It’s My Oppression and You Can’t Have Any
For Christmas, I got the latest hipster craze: an old-timey retro phone thing that plugs into my smart phone, so that anyone playing “Crazy or Bluetooth?” can feel alive again as they gaze upon my curled cord descending into my purse (Kidding! I don’t have a freakin purse).
Some day soon, a friend in need will call on me; I will pick up the headset. “Yessenia, you’re needed. A flamewar is ongoing, yet we have no enlisted trolls. Those trolling the good fight are mere amateurs, and they’re getting pummeled.” And I’ll go VOOM with a rainbow trailing behind me.
This happened a couple months ago, on a flamewar that went down in response to a panel discussion of the role of lesbian transwomen in the San Francisco Dyke March. The panel itself went really well, but self-proclaimed ‘radical feminists’ descended on the facebook page for the march, and proceeded to vomit hatred like they’d washed down the enterovirus sandwich they had for lunch with a bottle of ipecac.
The basic gist of their argument, a gist I’d like to unpack, dismantle, put back in the box and sell without a crucial lynchpin to some unsuspecting craigslist schmuck, is as follows:
1. Gender is not something that proceeds naturally from one’s sex.
2. Feminine genders are forced upon female-bodied children from a very young age, for the purpose of oppressing them.
3. All gender is performance.
4. Transwomen are performing feminine genders.
5. HEY THAT’S OUR GENDER GIVE IT BACK RIGHT THE FUCK NOW!
From 1-3, at least where this formerly self-identified radical feminist is standing, proceeds the unassailable conclusion that transgender people are not just possible, but inevitable. If gender is not inherent, but socialized, and all children regardless of sex are exposed more or less to the same pool of gender socialization pressures then of course some female-assigned children are going to identify with the masculine messages. (By which I mean, you can’t watch a Disney movie about a prince rescuing the princess and not see messages about both masculinity and femininity; it’s the tireless work of authority figures and peers to make sure that the girls only pay attention to the princess and vice versa.
I was very much obsessed with this movie as a toddler, and wanted the Rose to appreciate how much the Little Prince loved her.
Backed up by the threat of violence and ostracism, these pressures work to suppress the “wrong” identifications and create the illusion of women=feminine, men=masculine. For a biological analogy, we all have an inherent capacity to grow breasts; what determines which people do is which people are exposed to estrogen). And of course some male-identified children are going to identify with the feminine messages.
Isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that why gender has to be so vigorously policed – to ensure that children identify with the ‘right’ gender messages?
I’m going to set aside the issue of biology, because Julia Serano in Whipping Girl addresses it way better than I can. But I do study languages and for me, gender is a lot like language. I strongly believe that rather than gender being “hardwired,” it’s innate in the sense that it is acquired in some sort of critical period in early childhood (i.e., long before the brain has any idea what sex it will be or is supposed to be). And while you can suppress your accent or manner of speech later in life, it’s hard, and there’s always going to be that one set of intonations/diction/morphemes that feels ‘native’ to you.
I am an English speaker. Specifically, I am a Los Angeles native California dialect English speaker with eight years of bay area intonation exposure under my belt. I can speak other languages intelligibly, but it’s more difficult. I do not have native fluency.
It is much more difficult to make myself understood in languages I don’t speak natively. I was not born an English speaker, but it’s hardwired into me for all intents and purposes. Barring a stroke, I will always be an English speaker, even if I move and have to speak in another language all the time, every day. I was not born identifying as either masculine or feminine, but my brain saw the prince and decided, “That’s me!” and I’ve been transmasculine ever since.
Like gender, language is entirely performative. It’s all just a series of sounds, of fluctuating levels of voicing, of ever-shifting tongue shape, of patterns of lip rounding. But that does not mean that all things I say are equally true. It does not mean that I don’t have a way of speaking that I default to in a comfortable setting, surrounded by friends. Language is a social construct, but that does not mean I can wake up tomorrow and speak Arabic. It’s still real.
So, with that in mind, consider the case of the rad fems who, though ostensibly operating under the above premises, argue that trans people (and especially trans women) are somehow less ‘real’ women than they are. What the fuck, you ask? I know. I know. But they do.
Now, unfortunately the entire page for the SF Dyke March was deleted, along with all the threads, but several of the antagonists were sent over from RadFem Hub. Without further ado, some quotes. A trigger warning is probably appropriate here:
. The subtext of this linguistic choice is: A) Superficial appearance and hormonal balance comprise a distinct state of being, and B) that state of being, when adopted by a user, renders them “other”, a change into a literal different entity. But what is truly being changed into something different through this process? A male becomes a male taking estrogen who has disguised his secondary sex characteristics into a visual approximation of female.
From A), it looks like the author will argue against superficial appearance and hormonal balance comprising a distinct state of being. But not one sentence away, the author somehow concludes that therefore, “a male becomes a male taking estrogen.” Huh? If hormonal balance and superficial appearance do not comprise distinct state of being, certainly that person simply changes from a person producing testosterone to a person taking estrogen. Or is taking estrogen and having breasts some sort of “distinct state of being” after all? It appears the author, “Gallusmag,” has never encountered the idea that they were women before they changed their superficial appearance and hormonal state, and that trans people transition socially; their internal gender stays the same.
This article includes yet another idiot trying to play armchair linguist: “There is no such thing as a “transgender person” in the English language, as there is no such thing as a “left-hand person” or a “divorce person”.” Yes, some adjectives are inflectional. But a lot aren’t. There are no “femaled,” “lesbianed” or “dumbfucked” persons either, because some adjectives are just adjectives, not inflected adjectival derivatives of verbs or nouns. I’m certain this person could have puzzled it out for herself, just like I’m sure Julie Burchill isn’t so natively unintelligent that she believes all words that rhyme with bad words are also bad. Hate makes you stupid.
“‘Whose’ Biology is Destiny Around Here Anyways?
Men’s ‘feminine side’ can only ever be a part of masculinity, but perhaps one that is difficult for men to accept in their own identity – the male’s concept of the ‘Other’ is a part of their own Self. This ‘Other’ or ‘twin’ of the male Self may be a softer, gentler version of masculinity, but it is not femaleness.
Femaleness may not exist, and femininity is just something that’s forced on FAABs from birth to oppress us, but somehow, it’s something that we called dibs on, and we’ll be damned if some man who could only ever be masculine attempts to mimic our mimicry.
My head hurts.
This other quote is also pretty mind-boggling:
The message to all is that men make ‘better’ women than born-women do, and one part of the process of becoming a “real woman” (and worthy of being man’s “Other half”) is to deny, remove, minimise, or reconstruct all uniquely female biology (and the social constructions as well) to fit the image of his ‘Other’ Self.
So transwomen remove all their uniquely female biology to be better women than “born-women” (de Beauvoir is spinning in her grave).
Defining WOMAN graces us with some more armchair linguistics.
For example, WOMYN or WIMMIN is used by radfems to indicate that wo-men are not merely a variation on the default “man.”
The word ‘man’ used to really mean just person. A male person was a wereman (same ‘were’ in ‘werewolf’ – meaning male person-wolf) and a female person was “wifman,” the ‘wif’ later becoming ‘wife’ and narrowing to refer only to married women. The argument does actually hold true for the words male/female. Originally female was spelled femelle, but was changed to look more analogous to ‘male.’ The larger point being, we’re not dealing with writers who put a strong emphasis on background research.
Trans woman — as contrasted with natal woman — means a male-assigned-at-birth (MAAB) human who subsequently internalized and aligned himself so intensely with the results of being female, aka “womanhood,” that he seeks to be treated as a female is treated. He does so by applying the term “woman” to himself, despite the fact that he has not experienced the female conditioning of compulsory heterosexuality from birth.[…]Born-women have no choice about their role in the play of compulsory heterosexuality; it is simply expected of us.
The author really highlights inadvertently the problem of using words like ‘heterosexuality’ that imply both a sex of the desirer as well as of the desired. Of course MAABs experience compulsory heterosexuality. They just perhaps did not experience a compulsory heterosexuality that was oriented towards men (though I would argue that they most certainly did, just as I absorbed a lot of the messages of how to interact with women as a male despite being female). But it’s not like men get the message growing up that it’s totes cool to be gay, because they have all the choices in their role in the play of compulsory heterosexuality. The opposite actually.
This article about a Baltimore Sun Article also makes the mistake of letting hate blind them to a glaring contradiction in their reasoning:
Dear Sun Reporter – Females make less money than Males on average. If Jenna now makes less money because Jenna mimics Female reality, perhaps the bigger story might be how Females as a class make less than Males? Oh, and Females use public transportation at greater rates than Males. It’s not a “civil rights violation” that Jenna has to take the bus – it might be other things (such as economic oppression) but it’s not “her gender identity” that necessarily causes that.
So in other words, it makes a lot of sense that after transitioning, this woman would make less money than men, and thus not be able to afford a car. But at the same time, the fact that she makes a lot less money after transitioning has nothing to do with her now being a woman. LOGIC!
Then there’s the weird paranoia that if a particular transwoman expresses femininity in a particular way, she is therefore saying that all women must act this way or else.
Fischetti emphasized that gender expression is not about sex or anatomy. She shows gender in the way she moves her hands, in her soft voice.
That’s right – the way you move your hands “shows gender.” The sound of your voice “shows gender.” Gender identity – the way your hands move and the way your voice sounds, “regardless” of your biological sex. If it’s that easy, who needs surgery!?
Stereotype, stereotype, stereotype.
What’s frustrating about this example is the conflation of cissexism of reporters’ describing trans people, with how trans people describe themselves.
I encountered this as an undergraduate writing about my experience with my trans-feminine partner, who was denied access to a support group for polyamory that marketed itself as “open to all women, including self-identified women.” I wrote that if the facilitator was so worried about other women in the group “feeling safe,” she should exclude me, because I am the one likely to talk over someone, to be contemptuous, to be aggressive. I get crap for being aggressive six times a day before breakfast (though I suspect my sex has a lot to do with why that’s considered a bad thing). My partner, whom I’ve had the extreme pleasure of learning from, is one of the calmest, most patient and compassionate people I’ve ever met.
I got comments on my draft to the effect that by saying that his femininity was expressed in these ways, I was reinforcing sexism by saying that all females act in these specific feminine ways, and that all males act in masculine ways I described, since I identify as masculine.
But I’m female! Clearly I’m NOT saying that all female people acted in the way my male-bodied partner expressed femininity! But it didn’t matter.
This is what I don’t understand. It’s a terrible horrible thing to be assigned female at birth, forced into femininity and womanhood; it’s all fake and performance and mimicry and pantomime; it’s not inherent and our gender expression has nothing to do with our sex.
But somehow, when a trans-woman does the same thing as a cis-woman, she’s just a copy. The cis-woman is the original fake, and she’s not lettin’ anyone have a bite of her nasty worm-filled patriarchy crumpet.
*In a related story, a man called me motherly recently when I asked him to wash his dishes, and I called that sexist. I then got a lengthy email explaining that it wasn’t sexist because “motherly is an adverbial.” “No, it’s actually an adjective.” “SAME THING! The point is I was not saying you were literally a mother, just that you acted like one.” Thus began one of the most epic mansplanations of my young life, to be addressed in more detail in a later post.
Featured image, which is from Washington
If you argue with anyone else about what they “really” are, you’re Doing It Wrong, and I wish we as a culture could just get together and agree on that… but then the world would be that much closer to actually making sense, and I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.
As I was reading, I found myself speculating on what the big trans-exclusive sticking point actually is for most of these radfems – Yessenia or anyone else: what would you say it is (or they are)? Like, is it primarily a fear of having their identity associated (and thus themselves conflated with) the Scary Transwomen, is it more about “shit, if they’re part of this people will dislike us even more,” or something else entirely? I don’t feel like I have a good handle on it because the one time I stuck a toe into a radfem space, the water was too hot for me, and that is saying something.
Oh, and I am so stealing that llama meme.
From talking to them, it seems like the big issue is they cannot separate transwomen from men in their minds. And men, in transphobic (because there are branches of trans-radical feminism that aren’t like this), radical feminist theory, are the oppressor class. In their perspective, transwomen exist as part of a conspiracy on the part of men to invade and dominate radical feminist spaces, because radical feminist spaces are a threat to patriarchy. Some go so far as to construct lesbian transwomen as a sneaky way for men to undermine lesbian identity.
Now, I think their understanding of patriarchy can be useful to a point, but that it falls on its face with its insistence on seeing sexism as a conscious, conspiratorial exercise on the part of men. Do men have a lot of investment in patriarchy? Sure. They benefit as a class immensely. Do men as individuals have sexist attitudes towards women? You betcha. But are men generally aware of how these two facts are connected? To the point where they’d have the self-awareness to be like, “Let’s make an exception to our usual gay-bashing, femininity-in-men-punishing modus operandi, and allow some men to wear dresses so we can infiltrate women’s spaces and thereby keep the sex class oppressed!”? I just don’t think so.
At one point on the SF Dyke March thread, one of the rad fem hub posters, I believe it was Bev Jo specifically because she authored this article where she makes the same point, argued that transgender people are actually very conservative and anti-gay because Iran allows sex-change operations but executes LGB people:
It was a bizarre argument, where she really did seem to think trans people were in charge of setting the rules in Iran, and that Iranian theocracy and trans activists were conspiring together to force gay and lesbian people back into the rigid sex-gender binary.
… That is so ridiculous I think my brain just short-circuited. Thanks for the explanation, though!
You’ll notice how one of the more frequently brought up “concerns” over trans people are that they’ll immediately all run out and try and get into woman’s locker rooms and bathrooms in order to oogle them (or something).
The idea of how dangerous trans woman are is something that is also echoed in Hollywood films from Psycho to the Silence of the Lambs. Notice how not only in films where the villein is a trans-woman (or a man who somehow defies gender norms,) the victims are also (usually) female.
In a weird way, Radical Femists are doing a really good job of reinforcing the patriarchy, which kind of demands gender norms for it’s very existence…
One thing I didn’t go into as much is that they really do use the same conservative arguments used against gay people of yesteryear. I’m specifically thinking of the argument that trans people are “recruiting” young gay women into their “lifestyle.” E.g. Bev Jo writes in the linked article, “Even worse, young girls are now being pressured into having surgery and hormones, affecting them irreparably.” This article says: “After the Festival, my fear turned to anger as I learned more about the pressure that many young butch women are now under to transition, and about what I’ve come to think of as a Transgender Borg that has slowly but surely co-opted each of the footholds that we “second-wave” feminists struggled so hard to establish, particularly in academia. Not only are we are losing a whole generation of butch womyn, but every transition further marginalizes those of us who have spent much of our lives learning that being butch and being female are not mutually exclusive.”
This is probably fairly pedantic, but since you’ve brought up some theoretical issues I wanted to comment. I think we’ve talked about this sort of stuff before, but not in this context.
You said: “I strongly believe that rather than gender being “hardwired,” it’s innate in the sense that it is acquired in some sort of critical period in early childhood (i.e., long before the brain has any idea what sex it will be or is supposed to be).”
But by definition that means it’s not innate (inborn, inherited). Hardwired does not have to be equated with innate. We don’t stop developing right as we’re born, we continue to develop and culture plays a large role in how we develop physiologically (Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work gets into this in detail). So if gender is hardwired, it’s entirely possible that the wiring is done by culture which makes it *feel* natural/innate, but it’s actually still an enculturated trait.
You said: “Like gender, language is entirely performative.”
I think this gets back to how we are using the word “performative.” Language is not entirely performative in a linguistic sense. Some utterances are performative because the utterance actually performs an action (e.g., “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is a performative utterance because it actually performs the act). Other utterances are constative in that they are declarative statements (e.g., “It’s raining outside” is a declarative utterance, not one that performs an action). Performatives are neither true nor false, while constatives can be demonstrated true or false.
The theory of gender performativity a la Judith Butler, then, isn’t so much about how we “perform” gender for others, but it’s about the repetitive and largely non-conscious practices (discursive and non-discursive) that we do that produce series of effects that we recognize as gender. Performative gender is mostly involuntary and non-conscious.
As for the list of traits that you gave that I think accurately portray the radfem position (and nicely point out the inherent contradiction in their position), I do not #1 to be problematic at all. I agree that feminine gender is associated with female-bodied children from a very young age (like, before they’re born), but I’m not sold on “forced” (not everyone forces it, and many women enjoy their femininity), and I don’t think the purpose of feminine gender is to oppress female-bodied people (that assumes that our ideas of oppressing female-bodied people preceded our ideas of feminine gender, and I’d be more willing to bet that they came about at the same time because, as Butler and Fausto-Sterling have pointed out, our ideas of bodies come already wrapped up in ideas of gender such that gender actually precedes sex).
On the point that “all gender is performance” I don’t agree; however, I do think that all gender is performative. It’s an important difference that I think many people do not understand about Butler’s theory. Following that, I do not agree that transwomen are performing feminine genders; rather, transwomen are performatively doing “woman” just as ciswomen are performatively doing “woman.”
As for point 5, yeah they’re fucked in their heads.
Aside from my nitpicky theoretical stuff, I love that you’re pointing out the contradiction and absurdity in their reasoning. I especially love this point:
“Femaleness may not exist, and femininity is just something that’s forced on FAABs from birth to oppress us, but somehow, it’s something that we called dibs on, and we’ll be damned if some man who could only ever be masculine attempts to mimic our mimicry.”
I totally agree! For people who feel that femininity is FORCED OPPRESSION, they sure as shit are super attached to the concept. Is it radfem stockholm syndrome??
Transgender has been difficult for me to understand, but I have always been open to learning and understanding. I remember being drawn to a book in my hometown local library that argued that gender was a social construct by describing various ways that people could be socialized to be one gender in spite of their own reality. I read this book shortly after my mother read a different book that argued that maleness and femaleness were biologically defined, so I ended up mostly using the book to argue the nurture position in the nurture vs. nature debate about gender. I understood the basics about people who were transgender, but certainly not everything.
Years later, I bought a book of Annie Leibovitz photos of women and there was one photo of a woman who was born male, and later transitioned to female. I felt dismayed about that photo’s inclusion in this book because of one of the arguments that you called out – that FAABs, uniquely and separately, are conditioned to be female gendered, and MAABs cannot understand that experience. What I hear you saying is that people, regardless of the gender they are assigned, pick up on and internalize whatever messages they want to see, based on how they see themselves. I’ve been learning from transgender people for over a decade now, but that argument is presenting me with a new ah-ha moment – one that is a big duh for you, but not for cisgendered me.
So I just read my comment, and I’m not sure that I made my point well enough after all of the backstory about me. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that the way you defined how we socialize gender in the excerpt below really resonated with me and gave me a better understanding of the whole concept.
“If gender is not inherent, but socialized, and all children regardless of sex are exposed more or less to the same pool of gender socialization pressures then of course some female-assigned children are going to identify with the masculine messages. (By which I mean, you can’t watch a Disney movie about a prince rescuing the princess and not see messages about both masculinity and femininity; it’s the tireless work of authority figures and peers to make sure that the girls only pay attention to the princess and vice versa.)”