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Why Nationalists Insist on the Gender Binary

The attack on transgender people is part of a bigger plan to reverse gender justice

Since 2012 religious groups of many stripes have started to use the term “gender ideology” as a means to polarize the conversation about gender justice, especially in relation to non-binary individuals. What Catholics like the German sociologist Gabriele Kuby want to see is a return to what is “normal” and “natural” in a disorienting ocean of gender performance. Kuby is particularly concerned with the kinds of ideas that Judith Butler and other queer studies scholars offered as a new way to think about our gendered selves. Kuby did not become incensed about Butler in the mid-1990s, when Gender Trouble became a global sensation, however. It took her another two decades to write a scathing critique of non-binary gender notions, which she characterized as a “global sexual revolution” that “destroyed freedom in the name of freedom.”

What happened in those years?

During that time, the average rate of fertility in the world went from 3.24 to 2.49. Yet the rate had been tapering off since the 1960s. In short, not much of a sexual revolution in this regard. While access to birth control, education, political and economic power have contributed to delaying the age at which women marry and have children, as well as decreasing how many they have, at the global level nothing extreme has taken place. At a more local level, however, the picture becomes quite different. The rate of fertility among women in Europe is now below recovery level, with an average of 1.6 in 2016 and with some Catholic countries among the lowest (Italy, Spain, and Portugal). So for those who worry about the fate of “civilized Europe” in relation to the rest of the world, the future looks grim because those pesky white European women are refusing to have more children.

Another prominent item on the agenda of religious conservatives like Roger Severino, who serves as Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the purported threat that non-binary gender identity poses to our children. In the U.S., around 4.5% of the population self-identifies as non-heterosexual. Catapulted from Betsy DeVos’s Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation to DHHS, Severino has been consistently bashing any transgender rights issues as a threat to children and as a costly “abuse of power.” Severino believes that our schools, media, and gender studies scholars have warped children’s minds and are turning them all into non-binary thinkers who will bring down western civilization as we know it. I wish I could claim so much power for gender studies…

That non-binary thinking is present among younger generations in the U.S. more than used to be the case two decades ago is indeed evident in mass media and the classroom. The percentage of people self-identifying as queer has gone up by around 1% over the past decade (not exactly a revolutionary change, either). Even as a gender studies scholar I get corrected by my students all the time in my use of pronouns. But it is not clear to me that this is something the adults are doing to the children with our “gender ideology.” What I do know, based on solid scientific research going back to Darwin, is that gender ideology long precedes Judith Butler and the rise of the LGBTQ+ movement. Our binary thinking is an ideology, if you look at it from the perspective of religious texts. And it is also a science theory, from the perspective of evolutionary biology and psychology. Binary categories of meaning in terms of sexuality and gender are, fundamentally, abstractions that do not fully encompass the diversity of human experience. The American Medical Association and American Psychological Association certainly agree.

In Europe, the outcome of the alarmist campaign led by the Catholic Church and various political allies has been to, first and foremost, undermine the legitimacy of the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence (2011). Initially supported by all countries in the EU, some members have backpedaled. In Poland and Hungary, where radical right wing coalitions now rule, strong opposition was raised to the notion that “’gender’ shall mean the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Because the Convention insisted in defining gender as a socially constructed role rather than a biological attribute, Hungary never ratified it. Poland ratified the convention after three years of debates about this issue. In this process, the grave and widespread problem of domestic violence has become a pawn in the hands of politicians and social activists. On the other hand are the staggering statistics of domestic violence, long proven to be the outcome of toxic masculinity that is itself a product of a particular gender ideology: that men are “naturally” more aggressive and have different sexual needs than women, who are “naturally” more passive. In short, that victims of domestic violence should just put up with this, or that they are guilty for not being passive enough. The Kubys of this world have not had anything to say about toxic masculinity. They have no explanation and they are silent when radical misogynists claim that they are the victims of feminist aggression gone amuck, as evidenced in the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

A year after the #MeToo movement became a global hashtag we have moved very little in the direction of systematically addressing the toxic masculinity of our predominant gender ideology. But it is clear that the issue is not going away. So now we are seeing more radical, well-organized, and better funded reactions on the part of those who have the most to lose: straight men. Severino has been asked to draft a new definition of gender identity, which will be used not just in the Department of Health and Human Services to adjudicate cases of discrimination, but also in the Title IX definition, affecting directly how college campuses understand and define gender discrimination and violence. What he has come up with is that sex is “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” justifying it as founded “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”

Generations of evolutionary biologists have pondered on the richness of our evolutionary story in terms of how sexuality in many species is not binary in any “unchangeable” way, but rather greatly affected by many environmental elements. For over three decades, they have been joined by psychologists researching the ways in which babies learn to “do gender.” The scientific research has concluded thus far that, in addition to genetic predispositions, individuals become gendered through processes of copying, choosing, and performing various actions. In short, science tells us a very different story than the claims laid out without any scientific proof by the Department of Education.

What scientific research also shows us, though the lack of funding for such studies makes them statistically less robust than they could be, is that children raised in same-sex or queer households tend to do better in school and to have a wider set of problem-solving skills than children raised in the “typical” heteronormative family. Since the models offered by caregivers in such families are less binary, children are less inclined to take toxic masculinity or notions about female passive gender roles as natural. They are more likely to question this type of radical gender ideology and to look past these stereotypes and more into issues of social and economic justice based on individual choice. Yes, that most American of all values: freedom. The freedom to not be binary; the freedom to love in a way that both feels good and does good to others; the freedom to reshape one’s body in the same way that heterosexuals often do, by enlarging or reducing part of their sexual anatomy. We are now being told straight up by the highest authorities in the United States who oversee the correct implementation of the Constitution that those who are not willing to be controlled by a very narrow gender ideology of biologically based attributes do not have the freedom to contest this anti-democratic ideology.

In Hungary, as of a few days ago, gender studies is no longer considered a scholarly discipline. Instead, “family studies,” purportedly looking at how to teach women to be good mothers, is taking its place. In Germany, Kuby has been pushing for defunding gender studies as well. What is next? Will the DeVos Department of Education start denying accreditation to programs that offer gender studies in the U.S.? I didn’t think I would be writing this a few years back. But I also didn’t want to believe that in 2018, with so much overwhelming evidence from so many scientific disciplines, we would have to still defend the notion that heteronormativity and misogyny are radical gender ideologies. Feminists and LGBTQ+ activists did not start the gender wars. Straight men and their misogynist female allies did. We are just engaging in a struggle for justice that honors the individual freedom of each person to assert their gender identity. We want our children to live in a world that values such freedom and protects everyone.

Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. Her most recent book is The Century of Women. How Women Have Transformed the World since 1990, (Rowman and Littlefield 2018). She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.

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