This post is a response to an exchange I witnessed on Tumblr between someone critical of gender identity politics and someone who described themselves as “AFAB, non-binary.” This part quoted below is what got me thinking.
What is gender? (“It means something different to everyone” isn’t an answer)
- Despite your insistence that gender can’t mean something different to everyone, it does. You do not get to dictate how people experience their gender.
What is a woman? (Same as above)
- A woman is any person who identifies as one.
What is a man? (Same as above)
- A man is any person who identifies as a one.
Why are you not a woman? (“I’m just not/I don’t identify as one” isn’t an answer. Sit with this question and take some time to find a few concrete reasons.)
- I’m not a woman bc I personally don’t identify with any gender. That is a valid answer whether you deem it be so or not. Perhaps you don’t understand that the attitudes you’re displaying are transphobic.
I do really feel for people caught up in these fragile identities that leave them susceptible to being deeply hurt by potentially common occurrences such as the wrong pronoun being used. Humans and all animals have instincts that allow us to intuit sex. That, however, does not work for intuiting subjective gender identities. And so it probably happens quite a bit that people get “misgendered” by others who are going on instinct and socially constructed gender markers… clothes, style etc.
Here is the thing… With sex, meaning the actual biology and reproductive systems human beings are born with, there comes a material reality that places those of us who are AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) into the subjugated sex caste and those of us who are AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) into the dominating sex caste. And no matter how we ultimately identify, this material reality will inform our lives. It will inform how people see and treat us and how we are socialized even when, internally, we are fighting to not be a part of it all.
I see a lot of people on Tumblr concerned about being “invalidated.” I think this is somewhat inherent in subjective identity embracing. It is very difficult to have an internal *knowing* and yet walk through the world where people see something different than one sees of oneself. This is not only true for gender identities. Material reality is what makes young, law abiding, college attending, black men and women get shot and killed for simply knocking on a door while seeking help after a car accident. I can know who I am internally. I can believe I am smart and kind and fully human. But some people will just see black and whatever black means to them, they will apply to me in their thinking and actions. And that could mean that I get killed by the police over not using a turn signal or showing sufficient deference, my internal identity be damned.
This is why, for me, subjective identity would seem meaningless to apply to myself and I don’t quite understand why others find meaning in it. I do understand dysphoria. Although undiagnosed, I would say I lived through it during my younger life. So when I say that I don’t understand why others find meaning in subjective identity, I don’t mean to dismiss that it may help alleviate the pain of dysphoria. What I mean is that I see people leaving themselves open to harm caused by mere words. If “misgendering” is being experienced as if it is violence, how is subjective identity saving those who embrace it? To me, this would be like going outside and not remembering that I am black and female. No matter what I think and know of myself, I need to be conscious that this material reality will inform my experience whether I like it or not.
When I was younger, there was not this same identity focused culture among people my age. There was no opportunity to bond with other young women/girls and name what I was feeling with a collective. And I have to say, I think that was probably a good thing. Yes, I dissociated from and did what I could to hide my body. I think I did that in part, because I didn’t identify with what my body meant to other people. I dissociated, because I did not like, or rather, because I hated my vulnerability and the inherent subjugation that comes with being a female in patriarchy. I layered and did what I could to hide my femaleness. I had no idea about binding, otherwise I really might have done that. I refused to wear a bra, because I didn’t want to need one. Looking back, that didn’t make sense in any kind of practical way. Not wanting to need a bra and so not wearing one, meant I stopped being athletic, because running was physically painful and also made it very obvious that I DID in fact need a bra or some kind of support. Again, the material reality trumped my internal desire. But that said, my real internal desire was not to be male. It was to have my body not inform how I am treated in the world.
I think MAYBE some people who identify as “non-binary” kind of want the same thing. If that is true, then I think we may not be so far from each other in our heart of hearts, even if we do take different paths to reaching peace within ourselves and, to what extent it is possible, with the world around us.
I don’t mean to be hurtful when I say that I find “non-binary” meaningless. If gender is non-binary, then it is non-binary for all people no matter how we identify. “Non-binary” reifies the gender binary, because without binary, what can non-binary even mean? So “non-binary” makes no sense to me internally and it makes no sense to me in terms of material reality either, because I know that people will still go by what they see and understand and that will still be what actually informs how I am treated in the world.
That is why, for me, discovering feminism was my healing, because feminism helped me to unplug from and to see the matrix of patriarchy. Patriarchy assigns limitations on and expectations of us all based on our bodies to the benefit of those born male. It creates a hierarchy based on sex. And it does this via gender.
What I see of gender identity politics, does not seem like it has any potential at all to free us from patriarchy or its limitations and expectations. To me, it’s like switching seats on the Titanic. And again, though one’s subjective identity and the lengths one goes through to convey that subjective identity externally in order to alleviate dysphoria, may be healing and meaningful to any of us as individuals, solutions that enable individual survival within patriarchy, do not end patriarchy. And more often than not, these individual solutions actually affirm it.
Why do I say that? I say that because, if I am female and I choose to present in ways that are outside of gendered expectations for females… if I chose to ignore the expectations and limitations that patriarchy has socially constructed for me because of my body, I have to ask myself if this makes me no longer female… does it mean I am in the wrong body? Or does it mean that patriarchy is wrong about what a female person can be, look like, act like, take interest in? Which makes more sense? Which has the greater potential to challenge patriarchy? Does it make sense for me to believe I have crossed the line for “woman” (if we use the definition “adult human female”) and that I am now someone on the “trans spectrum”? Or does it make sense to come to an understanding that there are no inherent limitations and that means that “woman” (and “man”) can be seen in a way that looks much more like a spectrum than patriarchy tells us and that each of us, as individuals, bring definition to and expands the possibilities for our sex by simply being female (or male).
I have said this often… I define woman, it does not define me. I define my clothes, they do not define me. No matter what section of a store I find my clothing in, once it’s mine, it is women’s clothing. And I accept that I am female, because I am – just in the way that I accept that I am black. Because not accepting it, does not save me from being treated as such. That doesn’t mean that I accept and internally apply patriarchy’s meaning to myself. It means that I arm myself with understanding and protect myself, as best I can, by being aware of my surroundings and the way my body informs my material reality.
I really do not see how saying something like “I am not a woman, because I don’t identify as one” is supposed to change anything for or protect a person from the harm gender imposes on us in patriarchy. For one, words cannot stop us from being raped – not words like “No!” and not words like “I don’t identify as…”
Being female means we will be considered prey to many males. And even the males who are not rapists, benefit from the threat all females live with as a constant aspect of our material reality. How then does the utterance of words like “I am not a woman, because I don’t identify as one” inform one’s life in a practical way? What does it do for one if one can be devastated and triggered into feelings of suicide by the use of a wrong pronoun? That is not a rhetorical question. No one has to answer it for me, but it just seems like something one would want to consider towards one’s own survival.
I don’t believe that gender is real or innate. I know we are taught to believe it is inevitable. But I think it really just is social meaning applied based on sex. Gender varies significantly across cultures, unlike sex, which is universally understood and determined based on reproductive systems across cultures and even across species. And it varies this way across cultures, because it is socially constructed. In one culture females will be expected to tend to farming chores. In another, that might be considered work for males. It’s made up stuff, these cultural, societal expectations and limitations that amount to what we call gender. And gender so insidiously enforced that we tend to think of it as “natural” and innate. That’s why girls like me who were considered “tomboys” were policed daily with “girls can’t _____.” Whatever it was that I was doing that girls supposedly could not do, was not actually a natural limitation. It was a socially determined and enforced limitation. That’s why I say I don’t believe it is real. Yes, it does have real consequences for us all, so it’s not unreal in that sense. But gender is gender is gender is patriarchy, no matter what qualifier one places before it, non-binary, trans, cis etc.
So really, in a practical way, how does identifying as “non-binary” (or any other gender identity) serve you? And is it serving or challenging the patriarchy?
I also have to wonder if one’s willingness to abandon and deny tangible biology in favor of the theory of gender identity (like we know biology doesn’t actually change, but…), meaning if you say, “I am not a woman, because I do not identify as one” are you not simply saying, “I’m not like THEMMMMMMM”? And in so doing, are you not sort of projecting the meaning that patriarchy holds for females onto us, affirming patriarchy’s framing of women/girls while doing so? Because your, “I’m not like THEMMMMMMM” kind of implies, even if unconsciously, “they deserve the shit they get, while I am special and I do not.” In practice, it amounts to “don’t do this TO ME” (which is how I see the practice of gender identity politics) rather than “don’t do this to ANY OF US” (which is feminism).
Thinking about all of this reminded me of a passage in a book I read when I was a teenager, “The High School Revolutionaries.” The passage included in the image below is quoted in one of the essays, but is originally written by Christopher Caudwell from a book called “Studies in a Dying Culture.”
If this seems like a complete non sequitur, I will explain my own thinking specifically by interpreting the following line:
“…By shutting their eyes to all the relations between humans that constitute society and are its real stuff and substance, humans have enslaved themselves to forces whose control is now beyond them, because they do not acknowledge the forces’ existence.”
By denying that human beings are sexually dimorphic and that most humans in society intuit sex, not subjective gender identity, people who embrace subjective gender identities have enslaved themselves to forces whose control is now beyond them, because they are dependent on other people, often strangers, intuiting or agreeing to affirm their intangible subjective gender identity as opposed to their actual sex.
Intuiting subjective gender identity requires, not just the ability to read minds, it requires the denial of humans as sexually dimorphic beings and it affirms, rather than opposes, patriarchy’s gender essentialism by saying people should agree to affirm and or instinctively know and acknowledge subjective gender identities based on external markers like clothing choice. For example, if a male is wearing a dress or make up, we should intuit that they identify as a woman.
Where then does such essentialism leave those, women especially, who do not conform to patriarchy’s gender expectations? That’s a question to sit with. Because again, my own sensibilities are that I define my clothes, they do not define me. So if it was commonly expected in society that we ignore our ability to know sex and favor socially constructed gender markers (clothes, style, interests, name choice) as the way to understand whether a person is a girl/woman or a boy/man, this way of thinking would determine me to be a man. However, I’m pretty sure that I would still also be understood to be female and that would mean that I was in the same constant danger females experience within patriarchy only with less ability to organize with others along our commonality, which is our female sex, and less ability to name the agent of our oppression, which in patriarchy, is males. And yet gender identity activists seem to think that people who are non-trans have no respectable stake in the conversation about sex vs gender. And in reality, being trans or non-trans as a female, does not stop us from being in danger at the hands of males, trans and non-trans, when our sex is known. Just read a few detransitioned womyn’s blogs and you will see.
It makes complete sense to me that anyone female would want to run screaming from our bodies and how our bodies inform our experience in the world. I shared this link to a poem with my friends on Facebook recently and I don’t think I know anyone female who would not identify with it, heartbreaking as that is to consider. So I really do hope that young people who are female and feeling like their uncomfortableness with and or terror at the thought of being a woman in patriarchy, know that this is not such a unique experience. I’d be willing to bet that way more commonly than is ever spoken, puberty, for girls, is experienced as if one is being betrayed by one’s own body. It is a time when men and boys tend to act out in even more entitled ways then we have already learned to navigate. We are vulnerable to being framed as whores if we do agree to sex or prudes if we do not. We are often actively coerced or otherwise tricked into sex or raped with no recourse, while the boy or boys who did it are rewarded with pats on the back for successfully getting over. Hating this shit can very reasonably manifest for any of us in ways that we interpret as hating our bodies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is females who tend to have anorexia, bulimia or trichotillomania (pulling out hair) or who cut. So that is to say, that hating one’s female body for the material reality that comes with it in patriarchy, is not a sign that one is not female. It is a confirmation.
I still long to have my body not inform how I am treated in the world. But I understand that it is the world that has to change. And it will not change if I agree that some females ought to have limitations and expectations forced on them, while holding myself out as an exception. And I also understand that holding oneself out as an exception doesn’t make one free. It might make one feel less vulnerable if one passes, but that kind of feeling free is not by way of actual freedom. Not if it requires one to constantly police pronouns and control what others think and say or if it requires hiding and denying truth.
“…So far from being free, they are whirled like a leaf on the gales of social change. And all this anarchy, and impotence, and muddled dissension is reflected in his culture. Productive forces have outgrown the free bourgeois and mercilessly crush them and their illusions.”
Where is the freedom in denying one is not free?