The Meme War to Determine How Many Genders There Are

Gender: it’s everywhere these days! And if you’re the kind of person to call your internet enemies “libtards,” you’re probably furious that there seem to be so many genders all of a sudden. How are you supposed to keep track of them? You can’t! Better to assume that anyone who identifies as trans, non-binary, agender, etc., is the agent (or brainwashing victim) of a leftist conspiracy to dissolve your heterosexual family unit.

This month, for example, Fox News latched onto the story of an Indiana college student kicked out of class — allegedly for arguing “there are only two genders.” It’s the kind of juicy drama that elicits conservative blogspeak like “According to rational biology… ” and “Holy thoughtcrime, Batman!” because it sounds like a chilling rebuke to what Republicans consider irrefutable common sense. What a shame, then, to find out the kid was really ejected for “angry outbursts” and a pattern of wildly disruptive rudeness. Here’s how the letter he received from a university provost described his behavior:

I know, I know; it’s hard to believe that a reactionary child would pretend they’re being punished for expressing an idea when their true sin was loudly and obnoxiously complaining about exposure to other people’s ideas. But it’s telling that this young man, who I’m sure is very popular on campus, banked on the self-evident fact of a two-gender reality to make the case for himself as a victim of censorship. The trope appeals to the phobic and fragile right wing for the simple reason that it “triggers” the inclusive left — same as when they insist that transgender individuals are “mentally ill” deviants who want to molest your kids in public bathrooms — while appealing to axiomatic knowledge. Dividing the global population into men and women, XY and XX, gender trolls see no daylight for debate, which is why the worldview is often radically condensed into a format least equipped to allow nuance or empathy: a meme.

Portray your theory as solid, sensible, direct, and grounded while accusing the other side of living in a fantastic delusion: that’s Culture War 101 for anti-progressives. It’d be weird enough that they feel this threatened by a spectrum of experience they deny exists at all, but science also challenges their basic assumption that everyone has a sex starkly entailed by chromosomes and physical characteristics. The truth of genetics is far more complex, and the term “gender” encompasses, in addition to anatomy and hormones, self-determined identity and socially defined behaviors. But, again, the two-gender goons aren’t looking for contrary evidence, unless it’s to draw people into bad-faith conversations for their YouTube channel. The point of the meme is to provoke, not engage. At no time was that clearer than in the summer of 2016, when a popular and apolitical Facebook group for garlic bread memes came under fire for sharing this:

The controversy erupted a year after the “two genders” memes began to surface, and it marked a shift from repugnant ideology to edgy shitpost. Yes, it’s conceivable that the moderators of the Garlic Bread Memes page truly believe there are only two genders and wanted their 250,000 members (now more than half a million) to know that, but there’s a case to be made that GBM satirizes memes in general, including the bad ones, without necessarily endorsing the original message. Well before this ambiguous appropriation, however, and even before the “two genders” meme was coined, a decidedly woke catchphrase was making the rounds: “Ah, yes, the three genders.”

Anticipating and lampooning the smarmy complacence of two-genderism, it borrowed the professorial air of an expert surveying new data and drawing refined interpretations. As posts asserting a conventional binary proliferated, so did instances of tri-gender splits. And while nobody is seriously suggesting that “Hitler” is a gender, this scenario acknowledges how expansive and fluid these concepts are outside a denialist vacuum.

No sooner had we added a gender than we started piling more on: you may now find diagrams of the four, six, 10, or 20 genders in your feed on any given day. The meme’s saturation is such that, as Twitter user @NoraReed put it, “any grouping of objects, people, places, concepts, etc.,” may instantly register as a collection of genders.

This variant of the meme is a natural heightening from the two- and three-gender jokes, though it doubles as a cheeky response to those who attack social justice warriors for whimsically concocting hundreds of genders they insist are an undue burden on regular ol’ chicks and bros. There isn’t, as the proudly un-PC camp imagines, an intimidating master list of liberal-approved or officially recognized extra genders, with subsections enumerating potential verbal violations against them. In the absence of that implausible document, the left demonstrates willingness to let people decide how they wish to be addressed, whom they’re attracted to, which clothes to wear, and what they see in themselves, whether or not these choices line up with one of two narrowly prescribed identities. That is not a lot to ask! And the shifting, mounting number referenced in these tweets suggests an arbitrariness to gender, a laissez-faire attitude that says: “There are exactly as many genders as people want, and there could easily be a billion more.”

It is this very flexibility that makes two-gender absolutism a ridiculous stance. What do hardliners stand to lose by admitting that no human characteristic is contained in a pure dichotomy? Nothing. If I say I’m neither male nor female, what tangible result does this have for the fundamentalist brat screaming at his professor that genitalia alone determine identity? None. Who cares how many genders there are? The others won’t colonize yours. They don’t take up literal space. The more we use this meme, the further we advance the notion that gender is, in part, an abstraction unbound from any crypto-fascist policing of bodies — that if a gender is real to us, it cannot be taken away.

And while we may not be able to guess the total of distinct genders currently at large, and likely never will, we ought to be confident of this: it’s a hell of a lot more than two.