What Does Gender Serve?

Among progressives, it is nowadays considered preferable to speak of gender identity as though it represented a primordial fact about ourselves – as though we are born being one thing or another, and oriented in a particular way. We are born as men or women or as something non-binary; we are naturally attracted to a specific gender. The apparently emerging consensus of the LGBTQ+ movement is that these features of ourselves are not the object of choice, and that, for this reason, what we are cannot be de-conditioned out of us. It has become increasingly socially inappropriate to say that “being gay is a choice” or even to speak (as many LGBTQ+ proponents did until recently) of “chosen gender pronouns,” because the right to express a non-“hetero-normative” gender identity is getting premised on the assumed unchosen-ness of that identity. Progressives today seem to believe that the best way to argue for an identity’s inclusion is to show that this identity is an immutable thing. However, the LGBTQ+ movement finds itself, in this respect, at an interesting juncture in its own evolution, as it arguably gained much of its initial momentum from the post-modernist idea that human identity is, by and large, a social construction. Under the influence of such seminal works as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, the queer movement had found a theoretical launching pad in post-modernism’s searing skepticism concerning any preexisting “nature” in us. For the social constructivists, the apparent cynicism involved in the claim that we are passive products of social conditioning was effectively counterbalanced by the existentialist belief that, through waking up to the possibility of acting in radical freedom from prior conditioning, we can voluntarily transform into something genuinely original and different. But, by arguing today that gender identity is a pre-social and unchosen fact about us, the queer rights movement seems to have abandoned its beginnings.

Perhaps the LGBTQ+ movement today is right to take its distance from social constructivism and existentialism, for there is something, to my mind, admittedly nihilistic in the view that there is nothing anterior to social programming and radically free choice. The LGBTQ+ movement today wants to argue that there are some pre-givens about ourselves, although it has resisted offering a fuller account of where these pre-givens originate and why they compel our respect. While implicitly disowning social constructivism, it has not offered a more holistic or spiritually grounded explanation of the real starting-point of these longings. It would not suffice, I think, to argue that these longings are the product of biological necessity (i.e. that we are built to be sexual creatures in order to propagate the species); for this would not provide a support for those sexual longings that do not propagate the species. Some may say, “Yes, these longings are created by biological necessity, but they are not bound by it. People who are gay still feel that their longings are meaningful, even when they don't serve biological imperatives.” To which we may ask: what is it, then, that makes these and all sexual longings meaningful?

Sexuality involves a kind of seeking – a wanting to be close to a certain type of person, that is, to someone who embodies particular qualities. It is the seeking of a kind of knowledge in other words – knowledge that, for some reason, we feel we lack. Or, to put it in other words, it expresses the will to integrate with something we are not yet integrated with.

I believe that we will not come to fully understand the existential purpose that sexuality serves until we come to see, first, that masculinity and femininity exist in a dialectical relationship with each other - by which I mean that they exist in an opposed and yet mutually needy, because individually incomplete, way. Masculinity is more associated with public life, with objectivity, with exteriority and with force, and femininity is more associated with private life, with subjectivity, with interiority and with understanding. All human life needs both of these, which means that we are constantly trying to integrate these two dynamics within ourselves in an appropriate way. How do we go about trying to integrate these in ourselves? according to a dialectical movement, which is a movement that moves to and fro, from one side to the other.

In my view, then (and speaking from the vantage point of personal experience rather than extended sociological studies, which would shed their own light on the subject), it is also a weakness in our current understanding that we do not recognize gender affiliation and sexual orientation as merely distinct moments in the unfolding of one continuous (albeit fluctuating) movement. Sexual orientation is not actually something we are born with: young children do not have a sexual orientation. Prior to sexual orientation, what young children experience is the phenomenon of gender affiliation: learning in an intensive way the attributes and way of being of the masculine or the feminine both through adopting these ways and through selectively associating with others who embody them. But because the masculine and the feminine are in a dialectical relationship, there is something of a repulsive dynamic between the two. Thus, in the moment of gender affiliation (which is never, of course, really left behind), one generally experiences an immense impulse to reject aspects of the opposing gender. Girls, by being among each other, enhance their girlish virtues (of sensitivity and understanding, for instance) and cultivate a shared disdain towards boyish ways of behaving; boys who associate with each other usually do the same in turn. Later, however, I believe this turns out to have a cost, because there is an existential need to actually integrate the feminine and the masculine in each one of us. It is precisely the rejection of the other gender that, in my belief, generates the need for integration with that gender during the moment of “sexual orientation”. How might this explain the case of individuals who become sexually oriented towards their own gender? Research shows that “as children, gay men tend to have been more feminine and lesbians more masculine than same-sex heterosexual people” and that “homosexual people are more likely to recall preferring opposite-sex playmates, feeling like the opposite sex, and preferring activities and career goals associated with the opposite sex.” Gay men, quite likely, did not fully affiliate with the masculine in their childhoods, or lesbian women with the feminine, which suggests that this area of their "knowledge" remains incomplete. Thus, it seems possible that the sexual longings of gay people may offer further evidence of a fundamental human need to integrate the dialectically-related masculine and feminine dynamics inside oneself in some way that is ultimately satisfying, while not necessarily meant to yield an identical outcome in each case.

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