I have thus previously attempted to review radfems claims about about gender, for the purposes of creating a workable definition.
To the best of my ability, I thus determine that radfems define gender as the social structures of inequality, otherwise known as “gender roles” or “sex roles,” that create social inequality and unequal distribution of resources, gender discrimination, sexism, misogyny, gender-based violence, etc. Radfems appear to believe that there are only two possible gender categories: “the dominator” and “the dominated,” because gender categories are about naturalizing dominance, and these roles appear to be absolute, and either “on” or “off.” This definition of gender assumes that gender is entirely socially constructed externally to the subject, who has no participation of creating their own gender as it is imposed entirely externally. Likewise, either no one forms meaningful self-identities around their imposed gender, or that any identities that are formed are a false consciousness or reinforcing the Patriarchy.
There seems to be an assumption among radfems that sex is not a socially constructed category, that it is concrete and absolute. It is yet unclear to me why this should be assumed to be the case. It seems that, while desiring a theory that explains “gender roles” are oppressive—because there is no biological connection between the observed sex differences and the socialized roles that men and women are ascribed to—this necessitated the idea that sex is the natural category or else the concept of women’s-only organizing threatens to become obsolete.
However, the theory behind why “gender roles” came to be seems to assume that it was necessitated by men’s desire to dominate women, which comes about the odd way of say that men’s behavior is biologically determined, but women’s is not.
This has dire implications for what “gender liberation” can really mean, as well as gender resistance. Women are therefore free to experiment of gender variance, butch and femme lesbians, cross dressing, etc., but because men’s motives are always assumed to be about domination, the reverse is never tolerable. This explains why trans women are uniquely vilified while trans men may be tolerated or viewed as traitors seeking to gain the privilege of the dominant class, but are often still accepted into womyn-born womyn spaces: because women’s enactment of domination isn’t biologically determined. This seems to also be the reason that trans women are ascribed with “cultural penises” and labeled as having “male bodies,” regardless of how their bodies actually move, function, speak or how they take up space.
In comparison, I present an entirely different definition of “gender,” as a theoretical reference point. This definition of gender is heavily influenced by Kessler & McKenna’s work on gender identification. My purpose in presenting a definition is not to try to be yet another cis gender feminist theorizing about trans* peoples bodies and experiences, or to speak for them, but to articulate a gender theory for my feminism that is compatible with radical feminism and trans feminism.
“Woman” is the culturally defined categorical opposite of “Man” in the bi-gendered schema held by most Western societies. These categories denote expectations of difference in the general behavioral, physical and psychological traits of individuals, including beliefs such as “men are strong” and “women are emotional.” Learning to distinguish these categories is a process of acculturation in early childhood, and once learned the trigger for categorizing a stranger into either “man” or “woman” happens usually within seconds based on small and seemingly arbitrary visual cues.
There are many of these visual cues and the differentiation happens generally by determining which cues carry more weight. I.e., a man may have smooth, hairless skin, long hair and lack a muscular figure, yet still be read as “man” based on very minute details, such as a strong jawline, height or the pitch of voice. Given the arbitrariness of determining which gender is which, most individuals use established cultural symbols to further emphasize which gender they have learned to enact, such as: body postures, gestures and mannerisms, clothing and hair styles, and ornamentation. Western cultures reinforce this schema by establishing important myths about bodies as gendered opposites, making up two halves, having opposing but (usually) complementary characteristics. These myths are deeply entrenched in most of the rest of Western societies’ institutions, such has marriage, sexuality, labor and reproduction. Western societies myths often place a strong emphasis on the body as the originator of this bi-gendered system, although in actuality it is this western schema that sorts bodies into two genders. Almost all of the specific “physical” cues members rely on can exist in any number of configurations. In comparison, many non-western societies place considerably more emphasis on defining gender by the labor a member does, and may have gender schemas that include three or more gender categories.
Members learn to respond to others based on which category, “man” or “woman,” that someone is placed in, and that others will do the same to them. Members also learn that they are expected to place themselves into one category or the other, and to build up internal, self-validating identities based on how well they can or cannot fit within these categories, or conversely, how dysfunctionally they do not fit. Members who do not fit the established schema may or may not be bothered by this, may seek out alternative gender definitions through cultural subversion or resistance, or they may seek to move themselves from the engrained category to the one that is more psychologically validating.
Despite all of this work to enforce this bi-gendered schema, it is frequently exposed as an illusion in small interactions between members when one member inadvertently mis-genders another member by misjudging the visual cues provided. When this happens, it can be extremely psychologically jarring. Because of the entrenched cultural myths among western societies that there are two and only two genders, many members may feel intense anxiety and agitation when they cannot be certain which category to put someone in. Occasionally this anxiety provokes violent lashing out against the person for “causing” them to feel this way.
These “oppositional” definitions have the effect of creating one category that is viewed as “capable, strong, intelligent, etc.” (the specific attitudes attached vary considerably), making the opposite category “inept, weak, unintelligent, etc.” Some members find this arrangement oppressive and restrictive, and have sought to organize to disrupt this arrangement. At any given point, there are likely to be members of a society that vehemently oppose the current structure and seek to destroy it while others work to re-establish it. This situation makes these gender categories constantly unstable, yet almost all members, as a function of their socialization continue to recognize and respond to each other in particular ways using these categories even as they shift and reform.
Even though these categories are largely illusions and unstable, they still present very real, tangible effects for members, just like any other social construct. The categorizing of members has important consequences for distribution of resources, treatment by institutions, the type work a member can do, what sorts of power they may have access to, how other members treat them, whether they are more or less likely to experience particular types of violence, whether they are more or less expected to participate in particular types of violence, etc.
Based on this definition, sex is not assumed to be a natural category from which gender arises, either through biological determinism of gendered behavior or as an entirely unrelated, solid and naturalized concept upon which the “gender fiction” is erroneously imposed. Instead, both sex and gender are culturally defined, as is the relationship that is assumed to exist between them. It suggests that “biological determinism” is a function of a specific culture’s expectation about sex and gender, because it suggests that “biology” including “biological sex” is also culturally defined, as the experience of intersex individuals attests, as does the disturbing history of medical and psychiatric science.
The definition of someone’s sex and gender are therefore a product both of their own self-categorization, and how other people perceive them. People perceive individuals to be women, and treat them as women, whether with paternalism or misogyny, their treatment is structured by how they are perceived. But individuals internal identities matter and so do their experiences, including experiences as another gender (whether temporary or coercively enforced.)
In the “Trans Feminist Manifesto,” Emi Koyama talks about the dangers of an essentialist definition of gender identity:
“As trans people begin to organize politically it is tempting to adopt the essentialist notion of gender identity. The cliché popularized by the mass media is that trans people are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’ or vice versa. The attractiveness of such a strategy is clear, as the general population is more likely to become supportive of us if we could convince them that we are somehow born with a biological error over which we have no control over it. It is also often in tune with our own sense of who we are, which feels very deep and fundamental to us. However, as transfeminists, we resist such temptations because of their implications.
Trans people have often been described as those whose physical sex does not match the gender of their mind or soul. This explanation might make sense intuitively, but it is nonetheless problematic for transfeminism. To say that one has a female mind or soul would mean there are male and female minds that are different from each other in some identifiable way, which in turn may be used to justify discrimination against women. Essentializing our gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological essentialism.”
She also suggests that trans women and men should own when they have benefited from privileges granted by being viewed as male, even when those benefits were experienced as comfortable or shameful,
“When confronted with [the argument that trans women were raised as boys and so benefited from male privilege], a natural initial response of trans women is to deny ever having any male privilege whatsoever in their lives. it is easy to see how they would come o believe that being born male was more of a burden than a privilege: many of them despised having male bodies and being treated as boys as they grew up….
However, as transfeminists, we must resist such a simplistic reaction. While it is true that male privilege affects some men far more than others, it is hard to imagine that trans women born as males never benefited from it. … They have been trained to be assertive and confident, and some trans women manage to maintain these ‘masculine’ traits, often to their advantage, after transitioning.
What is happening here is that we often confuse the oppression we have experienced for being gender-deviant with the absence of the male privilege. Instead of claiming that we have never benefited from male supremacy, we need to assert that our experiences represent a dynamic interaction between male privilege an the disadvantage of being trans.”
The fact that both gender and sex are socially constructed does not lead logically to the ridiculous assumption, perpetrated by plenty of radfems, that they are meaningless categories, that they are illusions, or that a trans person is suffering from a delusion when they experience gender.
This definition does not assume a “normal” versus “abnormal” experience of gender, whether someone experiences gender as an internal identity or as externally imposed is variable. The response to the experience of mismatched gendered expectations is not assumed, some people may find it annoying but not seek to impose an alternative gender script, some people may adopt butch/hard/femme/queer identities and some may adopt transgender identities. The use of the word “adopt” is a misnomer, because a lot of gender work is not enacted at a fully conscious and intentional level.
There is a belief among many radfems that the lives and experiences of trans* people is “up for debate” based on the idea that trans* people perpetuate sexist stereotypes of women (less so men), because the entire concept of transgenderism or the transgender community is based on sexist stereotypes. This is point of fact, blatantly ridiculous.
I would not be the first person to point out that if trans* people conform to gendered stereotypes, it is because society at large often demands more overtly feminine performances in order to “pass,” and “passing” is often a dire issue of safety for trans* people. If the gender presentation of a particular trans person seems “sexist”, it is because that society’s dominant scripts about gender are sexist, not because “having a gendered identity” is an inherently sexist concept.