On being a gender-free feminist.

// 9 July 2010

I take a deep breath. I’ve been here before. But it wasn’t easy the first time around, and it isn’t this time, either. I turn to her in the car. We’re on the A1, coming back from her place. It feels like as good a time as any.

“I don’t identify as a woman.” There’s a pause as it sinks in. I see her brow knit. I’ve definitely been here before. She looks at me then and asks, horrified, if I’m going to ‘turn into a man’. I explain softly that no, I’m not going to turn into a man, I just don’t identify as a woman. I feel no connection with the gender I was assigned, but I don’t feel drawn to the male gender, either. I just didn’t know what I was.

Uh, no. She says, with an indignant tone – I am a lesbian, I sleep with women, therefore you are a woman. She turns back to the wheel.

This was my second coming out. Admittedly my ex-partner reacted a lot better than my mother did eight years prior when, caught having an argument on the phone with a supposed friend who subsequently outed me to the entire school, I had to own up. I’d asked a girl out at school. I was gay.

How, then, does a person go from being ‘gay’, to gender-free? Isn’t that a contradiction? Because surely a lesbian is a woman who sleeps with other women and it’s as simple as that.

I’d like to say that my coming to terms with my gender identity (or, non-identity?) was the result of me simply awakening one morning, having a sudden epiphany and declaring, ‘This is bullshit.’ But, no.

Honestly, the more I scrutinize my life and childhood, the more obvious it becomes that this was a journey I began as soon as I was able to grasp the fact that there were ‘boys’, and there were ‘girls’. I was fine with that, but I wasn’t interested in being one of them, and it never occurred to me that I had to be until much later. I remember clearly that even as I was just beyond half-way to double digits, I was making friends with all the prettiest girls in the class. I remember the awestruck admiration I’d have for attractive adult females. I befriended boys, too. Wasn’t so important to me that they were pretty.

I resented my mother’s efforts to put me in dresses, but had little interest in sharing my father’s passion for football. In my adult life I’d share his interest in politics. I’d join boxing classes. I’d invest in a sewing machine. I’d grow my hair out. I’d date a lot of girls, and a few boys. And through it all, I’d endure a constant feeling of vague alienation from the people and culture surrounding me.

A big part of my finding my gender queer identity was falling in love with feminism. Although I’ve always called myself feminist, it’s only truly over the last couple of years that I’ve educated myself in feminist issues, and I mostly did this through feminist writing on the internet. And in these writings I found the questions I had asked throughout my childhood and young adulthood both asked and answered. Feminism had the same disdain for this whole gender thing that I did. More importantly, feminism gave me a term for myself.

Over time I’d become more confident in my gender identity, and I would refer to myself less as gay.

The more I learned, however, the more questions I needed to find an answer for. I was born female. I can’t deny my biology, surely. Am I deluding myself? Am I insulting transgender people by essentially identifying as one of their community, while rarely having to face the same discrimination they do because I appear to be a cisgender woman? And if I do not identify as a woman, can I call myself a feminist?

I can’t answer all of these questions. Not yet, anyway. But I know that how I identify has no bearing upon the prejudices of others. No person may choose how they are discriminated against. I am gender free. But this, my breasts do not recognise. Nor my hips, or my hands, or the rounded curve of my face. I have been insulted, patronized, harassed, and assaulted as a woman, because this is what I will always be to the eyes of others. And so this is my place in feminism, that while I remain a genderless mind in a body automatically gendered by society, I am subjected to everything any woman is. I am wronged in all the same ways. This is how I am a gender free feminist.

Comments From You

Laurel Dearing // Posted 9 July 2010 at 3:04 pm

sounds familiar! doesnt matter if its woman, lady, girl, female… it just kinda makes me shudder. maybe if there was less emphasis on gender, less stereotyping, less implanted misogyny… maybe i could identify as one, purely because id never need to?

saranga // Posted 9 July 2010 at 3:30 pm

Excellent post,.

Rachel Feminista // Posted 9 July 2010 at 7:45 pm

This post is not about how Becky identifies internally… I’ve come to think gender identity probably has an internal ‘flavour’ for everyone.

But is being a woman also a ‘class’ identity? Is it possible (or even desirable) to identify in solidarity as a ‘woman’ because you are a person who experiences sexism – in the same way that ‘Black’ has at times and places been a political identity in relation to racism.

as, among other things, a radical anarcha womanontheedgeoftime feminist I’ve long aspired to a world where gender is non-significant in human relations. I’ve also long believed that it should be nigh on impossible to define what women feel like inside or behaves like on the outside.

Maybe rejection of gender is positive – but maybe identifying as women collectively is far more than internal gender identity – perhaps it’s a political project.

I also feel that now in 2010 when ‘woman’ is being more and more closely defined as by hypercapitalist patriarchy as ‘femme’ it would be useful to consider if it’s possible to have a ‘different’ or ‘butch’ or ‘queer’ or ‘gender-free’ internal identity (or insert more adequate language term) and still say – well this, in solidarity, is also what women are…

x R

tom hulley // Posted 9 July 2010 at 10:19 pm

you sound like a fine person, becky, and probably better than all those who would tell you what to be -best wishes.

Sarah // Posted 10 July 2010 at 9:12 am

I liked this, I feel the same way much of the time, though I wouldn’t have expressed it so eloquently! I’ve always felt, even as a little girl, that gender was something imposed on me by other people, rather than anything that really felt important or relevant to me. I don’t have a problem ‘identifying’ as a woman – I wouldn’t be sure what else to call myself, as I’m certainly not a man and have no wish to be, and there don’t seem to be any other options – but it’s not the most significant or important thing about me, and it annoys (and embarrasses) me when people draw attention to it unnecessarily.

I’m glad you put in the last paragraph though – too often these discussions end up with ‘gender is irrelevant’, ‘why don’t you call yourselves equalists not feminists’ etc, though I imagine in your ideal world (as in mine) there would be no need for such a feminism.

polly // Posted 10 July 2010 at 9:42 am

No Becky you’re not deluding yourself, but you correctly also identify that gender isn’t merely a matter of internal identity. In a gendered world, you have a *gender* whether you choose to or not.

I’d say that a great many woman don’t identify with the gender ‘woman’ just because they’re female. And merely behaving in non gender stereotyped ways doesn’t mean you can ‘escape’ your gender.

A lovely example I have of this is a group of teenagers on a station saying of me loudly ‘She looks like a boy’. It’s a fascinating sentence construction “she”(observably female person) looks like a boy (observably male person).

Of course they were intending to be homophobic, becuase in their heads ‘female person who does not look like their gender stereotype” = lesbian. And they were right as well, so I wasn’t bothered, but their intention was to intimidate/insult me.

It’s fairly common of course. People think that if they shout “lesbian” at you, you are going to be mortally wounded, when it doesn’t bother me a bit. I was walking down the road and drive by tosspot on the other side did that exact thing – leaned out his car and yelled ‘lesbian’. I yelled back ‘well spotted’ (It’s not Oscar Wilde, but it’s my standard riposte).

Which is one reason I personally wouldn’t be quick to abandon lesbian as a personal descriptor. In a world in which ‘woman’ is constructed on a heterosexual matrix openly identifying as a lesbian does disrupt that matrix (Monique Wittig said lesbians are not women). I don’t necessarily want to make huge claims for the subversive powers of the gay scene, but there have always been distinct lesbian identites and still are.

If being a lesbian weren’t disruptive, lesbians wouldn’t get the abuse they do. Liking football isn’t compulsory though – even if my friends tell me it is!

Swarmy // Posted 10 July 2010 at 10:21 am

>>

I can only speak for myself rather than others here (I know many agree with me, whilst others disagree), but as a trans woman myself I feel glad every time someone defines into the trans community. We gain strength in numbers and in unity: in working together. Gender queer identities are always an integral part of the trans campaigns I’ve worked with, and that’s a very good thing.

There’s a long history of trans communities adopting a “more-trans-than-thou” approach, and it’s deeply counter-productive and disempowering for many whenever it emerges. I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of policing the boundaries of the movement.

I think the great advantage of the emerging “trans” movement (as opposed to a fractured transgender/transsexual/transvestite movement which preceded it) is that there’s room for everyone who is in any way oppressed by gender norms to come together. Genderqueer people often experience things very differently to transsexed people, but transsexed people usually experience things very differently to cross-dressers or drag kings/queens. However, a non-gendered identity formed in opposition to a female assigned sex is surely as valid as my identity as a woman which was formed in opposition to a male assigned sex. Moreover, whilst you possess a certain amount of privilege as a genderqueer person who passes as a cis woman, so do I as a trans woman who passes as a cis woman. The important thing is to be aware of that privilege and keep it in check.

Obviously there’s a huge overlap between feminism and this form of trans politics, which can only be a good thing. Gender rights are women’s rights are trans rights, and the more trans people who are feminists and the more feminists who fight for trans rights, the better.

Jilly // Posted 10 July 2010 at 10:58 am

I know exactly what you mean. I think of myself as a human being.

An interesting and thoughtful piece – thank you

angercanbepower // Posted 10 July 2010 at 12:32 pm

Wow there is a lot to say here and I’m extremely hungover.

I’m in the same boat as you. But how do you explain not identifying as gendered? I’ve tried when I’ve felt brave. But the reaction is often along the same lines: “you might reject the gender expression of your assigned sex, but so do lots of people, that’s what this whole feminism thing is about, get over it”.

But it’s more than that. It’s not about sets of actions, the sum of which form gender expression – it’s nothing to do with that. It’s visceral. I am not a man. I am not a woman. But when people charge me that this is just some sort of middle-class, intellectual indulgence, I find it very difficult to explain why it isn’t.

I’m also in two minds about being included in the trans community. The name suggests the act of transitioning, which is something that we won’t (necessarily) do. Aren’t we just confusing people more?

Jessica // Posted 10 July 2010 at 1:43 pm

Thanks for this article. I have some very similar feelings myself. I’m physically very feminine-looking, and while I don’t feel unhappy with my body or expect it to look different, I really don’t feel like a “woman” most of the time.

Have you ever read Ursula le Guin’s book “The Left Hand of Darkness”? It’s about people who are physically both male and female during a period of sexual inactivity, and then become either female or male during an aroused period. It really made me think…

Rose // Posted 10 July 2010 at 4:05 pm

On friday I was glad that someone I worked with was fired, because he always called me ‘love’.

I wear jeans and a collar shirt, no makeup, no treated nails, I did the same job as that guy, why the constant reference to gender? And why cutesie terms for women?

I find terms like ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘sweetheart’, and ‘darling’ really patronising and inappropriate in the workplace, (or in my life generally).

I seem to keep meeting guys who what to make the world seem softer and nicer when I’m around, as if all I really want is a hug and a pink ribbon, when really all I want is for people to not even notice gender at all.

When I was 8 one of my faviourite poems had a line in it;

‘Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of,

So she put in a hand, and pulled out a gland, and said, “what a strange girl am I”.’

It struck a chord because I was already sick of being told that I didn’t like my hobbies, and would rather play more ‘girly’ games.

If a woman is what the world tells me thay are, I’m not one.

I’m comfortable with being biologically female, and the attributes that my biology has given me, but my genes didn’t make me hug pink fluffy things….. sorry!

impeus // Posted 10 July 2010 at 5:51 pm

Am I allowed to identify with what you write (unusual: I don’t “identify” very often) and still be pregnant? I’ve never been confused by gender, as such, just indifferent. Now confronted by impending “motherhood” I feel slightly fraudulent. I’m cool with being a parent though.

Miranda // Posted 11 July 2010 at 5:55 am

I found this article very interesting, and it made me consider my own identification as a ‘woman’. I think that the common conflation of ‘woman’ as a XX genotype/’female’ phenotype and ‘woman’ as a culturally constructed gender can make things very confusing. I have never doubted my own biological sex, but it has also never occurred to me that I should be the culturally sanctioned idea of a woman. I too love sewing and politics, am uninterested in most sport but also in cooking. However for me this translates into a rejection of the very idea of gender as something that is anything other than an (often oppressive) invention of society. In bringing up my three daughters I am constantly bombarded by assumptions that they will behave/not behave in certain ways because they are girls. I wish (and hope) I could free them from assumptions that they must grow to become one constrictive gender, and instead allow them to interpret womanhood as whatever they might choose for themselves.

Sarah J // Posted 11 July 2010 at 10:54 am

Whwta a wonderful article. Thank you for posting, and I have enjoyed reading the subsequent discussion.

Like Sarah, I have felt that the whole female gender identity, along with the accompanying baggage has been something imposed on me, rather than something I would choose for myself.

The older I get the less comfortable I get with the whole gender binary distinction, less so with being made to choose one of them. If the categories were less restricted, and the life choices for both were less prescriptive I wouldn’t have an issue. I don’t want to be a woman, I don’t want to be “female”. There is so much work to do to qualify, and I’m not sure I want to.

I’m often mistaken for a man in the street, get the whole “is that a man or a woman” thing. Why are people so rude about it? What difference does it make to them whether I conform?

So much for breing free to choose…

Jennifer Drew // Posted 11 July 2010 at 11:09 am

Spot-on Polly – no woman can escape being ‘identified by her gender.’ Which is why it is essential in our male supremacist society we continue to have two ‘genders’ ergo: masculine and feminine. Male Supremacist system needs the ‘feminine’ gender otherwise it cannot place itself in diametric opposition as being the ‘superior gender.’

Without gender – men would just be what? Human of course – but they are not – they are men which means they are supposedly innately superior to those lesser beings – women.

Saying one is not a ‘woman’ but a human being alters not one jot how our male supremacist system and society operates because we are all subject to male-centric socio-economic constraints. Meaning women of course not men because they do not experience the same disadvantages or even oppression – contrary to male supremacist thinking.

Steph // Posted 11 July 2010 at 1:11 pm

Jennifer Drew: Just, just….no!

Gender (‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ ‘feminine’) reifies gender and creates the underlying ‘gender-based’ oppression that has always placed women as lesser than men.

Steph // Posted 11 July 2010 at 1:33 pm

Jennifer Drew: actually, I think I’ve misinterpreted what you possibly saying here. I thought you was saying, ‘it was essential to continue having two genders’, not as I think you’re saying ‘it’s essential for patriarchal societies that we have two genders’…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 11 July 2010 at 2:01 pm

What does it feel like to ‘feel like a woman’ or to ‘identify with your gender’? This is a serious question- because to say it is something you reject is to suggest that other people labelled women have some sort of innate sense of womanhood that unites us/them, and which you don’t have. And, this idea of an innate sense of womanhood is an idea that I think a lot of women reject (for reasons of class/ race/ sexuality etc as much as the problem with a uniform model of gender).

This is the point of quite a large branch of feminism- that gender is a construct and something people wear, rather than an innate part of self. The idea that people labelled women experience dissonance between expectations of how they behave or what they should identify with and how they understand themselves has been at the heart of feminist thought, at least since de Beauvoir (and really can be seen in a lot of thought quite a bit earlier than this).

So, I am with Polly on this- gender isn’t something you get to choose; it is a label that society puts on you. And resisting that label is an essential part of the feminist movement (and the rejection of that label has long been an important part of that), but gender continues to exist whether you want it to or not.

It also raises questions about feminism as a social movement. A lot of feminist definitions of gender focus on the power differential, arguing that gender is a primary way of signifying power relationships, rather than anything to do with an innate self. So, if we reject the label woman, then we disrupt this power differential, but it also makes it difficult to build a common movement for the improvement of a social group if that group doesn’t exist. And, how most power theorists get round this, is to argue that we recognise ‘women’ as a social category that has real and recognisable effects of people’s lives, even if it isn’t an innate part of self. Therefore, ‘women’ becomes a political category that we adopt to highlight our place in a power hierarchy and to resist that position.

Bill Savage // Posted 11 July 2010 at 7:57 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful article, Becky. Like you and so many of the other commenters I also feel similarly and am trying to work out what it would mean for my identity, my feminism and my lesbianism to be gender-free/genderqueer/trans.

I would hope that identifying as a woman was not a prerequisite for being a feminist, the question is rather whether you embrace a feminist politics that seeks to expand what is signified by the label ‘woman’ or whether you see feminism as a movement which aims to to do away with a gender binary altogether (you say you were ‘born female’ and can’t deny biology, but for some this too is a product of a heteropatriarchal way of thinking). Personally I think there is the space and need for both and that ‘coming out’ about it like you have and engaging in a discussion like this can only be a good thing. So I don’t have any answers either, but thank you again for writing.

Mobot // Posted 12 July 2010 at 9:42 pm

Really great post, thanks. To be honest, this stuff makes my head spin a wee bit: as a feminist, I’m not comfortable with the gendered expectations placed upon me by society as a result of people’s perception of my biological sex. In my case, their perceptions are correct, I am biologically female. I identify as a woman but am uncomfortable with what this means socially. As with sexuality, I feel like there’s a spectrum and I fit in somewhere in the middle, between acceptance of gender norms and being gender free. But I’m not sure that feeling like I don’t identify with the socially constructed bullshit that goes along with ‘being a woman’ is the same as not having a gender identity. To my mind, it doesn’t really matter that there’s a difference. But I think that’s because I have the privelege of being cisgender. I’d like to say ‘I know exactly how you feel’ to Becky, but I don’t, because I (somewhat reluctantly at times) identify as a woman. I guess I can empathise to some degree because I’ve spent some time recently figuring out that there isn’t a category that I feel describes my sexuality, so I tend to just not define myself in those terms. I’m fine with that, it doesn’t really change anything in me, but it really messes with other people’s heads as they tend to need to categorise. I don’t think that has the same potential impact as not identifying with a gender (gender binary is something most folks take for granted, whereas sexuality is starting to be understood as more complicated than a binary). Kudos for speaking about this. The more exposure to real diversity, the more chance we have of challenging the status quo.

Hmmm… read over what I’d written there and would like to clarify that I’m not trying to trivialise discrimination on the basis of sexuality: obviously, this is a related and serious issue. I guess my point is that I hope we (as a society) make inroads with our understanding of gender identity, the way we have just *started to* with sexuality.

Jess Five // Posted 25 July 2010 at 1:31 am

I am female-bodied but I identify as being genderqueer – neither male or female. I am not going to transition sex because no plumbing suits me so I best stick with what I got. I’ve had problem dating “lesbians” because they only like “women.” I do not identify as a woman but I will admit to being female-bodied. I have an impossible time finding dates for people who will like me for me – not because of my body. It’s the person that matters to me, not the parts. I am beyond gender and beyond the binary. Gender isn’t an issue for me – I am okay with being who I am. For some people, it’s an issue though. I’ve been punched in the face before over my presentation but I am not going to change. Check out genderfork.com – it’s a blog about gender variant folks. We’re out there!

Katie // Posted 20 December 2010 at 9:28 am

WOW.

Katie // Posted 20 December 2010 at 9:30 am

I say ‘wow’ for one reason.

I could have written that.

I honestly have never read anything that I identified with more about this issue. Someone that doesn’t necessarily want to change their physical ‘gender’ but doesn’t ‘fit in’ with their current one too.

That has made me feel a lot better about myself. Thank you!

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