By Michiel Baas – The University of Amsterdam has appointed a committee to investigate academic freedom within its institution. The reason for this is a complaint from lecturer Laurens Buijs who takes specific aim at “nonbinariness”, arguing that people are simply male or female. For Buijs, the nonbinary identity and its preferred pronouns are an empty hype without scientific basis. He invokes “solid evidence” and speaks of a “pseudo-scientific delusion” within the academy. In addition, he argues that the UvA’s diversity policy is a ‘Trojan horse’, bringing in and normalising radical ideas. The decolonization of the curriculum is, to him, another such example. When making his claims, he consistently argues that he is a scientist with relevant expertise even though he has not obtained his doctorate and has no recent scientific publications that have passed the usual peer review process by colleagues. Obviously, this should stop no one from entering into a public debate but in the case of Buijs, he makes it seem as if he has conducted academic research and is a specialist on the topic. While there is no evidence of this, it is now expected of the University of Amsterdam to respond to his claims which in academic terms lack any meaningful basis.
Within gender and sexuality studies, nonbinary is usually referred to as an umbrella term that refers to various interpretations of and feelings about gender. In practice, this means that someone who identifies in this way does not relate or feel connected to the binary distinction between male and female and its associated notions of masculinity and femininity. The issue Buijs has with the nonbinary identity, and the tweets that followed, quickly went viral and not only received a deluge of criticism but also a bewildering array of statements of support. It was reminiscent of reactions a few years ago when the Dutch railways announced that they would no longer address customers as “ladies and gentlemen”, but as “dear travellers” instead (2017). People were furious! Was this the end of ‘simply’ being male or female? J.K. Rowling’s transphobic diatribes evoke similar reactions. Proponents believe that accepting transpersons as female would deprive biological women of the exclusive right to identify themselves in this way, which could lead to all sorts of dangers. Although there is virtually no concrete evidence for these arguments, they continue to appeal and result in (online) commotion.
The way in which the category of ‘nonbinary’ is now seen as a new classification distracts from the reality of how gender and sexuality are in practice rather fluid and negotiated on the basis of personal preferences. The claims Buijs makes about this are inherently at odds with the reality of gender and sexuality around the world. In the interdisciplinary course ‘Queer Planet’ that I taught at the UvA, I used Lady Gaga’s song as an example. Are we actually born that way? Being born gay, lesbian or trans is often set as a kind of condition for being allowed to identify as such. Instead, I ask my students whether it should matter? Jokingly I suggest that I may very well have decided to be gay five minutes ago. So what? We actually know very little for certain about gender and sexuality, at least not in biologically/physically recognizable criteria. However, we do know that environmental factors contribute to how people identify as male and/or female. To a certain extent this is performative: we copy gender-normative behaviour from each other by propagating it over and over again, thereby endorsing and strengthening its experience as normal. Buijs may argue that “nonbinariness” does not exist, but one could argue the same for ‘being’ male or female and what that stands for beyond physical criteria.
From the discussions I have had with young people who now identify as non-binary, it has become clear that they do so partly as a product of our time. You may criticise them for embracing “something fashionable”, or “something that didn’t exist before” but this ignores the actual genesis of categories such as gay, lesbian and bi. We are now able to rely on a large degree of recognition in terms of our non-normative sexual identities. The reasons that heterosexuality never went through this process of debate is because it is the default, majoritarian identity that is enshrined in the law and generally does not evoke the same questions (even if there is ample evidence of “straight” men enjoying same-sex contact or women seeking out each other for sexual pleasure).
Especially among older gays and lesbians, there now seems to be considerable antipathy to the idea of non-binary. I see Buijs’s dissatisfaction as a prime example of how generational differences can stand in the way of new insight. In his view, the older generation needs to caution a newer one of adopting fancy ideas that have no basis in science. What plays an undeniable role here, however, is the idea of “the past”. In “the past”, everything was not better; in fact it was much worse. If AIDS didn’t get you (Freddie Mercury, 1991) then there was the public execution of a forced coming out (George Michael, 1998). As a now 48-year-old gay man, I have lived through all of this, and so did my friends. Much of what was fought for then is now generally accepted but does that mean a younger generation needs to forever keep this in mind as they explore their own gender and sexuality? Should they be grateful to me that I grew up in a small village where being gay was tantamount to being an outcast? It was far from easy being a teenager in the early 1990s but, thirty years down the line, surely my history doesn’t need to be a whipping stick to keep a younger generation in line so that they can neatly adopt the categories that indeed we fought very hard for.
The fact that a younger generation feels less of a connection with older categories such as gay and lesbian is now perceived as threatening. But the “scientific certainty” Laurens Buijs employs to contest its existence was precisely something previous generations of LGBTIA+ identified individuals vehemently opposed. Lesbians were not mentally ill, HIV was not a gay disease, same-sex couples were able to raise children and these children did not automatically become gay or lesbian either. In other words: the threatening character was consistently undermined.
As a cis, white gay and coincidentally also an anthropologist, I do not feel threatened in any way by the (perhaps) increasing popularity of “nonbinariness”. Do I sometimes struggle with pronouns? Oh definitely. Just recently in a lecture I referred to Judith Butler as female! My students pointed out the mistake and we had a good laugh over it. Besides the fact that I always find it reassuring that students look critically at society, it seems to me that they too have the right, just like previous generations, to oppose conventions and debunk what we think of as ‘normal’. At the very least, considering the planet they will inherit from us, let them have the freedom to rethink and rework the world in terms of who they want to be.
Michiel Baas is a senior research fellow with the Max Plack Institute for Social Anthropology. His most recent book is titled Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle Class (Context, 2020).