We’re doing things a little differently today. Normally with this blog I attempt to share opinion and experience (alongside any expertise that I can). That’s why I focus on aspects of mental health (rather than the field broadly) and writing.
Today, I want to venture into an area where I have zero qualification. Not only am I not an expert, but I also have no lived experience and no foundation to speak about the topic at all. I am not here to share my opinion on the subject at all, but to share my flawed perspective and obstacles in the hopes that someone else can help to guide my further learning.
Where I Feel Pretty Confident
The discussion tends to revolve around three key areas: gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Now, before we even get to that, I think it’s philosophically and semantically important to note that the definition follows the thing rather than the other way around because definitions describe. That is, one cannot simply call something by a term and then say whatever that thing is forms the definition. If I show you a picture of a tree and call it a bird, that does not make it a bird. It’s what one calls a faulty syllogism.
Before they conflicted by context, we have:
sex – division of living organisms according to their reproductive functions, which is consequently often simplified to male and female even though the biological definition is more complicated due to chromosomes or reproductive functions
sexual orientation – regarding the process of reproduction, this is a definition indicating whether one is sexually attracted to their own sex or, most often, the opposite sex (most often in the sense that most adhere to a binary)
gender – a grammatical classification of sex and the place where much of the trouble seems to start. For example, the gender critical (GC) crowd applies this classification strictly according to the physiological aspects of sex, whereas most of the medical versions with which I am familiar also indicate sociocultural aspects
Where It Starts to Get Complicated
Now, when I read what others write about the topic or hear what they have to say, this is the part where everything starts to fall apart. Generally speaking, I believe that the core of the disagreement (between GC and non-GC feminists) is the notion of femininity, which is to say which definition of gender one employs.
The GC definition of “woman” appears to be “adult female” – end of story.
The non-GC definition of “woman” expresses the idea in terms of sociocultural distinction from the alternatives, and therefore includes people who are not female.
When it comes to feminism, the disagreement becomes hostile. Both camps believe in an end goal of gender equality and accordingly frame their efforts in terms of patriarchy (and male privilege). While some people (non-feminists) would disagree with this, the psychological and sociocultural science on that front seems clear to me. Society orients itself around men and women, simply for being women, face socially constructed obstacles.
The problem with these definitions of gender becomes that the GC crowd view transwomen (persons who were not born female) as part of the patriarchal problem. While they may acknowledge that trans persons face oppression in their own right, they do not acknowledge them as part of the class of “women” struggling against patriarchy.
In fact, many view efforts to support trans persons as endangering women by “inviting males into female spaces.” In some cases, the argument seems to be that the person is not trans, but a cis male merely posing as a trans woman so they can use these new benefits to their advantage to endanger women – a point that many condemn as transphobic (for clarity, I’m trying not to editorialise but I agree that it’s transphobic).
Where I Personally Struggle
My general position on the issue is that the GC crowd is wrong, and their views hurt trans persons. While a GC person may not feel that they hate the trans population and even offer statements of support, the fact is that they engage in behaviour that trans persons say is harming them.
Harassment 101 is that intent does not matter. When trans persons are being hurt by actions, it does not matter if the individual did not intend to hurt them. The harm was done.
My main, personal point of conflict is still where the definition of woman encounters the battle against patriarchy.
On the one hand, I agree that patriarchy is the main focus of feminism. We live in a society that both explicitly and implicitly favours males because for generations it was an explicit belief codified into society. Elements of that remain embedded everywhere, as do the cognitive biases associated with living within such a society – so even where we try to be egalitarian, we are still placing women at a disadvantage.
On the other hand, I struggle with what it means to be a woman by any definition. Allow me to explain.
I understand that a person has an innate sense of being a woman. I can relate to that easily because I have always felt something similar – just of being a man. Society makes that especially easy for me because I am also a cis male, so I am not even under pressure to examine the sociocultural meaning behind that. Whether you are the most bigoted or most tolerant person on the planet, “James is a male and a man” is something ridiculously easy to digest.
I wrote recently about personal feelings I have in this area that feel relevant to this conversation. I prefer women in most respects. What might be more accurate to say is that I prefer femininity in most respects, and my definition of woman absolutely includes transwomen. Despite all of that, I feel no personal dysphoria. I have no doubts or inclinations that I might be a woman. Whereas one person might feel like they are unjustly on the outside of womanhood because society labelled them a man, I feel regrettably absent from it because I am a man.
In other words, much as I might prefer women in most respects, I can never exist in a pure way in a feminine space because I am not a woman. I do not wish to engage in the feminine things I prefer; I simply prefer them in (perhaps because of) contrast to my own experience. The moment I am in a feminine space, it becomes a feminine space plus one man and changes the feel of the environment. Even among a group of women who trust me deeply, there can be no situation that is all about women if I am present.
I relate it back to existential philosophy and the concept of the Other and the Look. If one were observing the world through a keyhole, one would have a certain experience of things. If one of the subjects within the room turned and looked, spotting you at the keyhole, then even if they resumed things as they were the entire experience of the room changes.
Sigh…try reading that other piece as well. I feel like I’m never going to articulate this feeling well.
Back to the point, as my sense of feminism grew over the years, it did so in a narrow way. I learned white feminism first, and then became aware of the intersectional aspects. Feminism was one cause that needed my allyship, LGBTQIA+ was another. I did not consider much of the intersection until Rowling started in with her rows.
Something curious happened along the way though. One of the things against which I try to help rebel is the notion that feminine means inferior (or superior – the idea of introducing superposition along with sex, gender, and orientation is the problem). For example, men cannot wear dresses because dresses are for women. A man in a dress is somehow “less than” simply because of the dress. That is a problem. It’s a piece of fabric. If one considers it a problem because of its association with women, it’s misogyny. Plain and simple.
That is the part of the trans identity with which I struggle, and I try to be mindful about how I approach it. What does it mean to identify as a woman? One of the main points of feminism is that a man can enjoy things that are traditionally feminine without facing criticism, because to criticise a man for such a thing is to imply that the feminine makes him “less than,” and the “less than” makes it misogynistic and wrong.
So, how does one determine for their sense of identity whether one is “a woman wrongly identified by society as a man” (transwoman) versus “a man who enjoys things that are traditionally feminine”?
I’m a man and pretty much everything about me is traditionally masculine. When I try to address that prior question, I come up with nothing. “If I wanted to embrace these feminine things as my own, would that mean a sociocultural identification as a woman or that I was a man who enjoyed things that are traditionally feminine?” I think the latter because that intrinsic sense of identity (at the heart of this subject) is still not there, but I’m not sure.
The reason it remains such a sticking point in my head is that I worry this continued identification of things and behaviours with traditional masculinity and traditional femininity is impeding progress on gender equality.
Now, I feel the GC crowd may view that as support of what they’ve been saying. I want to be clear that it’s not. The onus of this is not on trans people and they are not the vanguards of patriarchy. They are victims of it as much as anyone. I would agree that their experience is different than that of cis women, but it’s a matter of similarities and differences. Much of what they experience is the same as that of cis women, just as black women experience many of the same things as white women. The racial component means that they each experience unique things as well. That’s the intersectionality piece that so many GC folks seem to miss.
The real question is, are we as feminists causing harm by continuing to identify things with traditional masculinity and traditional femininity, or are we breaking down the barriers by claiming them proudly while condemning the misogyny traditionally associated with them?
To use the dress example, is it better simply to stop thinking of dresses as feminine or is it better to say, “Society today generally regards this as feminine, but men can wear them without gendered criticism?” (Gendered because of course regular criticism is fine – if I were to wear a dress, I would hope my wife provided feedback same as if I wore a pair of men’s jeans, “Honey, your butt looks weird in that pair.”)
Of course, there is tons of informational widely available, but my problem there is that I am so inexpert in this area that I do not know how to distinguish that information. What is anecdotal opinion not reflective of the broader experience? What is propaganda or misinformation? Everyone has biases, so even among some leaders in the area, I worry about where their bias might be providing false information even if the final conclusion is correct.
I still have a lot of work to do to be a better ally. I’m just trying to figure out how to do it.