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I’m glad to have read Daniel Walden’s essay in the March issue of Commonweal, “Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense,” and find something to agree with in it. He’s right that it’s an act of love to attend to how people speak and act; right, too, that how we dress, adorn ourselves, exchange caresses, speak, move, and so on, is significant; and right, finally, that there’s no straight line from anyone’s fleshly form or genetic makeup to their performance of gender—the assumption that there is such a line is, as Walden puts it, “nonsense.” So far, so good. But his essay isn’t free of its own distortions and crass simplifications, and these go deep enough, it seems to me, to make what he writes about gender its own form of nonsense.
First there’s ownership. Walden writes that as children grow, they assume responsibility “for telling their own stories”; that they come to know and assert “their own erotic life”; and—in a cliché now so deeply rooted that it reads like common sense rather than the nonsense that it is—that they “grow into the responsibility for telling the story of who they are.” And then there’s authority: people have, writes Walden, “the authority to interpret and narrate their experiences.”
This kind of writing assumes and implies self-ownership based on privileged self-access. Those, taken together, yield authority over what’s to be said about the self thus owned. In such a view, only I have primary access to my experience, and it’s that experience which, properly narrated, shows me who I am. I may share that showing with you, and when I do, your first task is to listen and nod. What I discover via introspection is myself; I’m the owner of me; and I am, therefore, the only one with rights to say who I am and to dispose of myself as I see fit. That’s the kind of authority ownership yields. That’s the grammar—the lexicon and syntax—of Walden’s essay. He modifies that grammar mildly by allowing for the possibility that others might criticize the self discovered and shown, but he doesn’t call its fundamental assumptions into question.