Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gender is different

Note added 12-18-13: The following piece was one that I hastily wrote and blog-published back in July. It was meant to critique a growing tendency among *some* trans people to reduce all experiences of gender and sexism down to a singular cis-versus-trans axis. As with cis feminists who view the world solely through a male-versus-female mindset, or cis gay men and lesbians who reduce everything down to a heterosexual-versus-homosexual mindset, such singular-axis views can (and often do) erase many people's experiences with marginalization. (I discuss this phenomenon at great length in Excluded.)

Anyway, I specifically wrote the piece in response to two incidents in which cis queer women that I know personally had their own experiences with gender and sexism dismissed by trans people because they "had cis privilege." These were not instances where my friends were denying their cis privilege or exercising it over others. Nor had they said or done anything cissexist. They were merely discussing their own experiences, but were shut down simply because they were cis - this obviously ignores the fact that cis queer women face oppression too, and they should be able to express their views about such matters.

I was angry when I wrote the piece and I just wanted to vent that anger into the universe. So I wrote it and pressed the publish button. Never a good idea, I suppose. And I am not using that as an excuse - I wrote what I wrote and I take full responsibility for it.

It has since become clear to me that, in trying to explain why gender is more complicated than a singular cis-versus-trans axis, I oversimplified other issues. I did this in the opening to the piece, which goes like this:

"As a white person, I never have to think about race, except on those rare occasions when I am in a non-white majority space.

I never think about being a U.S. citizen except when I am outside the country.

While I have had multiple health concerns over recent years, I am still predominantly able-bodied, and as such, I do not have to think about how to navigate my way through the world.

But gender is different. . ." [at which point I go onto talk about the numerous different types of sex/gender/sexuality-related privileges that exist: e.g., male, masculine, heterosexual, monosexual, cissexual, cisgender, normatively-bodied privilege, and so on.]

I realize in retrospect that this passage makes the marginalization and/or privileges that people experience based upon race, ability, and citizenship status seem overly simplistic and cut-and-dried, when they are in fact just as complex as gender is. As someone who has an autoimmune condition that made my every day life (e.g., going to work, typing on the computer) quite difficult for me for about a year of my life, but which has since gone mostly into remission, I am acutely aware that able-bodied privilege is not simply an all or none phenomenon. And people who are disabled in different ways may differ significantly in the different obstacles and oppression they face.

Most of the critiques that I have heard focus on how the opening of the piece represents an overly simplistic analysis of racism. I completely agree. There are multiple forms of racism that target different groups in different ways, and any given individual may experience racism (or privileges related to not facing racism) to varying degrees or extents. And because racism intersects with all other forms of marginalization, there will inevitably be a multiplicity of different experiences with racism, just as there are a multiplicity of different experiences with sexism.

It is fucked up to oversimplify one set of issues in order to make another set of issues seem complex. This is especially true when you are privileged with regards to the set of issues that you are oversimplifying. Indeed, it is often our own privilege that enables us to oversimplify forms of marginalization that we do not personally face. That's what I did here. I was wrong and I apologize. I will try to learn from this mistake and do better in the future.

I have been told that there is another interpretation of the piece going around. Namely, some people seem to be assuming that in the opening of the piece I am claiming that gender is different (i.e., an entirely separate thing) from race, ability, and so on. In other words, the assumption is that I am denying the existence of intersectionality. That was most certainly not my intention at all. I have discussed intersectionality in many of my previous writings (e.g., here and here, not to mention throughout Excluded, especially the second half of the book). While I was not in any way claiming that gender or sexism exists outside of other forms of marginalization, I can see how some people might misinterpret the piece that way. I take responsibility for that misinterpretation, as it was likely caused by my sloppy writing and hastily publishing the piece rather than taking the time to make sure that my thoughts and intentions were clear.

I considered completely retracting the piece, but I feared that if it suddenly disappeared from the internet, people would think that I was trying to sweep the incident under the proverbial rug. That is not my intention - I am trying to be accountable here. So instead I have written this preface to the piece as a clarification and an apology.

Here is the original piece:
As a white person, I never have to think about race, except on those rare occasions when I am in a non-white majority space.

I never think about being a U.S. citizen except when I am outside the country.

While I have had multiple health concerns over recent years, I am still predominantly able-bodied, and as such, I do not have to think about how to navigate my way through the world.

But gender is different.

Everybody has a gender - or more accurately, even if we don't identify with any particular gender, others will still (mis)perceive us as belonging to one gender or another. And we all are forced to think about gender all the time, whether female or male, queer or straight, trans or cis, agendered or gendered. There are always rules to follow, expectations to meet, assumptions to deal with, ideals that we will inevitably fall short of.

Some people have gender-related privileges of various stripes: male, masculine, heterosexual, monosexual, cissexual, cisgender, and normatively-bodied privilege, to name a few. Some people have more of these privileges, while others have less. But even people who have most or all of these privileges still have to deal with gender on a daily basis - the countless expectations, assumptions, norms, and so on.

All of us have the right to talk about gender, and about the gender-related issues and obstacles that we personally face. Granted, we should not do this in ways that undermine other people's identities or experiences. And we should be sensitive to people who do not have the privileges that we have - we should not drown out their voices or use our experiences to trump theirs. But as long as we are respectful of these concerns, all of us have the right to discuss gender. In fact, we should all be discussing gender, as the only way that we will ever eradicate all the various sexisms that exist in the world is if we all stop projecting gendered expectations and assumptions onto one another.

There was a time when trans activists talked about the gender binary, not just to describe how we are oppressed by it, but to encourage the cisgender majority to think about how they are oppressed by it too. Maybe not to the same extent as we are. But nevertheless, if they fail to check all the right boxes (e.g., wear "gender appropriate" clothing, take up "gender appropriate" interests and occupations, behave in a "gender appropriate" manner) then they will be dismissed, ridiculed, or harassed just as we regularly are.

Nowadays, some trans people use the gender binary solely to discuss how we are marginalized by it, while cis people are privileged by it. Some go so far as to suggest that cis people do not have the right to discuss some of their experiences with gender because they are coming from a privileged position. And this is not just a "trans thing": some queers seek to silence the straight majority, and some women seek to silence men's perspectives and experiences with gender. While I think that it's gross whenever anyone denies their male, straight, or cis privilege (or when they exercise those privileges over others), I think that it is wrong to insist that others do not have the right to talk about their gendered experiences simply because they have some particular privilege or other.

If someone said to me that I should step aside and let people of color express their views about racism, and let disabled people express their views about ableism, they would have a point - not only because I am a member of the majority and experience privileges in those regards, but also because I don't ever (or at least extremely rarely) have to deal with racism and ableism personally. But all of us face gendered expectations, assumptions, and norms on a daily basis. Gender complicates all of our lives. We all have a story to tell.

We should be expanding conversations about gender, not limiting them to a chosen few.


  1. Julia, I'm not sure I agree with this!

    Certainly, gender is different to race, is different to class. But I think the unique qualities you list of gender - the ones that make it "differently different", apply very closely to those other systems of organising power.

    Whiteness is a culture/identity/affinity/position, just as maleness is. I think that us white people do think about race constantly - we just don't call it "thinking about race", we call it, "thinking normally".

    Just look at gender for an example. When we're constantly thinking about gender, the rules, expectations, assumptions and ideals for a white person are for a white person of our gender. This is thinking about race - it's only our privileged position within white supremacy which allows us to call it otherwise.

    And I think just the same applies to class. Middle class-ness, upper-class-ness, also come with expectations, assumptions and norms. As do many other dominant identities.

    The key, I think, is not to start thinking that these restictions are the same "type" as those laid on the oppressed group. I think Marilyn Frye covers this very well in her piece/lecture "Oppression", summarised excellently in the following quote - not by Frye, but in an unpublished thesis I've been fortunate enough to read:

    A double bind situation has a number of features. The agent is given two (or perhaps more) injunctions as to how to behave, and these injunctions conflict, so that it is not possible to fulfil both of them. Furthermore, failure to comply with one or more of the injunctions has negative consequences, and the person cannot leave the situation. Finally, there is no way for the person to seek clarification or a meta-injunction about what to do. It is characteristic of a double bind situation that any action taken to try and evade the problem will in fact make the negative consequence more likely.


    Although men also face social judgements that restrict their options, those restrictions are not the mirror image of those facing women. For instance, although men do receive a social injunction to be assertive and confident, they do not experience a penalty for complying with this injunction, and in fact such behaviour often leads to social rewards, such as professional success. Both women and men are subject to pressures to behave in gendered ways, but only women face a double bind. In other words, the injunctions directed at men are prescriptive and limiting, but men are not subject to patterns of competing injunctions in the way described above. It's the difference between win-lose, and lose-lose, and it's this difference that leads radical feminists to claim that whilst men are obviously affected by the gender system, it is only women who are oppressed by it – and it is oppression, specifically, which feminism should target.

    - Jenkins, Katharine (unpublished work, 2012)

    Finally, I don't see men being prevented from speaking about gender. I see men being asked not to be assholes - and generally refusing! Likewise cis people about trans* issues, etc. I completely agree that we should be expanding conversations about gender. I think that involves taking the megaphone away from the guy who is drowning out everybody else and working collectively to empower the voices of those who aren't heard so clearly. This should not be confused with or taken as "silencing".

    Men certainly need to learn to think about patriarchal masculinity in critical ways. In my experience, feminists are extraordinarily patient with this process. Nonetheless we still have limits, and men cross them relentlessly. When they do that, they are not engaging in "critical thinking about patriarchal masculinity" - they are doing patriarchal masculinity.

    1. (because this reply is long, I will be splitting it up into 2 parts)

      So I pretty much agree with everything that you said, which probably means that I did not explain what I was trying to convey as well as I could have in the original piece.

      To the first point, I admit that I over-simplified how non-gender-based forms of marginalization (e.g., racism & ableism) work. I did so to highlight that they function more asymmetrically than gender. This is not to say that gender is not asymmetrical. But rather, there is an assumption of complementation with gender that is not as true for other forms of oppression. Allow me to clarify:

      With racism and ableism, almost all of the stereotypes and negative sentiments fall on the marked group, whereas the unmarked group is presumed to be heterogeneous and are not called into question by the ism for the most part.

      [You mentioned class, which I did not include in my example precisely because it functions more like a spectrum, where people who are at the far end of both sides of the spectrum (wealthy and poor) are marked in relation to the middle class (albeit in different ways—wealthy people are glorified and poor people stigmatized). And the average person tends to be a little more aware of class privileges (that some people are more privileged than them, whereas others are less privileged) than they are other with other privileges in my experience. This can create norms and assumptions across the entire spectrum.]

      With gender, there is a built in asymmetry (women are marked relative to men, femininity marked relative to masculinity) but there is also a complementary system (driven by the idea that women and men are opposites) that creates norms, assumptions, expectations, and stereotypes for both groups.

      In Whipping Girl, I tried to articulate this by making a distinction between traditional sexism (where women/femininity are marked while men/masculinity are unmarked) and oppositional sexism (where people who fail to live up to the norms, assumptions, and expectations that are placed on their birth-assigned gender are marked relative to those who seemingly conform to those norms, assumptions, and expectations).

      We can view heterosexism, cissexism, and other gender-related isms as unique forms of oppression. But it is also useful to recognize them as different manifestations of oppositional sexism. I might see myself as being oppressed by cissexism, but in the eyes of most of the cis majority, they no doubt view me as a “man” who has failed to conform to the norms, assumptions, and expectations placed on men, and thus they dismiss/ridicule/marginalize me accordingly.

      I agree with you that such oppositional forces can exist with regards to other isms. But they are especially pervasive when it comes to gender because men and women are commonly presumed to be “opposites” and “natural complements” in a way that other unmarked/marked pairs are not.

      more to come...

    2. Finally, I agree with what you said about cis men not being silenced so much about their views of gender (in society more generally), and feminists have largely being patient with them, but many men still refuse to not be entitled assholes about it. I could cite exceptions to this trend, but admittedly they would be the exceptions that prove the rule.

      But I did not write the piece to discuss the “silencing of men,” and perhaps I shouldn’t have even mentioned this since it was peripheral to my main point. What I was hoping to shed light on is how-—within activist circles (not mainstream society more generally)—sometimes privilege-centric discussions of gender create dynamics where some people are seen as having the right to speak, while others do not.

      One example of this is in how certain cis feminists claim dismiss trans women’s perspectives on gender and gender-based-oppression because we have had (and in their minds, still have) male privilege. As if having had this privilege renders anything else we say irrelevant.

      A similar dynamic sometimes occurs in gay and lesbian settings, where the perspectives of bisexuals, hetero-identified trans people, and others are sometimes dismissed on the basis that these people “have heterosexual privilege” (even though cis lesbians and gay men also have privileges that bisexuals and trans folks do not).

      In recent years, I have witnessed more and more trans folks trying to silence cis folks within activist settings on the basis that these groups have cisgender privilege, even though these cis folks themselves often lack other gender-related privileges.

      These are the types of instances of silencing that led me to write the post.

      It is important for us to talk about privilege—to recognize the privileges we have, to not exercise them over others. But it is also important for us to recognize how the concept of privilege is sometimes misused in activist settings to undermine other people’s perspectives. And this is especially pertinent when talking about gender, because a majority of the population lack some kind (and often multiple kinds) of gender related privileges.

      Finally, when I first became involved in trans activism in the early 00’s, trans activism was mostly focused on challenging gender norms, expectations, and assumptions. These conversations resonated with other activist groups (e.g., cis feminists, cis lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks) because we are all marginalized by such norms, albeit in different ways. This had a uniting effect, in that it encouraged people to readily notice the obstacles others faced. However, it also tended to overlook the fact that, while we all face gender norms and assumptions, some people are more marginalized within that system then others. Indeed, back then, there were few discussions of privilege (which is partly what led me to write about cis privilege and male/masculine privilege in Whipping Girl).

      Nowadays, in 2013, I feel like the pendulum has completely shifted: in gender-related activist circles, we talk a lot about privilege, but not so much about how we all face different gender assumptions, expectations, and norms. It would be nice if we could find a happy medium, where we could constructively talk about both of these matters simultaneously, without one trumping the other.

      Anyway, I hope that clarifies my intentions with this post... Best wishes, -julia

    3. one more thing: In the event than anyone else has more to add to this thread, you should know that I will be “going dark” (i.e., not spending much time on the internet) for a couple weeks, as I am really really really burnt out. But I will be back...

    4. I don't buy it! Where are these spaces in which the concept of privilege can have more silencing power than privilege itself? The material reality of systems of privilege/disprivilege is power. When we say, "this person is privileged", one thing we mean is, "this person has power to dominate". Where are the spaces in which this understanding is so open, and privileged people are so cowed by it, that they wind up saying less than the oppressed? And how do I sign up?!

      The gender-related activist circles I'm in are feminist spaces in which I participate to attempt to look at the oppression of women, and at the ways in which patriarchy and those systems of domination with interlock with it carry out that oppression differently against different women. However, I observe this constantly frustrated by denial of privilege. Speaking about privilege is hardly a "trump" card in those spaces - it's a three in a minor suit at best, pretty much a guaranteed way to get forced out of a group.

      Are we even talking about the same problem? I don't understand how you can see it as enough of a deal to write a blog post about, when in the spaces I've observed there's not anything of the sort! Could this be a UK/US difference? I find that really hard to credit, but maybe...? I don't know. What I read you as talking about here is something along the lines of the ongoing discussion about "callout culture". Is that what you're warning against? (If so - couldn't disagree more - I don't believe such a culture exists, though think the idea of it sounds like bliss...)

      By the way, this is more a footnote, but I've read Whipping Girl, and I remember how you picked apart the Subject/Other form of sexism, and the idea of women and men as ordained, complimentary types (in which women are just coincidentally dirt). I'm very fond of the work of Val Plumwood, who speaks about how these are two ways of viewing what is a single problem - not two intertwined problems, but one atomic whole. Have you read Plumwood's "Feminism and the Mastery of Nature"? If not, I've jotted down a brief summary of her ideas.

    5. The designation of who is privileged is a power accorded to the privileged. I was considered too privileged, as a straight, cis, autistic man, to be accorded much respect at a discussion on sex and disability. The speaker set a relaxed tone for the talk (or I misinterpreted? Or they misspoke?) and there were about half a dozen people there, so I didn't see how calling out during the talk was in any way silencing or dominating the space (they weren't interruptions to the flow of the talk; just general things like "Oh interesting" or "I've seen that guy rap on youtube.") Maybe I stressed the facilitator out? I don't know. Anyway, at the conclusion of discussion most time was devoted answering the questions of a dude without a disability (his self-description) who just admitted he'd had a strained relationship with a disabled woman once upon a time. In general, I don't try to access the kinds of spaces where these events are held, as I'm usually an object of palpable suspicion (a guy who sits in the corner is not having an anxiety attack after all; he's being creepy or whatever). Like, I can feel the stares when I walk the wrong way into a room, speak the wrong way, and sit the wrong way. I can't really complain about this treatment, being visibly white and presenting a pretty run-off-the-mill gender display, and that's taken to mean that no one knows how to be cruel to me.

    6. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that being an aspie makes my race, my gender, or my orientation non-existant, and there are not times and places where I might harm or restrict the lives of others, intentionally or otherwise, by exercising associated privileges. In general, I don't make a big fuss about my exclusion from queer vegan university communities, because in general I think the preservation of those spaces is worth people being extremely cautious about whom to trust, but when members of that community organise a public talk about disability, I take it on good faith that I've been invited to participate in that discussion, and that my attendance will not be viewed as an imposition.

  2. Observing what the past has presented to our society, and to what you have mentioned; I have come to the conclusion we will never TRULY know what gender is; and that we will separate into
    extreme individualism that will kill any progress of finding
    the truth.

    The past has presented many criticisms, prejudisms, and racism
    because a particular person did not meet their 'version' of what is
    right. They treated the individual poorly because the individual
    did not 'fit in the box' and then they label the individual a term
    with demeaning value.

    This is no different with gender. It won't matter about ableism,
    atheism, religion, race, creed, etc. It comes down to the bare
    fact the people are either evil, stupid, in a hurry and not
    listening, or just not informed or interested.

    That is sad.

    I didn't understand how women were anxious to be rid of labels
    that classified them as feminine or 'girly'. I spent my entire
    life trying to WIN that position; for I am mtf (male to female).

    I am confused by that. I am equally confused by Malcolm X who
    did not want white people to be in his march because 'they
    can't possibly understand what the black man is going through'.

    I am also insulted. It was still about the man and his patriarch
    world. Women were extra. I am insulted because I know human
    suffering regardless if I was beaten near death on a cross or
    whipped in a cotton field. I am part of the melting pot and it
    affects me when I am left out because someone else is comparing
    his/her pain as if it is a trophy. That is more pride getting
    in the way. I can feel and bleed just like they can. Thus,
    I should have equal say on gender or any topic.

    I guess I am confused with people and life. I want to be labeled
    as a woman. Nothing more. I don't want other people to confuse
    the issue to the extreme where we wake up one day and find that
    NOT ONE person has a group or idea to identify with. That we
    somehow are so chaotic because we are against gender and all signs
    of grouping together for any purpose or identity.

    Benjamin Standards 6th edition still shows that the doctors and
    lawyers who debase the trans community by making us 'conform'
    to their procedures to determine if we are 'real'; do not know what
    gender dysphoria truly is. They might as well be on the Galactica
    with their Cylon detector. Crude and silly. So to quote a ftm
    when telling his dad about his gender; "I want you to trust me".
    That is what it boils down to.