When you really think about it, the idea of gender is such a fraught concept. How can we ever really know our gender? What even is gender, anyway? It shouldn’t be surprising I have spent a great deal of time in recent years thinking about this, yet I don’t know that I am any closer to an answer. So I was very intrigued by Gender Without Identity, by Avgi Saketopoulou and Ann Pellegrini. This discussion of gender formation from a psychoanalytical perspective, along with thoughts on practical application to the field of analysis, seeks to challenge a lot of ideas about what’s “normal” for gender. I received a review copy.
I went into this book hoping to be challenged. It has been almost four years now since I transitioned. Much of that time has been spent rebuilding my identity around my new understanding of my gender. It isn’t easy. I know, and am confirmed in this knowledge with each passing day, that I am much, much happier living as a woman in this world (despite all the challenges attendant in our misogynistic, patriarchal, transphobic society). Transition has not only been a joyful experience for me; it has provided me with perspective and courage to grow in ways beyond or in addition to gender. At the same time, four years in, I’m not sure I have any better grasp on what gender actually means to me. Am I a woman because the label of “woman” enables me to feel more comfortable expressing myself in the ways I want to express myself? Am I a woman because there is, deep down within me, something intrinsically and ineffably feminine? I just don’t know.
Gender Without Identity takes the perhaps unsettling position that this uncertainty is irrelevant, because gender itself is process rather than permanence. Key to this book is Saketopoulou and Pellegrini approach to gender, which rejects what they call “core gender identity” in favour of
gender as a wildly improvisational process, which is not rooted in any “observable” or “objective” fact (e.g., body morphology or chromosomes), nor in any imaginary interiorized idea (e.g., core gender identity).
They are quick to establish, however, that they are not seeking to invalidate how queer and trans people express the “story of their own origin” even if it includes “born this way” or other such core narratives. Rather, their approach to gender without identity is one of psychoanalytical praxis: it is most useful, they argue, for analysts to look at gender in this way, whether the subject they are working with identifies as cis or trans.
Reading this made me think of Julia Serano and her theory of intrinsic inclination as outlined in Whipping Girl. Serano, a biologist, was unsatisfied with the idea that trans people’s identities are purely social construct yet also thought that locating transness within a purely biological cause was insufficient as well. At first glance, one might think this is incompatible with Saketopoulou and Pellegrini’s conception of gender as experience rather than identity. I’m not so sure. I think that both interpretations have value. Certainly, I recognize now in hindsight that I have always had inclinations towards the feminine long before I understood that being transgender was an option for how to label myself. On the other hand, Saketopoulou and Pellegrini’s framework helps elucidate why so many trans people, myself included, only come to realize ourselves later in life. It isn’t just that I didn’t know that being trans was an option; additionally, I hadn’t yet reached a point where I was ready to improvise in that way.
So I appreciate that this book did indeed challenge me to think carefully about what I even mean when I say “gender.” I also appreciate Saketopoulou and Pellegrini’s unequivocal affirmation of the validity of trans and nonbinary identities:
It is time for analysts and therapists to stop debating trans people’s right to exist, which is what we actually do when we question whether or gender nonconformity is but a manifestation of something else.
I am not at all familiar with psychoanalysis and am perhaps wary of it (or maybe just wary of Freud, let’s be honest). My experiences with psychotherapy have been positive. Nevertheless, I know I am an outlier among trans people in that regard, and it doesn’t surprise me to learn that psychoanalysis as a field needs to grow. Hopefully books like Gender Without Identity have the desired effect in that regard.
For those of us outside the field, this book can still be useful (as my earlier musings demonstrate). However, be forewarned that the writing is clinical, full of jargon and vocabulary that, quite honestly, challenged even me. Saketopoulou and Pellegrini are not writing for a general audience—which is fine, not a criticism of the book but definitely a caution for the general reader. I won’t pretend I understood fully everything that they discuss in the book. But I did enjoy this glimpse into how analysts and therapists approach these concepts, as well as the challenges of dragging the field kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
So from this position, I found Gender Without Identity to be what I expected: challenging, occasionally inscrutable, yet altogether quite clever and thought-provoking. While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to just anyone, for someone who is curious about the intersections of psychology and gender, I think this is an important and powerful read.