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Since it’s becoming more common for people to “self-identify” in terms of sex/gender, I want to do the same, by challenging two ways I have been inaccurately labeled.
I am routinely described as cisgender (defined as people whose internal sense of gender identity matches their biological sex). Because I have critiqued the ideology of the transgender movement, I also am often labeled a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Neither term is accurate—I don’t self-identify as cisgender or as exclusionary.
Instead I identify as an adult male who rejects the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms of patriarchy, and I believe that radical feminism offers the most compelling analysis of a patriarchal sex/gender system. The feminist critique I embrace is not an attack on, nor an exclusion of, anyone who suffers from gender dysphoria or identifies as transgender, but rather offers an alternative framework for understanding patriarchy’s sex/gender system and challenging those patriarchal gender norms.
I used “patriarchy/patriarchal” four times in the last paragraph for emphasis: From a radical feminist perspective, nothing in sex/gender politics makes sense except in the light of patriarchy. (I borrow that formulation from the late evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”)
“Patriarchy,” from Greek meaning “rule of the father,” can be narrowly understood as the organization of a human community (from a family to a larger society) that gives a male ruler dominance over other men, and overall gives men control over women. More generally, the term marks various systems of institutionalized male dominance.
In her 1986 book, The Creation of Patriarchy, the late historian Gerda Lerner defined patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.” Patriarchy implies, she continued, “that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources.” The specific forms patriarchy takes differ depending on time and place, “but the essence remains: some men control property and hold power over other men and over most women; men or male-dominated institutions control the sexuality and reproduction of females; most of the powerful institutions in society are dominated by men.”
In today’s world, patriarchy comes in forms both deeply conservative (such as Saudi Arabia) and superficially liberal (the United States), and the laws and customs of patriarchal societies vary. But at the core of patriarchy is men’s claim to control—sometimes even to own—women’s reproductive power and sexuality. In patriarchy, men make claims on, and about, women’s bodies that are at the core of assigning women lesser value in society.
Radical feminists, therefore, focus on the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and against men’s violence and sexual exploitation of women. As feminists from various traditions have long argued, it’s crucial to distinguish between biological sex categories and cultural gender norms.
There are three categories of biological human sex: male, female, and intersex. The vast majority of humans are born with male or female reproductive systems, secondary sexual characteristics, and chromosomal structure, and there is a small segment (the size of this category would depend on what degree of ambiguity is used to mark the category) born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the definitions of female or male—anomalies of sex chromosomes, gonads, and/or anatomic sex. People born intersex, a biological reality, typically don’t identify as transgender.
Beyond “sex” is “gender” (the non-biological meaning societies create out of sex differences). Gender plays out in a variety of ways, including gender roles (assigning males and females to different social, political, or economic roles); gender norms (expecting males and females to comply with different norms of behavior and appearance); and gendered traits and virtues (assuming that males and females will be intellectually, emotionally, or morally different from each other).
In short: Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity.
The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a “real man” means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled “toxic masculinity,” which implies it is an aberration from some “normal” masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.
All that definitional work is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my “chosen” identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child—when I show people my church confirmation picture taken at age 14, they often assume it is a photo of a much younger girl—I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more “like a man”? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me, a position I defend in a recent book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.
So, I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy, primarily through a critique of patriarchal norms in contemporary pornography.
For radical feminists, gender is understood as not merely a subjective internal sense of self; patriarchal gender norms are a product of culture, imposed on people and limiting everyone’s humanity. In such a political project, no one who wants to challenge patriarchy is excluded. Anyone who refuses to conform to patriarchal gender norms is welcome. Challenging patriarchy’s claims about how “normal” males and females should think/feel/act is encouraged.
But in such a project, it is necessary to name accurately the world and understand patriarchy. So, radical feminists continue to distinguish between biological sex and cultural gender, arguing that sex is a biological binary (we are a sexually dimorphic species) and gender is socially created hierarchy (in patriarchy).
There has been uncivil conduct on all sides of this debate, but it is only radical feminists who are routinely told that their position is hateful and that they should be excluded from the conversation. This has happened to me on occasion (including a speaking invitation rescinded after complaints to the event’s organizers, and protesters at another event attempting to shout me down), although radical feminist women are targeted much more intensely and often.
The most curious thing about my experience is that people rarely respond to the specifics of what I have written and instead simply denounce me, asserting that my arguments are outside the bounds of appropriate dialogue and need not be addressed. Often the denunciations imply that either I do not care about the very real concerns of transgender people regarding mental health, suicide, and violence, or that by making my arguments I actually am contributing to the violence against transgender people. I have been told that opponents of the transgender movement’s policy goals are simply bigots.
But there are important policy questions that are not resolved so simply, such as rules for participation in girls’ and women’s athletics; how to assign scholarships in women’s colleges; public financing for surgery that destroys healthy tissue; and the use of potentially dangerous hormone/drug therapies, especially for children. In Texas, where I live, the debate has focused on access to bathrooms and sex-segregated changing facilities, and the serious challenges raised by girls and women—concerns about privacy and how ambiguity in who has access increases the possibility of assault by non-transgender predators—have been dismissed as irrelevant.
As I always remind my students, reasonable people can and often do disagree, but reasonable conversation is difficult if we cannot agree on basic definitions of sex/gender and if those with a radical feminist analysis are labeled bigots and marginalized.
After four years of writing about this subject, I invite that conversation, and have been fortunate to have it with some in the transgender movement. But I challenge, firmly but politely, anyone who describes me as cisgender or calls me a TERF.
This essay first appeared in Feminist Current.