Gender, but Upside-Down, Reversed
"Hi, my name is Samantha, and my pronouns are she/her."
"uH hI im ARthuR and I identify as an attack helicopter lololol"
Or so it goes on the internet. When trans people talk about their gender identity, the experience of being not what you were assigned at birth, there are always about a thousand "independent thinkers" who descend to make the same joke: I identify as an attack helicopter.
Someone decided to take that idea completely seriously. In her "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter," Isabel Fall* writes from the perspective of a pilot in a dystopian, climate-wrecked future, explaining how her gender is, quite literally, attack helicopter. The military has learned to rewrite that aspect of a person's mind in order to make them more efficient killing machines; her discourse on gender theory is punctuated by scenes of her destroying a high school and dodging enemy fast movers. It was, on my first reading, an absolutely thrilling trip into a gender wildly different from my own.
This was not the universal reaction. Many commentators felt that the story was, in fact, deeply transphobic, influenced by terf rhetoric and crowded with dog whistles. Let's review the evidence:
The government is transing people
The narrator's conception of womanhood is stereotypical and sexist
The narrator is a danger to women and children
The narrator is just a woman confused about her own gender
Yes, this is a way of reading the story.** It is not my reading. I think it depends on a central, often unstated, premise: that we are to read this story as a simple metaphor for being trans. The author intended to draw direct, 1:1 parallels between the narrator's attack-helicopter gender and the contemporary trans experience. And, as the above examples show, reading the story in that light definitely results in a series of disguised anti-trans talking points.
But what if we abandon that premise, and take the story quite: the narrator is attempting to describe a gender that simply did not exist before military scientists cooked it up and imprinted it in our pilot's brain? Read this way, the point of the story is to push on our conception of gender itself, its nature and its limits, to make us ask why do we think woman is a gender and attack helicopter not?
Because the thing is, I personally found it a gripping, visceral account of a gendered experience very different from my own. Most striking to me was the sense of the narrator's body as the helicopter itself, with her meat-suit just a part of that system and always incomplete without it. And more than anything else, I thought it absolutely nailed the sense in which she felt she had finally become herself by becoming something others wouldn't recognize.*** Something barely legible. And this sense of becoming through embodiment rings deeply, deeply true to my own experience with gender.
But maybe you want something more than a feeling. Okay: it's time for some gender theory. Here's a question: why is "man" a gender and "soccer goalie" not? On a classical, binaristic theory of gender, there are easy answers. Gender is the social meaning of sex, and sex is just reproductive role. Humans have got two of those, male and female, so we've got two corresponding genders, man and woman. But what if you reject this? What if you think that gender is often correlated with assigned sex, but doesn't correspond to it? What if you think that the concepts of binary sex and "reproductive roles" are themselves inconvenient fictions that are best dispensed with when attempting to understand this thing we call gender?
Well, there are still answers. Genders are simply one among many contingent, historical-subjective identities; we use the concept in a pragmatic way. So "goalie" is not a gender but "woman" is, not for any deep reason, but because that's just how our concepts have developed. The concept of gender is not derived from some a priori consideration of the human species; the concept of gender is not a clean-and-clear taxonomy that divides all our kind into equivalence classes. There is no Deep Taxonomy of Human Existence.
This is the sort of answer that invites questions. Consider the concept of hardness. In ordinary language, we might say this is a resistance to being damaged. And so we go looking for harder and harder materials, extending our concept naturally at each step, until we find ourselves with a strange conclusion: a perfectly hard substance, one absolutely resistant to deformation, "may often be crushed to a powder by gentle pressure," (R.A. Higgins, Engineering Metallurgy (London: Edward Arnold, 1983), p. 175). It's as if we set out walking in a single straight line and eventually discovered we had arrived at where we started, except upside-down, or mirror-imaged. The world is a stranger place than we had imagined. You can at every step extend your normal, ordinary concept in a "natural" way, and only on looking back discover that you've been standing on a Reimann surface the whole time.
So gender is a social construct, sure. Gender is being socially constructed. In 2014, Vesper H. named a new one: maverique.**** We recognize this as a gender, a way of naturally extending our gender concepts in a heretofore unnamed direction. Fall's story suggests that we can keep going. There are more genders than dreamt of in our philosophy, more ways of being in the world than we currently know.
To circle back to the main point: on this reading, Fall is still trying to demonstrate the absolute stupidity of the attack-helicopter "joke" I opened with. She is pointing out that gender identity, whether man or woman or attack helicopter, is a far deeper and more thoroughgoing thing than just a declaration. It pervades our subjectivity; it soaks into our skin, our flesh; it paints the world in different color. So you don't identify as an attack helicopter.
But you might.
*Possibly a pseudonym. She appears to have no other publications and no prior internet presence, despite the polish of her prose suggesting a fair bit of time spent as a writer. This will be relevant later. Barring future revelations, I will use she/her pronouns for Fall throughout.
** An understandable, even reasonable way of reading the story. We live in a time of severe, pervasive transphobia, with anti-trans groups actively producing dog whistles and conspiracy theories aimed at the segregation and elimination of trans people. Being suspicious is a natural, often correct reaction. And indeed these suspicions may turn out to be justified! If Isabel Fall is a pseudonym, and the true author is some transphobic douche, then the arguments of this essay will need to be revisited.
*** I also feel that this addresses two of the common criticisms of the story, namely that the phrase "sexually identify as" conflates sexuality and gender identity, and that the narrator's conception of men and women is painfully stereotypical and doesn't track. My own view is that her (odd) conception of womanhood is just a reflection of her inability to be at home in that prior skin. And the phrase "sexually identify as" isn't a matter of saying that her sexuality is attack helicopter. She is trying to express an idea that we don't quite have the words for: her sex, as in her body, is an attack helicopter.
**** Per Vesper H., they did not create a new gender, but merely a new word for the gender they had always been. In other words, they introduced a conceptual innovation. And in the world of human experience, a name is something to conjure with. It enables people to see themselves in new ways, and perhaps therefore to become new people. See my "Looping Effects and the Science of the Trans Experience" for discussion of related matters.