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Sex is Not Gender
Samantha Allen’s article, “CounterPunch and the War on Transgender People,” published in the Jacobin on July 10, 2013 and then republished on Salon the next day under the title “The hate group masquerading as feminists,” contains many emotionally-charged adjectives and strongly-worded assertions, but it is remarkably short on analysis and understanding. There is no war. As a gender critical feminist and an attorney, I have been analyzing the legal and medical conflation of gender with sex for years. The articles authored by Julian Vigo and published in CounterPunch last month are not “reactionary” or demonizing of trans people, as Jacobin’s editorial staff erroneously believes. Jacobin and Salon have both been used as proxies for hate speech against gender critical feminists and, unlike CounterPunch’s balanced ethos, neither publication acknowledges that Allen’s inaccurate article demands a response. The silencing of gender critical dissent has become so widespread that it has infected leftist and mainstream media outlets alike. As a result, I feel especially grateful to have the opportunity to answer Allen here.
By equating the speech of gender critical feminists with “bullying” and “contempt,” Allen materially misrepresents the positions taken by the women she references in her article. Allen actually calls for more people to recognize radical feminists as a hate group and then pointedly adopts the term Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) to refer to them throughout the article. Make no mistake, this is a slur. TERF is not meant to be explanatory, but insulting. These characterizations are hyperbolic, misleading, and ultimately defamatory. They do nothing but escalate the vitriol and fail to advance the conversation in any way.
In fact, gender critical feminists raise very serious and legitimate concerns about essentializing gender roles as innate parts of ourselves. We also take issue with the construction of sex and gender as legally interchangeable. Further, gender critical feminists are as diverse a group of people as trans activists are. Vigo has never identified as a radical feminist, she is a queer theorist; and while a certain Internet user may appear to be “the chief TERF figurehead,” she is not my chief. What we all agree on, however, is that sex-based gender roles are oppressive social constructs– not natural states of being in need of protection and celebration– and that the well-documented threats of violence against women who defend women-only space are an abusive and unacceptable response to political disagreement.
Allen calls for radical thinkers to better “expose the flaws,” “dismantle,” and “repudiate” the gender critical arguments circulating in radical communities. In response, I’d like to radically deconstruct some of the allegations contained within Allen’s article– the one that Jacobin “stand[s] behind without reservation” and claims to be “so proud to publish.”
…if the anti-trans* rhetoric that has appeared on CounterPunch over the last two months were transposed onto gay or lesbian identity, leftists would instantly recognize it as homophobic. If Julian Vigo questioned the existence of “straight privilege” instead of the existence of “cisgender privilege,” she would be instantly shouted down by a chorus of gay-affirmative voices. If she posited that lesbians are “confused” in the same way that she argues that transgender folks “confuse sex with gender,” she would be shown the door at any leftist publication worth its salt.
There is no “anti-trans* rhetoric” in either article written by Vigo on CounterPunch. More importantly, this facile analogy brings no clarity to the discussion. Finding similarity between “straight privilege” and “cisgender privilege” evinces lack of understanding about the differences between sexual orientation and “gender identity.”
Heterosexual coupling requires both sexes by definition. “Straight privilege” therefore accrues to both men and women equally. “Cisgender privilege,” on the other hand, is a misnomer. Gender-conforming males are rewarded for masculine conformity. Masculine men are never oppressed on the basis of gender; or to say it another way: “cisgender” men are never oppressed on the basis of gender. The same does not hold true for women; it is the opposite. Women’s gender conformity does not protect us from oppression on the basis of gender. “Cisgendered” women are still routinely targeted for sexist treatment, harassment, and discrimination. The concept of “cisgender privilege” falsely posits men and women as social equals in regard to gendered oppression. It is an inaccurate explanation of how gender norms operate as a sex-based social hierarchy that devalues women. Talking about “cisgender privilege” simply does not make sense in the context of women’s relationship to gender and oppression.
Frankly, Allen seems to have missed the point of gender critical arguments entirely. Gay men and lesbians do not seek to define the essence and lived experience of another class of persons. By comparison, male-socialized transwomen wish to redefine the meaning of “woman” to include themselves. Gay and lesbian individuals do not demand that others suspend disbelief about the material reality of our bodies and lives. Nor do we claim homosexuality as a “condition” akin to a biological error that can or should be medically corrected. In fact, gays and lesbians fight to make social space for ourselves just the way we are. We fought to get homosexuality removed entirely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and we have opposed “conversion therapy” because pathologizing the individual for harmless social non-conformity is abusive.
In stark contrast, many trans people believe that they were born into the “wrong” body for their “gender identity” and seek to medically alter their anatomical sex to correct this urgent problem. This is the entire reason for hormonal “therapy” and surgery. Logically speaking, one’s gender or sexuality can only be “wrong” if there is also a “right” way to be. Describing certain sexual orientations or gender expressions as “wrong” when they manifest in individuals with certain bodies or genitals is to normalize the heteronormative status quo as the “right” way of being. It is to come full circle; it is conservative.
These are important and significant points of divergence between the political goals of gay and lesbian people and those of self-defined trans people. Allen glosses over all of this, lazily claiming victimhood as the ultimate political cause without really analyzing what she is arguing. Transwomen are no more a special brand of “endangered species” than butch lesbians are.
Again, it seems that Allen has some serious misconceptions about gender critical analysis:
Just like cisgender women, some transgender women adopt stereotypical gender roles and some do not. To single transgender women out for the perpetuation of gender roles is a leap in logic that can only be explained by a deep-seated, visceral form of contempt.
Clearly, Allen hasn’t read much feminist theory. If she had, she’d know that stereotypical femininity is regarded by many feminists as a harmful social construct that no person should adopt, perform, celebrate, or identify with. The critique is not limited to transwomen; it is directed at females as well. In other words, it’s not all about you. The “contempt” Allen inappropriately personalizes is rooted in an extensive history of ideological critique. A purported explanation that begins with a false premise, as Allen’s does, is over before it even begins.
Next, I want to shed particular light on Allen’s claims about biology:
Penises are not inherently male just as vaginas are not inherently female. Our bodies are not objective pieces of matter that pre-exist the inscription of social meaning; rather, our “beliefs about gender” inform the very notion that a penis is a male sex organ.
Contrary to Allen’s scientific fantasy that a penis is not inherently male, bodies are not purely subjective. Genitals are material realities that shape our lived experiences and social roles. Gender critical feminists do not have a commitment to the naturalism of gendered social roles; but many trans people do. Instead of claiming that the prefabricated binary gender roles of “man” and “woman” are essential parts of ourselves—which again, is a conservative view– gender critical feminists believe that these social roles are harmful constructs that constitute dangerous justification for the on-going oppression and dehumanization of women.
Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work is often invoked by trans activists, including Allen, who wish to make an argument about the physical diversity of human bodies. The existence of intersex people is undeniably real; however, critiquing gender essentialism does not depend on being able to identify a perfectly delineated reproductive binary. The point is that the social categories of “man” and “woman” are a perfectly delineated binary. No one escapes. Gender critical feminists therefore deconstruct the powerful cultural and individual effects of being socialized from birth on the basis of genitals into a binary gender system that strictly enforces heteronormativity. Lived experiences, especially those that are constantly reinforced the way that gender roles are, have lifelong effects.
Finally, I’d like to address my own work. As co-author of the letter to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women referenced in Allen’s article, I am concerned that Allen has falsely represented the submission as an argument against– “yes, against”– legal protections for trans-identified individuals. A quick reading of the letter reveals that its specific purpose was to highlight the legal contradiction that occurs when “gender identity” is defined in such a way that it overrides or disregards sex as a legal category. The practical application of this new development, our primary concern, was that sex-based protections for females were therefore being eroded by the legislation.
This is clearly not a statement denying that trans people are discriminated against. It is a statement demanding concurrent recognition for the rights and needs of girls and women. Allowing the rights of one protected class– “gender identity”– to override those of another–“sex”– can and does cause conflicts.
About a month before we began working on the UN letter, Connecticut became the first state to pass a definition of “gender identity” that includes an explicit safeguard against fraud. Massachusetts followed suit later in 2011 with “gender identity” language that reads: “…provided however, gender-related identity shall not be asserted for any improper purpose.” Delaware joined Connecticut and Massachusetts earlier this year, becoming the third state to utilize an “improper purpose” exclusion in its definition of protections for people with non-normative “gender identities.”
This is an example of how well-crafted legislation can balance the interests of two different groups without denying either one basic access to public accommodations. When the rubber meets the road, we all have to find ways to co-exist. There is both precedent and flexibility in the law. For everyone interested in real world applications, “improper purpose” should be a legal protection we can all embrace.
Gender critical feminist analysis is by no means biologically essentialist or inherently hateful of trans-identified people. In order to elevate the conversation from its current state, the hyperbole and misrepresentations exemplified by Allen’s article must be abandoned. Participation in this hotly contested area of political debate requires obsessive attention to semantic detail and, yes, a little diplomacy. Over the past two years I have accumulated a collection of writings at sexnotgender.com about the vague and confusing legal language of “gender identity.” I hope these alternative forms of gender critical feminist theory will continue advancing a calmer, more nuanced conversation about the differences between sex and gender.
Elizabeth Hungerford can be reached at SexNotGender.