Friday, 27 March 2015

Reconciling Intrinsic Inclinations with Social Constructs

“I would argue that the major problem with the binary gender system is not that it is binary (as most physical sex characteristics and gender inclinations appear to be bimodal in nature) but rather that it facilitates the naive and oppressive belief that women and men are “opposites.” Because the idea that women and men are “opposite” sexes automatically creates assumptions and stereotypes that are differently applied to each sex, I call this view of gender oppositional sexism.

Not only does oppositional sexism form the framework that fosters the entrenchment of traditional sexism (the idea that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity), it marginalizes those of us who have exceptional sexual and gender traits. It accomplishes this, in part, by invalidating our natural gender inclinations and sex characteristics: A gay man’s attraction to men is not seen to be as legitimate as that of a heterosexual woman; a trans man’s male identity is not seen to be as valid as that of a cissexual man; a male-bodied transgender person’s femininity is not seen to be as authentic as a cisgender woman’s; and intersex bodies are not considered to be as natural as non-intersex female and male bodies.
Oppositional sexism delegitimizes exceptional gender and sexual traits, and can also create hostility and fear toward those who display them. For example, the fact that I am a lesbian or a transsexual really shouldn’t have any bearing on anyone else’s gender or sexuality (after all, gender inclinations are not contagious).

However, people who have not given any critical thought to their own sexual orientation, subconscious sex, and/or gender expression—and who therefore derive their own identities “from oppositional assumptions about gender—may feel that their sexuality and gender are threatened by my existence. After all, if you believe that a woman is defined as someone who is not male, masculine, or attracted to women, and that a man is defined as someone who is not female, feminine, or attracted to men, then the fact that I have changed my sex, or that I’m a woman who is attracted to other women, will inevitably bring everyone else’s gender and sexuality into question. Because my lesbian and trans status appears to blur the very meaning of “woman,” other women might feel that I somehow undermine their own sense of femaleness, while some men might fear that if they were to become attracted to me, it might undermine their own maleness. So in a sense, the notion of “opposite sexes” intertwines all of our genders and sexualities with one another.

This interconnectedness of genders helps explain why we are encouraged to modify our own behaviors to better fit gender norms, and why we go out of our way to encourage genderappropriate (and to discourage gender-inappropriate) behaviors in others. The countless approving or disapproving comments that we make about other people’s gender presentations, identities, and behaviors create an atmosphere in which many people with exceptional gender and sexual traits feel that they have to remain closeted. It also causes people with typical gender inclinations and sex characteristics to become self-conscious and on guard, as their gender may be brought into question at any time.

Thus, oppositional sexism exacerbates gender anxiety in all people, and is a major factor responsible for most of the prejudice and discrimination directed at sexual minorities.

Unfortunately, one of the most common ways people with exceptional gender and sexual traits try to counter such discrimination is by neutralizing the significance of their particular exceptional traits while simultaneously emphasizing the ways in which they otherwise uphold oppositional sexist ideals. For example, many people who are attracted to members of their own sex have tried to convince the predominantly straight mainstream public that “we’re just like you except for our sexual orientation.” This, of course, plays down the reality that many people who identify as bisexual, gay, or lesbian also have exceptional gender expressions, sex characteristics, and/or subconscious sexes. At the same time, many people in the transgender community have tried to neutralize their exceptional gender traits by stressing their heterosexuality: Some transsexuals insist that their goal is to become “normal” women or men (i.e., straight, with appropriate gender expression); and male crossdressers often emphasize the fact that they identify as men and are attracted to women (i.e., “normal” subconscious sex and sexual orientation).

The obvious problem with all of these approaches is that they marginalize those who have multiple exceptional gender and sexual traits. And their limited success is ultimately due to the fact that they attempt to cure the symptom (homophobia, transphobia, etc.) rather than the source of the problem (oppositional sexism). After all, the reason the mainstream public regularly confuses homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people, and intersex people is that, in their eyes, we all represent the same thing. We are all often lumped together as “queer”—exceptions that challenge the mainstream oppositional assumptions about gender. Therefore, while it is important to educate people about the distinctions between different gender inclinations and sex characteristics, and the unique identities, issues, and challenges each minority group faces because of those specific differences, it is also important to stand together to challenge the myth that women and men are “opposites.”

In my experience as a trans activist, I have found that the biggest obstacle facing those who fall under the “queer” or “LGBTIQ” umbrella, with regards to coming together to challenge oppositional sexism, is primarily a conceptual one. Over the years, different queer subgroups have each developed their own theories and language to describe and communicate their particular struggles. Many of these concepts, while effective in single-inclination activism, are counterproductive in the fight against oppositional sexism because they marginalize and make invisible the experiences of other queers.

For example, the gay rights movement has historically framed much of their activism around the premise that heterosexuals oppress homosexuals. This oversimplification creates the false impression that homosexual and heterosexual people are “opposites”—an idea that marginalizes bisexuals. Further, the terms most commonly used to describe the prejudice faced by lesbians and gay men—“homophobia” and “heterosexism”—mistakenly imply that queer people are primarily discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. This is a false assumption, as those in the lesbian and gay communities who arguably face the harshest discrimination from the straight world are those who also exhibit exceptional gender expression (i.e., outwardly feminine gay men and butch lesbian women). This privileging of sexual orientation over other gender inclinations has allowed some gay rights activists to exclude gender-variant people from their movement (under the premise that they are focused on sexual orientation, not gender identity or expression), while simultaneously claiming that the prejudice and violence faced by transgender people is the result of “homophobia.”

This appropriation of gender-variant experiences and struggles by single-issue gay rights activists seems to serve the sole purpose of placing cisgendered gays and lesbians atop the queer pecking order. Any movement whose goal is to truly end prejudice against all queer people must begin by replacing gay-specific phrases (like “heterosexism”) with more inclusive ones (such as “oppositional sexism”) that are equally respectful of all exceptional gender and sexual traits, and which acknowledge the fact that, in many cases, homophobia and transphobia are indistinguishable phenomena.

The transgender movement, which was primarily made up of those excluded by mainstream gay rights groups, has conceptual and linguistic problems of its own. The fact that at least two overlapping classes of people—those with exceptional gender expressions and those with exceptional subconscious sexes—have been subsumed by the category “transgender” has created a lot of unnecessary tension and confusion. The result is that at least two different (and largely incompatible) views of gender have gained hold in this community. The first one, which is forwarded by many transsexuals, can be summed up by the popular phrase “sex is in the body, and gender is in the mind. While this saying is useful to convey why a transsexual might want to change their physical sex to match their identified sex, it oversimplifies the concept of gender. The fact that the word “gender” is shorthand for subconscious sex inadvertently privileges subconscious sex over gender expression. Further, it mistakenly implies that more socially influenced aspects of gender (such as gender identity and gender roles), as well as one’s ability or willingness to conform to oppositional sexist ideals, stem directly from one’s subconscious sex, which is most certainly not true.

People who espouse this view often look down on those people who identify outside of the male/female binary, or who express combinations of masculinity and femininity, presuming that these groups do not represent “serious” or “true” transgender people.

A different view is held by those transgender people who insist that gender itself is entirely constructed. Many feel empowered by this idea because it frees their exceptional gender traits from the social stigma inherent in oppositional sexism. But it also oversimplifies the concept of “gender” by dismissing the possibility that there are any intrinsic inclinations, such as subconscious sex and gender expression, that contribute to our gender identities and gender roles, respectively. This sort of thinking, when taken to the extreme, can privilege those people who are predisposed toward being bigendered and bisexual. In this scenario, someone who feels comfortable identifying outside the male/female gender binary, expressing combinations of both femininity and masculinity, and/or having sexual relations with both male- and female-bodied people, may falsely assume that their “bi” inclinations represent a natural state that is present in all other people.

From this “bi-sexist” perspective, people who identify exclusively as either female or male, feminine or masculine, homosexual or heterosexual, are assumed to have developed such preferences as the result of being duped by binary gender norms and socialization. This view has also led to the creation of another oppositional binary of sorts, pitting those transgender people who identify outside the gender binary (and who are therefore presumed to challenge gender norms) against transsexuals (who are accused of supporting the gender status quo by transitioning to their identified sex). Such arguments—that bigendered and genderqueer people are more “radical” or “queer” than transsexuals—are highly reminiscent of similarly naive accusations made in the past by homosexuals who argued that they were more “radical” or “queer” than bisexuals. The creation of such radical/conservative gender binaries are both self-absorbed and anti-queer, as they dismiss the very real discrimination transsexuals and bisexuals face in favor of establishing pecking orders within the queer community.

These examples demonstrate how gender theories designed to free certain people from gender-related stigma or oppression can often inadvertently marginalize other sexual minorities, or even worse, create new gender hierarchies that are just as oppressive as the initial system. There are several telltale signs of flawed gender theories. First, we should beware of any gender theory that makes the assumption that there is any one “right” or “natural” way to be gendered or to be sexual. Such theories are typically narcissistic in nature, as they merely reveal their designers’ desire to cast themselves on top of the gender hierarchy. Further, if one presumes there is only one “right” or “natural” way to be gendered, then the only way to explain why some people display typical gender and sexual traits while others display exceptional ones is by surmising that one of those two groups is being intentionally led astray somehow. Indeed, this is exactly what the religious right argues when they invent stories about homosexuals who actively recruit young children via the “gay agenda.” Those who claim that we are all born with bisexual, androgynous, or gender-neutral tendencies (only to be “molded into heterosexual, masculine men and feminine women via socialization and gender norms) use a similar strategy.

I take issue with any theory that suggests that people are so easily duped into leading such contrived sexual and gendered lives, as my own exceptional gender inclinations have been too strong and persistent to be ignored or reshaped by society. And while oppositional sexism certainly leads many people to closet their gender inclinations, I find it difficult to believe that the vast majority of people are hiding their true genders and sexualities or have resigned themselves to accepting wholly artificial ones. I would argue that our culture’s oppositional gender system can only be held so firmly in place because it resonates with the majority’s gender inclinations (that most—but not all—men gravitate toward masculinity and women to femininity).

Second, we should beware of any theory that attempts to oversimplify gender. It is common for articles or books about gender to begin by defining gender in an exclusive way, such as whether a person is feminine or masculine (i.e., gender expression/gender roles), whether they identify as female or male (i.e., subconscious sex/gender identity), or whether they behave according to the social norms associated with each sex. These assumptions severely limit the terms of the debate. The truth is that any dialogue about gender must begin with the acknowledgment that the word “gender” has scores of meanings, and all of them must be seriously considered if we hope to have an honest and fruitful discussion on the subject. Thus, theories that rely on either strictly gender essentialist or social constructionist definitions of gender, or that privilege certain gender inclinations over others, are destined to be inadequate in explaining the vast diversity of gender and sexual traits that exist in the world, and will inevitably make invisible certain sexual minorities.

Finally, we should question any view of gender founded on gender entitlement. When we project our own gender-based assumptions and opinions onto other people’s behaviors and bodies, we necessarily erase the distinctness of their individual genders and sexualities. Each of us has a unique experience with gender, one that is influenced by a host of extrinsic factors, such as culture, religion, race, economic class, upbringing, and ability, as well as intrinsic factors including our anatomy, genetic and hormonal makeup, subconscious sex, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Together, these factors help determine the gendered experiences we are exposed to, as well as the ways we process and make sense of them. For this reason, no person is capable of fully understanding our own gendered perspectives and experiences, nor are we able to presume the gendered histories, desires, motives, and perceptions of others.


We must stop projecting what we wish were true about gender and sexuality onto other people, and instead learn to yield to their unique individual identities, experiences, and perspectives.


Excerpt from Whipping Girl by Julia Serano