Although this post will venture, in passing, some reservations about certain claims about the radical constructedness of gender, it is not primarily about those claims or a defense of those reservations. My argument is modest, but not trivial: to wit, that those reservations are at least compatible with, and indeed coherently of a piece with, a more general granting of limited but real plausibility to the argument that gender is "constructed," and with the deployment of this claim in trans and queer theory. I will employ a very broad-brush account of "social construction," which I'm barely going to sketch, not defend. Constructivists may think it misses nuance; their opponents may think I give too much away.*
We are often accustomed, in a rough-and-ready way, to sorting claims into those about the "real world" ("matters of fact"), and those that are somehow "subjective," a matter of private opinion or fancy. A social construct is neither of these. It's a cumulative effect of many, many behaviors, far bigger than any one person's choices; but there is an open question about its existence apart from those behaviors. "Open," because whatever the social reality of these constructs, they still "bottom out" into other questions a bit further down Maslow's hierarchy of needs -- or perhaps open up onto higher levels.
Money is a social construct, of ancient provenance. Its longevity is indicative of its rootedness in some deep and tenacious tendencies in human nature. (I'm not going to defend the use of the term "human nature" here.)
Are there others? Yes, how about Language? "A cumulative effect, bigger than any one person's choices...?" Check. "Rooted in some deep and tenacious tendencies...?" Yes, check.
"God" -- it'd be safer to say "religion," but I'm biting the bullet here -- is, likewise, clearly a social construct. Because: ditto.
Of course, it would be hard to get a social construct constructed, that is, off the ground at all, without some, um, ground to get off of. Social constructs are not all there is, and constructedness is not all there is to a social construct. This is what is meant by those qualifying phrases above about "deep and tenacious tendencies in human nature," and my reference to other levels of the Maslovian hierarchy besides the social -- say, hunger or safety ("below" the social), or transcendence ("above" it). Not only is there nothing "unreal" about the effects of a "social construct," (or else having or not having money would be a matter of indifference), such construction does not happen in a void. There are motivators, and constraints. Human beings do speak. We have an adaptable larynx and respiratory tract and tongue, and a very developed and complicated neural set-up that has been shaped by feedback from speech for a good long time, relatively speaking. On the other hand, none of this gets us to the famous slipperiness of any particular signifier: how the weird cluster of sounds that go "sandwich" in English come to "mean," in practice, two slices of bread and some ham, cheese, or both.
We encounter the metaphysical horizon, and we notice that we die. Enter complicated social and psychological mechanisms, describe them a la Freud, Levi-Strauss, Marvin Harris as you will. So, ritual, so law, so big-capital-letter words like Torah and Trinity and Tat Tvam Asi. Again, neither this groundedness nor this variance are sufficient to base conclusions upon, in themselves. The fact that lots of people burn incense in lots of different places doesn't make prayer nonsense; by the same token, that prayer is not nonsense does not make these particular words the big exception to relativism. If you think "social construction" explains away God, you've made a couple of extra steps. This is where the interesting and unsettling questions start. (This post is not about religion, though.)
It should really not be a stretch to think of "gender" in these terms as well. It is clearly a "social construct," if by this one means something along the lines ventured above. It is a heavily socially-mediated set of practices -- often contradictory practices -- that change over time. There is no metaphysical magnet that draws "male" towards trucks and swords and denim jeans, and "female" towards pink, flowery dresses and needlepoint. We know this partly because there are many cultures where other constructs of various sorts about gender obtain: where the men wear skirts, for instance, or where polyandry is the general rule, or where there is a more prominent, visible, and "normal" space for those who don't easily fit into the binary. Where what it means to be male, or female, or sometimes-sorta-neither/both, is different. All of this is basic anthropological and sociological data. Not very controversial; also not very dispositive.
On the other hand, just as there are real material and metaphysical constraints that give rise to some constructs and not others when it comes to money, or language, and law, so too with gender. We come in a (broadly empirical but not without exceptions) anatomical sexual dimorphism, which, yes, turns out to be complicated, not a neat-and-simple bivalence, but also goes pretty deep. "How deep?", and "'deep,' how?" are some of the interesting and unsettling questions that open up here.
Once you start seeing them, you can spot social constructs everywhere, which is not surprising, since they are pretty much what culture does. Star Wars; hip-hop, rock-n-roll, jazz; the sanctity of the national anthem; connoisseurship of cigars, wine, art; table manners; sandwiches. All of these are, more or less, what one might call "trends", fashions, ways we do things. Some of them are deep-rooted, or have a lot of momentum behind them. Some of them are integral grammars of an ongoing civilizational conversation that has been underway for thousands of years, bound up with different human ways of being that go deep into the shaping of souls. Others are the creatures of an hour, and could disappear forever with the next power outage. In other words, just because something is a social construction does not make its effects unreal or its basis "arbitrary." On the other hand, just because it may be strongly grounded in material or metaphysical reality does not make it inevitable. One can think both of these things at once.
Language, again -- not just the lexicon, but the practice(s) of language -- is a very deep, broad, multilayered and complicated set and deployment of social constructs. It has subsets with fuzzy boundaries: for instance, what are often in Academese called "discourses" or "discursive practices," of which Academese is one instance (or maybe several instances). So, we have "the discourse of" such-&-such a discipline, or such-&-such a worldview, or such-&-such a class. The kinds of language that we find in various sorts of storytelling (or written fiction), of various genres, are other subsets of such practices; and likewise, the kinds we find in Romantic poetry versus that of the Beats or the Language poets who started doing their thing roughly in the 70's. Science fiction, as a species of language-use, is different from erotica or hard-boiled detective fiction or constitutional law. And there are other ways of doing the divvying: Slang is a subset of language; the slang of a particular class a smaller subset; and the slang of a decade smaller still.
It should not be too much of a stretch to think of contemporary gender-revisionism in these terms as well.
Gender, too, is a very deep and broad set of social constructs. The more recent explosion, in certain parts of the West, of questioning or radical rejection of "gender norms" is, likewise, a (much smaller) set of counter-practices, another set of constructs. ("How recent?" and "'explosive,' how?" are some of the questions that could get raised here.) These constructs may or may not be "fads," or phases -- the rough equivalent of slang; just possibly they are the beginning of a whole new dialect. To observe that there is an element of ideology, media-construction, and social pressure in these movements is not incompatible with seeing the constructedness of gender; it is a feature of seeing the constructedness of gender. And, if one bears in mind that some constructions are more grounded than others, one can be open-mindedly skeptical about the expected traction, longevity, or groundedness of some of these counter-practices. There may be constraints on what we can say is true -- it would be a little absurd to think that there weren't, actually -- and they could make some of these counter-practices unviable. But to say this doesn't make one a reactionary defender of some cis/heteronormative status quo. One can doubt, for instance, that there "are" fifteen or thirty or more genders in quite the same sense that there have been held to be two, without "essentializing" gender in some sort of Biblical fundamentalist manner.
One can also do this without implying that someone's "experience is not real," or that it lacks legitimacy, or that someone "does not have the right to exist." Critics of trans or queer language sometimes assert (or just sneer) that this revisionism is merely trendy, that it's the latest form of teenage angst and midlife crisis, and is rooted in confusion, rebellion, or trendiness. This reductionism is foolish, and often either shockingly cavalier or deeply malicious. (There are [still] costs to identifying as anything but cisgendered, even on the ostensibly "progressive" urban coasts -- sometimes very heavy costs, that people don't take on for shallow reasons.) But one can also wonder whether trends of a sort are playing a role here, without thereby holding that any given person is not to be taken seriously. It would, indeed, be very surprising if the social dynamics that underlie trends were not at work; it would make this phenomena the great anomaly in our ever-more-interconnected society. And it is important to be able to question and critique trends (corrigibly) without being reductive, belittling, or bullying -- or being accused of it. One can be supportive, kind, loving, an "ally" as they say among the social-justice crowd†, and question whether it's really the case that the great lie of gender is at last being exposed, or whether some of the trailheads in this current conversational landscape -- say, the multiplication of gender designations; the claim that "identification" is essentially what gender comes down to; the asserted illusoriness of gender per se; or the radical and incorrigible refusal to think of sex and gender as having anything to do with each other -- lead to places we should want to go. And, it ought to go without saying, one can do all of this without sanctioning or abetting cruelty, whether individual or collective, whether petty or heinous.
It is important to make this non-sanction visible and audible, given the real dangers that face trans people. That danger is neither negligible nor imaginary. But it does not warrant drawing ontological conclusions. It is very soon to say that the jettisoning of received mores about gender is simply the final longed-for denouement of the truth of an oppressive social construct. The conservativism of some opponents of (and alarmists about) trans discourse should not lead us to assume that all critique of this discourse is on the side of an entrenched essentialism or the privileges of patriarchy. That motivation is a different question. And so, too, is the question of the fact-of-the-matter about "how deep" and "'deep,' how?"
To a certain kind of wary reader, this sort of gentle skepticism I am defending here no doubt looks a lot like what trans activist Julia Serano calls being trans-suspicious:
The “trans-suspicious” position acknowledges that transgender people exist and should be tolerated (to some degree), but routinely questions (and sometimes actively works to undermine) transgender perspectives and politics. For example, a trans-suspicious individual might treat me respectfully and refrain from misgendering me, yet simultaneously express doubt about whether certain other people are “really trans” or should be allowed to transition. While they often consider themselves to be “pro-trans” (on the basis that they tolerate us to some degree), their strong cisnormative and cissexist biases lead them to spread much of the same misinformation, and push for many of the same anti-trans policies, as their trans-antagonistic counterparts.... In a world where trans-antagonistic and trans-unaware attitudes are pervasive, trans-suspicious arguments tend to strike the average cisgender person as relatively “objective” or “reasonable” by comparison (although trans people readily see through this veneer).Serano's distinction is useful, though obviously she considers "trans-suspicion" a pretty unsatisfactory halfway-house or even a Trojan horse. My response is not simply to shrug "but you say that like it's a bad thing." In any case I am not talking about "toleration" of individuals (if you’ve ever been "tolerated" you know how demoralizing it is). It's incumbent upon anyone of good faith not to spread misinformation, and to advocate for or support policies that are humane and treat people with dignity -- insofar as a policy can do this. In a polyvalent society, there can be good-faith disagreements about those. Speaking of controversial things entails responsibilities. What I care about here is that too-intense counter-suspicion -- seeing reasonableness as a "veneer" -- hampers those responsibilities and makes it much, much more difficult to talk at all.
Various arguments about gender may be susceptible to being co-opted by oppression in different ways; some may even plausibly be asserted to be inherently oppressive. Those are different issues that I haven't addressed. What I'm claiming here is that oppression does not inevitably accompany a kind of moderate skepticism about gender revisionism; in fact, such skepticism is an application of the same insights that leads one to question the absoluteness or essentiality of standard-issue default gender norms. Those norms are, in effect, habits -- bad habits, the critics say, longstanding trends that leave a lot unaccounted for and that drown out minority experience, sometimes with disastrous effect. Counter-trends, however welcome, are also trends, and are susceptible to the same critiques -- even more susceptible perhaps, since they have less momentum behind them. (Uncovering and claiming that momentum is part of what historians of the movement do.) One person's "at last!" is another's "oooh, shiny!" We cannot adjudicate between these with the idea of "social construct" alone, and seeing the problem and taking it seriously does not (by itself) make one party to oppression.
Moreover, to assert that such skepticism is inherently oppressive is not a harmless mistake. It foments suspicion, defensiveness, divisiveness, bad listening skills, and a propensity to ad hominem attacks, guilt-by-association, and Bulverism ("yeah, that's just what a cis-male would say"). That oppression can and does happen I take to be noncontroversial; that it's deeper and more widespread and entrenched than we hoped in the starry-eyed heyday of the Great Society is clear, at least to many (myself among them); but I'm fine with argument about all of that. That such co-opting can occur I also concede, and take seriously, but again I think it is a separable matter, though that separation is not simple. "Oppression", like any high-level concept, is of course itself a "social construct" (you will note I haven't defined it here -- which does not mean I think that this is an unimportant question); but it's also grounded in some deep, tenacious, and nasty human tendencies.
In short: a gentle (but perhaps strong) skepticism about how trans or queer issues are framed is not only compatible (pace the with-us-or-against-us wokeness of some) with questioning the absoluteness of "traditional" gender-roles; it is arguably entailed by it. One does not make oneself an accomplice of oppression just by querying the this framing. And mistaking who is the opposition is not harmless either.
*There will also be those who think it presumptuous or obnoxious of me (happily born-male-still-male (at least by default), for-all-practical-purposes-straight me) to even opine about gender at all. Obviously I think that this would be putting things way too strongly.
†(Hold on, some of you are saying. No. "Allyship is not self-defined," declares the anti-oppression network. And this is a fair point. It makes me sad, sometimes, if I am not perceived as an ally -- or if I am perceived as an enemy -- but it's not within my power to make someone call me this. Because "ally", too, is a social construct.)