If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media, you’ve likely encountered the term “gender nonconformity.”
While this may come across to some as ‘just the stuff of trending hashtags’, it is actually a profound societal shift. A revaluation and realignment of perceived social norms and ‘traditional gender roles’.
So, “what does the world of philosophy have to say about this?”, I hear nobody ask.
Well, here I will examine this topic through a philosophical lens. I mean, what’s the use of philosophy if not to poke and prod at the very fabric of our societal mores?
Defining the Undefinable
Let’s get the basics down first. What is Gender Nonconformity.
Gender nonconformity refers to the expression or identification of gender, in ways that diverge from the roles, behaviours, or cultural norms expected by society, based on one’s assigned sex at birth. This can be people who identify as a different gender as that which they were assigned at birth. It can be people who don’t identify as having any gender whatsoever. But it can also be people who identify with their assigned gender, but don’t follow the stereotypical roles and rules that society expects. Roles and expectations such as:
- Women displaying emotional sensitivity
- Men exhibiting emotional restraint
- Men engaging in physically demanding work
- Women tending to the children
These roles are much less strict today than they have been in the past. We are lucky to live in a time where it is encouraged for men to display emotions, and for women to be in control of their own lives.
A Brief History of Gender.
It is important for us to understand that gender norms have never been a universal constant. They’ve shifted and evolved, yes, but let’s not forget that cultures throughout history have not only had different gender roles, but have also recognised more than just the 2 genders that we’re used to viewing people as.
Take Native American communities, for example, which acknowledged the existence of Two-Spirit individuals—people embodying both masculine and feminine qualities. In South Asia, Hijras, who might be intersex, transgender, eunuchs, or simply not adhere strictly to male or female genders, have been recognized for hundreds of years.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans? They had their own nuanced relationships with gender roles. Socrates was a soldier, yes. But he was also emotionally expressive, smashing the modern-day stereotype of male ‘stoicism’.
Fast forward to the Victorian era, with its rigid gender roles. Philosophers like John Stuart Mill rose to challenge these norms, sparking debates on gender roles and women’s rights.
The 20th century added layers of complexity to our understanding. Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and Judith Butler’s ‘gender performativity’ shattered pre-existing definitions. Milestones like women’s suffrage and the Stonewall riots paved the way for modern conversations on gender identity and expression.
Archaeological digs have even unearthed evidence of transgender individuals dating back thousands of years, showing that trans people have always been a part of the human experience.
So, where does that leave us? In a world still untangling the intricate webs of gender identity and expression, rooted in a history richer and more diverse than one might initially think. Our understanding of gender has come far, but there’s still plenty of road ahead.
Gender Kant be contained.
Oh, Immanuel Kant, how I often hate thee… But as much as I disagree with his deontological moral philosophy, that doesn’t mean that I disagree with everything he said.
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
If Kant were alive today, he’d probably have a field day discussing the crooked timbers of gender constructs. While he might have been rooted in a world that was far removed from our current discussions of gender identity, his insights into the ‘constructedness’ of human experience provide an illuminating backdrop.
How are we supposed to fit into neat little well defined categories, when humanity itself is a ‘crooked timber’? It goes against our very nature.
Freedom and Sartre.
Jean-Paul Sartre, another heavyweight in the philosophical ring, said, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Replace “Man” with “Person,” and this sentiment becomes increasingly relevant to the topic at hand. Sartre’s existentialism emphasizes the freedom of individual choice and the responsibility that comes with it. How does this relate to gender nonconformity? Simply put, it’s the freedom to defy societal norms and choose one’s identity—whether that conforms to your assigned birth gender or not.
The Social Contract.
The concept of the ‘social contract’, immortalized by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, essentially suggests that we, as individuals, trade some liberties to be part of a society that provides safety, order, and a framework of laws. But let’s press pause and think: what if that societal contract is inherently flawed by failing to include or even acknowledge people who don’t conform to traditional gender norms? The question we should be asking ourselves is, ‘Isn’t it about time to reassess and renegotiate the contract terms?’ After all, the real essence of a contract is its capacity to adapt and evolve. Otherwise, it risks becoming a relic, an archaic set of rules no longer serving the collective good.
Consider Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. If we were to redesign society today, with a new ‘social contract’, in order to make it as equitable as possible, we would have to approach it from a state of ignorance about our own possible future identities, or the identities of our children, grandchildren, and so on. We wouldn’t know our gender, sexual orientation, race, or socioeconomic status. This Veil of Ignorance would force us to create a society that is inherently more just and inclusive, as no one would want to design a society or ‘social contract’ with systemic prejudices that they themselves might end up suffering from.
In this new social landscape, there would be no room for marginalizing gender-nonconforming individuals. Because, who knows? Behind the Veil of Ignorance, that marginalized individual could be you, or one of your family. Our reimagined social contract would have to recognize the fluid and complex nature of gender, ensuring that societal norms, laws, and policies are created to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.
Nietzsche’s Will To Power.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself,” said Friedrich Nietzsche.
The process of embracing one’s gender nonconformity is arguably a sublime exercise in Nietzsche’s Will to Power. It’s the assertion of one’s own identity against the overarching narrative of societal norms. Does it come at a cost? Absolutely. But as Nietzsche posits, no price is too high for the privilege of self-ownership.
Simone de Beauvoir and Becoming.
To understand this further, let’s consult Simone de Beauvoir, who famously declared, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This serves as an intellectual stepping stone to the idea that gender, far from being a biologically determined destiny, is a social and psychological construct that one can negotiate and even defy. Her approach of removing gender from biological sex is an important one, and one backed up by science.
Another aspect of her work that is also very relevant here is Authenticity. She states that in society, there is often a tendency to categorize individuals into predefined roles and expectations based on their gender, class, and other factors, and that in order for us to be our authentic selves, we must transcend these labels and boxes that we have been put in. In a world full of inauthenticity, with social media ‘influencer culture’ encouraging people to lie about and exaggerate themselves for validation, celebrating a person’s authentic expression and identity is a powerful positive.
Utilitarianism and the Collective Good.
In the Utilitarian framework, proposed by philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the moral fabric of society should be woven to maximize happiness and minimize suffering for the greatest number of people. So where does gender nonconformity fit into this equation?
Consider human flourishing, which goes beyond simple happiness to encompass a fuller range of human experiences and potentials. A society that marginalizes individuals based on gender fails in the Utilitarian aim to reduce suffering. The stress, discrimination, and even threats to personal safety experienced by gender-nonconforming individuals are not just individual problems; they’re collective forms of suffering that no society can afford to ignore.
Striving for a society that is more inclusive in its approach to gender doesn’t only equate to representation in media or politics. It also directly relates to human flourishing. By creating an environment where every individual—regardless of their gender identity—can thrive, we elevate the collective human experience. We allow for not just survival but a thriving community, where each individual can learn, love, create, and yes, even fail, without fear of judgement based on gender.
Through the lens of Utilitarianism, this is more than just a moral imperative. It’s a pragmatic approach to constructing a society where the maximization of human happiness is truly for all, not just a privileged few. This, one could argue, should be the real goal of any social contract.
Gender Nonconformity doesn’t just challenge what we may think about an individual, but it also has the potential to change society on a grand scale. We are already leaving strict gender roles behind us, and we continue to do that more, and better. If we can take on board the philosophies addressed above, and continue to fight for the representation and acceptance of the whole spectrum of gender identity, then the world that we leave behind us will be that much more varied, beautiful, and fascinating.
Autistic, queer, D&D devotee, pun peddler, meme dabbler, home-brew hero.
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