Gender is queer. By which I mean irredeemably strange, ungraspable, out of sync with “male” and “female,” weirdly not normal, since lived gender fails to conform to normative ideals and expectations, even when it is played quite straight. Conventional views try to snuff this strangeness, yet conventional views are strange.

Lived gender fails to conform to ideals and expectations, even when it is played quite straight.

Try this on for a very queer idea: raise two human beings to think they’re opposites; give them opposite traits to embody; establish different mindsets, behaviors, and interests; offer them opposite aesthetics to pursue. Then ask these opposites to live together, love together, parent together as they raise little opposites; call this “marriage as it was intended”; call this “normal” gendering. Isn’t this strange?

Gender is also made of things that are not gender: race and money. Gender is fundamentally raced and classed in these United States. The history of the concept “gender” bears this out, in ways that may amaze you. When we know this history, stressing race and money, the notion of “opposite sexes” falls apart. In fact, the notion of there being “two sexes” forcefully crumbles.

We put the words “girl” or “boy” in kids. This is an intrusion to which they don’t consent and to which they must respond—their whole lives long. Words enter us and words live inside us, birthing whole realms of meaning in us. Words are even draped on us. We wear “girl” or “boy,” for instance, in the form of clothes and hair and so much more. It can be hard, to put it mildly, to get words off of us—especially words put onto us before we were born.

In my new book, Gender(s), I explore how gender is queer for everyone. How it’s a matter of word and system. Little cellular ant-like words mightily carry worlds on their backs. Entire structures, societal systems, and institutions—those molding gender—come to us on the backs of words. Gender, even so, can be made to look so simple: it’s “revealed” at birth. Hence, the rise of gender-reveal parties where someone slices a decorated baked good, often with a flourish, to give a voilà to pink or blue cake.

Did you know gender when you were born? Profoundly, you couldn’t. Gender becomes something you know. But what do you know? What might remain deeply unknown about your own gender and all that surrounds it? Gender(s) aims to lure you into gender’s import—its bewitching pleasures and falsifications, its concerning history, its enduring puzzles as a wily system—by meeting the moment of where we are. Fascinating, fraught, intimate to everyone, gender increasingly has our attention as something newly morphing. Is this newness new? In the following, I consider how gender is changing—or is it not?.

The doll is quite the canary in the coal mine. It tracks change. Now it’s implying a gender buffet. Some parents love what they’re seeing surface in the land of dolls. Some parents sense a danger alert.

What has emerged? In the scene of kids and toys, dolls have marked a line between girls and boys. The dictate has been trumpeted: “boys don’t play with dolls.” Of course some do, but their boyness is questioned—almost seems wounded—the minute a doll is spotted in their hands, unless they’re bashing it. Hence the use of the phrase “action figure” for G.I. Joe and dolls of his ilk. (It’s like Grecian Formula and Just for Men coloring: hair dye for men that can’t be “hair dye” since it’s for men—a gem of gender’s circular logic.)

Here comes a doll, then, to buck this history. Time magazine, which reports on this development, titles its article “A Doll for Everyone,” exclaiming that “Mattel is on a mission to break taboos and shatter stereotypes . . . by introducing a gender-neutral doll.” One might reply that Mattel is on a mission to shatter its own bold stereotypes—still on offer through the toys it sells. But that would be getting ahead of ourselves. First, there’s the doll. “In our world,” states a Mattel advertisement, “dolls are as limitless as the kids who play with them. Introducing Creatable World.™” (Stop right here and note the charming irony of the “TM” affixed to this naming. Mattel might as well be shouting “it’s trademarked! it’s ours! hands off! we own the label!”) The ad continues with nary a pause: “a doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in—giving kids the freedom to create their own customizable characters again and again.”

Welcome to the gender buffet, it appears. It’s not uncool. I would have wanted one—someone to keep my G.I. Joe company. (He seemed lonely.) But how does one make a doll to be so various, so apt to shape-shift? Clothes and hair and lissomness. Time describes the doll: “Each doll in the Creatable World series looks like a slender 7-year-old with short hair, but each comes with a wig of long, lustrous locks and a wardrobe befitting any fashion-conscious kid: hoodies, sneakers, graphic T-shirts in soothing greens and yellows, along with tutus and camo pants.” We’re also told by Time that Mattel’s first advertisement “feature[d] a series of kids who go by various pronouns—him, her, them, xem,” thus embracing trans and nonbinary kids. All so important. All so bending of the culture of dolls.

And race and money are deeply in this mix. To make this observation is not to downplay change. Or negate a change in play—the way kids play. (They queer toys.) The point is to grasp how gender has racialization running through it, in ways that remain taboo to engage. If you’re wondering, then, what Time has to say about these dolls’ racial aspects? It says nothing—as if gender-neutral were neutral on race, or just a topic to itself. The reader may be curious, however, about how race is “handled” on the doll’s face—a color coat on an Anglicized visage?—when Time states: “Carefully manicured features betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide.” And the hair? There it is. The Black-skinned Creatable World™ doll is called “Deluxe Customizable Doll Kit Black Braided Hair” and comes with . . . no blonde hair. Race is not interchangeable here, and that may make all kinds of parents happy. Time doesn’t speak of it. You can have race at the gender buffet as long as its “variety” is not interrogated. That would not be playful.

Mind you, Time explores the risk Mattel is taking with parents’ reactions to this doll’s gendering: “It’s parents who are making the purchasing decisions, and no adult is going to have a neutral reaction to this doll.” There were focus groups. Some parents, you would guess, were less than pleased. The doll “feels political,” a parent complained. “Is it transgender?” another one asked. “How am I supposed to have a conversation with my kid about that? It’s just too much. Can’t we go back to 1970?” (Somewhere David Bowie is laughing.)

Gender has race running through it, in ways that remain taboo to engage.

But even Time notes that Mattel knows what it’s doing. “The company is betting” on where the country’s going. Where it is going means money for Mattel. Forget focus groups; demographics tell the story. Gender nonconforming kids are on the rise, though it’s hard to put a number on this “population” growth. In the words of Time: “Those kids . . . are an untapped demographic. Mattel currently has 19% market share in the $8 billion doll industry; gaining just 1 more point could translate into $80 million in revenue for the company.”

Play does not require store-bought toys. Kids are changing gender with quite surprising props. Really creatable worlds are here—and we need to mark them with nonconforming memoirs and other modes of listening. Here’s the gender expanse that’s exuberant. But we’re not naive. Money’s in our gender.

Race is, too. Only a century or so ago, white girl-children learned to bash dolls. As we glean from Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, so much depends on dolls in pain. You heard that right. The thought of such a sensation for a doll, for a Black doll—the sense that it could recoil with hurt, if you were to hit it—tells us volumes about white girlhood from the time of slavery up to civil rights. (Or right now, in the George Floyd time of May 2020.)

Who feels suffering and so needs shielding from it? Who has sensitivity to possible harm? Children rehearse these relations with their dolls. Bernstein tells us the doll is a “prompt” for a set of actions connected to feelings.

And at the height of the nineteenth century, new kinds of dolls were made for white girls. Dolls good for bashing—for proving that Blacks did not feel pain. As Bernstein documents, Black dolls were whipped, thrashed, and beaten, even directly according to the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and yet were seen to grin through it all. Their black color, their manufactured smiles, and their black rubber (“gutta-percha, a form of resilient rubber used in nineteenth-century dolls to enable them to survive rough play”) helped script the “fun” recalled by former children.

The doll is a canary in the coal mine. And if the group One Million Moms, whose mission it is to “fight against indecency,” finds that Mattel’s new doll in its neutrality “promote[s] a sinful lifestyle,” “endanger[ing] our children,” the group might read some history. Just for doll perspective.

Soldiers and dolls assuredly make for an odd couple. Gender, nonetheless, joins them at the hip.

The soldier is a battleground. Just like dolls, the soldier sounds alarms that something is amiss, according to someone, in terms of gender change. The matter I wish to discuss here involves servicepersons who identify as “trans,” who, under Trump, were once again banned from being in the military. (The Biden administration recently rescinded the reestablished ban.)

But there’s a more hidden matter to unmask—one with consequences for everyone’s gender. Remarkably, despite the soldier’s vaunted manliness, perhaps no other figure, for several centuries, shows how contradictory the thing called “masculinity” truly is. If we need an entrée into gender’s queerness—how it’s strange for everyone—the soldier provides it.

First, however, we need to grasp why transgender Americans were being banned from service. The stated answer is actually money. Thus, while Mattel was busy breaking taboos in the name of trans and nonbinary (and all kinds of) kids—while it makes money in its bid to do right—money was the federal government’s rationale for its discrimination on the basis of service members’ gender expression. Of course, the government denied there was a “ban” or any “discrimination” in what it was doing. Defense Department spokeswoman Jessica R. Maxwell put the matter this way: “If you are a transgender individual, you are welcome to serve”; the policy “actually prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity for accession, retention, or separation.”

Despite the soldier’s vaunted manliness, perhaps no other figure shows how contradictory the thing called “masculinity” truly is.

What’s the catch? What was the Trump policy excluding that the Obama administration was allowing (only starting in 2016)? To put it plainly, transgender prospects enlisting after April 2019 could not receive gender-affirming health care and could only serve according to their sex assigned at birth. In more official language, the policy ceased “presumptive accommodations” for people “diagnosed” with “gender dysphoria”—“a serious health condition,” as Maxwell put it. (A dictionary definition of “gender dysphoria” doesn’t mention health and hints at how widespread it could be: “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity to be at variance with one’s birth sex.”) Obama’s policy still required that transgender service members, to receive their health care, be “diagnosed” with “gender dysphoria”—no small thing. But the Trump policy seemed to be saying the government would make no “accommodations” (a critical word for disability rights) for this apparent dysphoria-disability.

Want your health care? Confess a disability (Obama’s policy). Or (Trump’s policy): say whatever you want about your gender; your diagnosis will get you no health care, save you no money, and we’ll sex you.

A series of presidential tweets said it all: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow . . . transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming . . . victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.” This was a twofer. “Medical costs” were one rationale for Trump’s non-allowance (though these costs were tiny in the scheme of things). “Disruption” by “transgender in the military” was the other.

We’ve been down this road before. Who can forget all the “expert” testimony by the military brass about effects on troops’ “morale” if gays weren’t banned from military service? Back then, generals focused on the harm to soldiers and sailors and airmen if a guy knew an openly gay man served beside him—and just might desire him. The thought of attraction directed at them left men quaking in their boots, we were to gather. (By contrast, servicewomen’s charges of rape were going ignored, even as an issue to be discussed.)

Making the ban a matter of money, though, allowed the Trump administration to steer far clearer of having to address a striking revelation of gender nonconformity at the soldier’s core. The argument I am about to make could occur to you (as it did to me) while reading Michel Foucault’s famous treatise Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. But, really, it’s so obvious that readers might take it as a gender truism. Here’s the heart of it. The soldier is the most obedient, subservient, subjugated, dominated, movable, docile body there is. The soldier is literally made to obey.

If we encountered this description somewhere else, we might well think it referred to the stereotype of conventional femininity, so opposite does it seem to conventional masculinity. That’s not all. Equally striking is the fact that, like a pin-up or a kind of mannequin, the soldier is interchangeable with others of his type. “Individuality”—a signpost of manliness—is clearly vanquished. The soldier, like the worker, becomes a kind of cog. Foucault even offers an abstract phrase that becomes chillingly literal in war: the soldier is a “fragment of mobile space,” he says, to be moved at will in whatever direction the Command determines.

Viewing documentaries such as the acclaimed World War I in Color proves these claims and prepares us for grasping new binds for boys (in the next chapter). Throughout the documentary, the soldier’s masculinity slips on and off—becoming indistinguishable from feminine traits. For example: the “swishing of kilts” on parade—the glamor of soldiers’ military uniforms— becomes a soldier’s seduction into soldiering; there is quaking fear (“if anyone tells you he wasn’t afraid, he’s a damned liar”); some men’s disfigurements (turning blue from poison gas) echo those of women (who turn yellow from making TNT); men ask wives “to keep a brave heart for me.”

Gone is the posture and dignified bearing of the soldier as a blazon. What is revealed is a docile body—albeit a violent docile body. From a “symbol of national pride” to a “posture of total dejection,” says the narrator, “chivalry here took a final farewell.” At the Battle of the Somme, the Allied troops advanced “just seven miles with 600,000 casualties.” That meant 86,000 men—like cogs being moved—were required to die for each mile gained.

The soldier was a fragment of mobile space.

Change, by definition, is a liquid force, not so easy to capture in the moment. Historical backdrops help gauge change. Taking stock requires that we jet back in time, and then return to the blazing “now.” And such stocktaking asks us to learn how the past still rumbles inside our gender(s).

“The Electable Female Candidate,” a satire published in the New Yorker in 2019, reminds us of just how much hasn’t changed for women in politics, despite their growing numbers. The piece is hilarious because it rings so true:

The electable female candidate reaches across the aisle with soft, moisturized hands. She knows how to fire a gun, but also has never held a gun, and doesn’t know what a gun is. She’s becoming a vegan, but stands behind Arby’s in its commitment to the Meats. . . . She’s able to radically reshape society, but moderately. She was raised on a farm in the middle of Central Park. . . . She went to Harvard, but hated it. . . . She is Beyoncé. . . . She wears sensible shoes that are hot. . . . She loves babies, even the ugly ones, although she has never participated in a gender-reveal party.

The joke is that women, unlike their counterparts, have to be “all things to all people” if they would succeed. Evidently, they have to be just like men and women, in their womanly way of being.

We shouldn’t be surprised that gender reveal parties are burgeoning at the same time that “gender-creative” parenting is on the rise.

Woman = man + woman? We laugh because it’s weird—and so recognizable. Even as conditions on the ground change for women, as they increasingly enter historically masculine roles, they must do men’s work while they preserve a woman’s way of doing it, which includes manliness. Women are (asked to be) two sexes. Yet there’s also race. Women, in being all things to all people according to this satire, must be not too white— Beyoncé is the satirical measure—and not too elite—in order to appeal. All these words wobble, yet the point remains. Gender as we’ve known it also swallows change. The binary of sex and gender is just dazzlingly durable, as change reigns.

And that’s the fix we’re in. So much about the sex/gender system stays in place while dramatic changes seem to swirl around us. Both change and stasis are happening together, at the same time. No surprise, then: “gender reveals” are burgeoning just when “gender-creative” parenting of “gender-free” children is on the rise. Still, no matter how creative this spawning of children proves to be, systems of gender—and the words for gender—lie in wait for children. Even if their infanthood is washed of definitive signs attached to them, they are still caught in the torrents of gender that surround them (the gendering of their parents, teachers, neighbors, and celebrities), making these newfangled children like salmon swimming upstream, despite the delight of this different swim.

So, what is happening in terms of gender change? One big case is telling: the bind for women’s colleges surrounding . . . “woman.” It could sound puzzling—or completely cheering—but they don’t know what a woman is. Shockingly, or not, historic women’s colleges are having a crisis over the word that defines their institutions. It is philosophical while it’s just so practical. Who can be admitted? This has gotten hard—for definers and defined. Here’s what tripped this wire. Historic women’s colleges had to take a stand as transgender students sought admission. (The colleges in question are “the seven sisters”: the colleges founded because the Ivy League did not admit undergraduate “women” until the late 1960s. Harvard, evidently, knew a woman when it saw one.) Of these “sister” schools, Mount Holyoke College, in 2014, crafted the most expansive policy, listing seven categories that could be admitted:

  • Biologically born female; identifies as a woman
  • Biologically born female; identifies as a man
  • Biologically born female; identifies as other/they/ze
  • Biologically born female; does not identify as either woman or man
  • Biologically born male; identifies as a woman
  • Biologically born male; identifies as other/they/ze and when “other/they” identity includes woman
  • Biologically born with both male and female anatomy (Intersex); identifies as a woman
  • Those who are born biologically male and identify as male cannot apply.

We will return to the all-important phrase “biologically born”: much has hung on this hook throughout the years. For now, we should notice that what is called “sex”—male or female—did not rule the day for this policy change from 2014 for the oldest women’s college in the US. “Identifying” did. If you hooked yourself to the word “woman,” in some measure—or unhooked from it in approved ways—you could come in. Word and system would admit you.

Wellesley, by contrast, draws a tighter circle. They do not include trans men in their policy or this category offered by Mount Holyoke: “biologically born male, but identifies as other/they or ze and when ‘other/they’ identity includes woman.” For admission to Wellesley, one must “live as a woman and consistently identify as a woman.” The trick is “consistently.” (The New Yorker satire comes to mind.) Given that jobs and so many aspects of life require “masculine” traits, can women live their consistency “consistently”? I suspect Wellesley means to admit whoever walks under the sign woman.

Clearly, this crisis is over a word. (Word and system.) Other gender crises are over a letter.

“Latinx” has surfaced to hasten gender change. This new term, with its striking X, now appears in Merriam-Webster Dictionary as of 2018. Per Google, it’s defined as “a person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina).” This change ignited in just a few years.

The force is with the X. It is the element—this one letter—that asks for system change, not just inclusion. Prior to the use of X, the term Latino/a (hard to pronounce and written as “Latin@” by many people) had arisen to include both men and women in a single word. “Latinx,” however, was a move beyond this twoness and the binary of sex. Claudia Milian, in her book LatinX, takes us on a tour of these charged developments and captures their thrust when she cites activist Alba Onofrio: “We have a critique of the system, and we want to be entirely different and not just let in.” (Shades of the pressures put on women’s colleges. Here, nonetheless, we don’t have seven categories introduced by policy. We have a letter talked about in chat rooms.)

“Latinx” has surfaced to hasten gender change. The force is with the X.

“X” is a portal to the unknown. An open horizon. In the face of gender’s binary tendencies, “the ‘X’ turns away from the dichotomous, toward a void, an unknown, a wrestling,” say scholars Macarena Gómez-Barris and Licia Fiol-Matta. Indeed, there’s a fascinating origin to the mathematical X, as we learn in the TED Talk by Terry Moore entitled “Why Is ‘X’ the Unknown?” According to Moore, Spanish scholars from the medieval period were stumped by how to translate Arabic sounds like the letter “sheen.” “Because you can’t say ‘sh’ in Spanish,” Moore informs us, X has played its role as the mathematical unknown.

Powerfully, as if she were spinning off this story, literary critic Gloria Elizabeth Chacón, as Milian shares with us, probes the X in the context of language and Indigenous Mesoamerican peoples. The X “is a confrontation,” writes Chacón, “between the Latin and indigenous languages—a ‘mother tongue’ that refuses gendered language. Feminine/ masculine articles don’t exist in Maya or Zapotec,” but, she adds, “this does not mean that gendered ideologies are nonexistent”—“only that the X is the ineffable indigenous language that keeps returning.” And, she says, “LatinX is an opening,” “an ethical position that engages with indigenous populations.”

“X,” we could say, is where oppression and potentiality cross. “X,” one can’t forget, as Milian reminds us, also “stands for . . . indigenous groups ‘sign[ing] over’ their property . . . to colonizing Europeans,” echoed in Malcolm X’s affixing this symbol to his name. Portal and erasure meet in the X. No wonder Milian states her frustration, giving a feel for the not-yet-full embrace of Latinx: “The X is unconventional. The X is multiplying. The X is complicated. The X is funky. I like the X. I don’t like the X. . . . Will you pass it up or pass it on?” That’s a clever question for the scene of gender change.

Genre, as it happens, is also in our gender. No one of late has more cunningly made genre into gender than Lil Nas X—himself an X-er (for no stated reason). What a genre breakout and sign of gender change has issued from his person, this fresh talent on the musical scene with his song and video “Old Town Road.” When you thought you’d seen it all, a man on a horse rides into town—an old Western trope—but the town is LA and the man is Black. Even more important, the sound is a mix of country crawl and deep-base rap.

Here is keen exuberance.

Lil Nas X’s genre—what is it?—has become his gender, whatever it is.

Nothing feels heavy, only arresting in sheer surprise. The viewer’s own startle is mirrored by the look of shock on the faces of neighborhood Black folks stopping in their tracks as they water the lawn, fix their cars, and gaze with amazement from the front porch. The figure before them is so unforeseen—a cowboy on their streets—a Black man in the genre of the cowboy outlaw (with that horse!)— they have to laugh, or dance in response.

And something about the gender on display—a boyish surface that is so playful, undefended, ironic, boldly declared, and just so able to morph into joyful, fringe-swinging glee—looks so new, maybe so gay, and is flat-out unexpected. It’s about as likely as “Old Town Road” becoming “the longest-running No. 1 song” in US history—which it did. And now that the singer, Lil Nas X, has come out queer—while his song topped the charts—people are reading all kinds of meanings into his lyrics, his gestures, his genres. His genre—what is it?—has become his gender, whatever it is.

Indeed, in the luckiest turn of all, “Old Town Road,” while climbing the charts, ended up banned. For its genre-bending. It was said not to have “enough” country elements. There was pandemonium. Along came Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix—and the song went viral, straight to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Not incidentally, the song in its witty weirdness has been praised for its embrace of “opposites.” Not masculine/feminine (though the song runs the gamut on the gender spectrum). Not Black/white (though it ends with Nas and an old white woman, together in their get-ups, mugging for the camera). Not gay/straight (despite a queering of the cowboy). And not oppressive/liberating (even though the remix plays on themes of escape from a posse—Nas is holding a big bag of money—and lynching, if he’s caught?).

Nas is wedding a different set of opposites: “two quintessential American musical genres”: country and hip-hop (with, of course, their racial histories in attendance). Lil Nas X, says Time magazine, even stands for “democratized pathways to success,” since Nas made his history-making hit with “a beat he purchased online for $30. . . . All this has the people who usually make money off stars like Lil Nas X questioning long-held assumptions about who consumes what, how and when.”

Gender change is all around us. We measure it against the binaries that are alive and well—but themselves quite weird

That’s a bit utopian, especially when Time is eager to conclude that “Lil Nas X represents a more unified vision of the future, one in which a young queer black man can dominate popular culture.” True, if the Grammys are the metric for this future, Nas is it. He was a vision as he staged his hit at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Springing from a couch in a silver cowboy suit, showing off an impossible sheen, Nas went strutting and skipping into other “boxes” of “boys” on a carousel-stage (among them, the Korean sensation BTS, itself a variously gendered “boy band,” and young Mason Ramsey, the budding country star)—all before emerging in a long, black, Western, patent-leather cloak.

Boys are on the move. But the Grammys are not representative of life for Black queer men. Nas himself tweeted, with a humorous punch line: “Last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now I’m gay.” These claims bear out my themes. Gender change is all around us. We measure it against the binaries that are alive and well—but themselves quite weird. Race and money flood our gender.

“Can’t nobody tell me nothin’/You can’t tell me nothin’,” sings Lil Nas. These double negatives sound like an X—which, however jubilant, is not a piece of cake.

Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from Gender(s) by Kathryn Bond Stockton © 2021 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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