Gender theory is hard. Recently, Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor, and James Lindsay, a mathematician and author, attempted to prove otherwise through the use of a transparent hoax in the guise of a clever academic exposé. Boghossian and Lindsay’s stance can best be summarized by an aphorism of Thorstein Veblen’s: “Any endeavor using a preponderance of jargon is largely make-believe.”
To prove their point, the two men published an absurdly-titled article called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”—which sounds like Saturday Night Live parodying Judith Butler—in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. The logic of Boghossian and Lindsay’s argument, such as it is, operates on the assumption that if one hokey article gets published by a single journal, surely a whole academic field must be illegitimate. After all, who can forget that classic rule of logic and statistics: “Sometimes the best sample size is one.”
As has been widely reported since Boghossian and Lindsay’s aspiring hoodwink, the methodology of the trick proves utterly nothing about gender studies, not just because one journal does not represent a whole field—particularly one with a name as dubious as Cogent Social Sciences. Unsurprisingly, the sketchily-titled journal is itself sketchy: it operates on the “pay-to-publish” model, which perniciously exploits the need of academics to publish articles for hiring, promotion, and tenure.
Because these journals request payment for publication, it’s widely known that the barriers to entry are so low that anyone with a budget-grade parody of Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) can get an article published. Gender theory, like the subject of personal identity more broadly, is a vexing enterprise that has troubled philosophers, theorists, and writers for centuries—and we’re still untangling knots, both in our theories and in our social life.
Heath Fogg Davis, a professor of political science at Temple University, knows the intellectual rigor that good gender theory requires. In his newest academic volume, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, Davis pulls off the not insignificant feat of writing clearly and straightforwardly about an issue that involves a great deal of complex theory, jargon, and name-dropping. While most academic disciplines have all of those features, gender theory uniquely poses a challenge for those who study and write about it.
Davis’ study, however, is not primarily theoretical. The provocation of Beyond Trans’ subtitle—Does Gender Matter?—applies in Davis’ argument to practical questions of public policy, not the ontological status of gender itself. With Beyond Trans, Davis asks not if sex and gender truly exist at all, but rather how should we make these things exist in the public sphere? Davis compellingly argues that the ways in which American society has enshrined sex and gender in a range of spheres—including sex markers on government identification cards, and sex segregation in public bathrooms and competitive sports—are not only needless but antithetical to the supposed goals that would necessitate such a gender bureaucracy.
Beyond Trans opens with a maddening anecdote involving a transgender woman, Charlene Arcila, being denied access to Philadelphia public transportation because the bus driver did not personally believe that she was a woman. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) monthly passes once featured “sex stickers” for male and female, the “veracity” of which were enforced on an ad hoc basis by mostly unaccountable bus drivers. Because Arcila didn’t pass whatever arbitrary test the bus driver had for what constitutes a woman, she was denied a seat. Later, she attempted to use a male sex sticker, only to be denied entry as well.
Davis acknowledges that both drivers should have trusted Arcila’s choice of sex sticker, but he presses the reader to a question that becomes increasingly more obvious over the course of Beyond Trans’ numerous case studies: why is institutionalized record-keeping of sex like this even necessary? Why should Arcila, or anyone else, need a sex sticker to begin with?
Davis utilizes four case studies to argue that in the majority of cases, sex and gender identification markers and segregation are both unnecessary and cause numerous problematic externalities. The four case studies, each of which receives its own chapter, are government-issued ID cards, bathroom segregation, single-sex colleges, and sex-divided competitive sports. In each case, Davis illustrates how the stated goals of such sex and gender identification in each case are both not met by such identification, and the implementation of sex and gender markers causes substantial third-party harms.
Beyond Trans brilliantly distills a great deal of research on Davis’ part, in addition to drawing numerous first-hand accounts from real-life trans and non-gender conforming individuals. Davis himself is a trans man, and some of the book’s most powerful anecdotes come from his own experience. In addition to exposing the numerous problematic assumptions behind government-facilitated divisions between sex and gender, Davis ends each chapter with a specific policy prescription based on his argumentation. Beyond Trans concludes with an example of a “gender audit” that Davis himself performed for a company, which serves as a model for any institution looking for how to make its structure more equitable to people of all sexes and gender identities. Reading Beyond Trans is like having one’s window shades thrown open after arising from a long night of sleep: the sunlight burns the eyes, but it awakens them.
Although published by a major academic press, Beyond Trans features accessible, clear prose and direct argumentation—digressions are nearly nonexistent. Anyone with an interest in trans rights and the public application of gender theory would benefit from Davis’ book. The consistent structure of the four chapters allows Davis to maintain argumentative momentum and coherence even as he moves between issues with different implications.
Let chapter two, on sex segregation in bathrooms, serve as synecdoche for Beyond Trans. In that chapter, Davis reaches the conclusion that bathrooms ought to be designed not with sex segregation, but rather the principle of “universal design”, a design concept which gained traction in the ‘70s as a way to structure public buildings to best accommodate people with disabilities. One innovation of this approach is the “curb cut”, the slight ramps that allow people with wheelchairs to easily access the sidewalk. However, as Davis points out, such design benefits numerous third parties as well: “Among those who benefit from this modification of our shared cityscape are people pushing baby strollers, people using crutches and canes, people pulling wheeled luggage, delivery people using wheeled trolleys, and people like me with short legs” (82).
How could this line of thought apply to designing bathrooms? Simple: abolish sex-segregated bathrooms, and instead design bathrooms with stalls that are partitioned from floor to ceiling and feature a common area for washing hands. In addition to solving the problem of sex and gender policing, Davis’ suggestion—which he notes has already been implemented in some restaurants in major cities and on university campuses like Reed College—helps all individuals. For example, Davis notes that “Approximately 40 percent of cisgender men cannot use urinals due to anxiety, or what we might colloquially refer to as being ‘pee shy’” (67).
Certainly, no one likes the thought of being watched while in the restroom, whether it is for sex and gender policing or otherwise. In argumentative moments like this, the simple genius of Davis’ approach is most clear: underneath all the hateful rhetoric aimed at trans individuals (who, despite there being no statistical evidence to suggest this is the case, are likened to “bathroom predators”), there are dozens of simple logical failings. It’s no wonder that from irrational premises there has arisen a culture of misunderstanding and outright hate directed at individuals who reject the gender binary. Beyond Trans is as much a call to remediate the harm done to trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals as it is a plea for good reasoning.
While gender theory will continue to pose hard questions, Beyond Trans reveals that much of what’s “hard” about sex and gender is self-imposed by a society bent on policing both of them, even when it causes needless harm and achieves nothing. Davis aims not to bury the existence of sex and gender, but instead to upend America’s fixation on foregrounding sex and gender in interactions where both are irrelevant.
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