Scholars of science in Early Modern Europe tell us that premodern Europeans viewed sex, as in the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ or ‘male’ and ‘female,’ fundamentally differently than we do today. While once Europeans tended to view sexual categories as fluid, since the Enlightenment we incline more towards fixity. Furthermore, while once Europeans understood sex as conforming to what Tom Laqueur has called a “one sex model,” the notion that man and woman occupy different places on the same spectrum, since the 18th century we have gravitated towards a “two sex model,” which views man and woman as two distinct and even oppositional categories. According to Laqueur, we have always viewed sex through the two competing frameworks of fixity and fluidity, but at different times for various reasons one framework took precedence over the other.(1)
The momentous transformations of the Early Modern era seem to explain this recalibration of categories. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries political and scientific revolutions challenged the once predominant notion that the world conformed to a godly and hierarchical cosmological order that placed god, king, patriarch, and man at the center of the concentric spheres of cosmos, polity, family, and the body, respectively. Moreover, this seismic epistemological shift reversed the relationship between the social and biological, between gender and sex. In the older premodern order, as Laqueur put it, “to be a man or a woman was to hold a social rank, to assume a cultural role, and not to be organically one or the other of two sexes.”(2) Indeed in such a world biology was the more fluid category and gender the more fixed. By contrast, the post-Enlightenment framework, which cast distinct gender categories as derivative of irreconcilable biological difference between the two sexes, ordained that the gender categories ‘man’ and ‘women’ feature intrinsically distinct qualities.
It is quite clear that the gender pendulum in the Western world has swung over recent decades from fixity to fluidity, but recent LGBTQ activism seems to slowly influence the movement of the sex pendulum as well. And while violence and other forms of intolerance encountered by Trans people are a poignant reminder of how far we are from a day in which the fluidity of sexual categories will predominate, the relative exposure contemporaries have received through popular culture to the myriad challenges Western culture poses to Trans people, from Laverne Cox to Caitlyn Jenner, is hopefully a signal of things to come.
If the reactionary rants of conservative commentators over the pages of the National Review is any indicator of ripples in popular culture, then there is some cause for optimism on that front as well. Though reactionary pundits have spewed much bigoted nonsense in response to this recent surge, they themselves seem to evince a sense of fatalism and have not mobilized with the same conviction they had in past decades during the height of the Culture Wars. “It is puzzling that the response of so many social conservatives has been so timid and uncertain” reads the subtitle of one National Review article, which then goes on to marshall a host of confused psychological research rife with erroneous assumptions about the nature of the woes of Trans people. (3) Indeed, Andrew Hartman may be right, the contemporary cultural tug-of-war seems to have not featured the conservative zeal of past decades. Though the National Review issued a flurry of articles and blogposts in response to Caitlyn Jenner’s assumption of new gender and sex categories, it has, for the most part, tried to appear above the “noise” and “drama” in what I think is a de-facto admission of cultural defeat.
What seems particularly interesting is that in such smirking commentaries about what conservative pundits regard alternately as “the left” or “liberals” they try to cast liberals as blundering Quixotic warriors and scientific facts as the windmills. They would have us leave Don Quixote to his delusions so long as we recognize the windmills for what they really are (even they have recognized the irony of conservatives taking a scientific stance). “As a practical matter,” asserts one commentator, “discrete individuals have little stake in Jenner’s “internal, deeply held sense” of being male or female or a parakeet.” The problem for this pundit lies when liberals demand “not that we indulge Jenner’s confusion out of charity, but that we adopt it as our own. You, too, must accept that Jenner is, in truth, a woman.”(4)
“I really don’t care if Bruce Jenner wants to live as a woman.” notes another National Review blogger, adding that “if we were to meet, I would respect Jenner’s desire to be treated as a woman.” However, the problem again lies in liberals’ supposed attempts to fight against scientific truths: “[w]hat I find fascinating is how much magical thinking is involved in all of this. It’s true that gender is a social construction. It’s also true that it’s a social construction built on a natural foundation. If you have a problem with that statement, take it up with the archeological record and the evolutionary psychologists.” In the tradition of Western Enlightenment thought, yet again, the biological category of sex serves as the factual cornerstone upon which we should erect our social constructions in a “sensible” manner. “The idea that there are 56 different genders (and counting!) is the sort of thing only someone paid to talk about gender theory could take seriously,” added the same frustrated pundit.(5)
What those who lean back on biology and sexual categories seem unable—or unwilling—to recognize is both that we need not assume that sexual categories hold primacy over gendered categories, and that sexual categories themselves are to a significant degree constructed. To be sure, most people—not all people—have certain biological attributes that we can discern as either male or female, but there is no reason for us to hold that these distinctions are the most significant ones, or that they are diametrically opposed. Furthermore, medical advances have already rendered—and are certain to render in the future—these distinctions even more fluid, which will hopefully allow people to live as they see fit.
While just a decade ago Lee Edelman’s No Future, which called for the embrace of the death drive and the rejection of the child as cultural icon, marked a pessimistic turn in Queer studies, more recently in Gaga Feminism J. Jack Halberstam cast the prospect of a Queer future—and children—in more sanguine terms. Halberstam notes, for instance, how an embrace of popular culture icons such as Sponge-Bob-Square-Pants and Lady Gaga offer kids and young adults gender and sex fluid icons that allow them to flourish in which ever way they will.
While only hindsight will be able to determine whether we are in the midst of another seismic epistemological shift, the way we view gender and even sex is perhaps indicative of the ground shifting under our feet. This should not lead us to scramble for safer ground but to enjoy the ride.
 Thomas Laquour, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990)
 Laqueur, 142.
 David French, “With the Celebration of Caitlyn Jenner the Left Doubles Down on Social Decay,” The National Review, 6/8/2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/419473/caitlyn-jenner-and-lefts-embrace-social-decay-david-french
Ian Tuttle, “Who Won Bruce Jenner’s Olympic Medals,” The National Review, 6/2/2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/419223/who-won-bruce-jenners-oiympic-medals-ian-tuttle
 Jonah Goldberg, “Gender Fluidity Industry’s Magical Thinking,” The National Review, 6/6/2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/419416/gender-fluidity-industrys-magical-thinking-jonah-goldberg