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Who Owns Gender?


For a couple of weeks in early 2013, it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper, or your Facebook newsfeed, without encountering some new contribution to a war of words that pitted transgender activists and their supporters against allegedly ‘transphobic’ feminists.

It had started when the columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece that included a passing reference to ‘Brazilian transsexuals’. Moore began to receive abuse and threats on Twitter, which subsequently escalated to the point that she announced she was closing her account. Then Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence with a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper, which attacked not only the Twitter trolls, but the trans community in general. Burchill’s contribution was intemperate in both its sentiments and its language—not exactly a surprise, since that’s essentially what editors go to her for. If what you want is balanced commentary on the issues of the day, you don’t commission Julie Burchill. Nevertheless, when the predictable deluge of protests arrived, the Observer decided to remove the piece from its website. The following week’s edition carried a lengthy apology for having published it in the first place. Senior staff, it promised, would be meeting representatives of the trans community for a full discussion of their concerns.

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It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

This has led some commentators to see the conflict as yet another example of the in-fighting and sectarianism that has always afflicted progressive politics—a case of oppressed groups turning on each other when they should be uniting against their common enemy. But in this case I don’t think that’s the explanation. When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Here it might be objected that feminists themselves don’t have a single account of gender. True, and that’s one reason why trans activists target certain feminist currents more consistently than others [1]. But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.

Trans activists are currently in the vanguard of this campaign, but they didn’t start the war. Some of its most important battles have been fought not in the arena of organized gender politics, but on the terrain of science, where opposition to feminism, or more exactly to feminist social constructionism, has been spearheaded by a new wave of biological essentialists. The scientists with the highest public profile, men like Stephen Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen, are politically liberal rather than conservative, and claim to support gender equality and justice: what they oppose is any definition of those things based on the assumption that gender is a social construct. Their goal is to persuade their fellow-liberals that feminism got it wrong about gender, which is not socially constructed but ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

This attack on the first feminist proposition (‘gender is constructed’) leads to a reinterpretation of the second (‘gender relations are unequal power relations’). Liberals do not deny that women have suffered and may still suffer unjust treatment in male-dominated societies, but in their account difference takes precedence over power. What feminists denounce as sexism, and explain as the consequence of structural gender inequality, the new essentialists portray as just the inevitable consequence of natural sex-differences.

Meanwhile, in less liberal circles, we’ve seen the rise of a lobby which complains that men and boys are being damaged—miseducated, economically disadvantaged and marginalized within the family—by a society which has based its policies for the last 40 years on the feminist belief that gender is socially constructed: a belief, they say, which has now discredited by objective scientific evidence. (Some pertinent feminist criticisms of this so-called ‘objective’ science have been aired in T&S: see here for more discussion.)

Another relevant cultural trend is the neo-liberal propensity to equate power and freedom, in their political senses, with personal freedom of choice. Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

This view has had an impact on the way people understand the idea that gender is socially constructed. To say that something is ‘constructed’ can now be taken as more or less equivalent to saying that in the final analysis it is—or should be—a matter of individual choice. It follows that individuals should be free to choose their own gender identity, and have that choice respected by others. I’ve heard several young (non trans-identified) people make this argument when explaining why they feel so strongly about trans equality: choice to them is sacrosanct, often they see it as ‘what feminism is all about’, and they are genuinely bewildered by the idea that anyone other than a right-wing authoritarian might take issue with an individual’s own definition of who they are.

The gender in transgender‘Talking about gender’. 

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