Maybe it was when they were googling Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black. Perhaps they were reading about the death of Leelah Alcorn. Or they could have been watching an intense political fight over bathroom use unfold in North Carolina. In recent years, more and more Americans have had to ask questions about gender identity. For some, these news stories and cultural events may have provided their first exposure to the concept of being trans.
“Transgender” is a term for people whose gender—feelings of being male or female—doesn’t match up with the biological sex they were assigned at birth. A lot of different people might use the word to describe themselves: Not every transgender person has surgery or makes physiological changes, although some do; and not every transgender person identifies as “male” or “female” at all, sometimes choosing other words to describe themselves.
Although the term “trans” is almost exclusively used to talk about gender, it also offers a framework for thinking about how other identities can and cannot be thought about separately from people’s physical bodies, argues Rogers Brubaker, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor in his new book, Trans. Specifically, he says, it’s useful to compare race and gender through a “trans” lens—in what ways are the two categories similar and different?
It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s also a relevant one. Last spring, two news stories collided to create a culture-wide seminar in identity studies: Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic athlete, came out as transgender on the cover of Vanity Fair, and it was revealed that Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had lied about her African American descent, although she has said she identifies as black. The two women’s stories are neither perfect analogs nor good representations of the experiences of other people who cross gender or racial lines, Brubaker writes. But the convergence of their experiences did offer an opportunity to explore and compare two unsettled forms of identity.
Many words have already been written about the Dolezal vs. Jenner debate—some thought-provoking essays are here, here, and here. The value in Brubaker’s book is not in readjudicating old internet battles, but in laying out current conflicts of identity in a public, accessible way; academics have been thinking and talking about the fluidity and fixedness of gender and race for a long time, but their thinking hasn’t always been part of mainstream conversations. Especially with the growing number of legislative, judicial, and cultural challenges to the role of gender in American society, sometimes, it can just be useful to lay out the terms of debate.
Brubaker and I spoke about the complexity of trans identity, largely in the context of gender, but also in the context of race. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emma Green: What sets race and sex or gender apart as forms of identity?
Rogers Brubaker: They are similarly becoming massively unsettled. And yet, as you suggest, they are indeed very different.
There are two ways to think about that. The sex vs. gender distinction allows us to distinguish the inner gender identity from the outward sexed body. There’s no analogous way of separating out the inner from the outer in the domain of race. The inner gender identity can be understood as an essence that only the person concerned can know, and can be independent of the sexed body. We just can’t think about race in that way. It is incomprehensible if I tell you that I simply feel black.
Also, when we talk about race, ancestry matters. Ancestry doesn’t matter at all for sex or gender identity. Even though sex is in fact inherited, it is inherited in this way that has nothing to do with history or lineage or family or relationships. This permits us to think about gender as something that only the individual has the authority to determine, whereas others always have a stake in saying what someone’s racial identity is.
Green: This also seems to be a matter of a fundamental difference in worldview: the idea that individuals determine their identities, versus the belief that our identities are determined by nature, or a Creator, as some Christians might believe.
How do these worldviews collide over modern conceptions of gender and gender transition?
Brubaker: There is a distinctly American strand of individualism—the notion of the self-made man, or the self-made person. It’s the idea that we are chronically and continuously remaking who we are and that we must, in fact, do so in order to keep up with the times. This is not just true in the domain of sexuality and gender; more generally, it’s essential to neoliberal understandings of how people need to be entrepreneurial about themselves by retraining, remaking, and reshaping their bodies, their minds, and their capacities. That’s part of what it means to be a good citizen.
Although certain forms of Christianity embrace that language of individualism, other forms offer a very powerful critique of that way of thinking about what the self ultimately is.
Green: You write that the brain could have a role in shaping our perceived gender identity. This stuck me as a bit of a black-box claim. What do we actually know about how brains relate to gender identity? Why is the brain important in sorting through these concepts?
Brubaker: It’s interesting that people invest so much hope in the idea that brain might determine gender. On the one hand, you have this notion of the ultimate subjectivity of gender identity: Only you can say who you really are. And yet, at the same time, you have the sense that who I really am is, after all, not arbitrary. Only I can know who I am, and yet who I am, in this way of thinking, is grounded in some aspect of my brain, my body, my organic being.
Of course, not everyone feels that way. Some transgender people reject that ‘born that way’ argument and the idea that their gender identity is something grounded in their brains or other aspect about their bodies.
Green: Let’s bring race back into the conversation for a moment. Throughout American history, “science” has been used to establish “truths” about identity—for example, to argue that African Americans are inferior to whites.
Given the hazards of using science to establish “truth” about categories as elusive as race or gender identity, why do you think people gravitate toward medicalized or scientific language to understand gender identity, race, and sexuality?
Brubaker: I there are two reasons. One is more strategic. If you have the scientific justification for something, that gives it greater authority. For example, if you can enlist scientific authority to ground your claim of having a gender identity at odds with your body, you can also persuade medical authorities to allow you access to treatment.
There’s also a deep cultural authority and prestige in biomedical science, and increasingly in genetics. I don’t think you can understand the yearning for this discovery for the natural grounding of identity without taking into account the broader cultural authority of biomedicine.
Green: A lot of Americans seem befuddled by the idea that people could have a gender other than the one that matches their biological sex. Why do you think, at a basic level, this confusion exists, and do you have any empathy for it?
Brubaker: Very much so, yes. I don’t think there are any categories more central to the experience of being a human in society than sex and gender. When, suddenly, these utterly foundational categories start dissolving, it’s extremely unsettling.
Ultimately, I think sex and gender are more fundamental categories for most people than race and ethnicity. Certainly, the latter are not as important for religious conservatives—nothing is more central to the created order than sex and gender.
Green: But that hasn’t always been the case. Two hundred years ago, you might have encountered people in various traditions—the Southern Baptists, for example—who would have said the Bible justifies slavery, or later, the Bible justifies a racial hierarchy that gives lesser rights to African Americans.
Brubaker: Attitudes have shifted tremendously. If you look at, for example, data about the public’s attitude toward interracial marriage over 50 or 60 years, it was described as one of the largest changes in the history of Gallup polling. It went from being something that almost everybody disapproved of, to something that almost everybody approves of.
I don’t think you see anything like that in the domain of sex and gender. Attitudes about what women can or should be doing have changed, but there’s not evidence that an equally dramatic change has taken place.
Green: Perhaps there’s evidence of that in the transgender backlash. In the 2015 campaign against a Houston ordinance which would have outlawed discrimination against transgender people in public bathrooms and other spaces, opponents spoke of not wanting “men in women’s bathrooms,” but they didn’t seem to care about “women in men’s bathrooms.” Why do you think this fear, and that double standard, exist?
Brubaker: This is not only the case for women—it’s the case in the domain of race. There’s more concern about claiming a black identity than there is today about claiming a white identity. And of course, the reverse was true historically. So why is it that access to the subordinate category is more closely policed today than that access to the superordinate category? It’s kind of a puzzle.
In the case of race, you could say it’s connected to concerns about cultural appropriation and access to spaces that were supposed to be reserved for blacks. This has a certain parallel to concerns about access to spaces, like at women’s colleges, that are supposed to be reserved for women.
Green: You write that “opposition to strong versions of transgender rights may be deeper than opposition to gay marriage.” Why do you say that?
Brubaker: The gay-marriage debate involved complicated questions of public recognition. But it also involves what people do in private. It doesn’t affect other people in the same way that legislation requiring identity-based bathroom access does. Ultimately, they’re both matters of recognition. But I do think there’s the fear, grounded or not, that we see in the Houston campaign and the North Carolina debate, which is that an aggressive transgender-rights agenda will be much more far-reaching than the recognition of gay marriage is.
Green: What would it look like to have a gender order that’s deeply destabilized in a much more widespread way than we’ve ever had to contend with before, as you’re describing?
Brubaker: I think this is what makes the subject so fascinating. This is such a foundational social category—gender, sex—that we can’t really imagine what lies in the future. I think certainly major cultural, political, and legal struggles lie in the immediate future. But what lies beyond that is really hard to say.