Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Urgent and insistent claims about gender, made especially by very young people, are making it ever more apparent that ideas like “binary” and even “spectrum” entrap us in images which are far too rigid - and which may also be harmfully misleading in a vast number of cases. Conflicts and consternations about terminology are only part of the current upset. Out of the many alternatives now being offered, perhaps the term “fluid” is an essential key to understanding and grappling with these claims and the quandaries they pose. And maybe the term will also be useful in understanding other perplexing complications in dimensions extending far beyond mere gender.
A bigger problem, however, might actually spring from the term “identity”. Think about gender (whether physically, psychologically, socially or “whateverly”) as it is expressed in so many ways by so many different people - AND as it is expressed in so many ways by the same person over the course of a lifetime, a day, or a moment. Thinking like this makes it hard to avoid the notion we are ALL somewhat “gender fluid” in different ways and to different extents in the multiple fashions we express and see ourselves.
Some individuals are cursedly blessed with a compulsion to act out unfamiliar ways of being. One such way might be in helping us all come to an understanding of “fluidity” (in terms NOW of gender) whether or not we value this insight which could be liberatory, disruptive, or even catastrophic to so many inherited forms, roles, responsibilities, and “identities”.
The roles and responsibilities of any society involve a myriad of pressures, some of which can indeed be quite oppressive. Roles and responsibilities rarely fail to involve various levels of personal discomfort and challenge. One method of coping is to internalize into our “identities” what might have originally been felt to be imposed. But not all that gets crustified into our self-image is truly crucial to fulfilling necessary responsibilities.
An additional sense of the term “identity” involves affiliation or even tribalism. Fluidity reminds us how some of our limitations are also constructs which are subject to alterations. The last half century or so has demonstrated how gender roles involving work, property, family, and sexuality can be rapidly reconfigured. Homosexuality, for instance, is still sometimes associated with deviance and criminality invoking the power to ignore, strip away, or deny certain rights to certain individuals who see the types of sexuality involved as part of their identity: an affiliation essential to claiming and defending an entire set of rights which are still being codified - and erased.
It might be hard to conceive, or even sometimes hard to remember (for those who have lived long enough especially if we've never been seen as female), but women who were nominally U.S. citizens were not generally afforded the full rights of personhood unproblematically granted to men until the 1970s. This did not happen without some persistent "nudging", and today's "Me Too" movement is only one demonstration that U.S. women continue to struggle to achieve recognition of their "rightful" parity with men. It is notable that some of the ideas related to "gender fluidity" were and are resisted by contingents of feminists and gay activists who worry (not without cause) that such innovations could endanger recently won (and still precarious) gains. The most potent resistance still comes from tribes who identify with more "traditional" roles concerning gender and sexuality. And change, even when it does not involve issues of power and intimacy, is always met with varying levels of acceptance and resistance.
Fluidity might be an essential key to grappling with many present and future challenges, but fluidity is often a state difficult to achieve or maintain. We may only yet be beginning to build structures for ourselves that permit the type of flow we may need as much as the types of safe containers and boundaries we also require for safety, wellbeing, and liberty.
The viscosity of history preserves old injustices, but it also serves to protect (to an extent) hard-won properties such as "rights". The need for structure will always generate tensions against urges for fluidity, a concept both more specialized and somewhat distinct from "freedom".
We will always struggle to determine how much fluidity is too slippery and how much viscosity is too rigid - or vicious.
Ongoing changes in the structures of jobs and the expectations associated with careers are likely to benefit those ablest to incorporate more fluidity into self-perceptions while also maintaining a certain sense of continuity, depth, and "identity". Convulsions associated with automation portend opportunities and threats to what are now seen as essential components of "identity" in even more visceral ways which may soon make sticky preoccupations with gender seem rather quaint.
If fluidity regarding human identities is indeed a magical key for dealing with inevitable future challenges, guidance and inspiration for its use might be found in the types of myths, folklore, and fairytales associated with childhood where transformation and multiple identities are taken for granted. Though we encrudge our children with horribly mixed legacies, they may find the resources for more than an unenviable survival.