So after reading the Slate Star Codex essay The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories I think I actually understand gender now. Well, I understand it a bit better than before.
I don’t know why it didn’t click with me before. I have read the Less Wrong sequence on words that Scott builds on and I even remember telling myself I should apply it to something that I’m more interested in then AI, like gender. To summaries in my own words:
We can visualise a Gender Space (check out the Wikipedia page on Vector Space to help understand what I mean by Gender Space) where every possible thing we associate with a gender (chromosomes, physical genitalia, appearance, identification, gender roles etc) on an axis (gender space has dozens of dimensions) and then place people at points in that space. We will observe clusters in this space, for example the cluster [XX chromosomes + Feminine gender presentation + Identifies as a woman] will be populated by people more than [XX chromosomes + Masculine Gender presentation + Identifies as non binary]. This doesn’t mean the later is wrong or bad, there are just empirically more members of the first cluster currently on earth than the second cluster.
This is the same with everything. For example planets have many characteristics (round, big, have moons, clears a path in space) and some [things in space] have some of these properties and not others. We then decide where we want to draw an imaginary line around a cluster in Gender Space and label these clusters things like “men” and “women” and “non binary.” But where we choose to draw this boundary is completely subjective so if someone draws the boundary somewhere differently to you they are not wrong.
Gender is more confusing than planets because there is an axis in gender space called “Gender Identification” which is what people say when they ask themselves what their gender is. There is also another axis which we could call “external gender identification” which would be what they tell people their gender is, which for some people would be different from their internal gender identification and would be different depending on the person.
This is even more confusing when you are trying to put yourself in gender space (find where you are in gender space?) because it causes a recursion. If I self identity as a woman that means on the axis of self identification I am at the point labeled woman, which makes me a member of the cluster that I have drawn the label around called woman, which means I am a woman, which means I identify as a woman, which means on the axis of gender identification etc.
I first was confused about gender when I learned that after you separate gender of biological sex, there are two separate things, gender identity and gender presentation. Gender presentation (clothing preferences, mannerisms, gender roles, pronouns)i completely understood and could understand people with any biological sex (which also is obviously not a binary) wanting any combination of those. Andi I understood what it meant to identify as a gender in the sense of saying “I am a [Gender]” But surely there must be something influencing that right? Like some kind of internal experience or set of facts that cause one person to identify as one gender and one person to identify as another.
I asked my friend (a cis woman) what she meant when she says she identifies as a woman (my memory will be inexact when recalling this conversation). She said she “feels like” a girl/woman. I had absolutely no idea what she meant by that. Up until this point i had identified as a man because my biological sex is male and I fit most (though not all) of the male gender presentation criteria. But I had no idea what she meant by “feel like a woman.” I didn’t feel like a man, just like I didn’t feel like a left wing person, i just surveyed my political beliefs and chose the label that fit. Unlike “feeling hungry” or “feeling sad” I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to feel like a gender.
After asking more people and doing research I asked my original friend if by “I feel like a woman” she meant “I have a preference for and/or feel happy when people use feminine pronouns to refer to me, and other forms of feminine presentation” she said yes but there was also a part beyond that where she felt like a woman. While I could understand the former part the latter still made no sense to me. After a while I started identifying as Agender due to fact I didn’t seem to feel what other people felt.
(although what i found interesting is that at least a third of my cis friends that I asked felt the exact same way as me, and didn’t really understand what it meant to “feel like” a specific gender. Later I learned about people who are Cis by Default which is a cis person who doesn’t feel a strong gender identity.)
But I’m still not sure if the gender you feel like is an axis in gender space or if it is how an algorithm feels from the inside, and in the same way that words feel like they have meaning or Pluto still feels like a planet even after we know every characteristic about it.
I think that if I knew everything I know now about gender when I first asked myself what gender I am, I would have said I’m probably a cis by default man. But at the same time now that my self identification is Agender, am I stuck in a recursive loop of being Agender because i identify as Agender and identifying as Agender because I am Agender?
I also don’t know how this affects my gender abolitionist leanings. Like the same arguments that apply to abolishing the category of gender seem to apply to abolishing a lot of other categories, so to be consistent would I have to be an abolitionist about every category? I have more thinking to do.
So to sum it up gender is still confusing, but slightly less than it was before. Progress!