The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.
– The Fourth Doctor
There are so many theories.
The theories of the sexologists. Theories of the Christian right. Of the psychiatrists and psychologists. Of the academics and philosophers, even literary theorists. Of the average person watching a documentary, “here’s what I think it is…”. Of the people punching into google questions about what kinds of chromosomes or “chemicals” we have. People (without any education in biology or genetics, but who happened to catch some TV show somewhere about intersexuality) suggesting chimerism in the brain. And feminists’ theories too, of course.
The intensity with which people endlessly generate theories to accommodate the existence of gender variance rarely seems to be in any way motivated by a desire for genuine understanding. Instead, it typically seems principally about recuperation, explaining us away. These aren’t the theories of a scientist presented with a new phenomena, they’re more like Christian apologetics: how do I get this new fact to fit into my pre-defined beliefs? Oh, I’ve got it! When he said “day” he really meant “seven-hundred million years”! These mental acrobatics can be remarkably complex, sophisticated and ingenuitive, intelligent, but the whole structure is backwards. The theory is given precedence over the reality it claims to speak to. The facts are altered to fit the views, rather than the views altered to fit the facts.
Something inevitably goes wrong, though. No matter what contortions are made in one’s theoretical structures, like redefining your “gender is illusory social construct” theory to “…except socialization-from birth rigidly codifies it (even though I’ve transcended it)”, or adapting your concept of male sexuality to include a “reflexive narcissistic desire to possess the self as female sexual object”, something always gets left out. The fact of gender variance is a fact of variance. Unless your theory accounts for the principles by which gender does indeed vary, unless it accommodates the variation itself rather than simply thinking up individual explanations for individual variants, there are always going to be cracks through which the unaccommodated reality shines through, and continues to destabilize your worldview: the lack of universal socializations and the fact that socialization seems to not have much of anything to do with how a gender identity manifests, the increasing evidence of neurobiological underpinnings to gender, the presence of butch trans women, the presence of trans men, the presence of asexual trans people, the affect HRT has on the libido, non-binary transitions, trans men who cannot “pass” and thereby only sacrifice relative social privilege, etc. etc. etc.
These cracks are particularly important in feminist theory, in as much as feminist theory purports to be an explanation of the social dynamics of gender. Any theory of gender, if it’s to have any meaning or usefulness or validity at all, must speak to the actual full realities of gender. And that requires speaking to the actual realities of gender variance. All of them. Not just whichever ones you can slot into the pet theory you refuse to abandon for fear of losing a political edge, or fear of admitting to having been wrong. It requires speaking to the actual lived experiences of human beings, all of them, not telling certain people that their lives are wrong, or don’t exist, so that you can continue believing whatever makes you comfy or meets your particular political goals. Your degrees, ambitions, publications or worries over how a fact might be misinterpreted do not trump anyone else’s actual existence. Views must be adapted to fit the facts. Otherwise, yours is just another inaccurate worldview imposed by the privileged on the actual world, and the lives within it.
Otherwise, you’re not addressing the social dynamics of gender. You’re covering them up, and thereby perpetuating the problem.
This means that to create a valid trans-feminism – to create any kind of valid feminism – we need to speak to the living, breathing diversity of gender, and only assert as universals those aspects of gender that are universal (difficult, sneaky, hard-to-find little things that they are). Trans-feminism, 4th wave feminism, and the future of feminism itself, MUST be based on only forwarding those theories and positions that are inclusive, and fully recognize all iterations of gender. This furthermore demands a consistent, determined, unwavering commitment to acknowledging intersectionality, and not excluding anyone from the discourse. It demands a conversational, discursive model, in which no one from any particular position claims to be able to speak for the whole. It demands acknowledgment, perhaps based in a sort of socially conscious skepticism, that no given subject position is going to have all the facts, and therefore we need to maintain a constant hesitation, a reluctance to over-commit to any one particular position or assume things to be true simply because they, to us in our always biased and limited positions, feel true or sound true or seem like they should be true or would be awfully convenient and helpful if they were true.
If it’s not speaking to the lived experiences of gender, or the available facts of gender, it’s not a feminism worth fighting for.
This isn’t valuable just in terms of meeting the needs of those experiences and identities that are most marginalized. It’s valuable in terms of protecting the long-term interests of feminism itself. A feminism that repeatedly fails to address the realities of gender will systematically discredit itself, and consign itself to irrelevance. At best, it will end up a specialized niche in academia for die-hards who have little or no interest in engaging the realities that exist beyond the walls of their classrooms, or beyond the spines of their publications.
Consider, for instance, the ongoing insistence within unnervingly large swathes of feminism on an absolutist view of gender as a social construct. This principle has long been used to invalidate trans people and support transphobic, cissexist and exclusionist attitudes within certain branches of feminism. It’s a perfect example of people saying “So what if your lived experience and actual existence contradicts what I’m saying? I’m a grad student and I have BOOKS!”. In other words, a perfect example of feminist theory failing to address the realities of gender and thereby failing to live up to its own mandate.
It seems to me that one of the reasons that the social-constructivist viewpoint has persisted in feminism as long as it has, despite the ever-increasing weight of that which contradicts it, is because so much has been invested in it. So much of feminist discourse has leaned on this premise, that gender is purely and wholly an arbitrary social construct that could be totally remodeled or done away with entirely if we were able to remake our culture from the ground up, that now there’s a whole house of cards built on top of it that will collapse if it gets pulled away. This creates an immensely heavy bias, and creates a situation where people just won’t accept anything, theory or fact, that contradicts this belief because there’s just too much at stake, too much to lose. It’s exactly how beliefs almost always work: not in accordance with evidence (we’re NOT rational creatures, us humanses), but in accordance with what we most want or need to believe, in accordance with a subconscious cost/benefit analysis.
This would be fine for feminism, even if certainly not fine for the numerous gender minorities this theoretical structure excludes and fucks over, if the premise were sustainable (like belief in God is: there will ALWAYS be gaps to fit Him in, so people will ALWAYS find ways to believe in Him). But it’s not. Feminism requires maintaining a presented ability to speak to what’s really going on with gender in order to maintain its credibility. It’s not a religion, and can’t rely on faith, gaps, or the ineffable. Meanwhile, science, and evidence, marches on. And bit by bit, more and more scientific evidence pours in, with increasing certainty and decreasing deniability, that gender is partially based on innate neurobiological structures and predispositions. John Money has been utterly discredited and died in shame. Milton Diamond now enjoys enormous respect amongst his peers. The facts, like trans people ourselves, aren’t going away, and eventually, one way or the other, will need to be addressed.
If feminism doesn’t find a way to account for that, if it continues leaning so much of its discourse on the premise of hard-line social-constructivism, it will not only condemn itself to irrelevance, it will be utterly discredited in the process. And this would be just fine for the other gender minorities, even if certainly not fine for the feminists themselves, if it weren’t for the fact that we have an intense interdependence. We need feminism. If it allows itself to become an irrelevant, discredited joke that no longer accepts the proven scientific realities, if it allows itself to become comparable to flat-earthers, climate-denialists, 9/11-truthers and David Icke, then we’ll ALL be fucked. The doors will be flung wide open for the MRAs and bio-gender-essentialists to come marching on in saying “Neener neener! We told you so!” and it will be even harder than ever to effectively address their misogynistic, cissexist, patriarchal idiocy.
What helps is that trans-feminism already has the theoretical and political structures in place to accommodate this apparent contradiction between feminism and the “nature vs. nurture conflict”. We’ve already been addressing, and resolving, this issue for a long, long time. We’ve moved past it. We’ve acknowledged a stochastic interplay between a variety of factors, that may vary in an individual between the rigidly deterministic and the fluid. We’ve been able to discuss how an underlying predisposition can be socio-culturally mediated, and that challenging and deconstructing those socio-cultural mediations doesn’t require ignoring or denying the existence of the predispositions. Just trust us. We’ve got this. But we can’t handle everything.
The world needs feminism. It really, really, desperately does. But the feminism it needs must be a credible feminism, and a feminism that speaks to the actuality of gender, in all its rich diversity. A feminism that doesn’t position theory or political convenience above the lived realities of gender. A feminism that is skeptical in nature, willing to adapt to changing landscapes of what we understand about how gender operates. A feminism that speaks to all iterations, etiologies and experiences of gender, and holds them to ALL be equally valid and deserving of acknowledgment, free expression, and basic human rights and dignity. An inclusive and intersectional trans-feminism. A feminism for everybody.
A fourth wave.
(to be continued in part three)