The other day, my partner (who is nonbinary) shared with me a video clip that was making the rounds on twitter. The clip is from the documentary “What Is a Woman,” by conservative youtube personality (some might say “grifter”) Matt Walsh, in which he interviews Dr. Patrick Grzanka, a professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies at the University of Tennessee. If you don’t know who Matt Walsh is, Dr. Grzanka didn’t either, and the segment begins somewhat innocuously. The professor seems under the impression that this is a good-faith interview and that his counterpart is genuinely curious to understand contemporary academic theories of gender identity. It is quickly apparent, however, that Walsh is there with an agenda, as he edits Grzanka’s in-depth response to the question “are sex and gender the same thing” into a montage that makes the professor appear to drone on and on without arriving at a simple answer to the question. As the conversation continues, the professor clues in to the fact that his counterpart is not there in good faith at all; the interview turns hostile, and unfolds as one might expect.
Twitter user JudeWTH shared this clip with the tweet “Lol imagine you seek this discussion out, get absolutely rolled in the conversation, and then STILL put it in your movie,” followed by the clown face emoji. My partner, who shared the clip with me, did so with the initial sense that I would agree that Walsh had been bested by the gender studies professor; but that was not how I perceived it. On the contrary, I feel that Walsh got what he came for: he wanted to show how detached from reality liberal college professors and gender theorists are, and the professor’s impulse to go into the fascinating nuance of something as immaterial and subjective as ‘gender’ became perfect fodder for the narrative that says “these people can’t even answer a simple yes or no question”. When the question was “Are sex and gender the same thing,” Grzanka’s answer was long-winded enough for Walsh’s editors to squeeze in 3 slow fade cuts and make it look like hours of masturbatory liberal arts drivel. When the question was “What is a woman,” and the professor answered, “Whoever identifies as one,” it was easy for Walsh to point out that he could identify as African American and be incorrect, which the professor did not seem to agree with, further making him look like his perspective is detached from reality, or like he was afraid to speak the truth.
To be clear, I am not a gender essentialist (someone who believes that gender and sex are in lock-step with one another), but I do know how to think like one, because I am a white, cisgender man raised between 2 sets of parents, one of which is conservative and Christian. I have enough baseline understanding of the thought process going on here to see that Walsh was very much in control of this interview, and the segment serves his purposes and confirms all of the biases of the people his content is designed to please. On many levels, I understand exactly why these people are so frustrated by the academic discussion of gender; As a “red blooded man” (whatever that means) I have a deep and immediate intuition of “what a woman is” because on an animal level my understanding of the concept is not an academic theory but a visceral physical reaction to a certain thing that I have been socialized to understand as ‘woman’. When I am asked “what is a woman”, I don’t “feel” like the answer is complicated, because my body seems to know what a woman is, independent of whatever words and labels we use to describe ourselves. I have a knee-jerk association between the concept of ‘woman’ with the primal sense of desire and duty I have felt while relating to some women, and I imagine that there are many men who know precisely the physical and emotional response to which I am referring. We can split hairs, we can parse this down into some convoluted bundle of ten dollar words and reasons that I should feel ashamed that my body’s reaction is not more inclusive, and it won’t get us anywhere.
It pays to remember that there is no council of womanhood, and there are no judges who assign womanhood based on a list of bureaucratic criteria. You have men like me with our weird psycho-sexual definitions of womanhood, and you have cisgender women with an axis of aspiration and shame associated with womanhood (similar but different to how most men relate to the idea of manhood), and you have transgender women who sometimes focus on performing the ‘role’ of womanhood, and you have non-binary people who play with masculine and feminine archetypes while rejecting the established narrative around them. The second the conversation veers into something like reproductive capacity, it veers off the rails, because even among cisgender women “womanhood” is not the same thing as “motherhood”. There are infertile women. There are women who choose not to bear children. Who on earth has the divine right to tell a woman who cannot or does not get pregnant that she is not a real woman? Who would be so cruel as to deny an inherent part of a human being’s identity because a choice or an inconvenient fact of her biology prevents her from attaining the arbitrary bar you’ve set? Womanhood is not our place to define for others; it is between the individual and God.
This, I believe, is something truly core to the debate. From Walsh’s essentialist perspective, womanhood is an obvious fact because it is inextricably bound to biology. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it seems insane, or stupid, or maybe even dangerous that it should be a matter of debate – “we are confusing our children and leading them astray from reality”. From Grzanka’s academic perspective, womanhood is an entirely subjective manifestation of a person’s identity, subject to nobody’s impositions save their own, and it is morally and ethically wrong to suggest otherwise – “we are leading our children into lethal prisons of oppressive expectation”. Towards the end of the clip Walsh begins to harp on the concept of ‘truth’, and claims that he only cares about getting to the bottom of what a woman is “in reality”. This prompts Grzanka to appeal for Walsh to share what ‘his’ truth is, which he strikes back at, suggesting he’s not interested in his truth but in The Truth. “In reality”, many different seemingly contradictory subjectivities can be true simultaneously...and you still can’t ‘subjectivity’ your way out of being killed by a bus going 40 miles an hour through your living room. Some things are True, and others are your truth. As a passionate thinker and armchair philosopher, I must admit I resonate with Walsh’s claim to be in search of “The Truth”, and as an experienced polyamorous man in relationship with someone who exists outside of the binary, I appreciate Grzanka’s understanding that different people have different truths. There is a rift in our understanding of objectivity and subjectivity. Our analysis of the world, and of important human things like gender and sex, needs to incorporate both, but we seem to make the mistake of picking a side and defending it. We confuse our own arguments when we subscribe fully to the rationalist, essentialist view of gender and sex, just as surely as we do with the spiritualist, subjectivist view. There is an objective component (sex), and a subjective component (gender), at the same time.
Are gender and sex the same thing? No, they are not. Patently, obviously, incontrovertibly. It is absurd to me that this is still controversial (but perhaps it would help if the liberal professors were a bit less loquacious when saying so. I’m fine. I’m not a professor). Biological sex (while a spectrum of its own) is an objective fact of reality; there are medical interventions that can transform the physical appearance of someones body and genitals but so far there is nothing that can transform an X chromosome to a Y chromosome, and even if there was, you would still have to undergo that process for it to be a “biological fact”, and lord knows what the health consequences might be. Gender identity, on the other hand, is a subjective fact of personality; it refers to a fuzzy bundle of ‘ways of relating and thinking of oneself’ that uses labels which function differently in every single mind that conceives of them, and which can change over time. The concept of ‘woman’ is not a concept that can be nailed down (certainly not by a bunch of men), because womanhood is as dynamic and evolving as the women who claim that label. Likewise, the concept of ‘man’ is not a concept that can be nailed down, because manhood, too, changes and shifts with the social and historical context in which it is invoked. What makes a man? Going to war? What if there aren’t any wars? What makes a woman? Having babies? What if she doesn’t?
I became a male when I grew inside of my mother’s body. I became a man when I understood what my responsibilities to my family and businesses were; when I understood what it means to have strength and to apply it to accomplishing greatness in the world on behalf of those I love. Learning to own that label was a private spiritual process that no other human being has jurisdiction over. I don’t need anyone to tell me whether or not I am a man, because I am one. Nobody has the capacity to evaluate the integrity of my gender except me, and God. This is something that, if Matt Walsh is in fact ‘a man’, he will have no trouble in understanding.
This rift between subjective and objective, where some of us seem convinced that there is only subjective reality or only objective reality, is deep to the human condition. The ancient philosophical conundrum of free will and determinism, the divergence of left and right political ideologies, they’re all tangled up and descended from very similar roots. The great duality between order and chaos, light and dark, masculine and feminine, yin and yang, the organizing principle of universal harmony...if we want to make sense of the world, we have to conceive of both energies simultaneously. The realm of the intellect – where we have our conceptions of self, where our thoughts emerge, where we experience the illusion of autonomy in deciding if we feel comfortable being referred to as he or she or they – is every bit as important to material reality as the soil and gravitational forces we so thoroughly take for granted. But without that material reality, the intellect has nothing with which to orient and shape itself, no way to define itself, no way to exist. They are both integral to reality.
I make an earnest effort to have enough compassion for others that I can make some sense out of their thought processes. When Walsh asks, “What is a woman,” and Grzanka replies, “A woman is anyone who says they are,” a can of wriggling rhetorical impossibilities is opened. Is the measure of womanhood truly as simple as saying, “I am a woman”? If that is the measure, is it not understandable why generations of women who have been treated as second class to their male counterparts might react with suspicion or offense to the discovery that these categories are malleable and subjective? Do people ever lie, or take advantage of the gaps in understanding that emerge from sudden social pressure to allow for such individual freedoms of self-determination? What happens when those individual freedoms emerge from the immaterial realm of identity and cross into the material realm of ethics and social structures? What do you do when transgender people reveal themselves in a world that was not built with them in mind, and suddenly we are made aware of contradictions in our athletic leagues and bathroom architectures? Do we just...pretend the contradictions aren’t there, and mock or shame anyone who takes issue?
That does not seem correct to me. It doesn’t seem kind or thoughtful for anyone involved. It upsets people in a counterproductive way, because their political reaction translates into direct harm towards the people who have been brave enough to expose this contradiction in the first place. If the trans and non-binary experience is in fact a valid human experience – and it is – then we have to grapple with what that means for humanity, without falling back on shame to try and force the contradiction away. We cannot ‘cancel’ Matt Walsh’s perspective because too many people hold it. If we try to, its malignancy deepens.
There’s something to be said about the focus on womanhood through all of this. Transgender men – that is, human beings who are assigned female at birth, who grow up and realize that they do not feel comfortable identifying as ‘a woman’, and feel much more comfortable identifying as ‘a man’ – are often left out of the conversation entirely. I was doing it up until this point. Trans men do not seem to activate the conservative defense matrix in the same way that trans women do, and their existence does not strike up the same horror, fascination and fetishization. Which is interesting, because trans men are, generally, biologically female, tending to be humans that have rejected the social imposition of ‘womanhood’, whereas trans women are adopting it, and changing (or expanding) what it means. It is the expansion of womanhood – the expansion of the answer to the question “What is a woman” – that is seen as a bigger threat.
If I had to guess – and, hey, I am not pinging the inner realities of anyone else here, I’m just referencing my own biases – I’d wager it has something to do with the perceived sacredness of motherhood. Just the other day I found myself on a walk in the park with my partners and an eccentric matron danced past us, recognized one of us, and shared a litany of encouraging remarks grounded in the idea that the planet Earth is our great mother. In comedian Dave Chappelle’s recent work (which has been lambasted as transphobic, harmful rhetoric) he mentions that everyone on earth has had to pass through the legs of a woman, and suggests that isn’t up for debate. This, however, is up for debate, because the existence of transgender identity means that there are some people who have passed through the legs of human beings that do not consider themselves women. It is understandably frustrating to someone who has intuited and absorbed these ideas their whole lives to be checked with a sassy, “Um, actually,” after saying something that feels like it should be the least controversial take of all: “We all have a mother.”
There’s a kind of exhaustion these sorts of discussions incur, at least speaking as a cisgender man overburdened with the ignorance of privilege. There are some things that have always seemed...self-evident. Cultures from around the world for as long as we’ve had art have held opinions about fertility, femininity, and the sacred nature of motherhood. It’s deep. To present the world with new knowledge that challenges and subverts our poetic understanding of what it means to be human, to be a child with a mother, and to argue that the word ‘mother’ itself has some kind of problematic connotations that need to be debugged and updated...well, it’s a very tall order. “Everyone on earth passed through the legs of a woman,” to the average mind, feels like something that is genuinely and incontrovertibly true. It feels like something that honors the sacred responsibility of carrying and birthing human consciousness, shrouded in the deep magic of womanhood in its most spiritually idealistic manifestation. It feels like a stable cornerstone on which to build a view of reality. It feels like something that we have carried with us for millennia, an intuitive wisdom that does not care about the extended discourse that’s going on in the overpriced and exploitative halls of modern academia. It feels like a capital-T Truth. Shaming someone for holding these assumptions feels...a little self-righteous. A little self-defeating.
I am not saying that we are necessarily correct to have these ancient assumptions about womanhood, motherhood, and the language we use to describe it, nor am I suggesting these ideas in their sacred essence have never been distorted in order to control and abuse people. I am saying that it makes no sense to engage with people who struggle with these ideas via shaming tactics. It is not a simple, self-evident truth for a large number of human beings, that motherhood does not mean womanhood, or that a man can be a mother. Remember, Matt Walsh is empowered in proportion to how much shame is hurled at him (there’s no such thing as bad publicity). If you justify shame in terms of ‘fighting against harmful narratives’, you are galvanizing the harmful narratives. The only thing that helps is empathy – empathizing with the struggles of people who cannot make sense of what they are being asked to make sense of. This, I understand.
Even now I struggle with the words to adapt to these notions. What do you call a mother who is a man? Is mother still correct? Is there a gender-neutral term for mother? And if we invent one, such as ‘child-bearing-person’, or the upsettingly clinical ‘gestational parent’ how are we going to get it to stick? Language does not like artifice; it is an emergent phenomenon that comes from within us. We say fuck and we say shit and we say wiggle and yeet and flex. We find words to express the reality we see and experience. We find words to honor the marriage between physical and spiritual that we directly observe. If a man gives birth to a baby, have you...deprived that child of “having a mother”? Does that baby have a mother, or only a gestational parent, and if so, is there something they’ve lost – is there something sacred in the word itself – or is it just...different? Is it okay to ask these questions? Should we keep them to ourselves, even if they fester into resentment?
Can we ever expect human beings to switch the word “mother” to “gestational parent” in all public discourse? Is that what we want? Maybe that’s the most ethical way forward. There is conservative dread at being expected to adopt new rules and habits to accommodate the feelings of a principled minority – and being publicly accused of active hatred if they fail to do as they’re told. I know this, because I feel it, too.
I don’t want to start referring to “motherhood” as “gestational parenthood” in public discourse, in an effort to make a group of people feel seen. Maybe I am wrong to feel this way. But it feels like ‘Mother’ is an ancient and powerful word that will not be so easily dislodged from the linguistic pantheon. Father is, too. I completely understand why people get angry at being asked to let go of these words, or being made to feel ‘problematic’ for using them in common spaces. I have a similar struggle with the idea of neopronouns (new words beyond they/them that worthy people have expressed a preference for), because they strike me as a little bit entitled. Expanding the definitions of language – say, by challenging the gender essentialist version of womanhood, or by invoking they/them to break the binary – feels like a noble goal; but it feels like something else to start trying to reprogram the linguistic labels in another person’s mind because you in particular require more specialized language. We have working pronouns that break the binary and...every time someone requests new words be learned, they frustrate and confuse an evangelical who is trying and make them resent the movement. Maybe the frustration is productive; maybe that’s the point. Still, you only have to break a binary one time for it to be broken; in a ‘tri-nary,’ the shackles come undone. Maybe I wont feel this way when we’ve installed AI into our brains and it can do the linguistic accommodation for me, because I truly do not mean anyone harm, and I still make an effort to recall and invoke a person’s neopronouns if I know them. Likewise, I will refer to someone as a gestational parent or a father or whatever else if they tell me they prefer that term. It feels odd, but I have no malice; It’s just frustrating to be made to feel as though you have not mastered your own native language, and that certain words I have been led to believe are sacred can be seen as profane.
I get it. There’s a truth, somewhere between Walsh’s underhanded gotchas, and Grzanka’s lofty and loquacious academic ideals. Gender is not a binary, but it is defined relative to a binary between men and women. That binary makes perfect sense when you look at the majority of the human population’s anatomy. It makes sense why ancient ideas about masculinity and femininity persist, when you analyze behavioral tendencies between men and women. It makes sense where our ideas about gender might come from, and it makes sense why people have so many feelings about these ideas, especially when these ideas are being challenged in a big, loud, global way. I don’t think it’s bad that these ideas are being challenged, because as far as I know we’ve never had such reason to deeply and collectively consider the implications of sex, gender, and our individual relationship to society. This seems like a damn valuable dialogue. We are all made better when we have a more nuanced, balanced understanding of manhood, womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, as well as our capacity to reject these shackles (if you experience them as such) outright.
But if we’re ever going to achieve meaningful political consensus without somebody doing a genocide, we have to heal these wounds in reality. We have to get everyone with the program, and you cannot do so by atomizing them into a warring faction, shaming them into exile, or disengaging. You have to speak to the humanity underlying the fear underlying the conflict. You have to honor peoples’ sense of the sacred because the sacred is the only thing that makes life feel meaningful for so many millions of human souls. The idea that life is not sacred may do fine for a nihilist but it is apostasy for someone who believes there is a purpose, and we have to find a way to get along if we want to spare ourselves the pain of obliteration.
We also...don’t have to spare ourselves the pain of obliteration, I guess. I don’t know what the great plan is; I don’t know if there is one. I have faith that, if there is one, it will be arrived at organically through an application of the gift of consciousness. We are capable of thinking with our brains, imagining solutions and teasing out their possible impact. I’ve watched a lot of possible solutions unfold in my life, and many – the ones grounded in turmoil, rage, fear, and shame – don’t lead to places that I want to go. The only ones that do require absolution for myself and for others. Start there.
It is not difficult to have consensus on truth when everyone is actually looking at truth. Because a part of truth is that subjective experience ultimately interprets and defines it. Yes, there is causality – that bus doing 40 through my living room is going to hurt me – but my experience of that causality is something that only I know, that only I have ever lived, and that I won’t even be able to recall properly – even if the bus doesn’t kill me. Only I, and others who have had similar experiences, will understand what that feels like. If you seek productive dialogue, you have to speak to people in a way that they can understand. It’s not hard. You start from the assumption that we’re all human beings having a human experience, and then remember that your frightened ego transcends the ever-loving hell out of this moment. If you can master that, you’re bulletproof. Spiritually, anyway.