The Physics That Underpin the Universe Aren't Binary—Why Would Gender Be? | Opinion

I think my favorite line in Tony Kushner's theatrical masterpiece, Angels in America, is "In this world, there is a kind of painful progress." It somehow encapsulates, in just 10 words, the odyssey of the 6-hour show, which is, among many things, an epic battle between rigid order and necessary change.

The play is set during the 80s AIDS crisis in New York. Queer characters fight for survival as the Reagan administration responds to the turmoil of the crisis with borders and restrictions; scaffolding the play, is also the small matter of a group of bureaucratic angels, who are trying to control human beings by limiting all movement. God, frightened by mass migration on earth, migrated out of Heaven, leaving his angels to behave like reactionary conservatives, responding to the world's fluidity of race, gender and sexuality with a compulsion for stasis. Yet the human characters prevail—because the only way to survive, however painful, is to progress.

Reagan has long migrated on, but his angels—I'm sure they'd be flattered here—are still waging a war against the change so vital to our survival. This battle between movement and order is at the very heart of the social conflict and so-called culture wars we are experiencing today. And right now, following some gains for change and progress, the stasis forces are on the counter-attack.

One of the most contested frontiers is that of gender identity. As trans people have fought to have their voices heard and their rights respected (against a backdrop of, say, an 81 percent spike in hate crimes towards trans people just last year, just in Britain), sectarian "feminists" have responded by oppressively restricting what it means to be a woman; their pre-requisite that womanhood is earned entirely by the possession of a uterus only undoes the painstaking work of feminists before them, and excludes trans people from the resources they need to stay safe.

Progress frightens social and cultural conservatives because it feels like chaos. But chaos is not an alien entity that we should resist with homogeneity and rigidity; it is, in fact, the most constant and stable thing in the universe. The Conservative fight to divide human beings by their race or assigned biological sex, on a scientific level, belies the very foundation of the "natural order" they are so hell-bent on preserving. If you don't believe me, read up on quantum physics.

Standard Newtonian physics ostensibly studies observable reality, attempting to find the fixed scientific laws that govern our universe. (I like to think of it as heteronormative physics: not because physics care about gender, but because it is guided by the same hunger as heteronormativity—a hunger for rigid, eternal order in our world.) Quantum physics looks at the very smallest things in our universe. For quantum physicists, even atoms are huge; even the things that make up atoms—neutrons, protons and electrons—are huge.

Quantum mechanics is interested in the subatomic particles inside neutrons, protons and electrons, particles like quarks, leptons, bosons and the Higgs bosons. If you're into essentialism, this should be catnip: these particles are as essential as our reality's building blocks can get. But here's the rub: the way that these subatomic particles behave has completely defied the standard fixed rules and formulae that we think govern the universe. Whereas classical physics treated particles like discrete, definite objects, quantum physics shows us that the idea of a particle being a fixed "thing" is a construct.

One of the most famous experiments to demonstrate this is the double-slit experiment. The exercise is relatively simple; an electron is fired through a wall with two slits, and on the other side of the wall, the electron will leave a mark on either the left or right side of the reader. But every once in a while, the very same electron finds itself on both sides, having travelled through both holes on its journey. The same individual particle can be in two places at once. How does this happen? Well, on a quantum level, we observe that a particle isn't really a particle at all – it's more like a wave carrying subatomic particles that behave quite chaotically. This discovery undermined the very structure of theoretical physics, and its quest to find order and the fixed formulae to understand resolute laws of our world. It let us realize that the very subatomic foundation of our world is anything but stable; it is always changing.

Reality, as a result, is more an approximation of events – our brains can only observe a macro version of the very chaotic happenings really happening at the core of things. In the quantum foundation of our worlds, particles are nomadic creatures, roaming from party to party, and sometimes going to all at the same time (they're like particles with a really great chauffeur). Like shape-shifting scoundrels, they can often change their behavior on being observed by a human, to alter their dynamics suddenly when we're no longer observing them. This isn't sci-fi fantasy, but the very fabric of our universe. It even hints that there are an infinite range of parallel universes around us all the time; if a particle can do multiple things at once, then perhaps we only inhabit one reality in a series of multiple universes.

Let's jump across the sciences to biology. "Gender-critical" feminists often point out that you're born with either XX (female) or XY (male) chromosomes, which are encoded into every cell in the human body; yet, there are many 'biological females' who have XY chromosomes, and vice versa – some are, in fact, born with three sex chromosomes, like XXY, XXX and XXY (and would never know). Though I'm not disputing the scientific fact of genitals, it is this obsession with sex as a biological endgame that erases the infinite scientific and social permutations between us all. Writer Margaret Atwood, who has been co-opted as a martyr by transphobic "feminists", just came out celebrating the biological and social complexities of sex and gender variance, revealing yet another fatal flaw in the transphobic project—indeed, the belief that a woman is only her uterus finds its logical and horrific conclusion in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Physics and biology are sciences because they attempt to observe and understand patterns of what is happening in the universe, while always remaining open to study and review. Anti-trans 'feminists' and other conservatives offer a knock-off version: they take patterns that conveniently simplified life for the more powerful among us once upon a time, and try to persuade us—all too often violently—that these are immutable, essential laws, set for all time. But life doesn't work like this—especially not on the most essential of levels, as deep as our minds can penetrate today.

It gives me great hope that even the subatomic particles that make up every inch of me and my universe are as fluid as my intersectional experiences of reality. I am proud to be human because I am proud to be complicated. And though it's painful—at times devastatingly so—the only thing we can ever do is move forward. This is, perhaps, the most scientifically essential thing that exists. Good luck stopping us.

Amrou Al-Kadhi (Glamrou), is a writer/performer/filmmaker, and the author of Life as a Unicorn: A Journey from Shame to Pride and Everything In Between (4thEstate Harper Collins).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​