BREAKING: How many genders have always existed?


As the world turns and splits apart:
Not long ago, we recommended the new memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

We recommended the book on the basis of Khan-Cullors' unusual sensibility and her striking life story. We also thought the world would be well served if she was a bit more careful concerning important facts.

At the time, we'd read the first half of the book, which largely deals with the way Khan-Cullors grew up in Los Angeles. Over the weekend, we read the second half of the book, which concerns the founding of BLM and Khan-Cullors' more recent life events.

Those events includes Khan-Cullors' recent marriage to Future Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter—Canada. Khan originally called herself janaya khan, and possibly still does.

We mention this for a reason:

In the most recent parts of the book, Khan-Cullors' personal life becomes heavily fraught. This isn't unusual for young and youngish people. It's exaggerated a bit in this case because of gender (and pronoun) issues.

We receommnded this book because of Khan-Cullors' unusually upbeat temperament, mixed with her long history as an activist/organizer. Also involved is her desire to create "intentional family"—to build family and love where none may pre-exist.

Early in the book, this seems quite unusual and admirable. By the end of the book, the undertaking by Khan-Cullors and others starts to seem a bit fraught.

It isn't just that she is trying to change the world in terms of prison practices and racial justice. It seems that she and her associates have also undertaken to tackle such matters as this, janaya khan speaking:
QUESTION: Can you briefly hit on your own use of they/them pronouns and how these gender identity concepts affect your work?

KHAN: There are seven billion people on the planet, how boring would it be if there were only two genders? The way that we negotiate people who are gender non-conforming, not treating femininity and masculinity as a spectrum; when we don’t do those things it's on the bodies of those non-conforming people—we directly disenfranchise them. I like that I can choose how I'm seen. I want more infrastructure built for the practice of presentation. Dozens and dozens of genders have always existed and we just don’t have the language for them. It's also important to note that I still gender people. We need to work on creating spaces. That if you want information from someone, are you willing to put that same information, i.e. your pronouns, out there?

I see nothing wrong with femininity and masculinity as concepts. The binary is bad because certain genders are oppressed or silenced. Patriarchy, really, is bad for everybody. There are all these different levels of gender. It is through daily revolutions and daily contradictions of those oppressive binaries that we find each other. We all love through those contradictions. We are tasked with creating 21st-century tools, how we consume and disseminate information is changing. We're using a 20th-century model. We are the first generation of people to do that, so we must change who are leadership is and what they look like. We’ve done it your way, the old way, shouldn’t we try new models of being?
We can recall a time when we had assigned ourselves the task of fixing everything on the planet. That assignment didn't work out well for us. Can it possibly work out well for these youngish people?

In our view, racial justice is quite a portfolio in itself without also trying to straighten out the world's pronoun use. (In her memoir, Khan-Cullors persistently refers to her spouse as "them" without ever explaining why she does, or what her usage means.)

Khan-Cullors strikes us as someone who had it very hard coming up during an especially difficult time in Los Angeles. With something resembling the admirable fervor of the autodidact, she has seemingly set out to set everything right.

Is this likely to work out well? And by the way—do you think that "dozens and dozens of genders have always existed and we just don’t have the language for them?"

We're not saying that's right or that's wrong. We're just asking what you think, while thinking about unusual, ambitious young people who seem to be trying to change everything in the world.

Do such undertakings tend to work? In the current instance, does anybody actually care, lip service to the side?

Final reminder: Even though her memoir has hit the New York Times best-seller list, Khan-Cullors still hasn't appeared on the Maddow Show. On Rachel Maddow's corporate entertainment program, poor black people from Los Angeles pretty much don't exist, infrequent lip service excepted.

Who knows? Maybe Maddow can work Khan-Cullors into a crossword puzzle! Could that possibly help the cause? How about if the corporate hack throws in a drumroll or fanfare?


  1. "do you think that "dozens and dozens of genders have always existed and we just don’t have the language for them?""

    Disappointing. "Dozens and dozens of genders" betrays a poverty of imagination, I'm afraid. A lack of aspiration.

    Yeah. It's a spectrum. Infinite spectrum of genders. Not exactly a novel idea...

    1. Bem broke gender identity into four categories and has data to support that theory.

      I think there have always been people who accepted the traditional gender roles and those who were more androgynous and those who were gender-benders, in all times and places.

      Biologically, gender is not binary. The categories are but the instances of human gender fit within them are not.

    2. Actually, I believe biologically it is binary. In this species.

      Culturally and psychologically, on the other hand, as an 'identity', it can be anything. One can be conditioned to self-identify as anything at all. As a member of a different species, even. Nothing to it.

    3. Biologically not binary.

    4. Hermaphrodites are not binary, people with double sets of x and y chromosomes are not binary, people with different endocrine systems and different hormones in utero or as adults are not binary. Lots of biological ways to be non-binary resulting in a spectrum of sexual identity. Conservatives are fixated on sexual surgery and ignorant about nature.

    5. From the biological (scientific) standpoint, I don't think it would make sense to introduce additional 'genders' for developmental disorders ('freaks of nature', so to say).

      As for hormones, that's irrelevant. Bearded lady is still a lady.

    6. Just restrict nature to two categories and call everyone else freaks. Nice!

    7. No, just describe nature as it is. Biologically, human form of sexual reproduction involves two genders, named, in this language, 'male' and 'female'.

      But, again, psychologically, you can have (and/or claim) any identities you fancy. Including gender identities. You can have one in the morning and a different one in the afternoon.

      Your personal quirks are nobody's business but your own...

    8. If you're going to describe nature as it is, you're going to have to study some biology. Otherwise you just sound foolish.

  2. "We can recall a time when we had assigned ourselves the task of fixing everything on the planet. That assignment didn't work out well for us. Can it possibly work out well for these youngish people?"

    Is this a personal reflection? In other words, is he talking about himself when he says "we", or is he talking about his generation, or liberals in general...?

    Young people tend to be idealistic. Older people, not so much. Particularly if those older people failed in some personal way in their own lives.

    It's also not clear what time frame Somerby is talking about, nor what specific failures he is referring to.

    By way of example, the civil rights movement was mostly a success, by most reasonable criteria. And that was heavily driven by young or youngish people.

    I would rather have the idealism of youth than the defeatism of old age. Otherwise, you may as well give up on progressivism.

  3. What is the harm in Maddow writing crossword puzzles? Is she not allowed a hobby? Is she not allowed to step out of her niche? Should we also complain because Steve Martin is a painter? Or because Dennis Quaid is a musician?

    This strikes me as a rigidity of category boundary, a lack of tolerance for intersection, that is diagnostic of the difficulty handling those pronoun ambiguities. Must each person fit only and perfectly into one and only one category?

  4. I have no idea what she's talking about, nor I fear does she.

    It's also another good example of obsessing about process and approach. My concern is what those 14 genders are thinking about when it comes to the world around them, not the function of their body parts or level of sexual interests.

    The "them" is nuts. Or maybe "them" is one of those lovable sea creatures from outer space? I hear lately that they're hot

    1. Here is a sentence: If someone doesn't know how to discuss this issue, they should perhaps be quiet. Notice how the word "They" in the preceding sentence doesn't match the number implied by "someone". That's because it takes the place of an implied "he or she" required because "someone" is indefinite. Use of "they" and makes the sentence more concise while allowing either pronoun. People have been speaking this way for a very long time without any distress about it.

      When someone's gender identity is unclear or has changed or is different from time to time and/or place to place, it makes sense to capture that complexity with a word that is shorter and easier to say, such as "they" or "them." That way you don't have to explain all the distinctions, which may be entirely irrelevant to what you are trying to say. This allows people the freedom to be who they are, without pronouns causing new confusions by mislabeling them.

      Here is a non-modern example. My mother used to wear men's sport shirts and baggy jeans around the house. I thought that was a bit frumpy and eccentric, but accepted it as who she was. Later I discovered that this is traditional garb for farmer's wives in the Midwest. But my mother was in Los Angeles so I didn't realize that. She did get treated oddly by the occasional door-to-door salesman or neighbor, who wasn't sure of her gender.

      I myself preferred wearing jeans and t-shirts and being an active child except my school required all girls to wear dresses to school (this betrays my age). The only time I felt odd and "in costume" was when I dressed for school, wearing clothes that I didn't feel attractive in and that were not comfortable to me. Once the 60s hit, I never wore dresses again and never looked back. Pants suits were my salvation. But I am female. I would never label myself male. But neither do I fit female stereotypes or prescriptions for self-presentation.

      When my daughter was twelve, she got a very stylish asymmetrical short haircut that looked great on her. At an adult party, an idiot asked her if she was male or female. She was upset and has never worn short hair again, despite its convenience. Because of a single foolish remark.

      When I was a child I met Anais Nin. She had two husbands, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. The people around her didn't consider that odd and they accepted it. It wasn't anyone's business except theirs and no one said anything about it. I grew up thinking of that as one kind of marriage. Others are fine with similar arrangements that don't fit the definitions of marriage but fit themselves and their lives. That is how gender identity works too.

      But language imposes conformity -- it pretends we are all the same. It needn't do that and that is why considerate people are using these more inclusive forms of speech. It doesn't signal confusion; it signals acceptance of others as they are.

    2. As a man of Scottish ancestry, I've always wondered how it would feel to wear a kilt. I would imagine that it's not too bad. ; )

      Nice post.

  5. She may not have been on Rachel, but here is Ms Cullors on The View last month:

    And here she is in a TimesTalks (sponsored by The NY Times) appearance from last month:

    Now, she's probably selling her damn book. (Remember when Somerby took exception to Al Franken selling HIS book?)

    If you search MSNBC, you will get a number of hits, although not as recent.

    (I found out about the first two appearances by checking Ms Cullors' Facebook page...that's a thing now. Also Twitter. Point is, we aren't limited to just one source for news these days. It's a "youngish" thing. Also, she isn't as invisible as Somerby thinks.)

  6. "Progressives" are so warped on sex and gender they now think cutting off one's healthy, functioning genitals is something other than barbaric insanity and medical malpractice.

    1. Like circumcision doesn’t do that too.

    2. Shorter 8:09 - I have a weiner and I feel threatened.

  7. In Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines, the third personal pronoun is “siya” in the singular, “sila” in the plural. There’s no distinction of gender. Our Filipino friends are way ahead of Cullors-Khan.

    German is like English, showing gender in the singular but not the plural. Romance languages have gender in both singular and plural. So global pronoun reform could be a complex process.

    Instead, I propose a universal pronoun— in all languages — without regard to number, gender, or case— an invariant pronoun— “mao”.

  8. So we have to have more than 2 genders because otherwise it would be boring? Actually, those of us who understand that there are only two genders do not find life boring at all. If you think that you are a different gender than what you were born as, youneed professional help.

    1. Good for you. Now you can go back to enjoying your black-and-white TV.