Do categories help us embrace diversity?

  • January 8, 2023

Their proliferation suggests that at least some people think so

Reading the New York Review of Books recently my eye fell upon an advertisement for a book about “Caring for LGBTQ2S People”. I was intrigued because although I read my (non-expert) share about gender debates I had not come across the 2S tag before.

I discover it stands for a (contentious) neologism, Two-Spirit, that has been applied only to gender identity in indigenous people – initially in USA and Canada, which explains why it doesn’t have much currency in the UK. And browsing about the meaning of this term I came across another unfamiliar initialism: LGBTTQQIAA.

What this got me thinking about was partly how off the pace I am about terminology and gender identity. But also about a familiar question that arises from the use of categories – the value of lumping vs splitting. On the face of it the LGBTTQQIAA string looks like an example of splitting; after all it contains ten tags and that’s without 2S. On the other hand it represents a sort of lumping – based upon the assumption that all these things share something that means they belong together. This lumping isn’t universally supported, and in particular there has been some questioning of the idea of putting sexual orientation and gender identity into a single category – even it turns out from some trans quarters.

I call this a familiar question because it is to me; it has featured for years in debates about psychiatric diagnostic labelling – most recently prompted by the latest editions of the DSM and to a lesser extent ICD classificatory systems which lump (they’re all mental disorders) split a bit (single figures for numbers of chapters) and split again (dozens and dozens of individual diagnostic terms within each chapter).

The examples of gender and psychiatry illustrate one problem with categorisation. At the start a few simple categories look useful – highlighting important differences that deserve our attention. But it soon becomes clear that a few simple categories don’t cover the ground, so more categories are generated in an attempt to fill the gaps and make the system comprehensive. For example the DSM experience is of increasing numbers of categories, each iteration coming at a shorter interval from the last but never achieving the aim of exhaustive coverage – reminding me of Zeno’s paradox. Personality disorder bucks the trend: it’s still lumped in (who you are as a mental disorder) but at least in ICD-11 the downstream splitting into multiple subtypes has been, to some extent at least, resisted.

Do these categorising systems help to nuance discussion and thereby combat rigid attitudes, improve research, policy and practice, or do they lead us in the wrong direction and encourage pathologizing by diagnosing difference? In other words – categories are the embodiment of discriminating decisions: do they encourage positive or negative discrimination?

Using descriptive categories can be useful, and not just in reminding us not to be solipsistic. They help us make sense of and navigate a complex environment, and they can inform important decisions in, say, healthcare, policy, legislation or education. However categorising also has risks, of reifying and essentialising differences and – depending upon the specific vocabularies employed – of creating and pathologizing a sense of otherness of those categorised. Away from gender and psychiatry this concern is often raised in relation to debates about racism. To quote a recent newspaper article:- “We live in an age saturated with identitarian thinking and obsessed with placing people into racial boxes.” The article trails the writer’s new book, which he describes as “…a retelling of the history both of the idea of race and of the struggles to confront racism and to transcend racial categorisation,…”.

I find opinion divided in my personal network. Some think that, especially in relation to gender, the proliferation of categories/labels is no bad thing – reminding us that we live in a far from homogeneous world.

Others are less convinced, although perhaps not right there with Adorno in agreeing that “…the desire to construct types was itself indicative of the potentially fascist character”.

Perhaps the answer is something like – categories are useful, adjectives are useful, let’s not turn every adjective into a category.

Does it matter if most of us don’t have a separate gender identity?

  • July 13, 2022

I realise that one of my problems in following current debates about same sex spaces, participation in women’s sports and the like is that I don’t know what gender identity means. It is surprisingly hard to get an answer by consulting the sources one might expect to be helpful.

Here for example is the definition of a relevant protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010 “A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.” So, if gender reassignment means reassigning the person’s sex then gender and sex mean the same thing, which isn’t how I’d understood it at all.

In an interesting technical paper prepared by statisticians involved with national censuses, the discussion centred on how to keep a long-standing question about sexual identity while allowing people who didn’t like it to opt out and identify instead their gender. At the time of writing ONS was considering a question for the next census, to add to the standard question about sex. In the paper they suggest:

  • What is your sex? Note: a question about gender will follow later if you are aged 16 or over. Male/Female
  • Is your gender the same as the sex you were registered at birth? Yes/No, please write in gender Prefer not to say/
  • Do you consider yourself to be trans? Here trans means your gender is different from the sex you were registered at birth. No/Yes, write in gender/Prefer not to say

This works at a basic level to allow data collection about those who are happy to be described according to their sex at birth and those who aren’t, but it doesn’t help with unpacking current debates about the minority who aren’t, mainly because it allows people to use “gender” to mean whatever they like. However it does signal that sex and gender needn’t mean the same thing.

So…on to two organisations you’d hope had something more substantial to say – The World Health Organisation because of its official status, and the campaigning group Stonewall because if its self-proclaimed status. WHO offers these definitions:

“Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.  This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.

Gender interacts with but is different from sex, which refers to the different biological and physiological characteristics of females, males and intersex persons, such as chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs.

Gender and sex are related to but different from gender identity. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth.”

And the glossary offered by the campaigning group Stonewall offers these definitions:


Often expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity, gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth.

​Gender identity

A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else (see non-binary below), which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.

Both definitions make it clear that sex and gender aren’t the same thing – drawing a fairly conventional distinction between the two. Gender identity is not however awareness of and subscription to one’s gender. The WHO definition implies a psychological characteristic (internal, individual) that is not based just upon reading off one’s social status. The Stonewall definition talks of something innate, implying a built-in feature of mental life and described by the words male/female rather than masculinity/femininity – a nod towards the idea that gender identity might replace sex assigned at birth.

The ”gender” in these definitions of gender identity therefore seems to have a third meaning that is neither a synonym for sex nor a name for a socially constructed role. Something like sex but not defined biologically or gender not defined socially or culturally. Pretty much everything I have looked at online brings me to this position, via circular definitions (your gender identity is how you identify your gender) that use under-specified terms.

I have recently read two books that come to more-or-less the same conclusion – Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls and Helen Joyce’s Trans. I can review them another time but for now I’d simply recommend both – the authors are not disinterested but they are lucid and thoughtful writers and cover a lot of ground in accessible ways. You don’t have to agree with them to be much clearer about what the arguments are.

I was brought up short by one observation in Stock’s book: “It seems clear that, if we want to understand what having a gender identity is like, we shouldn’t ask non-trans people, for many report no particular sense of one.” Frustratingly (and uncharacteristically for Stock) there isn’t a proper reference to support this assertion but it fits my own experience. I’ve got a sex (male) that defines me as a man; I’ve got a gender (conventionally conformist for a white Western European man) that I don’t regard as salient enough to call an identity (my social status is defined by all sorts – social class, education, whiteness, job…) and I can’t think of anything else I could call a gender identity. Stock is dismissive (again uncharacteristically) about this idea that most of the population doesn’t have a gender identity “Maybe, for all we know, there can only ever be misaligned gender identities, relative to sex, and no aligned ones. We shouldn’t let a desire for pleasing symmetry get in the way of actual evidence”.

This strikes me as unsatisfactory. It feels as if it says something about the status of gender identity as an idea if it can’t be defined in a non-circular and specific way. Of course it may be possible to define it better but I can’t find such a definition. And what does it mean about the nature of public debate about these things if it isn’t even acknowledged widely that lots of people have “no clear sense” of a gender identity?

It isn’t obvious that the disputes grounded in (or at least framed by) ideas about gender identity are going to peter out any time soon. Some of the practical decisions (for example about women’s sport) will be made without these ideas ever being adequately formulated. But I do wonder if in the long-run we need to sort them out better, ideally through non-adversarial debate and avoidance of posturing on social media.


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