Gender abolition is an idea that seems to make no sense to most people in the trans community. It simply doesn’t compute. Isn’t gender also sex? Isn’t sex a social construct? Isn’t gender innate? Doesn’t gender just follow from sex or vice versa? The first part of this essay will briefly disentangle some phenomena that are commonly conflated in our thinking about what it is to be trans. This is necessary in order to illustrate why gender is harmful and something we should work to end. Finally, I’ll go over some ways that trans women would benefit in a world without gender.
There are three main components to transness the way it is conceived within this community: Anatomical sex, social gender expectations, and gender identity.
Anatomical sex pertains to the observable sex traits of the physical body. Some of us, for whatever reason, feel an innate revulsion toward these sex traits in ourselves and pursue a process of bodily alteration. Certain secondary sex characteristics can be altered through hormone use and surgery, genitalia and reproductive organs can be reconfigured/removed, but birth sex is not something that can be changed. The categories ‘female’ and ‘male’ refer to the two predominant sex types in humans*. By themselves these terms are neutral and describe an objective reality.
Gender refers to the social rules and expectations assigned to each of us based on birth sex or perceived sex (a box for each sex: female->woman and male->man). These can change based upon how others perceive us. When trans people change our physical sex characteristics such that others read us as the opposite sex, we often claim to have transcended gender when in fact, we have only hopped the fence separating ‘man’ and ‘woman’. The perceptions of others still in most cases lead them to place us into one of two gender boxes and thus expect certain behaviors, personality traits, and abilities from us. The problem with gender is that these expectations are not neutral or equal between the sexes. Traits associated with males place them as the sex class in a position of being ‘naturally’ dominant; ‘natural’ exploiters. Females find the traits assigned to them positioning them as always the exploited. The system of gender is not a benign tool for simple categorization; this is both the basis and the means to enforce social, institutional, and physical domination of males as a sex class over females as a sex class. This is patriarchy.
Trans women suffer under patriarchy for reasons that differ from the reasons why females suffer. While gender nonconforming females are punished under patriarchy for attempting to reject their ‘proper’ role as subservient and exploited, trans women (gender nonconforming males) are punished for being seen to reject our ‘proper’ role as dominant exploiters. If we can reject this construct as artificial, then other males could be called to do the same, and that poses a considerable threat to males who are happy to leverage their privilege over females.
Gender identity is normally meant to refer to a person’s self-conception in relation to social gender expectations. Sometimes this is seen as distinct from biological sex, but often this internalization of social gender roles is claimed to be inborn and immutable. The claim is that everyone has an innate gender identity which is present from birth; and that for some people, their identity is different from their anatomical birth sex. It’s said that this is the root cause of a trans person’s internal anguish.
The concept of gender identity is problematic when we remember the analysis of gender outlined above. Implicit in the definition of gender identity is that nontrans females and males feel no distress about the arbitrary gender rules pushed onto them based on birth anatomy. We’re asked to accept that the stereotypes of men and women are obeyed by people outside the trans community happily and without complaint or angst. From this it would follow that feeling angst toward patriarchal social rules makes one ‘not really their birth sex’; or trans. This is a plainly ridiculous notion. The entire feminist movement has been the struggle of females against the oppression they have suffered under the gender rules enforced onto them by patriarchy. To believe the definition of gender identity is to believe that every feminist who ever lived was/is truly male, instead of recognizing that they were/are actually fighting for their autonomy as female human beings.
It’s worth staying with the topic of gender identity for a moment, since this is an idea used to fuel major misconceptions within the trans community with harmful consequences. Chief among these misconceptions is one that is currently a mandatory tenet of trans outreach. This meme asserts that personal identity overrides biological reality, and should be sufficient to convince other people that trans people are not our birth sex. This is clearly untrue (see the paragraph about anatomical sex). It’s also dangerous, both to women born female and to trans people.
Trans women are harmed when gender identity crashes into reality. When we hold onto the idea that identity trumps biology, it can lead us to unrealistic expectations about how others will or should interact with us during and after transition. It can cause us to put ourselves in unsafe situations where being oblivious poses a genuine threat. But overall it leaves trans women ill-equipped to deal with the psychological toll that comes with being visibly gender nonconforming in a society where this is punished. This is not something that can be changed by simply stating a tautology like ‘I am a woman because I *know* I’m a woman!’ It’s easy for trans women to lose track of the fact that gender is a social mechanism rather than a status we can demand. When we respond to instances of ‘misgendering’ by doubling down on a faulty premise, it’s counter-adaptive and fixes none of the problems we face in society. A better way forward may be to use a more accurate understanding of gender to readjust our expectations of transition.
Women born female have been most negatively affected by the phenomenon of gender identity. They have to contend with their designated safe spaces being rendered open to any male at all who identifies as a woman. They’ve been robbed of the language necessary to speak frankly about their reproductive anatomy, even within conversations about attacks on their reproductive rights; words like ‘vagina’ and ‘uterus’ being attacked as ‘cissexist’. Lesbians have found themselves being savaged as bigots for not wanting to sleep with (or even simply not being sexually attracted to) trans women, no matter their surgical status. I mention these issues not to demonize trans women, but to emphasize that our current outreach is doing harm to the group we are ostensibly endeavoring to live among. All of these problems stem directly from the widely-shared delusion among trans women that our thoughts change our bodies or the physical and social context of our bodies; that identification with the patriarchally-constructed image of woman automatically makes us female.
What gender identification does is to reify an artificial power device** (the sexualized conception of ‘womanhood’, based upon control of females by males) into a thing that can be claimed, rather than a status that is forced upon half the population. Take a minute to think about who benefits from this construct. Think about who suffers, and how, and why. Male power is the framework constricting and distorting the ways most of us can even ponder these notions. We are not born with these frameworks already in our brains, although we learn them from our surrounding culture from such a young age that it’s no wonder they come to be thought of as innate. In recognizing what gender really is, and that none of us are born with the inkling (so reinforced that we mistake it for knowledge) that males are stronger, smarter, more capable, better than females; that females are simply weaker (in every sense) and naturally submissive to males, we realize that we have the choice to stop reifying the system of gender.
So what would a world without gender mean to trans women? For one thing, it would mean much less, if any, violence and verbal abuse directed our way for expressing our natural inclinations and curiosities during childhood and adolescence. Imagine growing up not being harassed or being bombarded with shaming messages for the things we like to do, how we like to express ourselves, whether we find ourselves sexually attracted to the same or the opposite sex (oh yeah, that’s another benefit to gender abolition… homophobia would have no context within which to exist). This would go for transitioning/post-transition women as well (sex dysphoria seems to be a separate issue from gender angst, and so some would probably still feel the need to undergo physical transition).
Which leads me to another possible outcome.. Many people who would be trans women in a gendered society may not feel the need to change their bodies in a genderless society. I’m fully aware of the way this statement could be interpreted and so let me make myself absolutely clear: I do not mean to erase the existence of trans women. But if we pay attention to the ways trans women speak about how they knew they were trans and where their pain came from, we find that many trans women were uncomfortable with their social context, and because of this they felt it necessary to change their bodies to match the social category they wanted to join. We see this with the focus on wanting to play with dolls as a child, wanting to wear dresses and makeup in adolescence, not wanting the social obligations that come with manhood. If the system of gender didn’t exist, and so these structures were not there to be enforced, what would change for these trans women? Behaviorally very little – but socially, very much; all of us could present and live exactly how we please without being chastised for breaking taboos. I believe that there are some vital questions we need to ask ourselves: Do we truly need to be trans women (or even women at all), or do we need to just be us? What does it say about our identities if they’re defined and conceived in opposition to the other prevailing social category?
Those of us who experience bodily dysphoria would have a clearer framework to use when deciding whether or not to pursue transition. As it is now, many of us experience strong doubts or conversely, false surety about transition based upon our typically complicated relations to gender standards. Without the clutter of social gender norms taking up the same headspace as our alienation from our bodies, we could re-frame and simplify the question thus: “Would physical alterations of my body allow me to function better?” as opposed to the questions current transitioners also struggle with: “What will the people closest to me think?” “Can I still build a life for myself if I transition but don’t look female?”
When thinking of issues concerning trans women, it’s easy to get lost in the mazes created by conflation of sex, social gender, identity, and the unclear picture many people have of the mechanisms of patriarchy and female oppression. If we can cut gender out of our conceptions of transness (this would include no longer treating gender identity as a valid force acting on reality), we would find things remarkably simplified. It will be an exceedingly difficult and lengthy process, but without the mass hypnosis of gender hierarchy reification, we can imagine a world that is truly more free and equal for everyone. The best part is that it’s totally possible if we’re willing to take the notion seriously.
*This is not to erase the existence of people born with intersex conditions. This is a distinct community with its own unique needs and issues.
**To be clear, the effects of this device are definitely real. It’s the constructed image that’s artificial.