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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When Feminism is Revolting: Initial Thoughts on Abolition of Gender (2012)

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by stacy, aka sallydarity

“People do not revolt against what is natural, therefore inevitable; what is not inevitable could be otherwise—it is arbitrary therefore social.  The logical and necessary implication of women’s revolt, like all revolts, is that the situation can be changed.  If not, why revolt?  Belief in the possibility of change implies belief in the social origins of the situation.” Christine Delphy, Close to Home 211

“The implications of this are indeed radical.  The political goal envisaged is not the raising of women’s status, nor equality between women and men, but the abolition of sex differences themselves.  In a non-patriarchal society there would be no social distinctions between men and women, nor between heterosexuality and homosexuality.”  Stevi Jackson, Christine Delphy 120

If the gender/sex binary was imposed on humankind as a way to naturalize male domination, this would mean that all of us would be much more liberated by gaining freedom from imposed gender boxes.  We need a feminism (if the term is not to be abandoned) that liberates us all.  A while back, I got into some arguments over transphobia with some feminists on an anarchist feminist listserv, during which I thought one particular woman I was debating with was being essentialist—believing that there’s something essential to women, specifically those assigned female at birth.  I brought up the realities about intersex people, trans people, the lack of universality among those she defined as women (racial, class, etc), as a way to debunk this idea that there can be a line drawn between male and female and that we can define women as a stable category.  I reread the argument more recently, however, and realized that I wasn’t dealing with this sort of essentialism, in that particular case.  My rival was quoting the notoriously transphobic Sheila Jeffreys, whose ideas about gender are actually not that far off from some other feminists I’ve been reading to gain insight into this naturalization of a gender hierarchy (and notably, writings by some of these feminists, such as Monique Wittig have also been reproduced and distributed in anarchist spaces).  I have found that a number of feminist and queer radicals have promoted ideas that could potentially undermine certain people’s autonomy and agency.  We can draw from different authors or ideologies, but we must decisively aim towards that which empowers everyone.

I’ve determined that the disagreements between and among feminists and trans* (see footnote[1]) folks (not that they’re mutually exclusive) on the question of gender is that “gender” doesn’t have a commonly understood meaning.  The thing is, the term gender is used to talk about the social aspects attached to what is commonly understood as sex (physical/anatomical/genetic/whatever)—sex is perceived as the container, and gender is the contents (we’ll discuss the problem with this distinction later).  “Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was used solely to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person's sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals' sex and gender simply don't match.”[i]  This isn’t to validate a psychologist’s understanding of transsexuality and gender, nor the binary, but to point out the context in which it was initially used to describe gender.  What was being discussed when the term was popularized within feminism was how the roles and the social characteristics prescribed for women and men are not natural but imposed—that women wouldn’t be submissive if it weren’t for social forces, and if we could break down the coercion that enforces gender, we could each be ourselves.  An understanding of gender as a mismatch or dysphoria does not necessarily have anything to do with a binary, whereas the feminist conception of gender specifically refers to the binary gender roles and requirements about dress and demeanor. 

Everyone wants freedom from the coercive aspects of gender.  But in some feminists’ minds gender is intimately tied with power: masculine/men equal domination, feminine/women equal subordination.  “Gender” refers in this sense to who we’re supposed to be—to prescribed roles.  Of course there’s going to be disagreement if the same word is used for how we define ourselves. Yet the fact that many do not agree to what extent the latter can be separated from the former explains this attitude shared by certain folks who identify as radical feminists and/or lesbian feminists that has led, at different points and to varying degrees, to hateful comments and/or actions, invalidation, and/or ostracism of people with butch, femme, masculine, or feminine identities, heterosexuals, bisexuals, sex workers, and/or trans folks, especially transsexuals who were assigned male at birth.

Perhaps language is just inadequate to describe all that which gets lumped into the term “gender.”  Kate Bornstein offers a breakdown of different aspects of gender: gender assignment, gender attribution, gender roles, gender identity, etc.  Gender assignment, attribution and roles are coercive, and are part of the gender binary system.  Gender identity, though somewhat based on the ideas of gender in this patriarchal society, is more about how you identify in terms of gender, which doesn’t necessarily have to exist within the binary.  Judith Butler has discussed gender as performativity, which I find intriguing, but is written in largely inaccessible language, and arguably does not adequately address the power dynamics involved, nor the ways in which people are inclined to one gender or another.

The coercive aspects of gender, especially gender roles, are more along the lines of what certain feminists refer to as gender.  I will tentatively call this “gender stratum” for lack of a better word.  “Gender stratum” also clearly refers to aspects of gender within a hierarchal order.  Because I have concerns about the term “identity” as possibly reinforcing an idea of something fixed or static, I will use the term “gender inclination” to refer to one’s own sense of self in terms of gender, although I do not claim to be able to precisely define what this means.  I agree that without gender stratum, gender inclination might look very different, but it is impossible to know what gender inclination would look like without power relationships.  It is important to acknowledge the complexity of gender inclination additionally because there is a great diversity of gendered combinations of bodies, sexualities, styles of dress, emotional characteristics, and activities of interest that cannot be simply said to be a mixing and matching within a binary.

It is interesting that the potential of certain feminist ideas which challenge the idea of gender coercion could come into such conflict with concepts of gender inclination which also challenge this idea.  These feminist ideas have some value in their understanding about gender stratum, but need to be challenged for their ciscentrism or cissexism[ii] when it comes to their treatment of gender inclination.

Let me jump to race for a moment, because it is useful to see how race and gender are social constructs yet limited as far as comparisons go.  Several years ago, I was introduced to New Abolitionism and Race Traitor politics.  It was argued that,
“Abolitionists… perceive race as a fiction. We believe that the so-called white race is a uniquely destructive social construct… We believe that it is not ‘racists’ (or ‘racism’) but the behavior of ‘white people’ - white as in ‘race,’ not skin color - that is the root of the world's greatest evils for the last 500 years… We are not interested in fighting for ‘racial justice’ because we believe that such a thing is, by definition, impossible and, hence, absurd. For similar reasons, you will not find abolitionists working to build a ‘multi-racial’ movement or advocating ‘racial harmony.’ Abolitionists believe that the only way to [sic] for humanity to liberate itself from the deadly logic of race is to abolish the white race. Not to eliminate racism but to abolish the white race. Not to attack racists but to attack the white race. Not to deconstruct the white race but to destroy the white race.”[iii]
The theory was intended to provide a role for white people to this end.  The idea was that, “The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any other interests they hold.  The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse.”[iv]  Although strategy has been lacking for this proposal thus far, I mostly agree with the analysis.  One particularly important part of this theory is the point that a social construct is not imaginary—it has very real effects, but it can be changed because the social constructs are just that.

As soon as I was introduced to these ideas around 2000, part of me felt that there was something about this that could apply to gender.  When I read the following quote by Kate Bornstein shortly after, something clicked.  “The continued oppression of women proves only that in any binary there’s going to be one up and one down. The struggle for equal rights must include the struggle to dismantle the binary.”  Around the time I began reading Bornstein, I started to identify as genderqueer, although now I identify with this off and on and have a vast amount of cis privilege.  Even as a person assigned female, attributed as female, and in many ways presenting as and identifying as a woman, I see my liberation as bound up with trans liberation in more ways than the whole “no one is free until everyone is free” concept.

It’s commonly accepted that both race and gender are social constructs.  Although many feminists discussed gender as a social construct, it didn’t seem to go far enough.  Interestingly, feminists such as Collette Guillaumin presented ideas about gender and race that were similar to ideas about race coming out of Race Traitor/New Abolitionism, yet the two seemed to have no link.  Later, I realized that a common pattern among feminists who see gender only in terms of gender stratum is that they are often influenced by Marxism and historical materialism (hence “Materialist Feminism”).  Especially French Materialist Feminist Monique Wittig, a colleague of Guillaumin, spoke of women as a class.[v]  She declared in 1981,
“…Women are a class, which is to say that the category ‘woman’ as well as the category ‘man’ are political and economic categories not eternal ones.  Our fight aims to suppress men as a class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle.  Once the class ‘men’ disappears, ‘women’ as a class will disappear as well, for there are no slaves without masters.”[vi]  
Few people agree that “class” is a useful word to refer to the category that women constitute, since surely a rich white woman makes the comparison a little silly.[vii]  Despite the fact that New Abolitionism/Race Traitor as well as French Materialist Feminism take Marxist ideas and make them more than just about class, they still fail in many ways to be intersectional or to really address other issues of power.  The Race Traitor ideas, seeing things in black and white, have also been severely lacking in addressing the issues of colonization and immigration.  Clearly the way race and whiteness have been constructed is important and should be balanced with an analysis of how reality is not so dichotomous.  For feminism, viewing women as a class seems to imply that one should organize as a class, ignoring those who do not neatly fit within either, even though Wittig does argue, “…some avenues of the feminist and lesbian movement lead us back to the myth of woman… and with it we sink back into a natural group… It puts us in the position of fighting within the class ‘women’ not as the other classes do, for the disappearance of our class, but for the defense of ‘woman’ and its reinforcement.”[viii]  

There are some noteworthy implications, however, regarding the naturalness of the categories that hierarchy relies on (and has created?).  More interestingly, these feminists bring into question the idea of sex as a natural basis on which to divide humans.  Another colleague of these feminists, Christine Delphy, wrote,
“Those of us who are radical feminists and also claim a materialist approach, have, after years of thought, arrived at the provisional conclusion that to understand patriarchy it is necessary radically to question the whole of patriarchal ideology.  We must reject all its presuppositions, up to and including those which appear not to be such, but rather to be categories furnished by reality itself, e.g. the categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’… we think that gender, the respective social positions of women and men, is not constructed on the (apparently) natural category of sex (male and female), but rather that sex has become a pertinent fact, hence a perceived category, because of the existence of gender… For most people… anatomical sex (and its physical implications) creates, or at least permits, gender—the technical division of labour.  This in turn creates, or at least permits, the domination of one group by another.  We believe, however, that it is oppression which creates gender; that logically the hierarchy of the division of labour is prior to the technical division of labour and created the latter, i.e. created sex roles, which we call gender.  Gender in its turn created anatomical sex, in the sense that the hierarchical division of humanity into two transforms an anatomical difference (which is in itself devoid of social implications) into a relevant distinction for social practice.  Social practice, and social practice alone, transforms a physical fact (which is in itself devoid of meaning, like all physical facts) into a category of thought.”[ix]
Notice here, that gender seems to be equated with “the technical division of labour” and so has a specific meaning.  If sexual difference only has meaning because of gender thus defined, this has even more radical implications than just referring to gender as a social construct, distinguished from sex which is predominantly said to be natural.  Materialist feminism also differs from radical feminism in that radical feminism tends to take sex as a given and that the first hierarchy was patriarchy (although materialist feminism could arguably be included in the genre of radical feminism and there is cross-over in terms of collaboration and influence).  Materialist feminists such as Guillaumin and Delphy argue, as above, that gender results from some sort of economic hierarchy, followed by the significance of sex as a way to naturalize this hierarchy, although Delphy “sees the search for the historical origins of women’s oppression as fruitless and pointless and also ahistorical in that it denies what is specific to each historical period.”[x] 

I have found Delphy’s treatment of the social constructedness of sex particularly interesting because this is not a poststructuralist position, which in fact, as I discuss later, she opposes.  Contrasting Delphy’s theory to Judith Butler’s, Stevi Jackson writes, “Because for Butler gender has no material basis, her anti-essentialism leads to the conclusion that women do not exist except as a discursive construct.  For Delphy and Wittig, however, women exist as a political category, as a class, because of patriarchy.  There may be no natural basis for the category ‘women’, but it is a material, social reality.”[xi]  Although I enjoy reading Butler when I am particularly ambitious, I find the materialist approach to be a bit more “down to earth” so to speak, though I am not completely in agreement.

Just as one need not deny the existence of complexities such as various shades of skin color and ethnicities to understand race (specifically a racial binary like whiteness vs. non-whiteness) as a social construct, so too can feminists question the nature of sex categories while not denying that there are people with different genitalia, chromosomes, etc., understanding also that those characteristics are not even always consistent in any one individual.  The existence of intersex people clearly makes the opposition to a concept of mutually exclusive sexes more than theoretical. 

Both race and sex differences were gradually made more and more socially/politically significant.  Race developed and became more concrete through slavery and slave codes, convict leasing and black codes, Jim Crow laws; and in a more covert and complex way, through the drug war, etc.  The meaning of sex/gender has had a long history with one particularly historic defeat for women: the witch hunts over the course of a few centuries, described in depth by Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch.  And because Europe impacted most of the rest of the world through colonization, the particular history of European women does tend to be the history of the construct of woman and the gender binary system for women across the world.  This all refers to a history that has real effects yet certainly doesn’t affect everyone in the category the same.

Even while there is value in the concept that the naturalization of the oppression of women is built upon stratification, and even while I find it useful to compare the development of whiteness and race to that of gender/sex divisions, I find that this comparison can lead to simplistic conclusions and false analogies.  In terms of the Marx influence, less relevant today are the theories based on the division of labor (production/reproduction, etc.).  It helps to explain the stratification, and the naturalization of the categories it is/was based on.  But what about before wage labor existed and about now that more women work for wages?  What about gender/sexuality oppression in communist countries?  This is not even to mention the lack of perspective shared by the white-dominated second wave feminist movement regarding the fact that plenty of women of color were working while middle class wives desired the “freedom” of wage labor.  And while the expectations of women’s work (as in cooking and cleaning) in the home are, in general, similar across race and class whether or not a woman is working outside the home, complex issues such as the societal attitudes about which women should be mothers or not, for example, often go unacknowledged.  Even while acknowledging that Marx was not concerned with women’s oppression, many feminists wrote in conversation within the Left—with Marxists, thus attempting to squish gender issues into Marxist terms in order to explain them in ways uncomplicated by nuances and racial issues.

As far as applying the idea of abolishing whiteness to gender goes, any in depth attempt at drawing parallels reveals the major differences between how race and gender stratification function, not to mention that acknowledging gender inclination makes the comparison even more difficult.  Just one example of how the comparison is limited is where whiteness was something that expanded for political reasons, e.g. to later include the Irish and other groups who were not previously considered white despite fair skin and features.  We could also consider that we can find in nature where these types of institutional power dynamics do not exist, a male of an animal species might act like their female counterpart or vice versa (even aside from sexuality),[xii] but it is silly to compare this to a spotted one “identifying” as a solid-colored one.[xiii]

The false analogy of race and gender is a favorite way for transphobic feminists to argue the illegitimacy of trans*ness.  Radical feminist and author of “The Vegetarian Myth,” Lierre Keith (fan of Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond) wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘woman’ or ‘man’ outside of patriarchal social relations.”  She sarcastically creates an analogy, “I am really Native American. How do I know? I’ve always felt a special connection to animals, and started building tee pees in the backyard as soon as I was old enough. I insisted on wearing moccasins to school… Gender is no different. It is a class condition created by a brutal arrangement of power.”[xiv]  Comparing transsexuals (assigned male at birth), drag queens, etc. to white people doing blackface is a common one as well.

The French materialist feminist writings mentioned above, popular among some feminist and/or queer radicals and anarchists, are a little too compatible with transphobia. Lierre Keith seems to identify as a materialist.[xv]  Christine Delphy (who influenced Theorie Communiste’s ideas on gender[xvi]) has been quoted in the transphobic writings of Sheila Jeffreys, and it is possible that Delphy would agree with Jeffreys.  Jeffreys writes, “The understanding of gender as dominant and subordinate forms of behaviour puts paid to the idea that there can be many 'genders'. There can only be ways of expressing dominance and submission by other than the usual actors. The genders remain two. The queer approach which celebrates the 'performance' of gender and its diversity necessarily maintains the two genders in circulation. Rather than eliminating dominant and submissive behaviours, it reproduces them.”[xvii] 

It is clear that Jeffreys understands there are different meanings of “gender” and that she prefers a specific definition of “gender”, as she writes, “I am no fan of the word 'gender', and would prefer to abolish it in favour of expressions which refer directly to the political foundation of male domination. Thus I prefer to describe masculinity as 'male-dominant behaviour' and femininity as 'female-subordinate behaviour'. No multiplicity of genders can emerge from this perspective.”  Certainly if what she wants to talk about is gender in this context, then there cannot be multiple genders, but the fact is that “gender” does refer to other concepts.

These examples are perhaps more extreme and certainly not representative of all radical feminists. Yet you can still find arguments like this used by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) on various websites such as the one that published “WE ARE THE 51%” in response to the video called “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street.”[xviii]  It is unfortunate that the TERF analysis is so unrelenting about other ideas about gender inclination, and their arguments at times so vicious, since they question the concept of the ways binary gender (and sometimes sex) has been naturalized to legitimize oppression of women.  Radical feminism is valuable also because, at least in theory, it opposes participation in “the system” whereas liberal feminism seeks inclusion. 

What is significant is that some radical feminists have conceded room for a multiplicity of genders/sexes outside of power relations in their analyses.  For example, Judith Butler writes, “…Wittig considers that the overthrow of the system of binary sex might initiate a cultural field of many sexes… ‘For us there are, not one or two sexes, but many (cf. Guattari/Deleuze), as many sexes as there are individuals.’ The limitless proliferation of sexes, however, logically entails the negation of sex as such.”[xix]  Sexes here may refer to what most people understand as gender identities (gender inclination), for it doesn’t seem that this could refer to anatomical sexes (nor to gender stratum).  And of course, as Butler points out, the overthrow of binary sex makes sex meaningless, which is pretty much the point, but it is notable that there is a concept of sexes outside of the binary hierarchy of sex, even if this is simply for lack of a better word than sex (to French materialist feminists, using the term “gender” reinforces the idea that sex is natural[xx]).

Andrea Dworkin similarly wrote, “We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast fluid continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete.”[xxi]
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Dworkin wrote that she wanted to end persecution of trans people, she not only was involved with Janice Raymond’s anti-trans publication, she wrote this rather patronizing statement, “community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear.”[xxii]

What are the implications of promoting genderless or gender neutral society?  Clearly an attempt at this is the logical conclusion for anyone who would argue that for someone to identify as a woman/feminine is to identify with subordination.  While some, like Wittig, argued that lesbianism escapes the gender binary (she argued that lesbians were not women, economically, politically, or ideologically), others more specifically proposed and/or adopted androgyny or genderlessness (I’m unclear as to whether androgyny means genderlessness) as a solution.  But then this runs counter to self-determination.

Leslie Feinberg has some interesting insight into androgyny as a strategy:
"Many in the movement… embarked on a bold social experiment. They hoped that freeing individuals from femininity and masculinity would help people be viewed on a more equal basis that highlighted each person's qualities and strengths. They hoped that androgyny would replace masculinity and femininity and help do away with gendered expression altogether. Twenty years after that social experiment, we have the luxury of hindsight. The way in which individuals express themselves is a very important part of who they are. It is not possible to force all people to live outside of femininity and masculinity. Only androgynous people live comfortably in that gender space. There's no social compulsion powerful enough to force anyone else to dwell there. Trans people are an example of the futility of this strategy... People don't have to give up their individuality or their particular manner of gender expression in order to fight sex and gender oppression. It's just the opposite."[xxiii]
It seems that people who identify with androgyny (which I would count myself to some extent) often take it upon themselves/ourselves to consider their/our ideas of gender as neutral and correct while being judgemental of those who they/we  consider more “gendered.”  One could argue, as some have, that nothing is outside of gender at this point.  The concept of androgyny or genderlessness arguably relies on the polarities of masculinity and femininity which it seeks to counter, neutralize, or blend.[xxiv]  What needs to be further examined are the ways in which gender stratum can be abolished while still allowing for freedom of gender inclination. 

It has always seemed to me that androgyny for those assigned female at birth looks more masculine than feminine.  Also, it appears that there is a tendency for trans men more often, though certainly not always, to be accepted by feminists than trans women, relating to this concept of androgyny.
“The fetishisation of trans men and other transmasculine people as being innately more transgressive or non-gendered is also the product of a serious, often unchecked, problem within feminism: the internalisation of the patriarchal ‘male-as-default’ norm which expresses itself in this case by seeing men or masculine people as more androgynous, and less ‘gendered’ than those who are feminine and/or women. This is a relic of patriarchal thinking that sees women as sexed and men as normal, women as distinct and men as neutral, women as having gender and men being human. The idea expressed by some theorists and the claque of feminists who follow that line of thinking is that trans people with masculine expressions and who are not binary-identified are somehow less gendered or androgynous or even beyond or ‘through’ gender altogether… One does not ever possess quantifiably ‘less gender’ than someone else, they are just gendered differently.”[xxv]
Clearly the above attitude could also apply to androgyny in non-trans* people (or is androgyny included in trans*?  What does cisgender-ness mean to androgynous lesbians?).  Here it is worth acknowledging that there cannot be some commonly understood perfect center of this continuum between femininity and masculinity (if gender can even be said to be a continuum with femininity and masculinity as the poles), and it is clear that most valued characteristics are appropriated by masculinity, such as strength, competence, confidence, etc. although these things don’t belong to men.  We must also consider the way that femininity in particular has been shaped by race, class and capitalism.[xxvi]

Now of course, identifying with the word masculine could also cause someone to be snubbed by some feminists.  Yet there are very different ideas about what masculinity is.  While some trans people who were assigned female at birth don’t like the term “masculine,” others embrace it, using terms like “trans-masculine,” “masculine of center”, etc.  Sometimes “butch” is interchangeable with “masculine” while other times it is not.  As discussed, in the radical/lesbian feminist perspective, masculinity is often synonymous with domination.  The ways in which feminist trans and cis men and others embody and/or perform masculinity can provide models of different masculinities.

“Patriarchal masculinity,” a term used by bell hooks, differentiates between different types of masculinities.[xxvii]  Masculinity is not automatically equated with domination (and femininity with subordination) in hooks’ mind, partly because hooks recognizes that just because someone is in an oppressed category does not mean they can’t be an oppressor in another way as has been witnessed in white feminists (arguably including many radical feminists) justifying women’s participation in domination.

While many radical feminists tend to essentialize gender (because of the meaning they apply to the term), the ones I have discussed are in fact opposed to essentialization of sex—meaning they do not tend to believe that there is something essential about those whose bodies get assigned female (although arguably some radical feminists do).  To essentialize the sexes would mean to reinforce the binary (denying the social-constructed-ness of gender/sex) and therefore the hierarchy.  Needless to say, this is where another critique of transgender and especially transsexual people comes in.  The argument is that they reinforce the binary.

Transfeminism offers a particularly feminist approach to many of these issues from the perspective of some trans* feminists, especially in light of the fact that some trans narratives can reinforce the naturalization of gender.  Emi Koyama critiques the tendency to adopt an explanation for trans folks that might reinforce the gender binary:
“As trans people begin to organize politically, it is tempting to adopt the essentialist notion of gender identity.  The cliché popularized by the mass media is that trans people are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’ or vice versa.  The attractiveness of such a strategy is clear, as the general population is more likely to become supportive of us if we could convince them that we are somehow born with a biological error over which we have no control over it [sic].  It is also often in tune with our own sense of who we are, which feels very deep and fundamental to us.  However, as transfeminists, we resist such temptations because of their implications.
Trans people have often been described as those whose physical sex does not match the gender of their mind or soul.  This explanation might make sense intuitively, but it is nonetheless problematic for transfeminism.  To say that one has a female mind or soul would mean there are male and female minds that are different from each other in some identifiable way, which in turn may be used to justify discrimination against woman.  Essentializing our gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological essentialism.
Transfeminism believes that we construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable and sincere to us as we live and relate to others within given social and cultural constraint.”[xxviii]
Even hormones and surgery do not have to be incompatible with rejecting a gender binary.  And while wider social acceptance can be achieved through sharing personal narratives, especially of children with so-called gender dysphoric disorder, there are certainly critiques of these types of narratives within the trans* community.  Sandy Stone writes in depth about this in “The Empire Strikes Back”:
“We need a deeper analytical language for transsexual theory, one which allows for the sorts of ambiguities and polyvocalities which have already so productively informed and enriched feminist theory… For example, in pursuit of differential diagnosis a question sometimes asked of a prospective transsexual is ‘Suppose that you could be a man [or woman] in every way except for your genitals; would you be content?’  There are several possible answers, but only one is clinically correct.  Small wonder, then, that so much of these discourses revolves [sic] around the phrase ‘wrong body’”[xxix] (my emphasis).
One can probably find examples in which some trans* people use gender stereotypes to explain their sense of gender inclination, which might speak more to the ways these stories can be explained and sold to cisgender people.  Of course being trans* does not make one automatically critical of the gender binary or hierarchy. But, “Some trans people did internalise oppression. But they do not speak for all of us, anymore than cis feminists would allow Sarah Palin to be presumed to speak for them.”[xxx]

I believe that there is no need to justify any gender inclination as long as one consents to one’s own gender inclination and it harms no one.  I do not agree with TERFs and even some trans* people that binary-identified people reinforce gender stratum to any significant degree.  As an anarchist, I see a need for a balance of individual freedom and collective freedom, and I don’t believe that binary-identification is much of a threat to collective freedom.  In fact, removing people’s agency is a threat to collective freedom.[xxxi]  A focus on binary-identified trans* people’s alleged perpetuation of the gender binary is reminiscent of the blame sex-workers face for perpetuating the objectification of women, rather than that blame being directed more towards capitalism, misogyny, and policing of sexuality.

Additionally, trans people tend to face a disproportionate amount of animosity for perpetuating the gender binary than do binary-identified heterosexual feminine cis-gendered women (despite that such women have faced accusations of colluding with the oppressor, among other things).  “When trans women have every aspect of their presentation examined and labeled either hyperfeminine and therefore fake or not feminine enough and therefore male, while the same traits would be seen as normal in cis women, that’s transmisogyny…”[xxxii] 

Perhaps identifying with binary is not even a perpetuation of it.  Emi Koyama points out that transsexual existence “destabilizes the essentialist definitions of gender and exposes the constructedness of essentialism.”  Further, she states, “In the ‘women’s communities,’ transsexual existence is particularly threatening to white middle-class lesbian-feminists because it exposes the unreliableness of the body as a source of their identities and politics, and the fallacy of women’s universal experiences and oppressions.  These valid criticisms against feminist identity politics have been made by women of color and working class women all along…”[xxxiii]  Trans* people also clearly represent a threat to the gender order so much so that they are at times subject to violence.  Even still, none of this is imply that one should be exempt from criticism simply for being gender variant.

We can and must discuss the abolition of gender, but in doing so, we need to be specific (re: abolish the gender binary, gender stratum, etc.) and to be critical of the implications of vaguely calling for abolition of gender in the name of liberation.  It is disconcerting that an underlying desire for liberation could lead to dismissal of the importance of respecting one’s gender pronouns, for example.

Calling for the abolition of gender can sound a lot like the call for androgyny that Leslie Feinberg responded to above.  In “Politicizing Gender: Moving toward revolutionary gender politics” the author, Carolyn wrote, “For many anti-authoritarians there may be the temptation to ‘smash gender’ or ‘destroy gender roles.’ This may seem logical to some. However, I believe this too leads to an alternate form of authoritarianism… a gender revolution will only be meaningful if it substantively empowers everyone… Gender must be liberated, but we all must have a voice in what that means, not from an abstract pre-determined theory, but a synthesis of real people's experiences.”[xxxiv]

The freedom to choose what will be done or not done to or with our bodies ties together many people’s struggles of the past and present, from promoting consent in sexual encounters and relationships (including the anti-marriage position of anarchist women of the past), to reproductive freedom (freedom to abortion/birth control, and to have children, the latter being overlooked by the mostly-white pro-choice movement for too long), freedom from repression regarding who one chooses to love or partner with, etc.  Despite the fact that there is much disagreement about whether such things as sex-work perpetuate women’s oppression or not, the ultimate goal shared by the majority is that we all live in a world where we are totally free to choose what we do with our bodies—that the institutional controls need to be abolished.

Yes, the materialist feminist and/or radical feminist analyses are useful in terms of understanding the ways that this hierarchy has been made to seem natural.  These analyses, however, not only ignore/reject gender inclination as something different from gender stratum, but also rely on this concept of gender as class-like relations, while in reality women are not affected in the same ways.
bell hooks writes, “A central tenet of modern feminist thought has been the assertion that ‘all women are oppressed.’ This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women. Sexism as a system of domination is institutionalized but it has never determined in an absolute way the fate of all women in this society.”[xxxv] 
Part of the way I see the gender binary and hierarchy functioning is to form a cross-class (and cross-race) alliance.  Men are provided with certain advantages manifesting partly as access to women’s bodies and private labor, which undermines the ability of the women and men of the working class (or the ability of non-whites) to join forces in resistance and solidarity, much like whiteness prevents the working class from joining together.  For a similar reason that I felt like there should be a gender analysis within the Race Traitor analysis, obviously so too should a gender analysis be intersectional.  While a historical perspective is useful, as is seeing the ways in which a gender binary and male superiority function, it is too simplistic to view male and female as though they were class-like relations.  The ultimate goal is total liberation, not just gender equality.  If feminism does not seek an end to domination and hierarchy, it needs to be abandoned or expanded (I prefer anarcha-feminism if anything).

Hopefully it is clear that I am not asserting that gender transgression in itself can overturn gender hierarchy.  It is clear that much of gender transgression is co-optable.  When men started wearing their hair long in the 60’s, it was seen as a threat to the stability of gender, but ultimately was assimilated into manhood for the most part.  That’s just one example.  Anything revolutionary must be accompanied by a desire to end domination of all kinds, including where masculinity means domination as well as where domination is justified by feminists who don’t think women can dominate others.

The gender binary and hierarchy must be abolished and everyone must be free to be who they are, while simultaneously refusing to partake in hierarchal relationships.  How this can come about is a big question.  Those who wish to abolish gender need to question whether this means impeding on people’s consensual gender inclinations that may fit the binary.  Yet a commonly excepted approach which involves a focus on language and deconstruction, and/or promoting a proliferation of gender as a means to make the gender binary meaningless (can the proliferation of genders mean the negation of gender?) may not be sufficient to change anything.  Or perhaps it is necessary even if accompanied by other efforts.  Yet others see proliferation of gender as not functioning as a negation of gender and thus as counter-productive or only part of the struggle at best.  We must question to what extent increased freedom in terms of gender transgression and sexuality is accommodated because of the shifting needs of capitalism and the state, or because of the struggles of feminists, queers, and trans* people over the years (or both—and to what extent the efforts of the latter are on the part of predominantly white and middle-class people). 

Materialist feminists tend to see the economic relationship between men and women as the basis on which gender hierarchy rests, and so they argue that it is a change in material conditions that is needed.  Although it may be too simplistic to dichotomize the disagreement in terms of radical/materialist feminist vs. queer theory/poststructuralist/postmodern positions, this does provide some insight into disagreements about strategy.  Considering my preference for “theoretical polyamory,”[xxxvi] and that the majority of my study of these subjects have been outside of an academic context, I may not be able to adequately characterize the positions nor their conflict.  At the same time, there are clear accusations towards post-structuralism and postmodernism:
“As Christine Delphy pointed out in a 1993 article… [postmodernism] is irrelevant for analyzing the socially constructed nature of gender because as a linguistic tool it was not designed to discern differences.  When this pitfall is not recognized, it can lead poststructuralists to deconstruct gender relations in a socio-economic void, destroying any collective concept of woman or women through the fragmentation of female subjects.  By ignoring that difference and dominance go hand-in-hand, poststructuralists deny or mask that gender analysis is, after all, about the authority of men over women, preferring to talk about multiple and indeterminate identities.”[xxxvii]
Sometimes those multiple and indeterminate identities are important.  While I agree that addressing gender in a socio-economic void does indeed make it irrelevant, so too does ignoring the complexity of oppression.  Andrea Smith writes,
“Queer politics has expanded our understanding of identity politics by not presuming fixed categories of people, but rather looking at how these identity categories can normalize who is acceptable and who is unacceptable, even within social justice movements. It has also demonstrated that many peoples can become ‘queered’ in our society—that is, regardless of sexual/gender identity, they can become marked as inherently perverse and hence unworthy of social concern (such as sex workers, prisoners, ‘terrorists,’ etc.). We often organize around those peoples who seem most ‘normal’ or acceptable to the mainstream. Or we engage in an identity politics that is based on a vision of racial, cultural, or political purity that sidelines all those who deviate from the revolutionary ‘norm.’”[xxxviii]

I don’t believe feminism adequately revolts without opposing the gender binary and at the same time promotes liberation from all systems of domination.  And of course I imply in the title that feminism is revolting (as in repulsive) when it is transphobic, and when it attempts or justifies participation in systems of domination.  I’m not completely attached to the concept of feminism especially if it maintains the gender binary.  But what does freedom from gender oppression look like?  As for the issues above, one question is how to go about struggling for change in the material conditions of those oppressed by the gender binary/hierarchy as well as addressing domination/hierarchy in general, while at the same time acknowledging the complexity and intersectionality of oppression.  Another is, does the end of gender stratum require an end to all aspects of gender?  If so, are there other ways of doing this aside from enforced genderlessness? 

Please share feedback on these issues, as this must be an ongoing discussion… 
sallydarity [at] yahoo [dot] com

See also: Anarcha-Feminism and the Newer "Woman Question"

Look for my essay on similar theme called “Gender Sabotage” in the forthcoming book Queering Anarchism Essays on Gender, Power, and Desire (AK Press 2013).

Visit http://anarchalibraryblogspot.com



[1] “Many people opt to write Trans* with an asterisk as a way of representing the whole Trans* community. The asterisk represents the many nouns that can be attached to the modifier ‘trans’ such as ‘gender’, ‘sex’, ‘queer’, ‘fluid’, and etc. The word ‘trans’ on its own, while still useful, often implies a singular meaning (such as transgender or transsexual).”  From: http://transbodypride.tumblr.com  (here I include genderqueer, etc., not just identities that include the modifier “trans”)



[i] “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender/  (Accessed January 2012)
[ii] 'cisgendered', from 'cis-', "on the same side", + 'gender'; in contrast to 'trans-', "crossing over"; both from Latin, and both prefixes used in Chemistry with similar meanings  http://dglenn.dreamwidth.org/1588929.html
Ciscentrism: A pervasive and institutionalized system that others transgender people and treats their needs and identities as less important than those of cisgender people. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ciscentrism
Cissexism: the belief that transsexuals' identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisgender
[iii] New Abolitionist Newsletter website (1999) http://racetraitor.org/naindex.html  
[iv] “Abolish the White Race - By Any Means Necessary” (1993).  http://racetraitor.org/abolish.html
The focus on white’s role here seems to mostly have to do with white people speaking to other white people about their/our specific role, not that this is the only approach to ending white supremacy.  (I still find it interesting to compare this to the fact that most discussions of ending gender oppression centers on women.  There has been disagreement within groups such as Bring the Ruckus of which many members have subscribed to the Race Traitor ideas, as to what extent white people are put at the center of this approach.)  “Still a point of contention between those influenced by Race Traitor politics within BTR and me, this all-too-heavy reliance on whites is the flaw of Race Traitor theory, even if I do not necessarily disagree with the theory.” juan de la qruz. “Not on Donovan Jackson, on Haters Who Claim We’re White” (2004).  http://www.bringtheruckus.org/?q=node/14
“There is a continuing critique of BTR as well as Race Traitor that these politics puts whitey at the center. This is not true at all. Not for BTR nor for Race Traitor. For Race Traitor, there is a special message for so-called whites. Focusing on fighting the institutions that hold up the color line and its strategic importance for revolution does not come from so-called whites but from DuBois, C.L.R James, Malcolm X, bell hooks and many others. Race Traitor follows in these footsteps combining their militant language with “social construction” language and addressing the role of “so-called” whites in this process. An accusation that argues that Race Traitor puts white’s [sic] as the saviors of the revolutionary struggle completely misunderstand how Race Traitor is rooted in this long tradition of fighting the color-line and the strategic importance of this struggle in the creation of a new world.”  Geert, “Bring the Ruckus vs. Race Traitor” (2007). http://bringtheruckus.org/?q=node/39
[v] Wittig is very critical of Marx and Marxism for the lack of gender analysis, however, in 1970, “For a Women’s Liberation Movement” by Monique Wittig, et al., Engels was quoted  multiple times, including his “The first class opposition that manifested itself in History coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in conjugal marriage; and the first class oppression, with the oppression of the feminine sex by the masculine sex.” And “Man is the bourgeois, woman, the proletarian.” Printed in Namascar Shaktini, On Monique Wittig. (2005)
[vi] Wittig, Monique. “One is Not Born a Woman” (1981) printed in The Straight Mind (1992), 6.  http://zinelibrary.info/one-not-born-woman-monique-wittig
[vii] Delphy wrote, “it is about as accurate to say that the wife of a bourgeois man is herself a bourgeois as it is to say that the slave of a plantation owner is himself a plantation owner.” Delphy, Close to home p72  This can be countered with, “Upper-class women are not simply bedmates of their wealthy husbands.  As a rule they have more compelling ties which bind them together.  They are economic, social and political bedmates, united in defense of private property, profiteering, militarism, racism—and the exploitation of other women… To oppose women as a class against men as a class can only result in a diversion of the real class struggle.” Reed, Evelyn. “Women: Caste, Class, or Oppressed Sex?”  1970.
[viii] Wittig, Monique. “One is Not Born a Woman” (1981) printed in The Straight Mind (1992), 13. (can be found at http://zinelibrary.info/one-not-born-woman-monique-wittig)
[ix] Christine Delphy Close to Home. (1984) 144.
[x] Stevi Jackson. Christine Delphy. (1996)  51.
[xi] Stevi Jackson. Christine Delphy. (1996) 137.
[xii] See Bruce Bagemihl. Biological Exuberance. (1999).  and Joan Roughgarden. Evolution’s Rainbow. (2004)
[xiii] Whoa, I just happened up on this link: http://againstallevidence.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/trans-feline/ that actually makes this comparison… sort of.
[xiv] “Bob Jensen, Lierre Keith et al. : The Rabid, Transphobic Hate-Mongering of the Anti-Pornography Movement” (2010) http://transmeditations.wordpress.com/2010/10/23/blog-27-bob-jensen-lierre-keith-et-al-the-rabid-transphobic-hate-mongering-of-the-anti-pornography-movement/
[xv] “I think it’s crucial to understand what differentiates liberalism from radicalism. I think we can avoid a lot of useless discussions and group traumas by understanding the underlying philosophical currents in various approaches to social change. One cardinal difference is idealism vs materialism. Liberalism is idealist; the crucible of social reality is placed in the realm of ideas, in concepts, language, attitudes. And liberalism is individualist. The basic social unit is the individual.
In contrast, radicalism is materialist. Radicals see society as composed of actual institutions — economic, political, cultural — which wield power, including the power to use violence. The basic social unit is a class or group, whether that’s racial class, sex caste, economic class, or other grouping. Radicalism understands oppression as group-based harm.”  Interview - In the Wake http://www.lierrekeith.com/aric_mcbayinterview.htm (Accessed February 14, 2012)
[xvi] Roland Simon. “Gender distinction, programmatism and communisation” http://libcom.org/library/gender-distinction-programmatism-communisation
And Maya Andrea Gonzalez, “Communization and the Abolition of Gender”  http://www.scribd.com/doc/72700803/46/Communization-and-the-Abolition-of-Gender-Maya-Andrea-Gonzalez186 p223
[xvii] Sheila Jeffreys (this was quoted in an email to me and I don’t have the exact citation)
[xviii] This is the article I mention: http://againstallevidence.wordpress.com/2011/10/15/we-are-the-51/ and see various articles under the trans-politics tag: http://againstallevidence.wordpress.com/tag/trans-politics/
[xix] Judith Butler. Gender Trouble (1990) 118.  Butler cites this quote as from Wittig’s "Paradigm," from 1979.
[xx] “They believe it reinforces the idea that ‘sex’ itself is purely natural.” Delphy, Christine. “Rethinking Sex and Gender.” (1993) 5-6.
[xxi] Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating (1974) 183
[xxii] Dworkin was cis-sexist for sure, but perhaps not as much of a transphobe as certain other radical feminists. She wrote, “One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms… entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.  Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.”  http://daisysdeadair.blogspot.com/2009/08/andrea-dworkin-on-transgender.html  So while she was willing to validate certain aspects of trans autonomy and self-determination, she invalidates their gender inclination as something that would disappear.  “Dworkin actually went on to give her assistance to Raymond in the writing of the Transsexual Empire, particularly “Chapter IV: Sappho by Surgery.” It’s in this chapter that Raymond writes, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit as well.” Raymond then goes on to suggest that it is impossible for trans lesbians to have a consensual sexual experiences with cis women. Dworkin, in fact, gave a glowing endorsement to the The Transsexual Empire when the book was originally published in 1979. other than one patronizing quote from Woman Hating, over the next three decades Dworkin was totally complicit with all the attacks on trans women, and trans people generally, by her closest friends and colleagues.” http://transfeminism.tumblr.com/post/12371381560/andrea-dworkin-wasnt-a-friend-to-trans-people
[xxiii] Leslie Feinburg, Trans Liberation (1998), 53.
[xxiv] “Queer feminists, among others, have challenged the category of 'woman' as a basis for political activism. Returning to criticism of transgression, queer theory potentially produces its own forms of normalisation and hierarchy. ‘Feminist identifications have, at times, intended to enjoin women to be alike by being visibly different from conventional norms of femininity, in the direction of gender neutrality or nonspecificity, which is also, of course, gendered. Queer emphases on antinormative display enjoin us to be different from conventional norms of femininity by defiantly cross-identifying. Conceptually, then, as well as politically, something called femininity becomes the tacit background in relation to which other positions become figural and mobile (Martin, 1994:119).’”  Jamie Heckert. “Anarchy of Queer.” (2006)

[xxv] Quinnae Moongazer. “I Am Whoever You Say I Am”  http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/?p=3175#more-3175

[xxvi] Women who didn’t have to work were to be unnaturally “weaker, delicate, dependent, ‘lily-white’, housebound” and therefore “the making of the white race involved the politicized un-making of women to fit into ‘white.’” Butch Lee and Red Rover. Night Vision. (2000) 29.
[xxvii] Although her phrasing about biology is problematic, hooks writes, “Undoubtedly, one of the first revolutionary acts of visionary feminism must be to restore maleness and masculinity as an ethical biological category divorced from the dominator model… those of us committed to ending patriarchy can touch the hearts of real men where they live, not by demanding that they give up manhood or maleness, but by asking that they allow its meaning to be transformed, that they become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity in order to find a place for the masculine that does not make it synonymous with domination or the will to do violence.” bell hooks, The Will to Change (2004). 115.  (Calling for treason to patriarchal masculinity sounds a lot like the call for treason to whiteness).
[xxviii] Emi Koyama.  “Transfeminist Manifesto” (2000)
[xxix] Sandy Stone. “The empire strikes back.” (1988, 1994)
[xxx] Quinnae Moongazer.I Am Whoever You Say I Am” http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/?p=3175#more-3175
[xxxi] “Women should not be accused of reinforcing gender stereotypes for making personal decisions, even if these decisions appear to comply with certain gender roles; such a purity test is disempowering to women because it denies our agency, and it will only alienate a majority of women, trans or not, from taking part in feminist movement.” Emi Koyama.  “Transfeminist Manifesto” (2000)
[xxxii] Tobi Hill-Meyer. “What Transmysogyny Looks Like” (2009)
[xxxiii] Emi Koyama. “Whose Feminism is it Anyway?”  (2000)
[xxxiv] Carolyn, “Politicizing Gender: Moving toward Revolutionary Gender Politics.” From www.spunk.org/texts/pubs/lr/sp001714/gender.html  (accessed February 6, 2012).
[xxxv] bell hooks, Feminist Theory from margin to center. (1984) 5.

[xxxvi] Deric Shannon and Abbey Volcano. “Theoretical Polyamory : Some Thoughts on Loving, Thinking, and Queering Anarchism” (2011)  http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2011/02/theoretical-polyamory-some-thoughts-on.html

[xxxvii] Joan Hoff. “Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis” Women’s History Review, Volume 3, Number 2 (1994)  http://www.cas.sc.edu/hist/faculty/edwardsk/hist783/reader/hoff.pdf
[xxxviii] Smith, Andrea.  “Dismantling Hierarchy, Queering Society.” (2010)  http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.com/2010/11/dismantling-hierarchy-queering-society.html  notice that Smith uses the term queer politics rather than queer theory.

2 comments:

  1. Your first quote is really weird. It seems to be implying that people never make mistakes, even when given incomplete data they will act like they are perfect and omniscient.

    Saying that people will never revolt, if that revolt is not going to change something, is like saying someone will never go to a fridge to get a sandwich, if that sandwich is not there. Or will never call their friend, if that friend is not going to pick up the phone.

    ReplyDelete