Reflections on Gender

The issue of gender is a preoccupation of both the second and third waves of feminism. In the second wave, the distinction between biological sex (male/female) and socially constructed gender (man/woman) was unpicked, with the basic conclusion that gender – as a social construction – was damaging bullshit.  The third wave has raised issues of transgender to the discussion as well as non-white gender structures, providing new ways of challenging the bullshit

Looking back to the 1970s, when men were men and women were pissed off about it; when gay was colourful and carefree and when “tranny” was more likely to be a reference to a small radio than a transphobic insult, outwith specialist academic and medical bodies few people considered gender to be anything other than the social presentation of sex – debates abounded about how much this was socially constructed and conditioned and how much was innate, but the idea of sex and gender not being fundamentally aligned was alien.

That is not to say that gender was uniform; there were different ways to “be a man” or “be a woman”, which although fitting in with cisnormativity, were still devient and transgressive.  John Inman and Larry Graceson, epitomised “the camp” as a subset of the gender “man“.  Still identifiable as men, they brought a body language and mannerisms which would more commonly be associated with women to the way that they performed their gender.   “The camp” was popularly associated with homosexuality, however another popular character from that era, Frank Spencer, from “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” also played his gender in a distinctly effeminate manner – which was no small part of the comedy – but was actively identified with heterosexuality, his long-suffering wife Betty, playing a major part of the show.

The female counterpart to “the camp” was “the butch”.  Again heavily associated with lesbianism, the butch, although identifiably a woman, had mannerisms and behavioural tendancies which were more commonly associated with men.  In “Prisoner Cell Block H”  for example, both Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson present as butch, while the latter is indeed associated with lesbianism, the former is written one who killed her adulterous husband, and goes on to have an affair with a man.

By the 1980s a new androgene was being born.  David Bowie and Annie Lennox both reflected this by presenting in ways which were atypical for their gender, but not easily identifiable with the other.  Boy George, caused genuine confusion when he hit the pop charts with many unclear about what his gender was, with tabloids alternately amused and outraged at this blatant display of genderbending.  At the opposite end of the scale there is The macho and the high-femme.  The macho as embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger in films such as “Conan the Barbarian”" present an aggresssive hyper-masculinity, while Lola Ferrari presents in a hyper-feminine fashion. Action movies and princess culture depict high gendering, exaggerating the tropes which are associated with the sex of the object portrayed.

Thus within cissex, there have been a number of ways to “play gender”, to the extent that these can be seen as different and distinct genders, but still included within the overarching genders of “man” and “woman

Transgender has only become prominent in public consciousness in the last twenty years or so.  With Dana International winning the Eurovision song contest and Nadia Almada winning the popular television reality show, Big Brother, transgendered people have become far more visible in popular culture and consciousness.  As with cis people, there are variety of ways in which trans people “play their gender”, from highly gendered, through androgenous to cross-gendered.  There is pressure both from society and within the medical establishment for trans people to gender “appropriately” – for transwomen to wear dresses and make up and for transmen to adopt mannerism, such as sitting with their legs apart to “”pass” as their chosen gender, even where that does not come naturally to the person.

Gender is a social construction – it is an illusion that we all buy into, only part self-determined, although we use our choice of dress, mannerisms, etc to encourage others to gender us within the pre-defined classes of “man” and “woman” which are the only publicly acceptable genders.  Our own unique gender, our particular way of positioning our identity and body in the world must fit into one of these predefined classes, it can vary from time to time within the spectrum of high gendering to cross gendering, but should it transition, it must be a one-off lifetime event.

Transwomen are our allies in the destruction of the man/woman binary, by decoupling gender from sex, they call us to question “What is a woman?”  If it cannot be determined on the basis of sex, what then can it be determined on, can it be properly determined at all, why are we doing it and need we do so at all.  The answer ultimately is to destroy gender completely, its unnecessary and harmful but the problem is that out there in the big bad world gender exists.

Others will gender you whether you want them to or not, and identifying or presenting with a gender which is associated with “woman” invites comparison to sexist tropes of what the essence of “a woman” is.   Although both cis and trans people are presented as having a gender which is static and unchangable, beyond cis and trans, there are people who identify as genderfluid, who move between the genders of man and woman.

Where genderqueer steps in is in dispensing with the necessity for the ideas ‘man’ and ‘woman’ altogether. Instead, genderqueer politics envisage a society in which ‘man’ and ‘woman’ aren’t enforced on everyone, but are potential options for those who want them. Alone and in communities, genderqueer people open up gender so that people can choose to adopt mixtures of stereotypically or non-stereotypically feminine and masculine traits, dispense with them altogether, or move between them, alongside challenging them on feminist grounds.

Ray Filar, Questioning the Imperative to be Gendered

Looking beyond white culture where much of the discussion around gender, gender roles, transgender and gendernormativity takes place reveals that the Western heteropatriarchial norm of binary gender roles heavily associated with biological sex and sexual attraction are not universal.  In a range of cultures there are people who do not identify with either gender, or who identify with both.

The destruction of cishet binary gender notions is a fight against misogyny in all its forms and indirectly a fight against the white supremacy which promotes them as “the natural order”.  Gender is a complex interplay of your own presentation of your sex and sexuality, linking both your psychology and your body and presenting it out into a world which interprets it through established lenses – lenses established by a white heteropatriarchy, to maximise the exploitation of the reproducers of labour.

0saves
Leave a comment below or join the discussion on the Second Council House of Virgo facebook page
23 comments
Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

I agree that the precise reasons for choice don't matter as you said (beyond the social pressure to conform). But I'd argue this on the basis that in the case of trans people the state of gender dysphoria that presents is not entirely a matter of social constructs even if it cannot be exactly explained biologically. It also needs to be pointed out that choice in this context is not the same as the operation of free will to the extent that it's somehow driven and not like other kinds of choices such as black or brown shoes. The difficulty in tracing biological origins does not mean that these origins don't exist but it shouldn't be incumbent upon trans people to explain themselves, especially when such things for example as pre-natal hormonal interactions only provide a tenuous though plausible hypothesis. I do think it's missing something important from the interpretation of gendered behaviour  in the population at large if we leave hormones out of the equation because I think we can deal with some of the traits which are possibly hormone linked better by recognising them.

Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

I agree that the precise reasons for choice don't matter as you said (beyond the social pressure to conform). But I'd argue this on the basis that in the case of trans people the state of gender dysphoria that presents is not entirely a matter of social constructs even if it cannot be exactly explained biologically. It also needs to be pointed out that choice in this context is not the same as the operation of free will to the extent that it's somehow driven and not like other kinds of choices such as black or brown shoes. The difficulty in tracing biological origins does not mean that these origins don't exist but it shouldn't be incumbent upon trans people to explain themselves, especially when such things for example as pre-natal hormonal interactions only provide a tenuous though plausible hypothesis. I do think it's missing something important from the interpretation of gendered behaviour  in the population at large if we leave hormones out of the equation because I think we can deal with some of the traits which are possibly hormone linked better by recognising them.

Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

I'm in general agreement with what you say Mhairi but I think it's also necessary to take account of the effect of sex hormones on behavior. These are clear, demonstrable and I would say repeatable in clinical trials. These hormones play a formative role in maleness or femaleness, not just in physical appearance but also in behavioral traits. Whilst typical gender roles are largely artificial and are imposed by social norms, there is a range of behaviors attributable to hormonal influence beneath the surface. 

To me the idea that sexual categories must rest on reproductive regimes seems unnecessary and problematic in that it excludes those who are not reproductive. Generally speaking the chromosomal configuration works but excludes those with chromosomal abnormalities and also trans people. Alternatively whereas chromosomes code for hormones and hormones produce sexual categories it seems safer to class sex on the basis of primary and secondary sexual characteristics.  This might seem to pose a problem for trans men because the genital surgery is more difficult and expensive but I think this where the importance of secondary sexual characteristics comes into play. 

If we reject altogether the idea that gender has some kind of biological basis then we reject anything that evolutionary psychology can tell us about important aspects of human behavior and we end up with a blank slate notion about human beings which puts everything down to cultural influences. This is problematic when we consider that we evolved from primates and before that from earlier mammals. The species from which we evolved clearly have behaviorism sex differences which are inherited rather than learned.


Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

I'm in general agreement with what you say Mhairi but I think it's also necessary to take account of the effect of sex hormones on behavior. These are clear, demonstrable and I would say repeatable in clinical trials. These hormones play a formative role in maleness or femaleness, not just in physical appearance but also in behavioral traits. Whilst typical gender roles are largely artificial and are imposed by social norms, there is a range of behaviors attributable to hormonal influence beneath the surface.  To me the idea that sexual categories must rest on reproductive regimes seems unnecessary and problematic in that it excludes those who are not reproductive. Generally speaking the chromosomal configuration works but excludes those with chromosomal abnormalities and also trans people. Alternatively whereas chromosomes code for hormones and hormones produce sexual categories it seems safer to class sex on the basis of primary and secondary sexual characteristics.  This might seem to pose a problem for trans men because the genital surgery is more difficult and expensive but I think this where the importance of secondary sexual characteristics comes into play.  If we reject altogether the idea that gender has some kind of biological basis then we reject anything that evolutionary psychology can tell us about important aspects of human behavior and we end up with a blank slate notion about human beings which puts everything down to cultural influences. This is problematic when we consider that we evolved from primates and before that from earlier mammals. The species from which we evolved clearly have behaviorism sex differences which are inherited rather than learned.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Jodley For all I have quite a lot of disagreements with it, its actually a good article, in that it explains the issues and the problems that some feminists have with trans activism and trans feminism very well, without the transphobic crap that often accompanies it.  Well worth a read, but I think it neglects that just as within feminism there are different currents within trans activism.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Jodley For all I have quite a lot of disagreements with it, its actually a good article, in that it explains the issues and the problems that some feminists have with trans activism and trans feminism very well, without the transphobic crap that often accompanies it.  Well worth a read, but I think it neglects that just as within feminism there are different currents within trans activism.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Joanne Telfer I think there are lots of things that are influenced by biology, possibly even the choice of shoes (someone who is colourblind may prefer strong colours such as black to subtle differences in shades of brown).  The question is whether gender dysphoria is an individual issue, or a social issue which individuals suffer from.   A Black person in an all-white community may feel out of place, the issue is primarily a social one; the biology which leads to a darker skin colour explains the discrimination they face, but is unhelpful for solving it.



mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Joanne Telfer I think there are lots of things that are influenced by biology, possibly even the choice of shoes (someone who is colourblind may prefer strong colours such as black to subtle differences in shades of brown).  The question is whether gender dysphoria is an individual issue, or a social issue which individuals suffer from.   A Black person in an all-white community may feel out of place, the issue is primarily a social one; the biology which leads to a darker skin colour explains the discrimination they face, but is unhelpful for solving it.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Joanne Telfer Yes, there are sex hormones - which are linked with chromosomal makeup butnot perfectly, additionally medical intervention can change the balance to suit an individual's preference.  Hormones may well be related to gendering choice either within cisgender or as transgender, but ultimately it doesn't matter.

Gender preference probably does have an element of a biological basis, as may sexual preference, but if we recognise choice as valid, the precise reasons for the choice dont matter beyond the (social) pressure to conform, thus presenting us with a genuine choice rather than a socially constrained one.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Joanne Telfer Yes, there are sex hormones - which are linked with chromosomal makeup butnot perfectly, additionally medical intervention can change the balance to suit an individual's preference.  Hormones may well be related to gendering choice either within cisgender or as transgender, but ultimately it doesn't matter. Gender preference probably does have an element of a biological basis, as may sexual preference, but if we recognise choice as valid, the precise reasons for the choice dont matter beyond the (social) pressure to conform, thus presenting us with a genuine choice rather than a socially constrained one.

Jodley
Jodley

@mhairimcalpine @Jodley  A careful reading suggests that it does not neglect that at all 

"Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies [rejection of feminist concept of gender; priority to individual freedom of choice]  just described."

"When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression)."

It is true that, in this article largely dealing with theory in broad brush strokes, individual authors ("dissenting voices") are not cited - neither are feminist authors, save Simone de Beauvoir - but do you disagree with her overall characterisation of the theoretical underpinnings of trans activist theory and discourse?  If so, can you point me to the other currents? its thinkers? its organisational forms?

Jodley
Jodley

mhairimcalpine Jodley  A careful reading suggests that it does not neglect that at all  "Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies [rejection of feminist concept of gender; priority to individual freedom of choice]  just described." "When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression)." It is true that, in this article largely dealing with theory in broad brush strokes, individual authors ("dissenting voices") are not cited - neither are feminist authors, save Simone de Beauvoir - but do you disagree with her overall characterisation of the theoretical underpinnings of trans activist theory and discourse?  If so, can you point me to the other currents? its thinkers? its organisational forms?

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Jodley

I cant actually find a reference to it on the Scottish Trans site, but yes, the GIRES link does mention although the Beaumont trust seems ambiguous.  I would agree with you that Serano's biog has become very dominent in trans theory - while not to discount her personal experience, it is exactly that a personal experience and her insights - although valid cannot be universalised in the way that some seem to.
I think that there is a level of validity to the brain sex theory, which is an issue of sex identity (ie something which is not necessarily related to gender identity) - if you look at some cases of intersex children badly wanting surgery to the opposite sex to which they were surgically assigned, or David Reems, who was brought up as a girl after a circumcision went wrong without knowing his original sex, it demonstrates that some people actively want to change their sex, not only their gender.

I'm not actually that sure that brain sex theory is all that mainstream tho, and tbh, I think that the "brain sex" theory also suffers from amplification by radfems hitting out, using it as a strawman to attack the entire notion of trans*, while latent cissexism pushes transgender people (ie people who want to change their gender) to have medical intervention to realign their gender with their sex.

On the counter side - transvestisism (ie sexual pleasure from dressing in women's clothes) is still a highly stigmatised sexual practice.  It is dismissed by radfems in particular as autogynophelia (which may indeed be its correct clinical term), but IMHO, the stigmatisation of transvestisism leads transvestites to identify as transgender, hiding the sexual motivations for their desire.

I dont see all versions of trans theory *necessarily* in conflict with either radfem theory or marxist feminism theory.  It only comes into conflict when you start enforcing that your gender identity must be your sex, and the effective erasure of the female as a political category.  (eg see the discussion on this post http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/11/05/social-constructs-and-biological-differences/, and the follow up post http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/11/16/female-a-hetero-masculine-discourse/

Jodley
Jodley

@mhairimcalpine @Jodley

She only skims and glosses over to the same extent as she does the nuances in feminism.  The purpose is to outline two ways of understanding gender, where they conflict and the reasons for that. I do find that mainstream trans theory of gender identity does conflict with feminist theory, not just of the radical variety but all the materialist traditions including marxist feminist.  When I talk of trans theory, I don't refer to the tumblr echo chamber so much as the way gender concepts, including notions such as brain sex are used by organisations such as http://www.scottishtrans.org/ or http://www.gires.org.uk/about.php and http://www.beaumont-trust.org.uk/ which are surely mainstream.  I also refer to Julia Serano's Whipping Girl, which seems to be really the urtext for ideas about 'cis' that have become common currency.

I wouldn't be surprised if the generative work of Sandy Stone was amongst those alluded to in the T&S article under the rubric "trans politics, in the 1990s".

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Jodley  OK, perhaps not "neglect" but skims and glosses over then.

I dont recognise the description of mainstream trans thought that she describes as dominant within theory.  I think there is "tumblr transactivism", where an echo chamber of people asserting their individuality vociferously and at times aggressively is amplified by the weird "social justice culture" that goes on in that medium, where anti-oppressive practise is seen in and of itself as a moral imperative, rather than exploring the moral imperatives that should inform our practise in order to be properly anti-oppressive - its cart before horse territory.  

In terms of other currents probably the seminal work is "The Empire Strikes Back: A post transsexual manifesto" written by Sandy Stone in 1987, where she critiques how essentialism was foisted upon trans women - where the medical establishment acted as the gatekeeper of what a "proper" trans person was, so trans people became what the medical establishment said that they should be in order to be accepted.

For more modern stuff - see this site by Antonia Elle D’orsay.  Not transfeminism but "transcentrism" again I dont agree with all of it, but she neatly seperates out sex and gender, while recognising that there are links between them, and is quite dismissive of the "I identify therefore I am..." school of thought, while acknowledging sex identity and gender identity as real and meaningful to an individual, but ultimately meaningless in much of social discourse.  Some really thought provoking articles there.

There seems to be a radical break between transsexuals (who have an urgent desire for sex-corrective intervention) & transgender individuals who acknowledge that sex and gender are different things (and tend to have varying degrees of intervention, or none) and the kind of reverse cissexism of some transgender activists, who claim that their sex must automatically be in line with whatever their gender identity is because ...transphobia. It is the last group who seems to get the most attention perhaps because are seen as the most radical (by trans supporters) or easiest targets (transphobes)



mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Jodley I cant actually find a reference to it on the Scottish Trans site, but yes, the GIRES link does mention although the Beaumont trust seems ambiguous.  I would agree with you that Serano's biog has become very dominent in trans theory - while not to discount her personal experience, it is exactly that a personal experience and her insights - although valid cannot be universalised in the way that some seem to. I think that there is a level of validity to the brain sex theory, which is an issue of sex identity (ie something which is not necessarily related to gender identity) - if you look at some cases of intersex children badly wanting surgery to the opposite sex to which they were surgically assigned, or David Reems, who was brought up as a girl after a circumcision went wrong without knowing his original sex, it demonstrates that some people actively want to change their sex, not only their gender. I'm not actually that sure that brain sex theory is all that mainstream tho, and tbh, I think that the "brain sex" theory also suffers from amplification by radfems hitting out, using it as a strawman to attack the entire notion of trans*, while latent cissexism pushes transgender people (ie people who want to change their gender) to have medical intervention to realign their gender with their sex. On the counter side - transvestisism (ie sexual pleasure from dressing in women's clothes) is still a highly stigmatised sexual practice.  It is dismissed by radfems in particular as autogynophelia (which may indeed be its correct clinical term), but IMHO, the stigmatisation of transvestisism leads transvestites to identify as transgender, hiding the sexual motivations for their desire. I dont see all versions of trans theory *necessarily* in conflict with either radfem theory or marxist feminism theory.  It only comes into conflict when you start enforcing that your gender identity must be your sex, and the http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/11/16/female-a-hetero-masculine-discourse/ffective erasure of the female as a political category.  (eg see the discussion on this post http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/11/05/social-constructs-and-biological-differences/, and the follow up post http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/11/16/female-a-hetero-masculine-discourse/

Jodley
Jodley

mhairimcalpine Jodley She only skims and glosses over to the same extent as she does the nuances in feminism.  The purpose is to outline two ways of understanding gender, where they conflict and the reasons for that. I do find that mainstream trans theory of gender identity does conflict with feminist theory, not just of the radical variety but all the materialist traditions including marxist feminist.  When I talk of trans theory, I don't refer to the tumblr echo chamber so much as the way gender concepts, including notions such as brain sex are used by organisations such as http://www.scottishtrans.org/ or http://www.gires.org.uk/about.php and http://www.beaumont-trust.org.uk/ which are surely mainstream.  I also refer to Julia Serano's Whipping Girl, which seems to be really the urtext for ideas about 'cis' that have become common currency. I wouldn't be surprised if the generative work of Sandy Stone was amongst those alluded to in the T&S article under the rubric "trans politics, in the 1990s".

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Jodley  OK, perhaps not "neglect" but skims and glosses over then. I dont recognise the description of mainstream trans thought that she describes as dominant within theory.  I think there is "tumblr transactivism", where an echo chamber of people asserting their individuality vociferously and at times aggressively is amplified by the weird "social justice culture" that goes on in that medium, where anti-oppressive practise is seen in and of itself as a moral imperative, rather than exploring the moral imperatives that should inform our practise in order to be properly anti-oppressive - its cart before horse territory.   In terms of other currents probably the seminal work is "http://sandystone.com/empire-strikes-back" written by Sandy Stone in 1987, where she critiques how essentialism was foisted upon trans women - where the medical establishment acted as the gatekeeper of what a "proper" trans person was, so trans people became what the medical establishment said that they should be in order to be accepted. For more modern stuff - see http://www.dyssonance.com/ by Antonia Elle D’orsay.  Not transfeminism but "transcentrism" again I dont agree with all of it, but she neatly seperates out sex and gender, while recognising that there are links between them, and is quite dismissive of the "I identify therefore I am..." school of thought, while acknowledging sex identity and gender identity as real and meaningful to an individual, but ultimately meaningless in much of social discourse.  Some really thought provoking articles there. There seems to be a radical break between transsexuals (who have an urgent desire for sex-corrective intervention) & transgender individuals who acknowledge that sex and gender are different things (and tend to have varying degrees of intervention, or none) and the kind of reverse cissexism of some transgender activists, who claim that their sex must automatically be in line with whatever their gender identity is because ...transphobia. It is the last group who seems to get the most attention perhaps because are seen as the most radical (by trans supporters) or easiest targets (transphobes)

© 2014 Frontier Theme

Page Optimized by WP BTBuckets WordPress Plugin