Category Archives: gender critical

Dispossession of women

I was listening last night to David Harvey’s lecture on part 8 of Marx’s Capital, which feels like ‘this is the real dirt on capitalism’ that Marx set aside for the purpose of making his argument in the early chapters. Original accumulation or accumulation by dispossession, i.e. private property really is theft on a massive and systematic scale. The existence of capital and labor-power as the two essential components of the capitalist economic system cannot be brought about except by violently dispossessing people from the land and their homes, taking away from them the ability to work for themselves. This continues most obviously through colonialism but is also present as a feature of the continual evolution of capitalism in all its stages. Harvey cites Rosa Luxembourg for this and also gives the example of the subprime housing crisis as continuing expropriation within a developed capitalist economy.

What struck me beyond capitalism itself, is applying the accumulation by dispossession to male-female relations. The trans movement in its demand for gender identity to supersede sex is, from women’s point of view, nothing more or less than a reassertion of patriarchy by the aggressive and violent accumulation of social capital on behalf of the male sex at the expense of the female sex.

There is no need from a human rights and non-discrimination point of view to dispossess women from the spaces and institutions we have created for ourselves – chosen, created through hard work and advocacy, for love of ourselves and other women – in order to recognize the existence of gender diversity and of social groups that help to expand this diversity. It is true that we use the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ to mean both sex classes and something more that has a range of cultural overtones varying by culture, (language!), and individual. That is why I use the terms transwoman and transman in order to acknowledge those individuals’ personal identities. They are outlier identities just as lesbian, dyke, butch are outlier identities. We exist in a similar space on the edges of our cultures’ mainstream gender norms and expectations.

My awakening to the problems with transgender advocacy came primarily from reconnecting with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival after a hiatus of many years and finding how much the energy of the women who continued putting it on and attending was being sapped by vicious attacks on the livelihood of performers and the existence of this female-centered community in itself. Michigan was, I used to think, the premier cultural institution of lesbian feminism in the United States; everything that was being discussed or worked out in our community, whether theory or practiced, came through and the festival’s handling of it showed the rest of us one way (or more) it could be addressed. So it was with the Womyn of Color tent, DART (oh help me out with what it stands for – an area set aside for disabled women and a hub for access needs), areas for non-smoking and smoking, chem-free and chem-tolerant, quiet and noisy, Twilight zone where anything goes. So it was also with transgender attendees. Despite the known presence of transwomen at the festival including on the work crews which were its core community, transgender activists attacked the festival as transphobic for its stated intention that the festival be for ‘womyn-born-womyn’ only. In lesbian feminist culture, intention is important in shaping the spaces we create and the future we desire. It is an affirmation and projection of ourselves into material reality without violent insistence on our own way. Why did transgender activists attack this festival and count it as a victory when the festival’s entrepreneur Lisa Vogel decided to retire after the 40-year anniversary, if the aim was to create space for gender outliers rather than to dispossess women?

Many current debates among gender-critical feminists (my definition: women who are actual feminists, advocating the defeat of patriarchy/male dominance and who reject the contention that gender identity supersedes sex) center around the degree to which any of us are willing to acknowledge the social group of people who consider themselves to be transgender. Some women refuse to use the terms transwoman or transman or even transgender, as they consider these terms to give too much ground. They consider that ‘gender identity’ as a concept contains in itself the aggressive dispossession of women – the political and legal erasure of women as a recognizable social group ourselves. On the other end of the spectrum are those who would concede to transwomen some inclusion in the category of women for some purposes, but would protect female-only spaces particularly in situations of vulnerability such as spas and changing rooms, prisons, shelters, hospital and rehabilitation settings, and in sports. Some of us like myself want to recognize the social groups of gender outliers by the names and concepts they choose for themselves and believe this can be done without accepting that ‘gender identity’ is a universalizing concept by which everyone can be reliably classified so as to displace sex. I do not think it is warranted to allow any members of the male sex to be considered women for any purpose, given the impossibility of justifying this according to a materialist feminist analysis and the need to maintain and nurture women’s resistance to patriarchy, our ability to reliably create female-only space for ourselves, to protect and defend lesbians and lesbian cultures.

The question of separatism is re-raised for lesbian-feminists, and our separatist cultural and political forms are flourishing. Sarah Hoagland commented once that the anarchist/socialist debate was reflected in lesbian feminist community as separatism/radical feminism. I don’t yet know where to go with that thought, and hope to explore with Sarah how she sees it, but my inclination is some of both. There is always a material reality underneath the social forms that, if we can gain independent ground we can stand on to mount a resistance. (I have also recently read the account of Emma Goldman’s involvement with the Spanish anarchist movement – in Emma Goldman in Exile, by Alice Wexler.) Land is a source of independence; some women are creating a high degree of self-sufficiency for themselves through subsistence living, creating all-female land communities, and/or simply re-orienting ourselves to what it means to live in the world based in relationship to land rather than the socially overdetermined spaces of cities. For women this is a meaningful lifting of the male gaze and male intrusions; while we have to defend ourselves we have greater scope to defend and the time and space to think for ourselves and think through personal and collective strategies.

At the same time I am aware of how small a percentage of women, even of lesbian feminists, the land dykes represent, and the many obstacles to accessing land and living sustainably (for oneself) in rural areas of the United States – knowledge of country skills, economic resources and access to livelihood, race/ethnicity discrimination, misogyny and homophobia facing women buying home or land and arranging for work to be done that we can’t do ourselves, uncertainty and precarity of all kinds. The distances between our lands is great for the most part, though there are clusters in a few places. If we could create (or fan the flames of) a vibrant lesbian-feminist land culture and develop it politically to the point where it could pose a real alternative for women in general, we would face violence and other threats to our existence. It seems to me sometimes that women in this land culture may have mixed feelings (and send mixed messages) about openness and inclusivity (among females), aiming for spaces to be refuges for women and a land base for women’s freedom but also wanting to curate the women admitted into these communities and maintain them as personal rather than collective refuges for those who have made the community their home.

I am a lawyer by training and profession, practicing international human rights advocacy. That is about as far from land-dyke separatism as possible, but I do live in the country, on some land, with my wife. We are part of the larger far-flung land-dyke community and recent visits have reaffirmed this connection. I am not sure whether land-dyke separatism is a refuge that allows me to do my work – that nourishes me in so many indescribable ways – or whether my work involves the theorizing of projections into a future where this way of living will be one among other sustainable ones available to human beings if and when capitalism collapses in on itself with as few casualties as possible.

Submission to UN SOGI Expert

‘This submission is to clarify that there is a stance taken by feminists who maintain that sex matters and needs to be acknowledged as separate from gender identity, and who reject any attempt by religious fundamentalists to use us as a wedge against ‘gender ideology’. ‘

Read full submission here.

Identities and who gets to have them

Identity is a paradox. We’re all human, and society – well let’s say patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist/racist society – constructs all kinds of ways to select some people to rule over others and exploit them. Those who are on the bottom don’t get much say in their identity, or anybody else’s. Those at the top get to hide behind a mask of neutrality and objectivity, they are the gods naming everybody else and can remain unnamed themselves.

There is a paradox in oppressed people finding their own voices, because we are embedded in culture that has defined us as the objects for others’ use, for their manipulation and management. Yet every oppression also entails the oppressors knowledge that oppressed people are human beings, subjects with will and creativity and the power to turn their gaze on the oppressor, unmask the oppressor, appropriate even the oppressor’s language to change the common fabric of culture. (It is only by being aware of the humanity – the personhood – of those you oppress, that you instrumentalize their capabilities and seek their compliance; punishment and reward, manipulation and deception all demonstrate this paradox. Oppressed people develop strategies of resistance and accommodation both within and against an oppressive system, and suffer moral injury from compliance; political consciousness is not a given and cultivating it can be both painful and prolonged.)

It seems that there is first a sense of not being able to speak (or naming the reality that one’s speech is made an impossibility), having no words and no context to name the reality of who we are that is crossed out, named to death against us. Listening to ourselves, using the inherent creativity of a conscious being, what Hannah Arendt calls natality, by paying attention in new ways, we find what it is we need to say. Post-colonial studies, women’s studies, pedagogy of the oppressed, ‘hearing each other into speech’, creating separatist spaces to encounter one another free from the exempted gaze and discourse of those who speak from outside this reality and put together the shards of what needs to be made whole; or talk about the brokenness and witness the whole emerge.

Identity and material reality

I’m going to talk about survivor identity here, and the concept of psychosocial disability, users and survivors of psychiatry, and also women as in women’s liberation. Who the ‘we’ is that gets to define who ‘we’ are – that gets to name ourselves, to take the reins of power from the oppressed, to define the oppressed. So starting with women, because the identity has now become convoluted – if anyone can define themselves as a woman, and the oppressor class is now those who would gatekeep and deny such definition…. we see the oppressed pushed back into silence, denied the power and even the linguistic possibility of naming ourselves. We are defined out of existence as an oppressed class, by virtue of a theory that can admit even that society constructs oppression based on sex – what gender theory cannot admit is the existence of oppressor and oppressed classes that are materially constituted not as biological essentialism but as power, so that female human beings can be understood as a class naming themselves. (We do not have to claim a universal female experience; nor do we have to claim any universal or monolithic experience of any other oppressed group – e.g. every oppressed group contains both male and female human beings who are differently situated, and that is intersectionality.)

OK, so material oppression can be analyzed, and posited as a fact underlying this politicization of identity, a fact or a ground on which people who are experiencing oppression can recognize themselves as oppressed, separate themselves from the oppressor, and begin to speak against the oppressor and construct a new consciousness that leads toward a deliberate strategy to end the oppression materially.

Psychiatric oppression and madness-related identities

How does that apply to psychiatric oppression? Or, what does it mean to combat psychiatric oppression as a survivor of it, and how does that relate to the other identities that it has been linked to? We say there is no ‘there’ there, that the material reality of psychiatric oppression is the selection by psychiatrists of their victims through the acts of diagnosis and hospitalization and treatment that may be formally voluntary or involuntary but in which the person has no real power to negate the material fact of this selection if the psychiatrist insists on it through involuntary commitment actually carried out or threatened in order to gain compliance. But what about people who present themselves to psychiatry seeking services, who may use psychiatric drugs and struggle to go off them but have never been involuntarily committed and lead full lives? What about people who go through a period of madness without being locked up? And really what about those of us who were locked up once, got out and never looked back? What is it that defines all of us as a collective? Is there a material reality to madness – again a kind of black-box, what does it mean? – we can reframe it as distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions, does that help? Is that actually an experience common to all people, and could we say something about this experience significantly impacting a person’s life either for a period of time or long-term? Including the long-term impact of the profound discrimination and violence entailed in the psychiatric selection and subjugation? (Maybe, maybe not; do we need to refer to madness and define it – if we refer to it I think it has to be defined so as to avoid romanticism and circular subjectivism; is it useful to define a material reality as a basis for our collective reference group, and is ‘madness’ the starting point for such definition that makes most sense?)

The reason this becomes important is that we cannot actually rely on people to come out about their experience in any uniform way; this is true about any identity that is not immediately visible, including (for some people) being gay or lesbian, and even about identities that are immediately visible such as people who have limited mobility – no one is required to claim any particular identity even if others might apply it to them. (Note that madness is imputed and therefore visible in some sense, and the markers for perceiving someone as mad say more about the social construct of madness than about any characteristic of a person; this can be said about other identities as well but madness imputes an internal state of being to the person that is impossible for anyone else to directly ascertain, even if it can be well defined.)

The madness-related identities, including simply being labeled and treated as a mad person by others – and perhaps madness amounts to this exact disconnection – but then what about those who simply use mental health services, who might identify as having a mental health condition, or might simply say, I see a therapist for trauma counseling, or I use a psychiatric drug to help me stay alert and focused – are they all on the same continuum? We might have converging interests for example in banning electroshock and banning or seriously challenging the prescribing of neuroleptic drugs (the equivocation about neuroleptics in contrast to the banning of electroshock reflects the state of negotiated consensus among the constituency; more people use neuroleptics satisfactorily by choice than have satisfactory experiences with electroshock, among activists in the human rights-focused – as opposed to medical model – movement of the collective); we might converge in caring about reform or abolition of psychiatry and mental health discourse, or psy disciplines (again the equivocation reflects ongoing debates about reform vs abolition of psychiatry etc and what this might mean; it is a separate question from abolition of involuntary commitment).

We might also converge on fighting for abolition of psychiatry’s power to select and subjugate, i.e. all the powers related to involuntary commitment, because anyone close to the mental health system can get sucked under in a moment if a drug wreaks havoc unexpectedly, perhaps from a new prescription or change in the dosage, or by confiding newly emerging deep and raw feelings to a therapist or psychiatrist who is unprepared and decides this makes you a danger to self or others.

Does it matter that we have different experiences? Does it matter that some of us experienced a crisis (also somewhat of a black box requiring explication) only once, and whether or not we were locked up and therefore claim a survivor identity? Does it matter if we still experience trauma from being locked up? Does it matter if the only discrimination we currently face is by identifying as a survivor, bearing witness and fighting for abolition, and thus confronting all the prejudice that reads ‘survivor of psychiatric violence’ as ‘mental patient’, ‘mentally ill person’? Who has the choice to identify in or out, and how much depends on political solidarity? If my identification as a survivor and indelibly part of ‘this collective’ is based on bearing witness, declaring ‘never again’ and understanding that no one in ‘this collective’ of identities related to madness is differently situated than me in that we all have been or are vulnerable to being exposed to psychiatric violence and related oppression – is it a personal identity? Does it say anything about me, other than that I refuse to exempt myself, refuse to escape a collective fate? (Well, I personally stay far away from psychiatry and there is no one left in my life who has an agenda of psychiatrizing me, so I don’t feel myself to be at risk except as a form of political retaliation that could mobilize my identity and acknowledged history, and this comes to the surface when I am called upon to take risks in any kind of activism for human rights. But beyond that, is there a survivor guilt or simply a political commitment and calling to do the work I do?)

Problematizing identities and the choice to not identify

I need to problematize these identities and the diversity within our collective, because the choice of whether to identify or not is political, especially when a person is doing work on ‘our issues’. That is to say, when a person is in a position of advocating ‘for the human rights of people with psychosocial disabilities’ or pronouncing on these rights in an official capacity, and has had relevant experiences but feels that they do not really qualify or prefers not to take on the identity in doing the work. Sometimes people in such roles openly acknowledge that they use mental health services, and may also consider that they are being treated for a ‘mental health condition’, but balk at the suggestion that this places them within the collective of ‘people with psychosocial disabilities’. (They should know, by the way, that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities instructed Spain that it could not maintain a false distinction between people with mental health conditions and people with psychosocial disabilities; for purposes of the Convention all people with mental health conditions are to be treated as people with psychosocial disabilities. This came in the context of Spain having argued that the Committee’s recommendations to repeal legislation authorizing deprivation of liberty based on psychosocial disability had nothing to do with Spain, because their legislation only authorized involuntary hospitalization based on a mental health condition. Well, that was a non-starter for the CRPD Committee which emphatically told them otherwise. (This illustrates a material convergence of interests irrespective of whether or not an individual chooses to self-identify.))

The point is that playing word games about identity doesn’t get to the real issue. If you say you’re not a person with a disability, large numbers of people who identify as mental health service users or as survivors of psychiatry also don’t like the term disability and don’t identify with it personally; it’s a tool to claim our human rights and the concept of disability non-discrimination works well as applied to core issues of this constituency; our version of the social model of disability is that every person is fine just as they are and society needs to accommodate them and act in solidarity with them rather than trying to ‘fix’ the person – not the version that parses out impairment from social disablement and links them through the existence of barriers. If you say you’re not oppressed – well not all of us who identify have been either. Not all of us have been locked up, not all of us struggle to go off psychiatric drugs, not all of us experience long-term or intermittent distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions. Not all of us have been electroshocked, not all of us have been neurolepticized, not all of us have been put in restraints or institutionalized long-term, not all of us have been locked up. Not all of us live in poverty, not all of us experience racial oppression or oppression based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex. It is a heterogeneous identity or heterogeneous collective, in that it includes people whose experiences do not overlap with each other. (So what is it that leads some to identity and others not, and why does it matter?)

Sometimes people disclose experiences privately that inform their passionate advocacy for legal capacity or abolition of forced psychiatry or, perhaps more problematically, ‘human rights in mental health’. I don’t out people unless they are disclosing experiences of another person – e.g. if someone discloses that a family member is a person with psychosocial disability, I do inform my colleagues in the movement that this person is a family member because that’s an identity to watch out for especially when the person advocates the permissibility of any forced interventions. But I don’t disclose a person’s confidences about having used mental health services or having experienced madness. I think we have a right to our own privacy. (If someone has once put themselves forward as a member of a delegation of a representative organization of users and survivors of psychiatry, I may also clarify that I was under the impression that this person was a member of the collective, as we do not put forward others to speak for us. There are material interests at stake, in terms of reputation and credibility, and I do reject the simultaneous attempt to benefit from such elevation and denying a personal stake in the issue as to which expert status is claimed.)

Keeping these confidences puts me in an awkward and problematic position. I want to challenge those who confide in me, or who might think of doing so, to think about the self-exemption that they have chosen in contrast to my choice of solidarity. I would like them to understand that there is no inherent difference between us – and especially that appealing to the question of whether or not a person has been oppressed by virtue of madness-related experience is not read by society as the meaning of ‘psychosocial disability’. (If this applies to you, reader, you might consider the impact of occupying space by virtue of speaking on issues about which you disclaim any personal stake, which is a privileged position, and either come out about your own stake in the matter or give up your space to someone who possesses human rights expertise and is willing to claim their personal stake as well. It is not by claiming an identity, but by claiming expertise, that you occupy a space illegitimately. The world needs more of us who challenge society’s disconnect between madness and reason, not fewer; and you cannot escape your personal contradiction by doing the work while remaining closeted.)

The world reads self-identification as part of this collective, whether as a survivor of psychiatric violence, mad person, mental health service user, etc., as categorically meaning a person with mental illness who then must always speak as a patient, as a petitioner for others’ attention, and never as an authority – never as a legal innovator, except accidentally and exceptionally; never as an official of state. If we have these extra identities, they are superimposed on ‘mental patient’ rather than understood as who we are in the world, coming from a standpoint as survivors of psychiatric violence, etc. It’s important for those who use mental health services but don’t identify with the collective, to consider what you are keeping by remaining separate, and to reflect on and be open about your own relationship to mental health services or madness – yes, including ‘distress’ – when you are discussing mental health policy, abolition of forced psychiatry, legal capacity.

Nobody can make you identify in a way that you don’t, nobody can make you join a group that you don’t want to join or to speak in a representative capacity. But if you don’t identify your own particular stake in the work, if you speak in a voice that claims neutrality and objectivity, you are in effect privileging your own position by refusing to put it in dialogue with others in the heterogeneous collective. Everyone ought to put their own standpoint on the line publicly, including family members, friends, people who have no relationship to it whatsoever and might be curious – it can’t be that self-identified survivors, people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health users are ‘marked’ and those who choose not to self-identify, or who never had any connection on the receiving end of the drug or the needle or therapy, get to stay outside as ‘unmarked’ and their position privileged as having no axe to grind.

Anyone working on these issues needs to ask themselves, what is your connection to ‘mental health’, to madness and to forced psychiatry? Did you ever call the police on somebody to involuntarily commit them? Did you ever exclude somebody from your land group or political committee because they were too difficult and you decided they were bipolar or had borderline personality disorder? We’re all in this in our real lives, and nobody is exempt.

‘Occupying space’ as a mad person, as a woman, as a lesbian

There is the question of whether you are taking the place of someone who deserves it more than you, if you are only seeing a therapist and have never been locked up or taken psychiatric drugs, do you really count? But I would like to say, there are not a finite number of ‘spaces’ to occupy. Nor is it a particular space that one occupies in a figurative sense, by coming out about one’s personal relationship to an issue. The identities as such don’t matter – except when someone categorically sets themselves apart from this identity that they see others as falling within. Nobody – certainly not I – chooses to occupy space as a mad person, as the mythologized stigmatized other created by societies and augmented by psychiatry. I put myself forward to represent this collective as an affirmation that nobody deserves to be placed in that role – to erase the identity by claiming our rights in the context of the CRPD. It deserves to be a disappearing identity, is not one that I have any desire to hold onto or make meaningful. I suppose I differ in that regard from those who claim ‘mad’ as a positive identity meaning something like, resisting society’s normality. (I am revisiting here an issue I addressed in an earlier blog on madness and identity.) My work on CRPD is a bearing witness, an act of reparation and transformative justice, that calls for the opening out of those labeled as mad, into simple humanity, really a spectrum of intense and often painful experiences that are unintelligible until the way is found to articulate them.

Can gender work the same way? Well if it’s only gender in isolation sure, we can say gender as sex-linked roles and expectations (stereotypes, or constellations of meaning) is not necessary and can be abolished. And society’s construct of sex-based oppression, not just a conceptual but a material construct, can be dismantled, and we are all human beings finding our own ways to flourish. The sexed body is its own reality as our experiences of distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions are real, and as madness in the sense of radical disconnection and unintelligibility that can transform itself in an instant, is real. But we don’t get to that abolition by substituting mere subjective identification for a material analysis of the basis of oppression and how different people are situated in relationship to it; in this case based on sex as well as based on different kinds of conformity or non-conformity to sex stereotypes, including the impact of deceptive or assimilative self-presentation (passing) or apparent sex contrary to one’s actual embodiment, and the complications introduced by hormones and surgeries. Again, we need to look at the actual situated positions and their implications for a person’s standpoint on any given issue. We don’t disappear gender by waving a magic wand, only by everyone speaking especially those who are gendered as the class whose reproductive labor is appropriated by the other, unmarked gendered class. Nobody wants to be a ‘woman’ unless they are romanticizing oppression or unless they are remaking the meaning of solidarity and self-regard, coming to consciousness, of those of us with female bodies and experiences related to socialization as this subjugated gender – or unless they are members of societies that avoided gender oppression so that the meaning is a word of strength and centrality to human community rather than victim of predatory exploitation.

Lesbian, I have to add, is an irreducible identity. It may be a historically situated one, as everything we do is historically situated. But it is an identity that once found, I would not like to see disappear. It has meaning as a core of female sexuality and the autonomous mutual relation of female beings to one another, it has a spiritual dimension and a political one as well as being social and sexual. Lesbian cannot be merged into LGBTQI, and it has been contested, or has had to contest for space, in the context of ‘woman’; merging lesbians into LGBTQI further pushes us out of the context of ‘woman’ and pushes ‘women’ back into compulsory heterosexuality in which their reproductive labor for men cannot be refused. It doesn’t matter if ‘every woman can be a lesbian’ in a literal sense; heterosexual women’s sexuality is as authentically theirs as lesbians’ is ours; it is in a societal sense that lesbians relate to the existence of an autonomous women’s movement as part of a continuum that rejects the gendered compulsory linkage of woman with man while man is able to stand alone.

I’d like to bring these themes together, but I can’t. Lesbian is an irreducible identity to me, that I find joyful. Being a survivor of psychiatric violence is a fact stamped on my life by oppression, I take it as it comes and work with it, work through it, towards human liberation. (Being a woman is a stamp on my life as well, that leads me to solidarity and to separation of female embodiment, and the culture we create as female-embodied persons, from gender oppression that encompasses male subjugation of females and the ideology, including sex stereotyping, that rationalizes this subjugation.) They don’t intersect so much as coexist. And this complexity is fine, because we don’t need a complete theory of identities, we need theory that is useful for the purposes at hand.

On identity politics

There are three meanings of identity politics.
1. developing group consciousness, organizing, and developing analysis and political strategy from your own situation.
2. group identity as the decisive factor in agreeing with positions or supporting political candidates.
3. group identity recognition as either a collective or individual right; based on the criteria determined by that collective or individual and deferred to by others. 

In the CRPD negotiations, identity politics in the sense of #1 and #2 to create a workable structure for decision-making in the disability community (steering committee based primarily on constituencies) and to speak for ourselves and take the major role as authorities about our own human rights, politicizing our subjective agency against structural oppression that treated us as passive and spoken-for by family members or service providers.
This was a foot in the door, it did not substitute for analysis. (Analysis is also part of #1, we made bridges of the analysis developed by the various disability movements, to the UN human rights and non-discrimination framework, to situate ourselves in relation to that framework and indicate where discrimination existed and what forms it took, and how to redress it.)

I have been putting forward the idea that women as the female sex need to claim our identities (plural because it includes the identities of subgroups of women, such as lesbians) in the sense of #1 and #2, and perhaps in the collective sense of #3.  
The disagreement between women’s-liberation feminists (feminists fighting for the liberation of the female sex from systematic male domination and exploitation) and the transgender movement boils down to:
– a disagreement about the categorization of women as being based on sex (biological and political, responding to sex-based oppression), or being based on gender (as a cultural or psychological phenomenon)
– a disagreement about collective vs individual authority about membership in the category of women

In my view women have to claim our collective identity as the female sex, and all related identities such as lesbian that meet the criteria of being sex-based and politically relevant to women’s liberation from male domination and exploitation, in order to combat the invisibilization of women and of an analysis of sex-based oppression in intersectional movements. We have to name ourselves, otherwise we allow opponents of women’s liberation to name us and dismember our identities. 

This does not mean accepting the negative aspects of identity politics that amount to making identity the end goal of political advocacy, or making it a proxy for analysis that is used to shut down argument. 

If we don’t recognize that identity is the root of what is being contested, and that we have a stake in it, we are left with either analysis that doesn’t have a driving political force, or with a focus on biology that has led too many feminists to align themselves with reactionary Christian theocrats who oppose the concept of gender as distinct from biology from the standpoint of their agenda to maintain patriarchal rule.

Context: in the left (socialist), and in feminism, we sometimes hear opposition to ‘identity politics’ as dividing the movement. This gets used against the left and against feminism also; e.g. I remember when two other lesbian feminists and I wanted to create a ‘Women’s Collective’ of the ex-psychiatric inmate organization ‘Project Release’ a woman in the group spoke vehemently against it, saying it was divisive. Against this, we have identity politics that was put forward by Barbara Smith as a way to organize with other Black women to create a politics based on their situation, which later became understood as ‘intersectionality’ (coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). The two concepts are not identical, intersectionality is more focused on analysis and different kinds of representativity, but they are related.

The religious reactionaries and others associated with the political right (‘conservatives’) decry identity politics which they take to be any standpoint that disagrees with the existing political, economic and social order. They oppose workers’ movements (class consciousness), feminism (consciousness of sex-based oppression), certainly racial justice and national liberation movements; they deride affirmative action especially and consider it a kind of charity instead of what it really is, a reparation of past and present structural disadvantage. (Affirmative action alone is never enough, there has to be real structural change, which takes into account race and class at the same time, as figures in the Black liberation movement including Martin Luther King, and more recently Michelle Alexander, have promoted.)

Reactionaries also use terms like ‘special rights’ for anyone whose rights they disagree with, such as lesbians, gay men and bisexuals as well as transgender and other gender nonconforming people. They oppose any recognition of these groups as having equal rights with everyone else as ‘identity politics’. Their opposition is not the same as gender-critical feminism which opposes only the categorization of people as male or female based on individual gender identity rather than the biological and political category of sex.

Feminists and others who talk about identity politics, whether in support or opposition, need to understand the different meanings and the context and to be clear about what it is that they oppose or support.

Gender, sex, and patriarchy

I want to try and understand the dynamics of gender as a social construct that orders society, vs sex as material reality and the systematic male subjugation of females and control of their sexual and reproductive powers. In the book Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, Barbara A. Mann says that gender in traditional Iroquoian society came from a division into binary complementarities reflected in social organization and cosmology, rather than the reverse. That how that society understood women and men as complementary but different derived from the complementarity of divisions into clans or groups of clans, and related to mythological figures that are both male and represent a duality. They also saw the binary division as necessary to the functioning of society. I don’t want to fetishize any indigenous culture or take it as a template. I’m thinking that this way of seeing gender is 1) not inherently patriarchal – women controlled economic resources and had substantial social and political authority – and 2) a social construct in a more deliberate sense than feminists usually think about it, and somewhat divorced from sex in that sense – though built on sex, and the existence of two sexes. I am saying it’s gender because it’s a social construct, but it doesn’t separate sex from gender. Gender is always built on the existence of two sexes. But if women have power in constructing the meaning of sex, their relations with each other and with men, social organization and cosmology, it might be no different from what feminists say we are doing when we lift off patriarchal gender as a restriction and construct new relations and values.

Any society needs to come to terms with biological sex as a material fact of existence, but not all societies give it the same emphasis. Gender as a binary social division is not necessary and not implied by the existence of two sexes. My memory is rusty on this but I recall reading about an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society in Africa where women and men have the same economic and political roles, yet they have separate ceremonies for women’s and men’s coming of age.

The relevance to where we are now in pluralistic complex state societies, I want to think about in a general conceptual sense. To be able to approach discussions about gender without dogmatism – and still recognize that in our own societies we are dealing with patriarchal gender. And we have to come to terms with that in any intersectional movement against oppression – that liberation of women from male oppression is non-negotiable – as well as dealing with the material reality of sex as necessary to allocation and design of resources and services and to talk about sexuality and reproduction itself and ensure women’s safety and autonomy (the latter a lifting of patriarchal gender, from sex, but I think necessary to be vigilant about even in a theoretically post-patriarchal future).

This may all be my way of getting to a point that others of you have arrived at long before or through different paths. I’m thinking about, in relation to the last paragraph, the article in Times UK with stories of detransitioners, and how they are the canaries in the mine for women – society is making life intolerable for women to live in a female body, and male identity is offered as a way out that doesn’t change the underlying reality either of the body or of one’s alienation from what society has to offer women. We have to be able to talk about this without resorting to narratives that portray the women solely as victims – they are victimized by the circumstances and by irresponsible medical practitioners but it is their actions that tell us the most, their search for a way to live in the world as female.

The rest of it, what males are doing when they transition – I suppose that has to also be looked at in a way that sees their agency within the patriarchal system. Is it that they want to use the survival strategies allocated to women in patriarchy, which feminists deplore – and why? What is attractive about that? Or is that a totalizing narrative – as we don’t want to do with women either, and detransitioners are always careful to avoid. Can we understand the reality of people who transition and are happy with it in terms that respect their agency and that make sense to us within a feminist worldview?

It’s not enough to talk about eliminating sex stereotypes as a systemic goal, that has proven to be cumbersome and unwieldy despite being an obligation under CEDAW. (Patriarchy can’t eliminate itself; states are in charge of implementing CEDAW; feminist social criticism only goes so far when many women as well as men are happy, if not with oppression then with aspects of their gendered socialization and culture.) Legal protection of gender nonconformity despite the indefiniteness of what that means makes sense in the same way legal protection of disabled people does. We now have in the US protection of transgender status, and in some state laws and some trans/queer advocacy gender nonconformity and transgender status are merged. (Actually they are arguably merged in the proposed US Equality Act: ‘GENDER IDENTITY.—The term ‘gender identity’ means the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.’)

The problem is not with anybody’s identity or expression, or simply divergence from patriarchal gender norms, but with treating that identity, expression or divergence as having anything to say about the person’s sex.

Many feminists have rejected the idea of talking about women’s identities as a sex – by which I mean the terms woman, female, girl, lesbian, mother, and any other nouns referring to females in particular – as identities, or our identity as women meaning the political and legal class of female human beings. I think we need to talk about this material identity and distinguish it from expressive gender identity. Gender identity is expressive not only because it usually involves some outward expression in appearance but also because even as a simple declaration it requires expression, an assertion, otherwise it has no social dimension that others can recognize but only a private internal self-concept. I think we can respect and protect expressive identities while differentiating them from material ones that already exist, in particular the material identity of female human beings as women.

Gender as a social construct, as a division of society built or imposed on the two sexes, and continually re-created, challenged, contested and changed by the actions of individuals accumulating into shared culture, is separate from the political and legal classifications we need to make based on sex and that we can also make based on expressive gender identity. In many UN documents, gender itself is included alongside sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination, originally understood to mean paying attention to the ways women are disadvantaged because of artifacts of gender, such as discrimination against part-time workers who are mainly women dealing with child care and household responsibilities. If gender itself has legal status and protections, the reasons for and scope of such protection would need to be debated, in my opinion it is confusing and unnecessary; sex-based discrimination would cover all discrimination against women and, if a male person was discriminated against because they were perceived as a woman – not based on being transgender but simply being perceived as a member of the sex targeted for subjugation, they would have redress also. (In the same way disability rights and racial discrimination law cover people who are perceived as being members of the targeted classes although they are not in fact.) This does not require us to change legal sex classification or to include such males in the political category of women.

Affirmative action and set-asides for women based on legacy of discrimination should still be limited to females due to the impossibility of effectively determining which males might actually partake enough in this systematic discrimination by virtue of being perceived as women to warrant inclusion, and the enormous potential for abuse given the existing patriarchal and male supremacist culture that would tend to prioritize and center those males. (Female-only spaces related to biological differences such as sports, and those designed to serve women in their confrontation with male violence or any other spaces where women gather outside the male presence to meet their needs as women, absolutely need to be protected for women as a sex, and there is no argument for including males.) Males who by virtue of expressive gender identity or any other reason may be perceived as female in many settings may want to have their own spaces developed to meet their needs.

The US Supreme Court’s Bostock opinion, whatever may have been the diverse political compromises that shaped it, gives us a framework to argue the distinction of sex and gender in US law (see Elizabeth Hungerford’s analysis; also compare with Dar Guerra’s assessment of the decision and its impact on women as a class). The opinion is ambiguous as to how identity functions as sex and as transgender status – is it entirely separate, a single identity that changes over time, or simply irrelevant for purposes of sex discrimination law? Sex is ‘identified’ at birth while an individual may ‘identify as’ or ‘identify with’ a different sex today. Yet the Court does not go so far as to attribute active identification as or with one’s own sex identified at birth, to persons who do not transition – it does not embrace the term or the concept of ‘cisgender’. The comparator for a person identified male at birth who identifies as a female today is simply ‘an employee identified female at birth’.

Feminists have the opportunity now to work out a vision for how sex and gender identity meet in law, in the US context (including having to grapple with the fact that birth certificate and passport changes are already here, and what should ideally or feasibly be done about that).

Aside on identification – the argument for changes to ID has been that police and others who might check identity are bigoted against transgender people and will subject them to brutality if their identity doesn’t match their outward appearance. This doesn’t hold up to legislation that allows reclassification based on simple self-declaration of identity, it only makes sense if at all for those who effectively pass. In addition, gender non-conforming people who do not transition or request recertification are left unprotected; transition with all its costs appears as the only pathway to safety. Alternatives are possible especially in the context of current uprisings calling for radical restructuring, diminishment and replacement of policing with alternative community accountability and safety mechanisms. Women’s equal share in such mechanisms, in their design and in carrying out of enforcement including any armed self-defense, is essential, as is a clear understanding of sex-based oppression and the absolute inviolability of female bodily autonomy and privacy and the eradication of any hate speech, macro- and micro-aggressions, slurs, put-downs or ridicule that create hostile environments for women in public and private spaces as well as threatening their safety. Acceptance of transgender people as transgender, and of all gender nonconforming people, including lesbians and gay men, is part of the vision of community safety as well. The purposes of sex classification on identity documents need to be debated to ensure that female only spaces are respected while no extraneous or bigoted uses can be made of such classification.

The UK model which currently allows gender recognition certificates subject to gatekeeping (not based on self-ID), while also preserving female-only spaces, should be explored by US feminists but should not constrain our thinking. We need to envision what works for our complex, large, settler and slavery-legacy society, with its religious right and white nationalists still holding power even as the Movement For Black Lives puts forward a breathtaking new vision for change – the BREATHE Act – based in years of dedicated work. Feminists need to be part of the revolution and this means taking a clear look at where we are and being able to debate with each other and with others who can see as a starting point, that shutting down women’s speech, lesbians’ speech, feminists’ speech, is not in any way progressive.

What is Pride?

LGBTQ+++ spaces are asking ‘what does Pride mean to you?’ Pride is sorrow for being deprived of a public language in which to express who I am as a lesbian.

Pride is hurt that when I talk about being a lesbian feminist, a lesbian whose destiny is bound up with the fate of all female human beings, I am drowned out by ‘trans lives matter’. I don’t want to have to answer that with sharing the stories of lesbians brutalized for the intersectional oppression of being homosexual and female. Or with those of women forced into compulsory heterosexual arrangements and punished for following their own desire of any kind, raped and disbelieved and punished again by police and family. Any of those could have been me.

Pride is sometimes small and quiet, self-preservation finally shaking off fear. Pride is knowing who I come home to, and in which spaces I am only tolerated or precarious (too many, including LGBTQ+++ and progressive politics generally in the US). Pride is being my full big self, laughing and unafraid. Pride is dignity knowing there are some spaces where my role is as an ally and not centering my needs there, but if a community requires me to leave part of myself at home – this time it’s my femaleness more than being same-sex-attracted – I will be a shadow and will not stick around but will show my support in other ways.

This Pride I’m coming out as a lesbian who stands up for female autonomy and won’t go back into the closet, will make that a core part of my political public identity and not ask anyone’s sufferance. So here’s my coming out for 2020: integrating my women’s human rights work with my larger body of disability rights work, I’ve uploaded my 2016 LLM thesis ‘Female Autonomy vs Gender Identity A critical analysis of gender identity in CEDAW jurisprudence and the Yogyakarta Principles‘ to my Academia page, to join the rest of my papers.

Happy Pride!

Radical Feminism and Dialectics

  1. I start out with a feeling of anger and vulnerability.  As a Jewish dyke, I inherit the fear of pogroms, the knowledge of being hunted and needing to be vigilant, needing to be prepared for when the welcome wears out.  Making a home in the whirlwind. Growing up in a non-religious family while attending a yeshiva, in a family struggling economically among those more well-off, I also know this feeling of hesitating at the door, not sure of knowing the right thing to do to be accepted.  (Unwrapping a Hostess twinkie package and not knowing it’s not kosher, for example.  Or however people wash dishes in their own houses.)
  2. In 2019, the welcome mat is being pulled away from Jews in more and more places in the world.  The attack on a community center by 50 neo-Nazis in Hungary, chills me most somehow despite it being violence against property and not people.  This is not a rogue shooting, it’s a message by an organized political force.  The neo-Nazis are organized in the US also, and they represent part of a far right political spectrum that Donald Trump has brought full scale into national politics and government:  a coalition of Christian fundamentalists whose primary agenda is subjugation of women through denial of sexual and reproductive autonomy, and enforcement of sex stereotypes and heterosexuality against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; white nationalists whose agenda is exclusion and ultimately genocide of black and brown people whose very existence is viewed as a threat to white supremacy (and Jews who are demonized as the masterminds of liberal and leftist agendas for equality); and predatory capitalists whose aim is evisceration of any remnant of the social safety net and any expectation that government is responsible for the well being of all its people, in essence dismantling of the social contract, problematic as it has always been due to its nature as a compromise that sacrifices power for protection.
  3. Into this scenario comes the intra-left struggle around gender identity.  Transgender people came to the forefront after lesbians and gay men won the emblematic right of marriage, which positions us as social equals with heterosexuals (though without federal civil rights protection against discrimination in employment, housing and similar areas, the slogan is true that we can be married on the weekend and fired on Monday).  Transgender people similarly lack protection against employment and housing discrimination, and deserve protection.  But the transgender movement has made demands that conflict with those of lesbians, all women, and gay men.  An important part of the women’s liberation movement has been the creation of autonomous women-only spaces, services, politics, and culture – that movement itself represents (or represented) an assertion of female separatism.  We named ourselves as a political constituency based on sex, and named our oppressors as the male sex which has systematically expropriated our sexual and reproductive power and various forms of labor, and has promulgated ideologies that treat us as half-human to mobilize our intelligence and strength and half-exploitable natural resource; we fight this oppression together with the class system and racialized exploitation that it is inseparable from.  Now comes a movement that rejects the radical feminist analysis and seeks to displace it entirely from political discourse, undermining gains we have made in women’s and girls’ sports and education,  lesbian-feminist autonomous culture and politics, women’s facilities in public mixed spaces (restrooms, changing rooms, baths), domestic violence and rape crisis refuges that bring peer support and advocacy to serve women in highly vulnerable situations, the feminist women’s health movement that named our body parts and took back power to know our own bodies and take charge of our health.  This revolution is not over, and maybe its distance from any conceivable finish line prompts frustration and fatigue, while the popularization of liberal feminism as the legal possibility and existence of women in managerial positions and skilled professions allows for a large segment of the population who are generally progressive and support women’s equality in principle to think that there’s nothing more to fight for (ignoring the massive existence of rape, femicide, sexual harassment, pay gap, the continued treatment of women and of female bodies as secondary in health care and in design of goods and services, the cutting back of abortion rights and contraception that has helped to fuel a surge in religious fundamentalist influence in our political arena, an environment where gender nonconforming girls and young women are unaware of lesbian and feminist role models and the rich literature of our movements, etc. and etc.).
  4. The transgender movement demands that a person’s declared sex must be treated as their actual sex, i.e. a man who feels subjectively that he is female must be socially and legally recognized as female for all purposes.  This and nothing less is said to satisfy the demand for inclusion of transgender persons in society.  And it directly conflicts with lesbians and women as actual, defined, collectivities of persons who have material existence and are entitled to voice, assert, and defend their boundaries that set them apart from males.  The transgender demand for self-declared sex amounts to a silencing of women and suppression of women’s autonomous political, social, and legal existence.  The impact on lesbian-feminist spaces and organizing has been huge and painful, as many have had to close or disperse and reform out of sight of the mainstream, thanks to boycotts, threats and intimidation, divisions among women about whether to include males who identify as female, ostracism, and physical violence.  These spaces have always existed largely out of the public eye, we protect them, they are ours and they are meant for us and not for public consumption.  They have always met with criticism, ridicule, and bemusement due to their being women’s autonomous spaces that have no place and no role to play within a liberal order that simultaneously pretends equality between men and women already exists, and depends on women’s unpaid and underpaid labor and sexual exploitation in homes and in prostitution/pornography that put women in subservience to men.  When we decry this impact of gender identity claims, it’s as if no one spoke.  As Judy Grahn wrote in another context, being outside the capitalist, patriarchal and heterosexual order means that ‘no one is there to testify.’
  5. Now come radical feminists.  We’d think that in mobilizing against gender identity because of how it impacts on women including lesbians, we’d be fighting simultaneously against the left/liberal consensus on this issue that reveals their misogyny/lesbophobia, and against the right which still wants to subjugate us entirely by rolling back the gains we’ve made under liberalism.  And yes, that’s a tough row to hoe and it’s ours.  There are some feminists who have decided instead to make an alliance with religious fundamentalists, and this itself becomes part of the landscape for those of us fighting for liberation for all women – including, damn it, women of color, indigenous women, Jewish women, working class women, and lesbians who are the front-line targets of the far right coalition currently in power in the US government for reasons that are immediate and life-threatening.  How dare they put us even more at risk by confirming the left and liberals in kicking feminists out of their zone of solidarity?
  6. I had written an earlier draft post discussing some of the details of the right wing alliances, but actually don’t want to give it airspace.  I will say that those women are talking out of both sides of their mouths, at one moment claiming it’s not an alliance, just sharing a platform, and the next moment organizing a joint rally and co-producing a text advising parents on how to oppose schools that introduce children to gender identity or other topics the parents might not agree with (including sexual orientation and sexuality).  Feminists who are concerned about the sterilization and body modification that is being promoted for children need to revert to the feminist women’s health movement as a grounding, talk to children and put a feminist context to the body-hatred directed at all females, while acknowledging that these individual solutions are an expression of pain and struggle and survival that are no less legitimate than those our own generations might have used.  We have to get away from using children as a prop for our political ideology, and not in any way condone or be party to the religious fundamentalists’ use of children, lesbians, or other women as a prop for their own anti-woman, anti-lesbian, anti-child’s rights authoritarianism.
  7. I titled this post ‘radical feminism and dialectics’ because we see how one thing can generate its opposition.  We need to look at the forces that have emerged against us – the far right coalition in government, the gender identity movement that aims to replace feminism with queer/trans ideology, the feminist alliance with religious fundamentalists that confirms the gender identity movement’s view of feminism as reactionary – to study and understand while also acting where we see an avenue to act.  We need to study and engage with queer/trans ideology to understand especially how girls and women relate to it and its appeal to them, while also deepening our own understanding of patriarchy and of radical feminist action, if we are to re-emerge as political actors.  It may not be immediate, but if we are correct in saying that the revolution for women’s liberation is not over, the dissatisfaction of women will ultimately be on our side.

Feminist Amendments to the Equality Act – support FIST campaign

Feminists In Struggle, a U.S. radical feminist network, has developed a model bill to illustrate how the rights of gender nonconforming (including transgender) people and lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, can be protected while strengthening the rights of women as a sex.  The model bill is a feminist response to the Equality Act, a bill introduced in the US Congress that would amend civil rights legislation to include under the category of ‘sex’, subcategories including ‘a sex stereotype,’ ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation’.  By proposing feminist amendments to that bill, FIST hopes to advance the debate about how to resolve conflicts between women’s rights and claims regarding subjective gender identity.

The central feature of the FAEA protecting everyone against sex stereotyping, broadly defined to include ‘the expectation that individuals will manifest behaviors, appearance, dress, grooming, interests and personality stereotypically associated with their sex and refrain from manifesting those associated with the other sex. Discrimination based on an individual’s nonconformity with such expectations constitutes sex-stereotyping discrimination. Sex stereotyping also includes the notion that sexual orientation will be heterosexual for both sexes (i.e. part of the stereotype of masculinity is being attracted to women, and part of the stereotype of femininity is being attracted to men).’

The definition of sex stereotyping is at the same time narrowed to prevent sex classification itself from being treated as a pernicious stereotype. ‘Sex stereotyping discrimination does not include merely recognizing or referring, accurately or in good faith, to the biological sex of an individual, or seeking to ascertain an individual’s biological sex for legitimate reasons consistent with this Act, irrespective of whether that person holds a deeply personal sense of identity that conflicts with or denies their biological sex.”’

The FAEA model bill defines sex as being female or male, based on reproductive structure and function, with the potential to adjust determinations made about intersex persons.  It contains findings that address the systemic nature of sex-based discrimination and the need for sex classification ‘in order to separate biological differences from socially assigned stereotypes and to name, reject, and ultimately dismantle the system of disadvantage and advantage, domination and inequality of power and resources that society has created with respect to these biological differences…. Affirmative recognition of the different biology of females and males is furthermore necessary to combat discrimination against women, since male-dominated institutions have routinely failed to adequately take account of women’s biology on an equal basis with that of men when formulating policy and practice that deals with the human body, in areas such as health care, design of goods and services, provision of adequate sanitary facilities, and competition in some sports.  When doing so, the ultimate goal should be equalizing power and resources between women and men.’

Furthermore, specific rules of construction are included that preserve single-sex spaces and programs for women and girls, for reasons of privacy and safety and also for advancement and development.

Finally, the FAEA agrees with the original bill that claims or defenses under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be raised against civil rights law obligations.  FAEA also agrees with the original bill that discrimination based on pregnancy and related conditions should be included under ‘sex’, and FAEA adds ‘lactation’.

Here are my slides for a presentation on the FAEA that provide more detail related to the explanation here.

The full FAEA and related materials, including a comparison summary and a tracked changes version, can be downloaded from the FIST website.

Please contact FIST to support the FAEA and otherwise become involved.

Women’s liberation, gender identity and the state

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.

Gender Identity Isn’t a Box. It’s a Yardstick.

This is a great explanation of the radical feminist critique of gender identity.


One of the big questions I was still left with when I stopped blogging here for a few years was very simple:

What, exactly, is gender identity?

If you read mainstream trans sources, the answer gets a bit circular: “gender identity is one’s deeply-held internal sense of one’s own gender.”

That’s exactly the kind of definition that doesn’t get us any closer to what is actually meant by the term “gender identity” when it is enshrined into law or company handbooks. After all, the law (in a liberal Western democracy, anyway) is generally unconcerned with policing the deeply-held internal senses of citizens.

Besides, this seemingly quick-and-easy definition doesn’t hold up with what mainstream trans activism is actually demanding. When using a non-preferred pronoun or disallowing a trans person from opposite-sex spaces is legally actionable, “gender identity” requires government employees, trans people’s co-workers, and those in sex-segregated spaces alter…

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