Missing Pieces in the Gender Identity Conversation

Changes reshaping our relationship to gender are some of today’s most fascinating. Creative Systems theory points toward two kinds of changes that are key to today’s evolving gender realities. Each involves the “bridging” of a key kind polarity, the ability to think systemically about an apparent opposite that at least in modern times we have assumed to be given. I explore both kinds of change in depth in my book On the Evolution of Intimacy: An Exploration into the Past, Present, and Future of Gender and Love. 

We need to start with a concept that people may sense but not consider consciously. Psychology describes how some psychological qualities can be thought of as more archetypally masculine, others more archetypally feminine—we experience them as harder or softer, more expressive or more receptive. Creative Systems Theory proposes that historicalyl we have never understood gender for just what it is. Rather when we have looked at someone of the “opposite sex” what we have seen is projected gender archetypes. It is this that has given us the traditional picture with two wholly distinct gender categories. The theory delineates how the differing ways gender differences have been perceived at different periods in culture reflect how the relationship between archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine qualities has manifested at particular historical times and places. 

The first kind of change is a product of beginning to appreciate how everyone manifests both more archetypally masculine and more archetypally feminine qualities. We see such change reflected in our increasing openness to “non-binary” definitions of gender. The Creative Systems Theory concept of Cultural Maturity highlights the mechanism of such change. It describes how it is becoming newly possible in our times to step back and consciously engage the whole of ourselves—the whole of our human complexity. Archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine reflect two key aspects of that complexity. With Cultural Maturity’s changes we are better able to “bridge” the masculine and feminine in ourselves and in a similar way to understand others with a newly systemic kind of completeness. 

This first kind of change is profound, while profound, only represents a start. It takes us beyond the historical rigidity of gender roles and gender specific notions of identity, but ultimately more is needed. It easily has us confuse better holding the whole of our complexity with gender being anything we might choose. We end up in a unisex world, or alternatively a world with an infinity of options, none more appropriate than another. Today we reside in an awkward in-between time with gender-related changes. 

The second kind of change takes us the rest of the way. Its recognition is almost wholly missing in today’s gender conversation. Cultural Maturity’s changes not only “bridge” archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine, they do the same thing with the polarity of mind and body. This further kind of change has major consequences for the gender conversation. It help us more deeply engage ourselves as gendered beings. In a culturally mature reality, while it is true that psychologically everyone is non-binary, we also come to live more deeply and more fully in our bodies—including our sexuality, however it might manifest. 

When we combine these two kinds of change we get a picture that takes the gender conversation forward in ways with implications both for people who identify as men or women on the basis of biology and for those where gender-related questions may be more complex. For the first group, the result is at once freeing and grounding. It encourages a more fluid and complex relationship to gender and gender roles, one with many more options. And at the same time it invites a person to celebrate being a man or woman, whatever the particular balance of qualities that comes with that person’s temperament and whatever that person’s sexual orientation.  

Where gender-related concerns are more complex, current conversations about transgender identity and the role of medical interventions come immediately to mind for me as a physician. The first kind of change helps us appreciate why we might be more open to such conversation. It also makes more understandable why a growing number of people today describe themselves as questioning their basic gender identity. And it supports people who are transgender in the sense of literally feeling that they are inhabiting the wrong kind of body in being open without shame to this depth of questioning. These are all good things. But we also need the second kind of recognition for the current transgender conversation not to be simplistic and lead to choices that may be ultimately unhelpful. When people engage their body experience over time, often they find that things are not as simple as just misplaced identification. There are a multitude of ways to live in a male or female body, and how we experience can change over time. This kind of recognition helps us approach choices that might involve permanent changes with greater caution. It is important that gender transition surgery and the like today are options—for certain people they are a godsend. But we need also to be careful that current transitional realities, and social-political advocacies that can accompany them, don’t have individuals reach premature and ultimately limiting conclusions.

Changes of a gender-related sort are some of the most interesting in our time. Not only do they impact us in particularly immediate and intimate ways, the fact that we witness such changes provides some of the best evidence for the new chapter in our cultural story that the concept of Cultural Maturity describes. Here I add simply that if we are to fully appreciate gender’s place in this larger evolutionary picture, we need to include in our considerations both of these kinds of systemic changes. 

—Two episodes from the Ask the Cultural Psychiatrist YouTube channel  (https://bit.ly/3QaofcZ.) are particularly pertinent to these reflections: “ A New Meaning for Love.” and “The Myth of the Individual.“—

Charles Johnston MD



Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.