November 19, 2009

My Gender Is Not My Own

Posted in Uncategorized, Women's issues tagged , , , , at 2:02 pm by M L Clark

Hi, my name is Maggie. My sex is female, and I was born that way. My gender? Well, it turns out my gender matters a great deal.

It matters because I am a feminist, and feminism is very much concerned with the gendered oppression of women as a sexual class. There’s a lot of unpacking to do in that sentence, and I’ll try to keep it brief: Essentially, we live in a society that was built on a social contract arising from the perception of two classes of gender, male-normative and non-male-normative. (Another way of putting this is “sex-male” and “sex-female”.) The primary benefit of this framework is simplicity: If there are only two classes of gender-and-sex, and one class is given de facto authority as the “superior” gender-and-sex, then society can be structured in a way that maximizes efficiency. This efficiency arises from the distribution of clear gender roles and responsibilities, which are thereafter indisputable because only one sex has the power to decide just what those roles and responsibilities will be. What decides which sex will be regarded as superior? Why, just take a look at the biological differences between male and not-male: Are women on the whole physically stronger? Can they, as a class, make a legitimate threat of violence against men? Well, if not, then clearly they do not have power over men. But are men on the whole physically stronger? Can they, as a class, make a legitimate threat of violence against women? Well, if so, then clearly they do have power over women. And so begins the gender oppression of women as a sexual class.

But not quite, because to leave the last paragraph as it stands is to imply that all male-normative persons desire simplicity, and all non-male-normative persons do not. This is not the case. In actuality, many women also prefer simplicity, and so would not perceive themselves as being oppressed in even the most stringently gendered social structure. Now, some would argue this is not a “free choice”, but a consequence of indoctrination from early childhood; however, such a multitude of different upbringings yield later-life conversions that one would have to argue “No choice is really a free choice” in order to win that argument — at the cost, obviously, of rendering the argument itself irrelevant. And really, does it hinder this discourse to suggest that some women might freely wish to live their lives in such a manner? No, it does not.

Because the distinction is really this: Do the women who crave simplicity want others to crave it too? And this in turn is a trick question, because simplicity becomes decidedly less simple as you accept that more and more people should have the option to prefer complexity. So truly, one needs to crave the complex to perceive social gendering as oppressive. And these people are called feminists.

Now, why do we prefer the complex? Do we just like making a mess of things, or pursuing that which seems more exciting? No. We prefer complexity because we perceive it to be the more accurate representation of the real world. We prefer complexity because we do not hold efficiency as the central standard for human civilization. And we prefer complexity because it’s a natural consequence of choice.

But while all feminists hold the notion of choice as a central tenet of our beliefs and activism (creating choice, protecting choice) two schools of feminism emerge as soon as you look any closer at the movement. These schools are liberal feminism and radical feminism, and they are often at great odds with one another in feminist discourse. What creates this division? The divergent means by which both groups seek out the same ends.

Consider, if you will, a state. The name of this state is “Humankind”. Since Humankind’s governance structure favours simplicity, the state is perceived as being peopled by male-normative persons and non-male-normative persons, with the former holding power and privilege over the latter. The latter, on the whole, don’t like this, so they consider strategies to improve their position within this state. Now, marginalized groups throughout history have responded to their degradation by adopting the language of oppression as their own, and in this reclamation process we find such terms as “Yankee” and “Hutu” and “Nigger”. Similarly, by stripping sexist words of their power to hurt, and otherwise reclaiming those actions and elements of personhood used by oppressors to assert female inferiority, feminists hope to gain legitimacy within the state of Humankind. Historically, this occurs as a consequence of “taking back the language”, because words like “Cunt” or “Bitch” very easily become banners to rally under, and to use for the purpose of creating a shared narrative. In short, they become symbols of nationhood.

So one group in feminism takes this approach in the state of Humankind, and fashions for itself a nation called Woman. And with this nationhood emerges the usual propagandist methodologies for fighting oppression in the existing gender class system: Arguing that sex and sexuality are actually powerhouses for female liberation, making physical “weakness” its own measure of strength, and otherwise forwarding the thesis that women embrace their femininity not for other people’s sake, but for their own. This nation, predicated as it is on individual empowerment, demands equal representation in the state of Humankind for all its members, with all the individual civic and economic rights, responsibilities, and privileges that representation entails. The aim of this activism is to equalize the status of all persons in the state of Humankind, but to do so within the existing gender class framework. This nation is liberal feminism.

But others in this marginalized gender class aren’t so keen on the nation of Woman. If there were another state in this hypothetical scenario, they would have fled the state of Humankind to this Other Realm by now. As it stands, these people feel like refugees in their own homes, and they don’t see how a nation of Woman that even in part reaffirms existing gender roles can offer a way out. This is because no matter how much the nation of Woman celebrates an individual’s choice to, say, work in the sex industry of her own volition, this other group will invariably recall that this choice does not exist in a vacuum: Rather, it exists in a world where the great majority of women in the sex industry are not there of their own volition, or at least certainly are not empowered within that system. In short, this other group champions a universalist approach to combating gender oppression: just as a chain of mountain climbers is limited by the height of its lowest member, so too do these universalists measure their success by the gender-based status of the least of them. These people are radical feminists, and they desire to confront the causes of gender oppression at its source, as opposed to its end-points.

Of course, all ideologies have a way of coming full circle if taken to their extremes, which is why cultural feminism also exists — bridging liberal feminism’s championing of the individual woman and radical feminism’s desire to usurp existing gender norms. The difference between cultural feminism and the other two feminist ideologies is that cultural feminism does not seek equality. Rather, it seeks to supplant the male-dominant gender norm with a female-dominant gender norm, on the basis of a perception that a) simplicity is good, b) women actually have a power store all their own, and c) a system predicated on female-norm/non-female-norm would be of better use to the progress of civilization as a whole. This is the ideology most consistently taken to be the basis of feminism as a whole — which is tragic, because cultural feminism is absolutely an extreme fringe, and nowhere near the discursive norm.

What is the discursive norm is intense argumentation between the schools of liberal and radical feminism, over a wide variety of issues relating to women’s lived experience. This intensity of polemics is neither surprising nor unique: one finds similar spectra in any political discourse, and the lack of surprise arises from how easily individual feminists themselves waver between camps. And why not? Liberal feminism essentially tackles that which might be attained in our lifetimes — goals like sexual empowerment on an individual basis — while radical feminism consigns us to work that will perhaps be on-going for many, many lifetimes to come. Similarly, radical feminism has a measure of lofty idealism to it — meanwhile, liberal feminism can at times put personal choices in conflict with acknowledging the lived oppression of other women, and that doesn’t feel so grand at all. So of course we waver. But more importantly, our collective discourse should waver, because talking about feminist issues — even to disagree about them — does not intrinsically fragment the cause. To the contrary, discussion is the basis of dissemination. So argument is an important part of feminism as a whole.

But can anyone participate in these arguments? This question comes to the fore when we consider male feminist allies. If you recall, I noted near the outset that not all women crave complexity: similarly, not all men crave simplicity. Some recognize that the world is much too diverse for a gender oppressive paradigm to be just. Some recognize that they are also not well-served by a system that regards the non-male-normative gender class as inferior. And some have experienced first-hand what happens when people don’t fit perfectly into either of the two gender classes at all (more on that below). Whatever their reasons, these men want to work to create equality for women — to support women in their self-empowerment, as it were — with varying levels of investment in these outcomes serving male interests, too.

But creating a space where women aren’t told by others what their experiences have been; where they need not fear being silenced for sharing their stories; where, instead, they can etch out a shared narrative and pursue constructive activism from that outlook, is not easy. It never has been. So when male allies enter the feminist sphere there is a need to ensure they actually are there to support, to listen, and to share their own experiences where appropriate instead of a) demanding that women take the time to answer all their questions about feminism, b) demanding that women tell them their full histories, c) denying women’s experiences, or d) dictating what women’s experiences of discrimination “actually are” in relation to men’s experiences of the same.

I’m sure that, to all of the men in this audience, doing such things would seem absurd and ridiculous — as extreme and unfair a cross-section of male involvement in feminist discourse as cultural “feminism” is of female involvement in feminist discourse. But the aforementioned discursive bullying, and worse, does happen. How often? Often enough that feminists get very jittery about male ally engagement in certain subjects or facets of feminism — liberal feminism especially. Why liberal feminism? Because liberal feminism advocates individual choice, and especially houses a great many choices that enhance a woman’s sense of self by “reclaiming” marginalized aspects of her existing gender role. This kind of individual action can be great fodder for male allies, because without being invested firsthand in the “history” of a sex-female body, and all the social ramifications therein, they can champion female choices that favour traditional male expectations of women, and do so in the name of feminism. And will they have questioned their privilege in the course of championing this view? It’s hard for anyone else to tell. And will any comments they add to these discussions feel at all different from the pressure women as a sexual class already receive from men about what we should do with our sexuality? It’s quite unlikely. Women should have the choice to pursue these ideologies themselves, absolutely: but men shouldn’t be trying to influence the outcome. This is where many feminists get concerned.

So in some aspects of feminism, yes, it’s important for male allies to sit and listen. But not always — and certainly not always when we’re talking about “male-normative” and “non-male-normative” gender values, because these issues have extreme cross-disciplinary implications, and many men also have “non-male-normative” gender values themselves. Here, indeed, exist great reasons for various forms of class-based activism (queer activism and trans activism especially) to work together to deconstruct the existing gender classed society. But in what ways? With what limitations? And what on earth do I even mean by the term “non-male-normative”?

Because by now I’m sure you’re wondering if I’ll ever explain why I likened “male-normative and non-male-normative” so readily with “sex-male and sex-female” at the beginning of this post. What about non-male-normative men? What about male-normative women? Well that’s just it, isn’t it? There are many, many ways to be non-male-normative, and thus lack power in the current gender oppressive state: You can be a sex-female who identifies as straight, and gender-male. You can be a sex-male who identifies as queer, and gender-male. You can be a sex-female who identifies as pan-sexual and two-spirited. But it still won’t matter. In a gender classed society predicated on the need for simplicity, in a species with offspring that manifest as one of roughly two sexes, having more than two gender frameworks for those two rough sex types is inherently complicated and inefficient. Two will, and must, suffice.

As such, the two gender classes that exist in this system have very specific traits: “male-normative” has at its root a clear set of values for sex-male persons that “fit”, while “non-male-normative” has at its root a clear set of values for sex-female persons that “fit”. We can call the former set of values “gender male”, and the latter, “gender female”. What, then, of all the rest?

Imagine a small sex-male, maybe five or six. He should have grown out of his baby toys, but he hasn’t. He plays with his sister’s dolls, brushing their hair and accessorizing them while gushing about how pretty they are. If given half the chance, he plays dress-up in his mother’s closet, and smears lipstick over his face. His father, a rather severe man raised on fairly stringent religious values, who regards himself as the obvious head of the household and is not inclined to spare the rod, comes across his son in the midst of such play. His response is to beat the child. What does he see that makes him act this way?

You might say he sees the possibility that his son might turn out gay. You might say he sees the possibility that his son will turn out transgendered. But the latter seems unlikely for someone not regularly exposed to diversity, and even the former seems almost too complete an analysis for such an impulsive, violent response. So what can we confidently, irrefutably say this man sees just before he beats his child? We can say he sees his child acting in a non-male-normative way. And again, we know there are many ways to be non-male-normative, but the only one this man will understand is “gender female” — and that, he’ll further understand, can only manifest in a sex-female person. So what the father sees before him is quite simply incomprehensible from his world view. And the very fact that it’s incomprehensible, that it doesn’t conform to any measure of a simple universe, makes it wrong. And things that are wrong are often met with violence.

Meanwhile, the reality is that this child’s play in no way suggests what his adult identity will be. He might be gay. He might be transgendered. He might be both. He might be neither. The only thing his actions confirmed that day was how his gender was perceived by others — namely, as wrong. Thereafter, in hindsight the incident will similarly be used to explain or even justify his self-identity as an adult. But should it matter even then? What causes a gay or transgendered person to say “I knew I was X because I did Y when I was younger”, except the pressure from a gendered society to legitimize the place of other gender histories? Would that gay or transgendered person be deemed “less legitimate” if they didn’t have a story about Y from their childhoods? And if so, what does that say, in turn, about the external life of gender identity?

This is a crucial point for feminism, because on the basis of such broader gender oppressions the concepts of both “hetero-normative privilege” and “cis privilege” enter feminist discourse — but there is a huge difference between the impact of these two terms on our discipline. (And the omission of “gender conformity privilege” in favour of “cis privilege” is hugely telling.)

What are “hetero-normative privilege” and “cis privilege”? The former notes that one of the values included in both gender norms is the expectation of heterosexuality, the lone sexual orientation permitted in this gender class structure. Essentially, by virtue of having the correct sexual orientation, you “fit”, and thus have certain privileges over those who do not. The latter, however, is quite different, because it asserts that people born into the gender that matches their sex are privileged over those who are not. Essentially, by virtue of having the socially correct gender/sex overlap at birth, you “fit”, and thus have certain privileges over those who do not.

Consider that definition, if you will, while I note that it’s generally liberal feminists who embrace the notion of “cis privilege” — and why shouldn’t they? That nation of Woman is all about taking back the gender identity they were born into: if liberal feminists find pride in being gender-women, however they’ve re-forged that gender set upon them to mean, then of course they’re going to recognize that they get benefits from being the gender they love, and which they were born into through no merit of their own. Except… by that logic, don’t liberal feminists also get such benefits over radical feminists? No, wait, of course not: Because transgendered persons feel their gender is at odds with their sex identity from birth, and (at least) radical feminists… do not?

You’ve caught on to the gist of the problem by now, haven’t you? Because for many radical feminists, the notion of “cis privilege” is an absolute mindfuck. As has already been established, there are a great many distinct gender profiles — but only two of them are recognized as acceptable in the system of gender oppression: “male-normative” (sex-male) and “non-male-normative” (sex-female). All others are wrong. And there’s an important corollary to this: It doesn’t actually matter what you identify as, because society will treat you on the basis of what it sees as your identity. The logical conclusion of this is that people who “pass” as gender-normative gain the same social benefits of gender-normativity: it matters not one whit what you feel is really who you are.

So when radical feminists are told we have gender privilege — that is, when we’re told we are privileged over other gender profiles because our sex matches up with our gender — there is great cause for disagreement. This disagreement is exacerbated when some trans activists say they have been their actual gender from birth, because after all, radical feminists perceive gender as externally imposed, meaning we have two truths at play here: what others see us as, and how we see ourselves. Transwomen should be familiar with this concept, but many nonetheless refuse it in this case, instead interpreting such feminist disagreement as another aspect of rad-fem “privilege” or even transphobia. “Exploding the gender binary is a nice ideal, but not really practical,” the argument goes, “So you have to pick one gender or the other. What will it be? Do you see yourself as male or female?”

But this is precisely the point — and perhaps one that needs to be handled with transwomen just as it would be with male allies (two groups that have both been raised in the sex-male class, with all the gendered social expectations and benefits therein, at some point in their lives): I refuse that false dichotomy. I see myself as neither. My sex is female, but I am human. And above and beyond all sex-based biochemical differences between male, female, and intersex persons, this means the whole notion of gender is a socially-imposed facade — one for which I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to transition into a body where that fact (and with it, the primacy of my citizenship in the state of Humankind) is seen first.

But silly me, maybe that’s just part and parcel of being gender-female in the first place. How would I know, after all? I don’t set the values by which that gender norm is measured. I don’t get to change those values, either, though they fluctuate throughout my life. All I know for sure is that my gender is not my own; and for this reason, that my gender has nothing to do with who I am. So please, to all feminists and feminist allies claiming I have “cis privilege”, keep it coming. Keep telling me I’m privileged because society most often sees me as passing for the gender identity it considers the only acceptable value set for my sex. Forget that in any checklist giving me the option not to answer the gender question, I would provide no fucking answer at all. Forget that my name is Maggie, and that I’m sex-female but still human, and absolutely not comfortable with the external life of my gender identity.

Trust me, you wouldn’t be the first.


  1. […] obvious: “female” is itself non-normative. (I develop this notion more thoroughly in this earlier post.) It is, however, also the one state of non-normativity deemed “acceptable” — […]

  2. […] raise some important questions in relation to trans-activism and feminism. The first one is called “My Gender Is Not My Own”. The follow-ups are here, here and here (the newest one is a great analysis of gender normativity, […]

  3. m Andrea said,

    Do we need to discuss how awesome you are? And do we need to discuss how blunt I am? Just checking!

    But while all feminists hold the notion of choice as a central tenet of our beliefs and activism

    Personally I think you’ve been reading too many 2nd wave queer theorists, who only want to muddy the waters. Choice has never been a central tenet of feminism, only an antecedent — because the availability of individual choices is a preprerequisite to liberation. “The choice to choose” rhetoric was borrowed from the abortion campaign once the BDSM and pro-rape prostitution crowd figured out it could be used justify their own Stockholm dance with patriachy. “Choosing” to Stockholm with one’s abuser is anathema to genuine liberation.

    I love this post though, this is about the fourth time I’ve come back to it, and surely it won’t be the last. Most excellent.

  4. Marja (my body was not my own) said,

    I just came across your post, and have to agree… to an extent.

    I am trans, and I am transitioning. All my life I’ve just wanted to get away from gender roles and be my more-or-less tomboyish self. I have trouble relating to either the official/medical narratives or many activist narratives. I think the official/medical discourses conflate two different things:

    Gender-1. An aspect of our senses of our selves, which includes what Julia Serano calls subconscious sex, as well as gender identity.

    Gender-2. A range of social expectations, which patriarchal society imposes on people, and which we may choose, may need to conform to, or may resist.

    I think my pre-transition difficulties with my body can be considered part of gender-1 without supporting gender-2.

    • Marja (my body was not my own) said,

      P.S. I can’t assume that everyone has a gender-1, although many attempts to define trans and cis refer to gender identity and/or subconscious sex. I think the existence of butch trans womyn and feminine trans men illustrates that gender-1 is independent of gender-2.

  5. Robin said,

    You wrote:

    The logical conclusion of this is that people who “pass” as gender-normative gain the same social benefits of gender-normativity: it matters not one whit what you feel is really who you are.

    So when radical feminists are told we have gender privilege — that is, when we’re told we are privileged over other gender profiles because our sex matches up with our gender — there is great cause for disagreement.

    Even if passing is great, a trans person lacks cis privilege. I have to choose whether I hide my past and transition from other people or whether I will run the risk to be degendered/pronoun slips, looked down at, or they might tell other who look down on me. Now tell me where you ran that risk when you told someone about your childhood as a little girl.

    • mlclark said,

      Hi Robin,

      I haven’t added to this website in almost a year because I realized I wanted to spend more of my time acting upon the “real” world and not simply running in circles among online activist communities–an exercise that has its merits, but also, quite clearly, its limits, as discourse therein grows more heated and alienated from the humanistic experience of engaging with people in one’s local context and ensuring the betterment of all lives therein.

      However, your response is genuine and merits reply.

      When I wrote “when we’re told we are privileged over other gender profiles because our sex matches up with our gender,” the wording in there was precise when used in context: radfems are *told* that our sex matches up with our gender, and thus *told* we fit cis criteria, but as the whole of my post clearly outlines, this is not the belief I hold; nor the belief held by most radfems I know.

      As you may recall, the post outlines three tiers of gender-class identity: the biochemical sex, the externally interpreted gender, and then the “inner” gender. Unless you’re among the population set that has clear chromosomal variation from standard XY/XX, your sex and (external) gender clearly differed from your own, internal sense of gender growing up; and this caused you to make changes to your sex and/or external gender cues (how others see you) until they matched up with your noumenological (inner) truth.

      Speaking for myself — though again, other radfems also feel this way — my inner truth also differed from the interpreted performance of gender and sex. I have no “inner” gender; my gender is JUST my biochemical sex and the performance of gender as it’s interpreted by others. And you can bet this isn’t because my sex and gender were “harmonious” with my inner identity: nothing could be further from the truth, as sex and external gender put me at odds with myself in ways that were painful growing up, especially after puberty. Suddenly my thoughts are not really my own in the days leading up to my menses; the genuineness of my feelings were in doubt; and the world I entered was one where other people’s expectation sets of femininity severely limited my ability to be seen as just another human being, and continue to leave me with serious burdens regarding whether I can do anything freely, or if everything is a mark for or against my ability to “perform” at the gender role prescribed to me by others.

      I feel for the risk you must take every time you decide to share your past with someone–accidental pronoun slips and the fear of being looked down upon are sad realities of a social context that is not educated enough or perhaps humane enough to let most people just be people. All I’m saying is that the fear of being looked down upon is not unique to the trans experience, and women who do not perform to their gender roles are under similar threat of being told they’re “not woman enough” / “acting unfeminine” / “behaving like a man.” Indeed, society has codewords that castigate us for not behaving like the gender/sex we’re supposed to–“bitch” for actions that, in a man, are deemed acceptable, leader-like conduct; “frigid” for refusing to conform to other people’s demands of our sexuality; “slut” for doing what, as a man, would be a mark of pride. Men who do not perform to male roles suffer similarly, and risk being called names, derided, or gendered female in social insults for failures therein.

      So yes, telling people that as a girl I hated the biochemical variations and social burdens that went along with being a woman; indeed, that I hated to the core the expectation sets foisted upon me for being female, is a risk. I’m in an age group right now where a lot of my friends are getting married, and participation in these weddings forces me into deeply offensive gender stratification–hyperreal manifestations of gender that completely void my sense of inner identity. I lost a friend this summer because, though I was far closer to him than the bride, their formal wedding required me to stand as a bridesmaid; and this gender rift meant I spent the bulk of my time in the year leading up to the wedding with “the women” while “the boys” shored up their own exclusive bonding. This was crushing; and no more so than when my attempt to articulate how all these gender stratifications were making me feel was seen as disruptive, and made me out to be a freak when, really, I’m not.

      Another example of risk that comes with articulating my inner identity emerged in what was supposed to be a safe space — counselling — wherein I was asked about long term goals and I said I wanted to adopt. The counsellor (an intern in training) was horrified; she wanted to know why I didn’t want children of my own, and when I told her quite simply my reasons she asserted that I would absolutely feel differently once my issues from the past were resolved; that once I was no longer “broken” I would once more want to perform as my gender/sex identity is expected to perform, by becoming mothers through conception.

      You’ll note, of course, that this woman counsellor absolutely does seem to have an inner truth that is female, and matches up with her external gender, and her sex. My post is absolutely not intending to suggest that there aren’t plenty of women who feel being a woman is a deeply held personal truth, as well as their biochemical makeup, and their social gender role (ditto with men).

      But what my post *is* saying is that the ability to pass is not uniformly deconstructed along cis/trans lines–plenty of biochemical women are mistaken for men, and vice versa, when those biochemical identities match up with their personal truths; just as plenty of people are targeted for violence on the basis of difference without their aggressors getting all the nuance between, say, drag queen, effeminate gay man, and trans person just right; and plenty of women, like me, have no gender truth at all (only a general alienation, in our struggle to be recognized simply as human beings, from our biochemical sex and gender performances).

      We (the “we” cited above) all take risks when we talk about our histories of atypical gender performance. But the lines that should unite us in our experiences don’t, because when gender activist communities get together, the outcome is invariably still to push us back into our original, rigid, alienating gender categories. I think it’s safe to say I share more experience of atypical gender performance with you than with a lot of other women and men I know, who’ve always happily taken up the mantel of their gender roles and biochemical sexes. So I think it’s tragic that we’ve allowed further gender labels, foisted upon people when none of us can ever truly know another’s noumenological truth (unless they tell us what that truth is), to fragment us, and pit us against one another, along the same lines in the sand that society at large wields in turn.

      We’re all of us human: some of us simply need to work harder to be seen, first and foremost, as human in the world at large. For anyone who passes, and who is happy to do so, the world is a very privileged place. The rest of us have to take it one day at a time.

      Thank you for your response, Robin. I really appreciated it.

      All the best.

  6. Robin said,

    Sorry did not mark the quotation. First two paragraphs are quotes from your text, third paragraph is my objection to it.

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