Beyond the Binary: Question Thirteen
June 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
1st of the week’s Q&As – panel bios here.
I’ve seen in feminist spaces the dichotomy described between a radfem-esque intent to remove all gender as the only way to defeat patriarchy, and the newer, ‘queerer’ movement to include trans* people and other genders within feminism, recognising that we all suffer at the hands of societal gender norms. How do the panel feel about the way gender is defined within feminism, and how can we make the movement stronger? (assuming it is a movement that people identify with).
CN: I would certainly call myself a feminist – but as to ‘the way gender is defined within feminism’ – how long is a piece of string? I find the frequently stated radfem claim of being ‘gender atheists’ or of gender ‘not existing’ an infuriating one – not because I’m not in some ways sympathetic to such a stance (if you expected me to believe in a binary gender system then I would certainly come out as a gender atheist) but because I think it’s a cop-out. I think ‘gender’ is one of those catch-all, nebulous terms that makes less sense the more you try to define it (see my first answer here) – but, however we would want to define it, we’re left with two distinct problems: firstly, that we do currently have an oppressive, socially mandated gender system in place and, secondly, that people are different from each other when it comes to how they see themselves, how they dress, how they make love etc (and thank god for that). I don’t think you can pretend that you don’t have a role and a place in the first, even if that role is a transgressive or antagonistic one – one of the reasons I would use the word ‘transgender’ to describe myself is not because I have an internal identification with that term, but because the way I move through the world crosses and blurs kyriarchal gender boundaries and systems. As to the second? I have absolutely no time for anyone would would seek to impose a set of gendered standards on others – it seems to me that, in practice, what an adherence to the idea of ‘no gender’ in radfem discourse amounts to is the idea that no one should be unduly masculine or feminine (see Jeffreys et. al on make-up, high heels etc.) – instead of creating a non-gendered environment, it simply forces people into a very narrow standard of androgyny, which is a gendered expression in its own right. The feminism I live and believe in is an intersectional and pluralistic one – and that applies just as much to gender as it would to any other area of our lives. If what we oppose is the dehumanisation of others – the systematic oppression based on the division of ‘us’ from ‘them’ and the elevation of one group at the expense of the other, denying interiority, uniqueness – basic respect – then I think the only way we can make this movement stronger is to work in the opposite way – to lift each other up, to listen to each individual voice, to never seek to impose systems that erase and constrain others.
Jennie: Feminism is, in essence, about identifying and challenging privilege. Celebrating diversity should be at the heart of that. What’s important is not to exterminate gender but to reformat our understanding of gender so that it becomes a landscape in which people can choose the positions that feel right to them. Patriarchy can’t be ended by eliminating maleness, which would only leave us with a new boss not so different from the old boss (and pity the poor helpless women who need big strong radfems to protect them); rather, patriarchy must be ended by putting maleness in its place, as just another dimennsion of humanness, no more related to privilege than being able to roll one’s tongue or having a fondness for cheese and onion crisps. Whilst we continue to focus on maleness as the big issue we are giving it far too much attention.
GrrlAlex: Whilst many rad-fems have sought to define gender as purely a social construct I see this as problematic. The construction of male/female and masculine/feminine are clearly social constructs at a linguistic level but I’m not sure we can divorce them from an apparent broader commonality of behaviours that distinguish individuals. Whilst writers like Cordlia Fine argue that gender is socially learned and has no basis in biology her argument falls down when we consider transgender individuals since we have often been very strongly conditioned and taught to conform to an expected gender and yet still failed – the internal drive to be other is to her thinking merely delusional, and to mine biological. As a feminist I argue that we should not differentiate people on the basis of genital arrangement but on the basis of skill and aptitude.
Whilst it is argued that the traditional transsexual route reinforced gender stereotypes, contemporary activists in the trans movement and even more so in the GQ community challenge this and offer a vision of the future where anatomy is not destiny. So at that level it does seem rather paradoxical that so many in the rad fem movement have such a problem with transgender. As Ruth Pearce pointed out in a recent radio 4 program (countering an point by Julie Bindle) genderqueer offers feminism a route to true equality. It does however feel as if some within feminism want to retain the binary so they have someone to define themselves against.
Nat: It does very much depend on the views of each feminist. I support intersectional trans*-inclusive feminism, but I’ve seen some transfeminists define gender and trans in ways that seemed to draw strong boundaries between transgender and cisgender, enforcing a binary that may push some nonbinary and gender nonconforming people out or build resentment. I think the movement could perhaps be made more inclusive by considering the similarities and commonalities between transitioning and gender nonconforming people (while also acknowledging the complex intersections of privilege involved). I also think there needs to be full support for self determination and bodily autonomy; not requiring people to conceive of their genders or relate to their bodies in certain ways.
Hel: I’ll start by referring you to my first answer on this panel – I’m a feminist, and gender pluralism is the model of gender that makes most sense to me. I’m in favour of removing gender as a dichotomous system of oppression, and I believe the way (or rather, one way) to do that is to make space for great diversity in gendered expressions and understandings of oneself. Oppositional sexism doesn’t work if ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are just two categories among a vast number of gendered experiences.
More broadly, I think there’s a sense in which it’s impossible to talk about ‘how gender is defined within feminism’ because feminism is not a monolithic ideology. Even the construction of first/second/third ‘waves’ is an oversimplication. But the feminist milieu in which I live – young activists in the UK, and various queer/feminist parts of the English-speaking blogosphere – certainly leans towards a pluralistic understanding of gender, rather than a binaristic one. My feeling is that this analysis is far less reductive than the more traditional gender-abolitionist viewpoint, as it accomodates a range of lived experiences that simply aren’t legible within a binary framework.
Ultimately, I want to see the feminist movement, the LGB movement, and the trans movement working together a lot more – would it be too optimistic to say I’d like to see them coalesce in some way? While there are obviously very different specific goals that each set of activists is after in terms of social/legal change, we’re ultimately fighting different heads of the same hydra, and perhaps (to overextend the metaphor) we’ll only be able to put the sword through its heart if we work together more closely. I strongly believe that a great many seemingly-distinct forms of discrimination all come from the same violent system of gender – whether it’s against women, against intersex people, against people who identify outside the binary, against trans people, against people who have same-sex relationships (or relationships which are read as same-sex) or experience same-sex desire… it’s all about punishing and forcibly inscribing norms upon on people who are in any way Other than a straight cis traditionally-masculine man, because if gender norms aren’t strictly policed, the whole thing starts to fall apart. In traditional heteropatriarchal constructs, women are the ‘lesser’ sex, homosexuality is constructed as gender-transgression which threatens dyadic gender (and male superiority) by either ‘emasculating’ men or making women threateningly ‘manly’, intersex people totally explode our ideas about sexual dimorphism, and as for trans people – well. If proving that chromosomes, natal genitals, and being raised as a particular gender still don’t guarantee that someone will fit neatly into their presumed box isn’t a threat to the traditional sex-gender system, I don’t know what is! While I think that liberation doesn’t stop with the sex-gender system – we need to be challenging normativities and oppressions around race, and class, and disability, and other things that maybe don’t get thought of so readily, like age and relationship status and caring responsibilities, we need to be doing all of this stuff – I think that the feminist, LGB, and trans movements have a particularly interlinked set of goals. So with that perspective, I think any feminist movement which is operating on a more trans-inclusive model of gender is stronger – not just because I believe that that model is right, but because it’s a model that allows for building vital bridges with other movements.