How is gender harmful, and what does the idea of gender abolition mean to trans women?

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.

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22 thoughts on “How is gender harmful, and what does the idea of gender abolition mean to trans women?

  1. Pingback: Please Read This - REtransition

  2. Love this. I have one comment to add, especially in the context that I’m also one of the organizers of this workshop. As trans women, sometimes gender abolition can sound like our role is to be martyrs for the cause. To take our apparently gender non-conforming selves (in relation to birth sex) and defiantly occupy male space. No one should be forced to subject themselves to the sort of violence being such a martyr would entail. And there’s still the question of physical sex dysphoria, which may not be rooted in gender oppression. Gender abolition is the aspirational goal, the vision of a better future. It informs the differences between sex and gender that we have to navigate. But it is a larger, long fight that will span multiple lifetimes. We live in the world as it is today, and we have to make choices to best optimize our lives. Transition in the context of gender abolition can be thought of as a triage action, a short term strategy to cope with the oppression and violence we endure. But keeping the long view is important.

    • “As trans women, sometimes gender abolition can sound like our role is to be martyrs for the cause. To take our apparently gender non-conforming selves (in relation to birth sex) and defiantly occupy male space. No one should be forced to subject themselves to the sort of violence being such a martyr would entail.”
      _________________________

      This is a politically naive statement. ALL PEOPLE who want to liberate themselves have had to “defiantly occupy” spaces where they were not wanted, in a myriad of ways. Historically, many individuals have suffered (and died) as martyrs. When you make statements like this, it sounds like you know nothing about history, don’t care anything about history, and are mostly concerned with your own comfort. Not an impressive or sympathetic stance to take, taken in the context of all the other liberation movements around the world. Including feminism.

  3. “To take our apparently gender non-conforming selves (in relation to birth sex) and defiantly occupy male space. No one should be forced to subject themselves to the sort of violence being such a martyr would entail.”

    Guess what? That is the world that women and girls live in every day of our lives. There is no way out for us. As Andrea Dworkin said, “There is no North for women,” We live inside a barricade of sexual terrorism created by men. To the extent that women have any freedom, it’s because we have occupied male space (which is the entire f-ing globe at this point), fought like hell for our human rights, and knocked out a few of the bricks in that barricade. Women and girls die fighting men every day, for daring to say no, daring to escape their battering and control, daring to go to school (200 missing Nigerian girls, anyone?). It is NOT our job to make a nice, soft, comfy place for a few men who don’t like masculinity. Our job is to fight like hell until we destroy men’s gender-caste system, You don’t like masculinity and the violence men organize with it? Bring it down. And in the meantime, make your own safe spaces. Cuz I got a globe full of battered, bloody women to take care of.

    • Thank you Lydia. I was inspired reading your heartfelt and insightful comments. (And saddened also, of course.)

    • Thank you for your comment. We are not asking women born female to coddle us or make space for us in their own safe spaces. New Narratives is very much about building our own safe spaces! Spaces to work through our unique issues, spaces to heal, and spaces that protect us, like the trans women’s shelter project in Oakland. That’s why we are not demanding access to the Sunday female-only session of Radfem’s Respond, and why collectively we are against trans activism focused on MichFest, and trans activism that polices language and women’s ability to name their oppressions and concerns.

      Trans women have to occupy male space as well; that is where we came from, after all. We are in that space everyday! If we don’t pass for female, we receive hatred and violence for being gender non-conforming. If we do pass for female, we receive violence intended for females. There is no ‘out’ for us either. That is not to say we always suffer in the same ways as females. Gender abolition addresses nearly all of that violence against us. We seek solutions to our plight born out of radical feminist thought. We, like females, seek safe spaces free from that violence. Sometimes those spaces need to be separate from females. We understand that, and in fact, often we want our own specific spaces. Sometimes we work together, sometimes separately.

      It is said by some that a female who conforms to expectations under patriarchy is not performing a feminist act. In the same way, a trans women who passes for female and conforms to gendered expectations is not performing a feminist act either. In both cases, they are acts of compromise and survival. This is the gist of what I was trying to say.

      Many of us are new to radical feminism; we are not perfect, we are still learning.

    • This quote of Andrea Dworkin is not the best one you could find since it enforces the white supremacist idea that North America was/is all Heaven for black folks (which is untrue, to say the least). And those analogies with colonization are just more proofs of white privilege (without even speaking of the fact that such organizations as Boko Haram are products of colonialism – tied to racism).

      • Ms Dreydful, would you care to expand on this? Over the last year, there has been an extremely popular trend of white mtf trans activists accusing radical feminists (and gender-critical trans activists) of being white supremacist and/or colonialist, in order to discount what we are saying. The trans activists even accuse black women who are gender critical of being white supremacists!

        However, based on your blog, you appear to be African, and female. (Mais je parle le francais comme un chien – et si je suis en erreur je m’excuse.) If you would like to expand on your statements, I would be happy to read what you have to say. But unfortunately the simple accusation of white supremacism and colonialism on its own just reads like the “racist dog whistle derail” so popular among trans activists today.

      • I think that “North” reference was actually about fugitive slaves. Still problematic ally racially but not for the reasons you think.

        Colonization does not excuse men of color for their complicity in systematic abuse of women of all races. Racism informs how patriarchy spins out in various communities of color, but misogyny is colorblind.

      • I would try (even though I do not subscribe to what’s popular for radical feminists nowadays).

        @snowflakeespecial : Personally, I think that often, when black feminists point out racism in radical feminism, it is discarded without a thought because it brings out the complexity of the system which is not only patriarchal (otherwise, why think of this as derailing? And again, why “accusations” and not thinking that you can actually say some racist crap? Or why always put Lorde on a pedestal when she criticizes misogyny amongst black men, but ignore her when she comments on racism amongst white women? French white radical feminists tend to be the same…Refusing to take account of how racism operates as a system).
        I am black and a woman born woman living in France (so your french isn’t so bad ;)), but I do not think anymore it must have such a place in my thinking as it used to be. I explained quickly how this last comment is problematic…
        It is problematic because :
        1) Contrary to what QN is thinking, I was actually thinking about fugitive slaves, and how white America paints the North as heaven for black people during slavery (without saying how racism was still pervasive- and it is still today). Yes, it was better to be in the North during those times, but it wasn’t perfect, far from it : http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4narr3.html . So it erases completely that there is no shield for racism either (where a lot of white feminists get it all wrong, thinking racism is taken more seriously than sexism. Just no).
        2) The second point I wanted to adress was the implicit comparison with women all over the world in a world “colonized” by men with actual colonization. Again, it erases the way occidental countries have colonized the entire globe and still further imperialism. Those kind of analogies are harmful for other people who live in places under imperialist militaries. My point wasn’t to “excuse men of colour” (as QN puts it), but to bring attention how those type of discourses refrain to see the bigger picture, which is : “Sexism is not the only problem, and wanting to destroy sexism is not a reason to do it at other maginalized people’s expenses”.

        That leads me to the limits of radical feminism (or at least, how it seems to be today). I basically disagree with QN when she says “Racism informs how patriarchy spins out in various communities of color, but misogyny is colorblind.” (which makes me no radical feminist for a lot of radfems), in the same way I disagree when marxists would say basically the same thing but using capitalism (“Racism informs how capitalism affects various communities of color, but poverty is colorblind”) : misogyny is not colourblind, it affects black women in other different ways than white women. For example, ethiopian women in Israel are sterilized (http://parlourmagazine.com/2013/01/israel-admits-to-forcibly-sterilizing-ethiopian-women-we-rethink-our-travel-plans/), that has everything to do with race and not only sex and gender.

        I read this article with open-mind and find it helpful that more spaces for transwomen would be created through your actions. But I think also that this way of thinking can be harmful for isolated transwomen that would have shelter nowhere (suffering of sexist or/and gender-conformist violence). Black women also “seek solutions to our plight born out of radical feminist thought.” We, like other women, “seek safe spaces free from that violence. Sometimes those spaces need to be separate from” other women. “We understand that, and in fact, often we want our own specific spaces. Sometimes we work together, sometimes separately. ” But I will never let white women set up when it is appropriate and when it is not. So this feels kind of sad.

        Sometimes, when I see stuff like “make your own safe spaces. Cuz I got a globe full of battered, bloody women to take care of.”, it makes me feel like radfem are not into fighting against oppression, but only against sexist oppression, which is awful but not everything.

      • Ms. Dreydful, thank you for this reply! It is a lot to think about, and much appreciated. What struck me most when I re-read Sister Outsider recently (I had last read it 20 years ago) was how much of it was devoted to discussing racism within feminist activism. Those discussions were almost absent in my memory of the book – which says a lot about my own priorities at the time, as an 18 year old white person from the suburbs! Best wishes.

      • This is really quick and my hope is to respond at length later, but I just need to pal pec myself as first gen American daughter of immigrants and black in America.

        I guess I disagree heartily that poverty is indivisible from the way that even poverty plays out on bodies of color. Women are forcibly sterilized all over the world (just last month it was determined that hundreds of incarcerated women in California were sterilized without consent). Corrective rape (ANC all other kinds) are carried out by males a against females in all places. That violence as well as homophobia (whose roots are based in men being seen as “acting” like women) cannot be unshackled from misogyny.

        And what is colonialism if not the land as female, to be overrun, raped and her “spoils” stolen?

        Agreed fully that Lorde is usually only read for her analysis of sexism and not racism. If you haven’t read her conversation with James Baldwin, I would love to suggest it. It crystallizes much of what you say, but explains fully how she cannot untether misogyny from that analysis.

      • I do not want to derail from the issues discussed on that article, so it may be my last answer on that matter…
        @QN : Again, not all women are forcibly sterilized. It would be wrong to assume so. I think we are losing substance to critical analysis when we sum up everything by “because we are women”, without discussing context, history, materiality. As you said, “incarcerated women in California”, they are not your typical blonde from the suburbs. So you can’t make it like they are sterilized because ONLY they are women. Corrective rape (and more often, murders) skyrocket when it concerns also transwomen (that you would see as males).

        “And what is colonialism if not the land as female, to be overrun, raped and her “spoils” stolen?” –> I hate personally those kinds of metaphors that serve nothing. Rape is sex without consent, colonialism is entitlement to invade other’s people land (due to supposed superiority, and so racism of invaders) : let’s keep that way. Some people actually suffer from it! They do not need their problems to be looped in with rape!

        I’m familiar with the Baldwin and Lorde conversation, and I agree that her analysis of racism takes account of misogyny. However, it goes also the other way round : her analysis of sexism takes account of racism.

  4. Aha, some American Transfolk that are (roughly) on the same page as many transfolk in the UK! We salute you! (Though we won’t be able to attend 😉

    • Hello, there! It’s nice to have some support from your neck of the woods. My understanding is that the community politics are pretty similar over there, so our best wishes and support go out to you as well. Thank you for the kind message!

      .minder

  5. thank you, i am wishing this whole effort well. may the organizers be free from harm and may all those who are brave enough to attend leave the conference with stronger minds.

    there is so much work to do in the fight against male violence. and you are 100% correct that some of that work needs to be done within class-specific spaces. but some of the work can be done by women and men together. but first, men must work among themselves to de-program their socialization and guard against relapsing into violence and aggression. so this conference is a wonderful first step.

    best wishes!

  6. Reblogged this on Plastic Girl and commented:
    With only five days remaining, I thought I’d try to give this another signal boost.

    Gender abolition is a very challenging idea in the trans community — primarily because so many of us base our transitions and presentations off our own internalized sense of gender that we were programmed with from early childhood, and some would say, even while in the womb. In order to rationalize transition, we often very much have to profess a belief in gender — in order to get clearance for having our secondary sex characteristics medically modified.

    You all have my support for your intention and for the success of New Narratives. Please, please please, take sensible safety precautions. I look forward to reading about how it goes.

  7. I love this idea about the abolition of gender, not totally optimistic whit the idea because i suffer in miself the fact of dont be a strong (in personality and agresivenes, phisically i become strong) and selfconfident male being looked as “less” not only by men as by women, so will be hard to change.
    Aniway i can totally say “phisicall transition” as a need will not disappear, because some of us really had a issue whit our bodies, personally i never had a thing for dresses or “girly things” but for almost the first time i hate the body hair, the face hair, the wide shoulders, the clumsy way i start to walk or move, my siluete, my arms. .
    But, i totally agree whit this analisys, probably would be better to all of us a world whitout “gender expectation” or best sayed “sex espectation” after all gender is the construc doed over the reality of the sex.

    But dont know, i really had some reserves, i never found a heterosexual woman that want to be stronger and dominant than her man or feel confortable whit that, that dont fear that her man is homosexual because is soft and submisive, just to make a point i was a atractive man, and educated and midle class, but almost never had a girlfriend, and my sexual experience till my 29 years was almost none ( i had sex 15 times whit women in 29 years…is not a great number..you know), so really…women want non conforming gender males?
    Letting this beside, yes, would be great for women a world whitout genders, maybe then a lot of thing would change. Hope this happen.
    Letting this beside i like a lot this new narratives initiative, whish you the best luck 🙂

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