Un-gendering sex: a feminist project?

Reading one of the lovely Refining Realness posts I noticed a Black trans woman’s recollection of preferring dolls to conventional boys’ toys in her early childhood.

I bridled momentarily – because I’m 100% sure that playing with dolls, like being obsessed with pink, is not a hardwired thing, and Cordelia Fine did a pretty superb job of dismantling the cliché that women are inherently more nurturing and ‘motherly’ than men. These things are merely the cultural trappings of gender.

Then I pinched myself – what am I doing having a TERF straw-girl* moment? Obviously a trans girl starts to define herself by gender norms somewhere along the way just like a cis girl. We know how it goes – a billion parental & societal cues tell us how to be a girl or boy, not just gender-policing and being put in pretty dresses or not. As (and if, because non-binary children exist too) a child starts to settle on a gender identity she or he will most likely start performing gender out of the powerful desire to fit in. Obviously a trans child is likely to get a lot of conflicting and uncomfortable messages at this point, but it’s totally uncool for me to speak for them, so I will stop here. I’m recalling this personal lapse to point out how easy it is to fall back into that determinist way of thinking: it’s so deeply ingrained we are constantly tripped up by it.

*TERF straw-girl argument: the mythical pink-loving princess girl that trans-excluding-radical-feminists invoke in order to insist that, since gender is just a power structure that oppresses women, a female person cannot be classified as male at birth. As if trans women’s claims to female identities depends on everyone accepting that culturally determined and oppressive gender roles are hardwired. Which position I have never seen being argued by any trans person ever. I’m just going to refrain as far as possible from talking about born-this-way arguments here. As Janet Mock says, there’s a lot of nuance and as Lisa Millbank, @radtransfem has pointed out, these arguments concern survival for trans folk.

My grapplings with gender have always been helped along by the thought-provoking insights of @Artemissian. Most recently I have been thinking about her wonderfully narrative-flipping statement that ‘our concept of sex is hopelessly gendered’. While a section of feminist twitter (including many who identify as trans-inclusive) is busily trying to bail out the very leaky biological category of femaleness (the rags being used to plug include pregnancy, periods, chromosomes and the ever-serviceable vagina), her perspective, I feel, sheds very necessary light.

Smart radical feminists (*sigh* – in the sense ❤ bell hooks ❤ was using the term in say 1992) know that queer theory has always agreed with them that gender is a social construct, but even many of them, along with TERFs, continue to loudly insist that sex, unlike gender, is ‘real’, a natural scientific category, without which it will be impossible for women to organise against violence, heteropatriarchy etc. If we can’t say that wombs are parts of women, how can we demand reproductive autonomy? I think that’s the argument anyway. I reject the real/unreal distinction: sex, though real and important in its consequences, like gender, is no more a stable natural category than gender is, yet its complexities, emergent and unique for each individual, are constantly and persistently subsumed by the structures of (always White supremacist-inflected**) binary gender, which most of us have internalised so deeply.

‘Radical’ feminism should be at the vanguard dismantling this burial of sex, because it enables sexist oppression, misogyny/noir** & homophobia as well as transmisogyny. Surely a new openness towards learning and living the individuality of sex identity and sexuality links to the demand for female subjectivity and autonomy that feminist movements have always been about?

I am still failing to see why making feminist spaces trans-inclusive and trans-aware could harm cis women. Trans people are not the ones denying us abortions or perpetuating rape culture. I am still failing to see why cis people feel they can tell trans people how to explain and relate to their own bodies. I am still failing to see how cis people can deny that not having to constantly explain and justify your gender is not a position of privilege. I am still failing to see why people who were classified female at birth and identify as women do not want to be called ‘cis’, which is, amazingly, a word invented to capture that long cumbersome description, just because they do not identify with the gender roles pushed on them by patriarchy. It’s incredibly ignorant to assume that trans people necessarily identify with or want those roles, let alone to suggest they are the ones forcing them onto others!

**Just for the record, I have yet to witness a Woman of – or indeed Man of Colour show anything other than heartily & sensitively supportive attitudes towards trans people and trans narratives. Read into that what you will.

Shoutout to Gradient Lair for drawing my attention to Janet Mock’s blog and the Redefining Realness project, and the term ‘misogynoir’, coined by Moya Bailey

I gratefully welcome critique from all perspectives on this post.


7 thoughts on “Un-gendering sex: a feminist project?

  1. Probably the single most viewed/shared YouTube video on the subject of the difference between gender & sex is by a lesbian of colour. I’m very, very surprised to see you critiquing a position with so little evident knowledge of the people & arguments. Disappointing.

    Btw the ‘radical’ in radical feminism is a technical term, not a declaration of political extremism. Putting is in scare quotes makes as much sense as saying ‘Democrats’ or ‘Tories’ when you are talking about actual Democrats or Tories.

    Sorry to sound gruff, but I’m peeved to see my position to wantonly straw-manned.

    1. Hi Marina,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment, and since I respect you so much as a thinker and feminist I’m sure that my post must have issues if you’re peeved and disappointed by it.

      Re lack of knowledge about the people I think you mean the footnote, which on re-reading has come out like a snide remark to the effect that ‘oh these silly White women’ *cringe* which I regret – I didn’t mean it like that – from the time I first came to twitter I have been conscious that the most visible cis supporters of trans women are Black, but my suggesting that something is readable in this observation (ie the assumption that since from Soujourner Truth onwards Black women have been struggling to be recognised as women & this history provides a path to empathise with the trans struggle) is not cool – I should *not* be speaking for Women of Colour! I have probably seen that video, but would love a link to it just in case?

      I feel you’re right about the scare quotes – I was going to argue with you and explain that I wanted to suspend the negative connotations, to divest the word of the aura of transphobia. I did that wrong. I should have written, perhaps: Truly radical feminism (because I see myself as radical after all) instead of the scare quotes which, on reflection, look like me belittling an important theory and movement! Aargh

      As to lack of knowledge of arguments and straw-manning… Perhaps my post is muddled and unclear? I wrote it because writing helps me to understand things and I was very excited by Alicia’s insight that ‘our idea of sex is gendered’. On re-reading I think I have been unfair – why have I taken a hectoring tone to people who (I assume) haven’t grasped the great insight (I assume) I am presenting anew? And, I should have made more of an effort to show that & how the argument that ‘trans theory thinks gender is real’ comes from the same place as the argument that ‘sex is real’ (where real = stable natural category). I didn’t even bother to argue my position that sex is not more real than gender – I partly made it in my first post on this subject but I should have clarified here again. Many of those women arguing that sex is ‘real’ accept, I think, that ‘woman’ is not a stable natural category but would assert that ‘female’ is. (Perhaps there really does need to be a *nominal* category for the bodily attributes in question, otherwise even the concept of trans would be impossible to negotiate? Maybe this is the argument that is being made, and I have incorrectly characterised it.) The argument that sex is a real natural binary ignores the fluidity of biology and the leakiness of sex categories. I agree with Alicia that the construct of gender is leading our interpretation of biological sex. I think many feminists have accepted that binary interpretation, because it is difficult to think our way out of such deeply inscribed knowings. You may well disagree with this position = )

    2. As far as ‘scare quotes’ (oops!) go – I agree that “radical feminism” is a technical term; these days at least, it refers to a very specific body of thought and an analysis of gender/sexism/patriarchy that is clearly differentiated from other “bodys of thought” within feminism. But, to follow your analogy, imagine if the Democratic party advocated for a totalitarian state. Suppose the Republican party supported abosolute monarchy. Then one might be justified in putting ‘Democrat’ in what I consider “‘scepticism quotes” rather than “scare quotes”. Not to say that this was at all the intention of the author. But I always run in to difficulty when describing my radical politics/my radical approach to questions of knowledge within the context of feminism, since my feminism is not «radical feminism», and further I don’t think that «radical feminism» is an outcome of taking a radical thought approach to the questions of gender/sexism/cisheteropatriarchy etc.

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