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The Multiplicity of Gender

The multiplicity of possible gender positions cannot be reduced to a spectrum opposing male and female. Numerous conceptions of gender confront one another in a multi-dimensional space, each of them proposing a different alternative to male and heterosexual norms.

The gender order evolved considerably during the 20th century. [1] Women’s lives are not the same as they once were. Their right to vote, more schooling, the massive entry of women onto the labour market, contraception and the legalisation of abortion are all factors that have transformed how they live. These changes are continuing at the start of the 21st century with the remarkable development of feminist and LGBT struggles. The border between the sexes [2] is becoming more porous in both the social sphere and in law. Enacted in 2013, France’s ‘marriage for all’ law was soon followed by the Law on the Modernisation of Justice for the 21st Century (2016), which de-medicalises change of sex in the civil registry. Discrimination on the basis of ‘gender identity’ gets included in the French criminal code in 2016, while calling oneself ‘non-binary [3] (i.e. neither male nor female) is spreading well beyond just the trans population. [4] How we should conceive of and study gender is no longer self-evident in this context of social and legal transformations.

Numerous sociologists have studied the plurality and nuances of class categorisations, but this approach has been less pursued with respect to gender (Dunezat 2015). Nonetheless, some work has been done on styles of femininity and masculinity, which vary according to class and race. Other studies have also shown that female and male roles are more similar in certain social milieus than in others. This research still argues in terms of a female/male dualism, however. Gender is still conceived here as a linear spectrum along which masculinity and femininity take a variety of forms and get expressed to different degrees; but, ultimately, such work does not venture beyond a binary model. Drawing inspiration from the sociology of class, stratification and social mobility, the present text aims to go beyond a sexualised dichotomy and to explore the multiplicity of gender.

Indeed, this essay does not view gender as a spectrum, but rather as a multi-dimensional space. Starting in the 1970s, many so-called materialist feminist approaches that referred to Marxist theory were developed; but, up to today, no research has conceived gender as a social space in an analogous way to the model introduced by Pierre Bourdieu for class distinctions in France (1984). In what we could call the social space of gender, individuals occupy a multitude of positions, which are defined vis-à-vis those of other individuals according to a relational logic. This logic is accompanied by power struggles and forms of distinction, with individuals and social groups competing for access to the resources of symbolic and, to some extent, material domination. These resources thus allow those in the dominant position to impose their conception of gender as being the only legitimate one. In so doing, they use – symbolic, and sometimes physical – violence to negate alternative conceptions, which other actors may be trying to put forward.

Building on the author’s research on the trans population – which includes men and women, but also individuals who call themselves ‘non-binary’ – the present essay attempts to make visible the struggles that are played out within the social space of gender, as well as the plurality of distinctions and types of mobility that take place within it.

The Social Space of Gender

Just as the social space of class is characterised by multiple classes and class segments, which are characterised by their relative cultural autonomy, the social space of gender is composed of different poles. Each of the latter possesses its own normative power, and they compete with each other to try to impose the legitimacy of their conception of gender. Thus, a given group’s conforming to the most established and dominant conception of gender does not prevent other groups from proposing alternative conceptions and trying to impose them as legitimate. In other words, the conformity of some is not necessarily the conformity of the others. The traditional, heterosexual order that differentiates and creates a hierarchy between two, and only two, categories – males and females – is still predominant in certain milieus, whereas a feminist and LGBT-friendly norm is tending to gain ground in others.

The institutional power of prescription – be it governmental, familial, religious or medical – coexists now with other discourses on gender coming from far more numerous instances. Feminist struggles and LGBT activism, in particular, are providing people with more and more resources for constructing themselves. They also influence a large number of organisations and even the aforesaid institutions themselves, which, in some cases, have come to promote female/male parity and the diversity of sexual orientations. Political parties that seek power without proposing measures that are presented as favourable to the equality between the sexes are rare nowadays. New political instances can also be created to this end, like the ‘High Council for Equality between Women and Men’ in France. We are seeing a norm of equality emerge in the current context: or even, in social milieus with substantial endowments of educational and cultural capital, a norm of gender subversion. Taking into account gender inequalities and sometime even defending a feminist approach are become politically correct positions. In other words, along with promoting female/male equality – or other so-called (sexual or racial) diversity policies – exhibiting a certain gender non-conformism is tending to attain the rank of a sign of modernity.

The social space of gender is characterised by a struggle between the supporters of this modernity and the defenders of a traditional model that is presented as universal and beyond debate. Feminist movements are thus regularly confronted by discourses connecting women to a biological condition that is deemed fundamentally different from that of men. For example, movements fighting against sexual violence, such as the #MeToo movement, find themselves confronted by a differential conceptualisation of female and male sexuality that attributes natural compulsions to men. Such discourses thus perpetrate symbolic violence against women at the same time as they legitimate physical violence against them.

Different logics are also to be found within forms of collective mobilisation; this is a subject has already been studied with respect to feminist movements. Laure Bereni, for example, maps out a ‘space of the women’s cause’ (2015) in which activists fight for equality and parity in many different ways. This plurality also applies for LGBT activism: some activists demand the right to marriage and parenthood or are happy to establish partnerships with the state, political parties or religious instances, whereas others refuse any sort of association with institutions that continue to favour heterosexuals. Nonetheless, the gender positions of the different protagonists of the LGBT movements are less distant from one another than they are from those of the ‘Manif pour tous [5] and the other protagonists of the fight against ‘gender theory’. The latter defend the conception of gender that is still hegemonic: that of an order based on the difference and hierarchy between two sexes.

In my research on trans people, I have mapped out the diversity of gender positions in this population (Beaubatie 2019a). In its heterogeneity, the latter brings together different registers of gender action and gender identification. [6] When studying a multidimensional social space, it is important, with the help of statistical methods, to identify the principal axes structuring it. Two dimensions proved to have a particularly important structural impact: the relationship to trans spaces and movements (which give rise to a certain sense of an ‘in group’), on the one hand, and the relationship to institutional gender norms (here, those of sex change protocols), on the other. Three main groups stood out: the ‘conformists’, the ‘strategists’ and the ‘militants’. The members of the first group strictly comply with the institutional norms by identifying as ‘male’ or ‘female’ and making sure that their bodies and their civil status are compatible with the standards of their sex. They are almost completely absent from trans spaces. The members of the second group abide by the prescriptions of the medical and legal protocols and are present in trans spaces, but only in order to gather information allowing them to meet the institutional expectations with respect to gender. The members of the third group are politically active and have a more relaxed relationship to the model proposed by the protocols: they are more likely to say that they are ‘non-binary’ and do not often have recourse to physical alterations or changing their civil status. Nonetheless, the ‘activist’ logic is not peculiar to them. The ‘conformists’ defend the right of trans people to merge into the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’. As for the ‘strategists’, they develop forms of resistance from within. If these groups of actors can all be politically active in different ways, they, nonetheless, differ from one another.

Plural Distinctions

Multiple forms of gender distinction are apparent in the social space. The ‘conformists’, first of all, differ from people with more alternative conceptions of gender. Many of these ‘conformists’ are people who were initially socialised as men. The dominant gender approach is thus mainly defended by people who were long brought up male (even though in the present study, they have left behind this gender category over the course of their life). This finding mirrors those of the study ‘Contextes de la sexualité en France’ (CSF), in which it appears that men believe in a natural difference between the sexes more than women (Bajos et al. 2008). Women may also fit this type of representation, however. As Pierre Bourdieu shows in Masculine Domination (2001), women working in ‘male occupations’ may, for example, internalise and defend the bases of a social order that gives rise to material and symbolic violence against them. Following a more or less strategic logic, they may even adopt virile forms of behaviour, in order to get by in fields in which masculinity is the condition for recognition. (In the case of trans people, this register is to be found among the ‘strategists’, who, as they are usually in a precarious position, often do not have any choice but to adapt to institutional expectations). This phenomenon is not confined to the domain of work, however. As Nicole-Claude Mathieu explains in ‘Quand céder n’est pas consentir’ (1991), marriage may also lead heterosexual women to take a position in favour of a male/female schema, which it would be too painful to call into question after having sacrificed so much for their spouse.

Intertwined with the parameter of sex, other social factors like age and educational capital also help to shape gender positions. Many of the most ‘conformist’ are people who have been men, but they are also people who are already relatively old or who possess relatively little educational capital. Conversely, the most ‘militant’ are mainly people whose initial socialisation was female, young people and highly educated people. In their analysis of the criticism that the Institut national d’études démographiques received for including only two gender modalities, ‘male’ or ‘female’, in the questionnaire when carrying out its survey on ‘Violence and Gender Relations’ (VIRAGE, 2015), Mathieu Trachman and Tania Lejbowicz (2018) likewise note that this criticism came principally from young women. Ultimately, if the younger generation is proving to be more flexible about the established gender categories, it is women who have the greatest interest in getting rid of them and the most highly educated people who aim to distinguish themselves from them.

Gender distinctions are also sometimes class distinctions, but they can likewise overlap with distinctions between sexual orientations. Contemporary transformations in hegemonic masculinity provide an example. Raewyn Connell (1995) defines ‘hegemonic masculinity’ as the ideal of masculinity that secures the preservation of patriarchy at a given time and in a given context. Even if this model of masculinity is traditionally heterosexual, white and highly endowed with economic capital, it is undergoing some reconfigurations. Nowadays, certain figures like the ‘nouveaux pères’ [7], feminist men or also homosexual men may take precedence over the hegemonic classical figure. Demetrakis Demetriou’s (2001) analysis suggests as much when he claims that masculinities that Connell describes as ‘subordinate’, viz. homosexual masculinities, fully participate in maintaining hegemony. In distinguishing themselves, by virtue of their androgynous looks and attitudes, from a hegemonic masculinity that they regard as archaic and obsolete, some men – both gay men and heterosexual men who appropriate gay codes – contribute to disarming the feminist critique of male domination.

These forms of distinction are unequally distributed in the population. In the CSF study, Nathalie Bajos and Nathalie Beltzer (2008) note that among people with same-sex partners, men who possess a high level of educational capital are the most likely to describe themselves as ‘homosexuals’. In the case of trans people, I likewise was able to observe that sexual distinction is mainly to be found among those who are most educated – who are also those who say most often that they are ‘non-binary’ – and that it is rare among women (Beaubatie 2019b). The studies of gayfriendliness conducted by Wilfried Rault (2016) or by Sylvie Tissot (2018) reveal similar mechanisms at work with regards to the acceptance of homosexuality. The two sociologists observe a high level of acceptance in principle on the part of people who are more affluent – the latter constituting a tool of social distinction – but they also note that tolerance of sexual minorities is not automatically translated into practice. Being composite, gender positions are socially determined, but they are not incompatible with a certain mobility.

The Variable Geometry of Mobility

In the social sciences, there is an extensive literature on class mobility, but there is not any equivalent in terms of gender. The literature on trans biographies, for example, tends to consider sex change as being a matter of ‘gender identity’ much more than a matter of social mobility. Nonetheless, to a certain extent, trans people can also be considered as ‘gender defectors’ who have undergone a transformation of their social status (Beaubatie 2017). Trans men (female-to-male transition) climb the gender ladder, whereas trans women (male-to-female transition) move down it. These two sides of gender-based social mobility do not give rise to the same biographical itineraries nor the same material conditions of existence.

Even if changing sex is socially condemned in both direction – which represents an important difference from class-based social mobility – moving down the gender ladder is subject to more severe sanctions. Trans women experience more stigmatisation, economic insecurity and violence than their male counterparts, which leads many of them to abandon the project of changing sex when they are young, only to come back to it later in life. As for trans men, they all transition relatively young and enjoy more parental support and economic stability. In both cases, a symbolic change in status is felt after the transition: initially socialised as women, trans men are surprised by the diminution in the gender violence they encounter, notably at work or in the public space, whereas trans women encounter more. The former may thus experience the guilt typical of ‘defectors’ on the rise, whereas the latter have an easier time giving meaning to their fall in social status. Nonetheless, social mobility is not exhausted by moving from the female to the male category or vice-versa.

Such social mobility may occur to different extents and be of various natures. First of all, not all trans people say that they are ‘men’ or ‘women’ in their arrival gender – half of them identify as alternative categories such as ’queer’ or ‘non-binary’ – and they have more or less recourse to physical alterations or changing their sex in the civil registry (see above). Moreover, just like class-based social mobility (Pagis and Pasquali 2016), social mobility in terms of gender can also be more or less extensive. Some people go all the way to changing their social (and sometimes also legal) category, but others experience biographical bifurcations that lead to them repositioning themselves in a less spectacular way. For example, Natacha Chetcuti (2010) notes that women who become lesbians later in life go through a process of ‘de-heterosexualisation’ during which they emancipate themselves from certain codes of femininity. Such bifurcations may also occur after experiencing a violent episode or when changing professions.

A variety of factors and experiences can give rise to mobility in the social space of gender. The biographical interviews that I conducted with trans people bear witness to this. For example, the capital that bestows belonging to an in-group – and which is probably found in the female population in the form of belonging to feminist militant and professional groups, as well as in the form of a marriage or a group of friends – evolves over the course of one’s life. As life goes on, it is thus not unusual for one’s commitment to collective action to wane, leading some people to adopt a more ‘conformist’ posture than in the past. For other people, it is their relationship to institutional standards that undergoes change: when they are young, people often say that they are ‘non-binary’ and fight against medical and legal norms, but once they join the labour market, it proves difficult to maintain this sort of political engagement. Ultimately, the social space of gender includes a variety of positions, as well as numerous trajectories and circuits.


Gender can be viewed as a multidimensional space. In a context marked by the rapid development of feminist and LGBT activism, this approach allows us to take seriously the current multiplication of – sometimes competing or even contradictory – gender norms. Some people, often men, have an interest in defending the classical schema of difference between the sexes. As victims of violence that is symbolic, material and physical all at once, others gain from militating on behalf of the recognition of alternative models. But the latter often have no choice but to adapt to the only two categories recognised by the institutions or even to defend the existence of these categories.

Individuals’ positions are all the more composite inasmuch as gender aspirations sometimes overlap with social aspirations. Non-conformity from the point of view of gender – and of sexuality, which has gendered significations – is tending, in effect, to become a marker of class distinction for some people. But even if gender positions are socially situated in many respects, they are not fixed: different types of mobility can occur in the social space of gender. Far from being limited to actual gender defectors, such mobility is probably not uncommon over the course of a life. In order to go further, we would need to conduct empirical studies on these phenomena on the scale of the population in general. In the end, studying the multiplicity of gender will undoubtedly provide us an occasion to revisit the system of gender categorisation as we know it today.

by Emmanuel Beaubatie, 13 October

Further reading

• Bajos N., Ferrand M., Andro A., « La sexualité à l’épreuve de l’égalité », in in Bajos N. et Bozon M. (dirs.), Enquête sur la sexualité en France, Paris, La Découverte, 2008, p. 545-578.
• Bajos N. et Beltzer N., « Les sexualités homo-bisexuelles : d’une acceptation de principe aux vulnérabilités sociales et préventives », in Bajos N. et Bozon M. (dirs.), Enquête sur la sexualité en France, Paris, La Découverte, 2008, p. 243-272.
• Beaubatie E., « L’espace social du genre. Diversité des registres d’action et d’identification dans la population trans’ en France », Sociologie, vol. 10, n° 4, 2019a, p. 395-414.
• Beaubatie E., « Changer de sexe et de sexualité. Les significations genrées des orientations sexuelles », Revue française de sociologie, vol. 10, n° 4, 2019b, à paraître.
• Beaubatie E., « Transfuges de sexe. Genre, santé et sexualité dans les parcours d’hommes et de femmes trans’ en France », thèse de sociologie, EHESS, 2017.
• Bereni L., La Bataille de la parité. Mobilisations pour la féminisation du pouvoir, Paris, Economica, 2015.
• Bourdieu P., La Distinction, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1979.
• Bourdieu P., La Domination masculine, Paris, Seuil, 1998.
• Chetcuti N., Se dire lesbienne. Vie de couple, sexualité, représentation de soi, Paris, Payot, 2010.
• Connell R., Masculinités : Enjeux sociaux de l’hégémonie, Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2014 [1995].
• Demetriou D., « Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity : a critique », Theory and Society, vol. 30, n° 3, 2001, p. 337-361.
• Dunezat X., « L’observation ethnographique en sociologie des rapports sociaux : sexe, race, classe et biais essentialistes », SociologieS, 2015, En ligne.
• Mathieu N-C., « Quand céder n’est pas consentir », in L’Anatomie politique : catégorisations et idéologies du sexe, Paris, Côté Femmes, 1991.
• Pagis J. et Pasquali P., « Observer les mobilités sociales en train de se faire. Micro-contextes, expériences vécues et incidences socio-politiques », Politix, vol. 2, n° 114, 2016, p. 7-20.
• Rault W., « Les attitudes « gayfriendly » en France : entre appartenances sociales, trajectoires familiales et biographies sexuelles », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, no 213, 2016, p. 38 65.
• Tissot S., Gayfriendly. Acceptation et contrôle de l’homosexualité à Paris et à New York, Paris, Raisons d’agir, 2018.
• Trachman M. et Lejbowicz T., « Des LGBT, des non-binaires et des cases. Catégorisation statistique et critique des assignations de genre et de sexualité dans une enquête sur les violences », Revue française de sociologie, vol. 59, n° 4, 2018, p. 677-705.

To quote this article :

Emmanuel Beaubatie, « The Multiplicity of Gender », Books and Ideas , 13 October 2021. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1I would like to thank Nathalie Bajos for our numerous exchanges on the ways of defining gender in the social sciences. The following reflections owe much to our discussions.

[2In the present essay, the term ‘sex’ designates the social and possibly legal category of sex and not a supposedly ‘biological’ sex.

[3‘Non-binary’ people identify neither as ‘male’ nor ‘female’; ‘binarism’ refers to the male/female dimorphism.

[4Trans people are people who do not identify as the sex that was assigned to them at birth and who undertake to change it. Trans women are people who were men and became women (hence they are referred to using feminine pronouns) and trans men are people who were women and became men (hence they are referred to using masculine pronouns). Nonetheless, many trans people identify neither as male nor female (some say that they are ‘non-binary’, for example).

[5The ‘Manif pour tous’ or ‘Demonstration for All’ is a movement that emerged in France in 2012 and that is opposed to opening up marriage, adoption and medically assisted reproduction to everyone. The movement subsequently denounced what it calls ‘gender theory’.

[6On this point, see too ‘The myth of the wrong body by Olga Gonzales (2019).

[7The expression ‘nouveau père’ or ‘new father’ is used to refer to men who participate in the upbringing and education of children on an equal basis as women (or even to a greater extent in certain configurations).

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