The New Linnaeans

Binomial sense-making in a senseless world

Anthropologists of Generation Gender, steel yourselves: there’s an entire Subreddit devoted to creating flags for gender identities. And it has over ten thousand Reddit subscribers. Recent posts include a flag for bisexual demiboys, a flag for agender neurodivergent people, a flag for people who are cookiegender, and a flag for varioriented people which doesn’t just look like the flag for asexual people — God knows, that’s a mistake we’ve all made.

While some of these obviously aren’t meant to be taken seriously, it’s incredible how much effort is put into distinguishing one bespoke gender-cum-sexuality identity from the next. A user takes pains to elaborate on the difference between

Neutranull: a neutrois person being either part gender neutral & part gendernull/nullgender or both at the same time

and

Neutranullfluid: a neutrois person who is fluid between the gender neutral & gendernull/nullgender aspects of neutrois, a type of Neutraflux.

Another user confesses that

I've fit under the abrosexual identity for the last couple of years, but it never fully felt like me since my romantic attraction is so specifically different between genders but it's still always there, it's my sexuality that fluctuates, so I had an idea for a flag for myself, (masc)polyaliusexual.

Sometimes, the identities incorporate political viewpoints, as in this tranacho-communist offering. Nationality can also work its way into the mix, intersecting with the (perhaps sufficiently intersected) category of ‘transbian’ in this Welsh delight. And all of those are just from scrolling through ‘Recent’.

Each of these identities is given its own banner, typically involving coloured horizontal stripes, with pink and blue (unsurprisingly) common. These graphics must take some time to prepare, and users will often offer multiple variants from which other users can pick their favourites. This is a time-consuming endeavour.

Last night, I read an anonymous gender critical ally’s observation that the system of sub-classification within transgenderism now ‘rivals Linnaeus’, and the thought immediately rang true. Anyone who has learnt even a little about the new transgender movement will be well-acquainted with the binomials into which young people self-sort, whether entry-level (‘trans woman’) or advanced (‘asexual biromantic’). These are presented to parents as though they are helpful. In one way, they are: they help parents understand exactly how dwarfed they are by the mountain of terminology their kids’ have been acquiring on the sly.

Much of this is what, in ye olden days, we called personality. ‘Biromantics’ (no, nothing to do with pens) find it easy to form close romantic relationships with members of both sexes, but are only attracted to members of one sex: but this is a theme which dives back through our common history, particularly with regard to the many women over the ages who have formed especially intimate yet non-sexual friendships with other females. ‘Demigirl’ seems perilously close to what we used to call a ‘tomboy’, which is ultimately a certain set of classically masculine traits which a young woman might present. Temperament has evidently gone out of fashion.

But the Linnaean codification seems to be serving another purpose. As was true of the First Linnaean Era (as opposed to today’s reboot), we’re living in a time of extraordinary exploration. The internet has opened out near-infinite channels of communication; a kid from Minneapolis can be best friends with a kid from Sheffield without ever having met in person — nor, for that matter, ever having met the next door neighbours. Gen Z and the younger millennials are processing a world which has been created almost by mistake, and one in which those of a creative bent can get lost forever. It’s unreasonable to imagine that young minds will be able to navigate this new landscape without forming tribes: they are itching to connect with those who are similar, desperate to disassociate from those who are not. Articulating what once was personality as though it were genus and species is a form of self-defence. It provides a sense of permanence and stability; it creates peer groups, and allies, and safe harbours.

It’s also deeply misguided. Personality is not fixed, and nor is the sexual self. Many parents are disturbed at how well-versed their thirteen-, or eleven-, or even nine-year-old kids are in the nuances of sexuality and gender identity, long before they have even identified a stable sexual urge within themselves. But it shouldn’t be surprising that the children produced by the modern education system should feel so pressured to taxonomize themselves. Not only do they need to work out where they fit in the oppression hierarchy, which in turn delineates what may and may not be spoken; they also take comfort in establishing who and what they are, as though these were forms of armour to be donned before venturing into the cyber-battlefield. This sense of perfecting the self-image before living as the self will have a dull familiarity to many parents reading this.

The internet age probably needs its taxonomists; and this position will be more appealing to some than to others. The link between transgender identities and ADHD is now fairly clear; and for those of us prone to restless leg-tapping and hyper-focus, the allure of infinitesimal sub-categories needs no explanation. Establishing a new sense of self can evidently be a highly intricate process, and some kids just don’t seem able to resist. It’s easy to chuckle at the biromantics, but they might just be the Digital Natives’ pioneers of sense-making, if somewhat blown off course.

Queer Vexillology is an energy trap. None of these hand-crafted identities will go anywhere, except perhaps further into an obsession which is unlikely to produce anything of any use. But the energy itself is remarkable. Imagine if all the contributors to Queer Vexillology turned their hands towards American municipal flags, some of which are famously ugly. Rather than rooting themselves in a fictive cyberspace, they could be developing their sense of belonging to a real place — and making something appreciably beautiful in the process. The practice of designing gender identity flags may be laughable, but these young designers are often undeniably talented.

Or they could taxonomize infrastructure. It would probably be quite helpful to have a grass-roots, crowd-sourced understanding of where public money really needs to be spent: which cities’ potholes are the deepest; which train lines would benefit the most from expanding commuter services. Or they could rank order corporations according to the amount of single-use plastic they barf into the ecosystem. Or they could piece together a more complex and adaptive model of neurological atypicality — the same neurological atypicality that many young trans-identifying people experience themselves — so that practitioners could better classify different ways of thinking without falling back on yes/no diagnostic categories.

But whatever paths these young people follow, and however useful these may be, I don’t think there’s much prospect of them abandoning the need to sort one thing from the next. Some people were born to classify. If they’re not given something useful to classify, they’ll just classify themselves.

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