Another good comment by John Horstman on how we think about gender, this time on Heina’s post distancing herself from me.
The fact that cis women are women is not disputed by anyone, not trans women nor non-binary trans folk nor men nor trans men. Even on the very fringes of radical non-cis thought, spaces where I often find myself, I’ve yet to see anyone questioning the legitimacy of cis women’s status as women. On the other hand, some people, including some women, think that trans women’s status as women is up for debate.
This is simply incorrect. There is a massive amount of scholarship questioning the validity of gendering organizational schemata at all, for cis, trans, genderqueer, and any other sort of people.
Butler’s Gender Trouble is a widely-known example, and it is decried as transphobic by the same crowd that’s going after Ophelia for pointing out that gender is a social construct and that our individual understandings of it are socially mediated. This despite the fact that the book spends most of its time deconstructing gender as a normative category for cisgendered people. I dispute the categorical assertion that cis women “are” women (or cis men “are” men) as any sort of essential aspect of existence. So does Kate Bornstein: go read Gender Outlaw, which contains an essay questioning how anyone could ever legitimately claim to feel “like a man” or “like a woman” divorced from a social context that determines what those categories mean in the first place. Or read David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category, which explores how unstable gender categorizations are in practice, with many of his interview subjects describing themselves using what would normatively be considered mutually-exclusively categorizations, to the point that any claim of essential meaning for any gendered identity categories becomes absurd.
And this is an incredibly important point because every single time I get dragged into this debate with gender-essentialist trans activists, what’s actually at issue has exactly zero to do with trans rights or marginalization and everything to do with a few people insisting that a discredited model of gender as a social system be adopted by everybody. You don’t get to hijack an entire discipline of study becasue you internalized a descriptive categorization as an essential aspect of your own identity (and this applies to cisgendered people as well as transgendered people – you simply can’t extrapolate to everyone or the total functioning of a social system from your own experience). Being trans doesn’t somehow make someone never wrong about how social systems (including gender) operate or not an asshole; the social-identity essentialists are just as wrong as the biological essentialists who insist that trans people are delusional, and their imperious demands are just as unacceptable.
Heina says yes but most people do believe in gender as a category, and that it’s self-absorbed to suggest we do away with something so important to most people.
I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s fine to suggest we do away even with things that are important to most people. It’s the “to suggest” part that’s crucial here – suggesting is a very non-violent thing to do. (Granted, by the same token, it can be a very passive-aggressive thing to do. Ain’t that just like life.) Suggesting that we do away with some unquestioned custom or category has always been the job of the world’s rebels and iconoclasts and pains in the ass. Most of the suggestions are worthless, but not all.