Take me back to two years ago, and you would find me on the Internet in debate groups, speaking with the virtuous certainty that we hold on the left, about the issue of gender. There I was, right there, look, offering patience to the less informed, and the clearly wrong, who didn’t accept the premises I offered.
I thought anyone who didn’t say and think “transwomen are women” was, at best, ignorant, and quite likely a horrible person, but with the magnanimous self-assuredness of someone in the right, I had time for those horrible people, who might after all listen to me and convert to seeing sense. Give up your sins and repent, most notable strangers.
It all seemed very straightforward. “Woman”, I might have confidently told you, is a social category, and therefore anyone can have that label. It’s like being a wizard or a bartender. We’ve created it, and it can belong to, or be rejected, by any of us. It’s not *sex based* it’s based on.. it's based on...well what? Gender. Ah, a magic spell of a word.
I would have said you have a gender and you have a sex and what gender you are expected to have based on your sex is socially constructed but, despite that, what gender you actually have is somehow innate. For most people your gender and your sex align, I would have added, but a few people find they are a different gender entirely.
I subscribed, for example, to the popular notion that if your gender was ”woman” and your sex was Male, then you were a woman trapped in a man’s body, rather than subscribing to the far more radical notion that men can look, behave, dress, and live as women have traditionally done while still being men. It didn’t matter that most brains are a mosaic of traits, or that, put simply, a brain inside a Male body is a male brain by very definition, regardless of whether it has an irrepressible urge to cross stitch or cartwheel or to do them both simultaneously. It only mattered that I could believe in gender as an internal sense of identity that overrides your sex, even though I could simultaneously recognise it as being an external set of rules about who we ought to be.
The “woman is a social category” idea I used to peddle is so close to something rational that the me of now wants to leap up and down in my chair enthusiastically because By Jove! She’s almost got it! Women are that group of people who are adult human females and they’re a little over half the population. We could name them anything and they’d still be a clearly definable group of human beings, regardless of how many different perceptions of how they ought to behave can be found all over the world. The roles of women and the stories we tell about who they are in any given culture is where a social category comes in. Their whole lives are then governed by the parameters of the social category we have placed around them as a group.
This is what gender is: A set of largely arbitrary rules and conceptions. It is a chain we tie to our biological reality, and the more enlightened amongst us have been trying to sever it for some time. Long before the rest of us came along and started saying the chain was more relevant than the reality it was attached to. Or that swapping your chains for someone else’s was some kind of freedom.
Just look at the terrible stories we tell about women, particularly, even before we get to thinking about the ways in which gender imposes on men. She was asking for it, society still says, when she wears her miniskirt out at night and gets raped. She runs *like a girl*, she throws *like a girl*, and being like a girl is *weak*. She’s not so good at maths or science. She’s a tease, a slut, a whore, a princess. And princesses are pure, and romantic, but spoiled and can’t sleep if there are peas beneath their mattress. They certainly don’t kill the dragon themselves. Or propose to the prince, or take him to bed and shin down the beanstalk afterwards because they have stuff to do and he would get in the way with his (girlish) notions of impending matrimony.
You could spend whole days sifting through the construction of what women are, in our “progressive” societies. How steeped we are in stupid ideas. We can’t even sell soap half the time without getting a woman to take her kit off. More power to her, perhaps, but you don’t have many men lounging around the place selling Palmolive with their pouts. Men, you see, are serious, intellectual, and important. Women are the candy floss to their Horatio Nelson. Never mind that we are as capable of brilliance, heroism, complexity and villainy as they are.
The gender of “woman”, then, if it is like a bartender or a wizard at all, is a low paying and unenchanting job that had no union (before feminism) and is incredibly constricting. In a hierarchy of only two original genders, it came in second and didn’t get a prize. It’s entirely constructed within the context of a world run by men and just like the construction of the role of seals you might expect to see if you put it to the sharks, a lot of what we’ve decided women are, really really hurts them. Yet we are to believe now that most women innately identify with this. That society is in essence correct with how it is framing us to be.
Many individual men don’t fare a whole lot better under the construction of gender, either, when you look at the hoops they have to jump through in order to be “man enough”, which adds a further layer of tragedy to the whole affair.
Women have been trying to break out of the various iterations of the gender box we have been shoved in for years. The suffragettes, breaking out of that box enough to fight for the vote, were sexually assaulted and beaten by policeman, force-fed by the state, vilified by the press and often cast out by their loved ones for daring to transgress what women were supposed to be.
If you take our current ideas on gender, which say it is not imposed but innate, and time travel them back to that part of history, those women clearly not adhering to the gender of woman might be what? Men? Genderfluid? Non-binary? They certainly couldn’t be women because they didn’t choose to be meek and politically voiceless at all!
“Progressives” will tell you that that is a silly conclusion because there’s no right way to be a woman, it’s just a thing you identify as but you can be anything you like and still be a woman, as long as you feel like you are one.
This poses a problem though, doesn’t it? If we base the answer to the question of who is a woman on gender rather than sex, then what a woman is has to keep being socially constructed, or you can’t possibly know what one is for you to know whether or not you are one. If there are no widely accepted ideas about what a woman is, it becomes impossible to identify as one at all.
In a society where we decide that a woman is not a biological reality but instead a social construction, the very act of transgressing those constructed ideas actually puts your womanhood in question, rather than demonstrating how glorious and vast womanhood can be. Gender continues to function as a form of social control. It is an electric fence around who you are. It is that box that you must sit in.
We might hope for a day when our social construction of women becomes one that offers equality and fairness, but it will still only be fair for the women who are able to feel free within whatever new rules it imposes.
So, the current popular notion that we can overcome the injustices of gender by embracing it, or by turning the world into our own personal build-a-box factory is interesting but in the end I don't think it is bold or revolutionary enough. Not if we want to liberate us all.
If stepping outside of the gender box potentially revokes your membership of your sex class, that means a lot of women stop being women, at once, by sheer dint of any refusal they make to conform and, more than that, it further upholds the notion that the gender box not only ought to exist, but that it has some kind of utility to all the other women still stuck inside it.
You might be a woman today, but tomorrow when you become a lumberjack and smoke cigars, you ought to reconsider. Doing something outside of the box doesn’t make the box bigger, as it could do, if we keep suggesting you are broken or you ought to be punished for failing to fit inside it. Neither does suggesting that you should just consider transferring to another box. That box transfer might even help you feel less excruciatingly uncomfortable, but it does nothing whatsoever about the problem of the boxes.
Take away all the stories about women we tell, all the stereotypes and ideas we impose onto human females, and tell me what is left, what universal woman essence there remains, beyond the biological realities?
In the end gender always refers to a set of behaviours, aesthetics and ideas people are expected to embody and adhere to which is hard on everyone, but in a sexist world, women will eternally draw the short stick. Gender is prescriptive and not all of us wish to be prescribed to it any more.
If we acknowledge that women are adult human females and that is the only criteria they need to fulfil in order to qualify for inclusion in that category, it has a coherent definition which is both incredibly simple and consequently liberating. Being a woman doesn’t instruct you on who you have to be, at all. (This also holds true when you apply the same argument to men as adult human males).
So, what of transwomen, who are excluded from that definition of woman? How do we balance the fact they are adult human males with the fact that they transition to live as though they were adult human females? Either because they want to take on the physical characteristics that being an adult human female tends to naturally create, or because they wish to take on the social norms currently being prescribed onto us (which are perhaps less uncomfortable to them, as an individual, than the social norms currently prescribed onto men). They hope to find some respite in being socially perceived as though they are adult human females by the world at large.
In the case of the second reason, where it exists without the first, there are conflicts, because if you’re trying to get out of the box, it doesn’t help that other people are sitting in the box with you and saying “actually, this box really is who you are”. Especially when their very existence as a member of one sex who identifies more with the box being imposed on the other sex could have been a fundamental challenge to the notion of the boxes.
These conflicts can’t be resolved by penalising individuals though. We resolve them by moving towards a society that doesn’t force anyone into boxes and frees all of us to simply exist, with no expectation that our sex should mandate us to behave or dress or move through the world in a certain set of ways.
As to the first reason; there are a group of people who have physical pain because their body resembles one sex when they believe it should resemble the other. Even in a society without boxes, they might still transition. Their experience is tied to their material reality, too. It seems to have less to do with who society perceives men or women to be, and more to do with how they feel their own physical being ought to be. Almost like the constant discomfort of a phantom limb in the place of something you know ought to be there.
I think it should be possible to recognise them as a distinct group, on the basis of that experience. We can recognise them, and support them with that understanding, and by acknowledging their reality we are able to make the necessary space to advocate for them specifically.
Much as my current understandings would horrify the me of two years ago, I think I’ve finally began to comprehend the true damage gender inflicts on us all. It has led me to the realisation that further entrenching it in our society is a mistake.
I now understand that Transwomen are Transwomen because they live their lives in a restrictively gendered world, but they are not women and they aren’t born with women’s brains, horrifyingly, trapped inside of men’s bodies, like I used to believe.
While everyone is punished by gender, trans people are often punished for the ways in which they push at its boundaries and highlight its arbitrary cruelties. They are penalised for their pain, and they are castigated for their non-conformity.
Turning gender into the relic it ought to be wouldn’t erase all of their pain, but it might help to minimise the intensity of their suffering, as well as our own. We would completely break the limits on which human possibilities we are allowed to embrace.
Maybe, if we can finally realise that, we can start to unpack whatever it is we need to, so we can let the boxes go.