Believe it or not, how gender is and should be defined is actually an issue I’m a bit conflicted on. Though I firmly agree that gender is more than the binary many people believe in, the issue of exactly how it is defined and who has the right to define it is one I’m still working through.
Gender is Socially Constructed
This is an issue I’ve addressed in a previous take, but essentially what it boils down to is that all our categories are social constructs. The reason why a tree and a bush are in different categories is because we as a society decided they were. That’s not to say that the differences between things are entirely a product of our perception, just that where exactly the boundaries between one color and another lie are arbitrary. Take color for an example- technically color is a spectrum of infinite individual colors, and yet we as a society have created specific categories that we divide this spectrum into. Red and orange have objectively different wave lengths, but the fact that we consider them different categories is entirely arbitrary. We could as easily have 4 primary categories of color, or 15, as we could our standard 6 or 7 (depending if you count indigo as distinct from blue or purple). Thus, all categories, including gender, have some degree of arbitraryness about them.
Gender is particularly distinct in this respect in that it is an abstract category rather than a physical one (at least the definition of gender I’m using is). While gender has often been conflated with sex, the typical definition in modern academia is that gender is the societal expectations and roles built around sex, and is thus distinct and to some degree independent of our conceptualization of sex.
Who Creates Meaning
Now, this is where things get tricky. In our use of language (which is very much tied up with our formations of conceptual categories) meaning is determined by common consensus. The reason “cat” means a small furry feline is because we agree it does, and were we to mutually agree to use the word “cat” to mean the ocean, that would then be a legitimate meaning of the word cat. This sort of language shift can be seen with all sorts of words, for instance the relatively recent alteration of the meaning of “literally”, which is now often used as emphasis for a figurative phrase. Essentially, meaning (and grammar in general) is determined through common consensus to a large degree.
This system of common consensus for the construction of meaning creates issues for the conceptualization of gender then, as there are vast differences in how people believe gender should be “correctly” defined. Some stand by the idea that it should exclusively refer to biological sex characteristics, though this definition I take issue with because I do believe there should be a term to refer to the societal roles constructed around sex, and since gender is currently widely used to mean that I think it’s reasonable for that to be an acceptable definition. That said, I also don’t think it’s necessarily wrong when people use “gender” as synonymous with “sex”, only that that should not be the only definition of the word. But even if we take gender to be a descriptor of societal role rather than biological makeup, there are issues with how it can be defined, and what constitutes a “correct” gender.
One major hangup is whether there are strict gender categories which are the same between different societies in the first place. Obviously many societies, particularly historically, have vastly different gender roles. So, if two societies have vastly different ideas about what women should be like, can the feminine gender in those two societies even be considered to be the same gender? Are native American women and ancient roman women the same gender? Is the distinction between gender categories based on what sex the category is constructed around or what particular entailments the category holds?
Next, do undefined or unpopular genders exist? The question here is a similar one to whether new words or new usages for words are correct or not. How widely accepted must a potential gender be for it to be considered “real”? If a society as a whole believes in and is constructed around the idea of only two genders, does that society only have two genders? How do new genders arise, and when are they legitimate? Can a gender from a different society be considered a real gender in a society that doesn’t have a framework for that particular gender?
Finally, who gets to categorize people as a specific gender? Should gender be based on how we perceive others or how they perceive themselves? If I, in my head, have a framework for five different “types” of people, do I have five different personal genders that other people fall into? Or does my definition of gender have to match up to the societal one (in the same way that if I have different words and definitions for words, those aren’t really legitimate. If you say “I like cats” and I understand it as “I like oceans”, I’m the one who is incorrect.) Or, is gender based on how people sort themselves, perhaps based on an existing societal framework or on a framework they are creating?
Where I Stand
As I’ve already stated, I do use the term gender to refer to the societal roles created for people, usually based on physical sex. That being the case, I recognize gender as something that can’t exactly be nailed down much better than many other abstract categories for humans, such as what political party or political alignment they fall into. And while I do struggle with how gender is and should be defined, I believe generally that it is easiest to allow people to categorize themselves, as I view telling someone else what gender they are similar to telling someone else what political alignment they belong to. Basically, though someone can be incorrect about their own political alignment, they usually aren’t, and generally they know better than anyone else what role they fall into. As for the emergence of new genders, I again compare it to language. Sometimes new words are useful, and allow us to more accurately categorize and thus explain the world. New words are not “fake” or “nonsense” merely because they did not previously exist, but they do need to be endowed with commonly understandable meaning before they can really be recognized as a “real” word. This of course creates the paradoxical issue that the only way for words to become “real” is for them to be used, which to me essentially means that if people want to construct or legitimize a new gender, they must use it. Thus, while “nonsense” genders are a possibility, they are not illegitimate since all genders must be nonsense before they are real. I realize that’s a bit convoluted, but it’s exactly the same thing we do with words, so maybe it’s just an inevitable aspect of the construction of new categories and new meanings to things.
Another option I think is viable is simply to create different words for different formations of gender. Similar to how gender is now being used as a term distinct from sex, perhaps the category of gender itself needs to be divided further to encapsulate the different ways gender might be conceptualized, creating distinct terms for gender as defined by society, defined by the individual possessing the gender, and defined by those applying gendered categories to others.
For now at least, my stance is simply to let people figure out where they lie themselves, and that just because a category is new doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate. However, I am also partly of the mind that people for whom a certain gender is not legitimized are not necessarily incorrect, just as people who speak a particular dialect that would be considered ungrammatical are not actually necessarily wrong in their speech either, though those people would be incorrect in stating that others who speak a different dialect (or have different genders) are wrong.