Guest post: We’re not trying to draw bright line boundaries at all

Originally a comment by Jenora Feuer on We’re going to end up putting feminist intellectual history through its own extinction event.

I can’t comprehend what it means to “know that you are male/female,” because I don’t particularly “feel” my gender.

Me either.

There was a comment at We Hunted the Mammoth a few weeks back (I commented on it here before) where someone said that they had found two different groups of people who really didn’t ‘get’ trans issues intuitively. One was the group of people who strongly identified with their gender, assumed everybody else was like that, and therefore that anybody who didn’t identify with their gender was wrong in some way. The other was the group of people who don’t strongly identify with any gender at all, and don’t really understand what it’s like to have a strong identity, particularly one that doesn’t match your physical body. Both of these groups have the same apparent problem on the outside, but completely different ways of getting there, and need different approaches. Especially since the first group is often personally invested in the concept of a gender binary, while the second group will consider the binary to be a default assumption if they haven’t thought about it, but they don’t really care about it to the same extent.

I get the impression most of the original TERF types were in the first group, or at least certainly acting like it: they were being explicit gatekeepers to the concept of ‘being a woman’, drawing boundaries, and in general acting like a mirror image of the problem they were ostensibly fighting against. But a lot of the people here I’ve seen here (including myself) are in the second group; we may make mistakes, but we’re not trying to draw bright line boundaries at all and don’t really intuitively grasp why other people are. Which often puts us on the wrong side of a lot of different lines that other people DO insist on, just because we don’t necessarily see them.


  1. MyaR says

    Which often puts us on the wrong side of a lot of different lines that other people DO insist on, just because we don’t necessarily see them.

    I would append “or think that they are lines that shouldn’t be drawn and inherently do damage in drawing them”. Y’know, all languages don’t force you to center gender all the time the way English does — pronouns don’t have to gendered, grammatical gender doesn’t have to be sex-based — you can go on and on and on without ever having to talk about whether you or your interlocutor is female or male. And that’s something I feel is also missing from these (whatever they are — not discussions, not analyses, not witch hunts) — imagination for what could be if we were willing to actually do the intellectual work of decomposing and reconstructing social concepts. How about renegotiating the social gender contract rather than trying to enforce your personal version of it?

  2. says

    Then again consider the European languages that gender everything – every noun has a gender.

    Or maybe that too makes gender less salient, because the genders are nearly always so random?

  3. karmacat says

    Chinese doesn’t have the pronouns he and she but does have words for older sister, younger brother, etc. of course, in Chinese culture, family is very important.

  4. footface says

    I do think that lots of these linguistic quirks are just that: quirks that don’t necessarily reflect or influence people’s attitudes. (Do Germans see girls as asexual? Are Finns—with their non-male-non-female 3rd person singular pronoun hän—more gender-blind? Are Russians more concerned about the gender of people who performed actions in the past?)

  5. Robert Grumbine says

    When my son came out as trans, and I updated my pronoun usage, I discovered it is indeed very hard to talk in English about a person without pronouns. Especially to talk naturally. Easy to sit in an armchair and work out your circumlocutions. Not so easy to do it in real time. Much easier for me to swap the pronouns than avoid them.

    Thing is, use the pronoun the person wants. If you don’t know, best guess and change if asked. The trans* folks I know would be delighted if this were routine.

  6. Erica says

    Karmacat, that seems to be a bit of a misperception. Yes, he and she are pronounced the same, but the written characters are different, and illuminating. The character for she contains the radical meaning “woman.” The character for he, however, instead contains the radical meaning “person.”

  7. says

    … we’re not trying to draw bright line boundaries at all and don’t really intuitively grasp why other people are…

    That. Sort of. Or more precisely:

    I actually feel like a bit of a fraud saying ‘a trans woman is a woman’, and kind of wondered if this might be the reason anyone might get pissed at being ‘ordered’ to answer yes or no. Interesting to see these expansions, now, under duress or not…

    … oh, but: I don’t so feel like a fraud because I think there’s some boundary they’re ‘cheating’ by trying to cross…

    … nor, exactly, is it that I think there are no such boundaries…

    … rather, I’m well aware there are, but they really do piss me off, and I don’t at all think of them as something intrinsic to the person, so much as frequently incredibly pernicious, obnoxious social constructs. In fact, that’s mostly what my ‘gender’ is to me: not so much an identity I cherish as an electric fence. It’s a set of rules mostly cowardly and unintrospective jerks* lay down and try to tell me what I can and can’t do, how I can and can’t dress, how I can and can’t think. I’ve muttered a bit about it here elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it too much beyond that, but I guess I’ve always been a bit swish for some people’s tastes, happened to have more friends who were girls than boys early in grade school especially, had an arty streak, and it all added up to a lot of being called sissy and fag, and so on, once upon a time. (And could cook, liked to dress nicely, on and off, I could go on.) And I think one of the anxieties I’ll always have in almost any relationship, but especially with straight men (as they were the primary enforcers, with some alliance usually from straight women) is that they’ll just turn out to be part of that fence. I suspect it’s a serious contributing reason why I’m not real close to many of them, or, just possibly, just about anyone.

    (… and sure, like a lot of people do, I think, I sort of knuckled down over time, played along, learned to grunt in symphony with manly men on demand, at least. But it’s always felt like that’s all it was. Never really got to like it. Nor, I think, even really understand it. Oh, and yeah, I’ve been the gender police, on occasion, to my discomfiture, but not because I thought there was a damned thing right about it as I was trying to protect someone I figured would suffer like I did if I couldn’t gently steer him away from the fences. Information from the front, for anyone else considering this: bad idea, and don’t. But anyway…)

    So my take on gender is: it’s primarily a social construct, and frequently a very constricting one, and frequently, I suspect it’s only there because it’s part of hierarchies I’d also rather weren’t there. So it’s a difficult thing for me to celebrate, exactly.

    … but then I get to thinking, okay, it’s a wide world, there’s a lot of different brains out there. Mine’s like this, fine, but, social construct or not, it does seem pretty clear when someone goes through the frequently brutal gauntlet of changing from one to the other, however they picture that map, with the immense social (and financial and physical, depending upon just how far they go) cost that’s going to visit upon them, I’ve got to respect they’re feeling something awfully important to them. Apparently, they do identify as a gender, very strongly, and if they’ll take whatever pain it takes to do what they feel they must to go home to it, fine, far be it from me to add to the drama, I’ll call them whatever they feel they are. It’s hard for me not to think oh, they’re just internalizing these social controls, embracing fences I’d kick down in a second if I had an idea how, and I wish they wouldn’t, but stepping away from that perhaps very patronizing assumption, I’ve got to acknowledge: maybe they’re just very different from me, that way, and who knows why? Me, I try to imagine that, and it’s a bit like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where he’s trying to figure out what muscle in his butt to flex to make it light up like a firefly’s does: no damned idea. I sometimes wonder if I’m just missing a whole geartrain there that others happen to have.

    Still, like I said, I look at how they’re behaving, what’s important to them, and since I think it is primarily about social constructs, I guess I perceive it as more than fluid enough for me to say: fine, you’re that damned sure you are, I’ll absolutely agree to say you are. You puzzling alien thing, you. Not saying I don’t love you all the same. Just got no damned idea how that works.

    Oh. A few expansions. Possibly a bit anodyne, in the company, but still, just to map this out a bit more:

    1) There are no ‘feminine’ qualities, no ‘masculine’. We’ve attached these to ‘gender’ the same way we’ve attached roles to them. Some of my best qualities, I think, would probably be called ‘feminine’, but I’m not going to cooperate with anyone who calls them that, for far at all. They’re just good things. Anyone can have them. More people should.

    2) I don’t know to what degree I ever internalized this popular notion that ‘woman’=’weak’, or ‘bad’, or so on, speaking of the above. Hard to say for certain, but not far at all, I suspect. My earliest experiences, I think, kinda screwed up my polarity for ever picking that up quite as expected. I am grateful for this, if anything, on reflection.

    3) and also * from above) I’ve been very cranky on and off with people who try to lay down these laws. Once upon a time, they were my tormenters, and I think I’ll always twitch a bit, seeing stuff like that. Lately, I’ve got maybe a more nuanced view of it. Those loudest about it, I will always suspect, are just as likely to be someone so crushed by the jail they internalized the rules, insisted to themselves those rules must be just, all the same, and thus became a volunteer guard.

    4) I quite respect, and am grateful to, anyone who presses at these boundaries, including trans people, in their peculiar way (crossing them still messes with their power, at least, even when they seem very definite about setting some, also in their own way). But, honestly, and see also the electric fence, I’ll always be a bit nervous even being seen around them, I think, in part, because, like I said, I’ve knuckled down a bit, had enough whispering campaigns about my own identity. Not saying I’m proud of that, at all.

  8. Jenora Feuer says

    “Girl” in German is neuter, not female, for example.

    Well, all diminutives are neuter in German (i.e., all words ending in -chen or -lein). Mädchen (young girl) is the diminutive of Magd (which is admittedly a bit archaic these days). Fraulein (young woman) is the diminutive of Frau.

    Of course, the word for a boy is Junge, or ‘young one’.

    That said, there is a word for young woman which is feminine, and that’s Jungfrau. (Which has implications of ‘virgin’ as well, so it’s not all good. In fact, I think the German name for the constellation ‘Virgo’ is ‘Jungfrau”.)

    I discovered it is indeed very hard to talk in English about a person without pronouns.

    I discovered that in an unusual way. One of the old text-based MUDs I was on was having a Hallowe’en costume party, where all of our characters were dressed up as something else, and we all renamed our characters to something else to see if people could guess who we were.

    I had my character described deliberately androgynously, and spent the entire evening attempting to interact with people via text without ever typing in a gender-specific pronoun. It… was a lot more difficult than I had expected.

    And that was even before I ran into Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘A Person Paper on Purity in Language’, a paper in which he re-imagined the sexist division in language as a racist division instead, with people complaining about why we should use ‘chairperson’ instead of ‘chairwhite’, just because the person in question might happen to not be white?

  9. sambarge says

    This post sums up my feelings perfectly. I was assigned female at birth but I have little or no sense of being a woman. I feel zero affinity for things that are apparently female and hearing someone say “I always knew i was a man/woman” sounds like Greek to me. I’ve been a woman my whole life and I have no sense of it anymore than I have a sense of being male.

    But great post. Thanks.

  10. Jem says

    AJ Milne: Your “precisely” is so almost exactly my “precisely”, except from the female side, that it’s a little startling. I haven’t ever seen anyone describe it that clearly before. Thanks.

  11. elephantasy says

    I read some of the commentary on Jason Thibeault’s odd post, and came back to this. For the life of me, I cannot see how what Jenora wrote is in any way ambiguous. It seems to take a real act of will to miss the point. It was a very strange conversation at Lousy Canuck; I don’t think I’ll bother trying to follow it further.

  12. says

    The problem with bright boundaries is that they don’t half creep up on one, don’t they. Like this business of “good TERFS” & “bad TERFs”. Who are these women? The term itself was only coined (on Twitter) in what, 2012? 2013? And already we’re imposing this historicity on it, with “original TERF types” and, what, “neo-TERFs”?

    This is silly, and it buys into the framing that every sexist argument ever is based on: that there are “good” women and “bad” women, that “bad” women can be justifiably punished, and that “good” women are safe from the arbitrary punishment thus inflicted.

    In reality, the line between good and bad woman is exactly as thick as the convenience of a man who wants to discredit you on the one hand, to hold you up as a warning to other women, or who wants to hold you up as an impossible example to other women – in either case, it’s a tool of social control, and what implicitly underwrites it is the reality of possible male violence.

    There is little to no hard evidence that some people are more or less attached to an internal gender identity, and very little evidence at all that “gender identity” is a concept people become aware of spontaneously, without it being packaged up as a useful envelope for a myriad relational and positional identities and constraints and used as a catch-all to express dissatisfaction with those. Children know what girls do and what boys do because everything from school to TV to toy shops tell them very clearly what’s appropriate to whom – but they use those external cues to conceptualise their identity and relation to the world, not vice versa. As soon as one steps away from these sorts of culturally specific, mutable stereotypes, gender “identity” disappears – it ceases to mean anything. I suppose you can divide the world into “people who believe these scientific findings” and “people who wish there were more concrete causes they could use to underwrite their gender biases”, but those are just about the only groups I can see here, and frankly even their boundaries are pretty dim.

  13. MyaR says

    I just now made it back to read comments, and AJ Milne, sambarge, and Jem, I am so with you on this, and now I’m wondering (again) just how many of us there are out there. And AJ, that was beautifully written.

  14. amrie says

    MyaR, you can count me as well, on the apparently-I’m-a-woman? side of the fence 🙂 AJ Milne: thank you! That was amazing. All I can say is Yes! Exactly!

  15. says

    Jem, MyaR, amrie, all, just thanks. I’ve been finding myself sticking my head back into these threads with some trepidation, half expecting yet one more messy explosion, the latest somehow because of something I kicked over this time. Instead finding people saying, right, this is a place I recognize, is well past merely a relief.

  16. John Horstman says

    I identify as gender indifferent (as a subset of genderqueer) for exactly the reasons outlined in the post, and in my experience – both personally and academically – I’ve come to realize that a LOT of supposedly-cisgendered people are actually more like me, what I would call gender indifferent. And when I say “indifferent”, I mean insofar as it relates to identity; much like AJ Milne, I’m outright hostile to the concept and normative construction of gender at certain times/in certain contexts.

    I should also note that trans people fall into the same two categories, though the overwhelming majority of people who decide to transition fall into the first group. The likely reason is that given the social – and often financial – cost of transitioning, someone who doesn’t care much one way or the other will find it easiest to go with the normative default (at least in terms of name/pronouns, legal identification, social identity category, etc.), even if the normative gender category overall doesn’t really fit that well either. Kate Bornstein is perhaps one of the better-known trans people who falls into the second category (she’s addressed this directly in several books and in the lecture she gave at my university, and quite possibly others), and she is frequently assailed with the same charges of (internalized) transphobia from a small, vocal contingent of gender-essentialist trans activists as a result. Someone like RuPaul may also qualify – the question of whether drag performers qualify as trans, perhaps contextually when in their drag personae, runs headlong into this very issue (in my experience, gender-essentialist trans people usually do not consider the drag personae of drag performers “legitimate” in the same way as their own gender identities – the Glasgow Free Pride ban on drag performers is an excellent recent example).

    I think that the reason that gender-essentialist trans activists get so much pushback from otherwise-friendly/-allied people, some of who identify and live as genderqueer and even trans people who are ourselves marginalized by many of the same social structures that marginalize trans people generally in cases like this ongoing kerfuffle has to do with the tendency of people to exaggerate for effect. Instead of sticking to specific, personal cases, if one starts insisting on making universal assertions about gender being essential, like, say, demanding a one-word answer to the question “Are trans women women?” (that is a demand for a universal proclamation about all trans women and the nature of gender), that erases the existence of people like us, like Jenora Feuer and all of the commenters in this thread who are saying we feel the same way.

  17. John Horstman says

    @MarinaS #14:

    The problem with bright boundaries is that they don’t half creep up on one, don’t they. Like this business of “good TERFS” & “bad TERFs”. Who are these women? The term itself was only coined (on Twitter) in what, 2012? 2013? And already we’re imposing this historicity on it, with “original TERF types” and, what, “neo-TERFs”?

    While “TERF” as a term has only existed for a few years, the group has been around for a long time. A subset of biological-gender-essentialist radical feminists in the 1970s advocating for gender separatism was probably one of the most prominent incarnations, and that was 40 years ago.

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