People have been very mad at me on Twitter recently for posting an article about gender as a social construct, and that the latest science suggests we are not born into binary sex roles, as previously thought. (Source: www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943) I’ve received hundreds of tweets in the last few days are some variation of “It’s XX and XY, dummy! Male or Female!” as though chromosomes are fridge magnets you stick together to make a person, very simple, man or woman, penis or historically not as good as a penis. But the X chromosome is made up of about 2000 genes, and the Y has about 200. In those genes, you have roughly 153 million base pairs in the X, and 60 million in the Y. The end result is a wildly complicated protein soup that doesn’t always make for a simple pink or blue gender reveal video.
I’ve been puzzling over this anger around gender norms--And man! There’s a lot of it!--and here's what I've come up with. Recently, I've been doing a meditation that is based around the dissolution of self. You sit alone, eyes closed, and ask yourself “who am I?” Each time an answer arises, you discard it. I am a mother. No, that's what you are to your children, who are you? I am a comedian. No, that's what you do, who are you? I am an abuse survivor. No, that’s what happened to you, who are you?And so on, until you reach a place of deep stillness, where there are no answers left. Eventually, when I asked, “who I am”, and the answer came back “nobody”. I am nobody. I am nothing.
This, I think, when we distill bigotry down to its essence and remove the general assholery of it, is why people react so strongly to the idea that sex and gender are fluid. Because the roles of Man and Woman are well-defined and well-defined is comforting. There’s a lot of depth to them, they’ve been layered with centuries of expectations and social norms. Girls are soft and sweet and lovingly maternal. Men are strong and capable and good providers. There’s a script there, easy to follow. Without that, who are you?
Most of the angry tweets I received were from men (only handful from women, and one from a group pretending to be a women's’ rights group that was actually a gross anti-trans hate machine). Women’s roles have been changing for awhile now. Gender has become much more fluid for us. We’re wearing pants, we can be engineers now (not train ones, that still just for old white men with George Carlin’s voice). We can be moms or not moms (for now) and we almost had a lady president! We’re doing it all, and it’s killing us!
But men, men have not had this Great Awakening yet. And a lot of them are confused and pretty mad. They are making men’s rights groups named cute things like “ProudBoys” and “Return of the Kings” that are really just sad, angry pockets of misogyny and white supremacy with a newsletter. They’re resentful and furious that gender roles are changing, that women aren’t staying home and making dinner and doing as they’re told and DID YOU KNOW YOU CAN’T EVEN HIT THEM ANYMORE, I MEAN COME ON, WHERE DOES IT END, I ASK YOU.
They believe in real, tangible genetic differences between men and women, innate, biological differences that always somehow leave women a little lesser than and subservient. Boys like trucks! Girls like cleaning up your bullshit and listening to your stupid stories about the time you met the drummer for Pantera at Pollo Loco. Men are providers and naturally non-monogamous! Women do laundry and just want stability, unless they are your mistress, then they love sex and stability is code for your cock AMIRITE.
They can blame any and every inadequacy in their life (and sweet tucked Jesus, what glut of shortcomings from which to choose) on women no longer following the evolutionary path our genes set aside for us. Look at these bitches, they can say. Going against nature! Wrecking the whole system! This is what becomes of a society that lets people buck gender roles: chaos, confusion, men washing their own socks, Armageddon.
Then Science, that cunt, sashays in and says, “Mm actually, we aren’t genetically binary either. We’re just protein shakes with skin, and the whole damn thing’s a spectrum.” And they get REAL MAD. Because what does that mean?? That means everything they thought was absolute, irrefutable, built into our very DNA is actually a mix genetically predisposed and groomed behaviors and characteristics that may or may not be what makes them men. Who are they, if not lions? Who are they, if not Kings? Who are they, if not Men, robbed of their birthright by disobedient women, Men, with all the grandeur and responsibility that that entails?
When that answer, "nobody, nothing", first came to me, it was accompanied by panic, and for the first time in my life, I felt afraid of dying. My own mortality hit me in that moment, the candle flame fragility and quickness of my life overwhelming, my heart pounding hard in my chest as though to protest its existence. I grew up on a farm and have known the cycle of birth and death intimately since I was a very young, I have never feared dying. But death is something altogether different than nothingness.
Nothingness means I don’t matter. That my choices, my struggles, my pain, none of it matters. That there's no right or wrong, no good or evil, it all balances out to nothingness in the end. Not only will I die, but in a few short years, it will be as though I’d never lived. In a thousand years, no trace of me will remain. Maybe, very maybe, my genetics might be passed on, and some tiny pieces of my DNA might shape the future. But all of the things that I consider Me, my personality, my thought and desires and creativity, none of them really matter, because I’m a tiny speck in the darkness, a dustmote on a dustmote, part of a bigger dustmote in a universe that is one of many, that will eventually collapse in itself and maybe start all over again.
Where do you go from there, from being nothing? As I continued to meditate, an idea began to take shape in my mind. If we are nothing, if we are nobody, our only purpose in our brief time on this earth must be to ease the suffering of those around us. To be of service to those in need and to fill ourselves with as much compassion as we can carry, and spread it wherever we go. Calm washed over me, and it seemed easy, suddenly. My life would be quick, but full of love. I wouldn’t have to worry or wonder what my purpose was, the path was clear. I was nobody, and what a gift that was.
Those angry men, they have not found this peace. They long to be part of something larger than themselves, to find meaning and purpose, to answer “who am I?” definitively and without doubt. They join hate groups and align themselves with leaders who tell them they have had their identities stolen. They are living fearful lives, clinging to old ideas of masculinity like woobies, screeching whenever the truth of their nothingness gives that security blanket a tug. Men are men, and women are women, and if we stick to that, Jesus raises us from the dead, and we never have to face the truth of our inconsequence or the uninteresting inevitability of our own disintegration.
Human dignity and autonomy are not up for debate. I’m not wasting any of my precious time listening to infantile-terror disguised as social concern. But I do have compassion for small men with small world views for whom progress feels like a push into the abyss. I will continue to work to broaden the definition of Man, so that they may be freed from its chokehold even as they protest its weakening grip.
We are rebuilding Man, and I suggest we start from nothing. Strip it bare, let it stand in deep stillness, contemplating how little it matters. Let it be reformed with unselfishness, in the service of those around it, using the wisdom of Saint Francis de Sales to guide it: Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.