In which a cis feminist has a serious and long overdue rethink.

by Laura // 5 August 2008, 20:56

I want to address some issues raised in Helen's latest post, issues that I myself have been grappling with recently. The ongoing results* of said grappling have made me feel very ashamed of my past thoughts and misplaced beliefs with regards to trans people and trans issues. Here's why.

I've always leant strongly towards the social constructionist theory of gender. As I discussed last week, this model has allowed me to challenge what society generally accepts to be the norm regarding gender roles, characteristics and identities, enabling me to embrace a female identity defined only by myself. I had previously struggled with the label "female" because I didn't feel comfortable with what this label generally means and entails in patriarchal society. No more. In short, embracing the social constructionist theory of gender has been a liberating experience for me. Fuck gender, I'd say, let's get rid of it altogether and then we'll all be free.

Lucky, aren't I? Not to mention arrogant. Because as a cis woman (by which I mean non-trans), I have the privilege of being able to write off gender, of deciding that it doesn't matter to me any more. A little while back, when I first came across the term cisexual, I questioned its validity. Helen G said that, as a ciswoman, I must have 'only ever experienced my subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned'. I found this strange, because I've never felt like a woman in my head - I just am.
Well exactly! Something in my brain is quite happy for me to exist with a female sexed body, and it is the very feeling of being myself - of not feeling gendered, but being comfortable with who I am - that indicates that my sex - female - is completely in harmony with the gender my brain - I, my soul, whatever - expects me to be.

I cannot begin to imagine what it would feel like not to experience that harmony. But I can imagine that if one does not feel that sense of just being oneself, of not being obviously gendered because one's brain accepts one's sexual body (i.e. if one is cisexual), if one's brain, or soul, or being, whatever you want to call it, feels differently sexed to one's body, it must seem insulting, arrogant and privileged to hear others claim that gender is just an illusion, that we should destroy it, that we'll never be free until we rid ourselves of this socially constructed, patriarchal delusion.

I realise now that my previous beliefs that we could - and should - rid ourselves entirely of gender are all of those things. How convenient and easy it is for a cis woman to say that gender is nothing but a social construction. How arrogant to ignore the experiences of trans gendered people, not only because I was genuinely never aware of them before, but because they posed a threat to my convenient little theory of liberation that worked so well for me that it must work for everyone else on the planet!

Yes, the existence of trans gendered people challenges the social constructionist model held so dear by radical feminists in particular. That doesn't mean we can just pretend they don't exist - it means we need to rethink that theory.

The experience of trans gendered people indicates that there is at least some natural, biological component to gender. Accepting this idea does not mean that we cannot recognise and challenge the socially constructed nature of patriarchal conceptions of gender, of masculinity, of femininity, of our roles and qualities and characteristics as men and women, and the extent to which those qualities are valued within our society. Both cis and trans people suffer due to the restrictive nature of the patriarchal gender model. In Whipping Girl, trans woman Julia Serano describes how trans women seeking gender realignment surgery are often forced to conform to traditionally feminine modes of dress and behaviour in order to convince their therapists and members of the medical profession - whose concepts of gender are often firmly entrenched in patriarchal nonsense - that they are really committed to "becoming" women, that they really "understand" what it is to be a woman.

I'm sure any woman reading this - trans or cis - would tell them where they can shove their notions of womanhood. And I'm sure any woman - trans or cis - would be able to describe the effects that these patriarchal notions of womanhood - and in particular the sexism in which they are based - have on our daily lives.

No, we don't all share the same experiences as women. Trans and cis woman no doubt have very different experiences of womanhood, and of life in general. But so do Black women and White women, gay and straight and bi women, able and disabled women, British and Indian, old and young. You get my drift. What unites is our common experience as the sexual underclass. The discrimination we face as women manifests itself in different ways for different women, and it does not override the other forms of discrimination many of us face, but it is something that can only be overcome if we work together, if we support each other. And that means fighting against all the forms of discrimination we face.

So, for those who like to “question transgender (politics)”: if the existence of trans gendered people upsets your world view, then perhaps - instead of trying to find a way to explain them away, to frame them as the enemy, to ignore their personhood because you feel that your politics is far more important than their well-being - you should give that world view a wee bit of a rethink. I know I have.

I wrote this post in the spirit of trying to be an ally (well, making a start at it anyway), so only supportive/positive comments will be published. Feel free to discuss other points elsewhere. Comments may take a while to appear as I am away from the computer for much of the day.

Comments From You

chem_fem // Posted 05 August 2008 at 23:14

I hope i haven't missed it if you have already answered this question in your post, but what do you feel about gender now?

I'm having trouble understanding how one could go from being against gender to 'for gender' just from listening to anothers experience of the importance of it.

I want to be able to better relate my view of gender and that of trans* so I wanted to better understand someone who had already under gone that shift in perspective.

Up until now I'd just seen it as I don't relate to gender, trans* do and we can all feel the way we do in harmony.

Laura // Posted 05 August 2008 at 23:20

Hi chem_fem,

I should have expanded on that a bit, sorry. I don't have a fully formed idea, but I think gender is more likely to be a mix of nature and nurture, as most things probably are. I wouldn't say I'm "for gender" - I certainly think it's very problematic as it is currently understood in mainstream society - rather that I'm willing to admit there is something there that helps determine our understanding of ourselves as gendered beings, something quite different from all the "being a woman/mean means xyz" crap that we generally take to be gender.

Renee // Posted 06 August 2008 at 00:28

So I have a question..Do you separate sex and gender because I do believe that there is a difference. From that point do you recognize sex as biologically determined and that gender is not necessarily the result of that production in that all women experience being feminine differently vis a vis race, class, sexuality?

Laura // Posted 06 August 2008 at 00:34

Hi Renee,

Yes and yes!

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 06 August 2008 at 01:25

I wrote a long piece about how different ways of looking at gender reflect upon one another, called "Geometry of gender" (the link is to part 3 of 3, but part 3 links to the first two parts too).

I concluded that there are at least seven dimensions to "gender", and they are all mostly independent of each other. (and that was without dealing with the internal sex identification of trans folk or cis folk).

The really short version: gender is a lot more complicated than it looks!

space // Posted 06 August 2008 at 05:25

I've often felt the same way - feeling like my gender didn't mean much to me, because I didn't feel it was necessarily "wrong" to have a female body. I do take issue with some cultural aspects of femininity, though.

After reading the website of a transperson who identifies as a woman in a man's body and has refused to surgically or hormonally transition due to the medical dangers involved, I came to think of gender as having four elements: bodily sex, neurological sense of one's bodily sex (the map the brain makes of the body), culture, and temperament. With many trans people, it seems that bodily sex and neurological sense of bodily sex are at odds with each other, so that from a young age they feel inside that they are one sex and identify with that sex but get frustrated and confused when other people tell them based on their bodies that they are the other sex. They even report being surprised to discover on their own that their bodies are physically different from what their brains tell them their sex is. They originally identify with those of their neurological sex and start to absorb their culture, but then get the culture of their physical sex imposed upon them.

With cis people, the bodily and neurological sexes are the same, so they identify with their neurological sex and are accepted as such by others based on their physical sex, and so begin the usual process of cultural indoctrination into their society's specific gender roles easily by imitating people of their own physical and neurological sex. Temperament then decides which aspects of their gender culture they will emphasize and de-emphasize.

polly styrene // Posted 06 August 2008 at 07:01

If you click on the following link Laura, you will see that far from being born with a gender identity, child psychologists have found that it is something that develops gradually between approximately the ages of 2-6 years.

http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/resource/view.php?id=176761

Also please note this:

"There is evidence that some important gender-appropriate behaviours result from the child's ability to categorise themselves as a boy or girl."

Most children face enormous pressures to develop gender normative behaviours and any child that indulges in 'inappropriate' behaviour will be criticised and censured. For instance my small nephew used to love dressing up in dresses when he was about five and had long curly hair. My sister in law and brother were criticised for allowing him to do this - the implication being that he was 'bound to grow up gay'. Well he may be but he just got married to a woman.

Given the huge pressure in society to conform to gender roles, it's unsurprising that gender normative behaviour is so common. One psychologist in the USA for instance who was featured on a recent BBC programme about actor John Barrowman claims that he can predict whether a child will grow up gay or lesbian if it displays 'non gender normative' behaviours.

While some individuals clearly have a strong sense of being a particular gender, I don't see how this is in any way innate. You only have to look at the changing construction of lesbian identities over the years to see this. For instance in the 1920's lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall supported the theory of sexologists Havelock Ellis and Kraft-Ebbing that lesbians were 'inverts' - men born in the wrong body. This theory has lasted throughout the years, though there is little or no evidence for it.

As a lesbian I find this to be deeply homophobic, which is one reason why I am opposed to the idea that gender is 'innate' and caused by biological factors, or indeed that homosexual behaviour is. When a supposed 'gay gene' was discovered the Daily Mail ran the headline "Abortion hope after gay gene finding".

Elly // Posted 06 August 2008 at 08:57

Hum, I'm sorry but I really disagree with your post.

"if one’s brain, or soul, or being, whatever you want to call it, feels differently sexed to one’s body, it must seem insulting, arrogant and privileged to hear others claim that gender is just an illusion, that we should destroy it, that we’ll never be free until we rid ourselves of this socially constructed,
patriarchal delusion."

Or, at the contrary, you could imagine that destroying gender would resolve the "dissonance" between body and mind, thus making it all more liberating.

"The experience of trans gendered people indicates that there is at least some natural, biological component to gender."

Why ? The only experiences "proving" this are the testimonies of some transpeople saying that they always feel like men or women despite their body. Which I find quite a weak evidence.

Now of course there is some biological component in the developement of an indidividual, but I think it is social construction that "genderizes" it.

So I don't think "the existence of trans gendered people challenges the social constructionist model", more than, say, the existence of birds challenges the gravity model. It's just that it is a bit more complicated than "people say you're a boy/girl, so you end up as a boy/girl", as gravity is a bit more than "everything falls down".

Lindsey // Posted 06 August 2008 at 08:57

Interesting post. I think part of the problem is that gender stereotypes are so huge in every society (though each society has constructed them differently) it's easy to forget that we still experience gender in a personal way. Each person's experience of their own gender is different - what's important is for those different experiences to be recognised as equally valid.

Fran // Posted 06 August 2008 at 09:54

Wonderful article!

What is clear to me is that if gender is completely socially constructed, then trans people wouldn't be able to exist at all, whether they fit neatly into someone's theory of gender or not. If gender is a social construct, then someone who has been told all their life that they're one gender should not be able to challenge this -- yet people do, indicating that gender is rooted in something deeper.

Which makes me wonder if we need to split "gender" into two distinct (if related) categories -- one dealing with gender identity and how a person relates to their physical sex, and one dealing with gender role and the social and cultural meanings of 'femininity' or 'masculinity'. I think the former aspect of gender could be neurological, or somehow 'natural', whereas the latter is socially constructed.

(As a cis woman, by the way, I've largely taken my knowledge of what it means to be trans from the experiences of a few friends, so feel free to shoot holes in my theory!)

chem_fem // Posted 06 August 2008 at 10:22

Thanks for answering my question. I guess I have some thinking to do on the subject of gender, I suspect the word doesn't mean what I've always supposed it to mean.

Ellie // Posted 06 August 2008 at 11:36

Hey, just to say i agree, i think there probably is something neurological at work with gender. Is anyone aware of any research regarding this? Psychological or medical? Just because it would be interesting to know if there was some genetic component to this or if it was hormone based or environment based.

Elly // Posted 06 August 2008 at 11:51

Again, I don't agree :), this time with Fran:

"If gender is a social construct, then someone who has been told all their life that they're one gender should not be able to challenge this"

This is not that simple because gender, as a social construct, is full of contradiction. Personally, everyday of my life as a boy, I have been told (directly or not) that I was a boy. That is true. But everyday of my life as a boy, I have also been told (directly or not) that I was NOT a boy: e.g., everytime I cried (boys don't cry), everytime I didn't want to play soccer, later because I had long hair, etc.

So seeing all the contradictions that exist in gender, seeing how it is easy to be considered as "not a [real] man/woman" as soon as you don't fit perfectly in a gender, no, I don't think it is very surprising that, sometimes, someone more or less raised as a boy ends up constructing as a woman (or at least, not as a man), or the contrary.

Michelle // Posted 06 August 2008 at 12:08

Brilliant post, Laura, you raise some v. interesting and important points particularly re. cisprivilege and how even though there may be differences between cisgender and transgender women, there are also differences between women within each of these categories which we would do well to remember in discussions re. women-only space when justification for female-born women-only space often rests on some notion that all female-born women will inevitably share a common oppression when that is not the case.

I also echo Fran in thinking that there may be two kinds of gender. I agree that patriarchal constructions of gender should be tackled, because as Laura says, these discriminate against and restrict both cisgender and transgender women (and men too). However, even if we did live in a world without 'gender' I still think the sexed bodies we inhabit would invariably affect how we feel about ourselves and how we wish to present ourselves to others i.e. another type of 'gender'.

Kath // Posted 06 August 2008 at 14:19

Laura, that's a great post. It's really given me some things to think about. Fran's comments are really insightful too!

Louise // Posted 06 August 2008 at 14:26

I wonder in this debate and the debate from other posts on the topic this article by Feminism 101 might be useful...

FAQ: if “gender is a social construct”, aren’t feminists saying that gender doesn’t really exist at all?

A: NO. Social constructs are human conceptions, invented but not therefore imaginary (unless one thinks that social consequences are imaginary).

The problem here is that the debate so far has been either gender is real/natural or gender is fake/societal. Social constructions are as real as other things but it doesn't mean they are "natural". That's basic gender theory.

Sam // Posted 06 August 2008 at 14:46

'Hey, firstly, great post. It saddens me when I see anyone, but especially self-defined feminists, questioning the integrity of another person's sex.

I was wondering if you could clarify a couple of things:

1. Are you saying in your forth paragraph that, because trans people need to change their sex, that this necessarily means that gender is not entirely constructed?

2. You say,

'What unites is our common experience as the sexual underclass. The discrimination we face as women... is something that can only be overcome if we work together.'

If being united as a 'sexual underclass' is the sufficient condition for being considered in this group who need to work together to overthrow discrimination, why do you limit those to whom you direct your call to arms at women?

Thanks.

Mobot // Posted 06 August 2008 at 15:27

Great post, I think it's about time a sensitive discussion was had about this! And I must say I'm shocked and upset to see the website you linked to about 'questioning trans politics' - how on earth can anyone who calls themselves a feminist be so bigoted? It sounds like a cliché but it's so frustrating that feminists who have really divisive, exclusive agendas and feel that they get to decide who can join in the 'woman'/ 'feminist' club are the ones who are often the most vocal and give the rest of us a bad name! Maybe I'm being unfair, I felt a little childish writing that, but I like to think of the feminist community as diverse and accepting. End of rant!

Zenobia // Posted 06 August 2008 at 16:10

Great post, Laura. What I like about your posts is that, even when I'm shaking my fist in disagreement - as was the case with a couple of your previous gender abolitionist posts - I really admire the way you're not afraid to ask questions, and even get things badly wrong, in the interest of progress. You could never be accused of being complacent. That kind of fearlessness is a very underrated quality, and it's what feminism is all about, whereas too often it's too much about 'thank god we're right about everything, let's have some cake!'.

Hope this doesn't come across as patronising, but I mean it, anyway.

queen emily // Posted 06 August 2008 at 16:27

Thanks for this Laura.

You're absolutely right when you say, "as a cis woman (by which I mean non-trans), I have the privilege of being able to write off gender, of deciding that it doesn’t matter to me any more."

Because, in my opinion, most cis people all gain more and risk less from their gender presentations.

I'm not just talking about the kind of horrific violence we were talking about with Angie Zapata. Which was a hate crime, pure and simple. Or the estimated 50% chance transgendered people have of being the victims of assaults in any given year.

What I mean is, the legal, social and economic black hole that being trans puts you in.

It's all very well to say "fuck gender," but what do *your* documents say? Do you have to travel looking one way and having your documents say another? Because driver's licenses and passports and 50 other million things have genders on them, and that tiny little M or F makes a massive amount of difference when your documents don't match up.

And most governments make it difficult, expensive, and sometimes totally impossible to change that marker.

This is all part of the social construction of gender--not just the performative, or the Butlerian "gender all the way down" notion of the sexed body--and cis people benefit from the freedom of not being considered potential criminals, frauds or even terror suspects (US Homeland Security memo about "cross-dressing terrorists") by institutions in countless ways.

And then there's Social Security "no-matches" that can out you to employers, and very little anti-discrimination legislation etc etc.

Anyway. My point, is saying "fuck gender" is easy. Working out the infinite ways to allow more gender freedoms, to make it less prescriptive is far more difficult. And the more than occasional suggestions by some feminists that trans people--and only trans people--"reify" the social construction of gender just doesn't help imo, frankly.

Laura // Posted 06 August 2008 at 19:25

Polly,

I am fully aware of and accept the ways in which gender is socially constructed, particularly during childhood as you describe. I agree that it is unsurprising that gender normative behaviour is so common. However, the clear role that social construction plays in the formation of gender identity along patriarchal lines does not necessarily negate the possibility that - for some individuals at least - aspects of our own understanding of ourselves as sexed beings (not only in the genital/reproductive sense) could have a biological or natural cause.

I agree with Fran when she says:

"...we need to split "gender" into two distinct (if related) categories -- one dealing with gender identity and how a person relates to their physical sex, and one dealing with gender role and the social and cultural meanings of 'femininity' or 'masculinity'. I think the former aspect of gender could be neurological, or somehow 'natural', whereas the latter is socially constructed."

Fran // Posted 06 August 2008 at 21:20

Elly, you make some good points, but I'm still not sure that simply being told that their appearance or behaviour is un-masculine or un-feminine would always be enough to make someone feel they were in the wrong body, although I'm aware from personal experience that it can cause problems (and I completely agree with you that abolishing the social and cultural baggage surrounding gender would prevent a lot of suffering). I grew up a tomboy and was always aware of somehow being unfeminine and different from other girls. This did lead me to question the whole idea of gender, but never caused me to feel like my body was wrong. I actually remember a classmate of mine, when we were about 7 or 8, asking whether I wanted to be a boy. I replied "no, I just don't want to be treated like a girl!"

Obviously, though, I can't extrapolate too much from my own experiences -- and cis privilege prevents me from properly understanding what it's like to be trans -- so I'd like to hear other people's stories before making my mind up. Although I'd like to also give the example of an ftm acquaintance who loves to dress as a woman and generally engage in gender-bending antics ;) suggesting that to him, at least, transitioning was about his physical sex and his identity rather than his behaviour and socio-cultural role. Other interpretations are welcome!

Anne Onne // Posted 06 August 2008 at 23:24

I think this is a very thoughtful way to go through questioning and explaining what gender may be. This frank walk through of your ideas is useful as an idea of how to become a trans ally. I look forward to more of the same. :)

I like the idea of splitting gender into categories, or at least remembering that it is many things. On the one hand, many of the things people believe are specific to men or women are definitely societal influences.

On the other hand, it's important to remember that everyone experiences gender differently, and that we can't say gender is nonexistent without ignoring the voices of people who powerfully feel that they are definitely a particular gender.

If we're talking about science, I would guess it's very, very complex. We talk about nature and nurture, but in reality, the two really aren't neat categories. Nature affects nurture: our genes affect the way the environment affects us. And the environment affects the way the genes are expressed and passed on. Just like we can never really know what effect stereotypes have on how men and women (trans and cis) act, because of all the conditioning that contributes, we can never really know exactly what gender is in the context of a society obsessed with telling people X they are one thing and people Y they are another. It's impossible to make any conclusions of worth without taking into account that society affects everything.

I would guess something as complicated as gender would be impossible to pin on one thing or the other, because something as complicated as the brain is created by an intricate interplay between genes, the environment. To be honest, the environment may have a bigger part to play than biology. I remember a delightful anecdote told by a professor of physiology, about castrating male apes. The ufortunate males in smaller species of ape quickly lost their interest in mating. As the apes got bigger in size (and therefore had a more complex brain), they held on to their sexual impulses for longer after being castrated, before losing all interest because of their physical state. Humans? We can lose our gonads, and it doesn't matter, we can still want and have sex. Moral of the story: the more developed the brain, the less of a role biological cues play, and the more of a role the brain (and therefore environment or society) plays.

I don't know about gender, but there's some work being done at the University of London (Queen Mary, I think) about homosexuality and biology at the moment. I must say I'm wary about science and how research will be used to frame gender and sexuality, because we have no guarantee those interpreting the results won't be biased by the stereotypes of society, never mind whatever the media will make of any interesting results.

Carol // Posted 07 August 2008 at 00:01

I've read quite a bit of the discussions and posts by/about transgender and cis gender issues and experiences. I can't fully identify with either being trans or cis. Is there not an alternative position? Or is it another rigid binary?

Elly // Posted 07 August 2008 at 00:36

Well first, thanks for enabling 'contradictory' comments, particulary since I think it can be a (socially :p) constructive discussion :)

Fran:
"but I'm still not sure that simply being told that their appearance or behaviour is un-masculine or un-feminine would always be enough to make someone feel they were in the wrong body"

Yes, I think that if it was the case, there would be a _lot_ more of transsexuals :) I think the reaction depends on how it is interiorized by the individual (and, probably a wee bit of randomness, too). And of course this can be partly influenced by genetical/biological/natural factors. But I don't think those factors are intrinsically "male", "female", "trans", etc ; maybe in other social contexts, they could have different or opposite effects.

As for the two types of genders (social gender and "psychological gender" or gender identity) I think the distinction can indeed be interesting. But I don't see why gender identity needs to be biological: the fact that something is deeply anchored into someone's brain doesn't mean that it was since birth (to take a stupid example, my mother tongue is deeply anchored in my brain and it partly shapes how I am able to think, but it is not innate).

Besides, the real problem I have with that explanation (gender identity is "innate") is that, if taken "extremely" (that is, not "partly innate" or "sometimes innate"), it means that you can never change this gender identity; which may help to accept being transsexual (it's not your "fault"), but can also help rejecting some forms of "transness" because they don't fit well in the standard "woman's soul in a man's body" narrative, e.g. explaining that you're not a real trans' because you didn't always 'feel as a woman' (yes, this was my case, which explains why I'm a bit embittered when it comes to this /o\).

Now I can understand that some people who have a strong "gender identity" (whether they are trans or not) might not be happy when hearing that such gender identity is "constructed" because it sounds less real, fictional. But it is not the case, a construction has real effects.

So I think there is no need to say "I am for social construction, so I am against transgender" or "I am for transgender, so I am against social construction". It doesn't oppose.

Lisa Harney // Posted 07 August 2008 at 09:00

Louise,

"The problem here is that the debate so far has been either gender is real/natural or gender is fake/societal. Social constructions are as real as other things but it doesn't mean they are "natural". That's basic gender theory."

I've made this point several times in past discussions elsewhere, but it gets elided in favor of insisting that gender is a social construct, therefore it's not real, therefore it's impossible for trans people to be genuinely who they say they are.

In other words, a whole raft of rules about gender are imposed on trans people that simply aren't applied to cis people. That's a big part of the problem.

Sairah // Posted 07 August 2008 at 10:15

I love this post.
For myself, I love being treated as a girl in most aspects. However, I don't particularly behave in what can typically be defined as "feminine" by the socially constructed labels that seem to have been placed. I guess I like the label but without half of the definition.. if that makes sense.
Your post highlights a lot of instances where adding those labels just causes more questions than answers.. and that's a good thing.
Finally, I think a lot more can be done on the gender studies. Although I'm not too sure, I don't believe that simply saying to a child that they are one gender or another will make them feel any different in their own bodies. For example, you could tell a boy that he's a girl all his life, and he'd know that it was wrong.. You could also tell a boy that he is a boy, but if he feels as though this is wrong, he'll be likely to change that and have reassignment surgery.
But again... there are times when this is not the case.

Steph Jones // Posted 07 August 2008 at 12:33

I'm going to lend some support to Polly here. As a (transsexual) woman, I am one of those that is firmly in the 'gender is a social construct'. I am transsexual not because of the clothes that I wear, or the toys that I played with when I was a child, or that I liked 'pink or blue', I am transsexual because I had (in absence of any other way to explain it), the inate sense from about 4 that the body/genitals I was born with were all wrong. I don't consider that to really be related to social conformity of gender. I grew up in a liberal environment where I was neither forced to conform to strict gender normativity, nor encouraged either way. I was allowed free expression, and yet, despite this, that did not change how I felt about my body and sex.

As both (transsexual) and a Feminist, I am also increasingly concerned that discussion in regards to trans, gender, etc. is becoming eroded because transactivism (which is predominantly made up of men part-time 'transgendering' as women and whom do not wish to make any commitment to physical transition their sex - happy to retain their male privilege whilst claiming womanhood) has effectively made any such discussion taboo without being shouted down as 'transphobic'.

I'm also starting to think that the terms cisgender and cissexual are also equally privileged in themselves. Just because someone is not trans, does not mean they are automatically 'cis-privileged' - what about gay men that are not trans but transgress 'gender norms' and suffer from homophobia? what about lesbian women that are not trans but suffer homophobia AND sexism because they refuse to accept 'gender norms' of how women should supposedly dress and act?.

Flo // Posted 07 August 2008 at 12:50

Thanks for your post Laura, I think it’s really good that it sparked off this discussion which seems to have been bubbling beneath the surface of TFW for a while. I totally agree with the spirit of your post (i.e. cis feminists should be more aware of cisprivilege), but I don’t agree that it is arrogant to say gender is a social construct – as Louise writes above, saying that something is a social construct is not the same as saying it isn’t real. But I don’t entirely agree with the gender = social construct, sex = natural biology distinction that quite a few people seem to be using either. It’s the biology = natural i.e. non-cultural bit that bothers me…

Our bodies are shaped by social and cultural forces, which is obvious enough when we think of eating disorders and dieting from a feminist perspective, but it seems like people are drawing a line between mind – where we process cultural ideas about gender – and body – which has a sex. I’m really no expert on human biology, but my understanding is that we are a single organism made up of many fiendishly complicated interacting systems, so something that happens to one system can have consequences for other systems, and I think the mind is part of this. I’m not saying that our bodies are entirely socially or culturally constructed (clearly not!), just that our bodies are within the realm of society and culture and can’t be cordoned off as natural, pure biology. Afterall, I may have been born ostensibly ‘female’, but I believe that the way I was brought up (how I was treated as a child, what and how much I was fed, what I was encouraged to do i.e. ballet not tree-climbing or weightlifting etc.) has shaped the development of all of me – both psychologically and biologically. This may be pretty obvious in terms of my physical appearance, but if my body is a series of complex interacting systems, couldn’t gendered behaviour that lead me to develop particular physical attributes rather than others e.g. thinness, relative lack of strength of my arm muscles etc., have also affected less visible aspects of me like my immune system, hormonal makeup or neurology?

If this were true, then I’m not sure how it would apply to transgender. I really don’t know anywhere near enough about the science or experience of transgender to attempt to apply it (though everyone seems to be pointing to Julia Serano as a good place to start doing something about that). I’d be interested to hear what people think though. I think the culture/biology interaction works both ways, so our bodies shape culture too. My guess would be that this has something to do with why those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo are so hostile to transgender – a body that can change sex or be ambiguous is a serious challenge to a social order based on innate and indisputable biological differences between two distinct sexes.

If people are interested in this whole biology/culture interaction thing Margaret Lock’s book Encounters with Aging is a good example (it’s a cross-cultural study of differences in political and social attitudes towards, women’s experiences of, and even the biology, of menopause in Japan and USA. She sees the biological differences as being about this interaction between society, culture and the body, not about race).

Joanne Hill // Posted 07 August 2008 at 13:50

I've only skimmed the comments so far but am very interested in reading everything but couldn't wait long enough because I wanted to mention I've been reading a bit of poststructuralist theory for my MA dissertation on women's football. As well as helping to discuss what makes a woman, poststructuralism helps to discuss the lived relations and experiences of people within the gendered society. In an ideal world gender might not matter, or it might matter to you personally and you can have an identity which is gendered or not gendered, or gendered a little bit, in loads of different ways, as you please and at different times or in different locations you might change that identity. I think I don't like the 'old feminist' position that femininity is inferior is very helpful, because then we have problems like this with trans women sometimes being told they are making things worse! I'd like to think one day a feminine identity or a masculine identity will be a choice, with no essentialist negative or positive characteristics. But, while we live in a gendered society, all people will engage and interact with dominant discourses/stereotypes and gendered positions, but end up with their own interpretations. Unfortunately a lot of the time, other people don't like that, hence transphobia, homophobia, misogyny....

Maybe we need to stop thinking about the WHY of gender/sex identity (as, where does it come from), and discuss the HOW - how do people negotiate their gender identities, what their experiences are, and how to make those experiences positive and fearless.

(Once I get my dissertation written I'm starting a blog on all this and on gender/race/class in sport...)

Steph Jones // Posted 07 August 2008 at 15:02

Also, does anyone else find the term 'cis feminist' utterly outrageous? Why should a Feminist even have to define herself as a 'cis' one?

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 07 August 2008 at 17:07

Polly Styrene:

You are confusing "sex" and "gender" with your academic reference. It focuses (as far as I can see) only on the social aspects of gender, and not on one's awareness of one's own body, which is a separate issue.

A transsexual person is not talking about hir social role, but rather that something in the brain is expecting to find itself in control of a penis instead of a vagina, or vice versa - like having the wrong software to operate a piece of hardware; but the human brain is such a complex and adaptable system that it can cope, to a point. But that doesn't stop error messages cropping up all the time!

Laura // Posted 07 August 2008 at 18:39

Thank you all for your responses :-) I'm snowed under with damn paperwork at the moment, but will write some more thoughtful replies soon.

Just wanted to say in response to Steph - I used the term "cis feminist" simply because it was used in the title of the piece Helen linked to in her original post - I don't go around with a "cis feminist" t-shirt on or anything!

Fran // Posted 07 August 2008 at 22:56

Elly: some really interesting comments -- you've given me a lot to think about. I'm still not ready to completely give up my idea of gender having different "natural" and "socially constructed" parts, as to me it seems like the only way to make sense of some people's experiences (like the example of the guy I mentioned in my last comment). On the other hand, though, I may have oversimplified things -- maybe it's not fair to say "all trans people are trans because of X" when everyone has such different experiences, and when some people feel they were always a certain gender and some don't. If there is a "natural" component of gender, then maybe it affects different people in different ways, with a degree of randomness involved, of course ;)

Actually (I'm thinking on my feet here), my mum was telling me a moment ago that the "nature/nurture" thing is a false dichotomy. Apparently (this is relevant, honest) being kind to children makes them produce certain proteins that cause them to be kind to others in turn -- aspects of nature and nurture working together and altering each other in the process. So, I'm wondering if something similar might be at work with gender -- maybe we'd be better off viewing it as a product of interaction between nature, neurology, whatever you call it and social constructions, a bit like a conversation? If that's the case it could help explain why gender can sometimes change or be fluid, rather than being something that's "innate", although it would make my initial attempt to divide gender into two distinct categories look rather naive!

In any case I'm really glad this discussion is going on, as it's something we could all learn a lot from. It's definitely been interesting to see my own ideas evolve since yesterday morning.

Kath // Posted 08 August 2008 at 12:47

Anne - Great comment. It's important to remember that everything (genetics, upbringing, culture etc) that influences our bodies and behaviour does so against a background of a million other influences and so will have different effects in different people. And I absolutely agree that our big brains are what free us from our 'biology' relative to other species.

Lisa Harney // Posted 08 August 2008 at 15:46

Almost forgot:

As both (transsexual) and a Feminist, I am also increasingly concerned that discussion in regards to trans, gender, etc. is becoming eroded because transactivism (which is predominantly made up of men part-time 'transgendering' as women and whom do not wish to make any commitment to physical transition their sex - happy to retain their male privilege whilst claiming womanhood) has effectively made any such discussion taboo without being shouted down as 'transphobic'.

Prove this. Prove that most trans activists are men who play at being women part time. Provide some actual examples. What you're saying here is simply an attempt to discredit what anyone who might identify themselves as an activist might say.

I'm also starting to think that the terms cisgender and cissexual are also equally privileged in themselves. Just because someone is not trans, does not mean they are automatically 'cis-privileged' - what about gay men that are not trans but transgress 'gender norms' and suffer from homophobia? what about lesbian women that are not trans but suffer homophobia AND sexism because they refuse to accept 'gender norms' of how women should supposedly dress and act?.

Do you know what intersectionality is? It's the idea that people have to deal with intersecting areas of privilege or the lack thereof. White people have white privilege - whether straight, gay, cis, trans, male female. Men have male privilege, whether straight, gay, white, person of color, whatever.

Heterosexuality is privileged, where homosexuality is not privileged. That's where a gay man comes into it. A gay man's gender is generally seen as more valid than a trans man's or trans woman's gender, and you can find gay men who will assert that over trans people (see: John Aravosis, Andrew Sullivan). That's because despite being targets of homophobia, they are completely aware of the fact that they're not trans, and consider themselves to be better than trans people - hence the things they say about trans people.

Read up on what the terms mean, because what you're saying here shows you don't actually know.

And using those terms is privilege? That's like saying that a gay man calling a straight man heterosexual is an exercise of privilege. It seems to me that you're more interested in - again - discrediting those you see as "part time women" trans activists.

queen emily // Posted 08 August 2008 at 16:48

"Maybe we need to stop thinking about the WHY of gender/sex identity (as, where does it come from), and discuss the HOW - how do people negotiate their gender identities, what their experiences are, and how to make those experiences positive and fearless."

Thank you Joanne. That strikes me as much more productive and respectful, with regards to all kinds of identities (more than just trans*). Because, see, the "why" inevitably has implicit normativity and often embedded moralism.

eg, the search for a gay gene already itself presumes from the start a heterosexual norm which is "departed" from.

queen emily // Posted 08 August 2008 at 17:00

And Steph, let me just say, that is quite the inaccurate description of transgendered politics. Yes it embraces no-op/no-hormone trans people, but there's such a wide range of trans identities. The majority of which, in my experience both online and in real-life activists, include "classic" transsexuals who've had or intend on having surgery.

Online, this is just about every trans blogger I know. Myself, Lisa @ Questioning Transphobia, Helen G here, Little Light, Nexy, Rebecca at Burning Words, Nexy at Transadvocate.

So I have honestly no idea what you're talking about, or what your point is.

Squigglefish // Posted 09 August 2008 at 12:53

Elly postulated:
"you could imagine that destroying gender would resolve the "dissonance" between body and mind, thus making it all more liberating."
This is actually true to a certain degree. When trans people begin using their prefered gender, the discord inherent begins to reduce, and it is very liberating to feel freed to live however you wish.

However, the problem of the flesh still remains, and this should be no surprise. There are many women who use hormonal birth control for reasons other than simply birth control and preventing bad periods. Many others dislike such effects. Imagine having a skin condition which made all your skin too rough, or unnaturally smooth. And I will have to mention the sheer horror of finding you have a strange series of holes down below, or this weird fleshy growth.

The problem with the purely social construct approach (when it is used against trans people) is that it actually ends up entirely unfeminist. They decree that although gender can be adopted freely, one should be forever tied to the flesh. But traditional concepts of gender are themselves entirely rooted in the flesh! That is were the divide lies, and something our society is obsessed about. Even if society was changed, this model denies self determination of the body, enforcing a physiological fixed binary system, and ultimately making a mockery of the objectives of fluidity and freedom.

That is not to say that nature itself does not tend towards a binary physiological system, but rather that it is wrong to say 'get over gender' whilst also saying 'your body and all that which it forces are fixed forever'.

Speaking of nature, it obviously points towards a more complex basis for gender. Anyone who has taken any sex hormone, or sex hormone blocker, can tell you that they really can have an effect. And we need only look to animal behavioural studies to get further hints towards an innate aspect. But at the same time, so much of gender is purely a social construct. Trans people themselves find this, as it is their own confidence which plays the biggest part in being gendered correctly by others. So we should not be looking for a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to the origin of gender.

Moving onto unrelated matters, fran reveals a wonderful anecdote that deserves more attention:
"I'd like to also give the example of an ftm acquaintance who loves to dress as a woman and generally engage in gender-bending antics ;) suggesting that to him, at least, transitioning was about his physical sex and his identity rather than his behaviour and socio-cultural role."
This is exactly what it is all about, and more of this sort of freedom being allowed would vastly improve discussions like these! Truth be told, it is not even that uncommon, either!

Then there was this comment by Steph Jones, which almost hit a nail on the head:
"what about gay men that are not trans but transgress 'gender norms' and suffer from homophobia? what about lesbian women that are not trans but suffer homophobia AND sexism because they refuse to accept 'gender norms' of how women should supposedly dress and act?."
Homophobia does not have its routes in some kind of magical aura of gayness, or in observed same-sex kissing. In almost every case I have known, the cause has not been these things, but rather because of a perceived difference in gender presentation - they are inherently based on the same thing as transphobia.

As a final thought, I think there is one problem very much at the core of most of the issues we see. We see this not just here, but in other aspects of feminist discussion, in debates over racism, and politicians love to embrace this concept. There is the strange belief that the world must only be made up of black or white. Grey is unheard of, and typically even the possibility of it is shouted down. And yet the world itself is made up of greys, of things that are complex and multi-faceted. We need to get over black and white, and embrace the grey, however scary it may seem.

Elly // Posted 09 August 2008 at 17:07

Squigglefish:
"However, the problem of the flesh still remains, and this should be no surprise. [...]
The problem with the purely social construct approach (when it is used against trans people) is that it actually ends up entirely unfeminist. They decree that although gender can be adopted freely, one should be forever
tied to the flesh."

Well personally I don't think the social construct approach is a reason to say people shouldn't modify their body ; even if I think they shouldn't, ideally, do it because of a social pressure saying that women are like this and men like that.

Personally I found this approach quite liberating because it allowed me to ask myself questions on why I wanted to change my body and eventually to decide which modifications I would go through not because of gender norms but with what I felt was a beginning of choice.

Now it's true that some people consider that the "natural" body is good and you shouldn't touch it but accept it as it is, and I of course disagree with that.

---

And about the biological/cultural dichotomy, I agree with Flo and Fran that it is a false one and oversymplifying and there are complex interactions.

Squigglefish // Posted 09 August 2008 at 20:10

Elle wrote:
"even if I think they shouldn't, ideally, do it because of a social pressure saying that women are like this and men like that."

And I would agree with this - societal pressure is the wrong reason to do something which should be self-affirming and meaningful to yourself as a person. You should be the one who personally benefits, not those around you.

Marja // Posted 12 August 2008 at 00:08

I'd like to thank you for considering the issue and I'd like to share my own perspective.

I am a trans woman, full-time, pre-op. I grew up enjoying many "boy things," and without trying many "girl things." I sometimes regretted the absence, but mostly enjoyed my boyhood. I found my body increasingly distressing as I approached puberty, and wished there were some way to grow up as a woman instead of a man. At the same time, I one of my fellow-students was extremely transphobic, and equated transsexualism with cross-dressing. I have nothing against cross-dressing, but I have no great interest in gendered clothing, except how it fits, how it lasts, etc.

I assumed that I wasn't trans. I knew that everyone feels distress in puberty and thought nothing of it. I assumed that everyone felt this mismatch, and that most people sublimated it into hetero romance. (I am attracted to other women).

Years later, I realized that I am trans. I still have many "male" hobbies. I'm not giving them up. And when beginning my transition, I insisted that I need to be a genderfree woman. I don't identify with either gender role, but I know how my body is supposed to fit together.

Everyone's story is unique. So I'm not going to speak for other trans women. But I find it easier to talk about "brain sex" and "body sex" than gender identity, because transsexualism is present everywhere, while gender [roles] can vary and invert from place to place.

As for the question of biological influences, whether at birth or later, you might read:

http://jcem.endojournals.org/cgi/content/full/85/5/2034#top

Thank you.

Zoe Brain // Posted 19 August 2008 at 06:23

May I recommend Milton Diamond's "A Biased-Interaction Theory of Psychosexual Development:How Does One Know if One is Male or Female?”
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2294/is_55/ai_n21130341/print

As for the medical stuff on gender differences, a summary is at http://aebrain.blogspot.com/2008/06/bigender-and-brain.html

The short version: it appears that pre-natal hormones affect the lymbic nucleus, giving either female-, male-, or bigendered-typical emotional responses.

Children use their own emotional responses, not culturally-determined behaviour, to discover their gender. "I may look like a girl, and dress like a girl, but girls don't think like me and boys do". It's not whether they prefer blue or pink, that's socially constructed: it's how they feel. They may adopt socially constructed behaviour to match their desires, but cross-gendered behaviour is (weakly) associated with cross-gendered sexual orientation, not gender identity. Those who are bigendered will use cues of dress and appearance to determine who they are. Some really are "gender neutral", a tabula rasa, but most are not.

Post-puberty, the hormonal influences that occurred in the womb also lead to visible sexual differentiation in the lymbic system - so they are an indicator, a symptom, not a cause.

Oh and Laura? You get it. You grok in fullness. Thanks, it can be a bit discouraging at times.

BTW I'm more properly classified as Intersexed rather than Trans*. One of the weird conditions like 5ARD or 17BHDD where you get a natural partial/apparent sex change. 2/3 of the time to the right one, the one you should have been all along. I was lucky.

Milly Paige // Posted 30 June 2009 at 03:58

A few very quick points here. I could rant on until the cows come home. I love your article. A few observations at 4am to those making comments. None of which should be taken as 'the truth', but merely my observations (anyone who tries to assert 'the truth' has their own agenda):

1) The binaries of 'male' and 'female' are defined by patterns that emerge in statistics. This is a very important thing that forms this manner of science, where variables are so complex and a general rule does not necessarily carry them selves from one category to another.

2) Most categories of variables (ie: chromosomes, hormones, ability to play football, etc.) do not have only two possible outcomes. Male and Female can only be described as patterns.

3) Nature is FULL of these variables. It's what we sometimes call 'evolution', 'natural selection', 'mutation', etc.

4) 'Maleness' and 'femaleness' is a generalisation of two loose categories which are formed of these variables and happen to apply quite often to the majority of the population.

5) Patterns in Gender/Sex behaviour occur in all species that have non-asexual reproductive organs. Thus some patterns of this behaviour are innate, even though they vary greatly from species to species.

6) Trans genital surgery and all other trans related surgeries and medical intervention do not make one a 'male' or a 'female'.

7) I identify as female because that's the pattern that I feel that I fit into best, even though it can lead to positive and negative reactions from others and objectification of my feminity / masculinity.

8) Masculinity and femininity are not opposite, not equal, but should be celebrated, as should any other gender identification alongside an individual's merits.

9) By disregarding a trans-persons gender identification, you ARE objectifying their bodies. Is this not what feminism is against?

10) Gender differences may not be equal, but human rights should be.

11) If a trans person tells you that they identify as one gender or the other because they feel innately that wayand you disagree- it's your word against theirs. As you will never know how they feel subconsciously, let alone anyone else, they are better informed on their own inner workings than you, so please respect their disclosure.

12) It's fine to identify as gender neutral or such-like, but what applies to yourself, does not implicitly mean that everyone else fits your mould. The same goes for sexuality.

13) thanks for listening! Again, these are only my own personal observations and are not intended to assert any sense of rightfulness on yours!

Laura // Posted 30 June 2009 at 09:56

Hi Milly,

Thanks for your contribution. Could you expand a little on the following?

6) Trans genital surgery and all other trans related surgeries and medical intervention do not make one a 'male' or a 'female'.

I'm assuming you mean that it is a trans person's sense of their own gender that makes them male or female, and the medical intervention allows them to more easily live as that gender, but is not what originally determines their gender, is that correct?

Milly Paige // Posted 02 July 2009 at 01:47

6) Trans genital surgery and all other trans related surgeries and medical intervention do not make one a 'male' or a 'female'.

I'm assuming you mean that it is a trans person's sense of their own gender that makes them male or female, and the medical intervention allows them to more easily live as that gender, but is not what originally determines their gender, is that correct?

You are entirely correct there! sorry, thought I'd clarified that, but it *was* really early in the morning! lol!

xx

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