TIME recently announced that our society has arrived at the “transgender tipping point.” If that’s true, then few would question that this is a historic moment. But TIME may have underestimated the significance of its proclamation.
Discussions surrounding gender identity seem to indicate that we have entered an era of “liquid identity.” No longer do we think of gender as biologically fixed or categorically binary. Instead, we increasingly think of gender as something multi-dimensional and fluid. People are now freely encouraged to look within themselves in order to discover their “core” gender identity.
As a result, determining your gender identity is no longer understood as a biological endeavor, but a social-psychological exploration of the deepest order. And soon, anyone who identifies as “simply” male or female may be encouraged to look again. Rather than simply identify as one or the other, an emerging generation believes that most people are at some point along a gender continuum as complex as the human genome.
Moreover, because of advances in science, humans are now increasingly free to reassign their gender to fit their own image. Genetic manipulation helps create a self that is consistent with the complex fruit of self-discovery.
No wonder journalists are noticing that this is a significant time. But most are still missing what’s most important: while today’s conversations push the boundaries of how we understand gender, they don’t understand that this brave new world of identity is about more than gender.
The students with whom I associate—from middle school to college students—have understood for several years that we now reside in a world beyond gender. The youngest of them probably don’t realize that TIME’s article announced anything “new.”
For many of them, gender discussions, even of the transgender variation, are just so yesterday. When we talk about personal identity, we don’t include the mundane questions about being male and/or female. A person can certainly identify as male or female if they wish, but there is little expectation that one would do so.
After all, today Facebook gives us over 50 “gender” identities to choose from. (Conversations about this can involve questions about why there are so few options.) And rather than looking to gender or variations on a gender, more and more young people are seeking to discover their identity by widening the options to include “otherkins” (people who consider themselves to have a non-human identity, such as various animals, spirits, mediums, and so on).
Young people today are much less binary when it comes to understanding identity because “male” and “female” as categories don’t express a unique or comprehensive identity.
When I tell this to many adult audiences, they laugh, believing that young people will grow out of this “stage.” They’re surprised that I don’t share their sense of the immaturity of our youth.
That’s because the young people with whom I interact are extraordinarily perceptive, compared to adults. As one high school student recently asked me, “Why does our school demand that we figure out if we are male or female or some variation? How could we figure it out even if we cared about gender? Can you tell me what it feels like to be woman? Can you tell me what it feels like to be a man? Of course not. No one knows.”
If everything is reduced to gender—even liquid gender—then how can anyone know by a solely internal exploration if they feel male or female?
What does it feel like to be a man? It can’t just mean that I am attracted to women, because it is okay to be attracted to men. It can’t just mean I feel like a lumberjack—because what does it mean to feel like a lumberjack? It can’t simply mean to be drawn to women’s clothes because what makes some garments women’s clothes?
In short, if the ultimate source of reference is the self, and if no other self than the individual is a reference point, how can you know who or what you are?
Indeed. The kids are right.
We don’t live at a tipping point; we already live beyond the tipping point. Whether adults realize it or not, the most important conversation today is not about gender, but about identity, as released from the confines of gender.
We have entered an era of liquid identity. One’s chosen title may express something, nothing, anything, or everything—but as a result, all these designations lose meaning, rather than gain it.
The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder observed in the 18th century that we cannot know ourselves without a reference point outside of ourselves.
Friedrich Nietzsche saw this as well when we wrote in The Genealogy of Morals, “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves . . . Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto. ‘Each of us is the farthest away from himself.’—As far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”
In a world of liquid identity, there can be no definite answers to our questions about our own identities.
No answers, that is, unless humans have been inescapably created with a meaning that transcends us, that shapes us, and gives us definition beyond that which we give ourselves. A meaning that helps us to understand where our common humanity begins while giving shape to each and every person as a unique individual.
Indeed, what does it actually mean to be made in the image of God? It means we have been created as eternal beings. It means that by getting to know that which is eternal, we might rediscover our identity in a foundational image archetype that is all too hastily being discarded: male and female.
Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.