicable or consistent content with reference to performance and conformity to socially constructed gender norms. Advocates for public policies and medical treatments connected to gender ideology might wish to speak of such feelings in essentialist terms grounding their apparent reality, but that is just rhetorical sloppiness, covering the profound anti-essentialism of their position.
Second, we can see how gender theory gains plausibility in a world in which the normative notion of selfhood is that of the expressive individual. For the expressive individual, the tendency is to see the body as a tool or an instrument for realizing the self that dwells within it. The women athletes’ amicus brief in Dobbs gives ample testimony to this culturally dominant intuition. Gender theory differs at a theoretical level from expressive individualism because the self is an imposed construction of the powers at play in the wider culture; but it is analogous to it in its discounting of the importance of the physical body as having an essence that is constitutive of who we are. We might put it this way: A world that we experience as expressive individuals is one in which we might well find plausible and even attractive the arguments of Butler and company relative to discourses of power regarding the importance of the body for identity. This is why so many today are squeamish about defining what it means to be a woman or denying that somebody with the body of a woman can be a man. Expressive individualist culture, like the post-structuralism behind Butler’s work, is suspicious of talk that might deny someone the right to self-identify on the grounds that this would be an unjust imposition of power and a negation of the individual. Thus, gender ideology becomes plausible, or at least very hard to oppose.
Gender Ideology and Cyborg Feminism
If gender/queer theory offers a philosophical rationale for gender ideology, so does the closely related phenomenon of cyborg feminism. While Butler and company draw their strength from Beauvoir by way of streams of continental philosophy associated with figures such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, cyborg feminism originally takes its cue from a more Marxist reading of Beauvoir, particularly focusing on the ways in which technology might be used to collapse the sex binary.
Marx and Engels noted the potential of technology, in the form of industrial automation, to attenuate the differences between men and women in The Communist Manifesto:
The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.
While they were thinking in terms of the division of labor, by the early 1970s the radical feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone saw that technology could also be used to transcend even the most fundamental biological difference in function between men and women, that of their respective roles in procreation. In her call for feminist revolution, The Dialectic of Sex—a book she dedicated to Beauvoir—she declares:
And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality—Freud’s “polymorphous perversity”—would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.
Written in 1970, before the advent even of in vitro fertilization (IVF), this is a remarkably prescient passage. It also points to yet another element of modern society that has served to make gender ideology plausible by (once again) downgrading the authority of physical embodiment to identify what it means to be human. Specifically, this will be done by eliminating the key difference between men and women in the division of reproductive and family-based labor.
Firestone’s vision was picked up by Donna Haraway in the 1980s in her important work of feminist theory, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In this work, she argues that technology would prove a potent means of reconstructing social relations and of liberating women from traditional gender stereotypes. For example:
One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code.
In plain English, Haraway is arguing that technology is a key determinant of who we are and, as it changes, so what it means to be a man or a woman (or indeed a human) changes, too. As with Butler’s argument about gender as performance, there is a certain truth to this. Technology does transform the way in which we think about ourselves and the way we experience being selves within the world.
The cyborg legacy of Firestone and Haraway has been developed in recent years by American feminist Sophie Lewis, who has focused her work on the implications of artificial reproduction and surrogacy on the nature of the family. As Firestone and (to an extent) Haraway could only speculate about the nature of the technological future, Lewis writes in a context in which technology has made IVF, gay adoption, and surrogacy actual realities. The division of labor regarding reproduction (and thus between male and female) may not have been fully abolished, but it has been profoundly transformed in a manner that has dethroned natural male–female intercourse as the only means by which it can be achieved.
While the target of cyborg feminism is the alleged oppression essential to the capitalist system, its significance for gender ideology is the way it highlights the role of technology in how society constructs gender roles and relations, and how technology makes gender ideology more plausible. In other words, the more technologically advanced society becomes, the more that technology shapes our imaginations, the more plausible gender ideology becomes. It is easier to find gender ideology plausible in a world in which technology has attenuated or broken down the difference in social roles between men and women than one in which such technology is not available. In an extreme form, we might say that gender ideology is only imaginable in a world in which hormone therapies and plastic surgery allow us to believe that the given sexed nature of our bodies is something that can be overcome or transformed. And with cyborg feminism, it is clear that the transgender issue is easy to co-opt to the general political narrative that heteronormative male oppression must be overthrown.
Gender Ideology and Transhumanism
If cyborg feminism sees technology as critical to dismantling the differences between the sexes, then this points to one further movement that is important in understanding the significance of gender ideology: transhumanism.
While the term was originally coined by Julian Huxley in a 1957 essay of the same name, transhumanism is a developing collection of movements and ideas. Max More provides a working definition of its basic core:
Transhumanists regard human nature not as an end in itself, not as perfect, and not as having any claim on our allegiance. Rather, it is just one point along an evolutionary pathway and we can learn to reshape our own nature in ways we deem desirable and valuable. By thoughtfully, carefully, and yet boldly applying technology to ourselves, we can become something no longer accurately described as human—we can become posthuman.
The “posthuman” here is a reference to what human beings could be, or could evolve into, when traits and limitations deemed undesirable or problematic have been eliminated. Examples might include the weakening of the body associated with aging, mortality, factors that limit strength or intelligence, or genes that make us vulnerable to certain illnesses. Technology is the means by which this would be achieved, as is made clear by the World Transhumanist Association’s official manifesto.
That Huxley was an advocate of eugenics should be no surprise. Clearly there is a close analogy between the underlying philosophies of eugenics and transhumanism, predicated as they are on the hope that the human race can be improved. But transhumanism also has clear connections to gender ideology: the notion that the physical constitution of the human body imposes limits upon the individual that can and should be transcended; and the idea that this is possible because technology effectively turns bodies into raw material, a kind of animated playdough, over which the human will can impose itself through technology.
A good example of this is Martine Rothblatt’s “From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form.” Rothblatt, a biological male who presents as a woman and who founded both Sirius Satellite Radio and a biotech company, United Therapeutics, argues that biologically sexed bodies are irrelevant to true identity and that technology will demonstrate this. Rothblatt purports to demonstrate “how technology is the moving force behind liberating people from oppressive male or female sexual identities.” Rothblatt also claims that “transhumanism arises from the groins of gender ideology. As reasoning beings, we must welcome this further transcendence of arbitrary biology, and embrace in solidarity all conscious life.” Whether this claim is historically accurate is irrelevant to my point here. It is the juxtaposition of gender ideology and transhumanism that is telling: Technology and the cultural imagination that it engenders in society are critical to the ambition of both to overcome the restrictive limitations of natural embodiment.
Gender Ideology and the Future of the Human Person
Consider the various phenomena outlined above. We now live in a culture in which expressive individualism is the normative and intuitive sense of self, gender and queer theory play a significant role in the thinking of cultural elites, and cyborg feminism views technology as an instrument of liberation from the politics of the sex binary while transhumanism regards it as fulfilling an analogous function with the general limitations of embodiment. In this context, it becomes clear that gender ideology is not an isolated phenomenon, but one element of a general anthropological shift taking place in modern society.
These different movements are not necessarily philosophically compatible. For example, the assumption of psychological autonomy that underpins expressive individualism is antithetical to post-structuralist claims that the individual self is rather the product of the discourses of power that permeate society. Yet all these movements serve to reinforce each other because they all point toward the same conclusion regarding human nature: It has no given essence and therefore cannot be understood with reference to any kind of biological determinism. As Rothblatt declares, “Nothing in biology requires people with vaginas to behave in one manner and people with penises in another.” Note that Rothblatt can make this statement without really offering any significant argument, or without taking into account some obvious facts—particularly the difference in behavior that is required from men and women in matters of reproduction. This reveals how deeply the rejection of the importance of bodily difference, the affirmation of the power of technology, and the blithe confidence in human power have permeated our culture.
The transgender question is therefore one symptom of a much deeper and more pervasive anti-essentialism. Therefore, the question of the future of humanity would remain even if, for example, the transgender moment proves to be little more than a fad. The underlying cause—a collapse in belief in human nature—would not vanish simply because society comes to see gender ideology as an excess.
In fact, this anti-essentialism is central to the most pressing ethical questions of our day. Medical ethics, for example, is traditionally shaped by notions of medicine as reparative and restorative. This assumed that a normative notion of what it meant to be human could be identified and medicine could be applied to restore or repair that which was damaged or impaired. Once the notion of what it means to be human is abolished—or, perhaps more pointedly, once the very concept of normative humanity is seen as a problem—medical ethics is determined by what desires it is possible to realize. At that point, it likely becomes a function of what the technological managerial class deems appropriate.
The rejection of biologically grounded sexuality also has obvious implications for broader social policy. If there is no such thing as human nature, there can be no such thing as a common purpose or common good. Any claim to such would be read as a manipulative power play, an attempt by one group to control another. Neither human rights nor human obligations would have any natural status. The notion of society as constituted by nothing more than contractual relationships would be reinforced and philosophically irresistible. And in practical terms this would shift power towards the state or to large corporations as the only institutions capable of enforcing some kind of social order.
Finally, personal identity would be plunged into chaos. If the question “What is a woman?” is proving so hard for so many to answer today, it is because the question “What is a human?” has become impossible to answer, too. That is likely one major factor in the rising levels of anxiety we are witnessing in affluent societies today. When all external markers for stable identity are removed—even those provided by the physical sexed constitution of our own bodies—then the question of who exactly we are as individuals becomes both intensely urgent and impossible to answer.
Carl R. Trueman, PhD, is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College.