The Gender Axis of Evil (Gender Analysis 02)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Imagine if the light switches in your house turned all your lights on or off at the same time. You flip one switch, all the lights are on. Flip another switch, all the lights are off. That would seem kind of bizarre, right? If you’re just going to the kitchen for a midnight snack, why do you need the lights to be on in the laundry room and the office and everywhere else? That’s pretty unnecessary.

What if they were all dimmer switches instead, so that every light in the house could be brighter or darker in synchrony? That kind of flexibility still wouldn’t help, because it wouldn’t address the underlying issue: why are all these lights stuck together? Who would design a house’s electrical wiring like that in the first place? What sense does this make? It’s almost like they missed the point of having different light switches.

And yet this is the way that many people tend to think about gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Conceptually, they see these as just a handful of light switches that are ultimately linked to only one thing. To them, all of these concepts are locked together, moving with each other in synchrony – they think changing one thing can affect the rest.

 

The new gender binary

This is related to the gender binary, the notion that aspects of gender and sexuality fall into only one of two opposing categories: people are either male or female, masculine or feminine, attracted to women or attracted to men. Under this model, there are men and there are women; men do this, women do that; men look like this, women look like that.

Pretty much everyone knows this isn’t actually true, because the idea of such a binary is easily refuted by reality. Some people are nonbinary and their gender isn’t completely and exclusively male or female. Notions of how men and women are “supposed” to look have changed significantly over time, and plenty of people present in ways that could be considered androgynous or gender-neutral. And, of course, lots of people are attracted to men and women, or to neither, or to people who aren’t male or female.

This is pretty basic stuff. But even when people see that space exists outside of two narrow categories, they often still treat these categories as endpoints of a spectrum – a single spectrum. They seem to think that at one end, there are people who are male, masculine, and attracted to women; at the other end, there are people who are female, feminine, and attracted to men. Instead of seeing that gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation are separate variables, all of these distinct features are collapsed into a single position on a single axis. Because a shift in one of these features is seen to shift the rest along with it, this means using one aspect of a person to deny, redefine, or reclassify their other aspects.

 

A unifying theme in gender fallacies

I’ve started calling this model the Gender Axis of Evil, because it’s a misconception that underlies so many stereotypes about gender and sexuality, both well-known and obscure. It might be called an anti-pattern – a term used in software design and management to describe a bad solution that people keep coming up with, even when it causes more harm than good. In this case, the generalization of people into these two clusters might seem like a useful rule of thumb, considering how many people do tend to be male, masculine, and attracted to women, or vice versa. But this model breaks down when people try to force it into situations where it clearly no longer describes reality.

The Gender Axis of Evil first became obvious to me when reading a comment from someone who doesn’t really like me. They stated that they don’t consider me to be a woman, noted that I have a wife, and compared me unfavorably to “convincing” trans women:

Zinnia “I am a boy pretending to be a girl” Jones no longer gets a “she” from me. … Good drag queens and convincing mtf trans people will always get a ‘she’ from me — because they seem like women (to those of us who are such fucking assholes that we believe in the gender binary) and they’ve done the work. “Zinnia” seems to want to make a big point of being able to … keep his cock, have a girlfriend (wife?) … but wants me to consider him to be a “woman” whose opinion about womanhood matters.

Within one paragraph, they managed to invoke practically every aspect of the Gender Axis of Evil: because they perceive me as insufficiently feminine, that makes me less of a woman in their eyes, and being attracted to women is just further evidence against my womanhood. Their opinion of my gender expression and sexuality led them to position me further away from the female/feminine/attracted to men endpoint of the axis, and their perception of my gender was dragged along with this. The idea that a woman could be attracted to women, or choose to express her gender in her own way, was apparently incomprehensible to them. That’s the Gender Axis of Evil in action.

 

The axis and sexuality

It also plays a part in stereotypes about gay men and lesbians, many of which are ultimately gender stereotypes. Gay men are seen as feminine – their attraction to men is seen as dragging them closer to the female/feminine/attracted to men endpoint of the axis, even if some gay men don’t express themselves in a way that’s considered feminine at all. Conversely, lesbians are seen as masculine – being attracted to women brings them closer to the male/masculine/attracted to women side of the axis. Even straight men and women are sometimes suspected of being gay or lesbian if they’re respectively perceived as feminine or masculine – their gender expression is seen as bringing them nearer to the endpoints of attraction to men or attraction to women.

As a result, femme lesbians and masculine gay men are often invisible, not being readily perceived as gay because so many people use gender stereotypes as a misguided proxy for recognizing sexual orientation. Because they’re feminine or masculine, they’ll often be told nonsensical things like “you don’t look gay”. Does this mean there actually is a specific, narrow way that gay people look, by definition? Of course not. Anyone who says someone doesn’t “look gay” is talking about a stereotype, not the reality of gay people. All gay people look gay, no matter how they look – because they are gay, regardless of whether their appearance aligns with a stereotype. So, from one direction, sexual orientation is used to stereotype people’s gender expression, and from another direction, their gender expression is used to call their sexual orientation into question. And that’s the Gender Axis of Evil.

 

The axis and trans women

Trans people are specifically subject to this in many different ways. As with the earlier comment about my perceived femininity or lack thereof, the validity of trans women’s genders are often judged on the basis of how they express that gender, and sometimes their sexual orientation as well.

Sexologist Ray Blanchard went so far as to propose a typology of trans women, placing us into two distinct categories on the basis of our orientation. Under his model, trans women who are exclusively attracted to men are considered “homosexual transsexuals” – the label “homosexual” is used because he considers them to be extremely gay men. In other words, their orientation is shifted so far to the female/feminine/attracted to men endpoint of the axis that it’s dragged their gender along with it.

His other category encompasses lesbian and bisexual trans women, and regards them as men whose female gender is not really a gender at all, but rather an expression of a sexual fetish. Because they’re attracted to women, Blanchard proposes that they’re sexually attracted to the idea of themselves as women. Researcher J. Michael Bailey later tied this into gender expression, bluntly stating: “Most homosexual transsexuals are much better looking”.

Here, sexual orientation is explicitly tied both to gender and gender expression: straight trans women are considered to be more intensely feminine because of their exclusive attraction to men, whereas lesbian and bisexual trans women are dragged toward the male end of the axis, and depicted as un-feminine men with a sexual fetish. And when lesbian and bisexual trans women do express femininity – for instance, by transitioning – this femininity is explained away as a result of their attraction to women, which is then used as evidence of their supposed masculinity. Combined with the near-total subjectivity of whether someone is “good looking”, the Gender Axis of Evil is rescued from any inconvenient facts that might contradict the model.

 

When trans stereotypes break down

As with any other stereotypes, the sharp divisions of Blanchard’s typology are refuted by the diverse realities of human experience. In a study of over 500 trans women, 23% of straight trans women also exhibited the so-called “transvestic fetishism” that Blanchard considers definitive of lesbian and bisexual trans women. Conversely, 18% of lesbian trans women and 32% of bisexual trans women did not experience this supposedly characteristic “transvestic fetishism”.

So how is it that a significant portion of straight trans women are both exclusively attracted to men, yet also attracted to women as supposedly dictated by the presence of this “fetish”? How are they ultra-feminine and “better looking” members of the first group because of their exclusive attraction to men, while also unattractive and masculine because this alleged “fetish” places them in Blanchard’s second group? Ultimately, this model is little more than a naked reiteration of the stereotypes of cisgender lesbians as masculine and cis gay men as feminine. Such an assumption hardly holds true for cis people, so why would it hold true for trans people?

 

Trans women wearing pants

And yet trans women’s genders are still often subject to scrutiny on the basis of our gender expression. People often believe that trans women are compelled to be so extremely feminine that it inexorably drives us to transition and live as women. So, when a trans woman isn’t stereotypically feminine, her transition is seen as inexplicable and perhaps even invalid. For instance, residents of a women’s shelter in Maine once questioned whether a trans woman was really a woman at all – because she was wearing jeans. After all, it’s not like department stores have entire sections for women’s jeans, right? In this case, strict and stereotypical notions of gender expression were used as grounds to question someone’s gender. If their gender expression isn’t far enough to one side of the Gender Axis of Evil, then maybe their gender itself isn’t, either.

 

The axis as therapy

One instance where the axis is especially overt is in the practice of so-called “reparative therapy” to try and make gay and bisexual people become straight. These programs often involve having men engage in activities that are perceived as masculine, such as playing football and fixing cars, while women are encouraged to discuss fashion and makeup. These programs seem to assume that by inducing a shift in people’s gender expression, their sexual orientation will be dragged along with it, until they’re closer to the intended endpoint of the axis.

Similar approaches have been tried on gender-nonconforming children to discourage them from being transgender or growing up to be transgender. Psychologist Ken Zucker recommends discouraging children assigned male at birth from playing with dolls or drawing pictures of girls – he believes that if their gender expression can be changed, then their gender itself can be shifted as well.

Neither of these alleged therapies are known to be successful – not that their goals are even defensible – and they’re often clearly harmful. But they both target gender expression as a means of influencing either gender or sexual orientation. That’s the Gender Axis of Evil.

 

A universal problem

These are just a handful of cases where this line of reasoning comes into play, but it intersects with so many misunderstandings about how gender and sexuality work. Whether you’re queer or straight, trans or cis, anyone can be subject to these stereotypes – they might seem like a diverse array of different issues, but under the surface, they’re very closely connected.

Familiarize yourself with the patterns here, so you can avoid these missteps, and call them out when you see them. There’s no need to make assumptions about what it means when someone is gay, trans, or feminine. It just means they’re gay, or trans, or feminine. Femme lesbians exist. Butch trans women exist. Feminine straight guys exist. It’s not a conflict or a contradiction – it’s life. And hopefully someday we can all live in a house with more than one light switch.

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.


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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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