Historically fortunate

Lionel Shriver experienced being female as an imposition as a child, in much the way I did and most or perhaps all women I know did.

But I was historically fortunate. By the time I entered university in 1974, a revolution was well under way. As I understood it, “women’s liberation” meant that the frilly cookie-cutter template of femininity had been chucked out. Being female was no longer defined in terms of skirts, high heels, and homemaking. Men and women were equal. Both sexes were just people. We had entered the post-gender world.

And then we turned around and went right back into Gender World, and to make it all the more excruciating, this time we did it in the delusion that it was the progressive thing to do. Well I didn’t, but much of the libertarian left did.

We have entered instead an oppressively gendered world, in which identity is more bound up in one’s sex than ever before. (Note: dictionary definitions regard gender and sex as interchangeable, and I will, too.) As Jemima Lewis wrote in the Daily Telegraph in March: “You can be agender, bi-gender, cisgender, demigender, graygender, intergender, genderless, genderqueer or third gender—but by God, you will accept a label.” The gay and lesbian world having gone so mainstream as to become a big bore, western media has moved on to an enthrallment with trans-genderism bizarrely out of proportion to the statistical rarity of true gender dysphoria—though children and people generally being so suggestible, the condition will doubtless grow more common. Facebook has extended its gender options beyond the 71 it reached a year ago (thrillingly, two options in this dizzying smorgasbord of self-definition are “Man” and “Woman”). Users are now allowed to infinitely customise their profiles. As the Facebook Diversity Team published, “Now, if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own. As before, you can add up to 10 gender terms…”

As Rebecca Reilly-Cooper likes to say, gender is not personality.

Gender is not personality.

In this would-be enlightened age, in which primary schools hold “Transgender Days” the way they used to sponsor bake sales, we urge children to see their genders as flexible, and to choose to be boys or girls or something in-between. But what does it mean to decide you’re a boy or a girl? In presenting this choice, we reverse all that progress on gender-neutral toys, inexorably reinforcing the hoariest, more threadbare versions of male and female. A boy is rough and boisterous and aggressive and plays with trucks. A girl is soft and quiet and sensitive and plays with dolls. Once again, in some dozen faddish television documentaries I have seen about trans children, it often comes down to clothes. A little boy knows he wants to be a girl because he wants to wear a dress.

Just eliminate the middleman (or the middletranswoman or the middlegenderfluidperson). A little boy wants to wear a dress. Boom, job done; no need for switching anything, no need to tell everyone about switching anything, just put on the fucking dress and get on with life.

Sex is no longer a fact. It is a choice. Which is all very well, except the conceit that sex-change surgeons operate under is that a self has a gender. The gendered self can be born into the wrong body, so that in transforming the physical signifiers of sex, doctors make body and self match.

But does the self have a gender? Are men and women male and female in their very souls? Or in reconfiguring the body, are we not primarily tinkering with how other people react to us? Isn’t plastic surgery predominantly an act of social manipulation?


There are no very souls. The self isn’t stable and it isn’t a thing – it’s a process, and there’s no need to make it “match” anything.

Self, in the contemporary view, is a construct, full stop. It is no longer made of elements we are stuck with, but is wholly a made thing. Thus when comparisons were drawn last year between transsexuals and Rachel Dolezal, president of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, who was masquerading as black because she felt like an African-American, the parallel didn’t require much of a leap (even if most American black people rejected the comparison). We are, apparently, whoever we think we are. And we are within our rights to demand that our peers get with the programme.

Except that in fact that isn’t true – we don’t get to transition to just anything and everything. Rachel Dolezal is an outcast, and white people are not welcome to start announcing they’re coming out as Sioux or Maori or Nigerian.

I was a tomboy as a kid, and scrabbled in the dirt with my brothers playing with model cars and making toy trains crash spectacularly from a height. I shunned Barbies and detested baby dolls. I reviled dresses, spurning lace and flounces for jeans and flannel shirts. At 15, I changed my name from Margaret to Lionel. Were I to have grown up 50, 60 years later, it’s entirely possible that my parents would have taken me to see a therapist and put me on hormone therapy.

I’m glad they didn’t. Not because being a woman is so swell, but because being either a woman or a man doesn’t matter that much to me. I certainly experience myself as female in relation to other people. But alone in a room, falling asleep, hiking by myself in the woods, writing at my computer, thinking—I do not experience myself first and foremost as a woman. I do not walk around all day contemplating labias and breasts and ovaries, much less determining to get my nails done or to make an appointment for highlights. For me, my very self has no gender. While obviously I can only testify to my own experience of being a person—to my knowledge, I’ve only been this one—I cannot imagine that I alone enjoy such a self-perception. If selfhood is real and not a neurological illusion, it transcends gender.

That describes my experience too – but other people have a different experience. For some people, their sex does feel like a core aspect of the self. But then our whole sense of the self is riddled with illusions, especially illusions of continuity. The illusions are useful, but they’re not so useful that they make self-obsession a good thing.

The very fact that this essay will seem incendiary (and save the conniption fits; I’m not on social media and never read online comments) is testimony to how gender has grown destructively hyper-significant. We’re in the process of taking a giant cultural step backwards. The women’s liberation movement of my adolescence advocated a release from gender roles, and now we are entrenching them—pigeonholing ourselves with picayune precision on a continuum of gender identity, as if arriving at the right relationship to cliché is tantamount to self-knowledge. But I do not want my epitaph to read, “She was a she.” I am a writer, a cook, a sculptor, a tennis player. A big mouth, a hot head, a cut-up and a ham. A woman, yes, there’s no denying the fact of it. But that detail is incidental—and way down the list.

And thank god for that, really. People who talk endlessly about being either one are incredibly tedious, or worse than tedious. Yeah yeah, you have two thumbs and a sex, now let’s talk about something interesting.

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