Defending the ‘TERF’: Gender as political

The philosophy and race class, for which I was serving as a teaching assistant, had just discussed the metaphysics of race.  One day I stood in front of my students and asked: “My mom is Mexican. My dad is white. I’m seen and treated as a white person. So what’s my race?”  First, a short silence. Then, the response I expected: “Whatever you want to identify yourself as.”

“But race is a social construction,” I insisted.  “And I’m seen and treated by others as a white person. So doesn’t that make me white?”

Depending upon your definition of race, I might be Latina, biracial, or — as I was trying to explain in class — white.  I’m seen as a white person; I’ve been raised as a white person in middle-class white culture; I can’t speak Spanish and I’ve experienced white privilege all my life (with the exception of a few awkward instances in which people asked whether I was “ethnic”). Let us assume that I identify fully with Latina-ness and not at all with whiteness, and that has always been the case. I can choose to fully embrace my Latina identity in such a way that I can be identified and treated as Latina by other people: I can learn Spanish, I can participate in Mexican cultural traditions and associate with Mexican people, and I can change my name. Wouldn’t I be Latina after that?

In a way, I would be Latina to the extent that I am seen and treated by others as a Latina (after all, race is a social construction and I would be socially constructed as Latina). But in another way I would not. Even if it is a legitimate choice for me to become Latina (even if I’m already Latina by some definitions), and even if I experience some form of racial subordination as a result of my transformation, I cannot pretend that I have not experienced white privilege as well.  This does not mean that I identify any less with Latina-ness. But it does mean, as someone sensitive to privilege and the insidious ways in which it works, that I recognize my experience of white privilege has irrevocably changed who I am and how I engage with the world around me.

Recently, feminists have been critiqued for attempting to make women-only spaces. Inclusion of “minority genders,” including transgender women, into what have been traditionally all-female colleges is now protected under Title IX and hailed as a progressive development. Restricting space to people who have been born women and continue to experience the world as women is considered discriminatory at best and biologically determinist at worst.

People often fail to recognize that “woman” is not a personal identity but a political identity based upon a shared experience of oppression. The purpose of certain women-only spaces is not about excluding those with or without a particular genitalia (we didn’t decide that having vaginas and uteruses made one subordinate; men did) or excluding those with a particular gender identity. This isn’t about how strongly one identifies as a woman, whether one might subsequently be seen and treated as a woman, or whether one is marginalized and disadvantaged by gender hierarchy (for example, gay men are marginalized by patriarchy even though they are men). It is about controlling for the experience of male privilege. In my white-to-Latina example, it would be legitimate to exclude me from certain spaces or even definitions of “Latina” not because I believe in biological determinism but because I understand the power of socialization. This doesn’t mean I identify less with being Latina than others who were “born that way,” or that I may not subsequently experience racial subordination. It means I recognize that what I am is not determined solely by what I want to be, and the fact that I’ve experienced white privilege is not and never has been up to me.

Of course there is an important dis-analogy between race and gender in my white-to-Latina story: transgendered women cannot experience all forms of subordination that women as women face. Most female-born women are capable of becoming pregnant at some point in their lives. For those who cannot, infertility is often considered a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” Transgendered women do not experience disadvantage by virtue of their reproductive role (they don’t need abortions, for instance), and neither are they considered somehow “defective” by virtue of not being able to fulfill a particular reproductive role (although they might be considered pathological, etc. by virtue of not identifying with their imposed gender).

I’m not denying that transgendered people are subject to social, emotional, and physical violence at absurdly high rates, and that this violence is a product of sexism. I’m also not denying that transgender people feel deeply alienated from their imposed gender identity. Many of us are, because gender, and the accompanying deformation of our bodies — from pornographied genitalia to what is considered beautiful — is a profound and perverse imposition of identity. It does not reflect our individuality or even some positive notion of social relatedness.  It is a function of a deeply pathological and violent social structure.

But this seems to be where some recent developments in “feminist” theory and activism have diverged from their feminist roots. The feminist struggle against heterosexism and gender conformity was not because any self-professed sexual orientation, identity, or gender should be considered equally valid: it was because the disadvantage and violence non-gender conforming and non-heterosexual people experience are the result of patriarchy in which men and the masculine are socially constructed as (sexually) dominant and women and the feminine are socially constructed as the (sexually) subordinate. Feminism does not seek to marginalize or exclude the experience of people not born as women, but to situate these within a systemic and systematic understanding of the functions, mechanisms, and structure of sexual subordination.

Imagining and advocating for a post-racial world is easier for us than advocating for a post-gender world. Perhaps because gender has been with us longer, it cuts deeper, it invades our most intimate relationships and experiences. Unlike with racial subordination, there is no “remainder”: ethnicity (identification with a particular cultural or linguistic tradition) can exist without race (the social construction of an identity based upon one’s racial subordination or privilege), but there is no gender without sexual subordination.

Now some may argue that our gender has a biological component, even though they may at the same time acknowledge that the gender binary is bad and that there are elements to gender which are the result of socialization.

(Radical feminists, take a deep breath. I’m about to go hyper-individualistic and idealized here, so bear with me.)

Let’s presuppose everyone is against the differential treatment and socialization of males and females. In a just world, there wouldn’t girl be or boy fashions, there wouldn’t be girl or boy toys, there wouldn’t be the innumerable ways in which people communicate with or interpret peoples’ behavior differently based upon their “maleness” or “femaleness.” Everyone is socialized into norms that promote non-violence, reciprocity, and respect in relationships regardless of the anatomy of those with whom one desires to have relationships. No one is socially disadvantaged, or presumed to be better or worse at anything, because of their anatomy. We accept all people as individuals, without imposing or socializing them into them psycho-social-sexual characteristics.

The question is that after we’ve gotten rid of all the negative social structuring, what is the remainder? If there were “biological differences” (other than the obvious ones that have to do with one’s ability to become pregnant, impregnate, etc.) then these wouldn’t have any significant social relevance. For example, perhaps we find that males tend to be slightly more aggressive. It wouldn’t tell us about any particular male, and since this wouldn’t be the basis for socialization, it wouldn’t tell us how to treat males either. All it would mean is that some people, who could be male or female, have a tendency toward aggression and need to work harder to be nice people, and among those people there are more males than females.

There may be sexual preferences in a post-gender society, albeit they would look markedly different from our current preferences (we wouldn’t even have heterosexuality per se, given that it is structured around sexualizing women’s violation/submission). Perhaps there may be a genetic component to these preferences. But while our personality traits and preferences may not be entirely by choice, without gender structuring no particular trait or behavior would be gendered. For example, there would be nothing effeminate or gay or even unusual about a male wanting to wear pink skirts, and we wouldn’t presuppose that he had any other psycho-social characteristics or sexual preferences because he likes to wear pink skirts. Perhaps people would associate themselves with a set of shared preferences or characteristics?  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s unclear then how gender would be different than identifying oneself as a geek or a goth, as an introvert or an extrovert.

The danger in thinking that we can solve the problem of sexual subordination by multiplying our gender/sexual identities, or in seeing the liberation of non-gender conforming and non-heterosexual people as separate from women’s liberation, is that we might end up treating the symptoms rather than the cause.

First, what about getting out of the problematic, essentialist gender binary by multiplying identities? In fact, multiplying identities does not necessarily eliminate hierarchies. The racial categorization in many Latin American countries does not operate, as it has in the United States at various points in its history, on a strict white/non-white binary. However, the multiplying of identities has not eliminated racial subordination in these places; in fact, it may make it more difficult to combat because there are fewer opportunities for solidarity when non-whites are not equal to whites but some are more equal than others.

What about the particularity of peoples’ experience and the importance of intersectionality? Doesn’t that mean that we can’t see all forms of gender/sexual marginalization as a function of women’s oppression?

I don’t deny that intersectionality is important and impacts our lived experience of oppression. A black woman will experience gender subordination differently than a white woman. However, over-particularizing our identities can make us lose track of the primary mechanisms, constructions, and structures of subordination. Subordination is not a subjective experience but a social phenomenon. We can see the danger of over-particularizing and divorcing privilege and marginalization from social structures, for example, in the way that some pedophiles claim laws against child sex abuse is ageist and some pro-BDSM people claim they are marginalized by “vanilla” sexuality and that it is a “sexual orientation” on par with homosexuality, bisexuality, etc. Thinking that the marginalization of and violence against non-gender conforming and non-heterosexual people is separate from the feminist struggle would be like thinking that unemployment and labor exploitation are distinct problems from — rather than functions of — the capitalist system. We can’t fully address unemployment or labor exploitation without dismantling the systems of economic oppression that give rise to them in the first place. Similarly, we can’t fully address the marginalization of anyone who suffers from patriarchalism without addressing the system of gender upon which sexual subordination relies.

Feminists are not trying to exclude or degrade people of non-conforming genders or sexualities. We aren’t denying all the ways in which gender enforcement harms and marginalizes, and we aren’t saying they can’t contribute to the project of liberation.

Feminists just think that gender is not personal but political.

C.K. Egbert is a current graduate student in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on feminism and equality.

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