Gay Rights and Trans Rights – A Compare and Contrast

So, Momentum made a video huh?

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To be honest, it’s kind of a classic of its genre. Once more with feeling everyone: Trans rights are just like gay rights. Anyone who thinks otherwise is some nasty backwards morally bankrupt fuddy-duddy asshole who is going to look back on their objections to the current trans rights agenda with an enormous eggy face-full of shame. Remember peoples, we’re just telling you this for your own good. YOU DON’T WANT TO GO GETTING CAUGHT ON THE WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY DO YOU NOW????

This parallel between gay and trans rights has been leveraged for all its worth by the trans rights movement. It’s one Owen Jones has trotted out endlessly to justify his point-blank refusal to listen to anything anyone – particularly female anyones – have to say on the matter. It’s embedded in the way trans rights is now the centre of activity for many LGBTQI+ organizations, and has come, most notably, to dominate Stonewall’s campaign agenda. And it’s present, perhaps most potently, in the way objections to trans rights are immediately dismissed as bigotry and ‘transphobia’ – a thought-terminating lifting of the notion of discrimination-as-phobia taken straight from gay-rights discourse.

This strategy has been incredibly effective. One of the reasons the trans rights movement has been able to make such an historically unprecedented ascent from obscurity to wall-to-wall dominance is because if you glance at it running from twenty paces, it does look exactly like the gay rights movement. And, right now the whole world is bascially going to shit and a lot of people are too up-to-their-eyes in grind, precarity, sugar and anxiety to do anything but look at it running from twenty paces. People just want to be told what the good right-thinking progressive position is and then get on with the business of trying to get on with their business. Fair enough. But there’s a massive problem with all this. And that’s because the parallel between gay rights and trans rights is as superficial and insubstantial as that glossy sound-bite-stuffed Momentum video.

What I want to do here is think through why the concept of ‘discrimination-as-phobia’ worked for the gay rights movement, and why, despite superficial similarities, it doesn’t accurately capture what is at stake in the trans rights debate, and actually serves as a tool of political propaganda and obfuscation to push that agenda through. That is, I’m going to argue that accusations of ‘homophobia’ were a politically powerful and basically on-the-money part of gay rights discourse, while the use of ‘transphobia’ is an inaccurate parallel which grossly distorts public perceptions of the issues involved in the trans rights debate, and is doing so in the service of actually preventing that debate taking place.

So, to get down to it. The discourse of ‘homophobia’ fundamentally relies on the idea that gay-people are discriminated against on the basis of moral disgust. And inside that are two more interwoven ideas. One, that moral disgust is not a legitimate basis for telling people what not to do. (Correct) Especially not when your disgust-feels are causing serious harm to other people. (Also correct) And even more especially given that moral disgust is a nasty, vicious emotion that tends to shade very easily into violence (and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense of ‘literal violence’). Two, that because discrimination against homosexuality was entirely mediated by moral disgust, there was, in fact, no legitimate basis for that discrimination, and all objections were, effectively, moral disgust in drag. That is, the success of gay rights was substantially down to disseminating the idea that that were no good reasons for anyone to object to their agenda, and that everyone objecting was just a nasty evil bigot whose ideas shouldn’t be given any weight as part of democratic political debate.

This structure has basically been transferred wholesale to the concept of ‘transphobia.’ And it’s doing important work for the trans rights movement in several ways. First, the idea of the visceral virulence of moral disgust has been taken and amplified to the hundredth power. Our response to things that disgust us is to try and eradicate them, and I think this resonance of the ‘phobia’ designation is doing a lot to undergird trans activist’s claims that any objection to their demands amounts to a ‘denial of their existence,’ or an effort to ‘exclude’ them bordering on intent to exterminate. (It’s also a key element of the endlessly recycled claim that a bunch of mostly left-wing feminist women are in cahoots with people who’d blend seamlessly into the Westboro Baptist Church or some such nonsense. (It’s wall-to-wall self-hating lesbians over here, honest)).

Second, and we’ll deal with this in detail because it’s crucial. The use of the concept of ‘homophobia’ to dismiss objections to gay rights carried a ton of weight because the basis for a legitimate moral or political objection would be that something causes a harm, and in the case of gay rights there is a complete dearth of convincing arguments as to why homosexuality is a harm. It doesn’t harm homosexuals (whereas repressing it evidently does), and it doesn’t harm anyone else.[1] But this is precisely where the ‘homophobia-transphobia’ parallel falls completely apart. Because in the case of the trans rights agenda there is actually a load of potential harms we might reasonably be worried about. Indeed, there is a kind of dull thudding irony to the fact that the very week Momentum decide to remind us that we’re all scaremongering bigots on the wrong side of history it also became public knowledge that Karen White – a trans woman on remand for rape – had been sent to a women’s jail where they sexually assaulted four inmates. (Who could have predicted it?)

The key thing to understand about trans rights activism is that, unlike gay rights activism, it is not just a movement seeking to ensure that trans people are not discriminated against. It is, rather, a movement committed to a fundamental reconceptualization of the very idea of what makes someone a man or a woman. In theory, this equally affects both men and women, but in practice, almost all the social pressure is coming from trans women towards the idea of ‘woman’ and the rights of women. And that’s because, when it comes down to it, this whole thing is being driven by male people who want something female people have, and that something, is, in fact, our very existence. Moreover, it turns out – who knew? – that male people have the inclination and social power to exert extreme coercive pressure on female people, and to court the sympathy and support of other males when they do so. (It’s almost as if sex is a thing and that it has something to do with power after all mmmm?).

The central thought of the present form of trans rights activism is that whether someone is a man or a woman has nothing to do with human sexual dimorphism  – the patent existence of which they try, endlessly, to undermine  – and is determined instead by someone’s ‘gender identity,’  some kind of internal gender essence of subjective sense of one’s own gender that many of us simply don’t recognise as a description of our own being as men or women. This ideological manoeuvre is embedded inside the phrase ‘trans women are women,’ which looks, on the face of it, like a reasonable plea for trans women to be given the respect most people want to give them, but is actually used in political argument to deny all distinction between the existence and interests of male born people living as women and the existence and interests of female people. It is under the rubric of ‘trans women are women’ that Karen White ended up in a female jail, because there’s no possible difference between Karen White and any other woman right? That is, there are, in fact, many concerning implications of this definitional change. To not slow this down for those of you familiar with this, I’ve put a full discussion of the potential harms in an appendix to this essay. (I’d like to say it’s short but I’d be lying). But to enumerate briefly(ish):

  1. Changing the definition of woman without the consent of women. Specifically changing the definition from one based in biology to one based on gender identity. It should be uncontroversial that all groups of people have a right to define themselves, and this is particularly true when that definition describes an oppressed class of persons. It seems further true that it might be a really big problem when that definition is being changed by people born into the oppressor class, and in the interests of people born into the oppressor class. This definitional change then leads to:
  2. The erasure of women, both as a biological class, and as a political category. This is profoundly dehumanizing, and results, specifically, in injunctions against women naming their bodies, and the political implications of their bodies. This then leads to:
  3. Making the description of the sex-based nature of women’s oppression unsayable, that is, making the feminist analysis of the mechanism of women’s oppression a thought and hate-crime. Injunctions against the naming of sex also lead to:
  4. Legislative changes which would interfere with the recording of natal sex. This will have an impact on the collection of data used to track and describe the sex-based oppression of women, including women’s representation in public life, the pay-gap, and very significantly, crime statistics and the analysis of male violence.
  5. The denial that there is any meaningful difference between male people who identify as women and female people then leads to the demand that all services for female people be open to male born people who identify as women. The current form of trans rights activism considers identification rather than transition to be the criteria that determines whether someone is a trans woman, and the current consultation on the Gender Recognition Act is about whether self-declared identification rather than transition should be the basis for someone’s birth sex being reassigned. In practice this will make all women and girl’s single-sex spaces and services open to any male person who claims they are a woman. That this is wide-open for abuse by predatory men and paedophiles should be evident to anyone who has not pickled their brain in an enormous vat of trans ideology.
  6. The fact that it is, therefore, in the interests of the trans rights movement to consistently deny the reality of male violence against women and girls is, by itself, evidence of the fact that trans women who are committed to the present form of trans ideology are not capable of representing the political interests of women, and are not capable of acting politically with women in feminist solidarity. The election of trans women in political positions normally occupied by women is, therefore, a harm to the political interests of women.
  7. In addition to the problems that arise from the denial of the reality of human sexual dimorphism, trans ideology is also committed to a regressive theory of essentialist gender identity. This actually serves to reinforce patriarchal gender conformity by making all gender non-conforming people a different ‘class.’ Rather than viewing gender non-conformity as evidence of the fact that gender conformity is a patriarchal straightjacket, trans ideology thus propagates the idea that feminine men, and masculine women, are something other than their natal sex.
  8. The association between gender non-conformity and trans identity is of particular concern with regard to the medicalization of gender non-conforming and gay children. There are serious potential consequences of that medicalization, including sterility, effects on sexual function, and other side-effects of life-long use of cross-sex hormones. None of these effects have been subjected to thorough research. There was nothing in the gay rights movement which was remotely equivalent to the potential harms of this medicalization, and, moreover, these harms are potentially being directed largely at homosexuals.
  9. The potential unnecessary medicalization of children is of particular concern with respect to female children, because the massive increase in referrals to gender identity specialists since the beginning of this phase of trans rights advocacy has seen a hugely disproportionate referral of girls. This is worrying because there are reasons to believe a substantial proportion of these girls are lesbians, many are on the autistic spectrum, and there may also be issues thrown up by the trauma girls experience going through puberty in a patriarchy, especially sexual abuse and objectification.
  10. Because of the erasure of women in general and the views of feminist women in particular, the trans rights movement is creating particular issues for the recognition and respect of lesbian women within the historic gay rights movements. As we’ll discuss later this is massively compounded by the fact that trans rights is committed to the erasure of sex, and hence cannot recognise same-sex attraction. This is of particular issue for lesbians because they are coming under increasing pressure to accept male bodied people who identify as women as sexual partners, in opposition to their sexual orientation. Charmingly, the trans rights movement has taken to calling exclusively same-sex attracted women, “vagina fetishists.” Nice work guys.

So, to recap: Calling people ‘homophobic’ was used by the gay rights movement to dismiss all objections to their political agenda as illegitimate moral disgust. Calling people ‘transphobic’ is playing on the same trope – and is doing a hell of a lot of work to shut down all concerns about trans rights by painting them as sketchy hate-speech beyond the pale of legitimate democratic discourse. This is massive distortion of what is actually going on here, because, as I’ve indicated above, there is a far from insignificant number of very legitimate questions about potential harms of restructuring our core ideas about sex and gender. This maneuver is, however, an absolutely central plank of trans rights’ political strategy, because as those of you who have been out there trying to argue this know well enough, trans activists actually have no substantive answers to our questions and concerns. At all.

A few weeks ago, for example, I spent 3 hours ‘arguing’ with people from that great bastion of intersectional right-thinking Everyday Feminism about what we do about the fact that under fundamentalist self-ID procedures it will become de facto impossible to stop any man entering women’s space. I was called a transphobe and a racist and a bigot (of course), there was attempted emotional blackmail (‘you come onto my TL talking about rape when I’m a survivor you evil heartless witch’ (‘well in that case don’t use your considerably larger platform to RT the testimony of other survivors so you can mock and dismiss them’)), and I was told that I was insinuating the trans woman I was talking to had a dick (I wasn’t – wouldn’t – and they couldn’t show I had). It was a litany of name-calling, deflection, and emotional manipulation. There was not one attempt to sincerely address the problem at hand with something approximating thought (unless you count ‘my rapist had brown eyes so should we try and ban brown-eyed people?’ a thought), and not one acknowledgement that women might have a reasonable interest in this or could be motivated by anything other than pure baseless spite. And this, apparently, is how we’re making public policy that will affect at least half the population now.

The way that the accusation of ‘transphobia’ is being used to control and close down the debate around trans rights is also inherent in what we might call the ‘overreach’ of the definition of transphobia being put to work here. As I’ve said, ‘homophobia’ identifies, correctly I think, the fact that the discrimination against homosexuals, and especially gay men, was coming from moral disgust, and specifically, moral disgust about people’s sexual practices.[2] If ‘transphobia’ is an analogue of ‘homophobia’ – and to ground the claim that it’s an illegitimate basis for political argument is needs to be – then it should, also, refer to a form of moral disgust, and moreover, as in the case of violence against gay people, there should be an obvious causal link between that moral disgust, the discrimination you’re trying to combat, and the arguments people are using against you.

None of this stacks up with how ‘transphobia’ is being used politically. If there is moral disgust aimed at trans people – which there’s no reason to dispute – then it would, one imagine, inhere in responses to people who are visibly transgressing patriarchal conventions by exhibiting gender expression in conflict with their natal sex. The people we’d expect to display such disgust would then be the kind of people who, say, find femininity in men distressing, i.e. patriarchally invested people, and particularly, patriarchally invested men. And indeed, the vast majority of literal violence suffered by trans people is, unsurprisingly, directed at trans women by non-trans men.[3] However, what doesn’t seem at all evident is that the kind of concerns I listed above fall easily under the banner of ‘moral disgust.’ Nonetheless, accusations of ‘transphobia’ flow, overwhelmingly, from trans activists towards the speech of feminist women making just these kind of claims. Women who, importantly, are pretty much the last people on earth who’d be morally disgusted by someone transgressing patriarchal gender conventions,[4] and whose speech show no empirically verifiable relationship with the kind of patriarchal violence directed at trans women.[5] That is, accusations of transphobia are being directed against the group of people – women who have theoretical and political objections to the trans rights agenda – who are actually least likely to experience moral disgust over trans people’s gender expression, and this is being done for purely political reasons.

The politics of this becomes apparent when we look at the definition of ‘transphobia’ being circulated by trans advocacy organizations like Stonewall. As the inestimable Mr Jonathan Best has pointed out recently, ‘transphobia’ is, in fact, conceptualised by the trans rights movement as the “fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.” (Emphasis added) That is, ‘transphobia’ is being politically leveraged to denote, not a form of illegitimate moral disgust, but any refusal to understand someone as the gender they identify as, and, given that trans ideology believes that gender identity determines sex, this definition seeks to mandate the view that trans women are female, and inscribe as hate speech the view that trans women are male people who identify as women. That is, this definition of ‘transphobia’ is seeking to enforce compliance with a deeply ideological prescription.

As I’ve already suggested, there’s nothing minor about this prescription. Trans rights politics is asking us to believe that human sexual dimorphism is not a thing, that men are women simply because they say they are, and is demanding a thoroughgoing social and political transformation on that basis. One which, to underline, because it really matters, amounts to the legal abolition of sex. That is, trans ideology is mandating nothing short of a fundamental rewriting of how we understand the world,[6] one which runs entirely counter to the everyday perceptions of everyone who hasn’t been indoctrinated by trans ideology (and even those that have will sometimes inadvertently let it slip that, lo, they do in fact perceive sexual dimorphism.) Let me just state something really fucking obvious that apparently needs to be stated: You cannot mandate how people perceive the world. That is totalitarian as all living fuck. You cannot demand people perceive the world in line with your ideology and that perceiving something that ALL humans perceive is actually the same as being a genocidal racist. (And it may surprise you ‘sex was invented by Western patriarchy and/or colonialism’ philosophical-sophisticates-cum-idiots that that sounds racist af to everyone who hasn’t marinated their brains in tumblrized queer-theory for 8 years. And let’s not even get onto the ahistoricism and anachronism involved).

What we have here then is a politically driven ideology that:

  1. Refuses to engage in any meaningful debate about any of the implications of the changes it is forcing through and attempts to shut down every question or objection by screaming ‘phobia’ and ‘hate-speech’ and ‘genocide’ and
  2. Is attempting to legislate people’s basic perceptions of the world, and recast the very fact of that perception as a form of illegitimate moral disgust overlaid with resonances of intent to harm or even eradicate.

It should be pretty evident that any political program based on attempting to reframe such a fundamental aspect of human perception is only going to succeed by using totalitarian methods. By relentlessly drilling its axioms into public consciousness and by making people who reject them pay a very high social price. The phrase ‘Orwellian’ is madly overused, but it documents the methods of trans activism almost to the letter. We have the profligate rewriting of history – including the transing of the gender-non-conforming dead (um, I thought it was self-ID?), the transing of the drag-queens who started the Stonewall riot (even though they didn’t, because that was a black lesbian called Stormé DeLarverie), and the absurd suggestion that literature or history about people cross-dressing for social, political, or economic reasons harms trans people because past cross-dressers were actually just expressing their ‘authentic selves’ (you fucking bigot Shakespeare). It’s only slight hyperbole to say that right now a lot of us feel like we’re stuck in Room 101 except O’Brien looks like Riley Dennis and the ‘2+2=5’ is ‘Sex does not exist’ and the rats are a bunch of trans activists threatening us with baby blue and pink baseball bats (and in case you want to wilfully misinterpret me, I’m not saying trans people are vermin, I’m using the exact reference of the thing that scares Winston shitless and is used to coerce him). We could go on pointing out the parallels all day, but really people, when you start doing shit like this, you really should be asking yourself whether you’re getting a touch Ministry of Truth-y.

trans women are women

To make the point plain. Some aspects of gay-rights politics did involve the use of non-peaceful protest. As also did parts of the women’s rights and Black civil rights movement. What none of them involved was the demand that people change their fundamental perceptual systems – as opposed to value judgements about things they perceived – and the attempt to enforce that perception using our culture’s most lucid analysis of ‘this-is-what-totalitarianism-looks-like.’ (Clue: it was never supposed to be a ‘how to’ guide). The great sickening irony of all of this of course – as many gay-men are now waking up to – is that the abolition of sex implies the abolition of sexual orientation. Trans ideology’s conviction that the truth of our ‘authentic selves,’ and of whether we are man or woman, is based only and exclusively on ‘gender identity’ necessitates the effort to deny that we fuck people’s bodies (at least in good part) on the basis of the sex of those bodies, and that sexual attraction is sexual, in both senses of the word. That is, the gay rights movement has wedded itself to an ideology that cannot actually recognise that homosexuality is a thing. Given the social and physical power imbalances, this doesn’t necessarily involve a clear and present danger to gay-men (although it is an ideological one, and for those of you who have seen it, and are pitching in, I hope you know we see and value you). For lesbians, this is a first order existential threat. Not only are they being erased along with the class of women in general, but their right to be exclusively attracted to female-bodied people is being consistently challenged by some of the most rapey, entitled misogynist bullying I have seen in my entire life. To amend a famous slogan: Lesbians don’t do dick. Get over it.

How the LGBTQ+ institutions – and public policy more widely – came to be colonized by a totalitarian political ideology that is hostile to the interests of women and is, in its fundaments, hostile to the very existence of homosexuals,[7] is a million dollar question.[8] I strongly suspect that ‘millions of dollars’ is not just a turn of phrase here – and I hope, over time, we will come to better understand the deluge of cash and the corporate plutocratic interests that must inevitably be behind such a breath-taking take-over of gay and lesbian politics. Right now, women, feminists, lesbians, gay and straight men, intersex people, concerned parents, and many non-ideologue trans women are fighting tooth and nail to stop the roll back of rights we thought had already been secured. Time’s arrow is not pointing forwards. Right side of history my arse.

Appendix —–>


The frankly out-of-control feetnotes:
[1] I guess maybe it harms people who don’t get to project their disgust-feels onto other people (yup, not sorry, go take your punitive super-ego and recalcitrant misogyny to therapy) and it maybe harms the patriarchal family (or maybe not, but even so, booooo-bloody-hooooo).
[2] Here, we should firstly note that it’s not at all clear to me that the discrimination directed at gay-men is of the same type as that directed at lesbians. The moral disgust aimed at gay-men derives, at base, from the patriarchal injunction against the penetrability of men. I wrote my PhD thesis on the metaphysics of penetration, so, I’ll try and stop myself from going off here on a tangential footnote that will take over this whole damn essay, but the basic point is this: patriarchal male subjectivity is grounded on the idea of invulnerability and impenetrability, and being fucked is hence to be dehumanized by being made-woman and/or made-object. (Hence all those irritating ‘Don’t bend over’ quips straight men make around gay men). That is, the visceral – and violent – form of homophobia directed against male homosexuals is, basically, a variant of patriarchal sexual misogyny most viciously exhibited by straight men. By contrast, the aversion to lesbianism (when it’s not being eroticised for the straight male gaze) is, I think, probably a lot more to do with men’s outrage about women not being sexually available to them and perhaps, not really being very interested in them at all.
[3] For a fuller discussion of the issues around the deaths of trans women please see here. Briefly, the vast majority of murders of trans women are committed by men against trans women, and principally against black trans women, many of whom are sex workers. Given the high rates of violence against women, people of colour, and prostitutes, this somewhat confounds the claim that this violence can be specifically attributed to ‘transphobia’ as opposed to the other reasons for violence against these groups.
[4] Speaking for myself I can say here that my sexual orientation is basically ‘pretty-straight-boy-sexual’ – aka, ‘Princesexual’ – that is, I find femininity in men the very opposite of disgusting. (And, while we’re here, can you please not trans them all? There’s precious few enough to go round as it is.) It is my firm belief that visceral aversion to gender non-conformity in men is not a common reaction, and indeed, would be an incoherent one, for most gender critical women. That said, it is the case that a small minority of feminist women have been known to mock trans women’s appearance. I won’t defend it, and I find it distasteful and downright cruel. But from where I’m standing, it comes from a horror some women feel about what they perceive as men adopting ‘woman’ as a costume. (Some feminist women also hate drag-queens for the same reason, which the screaming camp fag-hag in me also finds incomprehensible*).
The obvious parallel here is with critiques of minstrelsy, and it is one that certain radical feminists have explicitly made, particularly by claiming that trans women are performing ‘woman-face.’ I have two things to say here. One, that the accuracy of this parallel would depend on denying that sex-dysphoria is a thing, that there are trans women who desperately need and benefit from transition, and that they are deserving of all empathy and support in doing that. I’m not going to do that. Two – I feel that white women making this parallel is the kind of ‘appropriating Black people’s experience’ we should be wary of. This is an infinitely complex issue, and as I said in a footnote to my piece on Butler, I think it’s very damaging for us to rule out of court all drawing of parallels between race and gender as metaphysical-political systems. However, my instinctive sense here is that this is something that should be left for Black feminists and womanists to speak to.
Whatever our thoughts about the parallel between minstrelsy – or transracialism – and trans identity, what remains clear, however, is that feminist women’s dislike of the appropriation of women-as-costume bears no empirically verifiable relationship to patriarchal male violence against trans women. Moreover, while I might not experience or endorse that perception myself, I do also think it’s worth asking whether women’s experience of aversion about their identity being appropriated can be neatly collapsed into an idea of ‘completely illegitimate moral disgust.’
*A short digression on drag-queens. It’s probably overstating the case to say I find some women’s aversion to drag queens incomprehensible, but I don’t share the aesthetic response, and I don’t really buy the argument. My take on drag is  much more – oh the horror – Butlerian. It doesn’t look or feel like appropriation to me, it looks like performative destabilising. Taking things – like gender conventions – and theatrically exaggerating them is a way of delineating their artifice. Which is also why the current appropriation/ erasure of drag-queens by the trans lobby is a problem, and a very revealing one. Trans ideology actually cannot tolerate the performance of gender as artifice, because it has such an essentialized notion of gender. Soon – and this is already starting to happen – they will start saying that people who are not trans cannot be gender non-conforming, because it threatens their identity. And I think they’re going to get a great big fuck right off to that.
[5] Trans advocates tend to respond here that the speech of feminist women is responsible for creating a climate which is hostile to trans people and is, hence, implicated in their mental and physical vulnerability. To this first it should be pointed out the incredible impact of the trans rights movement on public policy is nothing if evidence of the lack of power of feminist speech to set political agendas or determine popular consciousness, and the claim that such speech is the cause of actual discrimination by patriarchally invested people against trans people is basically laughable. That said, I do fully accept that the constant propaganda used by the trans rights movement to inculcate the idea that feminist women hate young trans and gender non-conforming people and wish to do them harm can’t be good for their mental health. Given that our young people have statistically the worst mental health of any generation in living memory, I consider the instrumentalization of this crisis by the trans rights movement in order to create a generation of political foot-soldiers to target feminist women to be an act of exploitative human rights abuse.
[6] This move in some sense actually turns on a slippage between the two meanings of ‘to discriminate.’ Trans ideology is wedded to the notion that the negative treatment or value attributed to trans people (i.e. discrimination in the political sense) resides in the very act of making a distinction between male and female people (i.e. discrimination in the perceptual sense). The idea that we can recognize difference perceptually and not attribute hierarchical value is entirely incomprehensible to them. Which is also effectively the same as the non-recognition of the sex (biological difference and its perception)/gender (value culturally attributed on the basis of sex) distinction. Hence, every time we say we believe in biological sex, they hear (or claim to hear) us say that we want to uphold the gender binary. Then they tell us because we want to uphold the gender binary we aren’t feminists. And we all smash our heads repeatedly into the desk.
[7] Whether to use the word ‘homophobic’ here is a complicated question. What trans activists are presently directing at homosexuals – and almost entirely at lesbians tbh (male socialization and entitlement? Nah, that’s TERF-talk) – isn’t really ‘moral disgust,’ it’s a type of narcissistic rage indistinguishable from the rage of Incels. Sorry people, but other people not wanting to fuck you is not a human rights violation. I thought we’d been through this. (And to the Laurie Pennys – I want to say that I a) respect the shit out of the rest of your politics and writing and b) know that you have deep personal investments here, but we are not making this up). With respect to the transing of a population of kids who are likely mostly homosexual, the issue is more complex. That clearly plays on patriarchal gender stereotypes, and also then, homophobia directed at gender non-conforming children. It seems likely that parents most inclined to buy the narrative would be those that were sexist and/or homophobic, and it seems also likely that parents most horrified by the idea of their children being medicalized and sterilized for gender non-conformity and/or homosexuality are those that are not sexist and/or homophobic. (That would be those evil terrible parents that trans ideologues claim are abusing their children because good parenting apparently now means affirming whatever your child says no matter how potentially damaging you think it might be (and the fact that that makes a lot of medicalized money is just incidental I’m sure.))
[8] There’s something worth pointing to here which may – if we factor out the actual millions of dollars probably at work here – tell us something about why the gay rights movement was so susceptible to being colonized by a movement that is, in fundamental respects, inimical to its original intent. That is, there is one substantive similarity between gay rights and trans rights, and that is that both of them deal with a form of discrimination which arises as an adjunct to patriarchal oppression. As I’ve explained elsewhere, oppression, as opposed to discrimination, arises from conditions of material exploitation of one class by another. Discrimination, by contrast, may arise from lack of attention to the needs of particular groups (as in the case of access to buildings for people with mobility issues for e.g.), or it may be a set of attitudes which arise in association with a system of structural oppression, as in the case of discrimination against gender non-conforming people, or people who challenge dominant heteronormative conceptions of sexuality. What this meant in practice for the gay-rights movement was that it was free to focus on the set of negative attitudes which impacted the freedom of homosexual people, without necessarily embedding that in a deep analysis of the material oppression from which that arose. When the trans rights movement came along leveraging an idea of discrimination-as-phobia, that is, the need to remove a set of negative attitudes, this obviously resonated with many people who had done gay rights advocacy. Gay-rights has been more-or-less just about getting rid of people’s bigotry and TA-DAH!!! SPARKLES. (And don’t get me wrong, I LOVE sparkles).  However, what wasn’t picked up then was that the trans rights movement was doing a hell of a lot more than just trying to get rid of bigotry, and that the redefinitions they were mandating actually ran headlong into the concepts women need to describe, monitor and resist their own oppression. Because gay rights advocacy hadn’t been that firmly embedded in an deep analysis of patriarchy, when trans rights came along suggesting it was super-rad to erase the materiality of people’s (by which I mean, women’s) bodies, a lot of alarm bells that should have started wildly screeching, didn’t.
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Appendix

Christ, where to start…..

Trans ideology is based on the idea that human sexual dimorphism is not a thing, that the classification of male and female humans is in some way arbitrary, that the only meaningful concept with respect to whether someone is a man or a woman is their innate sense of ‘gender identity’, and that someone with a ‘gender-identity’ of ‘woman’ is therefore a woman in exactly the same way as someone ‘assigned female at birth’ is. This thought of the fundamental identity between trans and non-trans women is encapsulated in – and demand for universal acquiescence to – the slogan, ‘trans women are women.’ It is absolutely critical to understanding this debate to understand that the new form of trans-ideology – unlike the beliefs of many of the transsexual women that pre-date it – considers self-identification of gender identity to be the sole criterion of whether someone is a man or a woman. A man does not necessarily have to take cross sex hormones, or undergo sex reassignment surgery, to be considered a woman. He simply has to assert that he is one.

Leaving aside for a moment the staggering batshitness of the idea that the existence and recognition of human sexual dimorphism is somehow arbitrary. (And yeah, burble burble spectrum burble intersex burble burble clown fish burble burble bullshit). And the fact that the erasure of bodies, and specifically women’s bodies, is the most patriarchal-immortality-project-death-cult-on-crack idea I have seen in my entire life, there are such terrible political and practical implications of this that it fries my fucking brains.

Implications for women

1. If a woman is ‘whoever claims to be a woman’ the definition of woman is changed from ‘adult human female’ or (in feminist) ‘member of the reproductive sex class’ to a subjective state which has no objective, or socially agreed upon, definition. There are many practical and political implications of this, but even were there not, it seems to me evident that women have a legitimate right to have opinions about changing the definition of the class of people to which they belong.

Trans ideologues tend to claim here either that what they are proposing has no effect on women and pertains only to trans women. Which is false. Or they claim that the act of redefinition is merely descriptive. One of the most contentious redefinitions here is calling non-trans women ‘cis’ – which is purportedly ‘just the opposite of trans.’ However, according to trans ideology, the definition of ‘trans’ is ‘someone whose sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity’ and ‘cis’, conversely, is ‘someone whose sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity.’ There is nothing ‘just descriptive’ about this. It demands both the acceptance that sex is ‘assigned’ rather than ‘observed and recorded,’ and the acceptance that a ‘gender identity’ is something we all have, despite the fact that it is a) a meaningless concept to many of us and b) one to which we have political objections (see point 7).

The concept of ‘cis’ also does political work to posit non-trans women as the ‘oppressors’ of trans women (‘cis-privilege’), and hence to nullify our claims that we are an oppressed class and have a legitimate right to exclude members of the oppressor class in certain instances (as, we will see, is recognized by the exemptions for single-sex space enshrined in the 2010 Equalities Act). The political stakes embedded in women accepting the designation ‘cis’ are pretty quickly manifested whenever a woman refuses it. (Self-determination and identification are a sacred right for trans women apparently, but no such right is granted to natal women – that, rather, is a hate-crime). A particularly notable example of this happened on Twitter recently, when the gay and lesbian icon and general national treasure Alison Moyet declared that she was not ‘cis’ and was relentlessly piled on and scolded for the temerity of thinking she had a right to self-define. I would bet my left-arm on the fact that were natal-women attempting to redefine the concept of ‘man’ and telling natal-men their interests in this were hate-speech, none of this would be happening, let alone directing public policy.

2. Changing the definition of woman to something that is subjective is an undermining of the class of women, and of women as a political category. Moreover, the requirement of trans activism is that ‘woman’ or words associated with ‘woman’ never be used in a manner which is ‘exclusive’ of trans women, or not ‘inclusive’ of trans men. The practical upshot of this is the demand to change much of the language traditionally used in the articulation of women’s issues so that it is – allegedly – ‘neutral.’ The Green Party has started calling us ‘non-men,’ pregnant women become ‘pregnant people,’ people who have periods become ‘menstruators,’ women become ‘uterus-havers.’ This is dehumanizing, othering, and an erasure of ‘woman’ which serves to conceal the structure and reasons for the historic oppression of the class of reproductive persons. Patriarchal oppression, sexism and misogyny, are not incidentally related to women’s biology, and are not simply unmotivated ‘bad attitudes’ towards women that can just be erased by changing our discourse, or by pretending that the material basis of women’s oppression does not exist. Erasing women as a political class is also an absolute gift for misogynist lefty dude-bros who have been waiting for the last however-many-years to have a reason to tell uppity feminist women to STFU whenever they make a claim about the oppression of women. Now they can just tell us we don’t exist (and are being super-oppressive by insisting we do) while burnishing their woke-halos. So, thanks for that.

3. Following from this is the fact that it is a central point of feminist analysis that women are oppressed on the basis of their membership of a sex-class, and because of male investment in appropriating and controlling women’s reproductive capacities as a resource. A resource, it should be underlined, which is absolutely necessary to the creation of human life. (The denial/erasure of the facts of human fecundity, and the mind-body dualism inherent in determining definitions of being solely on mental states is why I consider trans activism to be a patriarchal death-cult. The idea that minds/souls are separate and superior to our ‘flesh-house’ bodies is a denial of the conditions of life, and the oldest patriarchal fantasy in the world. It is, in fact, the foundational binary hierarchy of Western thought and culture. And unlike the distinction between male and female mammals, which is actually a thing, there is no clean distinction between minds and bodies, although all the people screaming ‘smash the binary’ don’t seem to have noticed that.)

If you cannot name sex, and you decide that naming sex is a hate-crime, you effectively make the feminist analysis of women’s oppression unsayable. Trans ideology has a tendency to claim that we don’t need an analysis of the sex-based oppression of women, and, as I argue here, their account of that is, let’s just say, unconvincing. At the same time, some of them have also been going around of late – it seems to be dawning that  maybe after all there is a conflict between trans ideology and feminism – floating the idea that we made up the feminist analysis of patriarchy as a form of sex-based oppression that works through the social imposition of gender just for the purpose of oppressing them. (Fifty years before the fact? Yeah. Um). The utter narcissism of this – not to mention the time-travelling loopiness of it – is almost beyond comprehension. Hey, guess what people, maybe we invented feminist analysis for our own liberation, and maybe what you’re doing right now is trying to turn our analysis of our own oppression into hate speech, and maybe we have every right to tell you we’re not having it?

4. Following from this is the fact that a significant part of the analysis, documentation, and statistical evidencing of feminist analysis depends on the recording of sex. The most extreme forms of trans activism are demanding that there should be no statistical documentation of natal sex except for the purposes of medical records where it is relevant to a particular condition. This would, at a stroke, make it impossible to keep track of the sex-based oppression of women. We won’t be able to tell you about the pay-gap, or women’s political representation, or rape as a sex-based crime with any degree of authority. The crimes of natal males who identify as women will be recorded as women’s crimes. This has dramatic implications for the feminist analysis of male-pattern violence. There are important questions about whether male-born and socialized people stop committing crimes overwhelmingly characteristic of men simply because they say they are women. Trans activism is committed to the proposition that they do, because they have ‘female souls’ or some such and have always been women, and the demand for access to women’s space is predicated on this belief. No statistical evidence has been produced to support it. (You would think that if oversight was being exercised we would need more than ideological conviction before we started experimenting with women’s safety wouldn’t you?). If we stop recording natal sex in crime statistics, it will never be possible to settle this question. That is, if we are to give women confidence that trans women do not commit crimes characteristic of male-pattern violence then we need to record those crimes as the crimes of trans women. And sorry if that hurts your feelings. But male-pattern violence against women is a thing and I’m not about to start pretending it isn’t because its ideologically inconvenient. (We’re feminists, since when did we make it a point of political principle to not talk about violence against us because it hurts male-born people’s feelings?)

5. It is impossible to enshrine both gender identity and sex in law as protected characteristics because they are in conflict. I’m not big on either/or thinking – because it spatializes and excludes things that are often not spatialized and exclusive. But weirdly, when we are dealing with access to spaces, things are spatialized, and are exactly either/or. Either access to spaces is determined on the basis of sex (which for most of us in this fight, including the many transsexual women who are our allies, would include transitioned sex), or it’s determined on the basis of self-declared gender identity. In the last case, non-transitioned male-bodied people will have access to women’s space, and sex-based protected space for women will cease to exist. It’s really that simple.

This will – and is already starting to – affect toilets, girls and women’s changing rooms, rape crisis and drug-rehabilitation centres, prisons, sleeping compartments on trains, women’s sports etc. Many of which are places that contain partially undressed women, women asleep, and vulnerable women who have a high incidence of experiences of male violence. Trans advocates are fond of claiming that our fears about male violence are unfounded and hysterical, or that we think all trans women are perverts or predators. On this let’s note: a) As discussed above trans activists have not provided any statistical support for the assertion that self-identified trans women commit violence at a rate, or of a type, that differs from men. The fact that in just the last few weeks there has been a trans women convicted for trying to kill people with an axe, a trans women found sexually assaulting four women in a women’s prison, and a trans women suspended from work for flashing their penis, doesn’t, to say the very least, inspire a great deal of confidence. (And yes, Miss Madigan, we’re only interested in somebody assaulting women with their penis in a woman’s prisons because the perp was a trans women because were it not for your nutbag ideology there wouldn’t be people with penises in women’s prison you total dolt), b) If you find yourself in the constant position of telling feminist women that their analysis of male violence, and their desires to be protected from male violence, are unfounded and hysterical because y’know, women are violent too, you really should ask yourself i) why you’re using arguments from the MRA-playbook,  and ii) whether there might be some reason we’re not so sure you’re such great feminist allies.

Trans activists latest line on this is that we are ‘conflating’ the proposed new Gender Recognition Act with the Equalities Act – because apparently laws exist in total isolation from each other and doing one thing with one law which affects the world will in no way impact another thing in the world, even though they’re in direct conflict. Anyway, this is all subterfuge and backtracking. Women’s Place UK has compiled a list of the recommendations made by trans activists groups regarding the removal of the single-sex space exemptions from the Equalities Act. The present crop of trans activists want access to women’s space as a matter of political priority because it serves the function of ‘validating’ their identities, and they seem to give not one shit about whether it opens women to danger, or reactivates the trauma many women carry from male violence. Let’s just be clear about this – women’s single sex space does not exist to validate anyone’s identity, it exists to protect women from male violence. Refusing to recognize this is a very clear instance of the divergence between women and trans women’s interests, and of the effort to prioritize trans women’s interests over women’s interests using ‘hate-speech’ as a bludgeon. Which brings us to…

6. This issue about trans activists interests in downplaying male violence is indicative of a more general problem about the coincidence, and conflicts, between trans women’s (or trans ideologues’) interests, and women’s interests. And this is of particular importance with respect to trans women’s participation in feminism and their capacity to represent women politically. There has been a ton of talk over the last five or so years about ‘trans inclusive’ and ‘trans exclusive’ feminism (lo, summon the EVIL TERF). To this I mostly want to say…feminism is not a fucking girl’s club. It’s a political movement, and it has political objectives, and established forms of political analysis. You are very very welcome – as many older generation trans women have done – to enter into feminism, and to ally yourself with our political projects. What you are not welcome to do is demand access to our political movement, and then demand that we change the core elements of our political project and analysis because you find it ‘alienating.’ (Rachel Dolezal joins the NAACP and then demands people stop talking about the history and effects of slavery because it ‘excludes’ trans-racial people. That’s actually the parallel. Just let that sink in).

We do a lot of work on reproductive justice, and female bodily autonomy, and reclaiming women’s bodies from the darkness and shame that patriarchy has cast them into for millennia, and you may be surprised to discover we don’t much fancy casting them back into that darkness because it unsettles your identity and you want to rub out the extreme political relevance of our bodies. It is not even vaguely reasonable to demand this – especially given that we have a long history of understanding why the erasure of embodiment is patriarchy’s ground-zero. (And like, it’s not an accident Mumsnet is gender critical central, people who have made and fed other people with their bodies are strangely resistant to the idea that bodies are an irrelevance). We also do a fuckton of work on male violence, which, as we saw above, trans activists have a specific interest in side-lining. The fact that Lily Madigan, in her purported capacity as a Labour Party Woman’s Officer, was interested only in shouting ‘transphobia’ at feminist’s concerned about women being sexually assaulted by male-bodied-people in prison, basically tells you the whole story about the non-coincidence of women’s and trans activists’ interests with respect to male violence. A trans women who is committed to the present formulation of trans ideology is not, therefore, capable of representing the political interests of natal women.

Implications for feminism and gender non-conforming people

7. In addition to the erasure of the material reality of sexual dimorphism, and the attempt to make analysis based on that reality unsayable, trans ideology is also committed to an essentialist theory of gender. Whether someone is a man or a woman is thought to inhere in their ‘gender identity,’ or someone’s ‘subjective sense of their own gender.’ In this regard trans ideology is a direct inversion of feminist thought. Feminism thinks sex is real and gender is a social construct which functions as a hierarchy in order to hold the structure of patriarchal oppression in place. Trans ideology think sex is a social construct and that gender identity is real. What the ‘realness’ of this identity consist of is undefined. There is the assertion that transgender people have the brains of one sex trapped in the body of another sex – and it should be clear why feminists would raise eyebrows about beliefs in blue and pink brains. There is also the issue that it is entirely unclear how anyone could have an ‘internal sense of their own gender’ which is not informed in any way by patriarchal gender roles, and which did not amount to the reification of patriarchal gender conventions.

Despite trans-ideologues protestations that there is a distinction between ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression,’ the un-pin-down-ability of ‘gender identity’ as a concept, and the inability to define it without reference to gender norms, means that in practice, trans identity frequently comes to be evidenced by gender non-conforming behaviour. As we will see in point 8, this is particularly the case in much of the testimony around the identification of transgender children. It is also evident in transing of dead gender non-conforming people – both gay and straight. (And people, you cannot both claim the criterion is an internal sense of gender evidenced by self-declaration and then simultaneously trans dead men who never self-identified as trans because they wore high-heels and eye-liner. To wit, back away from Prince).

There are several implications of this:

a) It serves to naturalize and reinforce patriarchal gender conformity. Trans ideology likes to claim it is challenging patriarchal gender norms. What it is actually doing is saying that everyone who does not conform to patriarchal gender norms is a different ‘type’ of person and putting them in a separate category. The boxes ‘(cisgender) man’ and ‘(cisgender) woman’ are thus left for the gender conforming – which is a further reason why we reject the notion of ‘cis.’ It does not shatter the gender conventions of the patriarchal definition of man to say that all men who manifest femininity are thereby not men. It is, in fact, a re-inscription of the definition of patriarchal masculinity as a repudiation of the feminine, and conservative as hell. That, under present conditions, some people find it intolerable to live in their socially prescribed role, and that they need to transition, is a fact which should be treated with compassion and social support. That is very different from reifying the basis of the underlying experience of sex dysphoria and turning it into a conservative political ideology.

b) Given that the gender conventions associated with patriarchal idea of woman are oppressive and frequently restrict our agency, voices, subjectivity, movement, and ability to occupy space or express our needs, the idea that non-trans women ‘identify’ with these conventions is troubling at best and offensive at worst.

c) The degree to which trans-identity implies medicalization is, hence, a medicalization of gender non-conformity. I’m not saying here that there are no ‘genuine’ trans people. But I am saying that by changing the criterion of being trans from sex dysphoria to gender identity – especially conjunct with the way many young people have been exposed to trans ideology through social media over recent years – that this does amount to medicalizing gender non-conformity, and that there are reasons to be worried about that. Which brings me to…

Implications for children, especially homosexual children, especially lesbian girls

8. Over the last 5 years there has been a dramatic increase in referrals to gender identity clinics. The impact of trans-ideology on clinical practice – and how this also affects social workers, teachers, mental health services, and other services that work with young people – has shifted from an approach based on ‘watchful waiting’ to one based on immediately affirming a child’s trans identity, and making moves towards transition, including the prescription of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to minors. Previous to this change, the clinical opinion – which is evidenced by several studies – was that most gender dysphoric children and teens would desist from cross sex identification by adulthood, and usually grow up to be gay and lesbian. The push to medicalize trans identifying children thus constitutes the medicalization of homosexual children, in a manner which, effectively, straightens them out. It is perhaps only a touch hyperbolic, therefore, that some members of the adult homosexual community are now calling this ‘gay eugenics.’ (And it is beyond ironic that the trans lobby is pushing for the refusal to immediately affirm trans-identity to be understood as ‘conversion therapy.’)

Beyond the utter conservatism of transing potentially homosexual children without due diligence, there are serious reasons to be concerned about this medicalization. Puberty blockers are potentially reversible, when used for only a small window of time in order to delay precocious puberty. Medical experts are, however, very clear, that when children are put on puberty blockers and then progress directly onto cross-sex hormones (as do almost all children who start puberty blockers) it destroys their fertility. It may well be the case that pre-teen children do not care about this outcome at the time they make the decision, but it seems evident children of 11 or 12 are not at a stage of life where they are able to make an informed decision that has such a far-reaching consequence. And this is before we even get to the thought of what is effectively the mass sterilization of homosexuals. In addition, we have no long-term longitudinal studies on the effects of these treatments. We are, in fact, experimenting on populations of children for ideological reasons (and arguably, also for financial ones). There are many known side-effects of long-term use of hormones, which, if possible, it would seem prudent to avoid other than in cases where it is completely necessary. There is also some early indications emerging now that for male children who begin transition at the start of puberty, their capacity for sexual pleasure is completely destroyed. I almost cannot bear to think about that. (But there is maybe something interesting going on there about how transformation into a ‘woman’ is so heavily tilted towards achieving the correct appearance, and hence, in later life, to giving pleasure to men, but doesn’t include the capacity to feel sexual pleasure oneself.)

9. The figures from the Tavistock suggest that of these increased referrals, a massively disproportionate number are FtM. The fact that until the recent increase in overall referrals there was no evidence of this imbalance is concerning. Were it the case that the recent de-stigmatization and increase in information about trans identity were simply making it possible for existent trans kids to come out of the closet and become their authentic selves, there would seem to be no reason why there would be such a sudden and stark increase in the number of female children seeking transition. Also, testimony from concerned parents, and also from some female desisters, is increasingly giving evidence of a new phenomenon know as Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria – in which a child who has previously shown no evidence of trans identity announces they are trans, often after spending a great deal of time on the internet, and often in association with other underlying issues such as depression, anxiety, social isolation, eating disorders, and especially, autism.

Feminists would also argue that it is imperative to also factor in that entering puberty in a patriarchy is, in itself, a traumatic experience for many girls – because it involves the experience of your body becoming a sexual object, and a target of violence which makes you vulnerable. This, along with the sexual abuse it often occasions, is a significant factor in many of the disorders that affect teenage girls, and it seems readily comprehensible to us why teenage girls would be attracted to the idea of being able to avoid this traumatizing process, and regain control of their bodies and the social treatment of their bodies, by presenting as male. We are not, however, convinced that medicalizing girls is an ideal solution to the trauma of patriarchal violence, especially under conditions in which providing them with alternative feminist analyses which could help them understand their distress, has been rendered a thought-crime.

The further factor which must be underlined here, is that, following from point 9, we have reason to believe that a substantial proportion of these girls are lesbians. The now dominant clinical and social practice of simply affirming trans identity, without allowing for exploration of underlying issues which might be contributing to that identification, constitutes, therefore, the mass sterilization of lesbians. And I cannot tell you how angry that makes me.

Implications for lesbians

10. Given the power imbalances between men and women it is the case that the gay rights movement has been historically weighted towards the representation of the interests of gay men. This tendency is now being enormously exacerbated by the fact that the gay rights movement has wedded itself to a political ideology that is invested in both refusing recognition to female people as a group, and in refusing to recognise that some people are exclusively same-sex attracted. The consequence of this is that many lesbians now feel that the LGBTQI+ movements are no longer their home, and will not defend their identity as women, their identity as lesbians and the political interests that follow from that. This was what was behind the recent protest at London Pride in which lesbian women disrupted the start of the march with banners proclaiming ‘Lesbian = Female Homosexual’ and ‘Transactivism erases Lesbians.’ Both of which are true statements.

One of the main issues here is that there has been a marked tendency over recent years for certain trans women – who were previously heterosexual males, and are hence, after changing their identification, still attracted to women – to redefine themselves as lesbians, even when they are still male bodied, and to suggest that lesbian women who will not accept them as sexual partners are guilty of discriminatory transphobia. This is, firstly, a ridiculous attempt to legislate people’s sexual choices through political ideology, and to make acts of sexual discrimination equivalent to acts of political discrimination. Secondly, it is, moreover, a refusal to recognise the existence of homosexuality as such which, in itself, amounts to a profound act of political erasure. And lastly, it absolutely reeks of the kind of rapey male sexual entitlement that patriarchy breeds into straight men. If you want to convince someone that you are a) a woman and b) a lesbian, I can assure you that attempting to shame, bully or otherwise coerce women into having sex with you is about the most ineffective method you could dream up in a million fucking years.

Queer Theory, Foucauldian Feminism and the Erasure of Rape

So, in response to this little conversation – because yes, I want to – I decided to knock together the chapter of my thesis where I go on at great length about all the batshit and rage-inducing bullshit Foucauldian feminists, queer theorists, and Mr Michel Foucault have said about rape.

It’s a little dusty and dry (I hate it when I don’t get to make jokes (but then again, not the most appropriate place), but it might be interesting to some of you, as some general further background on how we got into this whole fucking mess…

want to

You can find it here.

Trans Activism and Intersectional Feminism

This is a kind of half-thread/half-essay that I posted on the twits earlier today, and some people have asked me to repost it in an easier-to-read form.

So, here we goes….

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As many of you know, there was an act of vandalism by trans activists on an historic building where women were meeting to discuss the GRA proposals.

One of the posters the TRAs stuck up was this, which got me thinking (again) about the connection between trans activism and intersectional feminism.

intersect

When trans ideology first came on the radar (or my radar) around 2011/12, it came in a kind of trans activism/intersectional feminism pincer movement. This wasn’t an accident. So, my question is: what work is intersectional feminism doing to support trans ideology?

So, first off – CAVEAT. Nothing I’m about to say really has much to do with Crenshaw’s original thought. Intersectionality as an analytic method is basically unimpeachable. FEMINISTS – PAY ATTENTION TO HOW OTHER AXES OF OPPRESSION INFLECT THE THING YOU’RE LOOKING AT. As I say, unimpeachable. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what I call ‘Tumblrized Intersectionality.’ And that’s not a method – it’s a dogma. In fact, it’s a catechism.

The first thing that’s really noticeable about that catechism, is how un-intersectional it is. It’s not about looking at any particular thing and trying to understand how all the axes interact. It’s a rigid set of views (pro-trans, pro-sex-work, anti-White Feminism TM etc) and a rigid point-scoring table which produces a hierarchy of who is allowed to speak and who must listen. According to this hierarchy, trans people are more oppressed than everyone else, and hence, their oppression must be prioritized over everyone else. In the context of feminism (and particularly in connection to the leveraging of the cis/trans binary) this produces the thought that feminism should centre the oppression of trans women over the oppression of non-trans women. That is, intersectional feminism functions to displace women’s oppression from the centre of feminism.

Pinkie

The second related thing is that intersectionality is used to bolster and reinforce trans activism’s efforts to undermine woman as a political category. We have trans activist’s argument that sex does not exist, and hence woman is nothing to do with femaleness, in concert with the intersectional argument that because of the intersection of axes, there is nothing meaningful about the axis of sex-based oppression in itself. This is just bullshit. It’s one thing to say that different axes impact women differently and we need to attend to that. It’s quite another to say that because of those different axes, there is nothing we can say about the oppression of women as a class. And note – this intersectional argument could easily be used to undermine all political categories. It hasn’t been. Funny that.

Thirdly, there is something utterly (neo)liberal about both intersectionality and trans activism as they are put to work. And what I mean by that is that while they are, ostensibly, using the discourse of structural analysis (oppression/privilege etc.), the understanding of that oppression is entirely individualized. Oppression isn’t a matter of a set of structural material conditions, and how those material conditions are held in place using certain kinds of discourse and certain kinds of attitudes. The material analysis has completely dropped out of the picture. Oppression is just a matter of people having bad attitudes (BIGOT! NAZI! INSERT-PHOBE-HERE! etc. etc.) And if we can just change (or bully) people into right-thinking, oppression will just disappear.

Yesterday, someone pointed me to this article, which contains a version of the poster that was used to deface Odd Fellows Hall. It’s a pretty interesting example of what gets lost in intersectional/trans discourse from a feminist perspective. The sociologist in question spends a lot of time talking about ‘doing gender’ and how that relates to inequalities, and to women’s inequality. But there is absolutely no recognition that the system of gender inequality didn’t just arise ex nihilo out of the ground one day, that it is motivated, and that is has something to do with the sex-based oppression of women, and with the extraction of reproductive, domestic and emotional labour from female people by male people. In obscuring the material and sex-based nature of women’s oppression, trans activism and intersectional feminism are working as one.

Lastly, intersectional feminism is doing very important work obscuring this central part of feminist analysis through the way it’s being used to discredit pretty much the whole of Second Wave feminist thought. This is being done by collapsing the Second Wave into the thought of ‘White Feminism TM.’ Now, if we go off into a long analysis of White Feminism we’ll be here all day. First, let’s just say, it is true that many of the present thought leaders of feminism are women of socio-economic and racial privilege, and it is also true that some of those women do not have great class and race analyses to go with their feminism. And that’s something that should rightly be called out.

That said, it is an absolute ahistorical lie that no feminist ever thought about this until a bunch of people starting pointing it out 5 years ago, or that feminism has always been a movement that was only interested in the things that bother middle-class white women (tell that to Dworkin or Firestone or Lorde, srsly). The Second Wave was a massive and diverse tradition – there was radical feminism and lesbian feminism and socialist feminism and environmental feminism and sexual difference feminism and maternal feminism and there was also, importantly, Black feminism and womanism. The negotiation of issues of race within feminism is crucial, complex, and often, not easy. But it has been going on the whole time (which is not to say we’re good at it, we’re often really not).

It’s worth here, for example, looking at Notes from the First, Second and Third Year – the magazines published by New York Radical Women, under Firestone’s editorship, from 1968 onwards. I’m not going to claim that the treatment of the relation between race and women’s oppression in these magazines is in no way, to use that now-almost-loathed phrase, ‘problematic.’ But I do think it’s important to note that it’s there, right from the start. There are articles on Black feminism by Black feminists (p21, Third Year), there are discussions of how feminist consciousness-raising involves understanding racial and class privilege (p80, Second Year), and there is, pretty interestingly, a critique (p106, Third Year), of the way left-wing men try to discredit the women’s movement by claiming it’s run by a “bunch of white, middle-class women.” So, that’s a new one then.

third year

My point here is not that intersectional issues shouldn’t be constantly acknowledged, discussed, and struggled with. My point is that they are being ahistorically leveraged by ‘Intersectional Feminism’ to position the entire Second Wave as morally and intellectually bankrupt and worthless. And that’s political, and directly serves the interests of trans activism – because it facilitates the wholesale erasure of the feminist analysis of patriarchy as a hierarchical system of material sex-based oppression. And that, strategically, is the point.

 

Post-structuralism, Butler and Bodies

hines

There’s a ton of discussion out there at the moment about post-structural/postmodern feminism and the way its responsible for undermining a) the material basis of the analysis of patriarchy and b) woman as a political category. And claims about this are being made on all sides.

This is a thorny thicket of thickety thorns. We have a whole lot of philosophy, starting roughly with early deconstruction (late 60s), and running up to queer theory (early 90s onwards). We have the dissemination of deconstruction in the 80s and 90s, and how that fed into popular ideas of ‘postmodernism.’ And then we have how that idea of ‘postmodernism’ is interacting with ideas coming from queer theory, and how all of that is informing popular discourse.

The rough sketch ends up looking something like this: Early post-structuralism/ deconstruction argued that everything was ‘discursive’ or ‘textual’ and didn’t believe in material reality. Postmodernism is all about the ‘play’ of signifiers and how everything is ‘constructed’ through discourse. Then Butler comes along and invents queer theory by arguing, in essence, that bodies are discursively constructed, and we end up where we are now, and it’s probably, in origin, all Jacques Derrida’s fault.

I have a bunch of dogs in this fight. I am a post-structuralist feminist. I am also, unreservedly, a second-waver, and a socialist feminist, and am committed to the material analysis of patriarchy, because without a material analysis of patriarchy we can’t, fundamentally, explain anything. I don’t think these two positions are inconsistent with each other, and so I get a little troubled when ‘post-structuralism’ is used to mean ‘discursively-constructed’ and then to mean ‘biology doesn’t exist’ and then to mean ‘women don’t exist’….because in the bit of post-structuralist thought where I hang-out (the bit that descends from Beauvoir and Derrida through second-wave deconstructive French feminism), the whole point is understanding that patriarchy works by erasing women, and by erasing and appropriating the material (and maternal) reality of women’s bodies.

So, I want to do a little parsing of the intellectual history, and try and think through what’s going on with it, and how it’s intersecting with where we are now. My reason for doing this is totally to do with my own intellectual and political interests. There is a load of important and useful stuff in post-structuralist feminism which is in danger of being lost by the way post-structuralism is being collapsed into queer theory. There’s no necessary reason why you should be interested in any of this, and it’s probably going to get a little academic/technical in places, but if you are interested in it, I hope this might be helpful.

Part 1: Postmodernism, deconstruction, and ‘discursive constitution’

One of the things that’s going on here (and here I’m going to come off like a philosophy-snob, and, um, *awkward shuffle*), is that deconstruction was largely disseminated in the Anglo-American university through English Literature – because Anglo-American ‘Analytic’ philosophy has historically thought that French philosophy isn’t really philosophy at all (when I was at uni the English Department decided to give Derrida an honorary degree, and the Philosophy Department more or less threatened to stand outside with placards reading ‘JACQUES DERRIDA IS A BOUNDER, A CHARLATAN AND A CAD’). In the late 60s Derrida published the three texts which made his name – Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena – all of which used an analysis of language and meaning to advance his philosophical position. Quite understandably, because of this focus, his work spoke particularly to people who were in the business of thinking about language and texts, and was taken up enthusiastically by people working in English – and then other humanities more broadly – from the late 70s and particularly through the 80s. How this work was received is its own complicated story, but, to do a little violence to the history, it can more-or-less be captured, I think, by one famous phrase – “there is nothing outside the text.”

This little string of words – which over time, has become something of an axiom – crops up on page 167 of the English translation of Of Grammatology, and has often been taken, by both advocates and critics, as an expression of what, in philosophy, we would call ‘linguistic idealism’ i.e. the idea that everything is language, and that hence, material reality is entirely ‘discursively constituted.’ This idea – accompanied by other Derridean ideas about the way meaning arises through the ‘play’ of signs – then coalesced with other parts of post-structural theory – Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault – and formed the philosophical underpinnings of the description of cultural postmodernism, which was principally an aesthetic phenomena arising from the proliferation and repetition of images and signs in a globalized, technological, advanced capitalist society. There is an interesting phenomena about signs – when they are repeated over and over they start losing their meaning (try saying your name 50 times and at some point it will cease to mean ‘you’ and it’s weird), and the cultural sensibility of the late 80s and 90s (hey there Gen Xers), was all about the alienation, ennui and general sense of inauthenticity that arises from being bombarded with images and signs, repeated ad infinitum, and broken up and bricolaged together in various more-or-less random sequences. We mostly dealt with it by being mad-ironic about everything and wearing lots of kitschy clothes (hey there hipsters), and watching Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch films on a never-ending loop. Good times.

Anyway, back to Derrida. The point I want to make, and it’s been made, but it needs to keep being made – is that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ doesn’t mean there is nothing outside the text. And what I mean by that is that when Derrida says ‘text’ he doesn’t, fundamentally, mean text-as-in-language. This is where the issue of the dissemination of philosophy through English literature becomes pertinent – because, from my perspective, deconstruction is not fundamentally a theory of language. Derrida was using language or signs to make an ontological point – a point about the structure of reality. And that point wasn’t ‘reality is entirely made of language,’ it was ‘everything that exists exists in networks of relation to other things.’ The point he was making by talking about signs – and he could just as well, and did later, have been talking about subjects, or political states, or works of art, or pretty much anything – is that meaning arises through its relational context, but that Western philosophy, and Western theories of subjectivity, are obsessed with ignoring and erasing that. We like to think that human subjects are self-sufficient, in-dependent, self-identical, invulnerable. That we are not affected by or dependent on the world around us, and we owe no particular ethical or political debt to anyone. Which is bullshit (and specifically, neoliberal-capitalist-patriarchal bullshit).

So, when I, or anyone I know who works in French feminism, reads ‘text’ in Derrida, we don’t read ‘language,’ we read ‘relation.’ Or, if we want to be technical about it, what I read is ‘spatial and temporal relation.’ So, ‘there is nothing outside the text’ (a better translation of the French is ‘there is no outside-text’), becomes ‘nothing exists which is completely separable from its spatial and temporal relations.’ Which is true. Unlike, ‘nothing exists which is not language.’ Which is manifestly untrue. (Here we might also note that this change in meaning when you read Derrida in the context of the philosophical tradition he’s working in is a pretty good demonstration of his point about the way that meaning is contextually determined). So, that’s the first point. The deconstructive strand of post-structuralism is not a form of linguistic idealism, and doesn’t support the claim that material reality is entirely ‘discursively constituted.’ It is rather, an ontological claim about the necessity of what I’d call ‘fundamental constitutive relation,’ specifically aimed at critiquing the way patriarchy and capitalism is invested in pretending we are not relational beings. Hence, post-structural socialist feminism. (Jordan Peterson is not completely off his head when he says postmodernism is a form of cultural Marxism, and if you quote me on that I will be cross).

Part 2 >

Part 2: French post-structuralism and the body

So, the second point that follows from all of this is that it is philosophically incoherent to think that deconstruction is anti-materialist. As is relatively well known, one of the other main deconstructive ideas is the critique of binary hierarchies. This argument goes like this. The construction of patriarchal Western subjectivity functions through a network of metaphysical oppositions. Masculine/Feminine, Father/Mother, Rational/Emotional, Mind/Body, Immaterial/ Material, Civilized/Primitive, Home/Foreign, Universal/Particular, One/Many, Eternal/Mutable, Immortal/Mortal, Sky/Earth etc. etc. etc. The construction of meaning, and subjectivity (we can think of this as the sign/subject-nexus), has traditionally focused on privileging one half of the binary – the masculine, and everything metaphysically associated with it – and devaluing/erasing the feminine half of the binary. And here the point about the necessity of relation becomes important. Because the argument is that all the binaries are interdependent, and hence, privileging one half is both a misrepresentation of reality, and has terrible political and social consequences, because it is implicated in the oppression and othering of those peoples – the female and people of colour – who are associated with it.

What I would take from this – and this is one of the main thoughts that underpins French post-structural feminism – is that the erasure of the feminine in its relation to the maternal, the material, and the body, is an axiomatic gesture of Western patriarchal thought. Luce Irigaray will, a few years after Derrida’s central texts were published, go on to call the separation of the mind from the body, and the elevation of the immaterial and rational over the material and embodied, “the foundational act of metaphysics.” (An Ethics of Sexual Difference) This all fits very well with the general tenets of second-wave feminism. Patriarchy is a system which functions by erasing, and simultaneously appropriating, the material and maternal labour of women. That is, at base, why it exists. Western philosophical thought – and the social structures it props up – is fundamentally motivated by the intent to withhold recognition from the central role of material/maternal labour, and by men’s desire to deny their dependencies on that labour even while it creates and supports their existence.[1] And the fact that on some more-or-less conscious level they know they’re doing this, and that they’re still going to be dependent on us (and our wombs and breasts and vaginas) no matter how much they deny it, is not incidentally related to why they’re often so frickin’ violent to us.

So, to recap. 1. Deconstruction is a theory which stipulates that any privileging of one pole of a binary hierarchy is a) metaphysically unsupportable and b) politically dodgy. It’s hence a) philosophically incoherent to think that deconstruction is anti-materialist or you can use it to support your anti-materialism, and b) given that ‘materiality’ is historically associated with the oppressed/erased/appropriated feminine pole of the binary, anti-materialism is politically sketchy af.

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[1] The same is true of the labour and subjectivity of peoples of colour, and also of the relationship between ‘man’ and the natural world.

Part 3 >

Part 3: All that trouble with gender

General disclaimer – early Butler, as is widely acknowledged, is super unfun to read, plus I madly disagree with her, so it’s hard to get through it all without throwing the book against the wall. But I’m going to give you what I’ve got.

a) The first claim I’m going to make, just to set the cat right among the pigeons from the get-go, is that Butler is not a feminist, or rather, that what she’s doing in Gender Trouble is not feminist philosophy (it’s queer theory, and the reason why queer theory and feminist philosophy are different things is because they have a different set of political concerns (not, we might note, because they are defined by ‘excluding’ each other)). So, when I say she’s not a feminist I don’t mean, ‘she doesn’t identify as a feminist,’ or ‘she’s not concerned about women’s oppression in general terms.’ Whatever we might feel right now, Judith Butler is not a completely terrible person, and she cares about all people’s oppression in general terms. But, and it’s a great big BUT, what I am going to say is that women’s oppression is not what she is concerned with in Gender Trouble, that she makes a move that has created massive problems for the articulation and explanation of women’s oppression, and it’s less than evident how much she really cares about that (and I REALLY want lefty dudebro types to stop throwing her in my face every time I make a political claim about the oppression of women because Butler. Is not. A fucking. Feminist. *breathe*)

So, to try and back this up. The last time I re-read Gender Trouble I came across this passage at the start of the original preface that pretty much blew my mind.

“I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically assumed to be heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female ‘other’ who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the feminine ‘Other’ suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention.” (Routledge Classics Edition, p xxix-xxx, last emphasis, my own (!!!!!))

To break this down a little. What Butler is describing in this passage is one way of summarizing the essential insight of French feminist thought. Here it’s framed in terms of the way patriarchal masculinity denies its dependence on the feminine through denying the expression of women’s subjectivity in the gaze…but, as we just saw above, we can also frame it through the masculine dependence on the materiality of women’s bodies. The central point is this – the Western patriarchal subject is invested in denying its dependence on women, it is, therefore, invested in erasing and othering women, refusing to recognize both their personhood and their reproductive labour, and responds to all assertions of women’s psychic and material existence as a threat to its ‘illusory’ autonomy, invulnerability, sovereignty, or mastery. And what we have here, therefore, is Judith Butler – the great post-structural ‘feminist’ – summarizing post-structural feminism’s central thought about how the oppression of women works, and then telling us, basically, that she’s just not interested.

And she’s not interested – either intellectually, or politically. Philosophy, when it comes down to it, is an entirely motivated business (all that bullshit about rational disinterest is just another patriarchal ruse). What we work on is what matters to us, and what matters to us, more often than not, is what hurts us. We work on our wounds – on the places where we have bashed into the world or the world has bashed into us and we came away bleeding and tried to stem the flow of blood by imagining how things could be otherwise. When I say Judith Butler is not a feminist, what I mean is that her wound is not a wound of being oppressed as a member of the female sex class – or at least, that’s not how she experiences it. Her wound is a wound of being oppressed as a gender non-conforming lesbian, which she experiences not as a matter of being female, but rather, as arising through what she calls ‘the heterosexual matrix.’ As she goes on to say immediately subsequent to the passage above, what she is interested in is the way “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” or “that binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’ and the internal stability of those terms.” That is, Butler’s solution for dealing with her particular wound of homosexual gender-non-conformity, is to try and trouble the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘woman’ at a fundamental ontological level. (And for those of us who think we need the difference between men and women to describe how and why men oppress women, that is, seriously, trouble.)[1]

b) To understand how she does this we need more than just a flattened reading of deconstruction as an assertion of linguistic idealism – although deconstruction will play its part. What I want to point to here is that, while Butler had, of course, inherited her fair share of deconstruction, her fundamental method in Gender Trouble owes a lot more to Foucault than it does to Derrida. In basic terms, what this is about is anti-normativity (queer theory as an intellectual movement more or less hinges on the thought of anti-normativity, which makes the uniformity of much of the present performance of queerness kind of hilarious and also sad-making). Foucault, famously, outlined an analysis of the ‘micro-politics of power’ which was principally interested not in how power negatively oppresses or represses people, but the way in which power operates through social norms in order to positively ‘produce’ subjects. And there’s a lot of good and useful stuff in there, about how legal and medical and educational norms and practices mould us into certain kinds of subjects – and how certain kinds of identities – ‘the homosexual,’ ‘the criminal,’ ‘the mad-man’ – do not only describe, but produce people in line with those identities, in a way, following Butler, we can reasonably understand as ‘performativity.’

So far so good. Now the problems. The first main problem is that there is a tendency among Foucauldians to get completely carried away with the idea of normativity (BAD) and to decide that all norms (BAD) are simply socially constructed[2] algorithms designed to regulate and discipline human subjects (it’s never quite clear in whose interests, because power in Foucault is a diffuse kind of business that just goes about circulating and not necessarily for anyone’s particular benefit – HUGE problem). This is where the idea of ‘discursive constitution’ really ramps up. Because there is – at least in the early, most influential Foucauldian texts – no recognition that some of our social norms are there for good material reasons, or because actually, some things are just really harmful to people. There is a completely horrifying passage in the first volume of the History of Sexuality in which Foucault tells a story about a man with learning difficulties who sexually abuses a young girl, and all he cares about is how these terrible, puritan sexual norms about not abusing young girls are deployed to support the evil disciplinary treatment of this poor, hapless man who was just, he claims, engaging in “inconsequential bucolic pleasures.” (Fuck you Michel).

I could go on a long rant here about how this aspect of Foucault’s thinking has spawned a whole sub-industry of Foucauldian feminists spouting the most inane, rage-inducing, drivel about how the problem with feminists talking about rape is that it creates ‘rapists’ and ‘victims’ and how rape would all just be not-very-harmful-at-all if only we stopped thinking it was harmful but I once wrote thirty-odd pages on it and spent three weeks wanting to smash things and feeling like I was being gaslit by people who are supposed to be on my side and so I won’t. NAME THE FUCKING PROBLEM. That is all. The basic point is this – some things are norms because as well as culture, and language, and discourse, or whatever we want to put in the box marked ‘ideas’ or ‘immaterial’ there is also nature, and biology, and basic human needs (which are both biological and psychic) and whatever else we want to put in the box ‘material.’ And some of our norms – eat vegetables, try to exercise, don’t sexually abuse children – are norms because they have something to do with promoting well-being or avoiding harm, and might well promote well-being or cause harm (somewhat) irrespective of whatever we happen to think or say about them, and will continue promoting well-being or causing harm even if people stipulate that we should not talk about them because talking about them is actually making them happen. (Because yeah, that whole not-talking-about-rape-thing worked out fabulously).

c) This, basically, is where Butler’s – let’s just call it – ‘assault,’ on the normativity of the “binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’” is coming from. In crude terms the thought is that sex is just another bad disciplinary form of discursive normativity. (Which is about as credible as saying that the idea there’s a problem with oil slicks in the sea is just a bad disciplinary form of normativity – so, go tell that to the poor puffins). Now, of course, had she just said ‘gender,’ we’d have had no problem with it, but as we know, and has become multiply apparent in the way this has come down the pipes, Butler has some serious investment in troubling the sex/gender distinction. Here we do return to deconstruction, and it’s where things get pretty technical – but I think it’s worth following, because Butler deploys deconstructive logic to try and break down the sex/gender distinction, and her argument is subtle, but, importantly, wrong.

It goes something like this. The determination of any identity – be it ‘sex’ or ‘woman’ – is formed in opposition to its other – in this case ‘gender’ or ‘man.’ (True, or at least, that’s how it works inside a patriarchy – we’ll come back to this) ‘Sex/Gender’ is a binary pair that roughly corresponds to the pair ‘Nature/Culture,’ or ‘Material/Discursive,’ and it would be an axiom of deconstruction that we can’t neatly separate these from each other and there is something wrong with pretending we can, because such acts of separation are associated with acts of erasure and exclusion which, as we saw above, are politically sketchy. (Okay) Now we get to the place where she makes the move I would question. In the part of the tradition I work in, we tend to think of deconstructive and feminist thinking as ‘both/and’ thinking, which we contrast with patriarchal ‘either/or’ thinking. A useful way to think about this is as a difference between thinking of concepts (or conceptual poles) as bounded solids which ‘can’t occupy the same space at the same time’ and hence have to exclude each other (‘either/or’), or thinking in terms of fluids or gases[3] or something that can mix or interpenetrate with another thing while still being itself (‘both/and’). So, the way I would think about the relation of sex and gender, or nature and culture, is something like x (let’s say ‘woman’) is both and at the same time natural and cultural[4]…in which we understand that x arises through an infinitely complex interaction of nature and culture in a manner our stupid monkey brains aren’t nearly clever enough to grasp. We can’t draw a perfectly neat line between ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ just as we can’t neatly separate ‘bodies’ from ‘minds’, but that is not the same thing as saying they are the same thing. They would be, in a Derridean phrase I’m fond of, “heterogeneous but indissociable.”

But – (tahdah!) – this isn’t at all where Butler goes with it. Where Butler goes with it is to stay inside a way of thinking about the relationship between ‘two things that are different but inseparable’ that is much more in line with a patriarchal ‘either/or’ way of thinking. A way – as all the talk of ‘lines of demarcation’ will soon show us – that is still completely in thrall to thinking about the relation between things according to a ‘model of solids.’ (That’s Bergson’s phrase). For sex to have its own reality that is non-discursive, she suggests, it must be possible to draw a line between ‘sex/nature/unconstructed’ and ‘gender/culture/constructed.’ As she argues in Bodies That Matter, the “moderate critic might concede that some part of ‘sex’ is constructed, but some other is certainly not, and then, of course, find… herself…under some obligation to draw the line between what is and is not constructed.” (11) This is the bit I dispute. There is no obligation to draw a line, either precisely around ‘sex’ or precisely around ‘woman,’ in order for these to be meaningful terms that do work in the world. Thinking that we have to draw lines around concepts for them to be meaningful is exactly the same old essentialist, spatializing, phallic rubbish that we should be critiquing. As Wittgenstein once usefully noted, we do not have to be able to point at the line on the floor where ‘here’ becomes ‘there’ in order to use these words with sense. Because essences and clear delineations and phallic oppositions are not the only – or most important – way that concepts work (if they are actually how they work at all).[5]

What Butler is doing here, effectively, is taking the way metaphysical binaries have traditionally worked as systems of exclusionary opposition, either nature or culture, either discourse or materiality, and then naturalizing it (which is kind of ironic really). (And what is doubly ironic is that in doing this, her thinking of the relation between sex and gender is precisely the opposite of ‘fluidity’ or ‘flux’). We could only grant reality to ‘sex’ by drawing a “line of demarcation” between the ‘unconstructed’ and ‘constructed,’ and such a “delimitation… marks a boundary that includes and excludes…What will and will not be included within the boundaries of ‘sex’ will be set by a more or less tacit operation of exclusion.” (Bodies That Matter: 11) To my mind, this is only true if we think that the phallic system of binary hierarchy, and the way it constructs the poles in exclusionary opposition to each other, is actually the only way meaning or existence arises. And I think that is a really patriarchal assumption. What this comes down to is that Butler is collapsing the idea of ‘difference’ and the idea of ‘exclusion’ (and the current political resonance of that should be clear), and suggesting that the only way there can be differences is though mechanisms of exclusion. This amounts to a refusal to think the possibility of difference, and of relations between things that are different, in any way other than the way that is currently mandated by exclusionary patriarchal logic. And that is to miss the whole point of French post-structuralist feminism. ‘Difference’ is not phallic-opposition, and it is not exclusion. Woman is not not-man. Just as man is not not-woman. Women have their own existence outside the grid of patriarchal oppositions. And so does sex. And nature. And materiality.

What Butler does with the fact that we couldn’t define ‘sex’ without an ‘operation of exclusion’ (and it’s not a great leap from this rhetoric to ‘Die in a Fire’), is to use it to refuse sex its own reality – and analogously, to refuse ‘woman’ reality as well. (How anyone got away with convincing a ton of people that undermining woman as a political category was a totally rad feminist move will never cease to fry my brains, even though the answer as to why it’s been taken up so enthusiastically – patriarchy – seems pretty evident). If we can’t neatly define sex, but sex and gender are indissociable, what that then means for Butler is that gender subsumes sex – viz. “If gender consists of the social meanings that sex assumes, then sex does not accrue social meanings…but rather, is replaced by the social meanings it takes on; sex is relinquished… and gender emerges…as the term which absorbs and displaces ‘sex’” (Bodies That Matter: 5) If you’re going to make this move, you could equally well argue that sex ‘absorbs and displaces’ gender – but oh yeah, that really would be conservative. Either which way, denying reality to either pole of a binary, or claiming one pole ‘absorbs’ the other (how the hell can ‘exclusion’ be bad but absorbing’ things okay????), or that because you can’t neatly distinguish them they’re actually the same thing, is not any kind of deconstructive thinking worth its name.[6]

d) The last thing I want to point at is why Butler makes this eminently patriarchal move of thinking that the reality of things must be locked inside this grid of exclusionary binary opposition. To me this looks like a bit of a weird Foucauldian/Derridean mish-mash. She takes the Foucauldian account of the way power produces subjects (“juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent,” (Gender Trouble: 2)), and the Derridean idea that patriarchal subjectivity functions through a logic of hierarchization and exclusion of its other, and then fuses them together and totalizes them, so you get the claim that all “subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices” (3) that “constitute the contemporary field of power” such that “there is no position outside this field.” (7; my emphasis) This is, from a French feminist, well, from any feminist perspective, a catastrophe. It is, at base, a claim (and here I suspect Butler’s Hegelian/Lacanian roots are showing) that the being of all things – subjects, signs, political groups, political states, whatever – can only ever and exclusively be produced through hierarchical operations of exclusion, erasure and othering, Which is to say that all subjects are basically patriarchal (or conversely, no subjects are patriarchal), and that hence – and this is all where is all starts to feel sickeningly familiar – that ‘woman’ as a political category is produced by exactly the same exclusionary operation of power as is ‘man.’ To momentarily put this in the language of race – which I know has been decreed verboten but no one has yet given me an adequate explanation as to why[7] – this would be equivalent to a claim of reverse racism, or that white people have been constructed as the ‘other’ of Black people in exactly the same way as Black people have been constructed as the ‘other’ of white people. And as we know, that’s nonsense. Because power. Not just circulating indiscriminately after all.

What Butler has done by generalizing Foucault’s account of productive power to suggest that patriarchal mechanisms of hierarchical exclusion equally inform the creation of all subjects, is, effectively, destroy the analysis of patriarchy as a hierarchy of power. And that’s, y’know, not very feminist. In a 1998 interview she gave with some post-structuralist feminists who work in the same tradition as I do, she wondered aloud whether the “symbolic order” of our culture is actually “primarily or paradigmatically masculine?”

To which I’d say, yeah Judith, yeah it is.

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[1] I want to say here, I care about Judith Butler’s wound, just as I care about everyone’s wounds. Everyone has the right to address their own wounds, and the political interests that they feel follow from that – and we need to be very careful about how we deploy the discourse of ‘exclusion’ when we are dealing with people who are just trying to deal with their own particular shit. It’s one thing to ask white men to be aware that there are people in the world who are not white men, and who experience the world differently, and another to walk up to everyone (it seems mostly to be women tbh) and tell them they are being ‘exclusionary’ when they are just dealing with their own particular damage. Anyway, the issue with Butler is not, fundamentally, that her interests are not feminist interests. That’s fine, in principle. The problem with Butler is that in articulating a solution to dealing with her wound she does something that makes it near impossible for women to articulate theirs. What that then leads to is a situation which feels like a zero-sum game in which two groups of people who both have very legitimate reasons for their hurting, end up playing their wounds off against each other – and it’s no surprise that in a situation like that, things would get extremely ugly extremely fast, and lots of people would wind up getting very very hurt. And seriously, can we please try and work out how to make it stop???? PLEASE.
[2] Here we also run into the issue that ‘constructed’ is generally taken to mean something like ‘not-real,’ ‘contingent,’ or ‘could-just-as-well-be-done-any-other-way-and-is-only-being-done-like-this-because-insert-some-dubiious-political-motive.’ And indeed, that is often what ‘constructed’ means – and we could take, say, the way women’s bodily comportment is policed so that women learn to not occupy space, as a kind of axiomatic example of how a Foucauldian micro-politics of power constructs bodies, and in a way that is certainly contingent and informed by dubious political motives. That said, not all things that are constructed are contingent and could just as well have been done any other way, and the reason for that is, basic human needs and materiality. The best example of this is something that is, literally, constructed – houses. Houses are, for one, definitely real things. For two, we can’t just make them any old way we want . They have to serve a certain function – providing shelter – and in order to do that, there are certain minimum requirements they have to meet – like, they need some kind of wall/roof arrangement (which yes, can be one circular thing like an igloo or a dome tent but it’s still performing a wall/roof function), and there has to be some way to get in and out of them. And there are certain things we can make houses out of – wood, metal, glass, mud, ice, concrete, fabric if its supported, and certain things we can’t make houses out of, candy floss, unfrozen water, mercury, anything that rots too quickly. There are lots and lots of possible cultural variations within those basic parameters, but there are parameters, a.k.a. norms. But there is absolutely nothing ‘contingent’ about those norms, and neither are they informed by dubious political motives.
[3] To take an example. Air consists of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide (plus some other stuff). The constituent parts are all mixed together, and we can’t separate them from each other and it still be air. But, at the same time, the constituent parts are all still what they are, and none of them are ‘excluding’ or ‘absorbing’ or otherwise ‘erasing’ each other. They’re all just being themselves mixed together and in the process, producing the phenomena we call air. Now, this is an analogy, so, I’m not saying the relationship between culture and nature is just like the relationship between nitrogen and oxygen in air, but I am saying it is much more like that than it is like the thing that happens when we think of the constituent parts of something as if they were impermeable solids which must either exclude each other, or otherwise be the same thing. Essentially, the move I’m interested in is that Butler argues that because we can’t neatly separate ‘sex’ from ‘gender’ or ‘material’ from ‘discursive’ (and separating them would be ‘exclusionary’) then they can be collapsed into each other. And that’s wrong.
[4] To clarify, when I say ‘woman’ is both natural and cultural, I’m saying that it’s a composite, and part of the composite is performing the social role of a woman, and most importantly, being subject to patriarchal power and being raised with the gendered expectations of a woman etc. I’m not intending to suggest by that that this ‘cultural’ element of being a woman is fixed or immutable or we shouldn’t try to more or less get rid of it (although who knows what would be left of it in another universe that was not as fucked as this one). What I do mean to suggest is that, under the present circumstances, the definition of woman as only ‘adult human female’ is partial, and indeed, one of the things at stake in this conversation is the extent to which those who were not socially educated as women can fully share the experience of those that were. At the same time, I do also mean to imply that people who were not raised as women who want, in all good faith, to perform the social role of women, and to expose themselves to the social consequences of what that means, are participating in some part of what it is to be a ‘woman.’ Trans-women are trans-women – and the fact that this debate is being framed by the exclusionary binary choice between either ‘trans-women are men’ or ‘trans women are women’ is pretty indicative of exactly how non-deconstructive the thinking is. Trans and natal women are both the same and different, and a whole lot of this mess could be sorted out if we could all just be honest about where we are the same and where we are different, and where, therefore, we have the same political interests and where we don’t.
[5] Okay, here it’s worth thinking about the moves that are being made against ‘woman’ and relatedly ‘female biology’ in popular discourse at the moment. The strategy basically comes down to claiming woman has no essence, or definition (because hahaha, that wouldn’t be anything like what patriarchy has been saying since year dot.) Anyway, this is either expressed by claiming that a) Essence – you cannot identify the determining characteristics that makes someone a woman, because there are always exceptions to every essential characteristic you pick e.g. there will be women who do not have XX chromosomes, or do not menstruate, or have a uterus, or are not capable of bearing children etc. and b) Definition – you cannot draw a neat boundary around the concept of woman, which is where the use of intersex people comes into play to support the claim that ‘sex is a spectrum.’ (And note, intersex people are not happy about this – because they are a vulnerable group with their own political interests and they’re being instrumentalized in somebody else’s political fight, which is fucking dehumanizing.)
There are two things to say about this: Firstly, this is out-and-out Platonism – by which I mean, this argument is wholly dependent on the idea that concepts function through essences i.e. that what makes something ‘what it is’ is that there is something essential that is universally the same in every particular instance – or instantiation – of that concept. It’s important to understand here that the idea of essence and the idea of definition are co-implicated – because essentialist theories of meaning are fundamentally spatialized. That is, we think of concepts like they are spatial areas that we can draw a boundary around (de-fine, or de-lineate), and that ‘inside’ the boundary of the concept, everything is the same, or is the same with respect the possessing the ‘essential’ thing which means it can be included inside the concept (so, there will be tall women, and short women, and white women and women of colour, but they will all possess the ‘essential’ characteristic that makes them ‘women.’)
The first thing to say about this is a) The whole point of post-structuralism is to critique this theory of meaning. Here things get a little complex, but the basic point is this. If you try and destabilize a concept by pointing to its lack of essence or definition, you are still depending on a Platonic/essentialist account of how meaning works. It’s just a form of reverse-Platonism. And I would argue that post-structuralism shouldn’t be about reversing Platonism, it should be about binning Platonism. This is actually where all the stuff about the post-structuralist destruction of meaning comes from. Because if you try and destroy Platonism while everyone still assumes that the Platonic account of meaning is the only way meaning could work, then what everyone hears is ‘there is no meaning.’ But weirdly, there is.
Which brings us to b) The conclusion I, and a lot of post-structuralist feminists, would draw from this (and we can maybe concede that Derrida himself was not always consistent about this), is not that there is no meaning, but that meaning doesn’t work like that. How it does work is of course mad-difficult – and let’s just be clear, we don’t have a fully comprehensive theory of how meaning arises – but I would go for some kind of Aristotelian/Wittgensteinian hybrid. Meaning arises in relation to functions, and functional processes, that happen in the world, or between ourselves and the world. So, for example, mugs are not principally ‘cylindrical ceramic vessels with handles’ (which would be an essentialist way of thinking about them, and then we could go ‘oh, they don’t all have handles, and some of them are made of glass, and mugs and glasses are actually a spectrum and you can’t draw a line between them and that means mugs don’t actually exist.’ Which is stupid, because they do). Rather, by a functional theory, mugs would be ‘drinking hot liquid things.’ (And because of the interaction of the materiality of the world, and human ergonomics, and the function they have to perform, some rough parameters follow from that – they have to be about the right size to be held in human hands, they have a hole in them to hold liquid, they need to be made from something that can hold hot liquid without dissolving or cracking, and they usually have handles so we can pick them up without burning ourselves, apart from when we solve that problem some other way, like by wrapping them in some kind of thermoplastic (and if we don’t solve that problem and still remove the handle, what we have is a shit mug.)) What that means is that all the things in the category of ‘mugs’ do not all have the same ‘essential’ characteristics, but are related in a way we could call ‘family resemblances.’ And this will be even more true when we include ‘inside’ particular concepts, words which have moved around from one functional space in the world to another. Because that’s what we do – we encounter (or often make, by inventing something) a new function in the world, and we take a word from somewhere else that is in some way related, and stick it onto the new thing in some modified form…so, for example, the idea of connections between nodes we see in a fishing net, will then get applied to the connections between other things we see in, say, a rail ‘network,’ and will then be applied to the connections between computer terminals in the ‘internet.’ All the things inside the category of ‘net-like things’ won’t all share the same essential characteristics, but there is a ‘family resemblance’ between them which makes them part of the great cluster of things we meaningfully describe using ‘net’-words.)
So the second general point is, this critique of the meaning of ‘woman’ is bunk, and most importantly, if you were going to insist on the importance of this critique, it could just as well be applied to every single concept in the world, and nothing would mean anything. And things do mean things, ergo, that’s not how meaning works. What this further means, given that people are not generally running around deploying this critique against every single concept in the world, nor, most notably, against the existence of any other political category of people – like, really, should we go and do this to, say, Native Americans? No, I rather think we shouldn’t – is that the instrumentalization of reverse Platonism against the category of ‘woman’ is metaphysical bullshit that is entirely politically motivated. And if I have to see one more conversation in which some twenty-something too-cool-for-school third-waver arrogates themselves a ton of purported theoretical sophistication when they try and destabilise the concept and comes over all superior about stupid old feminists and their retrograde ‘essentialist’ definitions I will seriously lose my shit.
[6] There is perhaps a question here about where this leaves gender abolitionism, as it could be argued that that is precisely an effort to erase the ‘cultural’ side of the binary. Here I’ll just say that the whole point about the ‘cultural’ as opposed to the ‘natural’ is that its changeable (within certain parameters). Even if our culture around sexed bodies was, ‘there should be no limitations imposed on sexed bodies,’ it would still be a culture. And given that the materiality of sexed bodies imposes all kinds of constraints, there will always be a more elaborate culture than that – such as, say, for the practice of sports.
[7] To be clear, the claim that white women’s experience of oppression isn’t the same as Black people’s experience of oppression, and that white women shouldn’t make analogies that suggest they understand Black people’s experience of oppression, or appropriate Black people’s experience of oppression in order the illustrate their own, seems evidently right to me. At the level of individual and class experience we are all situated in our specific ways. However, what is not clear to me, and what no one has given me an adequate account of, is why we cannot draw analogies between how gender functions and how race functions as metaphysical-political systems. The racist-capitalist-patriarchal mechanisms of binary hierarchy and exclusion which have constructed both ‘woman’ and ‘Black’ as the ‘other’ of the white, male subject, function according to the same (although differently inflected) logic, and the mechanisms of appropriation, colonization and sexual violence which follow from that logic have played themselves out in the history of both groups of peoples (although again, how that is experienced at the level of the individual will differ, and especially for women of colour, because intersectionality). If we can’t talk about the metaphysical-political co-implication of gender and race when we are analysing the logic of the system, we lose an incredibly important aspect of how we understand, and hence think about dismantling, structures of oppression. And that’s ground I don’t want to give unless someone can tell me why I should in a way that makes sense. Given the complete failure for anyone to give an adequate account of this with respect to the Dolezal-issue (and to be clear, as far as I’m concerned, if Black people say no then Black people say no), I’m sceptical that anyone has a good argument about why these things are different at the level of the metaphysical-political other than ‘because reasons or else.’