Feminism, as a political movement aimed at the liberation of women, has long theorized gender not as an innate essence, but as a hierarchical system enforcing women’s subservience. Characterizing certain personality traits – compliance, nurturance, the desire to be pretty or objectified – as ‘natural’ to women, is, according to feminist analysis, a primary mechanism for maintaining gender hierarchy. As a result, many feminists have genuine questions about trans ideology’s assertion that ‘gender identity’ is both natural and universal. It comes perilously close to naturalizing the oppression of women.
This is not trivial, and it needs to be discussed. But it has been decreed that it cannot be discussed, because to discuss it is to ‘deny the right of trans people to exist.’ Trans ideology collapses the fact that trans people exist into the theory of why trans people exist, and judges anyone who questions the theory to be a transphobic bigot intent on denying the very existence of trans people. Indeed, even those trans women who persist in existing despite subscribing to the feminist critique of gender are denounced by many in their community as self-hating or treacherous. This is argument by non-argument, and it functions to close down discourse by rendering feminism’s long-held analysis of gender unsayable.
Well it doesn’t make it unsayable in general, I think – but it makes it unsayable in a context of discussing trans issues. Maybe cis feminists shouldn’t be discussing trans issues. But then again trans issues are becoming more mainstream – which is a good thing, right? More visibility, thus (eventually, one hopes) more understanding? But the more mainstream the issues are, the more influence they have. That’s why I felt the impulse to do a very brief post asking questions about Jezebel’s commentary on Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, certainly – because it was out there.
Undergirded by an appeal to boy-brains and girl-brains, trans ideology’s core commitment is that a person’s gender is nothing other than their gender identity. Gender resides entirely in an individual’s private experience of ‘feeling like’ a man or a woman, and therefore, if an individual declares that they feel like a woman, then they are a woman, and moreover have always been a woman, in exactly the same way as non-trans women have always been women.
Ahhh but that’s just it, you see. I never have straightforwardly “felt like a woman” – and neither have many of the women I know. For all I know none of them have. It’s not like that. It’s much more muddled than that. Most of the time I don’t feel like anything in that way – I just be; I exist. I don’t just straightforwardly identify with being a woman; I never have. I can more easily say I identify with being a feminist than I can with being a woman.
Maybe that itself is cis privilege – not identifying that way because you don’t have to. But it’s not always a privilege, certainly. Much of the time I would rather just be a human. That’s part of the appeal of gender-neutral nyms, isn’t it.
From a feminist perspective what is lost in this account is the entire structure of gender as a system of oppression, a system which functions by identifying a person’s reproductive potential and then socializing women to fulfil the role of a member of the reproductive class. For many non-trans women the idea that the essence of being a woman resides in ‘feeling like’ a woman, is not so much wrong as incomprehensible. Our experience of womanhood is not an internal feeling, but a lifelong process of being subjected to – and revolting against – very specific social sanctions and expectations. Be quiet. Look pretty. Make yourself small. Smile. Don’t be too demanding. Accommodate other people.
Quite. That’s not something women necessarily identify with, or something they “feel like.” It’s something imposed.
I don’t for instance “feel like” the Bravo TV conception of women, which is a series of “Real Housewives” and other brands of wives or girlfriends or other related-to-man categories. That’s not my idea of women and it’s sure as hell not my idea of myself.
But it’s also the case that I don’t feel wrong or not at home or anything like that about my gender, but other people do. People vary. That’s fine.
But we need to be able to talk about it.