The adoption of gender identity laws* by many states, and the endorsement of such laws by organs of the United Nations, demonstrates a failure to recognize women as a political class and women’s liberation as a fundamental component of the human rights project.
The transgender or gender identity movement in itself is a civil society phenomenon that has claimed the mantle of feminism and the mantle of lesbian and gay liberation as well. But it is states who bear the responsibility for the denial of women as a political class and the ensuring violations of women’s human rights.
The women’s liberation movement fought for abolition of all forms of male dominance and exploitation of women, and recognized gender as a social and cultural elaboration of identities for men and women that not only limited individuals’ freedoms and opportunities but also kept in place the political and economy hierarchy with men on the top and women on the bottom. This movement, now known as radical feminism, still fights all forms of male domination and exploitation of women. It is an international and intersectional movement, keeping in mind that to be intersectional, women have to be recognized as a political class – intersectionality does not mean the obliteration of any political class or denying that there is any common political agenda, but rather pursuing the liberation of all members of that class including where that political agenda intersects with others.
Lesbians are caught in the cross-hairs of gender identity as an attack on women as a political class, most obviously because gender identity is promoted in our name through the ‘LGBTQ’ movement, but so are women of color, disabled women and women with other identities that have to fight intersectional battles, and those who have to defend themselves individually against male violence or who fight for its eradication. Early in the US feminist movement, lesbians were told we weren’t wanted. We are often treated as ‘not really women’. Women of color and disabled women are also treated as ‘not really women’ or as the ‘wrong kind of woman’. Every woman is exposed to social control and disapproval when she steps over the line of femininity as pleasing men and dedicating one’s own will and actions to maintaining a veneer of pleasantness in the family and in society, serving the interests of all hierarchies and systems of exploitation. It is exactly trampling these lines of femininity that women need to survive, to defend ourselves against male violence both organized and individual, and to act in the world as responsible individuals and citizens.
The gender identity movement takes part of the feminist agenda, part of the lesbian and gay agenda, and makes it the sole focus to be enforced against the other parts of those movements. The freedom to express ourselves and cross the lines of femininity and masculinity as individuals is part of both feminism/women’s liberation and lesbian/gay liberation. It is a beautiful thing to see this freedom of expression win greater acceptance – but it has a conservative side, as the freedom is won by appealing to the construct of gender as a set of social cues in communication, e.g. I wear lipstick and present the appearance of breasts, therefore respond to me as a woman, or I tell you my pronouns are ‘they/them’, therefore respond to me as if you are agnostic about my sex. It’s conservative because it treats an oppressive system as merely the cumulative product of individual choices, similar to a marketplace, and merely demands that the terms on which the market operates are made more equal in terms of opportunity to choose positions irrespective of sex. But we don’t start out equal and don’t end up equal; it’s nonsense to treat a political hierarchy and system of economic and sexual exploitation as a marketplace – to do so merely entrenches the system of male domination/exploitation/extraction of resources from women along with all its dependent and intersectional hierarchies and systems of exploitation. In order to act against oppression we have to act collectively to change the conditions that confront us; political action is not a marketplace.
Democracy has sometimes functioned as a marketplace especially when we are talking about majority vote and campaigns that function as marketing and not as political debate or deliberation. But the answer is to bring back political debate, deliberation and collective action – not to capitulate to an individualism that is tantamount to despair.
The state is responsible for its violation of the human rights of women, but at the same time women have a right to question the state. Democracy is a human right of a people to self-determination and pre-exists any particular form of political organization. Equality of the sexes is fundamental to democracy, otherwise it is not democracy but androcracy. Having been given the right to vote by states created by men, we are playing catch-up while men continue to shape the laws and customs to their own benefit, i.e. to treat rape as an individual crime for which sympathy is doled out or withheld on a racial basis to victim or perpetrator, rather than as a systemic hate crime against women that is to be eradicated.** ‘Democracy’ itself cannot legitimize violations of human rights; like legal capacity it is a meta-right, a right that encapsulates a status for the exercise of freedom, and as a collective right, democracy remains accountable for the relations among individuals that it endorses and for those by which it operates.
The state should be the target of women’s political action and organizing, not the gender identity movement per se. It is the state that bears responsibility within a human rights framework, and the state which, as the form of modern political organization that is answerable to democratic demands or can be targeted for political resistance if it rejects those demands. The best and most successful organizing is being done in response to state initiatives like the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, which also benefits from a large grass-roots movement that was able to mobilize through an anonymous discussion board where women congregate to discuss political and nonpolitical issues of many kinds (MumsNet). In the US our spheres of political action and debate are circumscribed, truncated and heavily influenced by political parties, funders and media that have created a political culture of spin and power rather than deliberation or collective action that can sustain itself independently, with some important exceptions. We should learn from other countries and other struggles as we work intersectionally for women’s liberation.
*By gender identity laws I mean laws that allow men to change their legal classification to that of women, whether based on self-identification or on medical or social gatekeeping. Self-identification laws are the most pernicious for women’s rights because they allow the greatest number of men to enter and represent the most complete denial of women as a political class, but laws that require gatekeeping are nevertheless problematic for the autonomy of the female sex to define itself.
**The Nordic model for ending prostitution, which provides support for women to exit the sex industry and penalizes sex buyers to criminalize the demand for commodified sex moves us toward a systemic approach by targeting sexual exploitation at the industrial level.