In defense of gender
Gender as it is practiced in the West is a problem. No one disputes this. A common debate, however, is what to do about it: should we throw out gender altogether, as the gender nihilists and abolitionists claim? Or is it salvageable?
I should start by saying I don’t love gender. I identified as genderqueer for many years, and honestly transitioned back “into the binary” somewhat reluctantly. I was beginning a career as a schoolteacher, and it seemed easier to be a trans woman in front of a classroom than a non-binary person (I was right. Being non-binary in a binary world is fucking tough). Were gender to be abolished tomorrow, I’d be fine.
It’s important to remember, though, that I’m not fighting just for myself, but for everyone. And myopia is where so many of the gender abolitionists falter. Their theory would serve them, most women, and most non-binary folks immensely. But it would undoubtedly harm some, and if liberation is our goal, it has to be for all, not some, of us.
It’s easy to write an article listing all of the ways that gender is oppressive to everyone — including cis straight men, even. Gender is often the means by which sexual/biological essentialism envelops and maims us. It starts at birth, it dictates our childhoods, it’s the fuel by which TERFs try to destroy me and my people, it’s part of why rape culture persists, it’s patriarchal, etc. Gender abolitionists see this and say, “Gender works for no one, oppresses us all, and must go.” This is where they are wrong. They confuse the manifestation of gender that they see — the oppressive, obligatory nature of it all— with the concept itself.
Instead of critiquing the lie being told — the essentialism inherent in how gender is made manifest in our culture — gender abolitionists believe that the problem is gender itself. Gender is the lie, they say, and getting rid of it will get rid of the problem.
They argue that any attempt to salvage gender from patriarchy is fruitless because doing so means that you must believe that gender is part of “human nature,” which is the same thing the oppressor claims. But this is also part of a worrisome trend in radical/progressive movements that rejects anything the oppressor does as oppressive, instead of realizing that the oppression is in the compulsory nature of what is being done, not in the thing itself.
A great couple of examples are marriage and monogamy. I am monogamous, and have received criticism for it for years. I was pressured into trying polyamory for a while, and did, and hated it. It’s not for me. But in queer community, anyone practicing monogamy is seen as capitulating to the heteropatriarchy, and anyone who wants to get married is an assimilationist not to be trusted.
But just because straight people do it doesn’t mean it’s inherently oppressive. The oppressor forces people to get married, to be monogamous, or else to be labeled deviant and treated as such. The issue here isn’t marriage or monogamy, but the forcing.
In the same way, I have never seen evidence that gender is inherently and always oppressive, but it’s clear that the forcing of people to fit in the binary is.
Similarly, just because TERFs and other oppressors use “human nature” to argue that trans and non-binary folks are deluded, narcissistic, mentally ill deviants, doesn’t mean that any claim to human nature is inherently oppressive.
Even as a trans woman, it makes complete sense to me that perhaps long ago, humans saw that the vast majority of bodies fit one of two basic archetypes, with obvious diversity here and there. To organize society around this most basic of differences in human body composition makes complete sense to me. To organize work, for example, in a society around those who can or want to use their bodies to gestate and feed and take care of new life and those who don’t makes complete sense. A person’s body is so inherently important to their life and what they do with it that creating a link between bodies and social roles seems completely logical. I have no problem with believing in a “sex binary” as “human nature.”
This isn’t inherently oppressive, in my opinion. It becomes so when a society forces everyone to fit into one of those roles when there is obvious diversity both in those biological archetypes and the social roles that go along with them, when it’s not always a 100% match up between the bodies and the roles. The problem is the compulsory nature of the binary, not the binary itself.
I still haven’t seen evidence that, like gender abolitionists claim, in all societies, in all cultures, gender is a compulsory, oppressive experience. In fact, I have seen plenty of evidence of the opposite. It’s clear that white Western gender ideas, pushed upon folks through settler colonialism, is oppressive. But gender abolitionists seem to think this is all there is.
And misplacing the blame here is not just wrong; when examined it’s clear that gender abolitionists make an essentialist claim just like the oppressor does.
Gender abolitionists and nihilists like to generalize. “Everyone is non-binary,” said a comment recently on a friend of mine’s Facebook post. “Gender has never been anything but a colonial construct” has popped up in articles, as well as “Gender is a hierarchy created to place men on top and women on the bottom.” These are incredibly common refrains, but I have never actually seen any anthropological evidence for the broad strokes they take. It’s clear that gender does this in our culture. But for all their critiques of “human nature” theory, these are some wide-reaching claims about humanity.
The oppressor’s lie is that everyone does fit into the binary. But when gender abolitionists claim that “everyone is non-binary,” and that gender doesn’t work for anyone, this is also gender essentialism: the lie that everyone *doesn’t* fit into the binary.
This is easily disprovable, and as such gender abolitionist theory goes a step further beyond being simply wrong: it is actively harmful. Not only does it participate in the same essentialist rhetoric as the oppressor, it further contributes to pathologization and marginalization of trans women.
It’s obvious that just as not everyone is comfortable in the binary, not everyone is comfortable outside it or in its complete absence. And gender abolitionist theory has to rationalize this: if gender doesn’t work for anyone, then why do some people cling to it so fervently?
These claims are usually tossed away without much thought: who cares if there are a few holdouts, clinging to what works for them? They are misinformed, overassimilated, etc.
But there are plenty of people, whatever their sexuality or how they arrived at their gender(s), who have done a bunch of work, and have read the theory, have interrogated themselves, and yet still find themselves comfortable within the binary, or in the middle of a spectrum that includes it, or outside of but in proximity to or at least aware of it.
This doesn’t even take into account the cultural reasons people choose/use/experience gender, and as much as gender abolitionists claim their theory critiques the settler colonialist nature of white Western gender constructs, they don’t see how they do the same thing — pushing their view onto people who may have deep, ancestral connections to genders that pre-date colonialism, that may be expressed in non-oppressive ways, that maybe don’t even look like “gender” to our eyes.
In fact, the whole sex vs. gender distinction, upon which much of gender abolition relies, is in some cases a colonial innovation; some cultures do not have this distinction and for them “gender abolition” makes no sense. Gender abolition is inherently anti-cultural.
In gender abolitionist theory, those for whom the binary works are, essentially, deviants. They are either uneducated, or ignorant, or even worse, are trying to assimilate into the binary for some selfish or nefarious ends, like they want to assimilate and/or hold onto their binary privilege and leave the non-binary folks behind. This sounds eerily like TERF logic, doesn’t it? Gender abolitionists can’t conceptualize someone being OK with gender unless they are somehow deluded.
This line of reasoning is the same as the oppressor’s: our understanding is right, and those who don’t buy into it are deviants. And who are the ones who most fervently cling to their genders? Trans women.
When the essential claim of your theory is that trans women are deviants who don’t understand the truth and are holding back progress or whatever, it’s time to rethink your theory. And they will always say, “I’m not going to shame trans women for valuing their womanhood,” but that’s exactly what this theory does.
It’s also not innovative to claim that some trans women support gender abolition, and as such it must be OK. People of color have long known that not all skinfolk are kinfolk, that there are the Ben Carsons and Uncle Ruckuses of the world. Similarly, there are Caitlin Jenners and other white feminists who claim to speak for women but do irreparable harm to us with their ideologies. Just because some trans women buy into gender abolitionist theory doesn’t mean it doesn’t harm the rest of us.
Instead of completely abolishing gender (a dubious and implausible concept anyway), we can work to eliminate the stigma that comes with minority status in general, and specifically we can work for gender liberation and/or gender equity; we can work towards justice and freedom for all people, especially trans and non-binary folks. We can fight for everyone to be treated with dignity and respect for exactly who they are.
This is something that will benefit everyone, including non-binary folks, without parroting the oppressor. I’ll admit there isn’t a lot of evidence that this is possible, but honestly, to me, abolishing gender seems easier than reforming it. I’m arguing that we need to take the hard road away from reactionary theories that see what that the oppressor has done and immediately call for abolition. We can take a more nuanced approach that includes liberation for all. In fact, we must.
(c) Abeni Jones 2017