Is Gender Obsolete? | Gerfried Ambrosch
In recent years, gender has become increasingly divorced from biological sex, spawning an ever-increasing number of self-defined gender identities. At the same time, sex and gender tend to often be conflated in everyday discourse. What is actually revealed at a gender reveal party, for example, is not the baby’s gender but his or her birth sex. Rather than a useful category, gender has thus become an incoherent concept.
This raises the question whether we actually need gender to describe reality. While it makes sense to draw a conceptual distinction between biological sex and its sociocultural manifestations (the “hardware” and “software” of sexual dimorphism in humans), there is merit to the argument that, ultimately, there is no such thing as gender, only sex and stereotypes: if we remove biology from the equation, all we are left with are stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.
Transgenderism is a case in point. While many transgender people undergo surgery and hormonal treatment in order to transition from male to female or vice versa (notwithstanding that sex is genetically determined), they almost invariably adopt the trappings stereotypically associated with their desired sex to outwardly reflect their gender identity, thus conforming to the norms and expectations of society.
This process does not require an elaborate theory of gender, especially not one steeped in ideology. In fact, the transgender phenomenon makes a great deal more sense without the esoteric claims and contested theories of those who portray the most basic categories within our species as mere sociocultural constructions. To quote the influential gender theorist Judith Butler, “perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender.”
In many progressive circles today, it is almost considered a moral duty to deny that the categories of “man” and “woman” refer to biological realities and map onto the different reproductive roles of males and females. This is reflected in newspeak such as “birthing parent” (instead of mother), “people with uteruses” (because not everyone who has a uterus identifies as a woman), or “female assigned at birth.” Such terminology serves to conceal rather than describe reality. Underlying it is an ideology which—based on a conception of gender that is itself ideological—insists on the primacy of gender identity over biological sex.
Today, there is immense pressure to comply with this ideology. We are, for example, expected to accept that “trans women are women” (based on the circular definition that a woman is a person who identifies as a woman). Gender critical feminists are routinely smeared as “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), and lesbians who express a sexual preference for biological women over men who merely identify as women are frequently accused of transphobia. Women-only spaces are likewise expected to admit biological males who self-identify as women.
Another sign of the growing pervasiveness of this ideology is that the term “cisgender,” which describes people whose gender identity matches their biological sex, is widely used and accepted today, while the word “normal” is increasingly viewed as problematic. Underlying this trend is a conflation of two distinct concepts: normality and normativity. Being “cis” (and heterosexual) is normal; the vast majority of people are. This does not imply, however, that deviation from that norm is, or should be, suppressed.
Yet gender scholars and activists routinely describe contemporary Western culture as “cis-heteronormative.” A 2021 article entitled “Preventing Violence toward Sexual and Cultural Diversity: The Role of a Queering Sex Education,” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, offers the following definition:
Cis-heteronormativity refers to social norms and discourses on the construction of gender identity and sexual orientation that highlight the natural character of sexual binarism (man/woman) as being congruent with gender binarism (masculine/feminine, respectively) … and leading to gender identities that are binary, opposed, hierarchical and complementary and therefore necessarily heterosexual.
This hypothesis can, of course, easily be tested. All we need to do is observe other cultures and other sexually reproducing species. What we find is that both heterosexuality and sexual binarism are the norm and occur naturally.
Gender ideologues all but ignore this reality. For many, to assert that the differences between men and women have natural and biological foundations constitutes a form of bigotry known as “biologism.” There is a difference, however, between justifying social norms and hierarchies in terms of biological determinism and acknowledging that we are biological creatures, shaped by the same evolutionary processes as the rest of the natural world. Gender has been used as a means to obscure this important distinction, further complicating the relationship between the sexes, while demanding that ideological assumptions be accepted as fact.
Gender ideology is commonly associated with the political left, but there is a right-wing version too. Relying heavily on cultural norms and stereotypes, gender traditionalism is not the opposite but the mirror image of the view—held by many progressives for whom gender is a spectrum rather than a binary—that people who are not stereotypically male or female fall outside of these categories. Many of those concerned about the “feminization” of Western men reliably react with outrage whenever a male individual visibly challenges traditional norms of masculinity, for instance when singer Harry Styles posed in a dress for Vogue Magazine. But, if maleness is indeed innate and immutable, such outrage makes no sense.
This is not to dispute that social conditioning plays a role in the formation of male and female identities. To conclude, however, that these identities can be divorced from human biology is logically unsound. Yet, this is precisely the conclusion gender theorists and activists tend to draw. What varies is the extent to which they disassociate gender from biological sex: the greater the disassociation, the more nebulous their concept of gender. The fact that “sex” and “gender” are used almost interchangeably in everyday discourse, blurring the semantic distinction between the two terms, adds to the confusion.
So, is gender obsolete? While it makes sense to differentiate between biological sex and its sociocultural manifestations, gender, as a concept, has become so semantically elastic and at the same time so fraught with ideology as to be useless. It seems its main purpose today is as a means of spreading unsubstantiated social theories. The best way to resist this trend is by demanding evidence, pointing out flawed logic, and refusing to speak the language of gender ideology.