Structure and agency: natural, canonical and designed affordances
It may be countered that the same person, in the body with characteristics typical of the male cluster kind, is still technically afforded the action possibility of wearing clothing designated for girls or women, as Janet Mock describes doing in her teenage years (2014). Yet strict gender norms foreclose the possibility of some affordances that arc technically available at the physiological level (Janet could potentially wear any skirt that fit her body), but at the social level, in some situations, arc made unavailable (her high school principal would send her home if she wore skirts, telling her they were inappropriate for boys, causing her to miss school and be further punished for it). Thus, a natural affordance of the body, to wear any clothing that physically covers it, may be superseded by what affordance theorists would understand to be ‘canonical affordances’, or the socially understood and accepted action possibilities for a thing, due to gendered expectations. Similarly, a natural affordance of the body is for socio-sexual interest and pleasure (Gunnarsson 2014) with other people, whether their bodies exhibit characteristics of the same cluster kind, or not (Hull 2006). However, amongst some individuals and societies, this natural affordance is limited by the canonical acceptance as ‘valid’ only that socio-scxual interest in those people whose bodies are of the opposite cluster kind. This is consistent with Harry Heft’s observation that the affordances of the environment, in concert with the body, ‘constrain the range of intentional acts that can be expressed’ (1989, p. 12). Nonetheless, any object with a canonical affordance still affords other uses and meanings (Costall and Richards 2013, p. 88). These arc encapsulated in the term ‘designed affordances’, or those known to the developer (van Osch and Mendelson 2011) and shared through social processes of meaning-making. For instance, although it is generally accepted that shoes are for wearing, the Arab insult of showing the bottom of a shoe to a disliked person (Gammell 2008) might be read as a designed affordance.
Canonical affordances of gender can and arc frequently subverted, and new affordances designed, though this must be done in the context of a durable gender system that, like other social structures, changes slowly, over time (Archer 1995). Structures predate agency, and people reflexively decide to reproduce or transform them through their constellation of concerns and their internal conversations, which enable them to decide upon and pursue particular courses of action (Archer 2007; Elder-Vass 2007). To this end, queer, trans and GNC individuals frequently decide to employ gendering technologies (including, but not limited to, clothing, makeup, hairstyles, hormones, and surgery) to design affordances for their bodies that enable them to move through and/or destabilise hostile gender systems. This is not to say that this process is unproblematic - while individuals may wish to prioritise safety or family continuity through cisgender conformity, they may at the same time be unable or unwilling to do so. Such difficult experiences and the emotional trauma they foment arc evidenced by exceptionally high rates of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation amongst trans and GNC people (Haas et al. 2014).
There are now numerous compelling accounts of how to decouple one’s biological sex from individual gender expression, thus illustrating how designed affordances of the body can result in more positive outcomes for people who arc marginalised by the gender system. Nonetheless, an expectation that trans liberation will be accomplished through individuals essentially designing their own personal genders through technologies, medical and otherwise, is problematically based on post-structuralist and constructivist approaches that presume atomism, ignore relationality and reject notions of structures and kinds, while conceiving of individuals as the 'building blocks of existence’ (Hull 2006, p. 119). As mentioned, access to medicaliscd transitioning technologies, not to mention individual perception of this action possibility, varies greatly; thus, while there is great value in making these technologies, and trans-sensitive medical care in general, more widely available, a push for the trans-positive development of canonical affordances is perhaps even more urgent. Drawing inspiration from the social model of disability (Burchardt 2004), canonical affordances of bodies could be made more gender-neutral. This could help to shift the responsibility away from trans individuals who arc currently compelled to alter themselves to fit better into the world towards the acknowledgment of a social responsibility to make our systems more amenable to trans people. Notably, this echoes an early radical feminist aim, which was to eradicate the cultural significance of the sex distinction itself (Firestone 1979).
Mainstream understandings of sex and gender remain embedded in the binary, due to the real causal powers emerging from human dimorphic sexual difference and relationship of natural necessity between female and male cluster kinds (Elder-Vass 2012; Gunnarsson 2014; Hull 2006). Such understandings arc not emergent from individual bodies or agents but pre-exist them as part of social structures which shape the internal conversations of agents (Archer 1995,
2007): the action possibilities for a body arc thus mediated through the distorting mirror of social structure. Queer, trans and GNC politics seek to disrupt this structure for its constraining and oppressive tendencies, not unlike the feminist project that seeks to counteract the subordination of women within the same structure (queer and trans feminist perspectives, of course, align the two). However, for this to be accomplished, we must counter laissez-faire accounts of gender as something that is determined by atomistic notions of human nature and resist methodological individualism by drawing on the concept of emergence. Further, we should recognise the embeddedness of sex and sexuality in bodies that are malleable only to a certain extent, as well as the structural rcla-tionality and relationship of natural necessity between the sexes, which is arguably even less malleable (Heyes 2003; Hull 2006; McNay 1999; New 2005). While there is ideological value in imagining a world in which ‘gender is over’,8 Hull persuasively argues that the elaborate nature of the human sexual form conveys a felt sense prior to language, a meaning structured in nature precisely to be understood by other humans (2006, p. 128), and as such, is unlikely to be completely abolished.
Affordance theory, due to its emphasis on rclationality, complements a realist perspective in that it reminds us of not only our own relationships to our bodies and the action possibilities provided there, but also our role as agents in our environment (Heft 1989, pp. 3^4). Trans people’s accounts have clearly identified both of these as constraining or enabling forces (Cox 2017; Mock 2014; Scrano 2013). It is often through other’s responses to our self-presentation that structural enablement and constraint is enacted. Gender, along with race, age, ability, body size, and more, contributes to the way the body is ‘read’ by an observer who decides, often pre-reflexively or involuntarily (McNay 1999) how to treat the other - with sexual interest, friendliness, caution, suspicion, fear, competition, or something else altogether. Ann Costall and Alan Richards suggest that affordances are not confined to actors and objects in isolation, but depend on a constellation that includes events (2013, p. 86); external others must be accounted for in any such constellation. This points to the role of social influences, such as widespread education and positive media representation, in normalising and encouraging acceptance of queer, trans and GNC people.