You write one piece, and you realise how much you have left to write.
I thought I’d said everything I felt like saying about inclusion/exclusion in queer spaces based on assigned birth sex last November – but a couple of brilliant pieces at Feministing made me realise I was wrong. Before I continue – would you have a read through the first? Done? Great. And the follow-up? Fantastic. Something that had been niggling away at the back of my mind since last year, that these two pieces skewered so perfectly: the idea that gendered socialisation is a universal binary experience that occurs only in childhood. An idea that the TERFs are rightly taken to task over – and which is so often left unexamined in supposedly progressive queer circles.
For me, the debate divides into three main strands: ongoing vs. childhood socialisation, gendered socialisation as an intersectional experience, and the response of the self to socialisation. For the first, I have nothing to add to Jos’ wonderful take-down – as to the others, well, a few thoughts.
It seems bizarre that, in 2012, anyone would still argue, or even casually assume, an overarching gendered experience that overrides intersecting social, cultural and personal factors of oppression and privilege. I’m more than happy to acknowledge the perverse debt I owe to a society that tried to fit me into the box marked ‘woman’ – it’s taught me a great deal. What I’m not happy to agree with is the sophistry that that coercion has made me a better feminist – or closer to being a woman – or to the idea that there is a mythic notion of unified womanhood or manhood that society pushes us towards, one or the other. Because society didn’t push me towards a box marked ‘woman’ – it pushed me towards a box marked ‘white, TCK, upper-middle class, well-educated, conventionally attractive, socially adept, accomplished, able-bodied woman’. My mental health problems would have tagged me with the label ‘crazy bitch’ – but, to be fair, because of being artistic, and considered attractive, it probably would have been ‘sexy crazy bitch’. Gendered violence and sexual abuse are things I’ve never experienced firsthand – a burden disproportionately shouldered by women in a misogynistic society. So, when someone says that they were ‘socialised as a woman’ I always want to ask ‘what kind? where are our points of reference?’
In any case, talking about the way in which a broader society tried to socialise me is only one part of the equation. There’s the socialisation I receive from the people closest to me – and my own personal response, across the years. Society at large may have assumed I was a girl/woman – but, an awful lot of the time, my family didn’t. The majority of my upbringing was gender-neutral or, I suppose, gender-flexible. My brother and I would share toys, games, make-up, books, computer games. My father gave me his old clothes – and I would borrow his aftershave. Sexism and misogyny revolted me – but I can’t ever say that an insult directed at women felt like an insult directed particularly at me. It hurt – but it didn’t hurt the way a personal attack did. Being told I was a girl, or a woman, made me angry, confused, defiant, scornful – but it never sunk in. I don’t understand why that experience could be described as being ‘socialised as a woman’, when a trans woman’s experience of knowing herself as female, of reading the world through that lens, would be deemed being ‘socialised as a man’. What of the trans men who react to society’s oppressive socialisation by becoming misogynists? It’s not nice to admit that it happens but sadly, in some cases, it does. And not only trans men – cis female chauvinist pigs are hardly news. We’re not just a blank slate waiting to be marked by society – and I say this as someone who believes more than many in the plasticity of the human experience. Who we are, how we become and continue becoming what and who we are, is in the alchemy of the inner world and the outer.
Ultimately, I have no time for any person who purports to champion a progressive cause, yet defines other people not by their uniqueness, their own choice of words, but by a reductive measure inherited from a reductive society.